History of Christianity

What Is Scripture?

What Is Scripture?

Is Scripture divine or human? Authoritative? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should it be used?

What is Scripture? All religious traditions that ground themselves in texts must grapple with certain questions. In worship services and public and private readings, Christians often turn to Scripture for guidance: to the stories of Abraham or Moses, to the Psalms, to the prophecies of Isaiah, to the life of Jesus, to the letters of Paul, to the vision of John. Therefore, Christians must confront their own set of questions. What is Scripture? Is it divine? Human? Both? Is Scripture authoritative? If so, how and for whom? What is the scope of its authority? Is Scripture inspired by God? How should Scripture be used? How do Scripture and tradition relate? What does it mean for a Christian to call the Bible “the Word of God”? And if Jesus is also called the Word of God, how does Jesus as the Word of God relate to the Bible as the Word of God?

Helpful History

The good news is that we are not the first to try to answer these questions. In fact, 2,000 years of Christian history provide us a tradition of helpful answers as numerous Christian theologians have wrestled with these questions.

Theologians at different times have focused on different questions regarding Scripture. In the patristic and medieval eras, the focus was on relating the literal meaning of the text to allegorical or spiritual interpretations; during the Reformation, the debates focused on who had the authority to define and interpret Scripture; and after the Enlightenment, theologians tried to determine how the Bible was still the Word of God in light of historical-critical methods that seemed to challenge its historicity and reliability. However, in spite of all the various approaches, Christian theologians have been unified in dealing with a central issue: how the self-disclosure of God in Jesus relates to the Scriptures as the Word of God. A central question is always the relationship between “the Word” becoming human flesh (Incarnation) and “the Word” becoming human words.

The Word and the Christian

Christians believe that the Bible is inspired by God, is without error, and does not misrepresent the facts. It is entirely trustworthy and is the final authority on everything it teaches. The Bible records the drama of redemption in the history of Israel and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As Christians we acknowledge both Jesus (John 1:1–4) and Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16–17) as the “Word of God.” Christians should not focus solely on Jesus Christ and treat Scripture just like any other “classic text.” Nor should we focus primarily on the Bible as God’s divine inerrant Word and treat Jesus as simply a character in a small part of the texts.

Jesus Is The Ultimate Word

Jesus is the central message—God participating in human life, coming near to us, bringing his good news, expressing God’s love for us, dying as our substitute, rising as the victor over death, and building his church as a community of grace. Jesus is not just the main character in one of many events in the story of God’s people. Jesus is the final revelation of God’s drama of redemption. Humanity sees God in full light in Jesus. Jesus is God’s ultimate word about human life, and the Bible is God’s word about God’s self-revelation through human life. This is what Christian theologians have been saying in various ways for 2,000 years. In answering the question “What is Scripture?” theological giants like Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karl Barth, and others have given us many categories to use, concepts to ponder, and doctrines of Scripture to consider and wrestle with. Yet in spite of their differences, they are unified in that their doctrines of Scripture are all surprisingly Christ-centered.

The Story About Grace

The deepest message of the Bible and the ministry of Jesus is the grace of God to sinners and those who are suffering. That is the story of the Bible. The problem of the human condition is that because of sin, we are guilty and we suffer. Throughout the Bible, we constantly see God taking the initiative to bring his grace to sinners and sufferers, from his gracious dealings with the people of Israel to the climactic redemptive work of Jesus Christ in his life, death, and resurrection. By taking us through the story of God bringing his grace to sinners and sufferers, Scripture reveals the heart of God and the heart of the Christian faith.

Abraham Kuyper: Hero To A Nation

Abraham Kuyper: Hero To A Nation

Theologian for a nation

Have you ever heard of a theologian being so well-known that his birthday was a national holiday? The 19th-century Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper had such a great impact in the Netherlands that the entire nation celebrated his seventieth birthday in 1907.

Kuyper was a man of many hats: statesman, politician, educator, preacher, churchman, theologian, and philosopher. He was a modern-day Renaissance man who participated in the cultural conversation of his day.

While Kuyper’s influence has been felt throughout the 20th century in the Dutch Calvinist branch of the Reformed church, his influence has been expanding as scholars continue to mine his writings for resources to deal with the challenges of a public theology for the contemporary world.

 

Kuyper’s life

Abraham Kuyper was born to a middle-class pastor’s family in the remote fishing village of Maasluis, Netherlands, on October 29, 1837.

As a young boy, Abraham was thought to be a dull student. He began his early education from home. However, he went on to graduate with the highest honors from the University of Leiden, and he did his doctoral work in theology. Leiden, at the time, was a bastion of theological liberalism, with professors who questioned the resurrection of Christ and the existence of the supernatural and embraced a historical-critical view of Scripture.

Kuyper was captivated by this liberal stream of thought but was not content with its answers to all of his questions. After writing an award-winning treatise (in Latin!) on Calvin’s view of the church, Kuyper found himself overworked and exhausted. On a six-week vacation to Germany, he read Charlotte Yonge’s novel The Heir of Redclyffe, and “In the arrogant hero he recognized himself and his spiritual poverty.” He realized the church could console his weary soul in ways his studies could not. Kuyper had seen a vision of what the church could be in his study of Calvin’s writings, but he had not seen that church existing in the Netherlands. As a result, he pledged his life to reforming that church.

Ordained in 1863, Kuyper began to pastor a small church in the village of Beesd. There he found himself pulled in two different directions, both from his orthodox Reformed heritage and from the liberal theology he discovered at Leiden.

