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Month: January 2017

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 36): John Calvin and TULIP! (Yes! Total Depravity, Predestination…all that!)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 36): John Calvin and TULIP! (Yes! Total Depravity, Predestination…all that!)

Along with Martin Luther, John Calvin is perhaps the most well-known Protestant revolutionary/reformer. Born in 1509, Calvin was a mere eight years old when Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral. As a teenager, Calvin must have witnessed firsthand the disintegration of religious world around him: the crumbling of the Catholic world, the rise of Lutheranism, and the chaos that embodied various Radical Reformation movements like the Munster Rebellion. So, what was a young man to do?

It turns out that John Calvin eventually found himself in Geneva, Switzerland, as the virtual theocrat of the Protestant community of Geneva. He set about trying to reconstruct what seemed to him, based on his own understanding of Scripture, a true, biblically-based Christian community, patterned after the early Church. Like Luther before him, and very much unlike the Anabaptist movement, Calvin envisioned a community in which the Church and State were virtually synonymous.

Striking a balance between Church and State has always been a tricky business. From the time Constantine called for the first Church council of Nicaea in 325 AD, it is fair to say that the lines have often gotten blurred. But the goal, in both the Orthodox East and the Catholic West, more or less was for the Church to be distinct from the State, so that it could be in a position to critique the State and to act as the conscience for the State. In other words, the Church had to be distinct from the State in order to hold the State morally accountable for its actions. This has not always been perfectly achieved, and throughout history there have been times the Church has cozied up too much with the State, but nevertheless, the ideal was there.  Therefore, the desire to make the Church and State synonymous is bound to raise some problems.

Calvin and the Reformed tradition is perhaps most well-known for the acronym TULIP, which stands for the five core tenants of Calvinism: Total Depravity, Unconditional Grace, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints.

Total Depravity
Now, much like Luther’s view of the human will, Calvin’s concept of total depravity went far beyond any church teaching about human beings up to that point. It ultimately was a total denial of human free will, for it states that man is so utterly sinful, that he is completely incapable of doing anything good. In fact, he has even lost the capability of choosing to turn to God and accept Christ. Man, therefore, cannot step out in faith to trust Christ—he is totally depraved and incapable of doing so. Instead, Calvin taught that faith was something that God gave to the people He chose to save.

Unconditional Election
This led to Calvin’s second plank in the Reformed tradition: unconditional election. Since man was so totally depraved that he was incapable of choosing Christ, Calvin reasoned that God must choose which people He saves and which people He allows to be damned. Quoting from passages like Romans 8-9, Calvin taught that God simply showed mercy on whom He showed mercy, damned those He chose to damn, and that God’s choice was utterly not based on any works any person could do. Therefore, salvation was totally God’s choice, and man had no choice in the matter.

Of course, it should be noted that Calvin’s reading of Romans 8-9 was totally wrong. Paul was definitely not arguing that God simply chose which people He was going to save and which people He was going to damn to hell. Rather, Paul’s point was that God had the right to choose to use people in any way He saw fit in order to bring about the fulfillment of His promises to Abraham, namely the salvation and re-creation of the entire world. God, for example, chose to work through Jacob and not Esau. Paul was not saying God chose to save Jacob and damn Esau; he was simply saying that God chose to work through Jacob. Simply put, Paul’s discussion about election in Romans 8-9 was not about ultimate destinations regarding heaven or hell.

Limited Atonement
In any case, according to Calvin, if man is totally depraved, and if the choice of election is entirely God’s, it goes without saying that since God chose some people to be saved, He obviously chose other people not to be saved—and therefore, Calvin argued, Christ’s atoning death on the cross applied only to those God predestined to be saved: limited atonement. For whatever reason, God chose to save only some people, and therefore Christ’s work was only meant for those whom God chose. Yes, Calvin, reasoned, all human beings deserve damnation, but for some reason known only to God, some were lucky enough to be chosen. It was a mystery, so we just have to deal with it.

Irresistible Grace
And so, if man is totally depraved, and if election is entirely based on God’s choice, and if Christ’s atoning work was only for those whom God elected, then it went without saying that those people whom God elected to be saved are going to be saved, no matter what—salvation was not up to them. It was entirely a “God thing,” and therefore, if He chose someone, that someone had no choice in the matter. The denial of free will led to the inevitable conclusion of  irresistible grace. The Holy Spirit, quite literally, Calvin argued, forces the sinner not only to believe but to cooperate with the will of God. Again, at the heart of this is Calvin’s complete denial of human free will.

Perseverance of the Saints
So if man it totally depraved, if God elects those whom He wills, if Christ’s atonement only applies to those whom God elects, and if those whom God elects have absolutely no choice in the matter, then it goes without saying that whomever God choses to be saved can never become unsaved. In other words, no one can lose one’s salvation: the perseverance of the saints. To be sure, that is a very comforting thought if one is saved, but it is also a very disturbing thought to one who is not saved. Furthermore, it is a very confusing thought to, well…everyone. After all, how does one truly know who is saved and who is unsaved? If God has not chosen you to be saved, it won’t matter how often you repent, or how godly you live your life—you are destined for hell. Such has been the conundrum of many when trying to understand the theological implications of TULIP.

Side Note: Something I’ve Always Found a Bit Odd
I grew up within Evangelicalism and taught at Evangelical Christian schools for 16 years. Every now and then issues like “free will or predestination” would come up, and the students could get quite heated when they talked about it. What I found fascinating is that the majority of Evangelicals that I know completely reject the Reformed idea of predestination, and instead insist that we have free will. Yet then, those same Evangelicals turn around and argue for the very Reformed idea of “once saved, always saved.”

I’ve often wondered if you could have it both ways: how could you argue that one is free to choose salvation, but then say, “Once you make that choice, then no, you can’t lose your salvation”? I think it points to sort of a schizophrenia within Evangelicalism, and is a symptom of not being well-versed in Church history and theology. Consequently, many people’s theological views end up being a smorgasbord of contradictory, or at least not well-thought out, theological positions. And that is precisely why we have to do a better job at educating Christians in Church history and basic Christian theology—not so much to get into all the details that theologians love to obsesses over, but rather to just get a basic grasp on the basic “scaffolding” of the faith.

Incidentally, regarding the “once saved, always saved,” conundrum, I think we all know how the debate often goes. One person asks, “If someone gets saved at 16, is a faithful Church member and good Christian for 30 years, but then renounces Christianity at 46 and embraces…whatever…is that person still saved and going to heaven? I don’t think so, because he rejected faith in Christ.”

The inevitable response is, “Well, he probably wasn’t really a Christian in the first place.”

My response to that is this: “Then what’s the point of debating this? You both agree that after 46, that guy isn’t a Christian.” Personally, I think one certainly can choose to walk away from the Christian faith, but I don’t think one can lose one’s salvation, like you happen to lose your car keys.

Ken Ham Denies the Power of the Resurrection!

Ken Ham Denies the Power of the Resurrection!

Yes, I know, that is quite a provocative and scandalous headline for a post, isn’t it? It’s one thing to take issue with Ken Ham’s claims about science or his interpretation of Genesis 1-11, but should we really question his belief in the resurrection of Christ? Isn’t that to essentially do the very thing so many people are upset with Ken Ham for doing—questioning one’s Christian faith simply because he/she has a different interpretation of Genesis 1-11? I mean, argue science and biblical interpretation all you want, but let’s hold off on accusing anyone of denying the resurrection.

Well, far be it from me to suggest that Ken Ham denies the resurrection of Christ…no matter how provocative the headline might be. Let me be crystal clear: I have no doubt whatsoever that Ken Ham believes Jesus Christ rose bodily from the dead. But I came across one of his many tweets earlier today, and it just got me thinking about how Ken Ham, you, I, and probably many people in general tend to view, or more properly fail to view, the resurrection. And yes, in a roundabout way, I think this affects how we view science and evolution (not to mention virtually everything else).

Ham’s Twitter Argument
But perhaps I should first share what Ken Ham’s actual tweet was. It was quite simple, really—just a typical Ken Ham/AiG argument for YEC in less than 140 characters:

God describes death as an “enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). God didn’t use death to create—death is the judgment for sin.

Ham’s tweet encapsulates a basic argument by AiG that (A) evolution requires millions of years of death to account for the varieties of life we see today in the natural world, but that (B) Genesis 1 tells us that God call His creation “good,” Genesis 3 tells us that death came to Adam and Eve because they sinned, and I Cor. 15:26 call death an “enemy.” Therefore, if evolution is true, then Genesis 1 is a lie, because death would have been part of creation, and God would be calling death “good;” Genesis 3 is a lie, because death would have been occurring for millions of years before Adam and Eve; and I Cor. 15:26 is a lie, because how could death be an “enemy” if it was part of creation from the beginning?

Now, in this post, I am not going to go into a detailed exegetical argument regarding those passages in order to refute Ken Ham’s claims. Instead, I want to expand on what I wrote as a response tweet. When I first read Ham’s tweet, something about it just struck me as odd: “God didn’t use death to create.” Rather quickly, I hit “reply” and tweeted this:

God didn’t use death to create? Mmm…The cross, tomb, then resurrection/new creation! Looks like He CAN use death to re-create!

