Theology

Interview with Ashley Null

Interview with Ashley Null

Ashley Null is one of the world’s foremost experts on Thomas Cranmer. He is canon theologian for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Kansas, visiting fellow at Cambridge, visiting research fellow at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview him.

 

What are you currently working on?

I am preparing a critical edition of Cranmer’s private theological notebooks for Oxford University Press—a five-volume project. The first volume, The Efficacious Word of God, should be available in print this time next year.

 

What can you tell us about what you are finding and why this is so important?

As part of this project, I have located Cranmer’s massive research notes on the Eucharist during the time he was preparing the prayer books. They shed much more light on his understanding of the Eucharist, including the importance of Eastern sources in his thought. These papers should forever close the debate on whether Cranmer was a “mere memoralist.” He clearly believed the Eucharist was fundamentally a fresh, supernatural encounter with Christ which promoted sanctification in the believer.

 

How is a better understanding of Cranmer, his influence and his theology, fuel for a more robust focus on evangelism and mission?

Firstly, Cranmer’s commitment to the transforming power of Scripture is the only solid hope any church has for a fruitful mission program. Unless our efforts are built on God’s Word, we have no truth or hope to offer folks. Remembering that this was the foundational truth of our first Anglican formularies can help guide our contemporary sense of what it means to be Episcopalian.

Secondly, Cranmer’s understanding of human nature and the importance of the affections can help us have a much better understanding of those we are trying to reach with the Gospel. According to Cranmer, “what the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.” As shrewd observers of human nature, the Reformers realized that there were forces that drive people, often without them realizing it. Real change can only happen when those sub-conscious needs are addressed, and the greatest need is to be loved. Only when we know we are loved can we gain the power to love others. Until then, all our efforts, whether we be aware of it or not, are directed at making ourselves feel loved. Until then, the role of reason is simply to justify our efforts at self-love, often in the form of self-gratification. Since many people think they have to be good enough first before God can love them, they avoid church, since they fear going there will make them feel unloved. Therefore, any effective evangelistic strategy must begin with proclaiming the unconditional love of God for sinners.

Thirdly, we live in a culture where we are defined by what we do, rather than by whom we are loved. That was the issue that Cranmer faced in his day, and his presentation of the Gospel was tailored to meet that cultural challenge in the light of human nature. We can learn so much from his notion of divine allurement as summarized in the Comfortable Words. Step by step, Cranmer’s gospel sentences begin with felt human needs and gradually lead people to see the glory of God as revealed in his unconditional love for the unworthy in the cross of Christ.

Fourthly, Cranmer was the originator of the Anglican concept of the difference between biblically determined essentials and church-determined non-essentials. In a time when there is so much confusion between these two categories, it is helpful to remember their original meaning in the Anglican context. Cranmer thought Jesus came to proclaim a message that had the power to create a community. How that message was proclaimed would depend on the cultural context of the audience. Just as his gospel of divine allurement was thoroughly biblical but still shaped to address contemporary needs and issues, Cranmer believed that the church in every generation needed to rethink its liturgy and institutional life to make sure it expressed the unchanging Gospel in terms understandable to ever evolving contemporary culture. The great advantage of this understanding of mission is its sensitivity to the great diversity of human flourishing. The church will not be expected to look the same amongst different people groups, although they believe the same truths. Of course, the great danger of this understanding of mission is that cultural accommodation can lead to cultural capitulation, i.e., cultural truths can replace biblical truths in the name of contextualization.

Lastly, we can still learn from Cranmer’s understanding of the relationship between good theology and a great society. According to Cranmer, grace leads to gratitude, gratitude births love, love leads to repentance, repentance produces good works, good works make for a better society. What better mission strategy could a church follow?

 

Books by Ashley

 

Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

Why You Shouldn’t Call That False Teaching a Heresy

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today (October 2016).

A group of bloggers seeking reform in Southern Baptist circles recently decried pastor Rick Warren for teaching that God communicates to believers via dreams. The bloggers named Warren and other speakers at a 2015 Hillsong conference “heretical preachers that claim extra-biblical revelation from God.” To be sure, the nature of God’s revelation has been debated throughout church history, and overemphasis on dream interpretation can be theologically dangerous.

Elsewhere, a UK Christian leader has devoted much of his writing and teaching to criticizing Christian Zionism—the belief that the founding of the State of Israel is foretold in Scripture. He and others have begun calling Zionism and its political implications “heresy” in online columns. And their views are not unique: Many Christians believe that Zionism is a misreading of God’s promises throughout the Old Testament.

But are these problems of heresy? Both complementarian and egalitarian leaders have taken to the Internet to call each other’s views on gender and leadership heresy. That, though their respective movements have officially existed for about 30 years.

Some say the Internet has democratized knowledge. Clearly, it has also democratized theologizing. Anyone with a computer and Wifi access can publish their thoughts and declarations onto a level pixelated playing field. Some blogs and Twitter accounts exist solely to cry foul whenever a well-known preacher makes a controversial statement.