After meeting with members of his congregation in their homes, Kuyper found himself at a crisis. De Jong writes, “The choice lay between what he had learned at the university and what these simple folk so firmly believed.” This led him to the conviction that what was wrong with the Reformed church in the Netherlands was that it cared little for its membership, who had no voice in the church and even less a voice in the state and society.

Kuyper moved on to pastor in Utrecht and then, in 1870, he moved to pastor the Reformed Church in Amsterdam, the largest and most influential church in the Netherlands. He pastored there until he was elected to the Dutch parliament in 1874.

 

Kuyper’s career       

During the course of his 57-year career, Abraham Kuyper started two newspapers, founded an influential political party, helped create a new denomination, started a university, was elected as his nation’s prime minister, and authored numerous important books. He spent ten years as a preacher, twenty years as a professor, forty-two years as a newspaper editor and chairman of his political party, ten years as a member of the Dutch parliament, and four years as the prime minister.

Kuyper’s ideas and academic works emerged from his grass-roots effort to urge his constituency into action, and most of his writings first appeared as newspaper editorials and pamphlets.

In 1898, Kuyper visited the United States to deliver the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary. These were compiled into what is perhaps the most well-known work of Kuyper, his Lectures on Calvinism, which offer a biblical and systematic view of life and the world. Kuyper also published his own edition of Calvin’s Institutes, since he believed the widely available Dutch translation at the time was insufficient.

Kuyper was a man of action as well as ideas. As scholar James Bratt points out, “For every hour [Kuyper] spent studying great books, he spent two more hours plotting the tactics of church reform, wheeling and dealing with university trustees, meeting with party representatives…Kuyper was a movement leader, an institution builder, as well as an intellectual.” Kuyper spurred church, social, cultural, and political change through the advancement of his Reformed views of education, the church, and the state.

 

Kuyper’s theological distinctives  

There are two theological concepts for which Kuyper is most famous: sphere sovereignty and common grace.

Kuyper is known for his famous phrase, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry ‘Mine!’” Indeed, this concept of “sphere sovereignty” is one of Kuyper’s most original ideas. Theologian Richard Mouw describes this concept:

God, [Kuyper] insisted, built into the creation a variety of cultural spheres, such as the family, economics, politics, art, and intellectual inquiry. Each of these spheres has its own proper ‘business’ and needs its own unique pattern of authority. When we confuse spheres, by violating the proper boundaries of church and state, for instance, or reducing the academic life to a business enterprise, we trangress the patterns that God has set.

Kuyper believed that these God-given structures of creation were important for maintaining order and justice in society.

For Kuyper, though sin has pervasively corrupted the world, the glory of God’s created order is not completely obliterated by the Fall, and therefore the various spheres and structures of the earth still reveal glimpses of God’s goodness and power.

 

Kuyper’s legacy 

Abraham Kuyper has been called “a churchman who aroused many to their high calling in a society which had drifted far from its historical Christian moorings.” Kuyper’s ideas have important ramifications for Christians as we think through our place in a secular society and culture, and for that reason it is worth learning from this 19th-century Dutch Reformed theologian today.

 

Kuyper’s major writings:

Herman Bavinck: Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

Herman Bavinck: Vast Learning, Ageless Wisdom

In recent years, study of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck has exploded, due in large part to the complete translation of his major systematic theology, Reformed Dogmatics (Gereformeerde Dogmatiek), from Dutch into English. In 2011, for instance, a full issue of the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology was devoted to essays about different elements of Bavinck’s theology.

For a name that, until recently, would be unrecognized by most people even within the church, it may be surprising that J. I. Packer would say the following about Herman Bavinck: “Like Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards, Bavinck was a man of giant mind, vast learning, ageless wisdom, and great expository skill.” Any name put on a short list with Augustine, Calvin, and Edwards certainly deserves attention. But theologian Richard Gaffin goes a step further than Packer, saying that Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics is “Arguably the most important systematic theology ever produced in the Reformed tradition.”

These are high praises, and to understand why they are not simply hyperbolic statements made to sell books, we need to examine the life and thought of Herman Bavinck.

 

Bavinck’s Background                    

Bavinck was born on December 13, 1854, in Hoogeveen, in the Netherlands, and he died in July of 1921. He was the son of Jan Bavinck, the pastor of a church that had seceded from the state church of the Netherlands because of its theological liberalism. As a young boy, Herman was fortunate to study at the Hasselman Institute—a highly esteemed private school—from age seven to sixteen. He first studied theology in the city of Kampen at the theological school of the Christian Reformed Church (Christelijke Gereformeerde Kerk). From there, Bavinck moved on to complete his doctoral work on the ethics of Ulrich Zwingli at the University of Leiden, under the supervision of several of the leading liberal scholars of the day at one of the most liberal universities of the time. He chose Leiden over Kampen because “he wanted ‘a more academic theological education’ in which ‘he could engage the new modern theology directly.’” This liberal education solidified in him the desire to engage with the most theologically pressing ideas of the academy in a way that took seriously the authority of God’s revelation in Scripture.

After he completed his doctorate, Bavinck served briefly as a pastor for eighteen months at a church in Franeker before, at the age of 28, he was appointed by the Synod to be a professor in systematic theology and ethics at the Theological School in Kampen, where he worked from 1883–1902. His short time as a pastor gave him a chance to speak theological truth in a scholarly manner while at the same time being made aware of the pressing needs and issues faced by the average parishioner. After Abraham Kuyper was named the prime minister of the Netherlands, Bavinck filled his place as the chair of systematic theology at the Free University of Amsterdam in 1902, and he remained a professor there until his death in 1921.