22 year old Joel at the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem (circa 1992)

Rethinking Death’s Role in the Resurrection and New Creation
No, I wasn’t trying to be cheeky with my response (okay, perhaps just a bit!)—I was actually being serious. When I read Ham’s tweet, I couldn’t help but realize that, although what we see in the resurrection of Christ is certainly the defeat of death. But there’s something else: we see the use of death as the means by which new life—Christ’s life—is realized. Simply put, the resurrection of Christ hails the breaking in of the New Creation, and God used death to bring it about.

In the death and resurrection of Christ, we see the power of God on full display: He brings new life out of death and suffering; the New Creation is birthed through the pain of death. And I have to tell you, I’m not sure too many people really get the significance of that. I mean, we should, because it’s all over the place throughout the New Testament:

  • Romans 5:3-5 talks about boasting in our sufferings because ultimately the end result is the realization of the Christian hope…the resurrection of the dead and becoming fully like Christ.
  • I Peter 4:13 talks about rejoicing in our sufferings because we’re sharing Christ’s sufferings, and that we therefore will rejoice even more when his glory is revealed.
  • Romans 8:18-25 equates present sufferings with creation in birth pangs, and what’s the hope when a woman suffering birth pangs? That’s right, a new birth. In Paul’s analogy, that hope is being set free from this present age’s bondage to decay and death.

The entire New Testament bears witness to this very thing: it is through suffering and death than the New Creation is born…and then death will be no more.

This View is Testified to by the Early Church Fathers
And in case we forget, this view of suffering and death is pretty much what Church Fathers like Irenaeus had. I’ve written on Irenaeus before, but essentially, while he affirmed the goodness of creation, he also saw Adam as representative of immature humanity, and therefore as each one of us. Irenaeus saw Adam’s sin as an inevitability, because God didn’t create Adam as perfect—Adam was immature and naïve and, yes, therefore bound to sin. But it was God’s will that Adam (and each one of us) grow into full maturity in Christ through suffering, and yes, even death.

Irenaeus makes it clear that all this—the sin, the suffering, and death itself—was all part of God’s salvation plan before the creation of the world. Christ didn’t come into the world because God’s “original plan” got screwed up by Adam. Christ came into the world because this whole thing has been God’s plan all along. As Irenaeus says, the very nature of Christ is that of a Savior, and therefore a savior needs something to save.

Or to put it another way, when we look at Genesis 1:26-27, God created human beings (i.e. Adam) “in His image”—we are to be His representatives in the created order, and we are to act as (a) kings over the created order, (b) priests of the created order, and (c) custodians of the created order. The thing, though, is that because we are not born “perfect,” that means we are not fully “like” God yet. As the Orthodox Church puts it, we are created in God’s image, but we are not yet “according to His likeness.” To become like God is to become like Christ, and to become like Christ entails suffering as Christ did, because the way Christ the Savior saves us is through suffering and death.

Or to put it yet another way: the suffering and death of Christ explains to us the reason for suffering and death—and the reason for suffering and death is to bring about the resurrection life of Christ so we can be fully mature in Christ, and therefore be according to God’s likeness. And once that happens, death will be no more because there will be no more purpose for it…kind of like what Paul says about the Torah (re-read Romans 6-8, and note what it says about the purpose of Torah, and its relationship to death).

Now, Back to Ham…
So therefore, when I looked at Ken Ham’s tweet, I realized that he is ultimately wrong: God does use death to create. This is testified to both in the New Testament and in early Church Fathers like Irenaeus. Suffering and death are inevitable parts to this creation; they are part of God’s plan of salvation revealed in Christ to grow us up into His likeness; they are this creation’s birth pangs that will ultimately result in a new birth and a New Creation in which suffering and death no longer have any role to play.

Now, I imagine Ken Ham might say, “Well, sure, through Christ, God used suffering and death to bring about the New Creation, but they only came into existence after Adam sinned. Before he sinned, there was no death or suffering, because he was created perfect.” Well, to that, all I can say is that not only does science and evolution refute that claim, but so do the early Church Fathers, and so does the Bible itself.

Think about it. If Adam and Eve were perfect, super-intelligent, and all-wise (and let’s not forget in possession of a perfect genome!), then how could they have been tricked by a talking serpent? The whole story in Genesis 3 drives home the point that they were naïve and child-like, and therefore not fully mature, and certainly not perfect. And the reason that is so is because the description of them is the description of us as human beings. As Irenaeus said, Adam sinning was an inevitability, just like our sinning is an inevitability.

But now I’m starting to wander a bit. You can read my full treatment of Irenaeus starting here. Allow me now to wrap up my thoughts…

Perhaps one of the most astounding things to learn about the early Church is how the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus Christ caused the early Christians to re-evaluate everything, and see everything in a different light. The Jewish Scriptures? They reinterpreted them in light of Christ’s resurrection reality. Greek Philosophy? Christian philosophers essentially Christianized Greek philosophy and showed how the resurrection of Christ provided vast new insights into reality itself. And what about science? Long before the Scientific Revolution, all throughout the “Middle Ages,” Christian monks were making advances in scientific discoveries that laid the groundwork for the eventual Scientific Revolution, that was, incidentally, brought about primarily by Christians working in the fields of science.

The resurrection of Christ isn’t just some odd, historical claim that cannot be conclusively verified, but that you have to say you believe actually happened if you want to go to heaven. Too often, though, that’s precisely how we treat it—as just another claim you have to “take on faith” in order to avoid hell. But when we do that, when we reduce it to just a “fact” we have to say we believe happened, what we are essentially doing is denying the true power of the resurrection.

Yes, I believe the resurrection of Jesus Christ is a historical fact. Yes, I believe it really happened. But because I believe it really happened, I can’t allow it to be treated as just another “fact,” for that fact changed everything. It changed how we view suffering and death, and ultimately it changed how understand the created order itself.

If Jesus’ disciples were able to shine the light of the resurrection on the Jewish Scriptures and reinterpret them in that light, and if early Christian philosophers were able to shine the light of the resurrection on Greek Philosophy and reshape it in that light, we should be able to do the same thing with modern scientific discoveries like evolution.

Christian scientists even though they are bound by the same descriptive laws and scientific methods that all scientists are bound by in their observations of the natural world, they do not believe that the natural world is all that exists. Christians believe there is a God beyond nature who has made Himself known within history, in the person of Jesus Christ. And so, although Christian scientists would be wrong to inject “God” into their descriptive work of science, they (as all Christians) are able to contemplate their scientific findings in the light of the resurrection of Christ.

Sure, such contemplation admittedly isn’t “scientific,” but that’s okay—there’s more to life than just science. And although I am not a scientist, what I’ve learned about the theory of evolution over the past few years has been fascinating, not simply because of what it has discovered and what it can explain convincingly. It fascinates me because I’ve come to realize that what we can observe in biology, geology, astronomy, and genetics bears witness to what the resurrection is all about: the natural processes we observe in the natural world mirror the reality of salvation, resurrection, and the New Creation.

In Christ, God uses suffering and death to bring about new life and the New Creation. That’s at the very heart of the Gospel, and we see this very thing, by means of analogy, in the natural world.

Ken and me…

So yes, Mr. Ham, God does use death to create: that’s the testimony of the resurrection of Christ. I’m not saying you don’t believe in the resurrection, but it seems to me you view it as not much more than a fact. That’s okay, I think too many of us tend to also view it as not much more than a fact. I think we’d all be better off to open our eyes to the transformative power of the resurrection. It’s not just a door to the hereafter; it is the key to understanding reality itself.

Like I said earlier, everything is transformed in its light, even our understanding of suffering and death.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 35): Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, and a Revolution in Church/State Relationships

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 35): Martin Luther, the Anabaptists, and a Revolution in Church/State Relationships

Despite my labeling Martin Luther’s movement as the Protestant Revolution, Luther was not originally looking to actually start a religious revolution. He truly wanted to reform very real abuses in the Catholic Church. Yet as things turned out, eventually his fiery personality (not to mention his rather vulgar tirades) led to, not only a full-out religious revolution, but also to actual political revolution. From the Munster rebellion, to the persecution of the Anabaptists and the Peasant Wars, as well as many other tragic episodes, Luther had started something that ended up going way beyond religious disputes—it affected politics and transformed Church/State relations.

Luther was just one man, and one man did not bring about the Protestant Revolution on his own. He needed backing, and the backing that he got came from a number of secular rulers of Europe. This is quite significant: Luther ended up appealing to the rulers of Europe to fight against the Catholic Church. His aim was to work with these secular rulers to help establish a new church: one that was, in Luther’s eyes, more faithful to the Bible, and modeled after the early Church. This is what is meant by the Magisterial Reformation: Luther effected his “reforms” with the help of secular power. He was further aided in this endeavor by the invention of the printing press. Luther’s media blitz “went viral,” and soon secular leaders across Europe got on board with the Protestant Revolution.