Yet the frequency and volume of the proclamations from these sources—and from those who share and retweet them—suggest that some Christians don’t understand the significance of right doctrine, or the gravity of heresy charges. Worse, these disputes lead some to believe that doctrine isn’t worth the effort, since it seems only to breed division rather than promote Christlikeness.

Given our volatile online atmosphere, Christians in general and evangelicals in particular need a clearer definition of heresy. We need to know how to spot the difference between essential truths of the Christian faith and doctrines over which we can disagree and still remain faithful to Christian teaching. Even with a good definition, doctrinal assessment requires wisdom and discernment. It often involves two different ends: first, avoiding overuse of the heresy charge, which strips the word of its usefulness; and second, correcting Christians with beliefs that are false and that can undermine the integrity of the church.

Why Doctrine Is So Important

We may be tempted to think that since theology so easily divides, we are better off simply agreeing to disagree. After all, Jesus said that if we love God and others, we are fulfilling the law. “Why,” some ask, “does it matter that we believe the right things about God, so long as we love him?”

It is certainly true that loving God and others is at the heart of the gospel. But Jesus calls us to love God with our heart, soul, strength, and mind. Loving God involves thinking rightly about him, just as loving a friend or significant other involves rightly knowing their interests, beliefs, habits, and history.

When the Israelites taught their children about God, they recalled all he had done for them and their forebears. They worshiped the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the One who had delivered them out of Egypt. And they used specific phrases to describe him and what he had done. These specific phrases distinguished the God of the Israelites from the gods of their pagan neighbors.

Orthodox statements about the Trinity and Jesus Christ function similarly. They identify the God we worship and describe his saving relationship to us. Therefore, in order to love God aright, and to be assured of the salvation he offers, we must know who God is and what he has done for us in and through Jesus Christ.

The Bible reserves strong language for false teachers who promote beliefs that undermine or contradict the gospel. Bruce Demarest, a theologian at Denver Seminary, writes that the New Testament “expresses serious concern for ‘false doctrines’ and places the highest priority on maintaining ‘the pattern of sound teaching.’ Scripture urges Christians to be alert to doctrinal deception and to avoid heresy by carefully guarding the pure content of the gospel.” Again, orthodoxy is not just a matter of theological precision. It’s about making sure the church rightly grasps our God and his work for us in Christ.

That’s why Paul wrote so forcefully to the Galatians, “If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (1:9, NIV, used throughout). It’s why Peter warned against “false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves” (2 Pet. 2:1).

It’s also why early Christians wrestled for centuries over the nature and identity of Christ. The church held services and used prayers that worshiped Jesus. But wasn’t he a man in his earthly ministry? If so, did that mean they were practicing idolatry by worshiping a mere man? Or was Jesus in some way divine? Was he divine but only looked human? Or was he human but became divine, for instance, at his baptism? If he wasn’t fully human and fully divine, then could he accomplish salvation for us?

Such were the earliest doctrinal issues to be ironed out, and for very practical reasons: They affected how the church worshiped God and understood salvation. There were also pastoral concerns, to ensure believers living in a pagan world understood what they confessed together as one body. Doctrinal issues may require abstract language to explain, but they are not primarily academic. They have serious implications for how we live and talk about our faith.

A Word Worth Preserving

What is heresy? Literally the word means “choice”—that is, a choice to deviate from traditional teaching in favor of one’s own insights. The word can also mean “school of thought.” That seems to be Paul’s usage in 1 Corinthians 11:19, where he uses the Greek word haireseis (“faction”). Gradually, the term came to mean “party or sect,” and over time it took on negative connotations.

Some today cast the word heretic in a positive light: a courageous rebel who thinks outside the box and stands up to the “institutional” church. To be sure, some whom the church called heretics have turned out to be heroes; think of how the Catholic Church responded to Galileo when he asserted that the Earth revolves around the sun.

Then there is the almost flippant use of the word, as when others use it to refer to anyone who doesn’t agree with their denominational or theological distinctives.

But just because a word is misused doesn’t mean it is no longer helpful.

Traditionally a heretic is someone who has compromised an essential doctrine, usually by oversimplification, and has thus lost sight of who God truly is or what he has done for us. While most heretics throughout history were asking legitimate questions, they weren’t called heretics simply for asking questions. Their answers were the problem, as was their unwillingness to accept clear and detailed correction. In many cases, the heretics went too far, trying to mold the faith into the shape of unbiblical ideas they found appealing, especially those of pagan Greek philosophy. Or they began to emphasize certain ideas in Scripture to the exclusion of others.

In order to use heresy properly, we must understand that not all theological errors are equal or carry the same ramifications.

Our own tradition, Protestantism, has outlined three kinds of doctrinal error: (1) an error that directly contradicts a fundamental belief (heresy proper, like Arianism—keep reading); (2) an error that indirectly contradicts a fundamental belief (e.g., to teach that God causes suffering implies that God is not good); and (3) an error beyond a fundamental article (e.g., teaching that Christians must speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit).