 

Bavinck’s Contributions to Theology                   

Bavinck is most famous for his magnum opus, a four-volume, 3,000-page work entitled Reformed Dogmatics. Even though it was written more than a hundred years ago, the theological discussions in the Reformed Dogmatics are timeless, because they quite frequently discuss the history and development of both orthodox and heretical theological positions. The four volumes that compose the Reformed Dogmatics are: Prolegomena; God and Creation; Sin and Salvation in Christ; and Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation.

Like other Dutch theologians, Bavinck was not just concerned with ivory-tower theological discussion but also dealt with issues of culture and the church’s relation to it, such as politics, education, evolution, psychology, war, the role of women in society, economics, and international relations. Bavinck delivered the Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary in 1908, and these lectures later composed the book The Philosophy of Revelation. Perhaps his most popular and accessible work, Our Reasonable Faith is a relatively “short” (576 pages!) one-volume summary of the Reformed Dogmatics.

Bavinck’s work was shared with the English-speaking world through the writings of Louis Berkhof (a post on him will be coming later), but he also had a significant impact on other Reformed theologians such as Herman Ridderbos, Anthony Hoekema, and Cornelius van Til.

 

Bavinck’s Theological Distinctives                       

Perhaps the greatest contribution of Bavinck’s theological work was his unflinching devotion to the authority and inspiration of Scripture, at a time when such views were unfashionable. Many theologians in Bavinck’s day sectioned off religious knowledge as a purely subjective matter not to be confused with the “hard facts” of science and other forms of genuine, objective human knowledge. Rather than let modern scholarship barrel over the truth of Scripture, Bavinck held that the Bible was foundational truth upon which all theology and religious experience rests. He genuinely believed that the Bible could speak authoritatively to issues pressing on modern people.

At the same time, Bavinck did not entirely reject the subjective elements of Christianity. He produced a theology that took seriously the objectivity of the Scriptures and the church’s confessions, as well as the subjectivity of Christian consciousness and religious experience. Rather than allow his theology to be dominated by trite biblicism or blind adherence to church dogma, Bavinck allowed room for the Holy Spirit to work subjectively in the lives of believers without undermining the objective revelation found in Scripture.

In addition, because of his situation in the fractured Reformed church in the Netherlands, Bavinck expressed a broad Reformed theology that emphasized the unity and beauty of the one church in Christ and aimed to heal the divisions that he saw dividing the church.

 

Bavinck’s Legacy     

Carl Trueman suggests that the work of Bavinck is relevant for evangelicals today for five reasons: 1) it is done in the context of faith and under the assumption that the Bible is God’s revelation; 2) it is grounded upon biblical exegesis; 3) it articulately and charitably interacts with differing views; 4) it delicately balances the history of theology and the contemporary social situation; and 5) it is filled with personal devotion.

John Bolt sees a sort of duality that existed in Bavinck between the “academic theologian” on the one hand and the “churchly dogmatician” on the other. His academic tendencies led to him engage modern culture and science, and his churchly concerns drove him to strive for unity in the fragmented Reformed Church in the Netherlands. As Bolt puts it, “Bavinck’s life and thought reflect a serious effort to be pious, orthodox, and thoroughly contemporary.” While certainly not as prestigious as figures like Augustine, Calvin, and Luther, the work of Herman Bavinck is worth the attention of those exploring the Reformed tradition.

 

Bavinck’s Major Writings  

Louis Berkhof: Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age

Louis Berkhof: Pillar of Faith in an Innovative Age

Not all theologians are innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary. Some just faithfully serve God. Some just love the church. And some just teach theology to eager students. Louis Berkhof—not innovative, groundbreaking, or revolutionary—did all three. Yet, as Henry Zwaanstra writes, “No theologian or churchman has made a greater impact on the Christian Reformed Church than Professor Berkhof.” Because of this, the life and work of Louis Berkhof deserves attention.

 

Berkhof’s Background

Louis Berkhof was born in Emmen, in the Netherlands, in 1873. His parents, Jan and Gessje, were members of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination that came into existence out of a split from the Netherlands Reformed Church in 1834. In 1882, the Berkhof family emigrated to Grand Rapids, Michigan, when Louis was 8 years old.

While a teenager, Louis was the secretary of the Reformed Young Men’s Society in Grand Rapids, an organization whose purpose was “to study Reformed doctrine and the principles of Calvinism for all areas of human life.” Through Berkhof’s influence in this local society, it was organized on a denominational scale and became known as the American Federation of Reformed Young Men’s Societies.

Berkhof professed faith in Christ in 1893. This same year, at age 19, he enrolled in the Theological School of the Christian Reformed Church, which included a four-year literary course of study and a three-year theological course. The literary program was expanded into Calvin College, and the theological department became Calvin Theological Seminary. There Berkhof studied dogmatics with Hendericus Beuker, an admirer of the work of Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck.

In 1900, Berkhof was ordained in the Christian Reformed Church in Allendale, Michigan, and he served there until 1902. After the Christian Reformed Church Synod chose to appoint a student with a PhD instead of Berkhof to the chair in exegetical theology, he decided to pursue more formal education. So he went to Princeton and studied under Benjamin Warfield and Geerhardus Vos from 1902 to 1904.

In 1904, Berkhof became the pastor of Oakdale Park Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. While pastoring this church he took correspondence courses in philosophy from the University of Chicago.