This mingling of the secular into church business, though, was problematic, for the fact was that many secular rulers were motivated by things that were not exactly spiritual. In actuality, self-interest and a thirst for power often was the driving force in many leaders’ decisions. German princes who did not have a high standing with the Pope would become Lutheran because it benefitted them politically, whereas other princes who enjoyed the favor of the Pope would remain Catholic. Such mixed motives at the very outset of Luther’s Revolution led to many problems down the road.

The Anabaptists and the Radical Reformation
One of the things that most Protestants probably do not realize is that there never was a time in which there wasn’t conflict and division within the Protestant “Reformation.” It was a revolt not only from the Catholic Church, but almost immediately it became a revolt from fellow “reformers” as well.

Many seem to think that Luther broke away from the Catholic Church, started the Protestant Church, and things went swimmingly for a short time, and that it was only later, possibly during the subsequent generations of “revolutionary reformers” did fissures and conflicts arise. Well, such a view does not line up with history. The historical fact is that, if Luther’s revolution was radical enough, the Radical Reformation did not come long after either Luther or Calvin’s Magisterial Reformations—it happened at the same time. As soon as Luther started declaring the Pope to be the anti-Christ and the Catholic Church to be the Whore of Babylon, as soon as he started declaring Sola Scriptura, people came out of the woodwork all across Europe to take Luther’s rhetoric to its full and logical conclusions.

Now, it must be pointed out that Luther probably didn’t mean his rhetoric to be taken to such extremes. After all, Luther still regularly consulted the early Church Fathers in his study of Scripture, and found them to be invaluable aids to the study of the Bible. Nevertheless, his irresponsible rhetoric had an immediate destructive impact on the Europe of his day. And if there is one thing we in modern America should learn from Luther, it is that irresponsible and inflammatory rhetoric will eventually rip apart society.

In any case, the unravelling of European society in the 16th century can be clearly seen in the Anabaptist movement that was birthed by men like Ulrich Zwingli. For the sake of clarity, we could say that Zwingli and his followers took Luther’s Sola Scriptura, transformed it into Nuda Scriptura. Whereas Luther said the Scripture alone should have authority over Church Tradition, Church councils, or one’s reading of the Church Fathers, Zwingli and his followers essentially said, “Why even care about councils or Church Fathers, or Church Tradition?” and they completely and utterly rejected all forms of Church tradition whatsoever. The Anabaptists believed that Scripture should be read without any consideration of how Christians in previous centuries read it.

Luther, at least initially, had hopes of reforming the Catholic Church and probably didn’t really believe some of his own inflammatory rhetoric. But the Anabaptists took Luther’s rhetoric seriously, and therefore concluded that there was not anything in the existing Church worth reforming. In the Anabaptist mind, there was (A) Jesus and the early Church of the first 300 years, then (B) 1,200 years of spiritual darkness ushered in by Constantine and the corrupt, institutional church of the Whore of Babylon. Their mission, therefore, was to sweep away all vestiges of that prostitute known as the Catholic Church, and restore (what they felt) was the pristine and unsoiled Christian faith of the primitive Church. Not surprisingly, not only were the Anabaptists persecuted by Catholics, but also by Protestants of the Magisterial Reformation. This was (ironically) something we can say that men like Luther and the Pope agreed on: the Anabaptists took things too far–they were too radical.

Where Did Modern Evangelicalism Really Come From?
If such a view of Church history sounds familiar, it should—the “1,200 years of spiritual darkness” is held, not only by a vast number of modern day Evangelicals and Fundamentalists, but ironically by a large swath of militant atheists and secularists inspired by the propagandist thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment.

Indeed, many of the characteristics of the Anabaptist movement should sound familiar to most people in Evangelical circles. There was the insistence of that “moment of conversion” (i.e. “When did you get saved?”); the rejection of infant baptism and the insistence of “believer’s baptism” one voluntarily chose to do when an adult (or at least by 5th grade!); the insistence of the complete separation of Church and State (namely because “the world” was so hopelessly corrupt that believers had to separate themselves from it to stay pure—thus paved the way for an entire Christian subculture that included its own music, books, movies, etc.); the rejection of all kinds of formulaic creeds, and the insistence that believers exercise freedom of conscience in matters of belief. The list could probably go on.

As a matter of basic historical fact, it is safe to say that modern Evangelicalism and other non-denominations movements do not so much derive from the Reformation of either Luther or Calvin, but rather the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 34): Martin Luther: Salvation, Free Will, and Human Reason

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 34): Martin Luther: Salvation, Free Will, and Human Reason

Similar to his understanding of authority and Scripture, Luther’s understanding of salvation was also affected by his over-reaction to the admittedly distorted teaching of the Catholic Church of his day. The Catholic Church was teaching that although salvation came through grace and faith in Christ, that there were certain things that human beings could (and in fact should) do that could “merit the merit of Christ.”

Simply put, there were certain works that one could do in order to earn their salvation. The young Augustinian monk Luther found himself guilt-ridden for his sins, driven to perform as many works as possible so that God would relent his wrath upon him, and at the same time, consumed with a hatred for God based on the fact that he knew, deep down, that he could never do enough good works to earn God’s love. Perhaps this was also an over-reaction due to his troublesome relationship with his father, but in any case, one thing was certain: Luther tried the “Catholic way” of salvation, and found himself miserable and defeated.

Luther’s Reading of Romans 1:16-17
What changed his understanding of salvation was his reading of Romans, particularly Romans 1:16-17: the righteous will live by faith, not by works. Never mind the fact there is absolutely no way that Luther exegeted Paul correctly—when Paul spoke about “works,” he wasn’t talking about medieval Catholic “works,” but rather the “works” of Torah—Luther nevertheless got his theological criticism right. But where Luther went wrong is that he ended up denying any role at all for good works within a life of salvation. And the reason for that is because he viewed salvation itself differently. In order to understand this, we must take a few steps back.

In the oldest branch of Christianity, that of Orthodoxy, salvation was seen as being restored to a right relationship with God through Christ, so that, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the cooperation of the believer, the believer can achieve theosis. What this means is simple: eventually the believer will be made fully like Christ, as long as he uses his free will to participate in the restored relationship with God. In this respect, salvation is understood not as a “thing” one possesses, but rather as a restored relationship to be lived out. Therefore, since salvation is seen as fundamentally relational, what the believer does actually matters. What he does doesn’t get him saved, but does, in fact, affect (and either build or weaken) his relationship with Christ—much like a man and woman who get married. The marriage ceremony is just the beginning—the actual marriage involves living out that relationship.

What the Catholic Church did that was wrong, therefore, was that it introduced an understanding of “works” that is simply foreign to the Bible and to the historic Christian faith, and in doing so, it turned salvation more into a thing to possess than a restored relationship to be lived out. Luther was right to criticize and ultimately reject this view. But in rejecting it, he wrongly kept the Catholic understanding of salvation as being a thing one possessed. Luther’s view of salvation, therefore, ended up seeing salvation as a thing God gave to you freely. And since salvation was seen as a thing to possess, rather than a restored relationship to be lived out, the very concept of “works” became the boogeyman in Protestant eyes.

The Standard Protestant View of Things (vs. Orthodoxy and Catholicism)
Luther’s concept of salvation, the state of human beings, and the role of works all combined to form the standard Protestant understanding of salvation:

(A) human beings were utterly sinful and totally depraved, completely unable to ever chose God—“free will” was essentially an illusion;

(B) salvation was a thing God gave to those who put their faith in Christ, because what he did (i.e. suffer and die on the cross) was able to atone for our sins and purchase salvation for us;

(C) therefore, any “good works” that a Christian does are simply the “fruit” of that salvation, and in no way contributes to salvation—for after all, Luther was working from a premise that salvation was a thing to possess, and not a relationship to be lived out.

To utterly simply things, the three branches of Christianity tend to view salvation and works as the following:

(A) Orthodoxy: Salvation is the restoration of a relationship with God, and through that lived out life of faith, the Holy Spirit works through the works of the believer to achieve the fullness of Christ and theosis.

(B) Catholicism: Salvation is a thing to possess, a thing that God grants to the believer little by little, and a thing that a believer can earn a little bit faster if he does a certain amount of good works.

(C) Protestantism: Salvation is a thing to possess, a thing that God grants to the believer based on the work of Christ, and there is nothing a believer can ever do to earn it, because the believer, before he is saved, is utterly dead in his sins, and is therefore unable to do anything.

Incidentally, here is a really good youtube video that illustrates the difference between the Protestant and Orthodox views of salvation:

Free Will and Human Reason
On this topic of free will, the Catholic reformer Erasmus argued that even though the human will was damaged by the fall, that it was still not utterly destroyed; sinful humans therefore were still able to either accept or reject God’s grace that was necessary for salvation. Luther though completely rejected such a notion. He explained his understanding of the human will in this way:

“…the human will is placed between [God and Satan] like a beast of burden. If God rides it, it wills and goes where God wills…. If Satan rides it, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.” Simply put, Luther rejected any notion of a truly free human will.