More simply, many Christian theologians distinguish heresy from heterodoxy. Heresy, as historian David Christie-Murray explains, is a belief that denies a doctrine “officially defined” as orthodoxy. Heterodoxy, however, is a Christian belief that diverges from a “commonly accepted teaching.” Heresy denies orthodoxy, while heterodoxy adds a questionable or problematic teaching to orthodoxy.

For example, according to Protestants, the Catholic teaching that Mary was born without original sin and remained a virgin for life is heterodox. It’s not heresy, because Catholics affirm orthodox Christology. But it’s heterodox because we Protestants believe only Jesus—the Word made flesh—was free of original sin, and that Catholic teaching adds something not taught in Scripture. However, Oneness Pentecostalism is an example of heresy, because it rejects historic orthodox Trinitarian theology.

The line between heterodoxy and heresy can be blurry, so we need wisdom, discernment, and humility before labeling a person a heretic. Additionally, we must remember that the sum of what Christians should believe is not identical to the essentials we must believe for salvation. We need to leave room for believers to grow in their understanding of the faith. We believe in justification by faith in Christ, not justification by accuracy of doctrine. No one comes into the family of God ready to pen a book on systematic theology. We are saved by grace, not by intellectual precision.

However, we must also remember that faith is not ignorant or naïve. It is informed, resting on a firm understanding of the Good News. Genuine trust requires a reasonable knowledge of what—and more important, who—is being trusted. And growing in knowledge of biblical truth is a vital component of the Christian life.

What Heresy Looks Like

The apostles were not afraid to denounce heresy. If a teaching or practice threatened the gospel’s integrity, they strongly condemned it—as when Paul denounces Peter and the circumcision party in Galatians 2. Yet heresy charges were not lobbed casually. Nor were they aimed at mere theological imprecision.

For instance, a couple named Priscilla and Aquila pulled aside an intelligent, competent teacher of Scripture named Apollos and “explained to him the way of God more adequately” (Acts 18:26). We don’t read of them calling him at heretic. Rather, we see them lovingly correcting a theological error. They wanted him to know the truth and the joy that accompanied it, not to condemn him or stir division.

The early church combated heresy by reinforcing biblical doctrine with creeds. Arguably, the earliest creeds appear in the Bible. Many scholars believe Paul is reciting a creed when he summarizes the truths “of first importance”: that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the third day, and appeared to the apostles and many others (1 Cor. 15:3–7).

After the apostolic age, the early church possessed what was known as “the rule of faith,” which Bruce Demarest describes as “brief summaries of essential Christian truths.” Some teachers, however, began to lead movements that blatantly opposed the apostles’ teaching, and the church was compelled to articulate more clearly the essentials of Christianity. Core doctrines like the Trinity and the person of Christ were developed through the early church’s struggle against heresy. And the rule of faith birthed more precise statements like the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. Thus, heresies forced Christians to think more precisely and definitively about the truth of the gospel.

Three important heresies stand out.

Marcionism

Marcion was the son of the bishop of Sinope, Pontus (in modern-day Turkey). Around 140, he traveled to Rome, where he was welcomed by the church, but by 144, his views had gotten him into trouble, and he was excommunicated.

Among other troubling beliefs, Marcion taught that the God of the Old Testament was legalistic and wrathful, a fundamentally different being from the gracious and loving God of the New. He rejected the authority of the Old Testament, and also attempted to liberate the church from all law. He believed the only way to do this was to rid Christianity of all traces of Judaism. Marcion ended up creating his own Bible, which included only a shorter and earlier version of the Gospel of Luke and ten epistles of Paul. Marcion also edited these books. For example, he cut all Old Testament citations from Paul’s letters.

The early church concluded that Marcion’s divisions between law and gospel, Old and New Testaments, were foreign to the apostles’ teaching. Second-century theologian and bishop Irenaeus spoke forcefully against Marcion. He wrote that Marcion “mutilated the Gospel according to Luke, removing all the narratives of the Lord’s birth, and also removing much of the teaching of the discourses of the Lord wherein he is most manifestly described as acknowledging the maker of this universe to be his father.”

Sabellianism

During the second and third centuries, Christians struggled to reconcile the oneness of God—“I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:5)—with the three divine names that appear at the end of Matthew: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (28:19).

If there is no God besides the God of Israel, who are the Son and the Holy Spirit? Are they newer gods who had just been revealed? Are they less divine than the Father? A third-century priest named Sabellius concluded that FatherSon, and HolySpirit were labels for the three different ways God had revealed himself.

His views became known as Sabellianism, better known today as Modalism. This heresy teaches that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not distinct persons but simply different modes or forms of God. Sabellians maintained that any Scripture passage suggesting that God is more than one person must be interpreted metaphorically.