In 1906, Berkhof was appointed to the chair of exegetical theology at Calvin Seminary. From 1906 to 1914, Berkhof taught all of the Old and New Testament courses at Calvin. However, in 1914 the OT and NT departments were divided, which allowed Berkhof more time to research and write. In 1924, he was given the opportunity to take a position as a professor of dogmatics, which paved the way for the writing of his Systematic Theology.

First offered the presidency of Calvin College in 1919, Berkhof declined and later became the president of Calvin Theological Seminary in 1931.

After 38 years of being a professor, Berkhof retired in 1944. He continued to write articles for church periodicals until his death on May 18, 1957.

 

Berkhof’s Contributions to Theology 

While Berkhof was a gifted public speaker, professor, and pastor, his greatest influence and most enduring contribution was in his writings. While his theological works are the most widely known, he also wrote books addressing social issues, modern trends of thought, and Christian education, evangelism, missions, and life. Throughout the course of his career he wrote twenty-two books on a variety of subjects.

Berkhof was convinced that the church had a role to play in social reform and ought not to be separatistic toward culture. As Zwaanstra puts it, for Berkhof, “The church was God’s chosen instrument not only to save individuals and to prepare them for eternal life, but also to implement as much as possible the Kingdom of God on earth.”

Most of Berkhof’s theological writings were written for his lectures as a professor. In 1911 he wrote a basic hermeneutics textbook in Dutch, published in English in 1937 as Principles of Biblical Interpretation. During the course of his career, he wrote works on the New Testament, Joshua, biblical archaeology, work and faith, assurance, systematic theology, the history of doctrine, the atonement, liberalism, the kingdom of God, and the second coming of Christ.

Berkhof’s magnum opus was his Systematic Theology, compiled and published as one volume in 1941.

 

Berkhof’s Theological Distinctives

Little of what Berkhof wrote was an innovation of his own thinking. However, he was a master at organizing and explaining Reformed theology, especially in the tradition of Herman Bavinck. As Zwaanstra writes, “Berkhof’s theology was essentially the theology of Herman Bavinck.”

This steadfast adherence to the Reformed tradition flowed out of Berkhof’s belief that it best captured the meaning of Scripture. During his career, Berkhof was thrown into a variety of denominational struggles and issues, such as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. On each of these issues he stood his ground against the popular theological liberalism of the day. Against those in the liberal tradition who questioned the reliability of certain elements of Scripture, Berkhof asserted time and time again the authority and trustworthiness of the Bible.

 

Berkhof’s Legacy

While Berkhof’s theological work is not particularly groundbreaking or original, he faithfully held firm to the teachings of Scripture throughout his entire life and sought to pass on those teachings to those entrusted to him. He wrote much, trained many, and was a faithful servant of God’s kingdom.

 

Berkhof’s Major Writings:

 

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Sun Myung Moon and the Unification Church

Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the religious and political figure who founded the Unification Church, died early Monday in South Korea at the age of 92. His funeral will be held on September 15 after two weeks of mourning.

Unification Church Introduction and History

Commonly known as the Unification Church, the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity (HSA-UWC) was founded by Reverend Sun Myung Moon in South Korea in 1954. Moon was born January 5, 1920, in the small village of Kwangju Sangsa Ri in what is now North Korea. He was raised in the Presbyterian Church after his parents converted to it from Confucianism in 1930.

On Easter morning, at the age of 16, Moon claimed that Jesus visited him and asked him to complete the mission that Jesus had left unfinished on earth because of his untimely crucifixion, namely, establishing God’s kingdom on earth and bringing peace for all humanity. According to Moon, Jesus was unable to fulfill his mission of bringing salvation to the earth, and therefore a new Messiah had to come. Moon accepted this mission from Jesus and began developing his own doctrinal ideas based on Christianity and other religions.

In 1948 the Korean Presbyterian Church excommunicated Moon after deciding that his views were incompatible with orthodox Christianity. In 1954 he officially founded the Unification Church and began seeking converts, one of whom was Young Oon Kim. She became the first HSA-UWC missionary to the United States in 1959 and spent much of her time translating Moon’s major religious work, Divine Principle, into English. Missionary efforts in the United States, however, were rather unsuccessful, and the HSA-UWC had only several thousand members by the early 1970s.

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God.

In the mid-1970s, the HSA-UWC headquarters was moved to New York. Moon had built a multi-million-dollar empire in Korea and Japan through capitalistic efforts and gained notoriety for his support of President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal. The Unification Church was denied tax-exempt status in the United States in 1981 because the court said its purposes were political rather than religious. Shortly thereafter, in 1982, Moon was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to 18 months in U.S. prison.

In 1992, during a time of peace for the HSA-UWC, Moon officially claimed that he was the second coming of Jesus prophesied in the Bible. Moon said about himself, “I am the foremost one in the whole world. Out of all the saints sent by God, I think I am the most successful one. I have talked with many, many Masters, including Jesus, on questions of life and the universe…They have subjected themselves to me in terms of wisdom. After winning the victory, they surrendered.”

According to a recent statement by Unification Church spokesman Ahn Ho-yeul, the Unification Church has 3 million members, 100,000 of them in the United States. Some critics and ex-members, however, think that these numbers are highly inflated.

Unification Church Beliefs and Practices

The beliefs of the Unification Church are based upon Sun Myung Moon’s writings and speeches, which the Church views as divinely inspired and authoritative. The Church says that Moon’s work Divine Principle “is the result of divine inspiration, prayer, and the study of religious scriptures and of life itself.”