Related to this, obviously, was the concept of human reason, and its ability to come to a knowledge of God. The traditional Orthodox and Catholic view had always been that knowledge of God comes through both revelation and reason. Granted, the scholastics of the High Catholic Age, working from a more Aristotelean philosophical base, tended to perhaps exalt human reason a bit too much, but nevertheless, everyone agreed that revelation and reason were both involved in human beings coming to an understanding of God.

Luther, though, rejected this, for he viewed human reason with suspicion—after all, since the human will was nothing more than a “beast of burden” to either God or Satan, the human ability to reason must not be worth much either. Therefore, Luther put all his eggs into one basket—that of Scripture. For Luther, only that which was revealed in Scripture could give one any knowledge of God. Human reason was suspect, therefore one could only put stock in Scripture alone.

The problem with this view of reason (as well as this view of human will) should be obvious: who is it who decides to put stock in Scripture, and how does one understand that Scripture in which he has put stock? Is it not the one whose will chooses to put stock in Scripture? And is it not the one who uses his reasoning faculties to read and understand Scripture?

Long story short, as mentioned earlier, by putting the Bible on a pedestal, Luther actually (and unwittingly) subverted the authority of the Bible, for the Bible simply does not, and cannot, “speak for itself.” It always requires interpretation, and the way to guide us in proper interpretation is amassed wisdom and reason in Church Tradition. By essentially condemning human reason, Luther also threw out Church Tradition, and that left the Bible alone—Sola Scriptura—as the supreme authority for truth. But that is an impossibility, for the Bible needs to be interpreted correctly, and that requires human reason and fidelity to the historical witness of Church tradition—the very two things Luther discarded as he placed the Bible on a pedestal.

The result (as we will see) is that countless people began to read and interpret the Bible all on their own, without any rootedness in the historical Christian faith. Practically speaking, it was a person’s private interpretation and opinion of the Bible, and not the Bible itself, that became the standard for truth. And in order to justify his own opinion, that person would inevitably claim to that he had the “inner witness” of the Holy Spirit. Of course, what is one to do when one’s “inner witness of the Holy Spirit” contradicts someone else’s “inner witness of the Holy Spirit”? Well, the history of the Protestant Revolution is pretty clear: you condemn the other, fight, and eventually split off and create your own denomination.

Therefore, even though Luther correctly identified a number of problems within the theology of the Catholic Church of his day, his overzealous condemnation of certain things like free will and the validity of reason eventually lead to a number of unintended consequences within the emerging Protestant movement. Ironically, Sola Scriptura because the reason for the splintering and fragmenting of the Western Church.

Now let me just clarify that I don’t think Martin Luther was some kind of horrible person who perverted Christianity. He correctly saw that there were a number of errors in the teachings of the Catholic Church of his day that needed to be addressed. But we must be honest about where Luther went wrong in his attempts to fix those errors. He was a human being who made mistakes; and we must acknowledge where he made mistakes so that hopefully we can continue to come to a clearer understanding of the Christian faith.

Adam, Noah: Myth or History–and Ken Ham’s Dangerous Claims

Adam, Noah: Myth or History–and Ken Ham’s Dangerous Claims

Last summer, when I came out with my book, The Heresy of Ham, I made it a point to send a copy to Ken Ham at the Creation Museum. Not surprisingly, I never heard back from him. But every now and then I wonder if he leafed through my book—his most recent blog post is one of those times that get me wondering, for in it, he addresses one of fundamental arguments I make in my book regarding the proper literary genre of Genesis 1-11: that it is not meant to be read as historical narrative. Rather, it is best understood as being in the literary genre of ancient myth.

Genesis 1-11 is Myth…but Here’s What That Really Means
Now, granted, on the surface that claim can sound shocking—many will automatically assume I am saying that Genesis 1-11 isn’t true. But that’s not what I argue at all. In order to assess whether or not a piece of writing is true or not, you first have to understand exactly what kind of writing that writing is—namely, its genre. Once you understand its genre, you are then better able to analyze it according to the conventions of that genre, and then come to a conclusion whether or not what it is saying is true or not.

For example, Jesus’ stories like that of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan are properly understood as parables. Although they are found within the larger Gospel narratives that tell us about the historical Jesus and what he really said and did in history, we realize that those parables are not conveying actual historical information. They are stories that the historical Jesus told as part of his teaching ministry. But the parables themselves are not historical—and we know this and are totally fine with it, because we understand that parables are a different genre than historical narrative, even though they might be found in a work that contains historical information. So what if the parables aren’t historical? They still are true in what Jesus was teaching. Simply put, the parables of Jesus are not historical, but they are most definitely true.

The same goes for Genesis 1-11. Yes, they are found within the greater book of Genesis, that contains stories about historical figures like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, but they are noticeably different in content and historically verifiable information. The places the Patriarchs are said to have gone are actual places that we can travel to today, thus the stories are rooted in a verifiable and historical geographical setting. Genesis 1-11 on the other hand simply doesn’t have any of that. On the other hand, it is demonstrably provable that the biblical stories of creation and Noah and the Flood have clear parallels and similarities to other stories from the ancient Near East that we already categorize as mythological literature.

But when we say mythological literature, we are not talking about whether or not a certain story is true; we are talking about what genre a particular story is, in just the same way we categorize the story of the Prodigal Son a parable. The genre of myth means that it isn’t trying to convey historical information in the first place—that’s not its aim. Rather, myth uses highly symbolic language to talk about, what I call, metaphysical truths about reality: is there one God or many gods? Is creation good or is it a horrible place? Are human beings worthless slaves who are meant to cower in fear of the petty and power gods, or are they created in the image of a good and just God, and therefore infused with dignity and worth?

Therefore, the determining factor as to whether or not a myth is true is not whether or not it was historically accurate. In fact, the truth claims various myths make cannot be “proven” by any scientific or historical means. You can’t “scientifically/historically prove” that creation is good or bad; you can’t “scientifically/historically prove” that there is one God who is good and just, or that there are many dangerous and petty gods; you can’t “scientifically/historically prove” that human beings have inherent worth because they are in God’s image, or that they are nothing more than worthless excrement of defeated gods.

All that is to say this: saying Genesis 1-11 falls under the literary genre of mythological literature is not saying that Genesis 1-11 isn’t true. All it’s saying is that it was never meant to be understood as history. Genesis 1-11 lays out the foundational stories that teach (A) that there is one Creator God and that He is good and just; (B) that creation is good and has purpose; (C) that human beings are created to bear God’s image and be His representatives to care for and rule over His good creation; (D) but that human beings are sinful and prone to evil, and therefore are in need of redemption so that they can fulfill their purpose as God’s image-bearers.

Those are the foundational theological truths that Genesis 1-11 puts forth, and they should shape how we understand our world. But they’re just not scientific or historical claims—and that is okay.

Ken Ham, though, just can’t understand this…
Unfortunately, in his most recent post, Ken Ham clearly displays either his inability or unwillingness to even try to understand this. He begins with, “It’s becoming increasingly popular among many Christians to claim that Old Testament characters, especially Adam and Eve, and events such as the worldwide Flood weren’t literal people or historical events. They claim they were just figures or stories created to teach some kind of theological lesson. But does biblical revelation support this position?”

As should come as no surprise, Ham answers that last question with a resounding “No!” But his entire approach just betrays a willful refusal to engage in critical thinking. From the above quote, it is quite clear that for Ham, the only kind of “truth” possible is historical facts. In making that claim, he actually ends up downplaying the importance of theological lessons. In other words, Ham is essentially saying, “The stories of Adam and Eve and Noah’s Flood don’t teach theological lessons—they’re historical facts!” (Never mind the fact that it is simply impossible to prove they were historical).

And yet, Ham does try to prove this very thing by (a) claiming the inspiration of the Bible (and that is true—the Bible is inspired), (b) lifting verses like I Timothy 2:13, I Corinthians 11:8, and Jude 1:14 completely out of context, and then making the claim that since the New Testament writers mention the Adam and Noah stories, that therefore they were affirming that they were historical events…and that biological evolution isn’t true. To that, all I can say is I still don’t see how mere mention of a person or story in the Bible equates with affirming that person/story is historical…and that biological evolution isn’t true.

News Flash: The Story of Noah IS and Example of Ancient Near Eastern Literature…and that’s okay!
He then specifically refers to the Noah story and says, “Others claim that the account of Noah and the Flood is not history but was borrowed from ancient Near Eastern cultures to teach a theological truth about God.” Again, notice how Ham actually downplays the theological truth that the Noah story is conveying, in order to argue that it must be a historical fact. Furthermore, Ham’s dismissal of seeing the literary similarities to a number of ancient Near Eastern flood myths (like that of Gilgamesh) is rather shocking, because it is demonstrably provable that genre-wise, the Noah story and Gilgamesh are very much alike.

In other words, in his attempt to “prove” the Noah story is a historical account, Ham is actually denying the what really is provable: the Noah story and Gilgamesh are really, really similar. (Now, just to be clear, there are clear differences, but those differences are found in the theological claims that are being made).