But an African theologian named Tertullian argued that a metaphorical interpretation twisted the terms Father and Son, which were revealed to us to convey something real about God. “In order to be a husband, I must have a wife,” Tertullian wrote. “I can never myself be my own wife. In like manner, in order to be a father, I have a son, for I never can be a son to myself; and in order to be a son, I have a father, it being impossible for me ever to be my own father.” Further, he showed that Christ revealed his deity to the apostles by assuming attributes of the God of Israel (when he said, for example, “I am,” in John 8:58, harkening to “I Am Who I Am” in Exodus 3:14), and by calling on God the Father as a distinct witness to his own identity.

Arianism

Theology doesn’t often cause urban uprisings, but it did in Alexandria, Egypt, in 318. That year, people streamed into the streets chanting, “There was a time when the Son was not!” The slogan expressed an idea that had become popular: that Christ was a created being. But that idea was opposed by another group of Christians, led by Bishop Alexander of Alexandria and his protégé, Athanasius. They insisted that Christ is eternally divine along with the Father.

This controversy had political ramifications, and eventually spread through the Roman Empire and threatened to fracture the church. What caused this crisis? The teachings of a Libyan priest in Alexandria named Arius.

Arius wasn’t trying to stir division. He thought that the relationship between the Father and Jesus was simple and needed to be freed from overly complicated explanations. Since the age of the apostles, Jesus had always been considered to be divine in some sense. But his precise relationship to the Father had not been settled on yet.

Arius argued that the Son was created before the rest of creation. As Arius put it, “Before he was begotten or created or appointed or established, he did not exist.” Further, Arius believed, the Son is not of one divine substance with the Father. He is rather of a similar substance (homoiousios in Greek) to the Father. The divine qualities of the Son are derivative—contingent, not essential—and given to the Son by the Father.

Arianism caught the attention of Emperor Constantine. Fearing that the church’s discord might fracture the empire, he called the Council of Nicaea (325), attended by 318 bishops, to resolve the situation. After dramatic debates, the majority stood with Alexander and condemned Arianism. (Only two other men were exiled with Arius. Thus, the outcome was virtually unanimous.) The bishops formulated a summary of the Christian faith that used precise wording to denounce Arianism: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten from the Father, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance [homoousious] with the Father.”

Why the precise wording? Because, as Athanasius argued in On the Incarnation, salvation itself hung in the balance. The Bible’s teaching on Christ’s atonement requires a mediator who is fully God, with the holiness to make a perfect offering for sin, and also fully human, one who truly represents those to be reconciled to God.

As fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus famously put it, “That which was not assumed is not healed, but that which is united to God is saved.” Gregory understood that what we believe about Christ is directly connected to what we believe about salvation.

The orthodox bishops at the council struggled to gain popular approval. In fact, the council caused Arianism to grow more rapidly. It grew so much that Constantine—who was not concerned about fidelity to the strict wording of the Nicene Creed—restored Arius. He required Arius to submit in principle to the Creed. Arius did, but Athanasius, Alexander’s successor, and other bishops believed he was lying.

Athanasius was exiled five times for defending Nicene orthodoxy. In 46 years as bishop, he spent only 17 in Alexandria. But he remained faithful, even though he was up against what seemed like the entire world. Today he is recognized as the foremost defender of Nicene orthodoxy and the most prolific writer of Trinitarian theology in the fourth century.

A few years after Athanasius died, the Cappadocian Fathers—Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus—carried the torch to subdue Arianism and Semi-Arianism at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

How to Identify Heresy

This brief sketch shows that a mature definition of heresy draws on the rich biblical, theological, and historical teachings of Christianity. So we must recognize the various places and levels of theological authority.

Scripture is the highest authority, of course, followed by the great ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene), and then by denominational confessions. Those include Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles, Lutheranism’s Augsburg Confession, the Westminster Confession, and Methodism’s Twenty-Five Articles of Religion. Many evangelical organizations use statements of faith to delineate their theological convictions. Creeds, confessions, and statements of faith can help us understand Scripture, but they should never be placed above Scripture.

That said, the creeds in particular are great summaries of biblical truth and are indispensable for pinpointing heresy. Accepted by Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians, the Nicene Creed—which should be called the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, since later debates led to an expansion of Nicaea’s formula at the Council in Constantinople (381)—wonderfully encapsulates the fundamental teachings of historic Christianity. If a believer genuinely accepts the Nicene Creed, they should not be dubbed a heretic. It’s worth asking: “Can they say the Nicene Creed without crossing their fingers?” If yes, they may still be wrong or heterodox on other matters, but we cannot call them heretics.

The creeds are bare-bones structures, the outlines of the sketch. Confessions and statements of faith color in the picture. They tie theology to everyday life and highlight denominational distinctives—how one Christian tradition differs from another. Confessions and statements of faith often define a particular group’s belief on secondary issues such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, predestination, and the end times. They arise when particular theological issues are debated. For example, many evangelical statements of faith include affirmations of the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture. That’s because evangelicals have wanted to distinguish themselves from liberal Christianity, which often denied these teachings.