Because of Moon’s background in Christianity, many of the themes of the Divine Principle are also present in the Christian faith. For example, the Divine Principle is divided into three parts: God and creation, sin and evil, and redemption.

For the Unification Church, everything in the world, including God, is based upon a dualism: good and evil, male and female, cause and result, physical and spiritual. God’s purpose for creation was for Adam and Eve to achieve the “Three Blessings,” which included becoming perfect (spiritual), having an ideal and sexually pure marriage producing sinless children (spiritual and physical), and exercising dominion over creation (physical). All of these ideals could be achieved through rightly-ordered relationships with God, humans, and nature, and these perfected relationships would result in God’s kingdom coming to earth. However, Adam and Eve failed to achieve these ideals; Satan seduced Eve sexually, which led to the spiritual fall. Because Adam and Eve were ashamed, they had sexual relations to consummate their marriage. But because they participated in these relations before achieving perfection, the physical fall resulted.

Because God is a duality of cause and result, the fall caused God to suffer deeply. Humanity is responsible for fulfilling the three-step process by which the kingdom of God is established on earth. But before the process can be completed, there must be a restoration of the foundations broken by the fall of Adam and Eve. While many of the Old Testament saints (and John the Baptist) restored the spiritual faith that Adam and Eve had lost, they could not renew the obliterated physical role of humanity in God’s purposes. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, restored the spiritual foundation lost by Adam and Eve; however, because he did not marry, he was unable to complete the three-step process and failed to bring about physical salvation. His redemption was incomplete.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun.

Reverend Moon’s view of Jesus is very different from that of Christianity. Moon denied Jesus’ virgin birth, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the deity of Jesus, writing “We must understand that John 8:58 does not signify that Jesus was God himself. Jesus, on earth, was a man no different from us except for the fact that he was without original sin.”

According to Moon, Jesus failed in his mission to accomplish spiritual and physical salvation, he did not come to die on the cross, and his crucifixion was against the will of God. Moon says that Jesus was an imperfect image of God, who with the Holy Spirit brought about spiritual but not physical salvation. When Jesus knew that he would not accomplish his mission, he began to preach about his second coming. Moon says that Jesus’ resurrection was spiritual, not bodily.

Reverend Moon believed that he was the second Messiah who came to bring physical salvation to the earth, thereby completing what Christ had begun. Such salvation could be achieved by following the example of his ideal marriage. Because of this, the Unification Church became well-known for its mass-marriages, in which Moon would bless large gatherings of couples. The followers subsequently believed that their children would be free from original sin and be capable of bringing God’s kingdom to earth.

Because Moon taught that his followers can reach a level of sinless perfection through him, they have no need of turning to Jesus. Forgiveness of sins is not necessary for salvation. In fact, Moon claimed to be greater than Jesus: “The whole world is in my hand, and I will conquer and subjugate the world….Up until now, Jesus has appeared in the spirit world to his followers. From now on, I will appear.”

Moreover, Moon acknowledged that the Unification Church is a different religion from orthodox Christianity. Moon claimed, “Our group is of higher dimension than the established churches and naturally there must come vast difference between what we are and what the Christian people are…The Christianity which God has been fostering for 6,000 years is doomed. Up to the present God has been with Christianity. But in Christianity things are stalemated. God is now throwing Christianity away and is now establishing a new religion, and this new religion is Unification Church.”

A Christian Response to the Unification Church

Clearly, the Unification Church teachings on central doctrines are heretical. Christians believe in the Trinity, affirming the divinity and mission of all three persons of the Triune God.

Christians also believe Jesus is the God-man, who is fully God and fully human, and came to die and rise again for our salvation: The Nicene creed states about Jesus:

I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who, for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again, according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end. 

There are a few elements of Unification Church doctrinal emphasis that can be affirmed by orthodox Christians. For instance their doctrines of sin and salvation embrace both the spiritual and the physical aspects of creation. When Adam and Even fell from grace, it was not just their relationship with God that was tarnished; rather, their sin had drastic effects on the physical creation as well, which now groans in expectation awaiting the ultimate restoration to be brought about by the consummation of Christ’s kingdom (Rom. 8:22).

Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

While much of the Unification Church’s teaching uses the language of Christianity, those familiar with biblical doctrine will see that Moon’s teaching sounds out of tune. First, it fails adequately to account for the redemptive significance of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Though the Unification Church is right to assert that Jesus brought about perfect spiritual salvation through his victory over Satan and in his perfect relationship with God, they fail to recognize that Jesus’ work was a once-for-all sacrifice that achieved physical salvation alongside of spiritual salvation.

Jesus proclaimed good news for the poor and release for the captives (Luke 4:16-21); he built the new temple of God in his own resurrected body, in which believers now worship in Spirit and truth (John 4:21-26). Jesus himself claimed that his work on the cross was a finished one (John 19:30); his dying breath was not a sigh of defeat, but an exclamation of victory. He perfectly achieved the mission for which he was sent.

Second, the Unification Church’s doctrine of humanity is out of sync with the teaching of Scripture. According to their teaching, perfectly sinless children are the product of ideal and sexually pure marriages, but Scripture teaches that all humans have fallen short of God’s glory by participating in Adam’s sin and by continually sinning themselves (Rom. 3:23). Indeed, just as in Adam all have died, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor. 15:22). There are no perfectly righteous people; all human beings after Adam inherit his fallen human nature and are guilty of his sin—children included.