The Tragedy of Willful Ignorance
Ham then makes another rather illogical statement when he says, If Genesis is myth then the gospel—as it’s foreshadowed in Genesis 3:15 and 21—is myth also. The gospel is founded in Genesis and grounded in a literal Adam who literally sinned and brought literal death into creation as the penalty for sin. If Noah is a myth, then so are all those listed in Hebrews 11, such as Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and others. Genesis is literal history!”

In response, let me just make three observations:

  1. He clearly shows no understanding of what “myth” actually means. Rather than understand that the issue is that of genre, Ham continues to equate “myth” with “anti-historical falsehood.” You simply cannot bring someone to understanding when that person willfully keeps his eyes closed to simple proper definitions.
  2. It is absolutely false that the Gospel is “grounded in a literal Adam.” Yes, the truths about humanity that are laid out in Genesis 1-11 set the stage to understand Christ’s work in history, but to say that the Gospel is dependent on whether or not there was a historical Adam who was created out of literal dust a mere 6,000 years ago, on the same day as dinosaurs…well, that’s just not true.
  3. Finally using Ham’s logic that if Noah is a myth then so are the Patriarchs, we would have to conclude that the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan must be historical figures, because look! They’re in the Gospels, and Jesus, Peter, James and John are all historical figures!

Ken Ham’s claims, no matter how familiar I am with them, and no matter how predictable they are, still continue to baffle and amaze me. When I first learned about Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis, what they taught made me angry. And then I went through a period where it was just easy to make fun of them, for their claims are so outlandish. But now, I have to say that I read stuff like this and I just am mystified, much in the same way I am when I think about how Scientologists actually believe there was a Galactic Lord Xenu. It’s easy to write the claims of Answers in Genesis off as nonsense; but the fact is, not only is what Ken Ham is teaching false; it is actually preventing people from actually understanding the true Christian faith, and is hampering their ability to come to a full knowledge and appreciation of the Holy Scriptures.

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 33): Martin Luther–Sola Scriptura and Autonomous Reason–Was He the Godfather of Enlightenment Thinking?

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 33): Martin Luther–Sola Scriptura and Autonomous Reason–Was He the Godfather of Enlightenment Thinking?

Yesterday, I began to talk about Martin Luther’s view of Scripture, and pointed out that there was a fundamental flaw with it. I’d like to elaborate on that a bit more. Some of this might sound a bit redundant from the last post, but I think it is worth emphasizing.

Luther: The Precursor to Enlightenment Thinking?
Another thing to realize about the movement Martin Luther started is that we must remember that the Protestant Revolution was happening roughly at the same time as the early stages of the Enlightenment, which ironically called for the rejection of the Church and its traditions as well. In its place, the Enlightenment elevated autonomous human reason as the sole arbiter of truth. Ironically, that was what the Reformers were advocating as well. Even though the battle cry was “Sola Scriptura,” when it came right down to it, they too ended up rejecting Church tradition, and instead came to say, “Just get alone with your translation of the Bible, and you’ll be able to come to the truth using your own reason and the inner-witness of the Holy Spirit.” Remember what Martin Luther himself said at the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”

Let’s be clear, that’s not really “Sola Scriptura.” That’s saying, “I’ll reject the interpretation of Church Tradition if it conflicts with my own interpretation that I arrive at using my own plain reason.” The real authority here that is being used to read and interpret the Bible is autonomous human reason, without any consideration to what the Church had taught throughout history.

Now, to be fair, in face of the abusive and authoritarian Catholic Church at that time, Luther was right to stand against what was going on. But when it comes to understanding the Bible, it simply is not wise to rely on your own, limited, autonomous reason, without any consideration of what countless Christians over the centuries have taught. Such a mindset has more in common with the ideals of the Enlightenment than historical Christianity. In fact, it can be outright dangerous. Yes, when one tries to understand the Scriptures, one should use one’s own reason, but one has to remember that your particular view is inevitably going to be limited in a variety of ways. Therefore, of course, you shouldn’t blindly accept what some Pope tells you a certain passage means; but neither should you simply disregard traditional understandings and interpretations throughout Church history and set up your own, limited autonomous reason as the sole arbiter of understanding Scripture.

In order to come to a fuller understanding of Scripture, I must use my own reason, but I also must try to understand Scripture within the context of the Church. Unfortunately, this is precisely what Luther made impossible to do, for he essentially blew up any notion of “the Church.” Now, it is true, the Holy Spirit can and does speak to individuals in their individual study of the Scriptures. But when it comes to elaborating and explaining the teachings and doctrines that the Church has always held to, it is very dangerous to just “go it alone,” without reading and interpreting Scripture without an eye to what Christians throughout Church history have understood about it. When people do that, it often leads to heresy and cultish doctrines. In the first five centuries of the Church there were heresies like Arianism, Apollinarianism, Pelagianism; and in our modern world we have had examples like the Millerites, the Mormons, the Jehovah Witnesses, and the “health and wealth gospel.” What do they all have in common? They were started by people who claimed to have a “special insight” to the Scriptures, who completely ignored and rejected the traditional teachings of the Church, and thus went off in a very heretical directions.

Protestantism’s Failure to Have a Concept of a Unified Church
Unfortunately, when one looks at the past 500 years after the Protestant Revolution, one can see (as we will later in the book) a host of outright heretical teachings that have sprung up within Protestant churches that have simply never been addressed, precisely because the very concept of a unified Church is non-existent within Protestantism. In the early centuries of the Church, whenever men came up with “special teachings,” and started teaching things that went against the historical Christian faith, the Church leaders would convene councils, and speak as a unified Church that the teachings of men like Arius (and countless other heretics) had never been taught by the Church. Arius had the Scriptures, just like everyone else, but he interpreted them in a way that was not consistent, and indeed was contrary, to the traditional Church teaching. Yet within Protestantism, there simply is no way to address false teaching as a unified Church.

The Relationship Between Church Tradition and the Scriptures
The reason I’ve gone into this mini-history lesson is because it goes to the understanding and role that Church tradition should have within the Church. The reason why tradition is considered so important in the Orthodox Church is because they are committed to preserving the teachings of Christ and the tradition that the apostles handed down. Paul himself talks about this very thing in II Thessalonians 3:6: “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us.” One must keep a clear distinction between the “traditions of men” that Jesus condemned (which was specifically a reference to the oral tradition of the Pharisees), and the tradition that Jesus handed down to the apostles, who thus handed it down to the various churches they established.

Simply put, Luther kept the faulty blueprint that the Catholic Church had set up. Yet whereas the Catholic Church put the Pope up on a pedestal and proclaimed him the ultimate authority, Luther simply knocked the Pope (along with any concept of Church tradition) off that pedestal, and put the Bible in its place on that pedestal. This rather quickly led to Bible idolatry. And just as pagan priests would often attempt to manipulate their false gods with sacrifice and ceremony (and effectively exercising their authority over the idols), Protestant revolutionaries ended up manipulating various passages of Scripture and developing their own pet doctrines to the detriment (and death) of others who interpreted the Bible differently. In effect, even though they declared the Bible to be the ultimate authority, in reality various Protestant revolutionary leaders set themselves up as their own popes, and thereby continued to use the Bible establish and prop up their own authority.

This hierarchical understanding of authority, and the claim that this authority is rooted in the Bible, is ironically unbiblical and contrary to the living witness of the early Church. We must remember that it was within the first century that the early Christians were inspired to write the Gospels and various letters that now make up our New Testament. Simply put, it was the Church, acting on the authority bestowed upon it by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, who wrote the New Testament. Therefore, one cannot separate the Bible from the Church, as if one was “more authoritative” than the other. They enjoy a symbiotic relationship and are mutually intertwined. The Church wrote the Bible, and the Bible is the canon by which subsequent Church teaching and practice is measured.  

This, incidentally, is what the Orthodox Church means by Tradition: it should be understood as the teachings and practices that the Church has held to from the very beginning. It is nothing that anybody made up on a whim—it is the very teaching, beliefs, and practices that Christ Himself had given the Church. Simply put, the Tradition of the Orthodox Church is the fundamentals of the faith; it is the Tradition that Christ gave the apostles, and to which the New Testament bears witness; it is not “the traditions of men.”

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 32): Martin Luther, Sola Scriptura, and Authority (But whose? And for what purpose?)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 32): Martin Luther, Sola Scriptura, and Authority (But whose? And for what purpose?)

When a young college professor named Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door at Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517 in hopes of opening the door to debate over a variety of perceived abuses within the Catholic Church, no one knew that, in actuality, he had opened the floodgates to a whole lot more. Now, what lay at the heart of Luther’s objections to the Catholic Church of his day were the very real abuses that were going on at the behest of the Pope in the name of Christ, namely the sale of indulgences in order to raise money for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, along with the unbiblical doctrine of Purgatory.