Today we rarely confront heresy as such, in part because those who adopt a heretical view frequently leave the church when they do so. But heresy is still alive and well. One practical example: The reason we don’t count Jehovah’s Witnesses as fellow Christians is because they espouse Arianism.

Even though heresy is rare, heterodoxy and false teachings are not.

In a pluralistic world, some sub-Christian or extra-biblical teachings—like the Immaculate Conception, that the only appropriate Bible translation is the King James Version, or that the Jewish laws are mandatory for Christians—find their way into otherwise orthodox churches. Most would not count as heresy, but that does not mean we can ignore them.

That said, we are called to confront with love, just as the early church confronted Apollos, patiently guiding people to a fuller understanding of the faith. Even this calls for discernment, because often we’re not dealing with theological error as much as different interpretations of Scripture. In those cases especially, we should eschew the word heresy. And in all cases, we should recall this saying: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

Pentecost

Pentecost

This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, which is the commemoration and celebration of the receiving of the Holy Spirit by the early church as recorded in Acts 2.

In Acts 2, Jesus’ promise of the Spirit becomes a reality as the Spirit descends on the disciples at Pentecost. The disciples “began to speak in other tongues” (2:4), and devout Jews from many nations were amazed, “because each one was hearing them speak in his own language” (v. 6). God shows that the gospel is breaking through linguistic barriers and going to all nations, and then Peter stands up and, in the first recorded sermon in Acts, explains how Pentecost is the glorious and long-anticipated fulfillment of God’s work of redemption since the beginning. Through Peter’s sermon we see the most prominent theme of Acts: the gospel of Jesus will go out to the nations, through the witness of his disciples and the enabling of the Holy Spirit.

God Initiates

When the celebration of Pentecost comes, Acts 2:1, 5 places 120 of the disciples (1:15) together in Jerusalem. Acts 2:2 then says “and suddenly there came from heaven.” The direction of agency is important. While often in religion humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.

Babel

Since the time of Babel, the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God (Gen. 11:1–9). Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:1–3; Ex. 19:6). The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language. With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language; it is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin. Pentecost is, in a sense, a magnificent reversal of Babel.

The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–13)      

Since the time of Babel (Gen. 11:1–9), the nations of the earth were divided by language, unable to come together as a result of their rebellion against God. Even in God’s redemptive acts of the Old Testament, he singled out the Jewish nation in order to mediate blessing to the nations. The good news of God’s grace was only communicated in the Hebrew language.

With the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the curse of Babel begins to unravel. No longer is the gospel confined to the Hebrew language, but is available directly to all nations and all languages. The restored order of God’s kingdom begins to break into the dark and confused world of sin.

This gives us hope today. The gospel of Jesus Christ triumphs in a world that is still groaning under the curse of sin (Rom. 8:22). One day his reign will be fully realized, and the effects of sin that plague us will fall away completely.

While often in religion humans must first do the equivalent of speaking in other tongues (mysterious incantations, complicated rites, elaborately-altered behavior) in order to lure the gods into visitation, at Pentecost God’s Spirit rushes into the scene of his own accord: the apostles are just waiting. Pentecost illustrates the fact that God is the initiator of our salvation; he comes to us independent of our control.

The experience of the Spirit at Pentecost is a fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist concerning the one—Jesus—who would baptize in the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11, Mark 1:6, Luke 3:16, and John 1:33). This promise is also repeated by Jesus Christ in Acts 1:5. The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost has a specific purpose in redemptive history: to show that God’s salvation is now flowing out to people from every nation, tribe, and language. This is repeated in the three outpourings of the Spirit that follow in Acts 8, 10–11, and 19.

Pentecost is a climactic event in salvation history for the whole Church. Luke’s focus in Acts 2 is on the fulfillment of prophecy, not on paradigms for personal experience. Luke is introducing the expanding gospel ministry of the Holy Spirit as the gospel is beginning to spread.

The story in Acts is also our story, because we are participating in God’s story. The descent of the Spirit on these apostles who looked like crazy drunk men is really our birth story, for those in Christ. While we think of our lives in terms of our own births, upbringing, education, families, line of work, and so on, there is another story that has been happening parallel to these things, actually it has weaved its way through these things. And it begins here with the descent of the Holy Spirit who fills these believers. If this had never happened, if God had not looked on Christ’s work on the cross and said, “It is good,” then raised him from the dead and set him at his right side, pouring out his Spirit on his people to take the message of his gospel of grace to the nations, we would still be in our sins. We would still be lost and without hope.

Peter’s Sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14–41)

Peter begins his famous Pentecost sermon with an extensive reference to the Old Testament, a citation from the prophet Joel, who predicted that God’s Spirit would be poured out in the last days, the days before the final judgment (the “day of the Lord”). According to Peter, the last days have begun. This “new religion” is actually the continuation of what God has been doing through Israel all along. Better yet, this God made promises years ago that these “last days” would come, and at Pentecost God is demonstrating that he is faithful and powerful to keep his promises. As he promised, God is pouring out his Spirit on all flesh—men and women, young and old, Jew and Gentile. God is mercifully and joyfully calling all people to salvation.