In addition, the Unification Church teaches that sinless children are the only ones who are able to help bring about the physical realm of the kingdom of God. But according to Scripture, the kingdom of God definitively dawned at the long-awaited coming of Jesus Christ. In Mark 1:15, Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is at hand. Through his signs, wonders, miracles, and healings, Jesus showed that God’s kingdom had come upon the earth. Yet, at the same time, the kingdom of God is still a coming reality—it is “already but not yet.” Jesus, who came in humility and weakness in his first coming, will return in power and glory finally to establish God’s reign. The kingdom of God is not a product of human action or achievement, but completely the result of God’s initiative and power.

The orthodox Christian faith does justice to the physical and the spiritual, the already and the not-yet, not by looking for a Messiah to come make it possible for us to finish the job, but by looking to the one true Messiah who finished what we could not finish: the one and only Son of God, Jesus Christ.

A Tale of Two Theologies: The Dutch and Scottish Reformed Traditions

A Tale of Two Theologies: The Dutch and Scottish Reformed Traditions

Have you heard of the “other Reformed theology”? Many in the Reformed resurgence are only familiar with one aspect of the broad historical stream of Reformed theology, and sadly, many of the stereotypes of “Calvinism” exist because John Calvin’s legacy has been unknowingly truncated.

Too often, Reformed theology is defined merely by the so-called five points of Calvinism: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. While this emphasis on how God saves sinners has value, it fails to capture the full breadth of the heritage of Reformed thought.

Emphasis on the five points of Calvinism fails to capture the full breadth of the heritage of Reformed thought.

There are two major streams of Reformed theology that developed out of the work of John Calvin: the Scottish Calvinist stream, and the Dutch Reformed stream. The Scottish tradition has a strong focus on doctrines of salvation and the ordo salutis (order of salvation). But another dimension is found in the Dutch Reformed tradition, which celebrates Reformed doctrines of salvation but also emphasizes worldviews, cultural engagement, and the lordship of Jesus over all aspects of life. Surprisingly, the two streams have interacted relatively rarely. Let’s take a short tour of the Scottish and Dutch Reformed theological traditions.

The Scottish Reformed Tradition

The Scottish branch of the Reformed tradition was immediately born out of the Reformation. In the early days of the Reformation, pastor-theologian John Knox (1514–1572) was a part of a group trying to reform the Scottish church; however, his involvement led to his imprisonment and eventual exile. While in exile, he traveled to John Calvin’s base of operations in Geneva, Switzerland. There, Knox became enamored with the doctrine of predestination and, some argue, more “Calvinist” than Calvin himself. Knox eventually returned and became the leading figure in the founding of the Church of Scotland, which is the origin of Presbyterianism.

Subsequent generations within the Scottish Reformed theological tradition (including English Puritans such as Richard Baxter and John Owen) gained a reputation for being pervasively gloomy preachers of hell, for exercising harsh church discipline while delving into the private lives of church members (i.e., of “moral tyranny”), and for suppressing the arts.American theologians such as the great Jonathan Edwards were also influenced by Scottish Reformed theology and philosophy and inherited some of these same critiques. While there is likely a bit of truth in each of the common criticisms, such practices arose out of unique cultural situations and should not be the only measures by which Scottish Reformed theology is judged.

The Reformed doctrine of the Scots was never separated from practical living.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, the topics of predestination, election, reprobation, the extent of the atonement, and the perseverance of the saints gained the attention of the Scottish peasants. While the peasants’ concerns for these doctrines arose because of their leaders’ focus on them, the doctrines of Calvinist soteriology addressed practical and existential needs that church members faced.

While it is true that Scottish Reformed theology drifted into some heavier-handed forms of Calvinism, its original confession (the Scots Confession of 1560) upheld the missional nature of the church and the evangelistic focus of theology. The Reformed doctrine of the Scots was never separated from practical living. The Scots looked to the Westminster Confession of Faith as their doctrinal standard (underneath Scripture) and sought to implement those great theological truths into their everyday lives.

The Dutch Reformed Tradition

Calvinism arrived in the Netherlands in the third wave of the Reformation in the 1560s. Dutch Calvinism contributed some of the most important early Reformed creeds and confessions: the Belgic Confession of 1561 gave original definition to the Dutch Reformed Church, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 served as a bridge fostering unity between the Dutch and German Reformed, and the Canons of Dort in 1619 served as a Reformed ecumenical council.

Kuyper urged Christians not to dismiss certain fields of culture and society as ‘worldly.’

Over time the Dutch Reformed Church drifted into theological liberalism. Then, in the late 19th century, the work of neo-Calvinists such as Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof awoke the Dutch church from slumber and shaped what is now known as the Dutch Reformed school of theology (stay tuned for more posts on each of these figures).

While Dutch Reformed thought has much in common with the broader Reformed tradition, several features set it apart. Some of the best summaries of Dutch Reformed thought are captured in Douglas Wilson’s phrase, “All of Christ for all of life,” and in the famous words of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”

Christians are to experience the grace of God in all aspects of life.

Kuyper argued for the lordship of Christ over all of life and urged Christians not to dismiss certain fields of culture and society as “worldly.” He believed that God had established structures of authority in different spheres of creation, and recognizing the boundaries between these spheres helped maintain and balance justice and order in society.

According to Kuyper, God’s rule on earth is brought about through the faithful cultural presence of his church. This belief led the Dutch theologians to emphasize cultural action on the part of Christians. Kuyper wanted Christians to understand that each worldview has its own unique philosophical assumptions, and that the Christian faith has assumptions that shape the way believers should act in every area of life. As a result of God’s absolute sovereignty, Christians are to experience the grace of God in all aspects of life, not just in church activities and worship services.