Johannes Tetzel

Luther was entirely justified in his revulsion of the manipulative practices of men like Johannes Tetzel, who preyed upon the ignorance and fear of the common peasant, in order to squeeze out a little more money for the Pope. In his panhandling speeches, Tetzel famously said, “Do you not hear the voices of your dead parents and other people, screaming and saying, ‘Have pity on me, have pity on me…. We are suffering severe punishments and pain, from which you could rescue me with a few alms, if you would.’” Such abuses no doubt infuriated Luther, especially given the fact that a mere seven years before, in 1510, when Luther had made a pilgrimage to Rome, instead of finding Rome to be a holy city, he found nothing but debauchery, avarice, and greed.

Luther’s proposed changes to Catholicism, though, went far beyond addressing indulgences and Purgatory. Among other things, he wanted to eliminate all holy days except for Sunday; he wanted to let the entire congregation drink the wine at communion; he thought priests should be allowed to get married; and he wanted all religious orders done away with. Some of his proposed changes involved valid critiques of church abuses and valid reforms; others were perhaps an over-reaction. But what made Luther a Protestant revolutionary, and not merely a reformer, was what he taught about (a) Scripture, and (b) salvation. Over these next few posts, we will focus on Luther’s view of each one.

The Problem with Sola Scriptura
In what was a clear over-reaction to the corruption within the Catholic Church, Luther claimed that the sole source for authority was the Bible: Sola Scriptura. Although this slogan has achieved almost an infallible quality to it in Protestant circles today, the fact is that the slogan is deeply problematic. In order to see just how problematic it is, we must first take a few steps back to address a number of wrong assumptions both Luther and Protestants today often make.

In How Should We Then Live, Francis Schaffer made the claim that the early Church stood under the authority of the Bible, and the Bible alone. Then during the Middle Ages, the Church slowly distorted that original pristine Christianity by incorporating humanistic elements into its teaching. It was then Luther and the Protestant Reformation that attempted to right those wrongs and get back to the early Church.

The problem with that assessment is that it simply isn’t true. First off, there never was a time of “pristine Christianity.” A simple reading of Paul’s letters testifies to the fact that there were controversies, debates, and problems from the very beginning of the Church. Secondly, for the first 300 years of Church history, there was no such thing as a New Testament. On top of that, the “authoritative” Scriptures that the early Christians did use was, in fact, the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, a version of the Old Testament that Protestants simply do not use anymore. Therefore, it is simply wrong at virtually every level to claim that there ever was a “pristine” Church that unambiguously stood under the “authority” of the Bible. Therefore, Luther and his other revolutionary/reformers were on a fool’s errand—they were trying to “restore” the Church to something that it had never been in the first place.

Still, Luther Had a Point…
Now, one can understand the motivation behind Luther’s call—the Catholic Church of his day really was incredibly corrupt. Much of the tradition that had developed within the Catholic Church was, in fact, based on numerous unbiblical (and unchristian) teachings. One need to look no further than the Catholic Church’s resistance to allow the Bible be translated into the common languages of the people, and its insistence that Church tradition and the word of the Pope took precedence over the Bible. That is why the Pope did not want the Bible translated into the common tongue—he basically wanted to be the one who told people what the Bible said.

Simply put, since the Catholic Church of Luther’s day was dogmatic on its insistence that Church tradition was, in fact, over the Bible, and that the Pope wielded supreme authority in matters of faith, Luther responded by claiming that it was the Bible, and the Bible only, that wielded supreme authority, and may the traditions of the Church be damned…literally! They were simply “traditions of men” that had usurped the authority of God’s Word.

Well, the problem with Luther’s claims was that while he correctly rejected those claims of the Catholic Church, he still nevertheless built his theological edifice based on the same faulty blueprints, namely a faulty understanding of “authority.”

Now, in regards to the Bible itself, Luther was absolutely right in his insistence that the Bible be translated into the language of the people; the Catholic Church was simply wrong to oppose that. It had been the practice of the Orthodox Church from the very beginning to translate the Bible into the languages of the people to whom they brought the Gospel. The original Bible of the early Church was, in fact, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Cyrillic alphabet of Russia and other Slavonic countries, for example, was invented by St. Cyril, an Orthodox missionary who evangelized the Slavs.

The Concept of “Authority”: Whose Authority? Authority for What Purpose?
That fact alone regarding the openness to translations should tell us something very important regarding the concept of “authority”—namely, that the early Church, and the Orthodox Church that grew out of it, did not consider the Bible as the holding sole authority in the Christian life. If one takes a few moments to reflect on this, one should be able to see the point. First off, consider II Timothy 3:16-17: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Notice, that nowhere does it say, “Scripture is the sole authority and should be put on a pedestal, venerated, and blindly obeyed.” In fact, it says that all scripture is useful…for a variety of things: reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

Secondly, consider Jesus’ own words to his disciples in Matthew 28:18-20: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

All throughout the gospels we find that what astonished his fellow Jews more than anything else was Jesus’ authority in what he taught. He displayed an authority over sickness, demons, and even death. In addition to that, he displayed an authority to reinterpret the Torah in light of his own ministry, death, and resurrection. And in Matthew 28:18-20, we find that Jesus tells us that all authority has been given to him, and that he in turn has given that very authority to those who follow him—the Church (Matthew 10:1; 16:18-19).

Therefore, the kind of authority that the very Bible bears witness to is not some sort of authoritarian, top-down hierarchical dictator. Rather, the kind of authority that the Bible bears witness to is the living, dynamic authority found in Christ and embodied in his Church. And that authority should not be seen in terms of some sort of “objective/absolute moral standard” (i.e. a divinely dictated rule book) that we must blindly obey and follow if we are to be saved. Rather, the authority that was given to Christ, which he in turn gave to the Church, is the authority to proclaim, incorporate, and translate the resurrection-reality of the Kingdom of God into this current age of sin and death, thereby being the agents by which the Holy Spirit transforms this old creation, in bondage to corruption and death, into the new creation.

It is this authority, bestowed upon the Church by Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit, that the Bible bears witness to. In fact, in light of this, the Bible must be understood to be the primary tool used by the Church to exercise this Christ-given, Spirit-empowered authority to transform all creation. When the Church exercises this authority for this purpose, we begin to truly understand verses like, “The Word of God is living and active.” It is an authority to transform creation and to live out our vocation as king-priests of God’s creation. Therefore, what individuals do—indeed, what the Church does—cannot be disregarded or rejected as being mere “traditions of men” that are in opposition to the Bible.

In any case, we must remember that the “tradition” that men like Luther were rejecting was the abusive, authoritarian “tradition” of the Catholic Church at that time, which the Orthodox Church had rejected long before Luther. On that point, both the Reformers and the Orthodox Church agree. But unfortunately, in his zeal for the Bible and his hatred for the Pope, Luther ended up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Within a few short years after Luther began his verbal assault on the Catholic Church (and the entirety of Church tradition, for that matter), people came to think they didn’t have to consider the early Church Fathers, or traditional Church teaching at all.

In a reaction against the Catholic Church putting the Pope on a pedestal, the Protestant revolutionaries ended up putting the Bible itself on a pedestal, and started equating all the rich history of Church teaching for over 1500 years as “the traditions of men,” and thus rejected all of it. Yet such a move was something Luther never intended. As a matter of fact, Luther regularly read and consulted the writings of the early Church Fathers in his study of Scripture. He knew they were beneficial and good, yet we must admit that it was precisely his fiery rhetoric that no doubt inflamed other revolutionaries to go much further than he envisioned, and ultimately reject all of the historical teachings and insights of the Church.

Tomorrow, more Luther–specifically his concept of salvation (and perhaps a few other things).

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 31): The Protestant and Secular Revolutions (1500-1700)–A Short Introduction

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 31): The Protestant and Secular Revolutions (1500-1700)–A Short Introduction

In most overviews of Western civilization, the typical progression not only incorrectly lumps over one thousand years of culture and history under the umbrella of the “Middle Ages,” it also tends to then portray both the Italian Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation as simultaneous events that both stemmed out from the Middle Ages. This is precisely what Francis Schaeffer did in How Should We Then Live. The problem with such a portrayal, as we have already seen, is that it fails to acknowledge that the Renaissance was, in fact, the result and full-flowering of the numerous achievements of the High Catholic Age. Ironically and sadly, the very same time that the High Catholic Age had achieved the cultural and philosophical heights of the Renaissance also witnessed such deplorable corruption at the papal level that led to various revolutions, both religious and secular.

A better and more accurate understanding of Western civilization is to see that, beginning in the first part of the 16th century, a bifurcated revolution erupted in Europe that was both religiously and anti-religiously motivated. The religiously motivated branch of this revolution came in the form of the inaccurately-named Protestant Reformation. But let’s be clear—it was no reformation. It was a thorough rejection of over a thousand years of Church practice and tradition, an attempt to “get back to the original Church.” It was, if you will, an attempt to reinvent the ecclesiastical wheel, the only problem being that it had thrown away all the spokes and was left with only the hub and the rubber tire. The results of the Protestant Revolution proved to be deeply problematic and destructive. That is not to say that much good came out of the Protestant Revolution; but we must be honest—it was no reformation.