In Peter’s first sermon, the essence of gospel proclamation is clear: “Jesus is Lord” (v. 36). This simple statement poses a fundamental challenge both to the Jews (with their strict monotheism) and to the Romans (with their religious-political system founded on the supremacy of Caesar as Lord). The resurrection is also one of the core elements throughout the gospel presentations in the book of Acts. After setting current events in redemptive history, here Peter quotes from the Psalms to show that the resurrection (Ps 16:8–11) was God’s intention along. The crucifixion of Christ was part of God’s plan, and he followed it by raising Jesus from the dead. Peter shows that this is all promised in Scripture. God’s grace breaks through the walls of the worst of human rebellion.

Just as Jesus promised that the gospel would spread to the end of the earth, Peter proclaims that “the promise is … for all who are far off”. The gospel is not confined by geographical boundaries, but is universal in scope. But “far off” is not just geographical: by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has reconciled to himself all of us who were formerly “far off” from God and one another. No one is so far removed that God cannot redeem them.

The Fellowship of the Believers (Acts 2:42–47)

The Holy Spirit brings forth a devotion to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, community, and prayer. Notice also the unity of mind and heart of these first believers. When God is present by his Spirit, unity happens. This shows us what the Holy Spirit does when he works in us individually and collectively. He brings forth love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5:22–23).

The Spirit’s ministry also brings forth conversions and numerical growth to the church, as we see that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). The Spirit produces not only inward spiritual growth, but also expansion and growth of the church. Gospel-fueled, Spirit-empowered growth is a repeated theme that runs throughout the rest of Acts, as we see that “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:14) and “the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (Acts 16:5; see also Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 13:49; 19:20). The Spirit continues to testify through the church to the grace of God in Jesus, bringing about growth in love and in numbers. The grace of God is fruitful and effective, and we see God taking the initiative to spread his grace to ever-expanding numbers of people.

 

This post is adapted from my book, Acts: A 12-Week Study, and my notes on Acts in the Gospel Transformation Bible.

Trinity Sunday: Objects & Agents of Grace

Trinity Sunday: Objects & Agents of Grace

This posts adapted from my sermon on Trinity Sunday (June 15, 2014) at The Cathedral Church of Saint Luke.

Trinity Sunday

Trinity Sunday is one of the principal feast days in The Episcopal Church: Easter Day, Ascension Day, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, All Saints’ Day, Christmas Day, and the Epiphany. Most feast days are about events connected to God’s redemptive plan (birth of Christ, Magi worship Jesus, crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus Ascension, outpouring of the Holy Spirit). But today is about God specifically.

Rusty Old Switch

Let me tell you a story as an angle in to what we will focus on this morning. Just bought a house and moved in the past few days. Under the break box is a rusty smaller box that looks like a timer or switch or something. I fiddled with it a few days ago, flipping it on and off to find out what it did. It seemed to be a useless old fixture.

The next day as we were moving some things in I noticed that a few things weren’t working. First, I couldn’t get the sprinklers to come on and then the garage door wouldn’t work and then the pool started turning green because the pool filter hadn’t bee running.

I called the couple we bought the house from. They explained that I must have turned off the switch for all these things I needed. That rusty old switch gave power to all these very important functions I needed, especially the pool filter. I had my two little girls coming over the next day and they were excited about the pool. I couldn’t have them swimming in algae.

I now know the significance of that rusty old switch and now I check it all the time. If something goes wrong, I run over to see if it’s related to the switch.

That’s kind of like the doctrine of the Trinity for us. It can be something we take for granted or even dismiss as “rusty” or “old” or “not useful,” but the reality is that the Trinity is the heart of what that we celebrate every Sunday and all the benefits of being adopted into God’s family. That’s why it is the topic of Article 1 of the 39 Articles.

Importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity

What is the Trinity and why is the doctrine important? God is one. God has one mind, one plan, one will, one nature, one essence, one Being. God is one and eternally exists as three persons: Father, Son, and HS. That is the Xn teaching on the nature of God. That is what “trinity” means. It is “tri” “unity”. This is what Tertullian was communicating when he created the word “Trinity”, which isn’t in the Bible but the teaching sure is. He was saying there is tri-unity: which is that God is one but three persons and three persons working together with one will, one nature, one mind. These three persons are completely equal in attributes, each with the same divine nature. While each person is fully and completely God, the persons are not identical.

Within God there is both unity and diversity: unity without uniformity, and diversity without division.  The Athanasian Creed (circa. ad 500) says it like this: “We worship one God in the Trinity and the Trinity in unity; we distinguish among the persons, but we do not divide the substance. … The entire three persons are co-eternal and co-equal with one another, so that … we worship complete unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.”