The high point of Dutch Reformed theology is arguably Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (full disclosure: I first came to Reformed theology through reading Berkhof when I was 17).

Dutch Reformed theology shared important essentials with the Old Princeton school of theology (from the Scottish Calvinist tradition) in the United States, but they differed significantly in some areas. The Dutch held to the belief that people have no religiously neutral, “objective” rational faculty. This meant there was no common ground, necessarily, shared between believers and nonbelievers. The world could contain numerous coherent worldviews, and this made apologetics more a clash of worldviews than a debate over evidence.

While the (Scottish stream) Princetonians emphasized a doctrine of Scripture that focused on inerrancy and propositional truth, the Dutch Reformed stressed the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit’s witness to validate Scripture’s trustworthiness.

Complementary, Not Contradictory

It may seem like the Scottish and Dutch streams of the Reformed church are miles apart in their emphases, but it is important to see that the cultural situations in which each of the traditions developed were significantly different. The Dutch theologians were facing a church giving in to modernist theological liberalism in the 19th century and trying to find a cultural home for themselves in their new settlements in the United States. As such, their emphases on the supreme reign of Christ over the ideologies of the day and their careful conception of culture are to be expected. In a way, Dutch Reformed theology was a specific application of the broad principles of the Reformation.

The Scottish and the Dutch Reformed theologians were focused on making disciples.

The focus of the Scots was more on the primary doctrines of the Reformation than on their specific application to new cultural situations. Moreover, the Scottish Reformed focused on taking the initial Reformation to the surrounding regions, which explains their emphasis on missions.

The Scottish and Dutch Reformed churches are not as far apart as it may first appear. They shared the same basic Reformed doctrines, though they emphasized different aspects. Nevertheless, even in these different points of focus, both the Scottish and the Dutch Reformed theologians were focused on making disciples and bringing the gospel to bear on the world around them. Both traditions are examples for the Reformed movement today.

Scripture Is True: Machen On The Bible

Scripture Is True: Machen On The Bible

This is the fourth installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. This post covers Chapter 4, which contrasts the view of Scripture in Christianity and liberalism.

DO YOU CONSIDER THE CROSS CRUCIAL?

The Christian view of the Bible is that it is the revelation of God that shows how unholy, sinful people are brought into relationship with a holy God. The New Testament recounts the historical events and the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; the Old Testament foreshadows and predicts it. This unique, earth-shattering event is what makes Christianity Christian. But, as J. Gresham Machen argues, this unique historical basis of Christianity is rejected by modern naturalistic liberalism.

Liberalism is suspiciously critical of the past. Instead, it tries to create a salvation independent of history, such that it can be captured in present human experience alone.

Christian salvation is not a human religious experience disconnected from the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The truthfulness of Christianity is not confirmed by a person’s experience of this event. As Machen puts it:

Salvation then, according to the Bible, is not something that was discovered, but something that happened. . . . All the ideas of Christianity might be discovered in some other religion, yet there would be in that other religion no Christianity. For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event. (p. 60)

DO YOU BELIEVE THE BIBLE?

The authority of the Bible is questioned by modern liberalism, which views the truthfulness of the Scriptures as unimportant and ridicules the plenary inspiration of Scripture. According to liberalism, the Bible contains as much (or more) error as any other book, and the idea that the Holy Spirit would enable the authors of the Bible to write Scripture is seen as foolishness.

Liberalism caricatures the doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration as though it meant that the Holy Spirit dictated to the writers of Scripture and they just robotically scribbled. Machen corrects this caricature: each writer wrote as an individual, gathering information as any writer would and writing in a unique, individual style. The Holy Spirit didn’t turn them into a kind of mechanical Bible printing press, but directed them as they wrote and kept them from error.

Machen draws a distinction between 1) those Christians who believe that the Bible does contain error but is right in its overall message and who have trusted Jesus as their atoning sacrifice for sin, and 2) those within liberalism who have denied outright the central message of the Bible and supernatural act of God in human history.

It is no wonder, then, that liberalism is totally different from Christianity, for the foundation is different. Christianity is founded upon the Bible. It bases upon the Bible both its thinking and its life. Liberalism on the other hand is founded upon the shifting emotions of sinful men. (p. 67)

IS JESUS THE AUTHORITY IN YOUR LIFE?

What is important to the modern liberal is not the authority of the Bible, but the authority of Jesus. They claim that Jesus would disagree with antiquated views of the Old Testament and the fiery rhetoric of Paul. Machen points out the problem with this view: in the search for the “historical Jesus,” biblical criticism gets to pick and choose the parts of Jesus’ life and sayings that accord with the critic’s preconceived naturalistic notions.

The authority for a theological liberal does not reside in Jesus and God’s revelation through Scripture, but in individual experience, which Machen describes above as “the shifting emotions of sinful men.” Their authority is themselves or their experience—not Christ or Scripture.

Unlike liberalism, Christianity lives under the authority of the Word of God, an authority that does not enslave us, but frees us to have true knowledge of God and his world.

Next up, we look at the modernist liberal version of Jesus and how it differs from the real Jesus.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

We Are Not God: Machen On Humanity

We Are Not God: Machen On Humanity

This is the third installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. He argues that liberalism is actually a completely separate religion from Christianity, and shows how the two differed on doctrine, God and humanity, the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church. 

This post covers Chapter 3, which explains how liberalism diverges from Christianity in its view of God and humanity.