Despite what Martin Luther may have originally desired or intended, the fact is that the movement he started was nothing short of a complete religious revolution against the Catholic Church. Anyone familiar with history would readily admit that the Catholic Church at that time was in dire need of reformation. But whereas men like Desiderius Erasmus sought to truly reform the existing Catholic Church, men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Henry VIII and their successors saw the Pope as nothing less than the Antichrist himself, and boldly declared that the entire structure of the Catholic Church was to be torn down. The “Reformers” were revolutionaries—and the revolution they gave Europe lasted for a hundred years. The result was a complete fragmentation of the Church into thousands of pieces. “Church unity” was something that was never truly achieved for the first 1500 years of Church history, but it was something that was constantly being striven for. But after the Protestant Revolution, “Church unity” wasn’t even prized, and thus one of the greatest failures of the Protestant Revolution was it rejected a fundamental teaching regarding what “the Church” was.

The anti-religiously motivated branch of this revolution started subtly in the works of men like Machiavelli, and grew up side by side the Protestant Revolution, often working within supposedly Protestant movements, and in fact undermining many of the good intentions of many well-meaning and godly Protestants. This subtle undermining of the Protestant Revolution eventually led to the disenchantment of all things “religious,” and ultimately to the bloody carnage of the decidedly and openly anti-Christian age, deceptively called the “Enlightenment.”

Finally, in response to these two intertwined revolutions, the Catholic Church set about an attempted reformation itself, led by the likes of Erasmus.

In any case, by the end of this period of the simultaneously-happing Protestant Revolution, secular Enlightenment, and Catholic attempt at reformation, there had happened a massive shift in worldview from the previous 1,000 years.

  • Politically, individual kings established their own “religions,” to be the official faith of their political kingdoms, be it Lutheran, Presbyterian, Catholic, etc. And when that happened, religion (specifically various brands of Christianity) became the tool of the State to support the power of individual rulers.
  • Philosophically, especially as a result of the Enlightenment, there was a complete “re-paganizing” of philosophy. Yearning for Roman virtue, the “state of nature” became the basis for morality. There was a growing denial of God, and Christ as His revelation into history. The aim was to subvert the power and authority of the Catholic Church.
  • Religiously, debates regarding the Christian faith were divorced from the Tradition of the Church its guide, and began to focus on “Enlightenment” categories of what constitutes “truth.” Simply put, the “arena” in which to debate the Christian faith was changed from the witness of Church Tradition to secular categories of science and reason.

Over the next few posts, I will attempt to give a general overview of the Protestant Revolution and the way in which it changed the religious landscape of Christianity in the West. There will be a few posts about Martin Luther, others about the Radical Reformation, John Calvin, the cultural contributions of Protestantism, as well as the subversive secular revolution that grew up side by side the Protestant Revolution, and that can be seen in the works of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Spinoza.

I believe these posts will be an important step in beginning to understand the current “culture wars” that we are witnessing today in our current society. In order to understand where we are and how we got to the place we are, we need to understand the flow of history. Everything up to this point (yes, the first 30 posts in this series!) has laid the backdrop. From here on out, what I’ll be discussing should be more readily applicable to understanding today’s society.

So it should be an interesting couple of weeks at resurrecting orthodoxy!

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 30): Last Thoughts on the High Catholic Age (aka…”Those filthy peasants have no Christian Faith!)

The Ways of the Worldviews (Part 30): Last Thoughts on the High Catholic Age (aka…”Those filthy peasants have no Christian Faith!)

One final thing needs to be mentioned regarding the day to day life and faith of the common man during the High Catholic Age. What I’m about to say can be related to virtually every age and every people, so this is not unique to one particular time period. Nevertheless, it has to be said about this time period in particular.

The “Middle Ages,” was not an “age of faith.” Contrary to what our modern narrative may say about that time, and despite all the incredible contributions the Church made to the culture at the time, it was not, by any stretch of the imagination, an “age of faith.” It was not a time period in which the mass of people cowered under the threats of the Church, or clung to religious superstition and ignorance, in fear of the flames of hell. The fact is, for all the wonderful advances that devoted Christian men and women made in technology, philosophy, the arts and architecture during this time, Christianity made very little headway among the lower classes.

Rodney Stark puts it this way: “Medieval society was largely composed of non-participants [in the churches]” (Triumph of Christianity 256). Simply put, many churches were empty…and that seemingly wasn’t always a bad thing! Why? Because when peasants often did show up to church, they often disrupted the service with unruly behavior. And so, what you ended up having was the mass of European Christians staying in complete ignorance regarding the most basic Christian teachings. Even those who might go to church would still be largely ignorant of Christianity. Why? Because often times the clergy were illiterate and ignorant of Christianity as well! In fact, as should be obvious to anyone who has ever read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, often times the clergy led just as immoral lives as the peasants!

Whores and Booze…some things never change…
So what did the life of the common man look like? Margrave of Brandenburg described the lives of peasants this way: “blaspheming, sorcery, adultery and whoring, excessive drinking and other vices all practiced openly [by] the common man.” And if you want to actually see this up close, look no further to Pieter Breughel’s painting The Wedding Dance (1566). In that painting we can see all the men dancing around and carousing…with full erections pushing through their tights. Furthermore, as Stark points out, in 1490 Rome, (ROME! Where the Pope lives!) “more than 15% of its resident adult females were registered prostitutes, and the Venetian ambassador described it as the ‘sewer of the world’” (TC 261). Erasmus actually accused some of convents of being nothing more than public brothels! And Ambrogio Traversari (1386-1436), a representative of the Pope, reported that one convent really was a brothel (TC 262).

Other Reasons Why the Peasantry Wasn’t All that Christian
Another reason why Christianity made so very little headway with the peasants was simple: there weren’t too many churches outside of major cities, where nobles could pay for them. And even where a few rural churches sprouted up, there often wasn’t a knowledgeable pastor to be in charge of it. Why weren’t there more actual Christians? There just weren’t enough knowledgeable teachers.

But even where there were concentrated efforts to teach the common folk, most attempts simply didn’t bare much fruit. Rodney Stark believes the reason for the failure was really quite simple: the teachers and clerics who did try to teach the lower classes couldn’t really connect with the common man. Not only could they make the Christian lifestyle appealing to ordinary people, they failed “…to present Christian doctrines in simple, direct language rather than as complex theology” (TC 264). Simply put, what plagued eras like the High Catholic Age is the same thing that plagues us today: too often, those who are educated and schooled in areas like Biblical Studies and Theology simply cannot communicate the basic truths of Christianity in a simple, easy to understand way for the majority of people who will never take graduate-level courses on the Christian faith.

What ends up happening is often one of three things: (A) Some Christian academics choose to stay within the ivory walls of academia, where they can write for their fellow academics in academic journals nobody really reads, and not be bothered by having to “dumb down” their learning for the masses; (B) Some Christian academics who attempt to teach the basic Christian faith at the laity level often fail miserably because they get caught up in their own minutiae, and fail to make the fundamental truths of the faith clear. It’s like they’re going in and trying to teach Calculus to a Pre-Algebra class—the information is just too beyond them; or (C) all too often, those Christian academics who actually are able to communicate effectively at a basic level get run out of town on a rail by reactionary fundamentalists who look at any kind of real education with suspicion.

The tragedy of all this is that people have seemed to forget that the thing that was most crucial to the spread of early Christianity was not academic formulas or air-tight theological arguments–and it certainly wasn’t making up pseudo-scientific, unbiblical claims that the universe is only 6,000 years and that T-Rexes and people were created within a single 24-hour time period on the sixth day of time itself.

The early Christians were convinced of one simple thing: that Jesus Christ had been crucified and yet was resurrected. That solitary historical fact changed absolutely everything in the world. It affected philosophy, art, music, theology, science…everything. But at the basic fundamental level it affected morals and ethics: Jesus Christ had established the Kingdom of God, and therefore those who united themselves to him in faith found themselves to be the re-created People of God, and that meant a revolution in understanding morality. As Stark points out, “In contrast, early Christianity was attractive to the laity because it offered a model of Christian virtue that improved their quality of life by urging attractive family norms, a tangible love of neighbor, and feasible levels of sacrifice, along with a clear message of salvation” (TC 264).

Salvation was tangible—it had hands and feet that ministered to “the least of these;” it had eyes and ears saw and heard the revealed truth in Christ in everything; and it had a mouth that proclaimed that God, through Christ was becoming king and was re-creating a world that had been made subject to death and corruption for far too long. And it had a back that allowed itself to be unjustly beaten, never repaying such evil back in kind. And yes, it also had a mind that revolutionized the arts, philosophy, and culture.

That being said, there are fundamental truths of the Christian faith that need to be learned—those truths help renew our minds, and that knowledge is vital to our Spiritual growth and gives further understanding to what it means to follow Christ. That’s why the failure to communicate the Christian faith effectively is so tragic. When Christian academics, clerics, or teachers fail to communicate the truths that have been revealed in Christ and when they fail to effectively translate those truths to the larger culture, the result is that the larger populace remains in a state of ignorance. As Stark said, “All across Europe, the established churches failed to convert and arouse the ‘masses,’ by failing to recognize that it was a job for preachers, not professors. But the clergy seemed unable to grasp the point that sophisticated sermons on the mysteries of the Trinity neither informed or converted” (TC 265).