Our focus on Trinity is not just talking about the metaphysical, eternal understanding of the nature of God. But the Bible also talks about what the Trinity means for us and how we encounter God. Let’s look at two of these.

We are objects of grace and agents of grace. The order matters too. We are first object and then agents. Being an agent doesn’t make you an object.

Objects of Grace

First, we are OBJECTS of the Trinity’s grace The doctrine of the Trinity is most fully realized in the NT where the Father, Son, and Spirit are seen accomplishing redemption. We see this clearly in 1 Peter 1:2: “To those who are elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, and for obedience to Jesus Christ for sprinkling his blood.” Our salvation is triune in the sense that the Father plans redemption of the world, the Son accomplishes redemption by his life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and the Holy Spirit applies redemption to us in our hearts and lives.

We worship not only the complete unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, but we worship because the Triune God was fully active in our rescue and redemption. Redemption of sinful humans is accomplished through the distinct and unified activity of each person of the Godhead. Listen to Heb 9:14: “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Or  2 Cor 13: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”

This is “grace upon grace.” This is the unconditional overwhelming love of God.

My father taught me the word “unconditional.” I remember him saying, “I love you unconditionally.” I thought he was taking about Air Conditioning. Since we lived in FL, I knew AC was important and figured it as a good thing. But I finally asked what “unconditional” meant. He explained that there was nothing I could do for him to love me any more and nothing I could do for him to love me less…ever.

That’s when I learned that love begets love. You go where you are loved. I was compelled to be around him lots and to obey him. His love for me motivated my loyalty and love for him.

And this applies to us as we relate to God. We are objects of grace and we get to be and are called to be agents of the Trinity’s grace

Agents of Grace

This is what our Gospel reading is about: “Jesus came and said to them, ‘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’.”

This is the Great Commission to Jesus’ disciples and also a picture of our participation. We get to be agents of the very thing we desperately needed. That’s a high calling. It’s a renewal of the original calling in the Garden of Eden to “multiply and have dominion” except now it is both physical and spiritual.

But notice that the commands to do those three things are in between two promises: Jesus has authority and Jesus is with you. You need to know both of these. These promises give us hope and expectation: “I have authority over everywhere, so go everywhere because it’s mine.” We should expect God to act and that our endeavors to be fruitful.

In addition to having authority, he is with you for solace and strength, for pardon and renewal. He is with you always and forever, no matter what. This is covenantal faithfulness and presence.

Prayer

On this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate that we who were once enemies of God are now reconciled and objects of his grace…but on top of that we even are commissioned to also be agents of that grace to the world.

Let us pray: “Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth: set up your kingdom in our midst. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God: Have mercy on us, sinners. Holy Spirit, breath of the living God: Renew us and all the world. Amen.”

 

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Ninety-Five Theses (Free Bonus Chapter)

Want a free bonus chapter from my book Know the Creeds and Councils? At the bottom of this post, there is link to download a PDF of a chapter on Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses that includes discussion questions and further reading.

Historical Background

If people know only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, it is the famous event when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Chapel in protest against the Catholic Church. Within a few years of this event, the church had splintered into not just the church’s camp or Luther’s camp but also the camps of churches led by theologians of all different stripes.

Luther is known mostly for his teachings about scripture and justification. Regarding scripture, Luther argued that scripture alone (sola scriptura) is our ultimate authority for faith and practice. About justification, Luther taught that we are saved solely through faith in Jesus Christ because of God’s grace and Christ’s merit. We are neither saved by our merits nor declared righteous by our good works. Additionally, we need to fully trust in God to save us from our sins, rather than partly relying on our own self-improvement. 

Indulgences

These teachings were radical departures from the Catholic orthodoxy of Luther’s day. But you might be surprised to learn that the Ninety-Five Theses, even though it was the document that sparked the Reformation, was not about these issues. Instead, Luther objected to the fact that the Catholic Church was offering to sell certificates of forgiveness, and that by doing so, it was substituting a false hope—that forgiveness can be earned or purchased—for the true hope of the gospel—that we receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace.

The Roman Catholic Church claimed that it had been placed in charge of a “treasury of merits” of all of the good deeds that saints had done (not to mention the deeds of Christ, who made the treasury infinitely deep). For those who were trapped by their own sinfulness, the church could write a certificate transferring some of the merits of the saints to the sinner. The catch? These “indulgences” had a price tag.

This much needs to be understood to make sense of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: the selling of indulgences for full remission of sins intersected perfectly with the intense struggle Martin Luther had experienced regarding salvation and assurance for many years. And it is at this point of collision between one man’s hope in the gospel and the Catholic Church’s denial of that hope that the Ninety-Five Theses can be properly understood.