Christianity and theological liberalism disagree radically in their understanding of the knowledge of God and of humanity. Christian liberalism asserts a kind of knowledge of God that is rooted in the human feeling of the presence of God, while Christianity asserts that human feeling depends upon the prior knowledge of God.

Jesus Is Personal

Liberal religion sees Jesus as the highest example of a person who exhibited constant God-consciousness and had a truly practical knowledge of the divine. But Jesus claimed to be in an intimate personal relationship with his Father, the living God—not just conscious of a sense of deity within all of us. Jesus believed in a personal God, and there is no true Christianity apart from, as Machen writes, “the belief in the real existence of a personal God.”

Certainly it does make the greatest possible difference what we think about God; the knowledge of God is the very basis of religion. (p. 55)

Liberal religion struggles with the reality of a personal God, but talks a lot about “the universal fatherhood of God.” The Bible does teach that, as Creator, God is in a sense the Father of all. But the main message of the Bible is that God is only in a personal relationship as Father with those whom he has redeemed from sin.

God the Father, Not Jesus the Father

Though liberalism appeals to Jesus as the source of the doctrine of the universal fatherhood of God, this doctrine is not ever found in Jesus’ teachings. In fact one particular passage reveals that Jesus believed God cared for all, but that he was not Father to all (Matt. 5:44–45). The good news that Jesus gave to a world full of sinful enemies of God was that those who trust him could then be called sons of God and relate to God as Abba Father.

The problems with theological liberalism go even further. It removes the Creator-creature distinction and the reality of a transcendent God. In liberalism, there is no major distinction between God and humanity. Instead of a distinction, there is a pantheistic idea of the entire world and humanity as one with God.

Essential Goodness vs. Sinful Nature

In addition, liberalism does not hold to the doctrine of the sinfulness of humanity and has retreated to a pagan understanding of humankind as essentially good. Machen explains, “Paganism is optimistic with regard to unaided human nature, whereas Christianity is the religion of the broken heart.”

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. (pp. 65–66)

This Is a Greater Humanism

This is the amazing message of Christianity: we are deeply broken, but God’s grace is deeper still and he has rescued us from our sinful brokenness through faith in the person and work of Jesus. Because of the grace of God, we can own up to our sin, be completely forgiven, be declared righteous, and live in freedom and joy. This is a greater humanism than what paganism offers, as it is “founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.”

Liberalism offers a Jesus that inherently good people should consider imitating, while Christianity proclaims the perfectly righteous Christ, who died in the place of sinful people worthy of condemnation and declares them righteous.

Next up, we’ll see how Machen explained how Christianity and liberalism have completely different approaches to the Bible.

Can’t wait? Read the book for free online or listen to it as a free audiobook.

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Five Solas of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century changed Christianity forever. Roused to action by the corruption and abuses they saw in the Roman Catholic church of the time, visionary pastors and leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin spearheaded a movement that transformed Christianity and eventually led to the emergence of the Protestant denominations that exist today.

The Reformers were guided by the conviction that the church of their day had drifted away from the essential, original teachings of Christianity, especially in regard to what it was teaching about salvation—how people can be forgiven of sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and receive eternal life with God. The Reformation sought to re-orient Christianity on the original message of Jesus and the early church.

The Five Solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Reformation to summarize the Reformers’ theological convictions about the essentials of Christianity.

The Five Solas are:

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Let’s have a brief look at each of these five statements.

SOLA SCRIPTURA

The Scriptures are our ultimate and trustworthy authority for faith and practice. This doesn’t mean that the Bible is the only place where truth is found, but it does mean that everything else we learn about God and his world, and all other authorities, should be interpreted in light of Scripture. The Bible gives us everything we need for our theology.

Every word of the 66 books of the Bible is inspired by God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us to understand and obey Scripture.

When rightly interpreted, the Bible is about Jesus Christ and his role as God and Savior. Additionally, Scripture is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness.

SOLA FIDE AND SOLA GRATIA 

We are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit alone. We are not saved by our merits or declared righteous by our good works. God grants salvation not because of the good things we do, and despite our sin.

As humans, we inherited (from our ancestor Adam) a nature that is enslaved to sin. Because of our nature, we are naturally enemies of God and lovers of evil. We need to be made alive (regenerated) so that we can even have faith in Christ. God graciously chooses to give us new hearts so that we trust in Christ and are saved through faith alone.

God graciously preserves us and keeps us. When we are faithless toward him, he is still faithful.

We can only stand before God by his grace as he mercifully attributes to us the righteousness of Jesus Christ and attributes to him the consequences of our sins. Jesus’ life of perfect righteousness is counted as ours, and our records of sin and failure were counted to Jesus when he died on the cross.

Sola fide and sola gratia express the teaching of Ephesians 2:8-10:

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

SOLUS CHRISTUS

God has given the ultimate revelation of himself to us by sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Only through God’s gracious self-revelation in Jesus do we come to a saving and transforming knowledge of God.

Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and humanity. Because God is holy and all humans are sinful and sinners, we need a Savior who mediates between us and God. Neither religious rituals nor good works mediate between us and God. There is no other name by which a person can be saved other than the name of Jesus. Jesus intercedes on our behalf, and his sacrificial death alone can atone for sin.

 

SOLI DEO GLORIA

Glory belongs to God alone. God’s glory is the central motivation for salvation, not improving the lives of people—though that is a wonderful by product. God is not a means to an end—he is the means and the end.

The goal of all of life is to give glory to God alone: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). As The Westminster Catechism says, the chief purpose of human life is “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

This was originally posted at Christianity.com