Conclusion: A final quote from Rodney Stark
For the record, let me acknowledge that I quote Rodney Stark quite often. His book, The Triumph of Christianity is simply phenomenal. And so, within my little posts here on this blog, I want to share as much as I can of it. In any case, this last quote by Stark sums up the spiritual state of the Medieval world:

“Medieval times were not the ‘Age of Faith.’ For the vast majority of medieval Europeans, their ‘religious’ beliefs were a hodge-podge of pagan, Christian, and superstitious fragments; they seldom went to church; and they placed greater faith in the magic of the Wise Ones than in the services of the clergy. The frequent claims that empty churches and low levels of religious activity in Europe today reflect a steep decline in piety are wrong—it was always thus. As Martin Luther summed up in 1529, after recognizing the failure of his campaign to educate and arouse the general public: ‘Dear God help us…. The common man, especially in the villages, knows absolutely nothing about Christian doctrine; and indeed many pastors are in effect unfit and incompetent to teach. Yet they are all called Christians, are baptized, and enjoy the holy sacraments—even though they cannot recite either the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Commandments. They live just like animals’” (TC 272).

Here we are in 2017…some things never change.

The Book of Isaiah: A Clear, Concise Overview that will Answer All Your Questions

The Book of Isaiah: A Clear, Concise Overview that will Answer All Your Questions

Note…the final edition of the Major/Minor Prophets won’t be orange….

Currently, I am devoting a lot of time to finishing up my translation of the Major and Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. One of the things I am including in my translation are short introductions to each prophetic book that will hopefully help the reader understand what that particular prophetic book is about. Consider it sort of a Cliff Notes overview of each book, if you will. In any case, I thought I’d share my introductory overview of the book of Isaiah.

My translation of the Major and Minor Prophets should be available by the end of the month, or in early February.

The Book of Isaiah

Outside of a few specific verses and passages in Isaiah, most of the book of Isaiah goes unread or is considered simply too hard to understand. The passages that people are aware of (i.e. Isaiah 7:14, 9:2-7; 11:1-2; 40:1-5; 53:1-12) are because they are quoted or alluded to in the New Testament and applied to Jesus. The problem is that most never consider the original context of these passages, and they never take the time to try to understand Isaiah as a whole, on its own terms.

Admittedly, that is a hard task, for the book of Isaiah is 66 chapters long, and is really complex, especially if one doesn’t have a grasp of the historical context. Hopefully these next couple of pages will be able to provide that historical context, at least enough to get you started in the right direction. The main thing you have to realize is that the book of Isaiah really comes in three parts:

Isaiah 1-39 (sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah is set in the 8th century BC, roughly between the years 742-701 BC. The historical prophet Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, and lived through a number of incredibly significant events in Judah’s history: the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis (around 742 BC), the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (721 BC), and the invasion by the Assyrian king Sennacherib (701 BC).

The easiest way to understand this section is to realize how it is structured.

Isaiah 1-5 is essentially the prologue that sets out the major themes in Isaiah: (1) Judah is guilty of turning away from YHWH and practicing injustice and idolatry; (2) Judah will suffer judgment and punishment for its sin; yet (3) after judgment will come restoration and salvation—the judgment will serve as the means of cleansing the people of Judah of their sins.

Isaiah 6 tells us of the prophetic call of Isaiah. Essentially, YHWH tells him to prophecy to Judah, but that Judah will not listen and will suffer judgment. Nevertheless, after that judgment, restoration will come.

Isaiah 7-12 is all about the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, and Isaiah’s prophecies at that time. Basically, what happened was that the northern kingdom of Israel had teamed up with another nation called Aram, and they were threatening Judah and its new king, Ahaz. Isaiah encouraged Ahaz to put his trust in YHWH, and that YHWH would protect him, but Ahaz basically said, “I don’t think so! I’m going to ask Assyria to protect me, because Assyria is the major superpower!” In response to Ahaz’s choosing not to put his trust in YHWH, Isaiah utters a number of prophecies throughout 7-12. Essentially the prophecies boil down to this:

  • The pregnant young woman will give birth to a son, and by the time he grows up, Assyria will not only have destroyed Israel and Aram, but Assyria will oppress Judah. Although the Immanuel child of Isaiah 7:14 this is later applied to Jesus, in the original context of the Syro-Ephraimite Crisis, it is a prophecy about the birth of Hezekiah.
  • Despite Ahaz’s lack of faith in YHWH opening the door to Assyrian oppression, it will be through Immanuel’s (i.e. Hezekiah’s) faith in YHWH that YHWH will protect Jerusalem and thwart Assyria’s attempts to destroy it.

Isaiah 13-23 then is a collection of various prophecies about the surrounding nations.

Isaiah 24-27 is an apocalyptic passage that envisions YHWH eventually doing away with death forever and bringing about peace for Israel.

Isaiah 28-35 is a collection of various prophecies about Jerusalem itself, in light of the up and coming crisis of Sennacherib’s invasion.

Isaiah 36-39 is the story of Sennacherib’s invasion, Hezekiah’s trust in YHWH, and YHWH’s salvation of Jerusalem from Sennacherib’s attack (36-37). Thus, the events of 36-37 are a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecies from 7-12. After that, we are told two additional stories about Hezekiah: his sickness and how YHWH restored him to health (38), and about a visit of envoys from Babylon to Hezekiah (39).

Thus, one can make sense of Proto-Isaiah if one sees chapters 7-12 and 36-39 acting as “bookends” of initial prophecy and fulfillment of that prophecy. In fact, in light of what was said earlier about prophecy itself, seeing Proto-Isaiah in this way helps us understand why the prophecies of Isaiah were preserved: simply put, his Immanuel prophecies came true. Therefore, Isaiah was vindicated as a true prophet, and Hezekiah was seen as a godly king who put his trust in YHWH.

Isaiah 40-55 (sometimes called “Deutero-Isaiah”)
This section of Isaiah was clearly written much later, for these chapters highlight the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Exile. Since the Jews went into exile in 587 BC, and started to return from exile around 539 BC, that means that Isaiah 40-55 was written roughly 150 years or so after the events of Isaiah 1-39. This means they weren’t written by the historical Isaiah of 8th century Judah, but probably rather by prophets from an Isaianic school of prophets. That is why they are still in the book of Isaiah—they were still written in the Isaiah tradition.

The main feature to recognize in Deutero-Isaiah is the figure of the Servant. Scholars love to point to four specific passages known as “The Servant Songs” (found in Isaiah 42, 49, 50, and 53) and then speculate on who the Servant could be: Is it Jesus? Is the prophet? Is it Israel? To be blunt, if you read these passages in light of the larger context of Deutero-Isaiah, the identity of the Servant is clear: it is Israel—or more specifically, the redeemed remnant of Israel. The reason why it is obvious is because there are other passages in Deutero-Isaiah that specifically say, “My servant, Israel!”

The key thing to realize with the figure of the Servant as the redeemed remnant of Israel is that reveals the purpose of the exile itself. Pre-exilic Judah was hopelessly idolatrous and sinful, and since YHWH was faithful to His covenant with Abraham, He used judgment and the exile to be the means by which He would purify them of their idolatry, so they could one day be a people who would bring blessing to all nations.

Furthermore, not every Jew who went into exile was guilty of injustice and idolatry. Nevertheless, they suffered the same fate. And although that seemed unfair, amazingly, YHWH used those faithful Jews who went into exile to be a light to the nations (think of the stories of Daniel). It was through the suffering of faithful Jews that the Name of YHWH was made known to the nations. Hence, that is what a passage like Isaiah 53 is all about: the Suffering Servant’s faithfulness leads to new life and God’s glory among the nations. And that is why passages like these are later applied to Jesus, for He is the ultimate fulfillment of that very thing.

Isaiah 56-66 (sometimes called “Trito-Isaiah”)
The final section of Isaiah seems to have been written after the Jews had come back from exile to the Promised Land, but had not experienced the full restoration that was promised in Isaiah 40-55. The Jews were still waiting for God’s Spirit to return to them, for the promises of Deutero-Isaiah had not seemed to materialize. The returned post-exilic community did not seem to be fully purified, they were still under the rule of foreign powers, sin and evil still held sway, and they had not experienced the new creation that was prophesied about in Deutero-Isaiah.

Therefore, what you see in Trito-Isaiah are passages filled with trying to make sense of what had, and hadn’t yet, happened. Near the end of Isaiah, in chapter 64, the writer says, “Oh that you would tear the heavens and come down!” clearly expressing his desire that God would act and fulfill the promises that were made. This is significant, because in Mark 1:10, at the baptism of Jesus, Mark writes, “And the heavens were torn apart” and the Spirit of God descended. What Mark was essentially saying to his audience was, “Remember that hope in Isaiah 64:1? It’s coming true here, now, with Jesus—God has come down and is making good on His promises!”

In any case, if you keep these few guidelines in mind, you will be able to better understand the book of Isaiah.

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