Content of the Ninety-Five Theses

Luther’s official response to indulgences came in the form of an academic document that he addressed to the local archbishop, who happened to be the same Albert of Mainz who had authorized the campaign. Significantly, Luther penned his grievance—titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but known to posterity as the Ninety-Five Theses—in Latin rather than in the common vernacular. That fact combined with the intended audience and the largely academic tone of the writing indicates that Luther did not write his document for mass consumption. Rather, he intended it to spark a scholarly debate. Regardless, the document was translated into the common Germanic language of Saxony and was reportedly posted on the door of the Schlosskirche (the Castle Church of Wittenberg) on October 31, 1517.

Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses focuses on three main issues: selling forgiveness (via indulgences) to build a cathedral, the pope’s claimed power to distribute forgiveness, and the damage indulgences caused to grieving sinners. That his concern was pastoral (rather than trying to push a private agenda) is apparent from the document. He did not believe (at this point) that indulgences were altogether a bad idea; rather, he believed that they were misleading Christians regarding their spiritual state:

 41. Papal indulgences must be preached with caution, lest people erroneously think that they are preferable to other good works of love.

 As well as their duty to others:

 43. Christians are to be taught that he who gives to the poor or lends to the needy does a better deed than he who buys indulgences.

 44. Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better. Man does not, however, become better by means of indulgences but is merely freed from penalties. [Notice that Luther is not yet wholly against the theology of indulgences.]

 And even financial well-being:

46. Christians are to be taught that, unless they have more than they need, they must reserve enough for their family needs and by no means squander it on indulgences.

 Luther’s attitude toward the pope in this document is also surprisingly ambivalent. In later years, he called the pope “the Antichrist” and burned his writings, but here his tone is merely cautionary, hoping the pope will come to his senses. For instance, in this passage he appears to be defending the pope against detractors, albeit in a backhanded way:

51. Christians are to be taught that the pope would and should wish to give of his own money, even though he had to sell the basilica of St. Peter, to many of those from whom certain hawkers of indulgences cajole money.

Obviously, since Leo X had begun the indulgences campaign in order to build the basilica, he did not “wish to give of his own money” to Tetzel’s victims. However, Luther phrased his criticism to suggest that the pope might be ignorant of the abuses and at any rate should be given the benefit of the doubt. It provided Leo a graceful exit from the indulgences campaign if he wished to take it.

So what made this document so controversial? Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses hit a nerve in the depths of the authority structure of the medieval church. Luther was calling the pope and those in power to repent—on no authority but the convictions he had gained from Scripture—and urged the leaders of the indulgences movement to direct their gaze to Christ, the only one who is able to pay the penalty due for sin.

Of all the portions of the document, Luther’s closing is perhaps the most memorable for its exhortation to look to Christ rather than to the power of the church:

92. Away, then, with those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “Peace, peace,” where in there is no peace.

93. Hail, hail to all those prophets who say to Christ’s people, “The cross, the cross,” where there is no cross.

94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.

95. And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.

In the years following his initial posting of the Theses, Luther became emboldened in his resolve, strengthening his arguments with Scripture. At the same time, the church became more and more uncomfortable with the radical Luther, and in the following decades, the spark that he made grew into a flame of reformation that spread across Europe. Luther was ordered by the church to recant in 1520 and was eventually exiled in 1521.

Relevance

Although the Ninety-Five Theses does not explicitly lay out a Protestant theology or agenda, it contains the seeds of the most important beliefs of the movement, especially the priority of understanding and applying the gospel. Luther developed his critique of the Catholic Church out of his struggle with doubt and guilt as well as his pastoral concern for his parishioners. Luther longed for the hope and security that only the gospel can bring, and he was frustrated with the structures that were using Christ to take advantage of people and prevent them from union with God. Furthermore, Luther’s focus on the teaching of the Bible is significant, because it provided the foundation upon which the great doctrines of the Reformation found their origin.

Indeed, Luther developed a robust notion of justification by faith and rejected even the notion of purgatory as unbiblical; he argued that indulgences and even hierarchical penance cannot lead to salvation; and perhaps most notable, he rebelled against the authority of the pope. All of these critiques were driven by Luther’s commitment, above all else, to Christ and the Scriptures that testify about him.

The courage and outspokenness that Luther demonstrated in writing and publishing the Ninety-Five Theses also spread to other influential leaders of the young Protestant Reformation.

Today, the Ninety-Five Theses may stand as the most well-known document from the Reformation era. Luther’s courage and his willingness to confront what he deemed to be clear error is just as important today as it was then. One of the greatest ways in which Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses affect us today—in addition to the wonderful inheritance of the five Reformation solas—is that it calls us to thoroughly examine the inherited practices of the church against the standard set forth in the Scriptures. Luther saw an abuse, was not afraid to address it, and was exiled as a result of his faithfulness to the Bible in the midst of harsh opposition.

 

For more on Ninety-Five These, download this free bonus chapter from Justin S. Holcomb, Know the Creeds and Councils (Zondervan, 2014).

Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Why Don’t We See Miracles Like the Apostles Did?

Many contemporary Christians feel disconnected from the vibrant, Spirit-filled ministries of the prophets and apostles described in the Bible. In the Old Testament, God seemingly took the people of Israel through miraculous event after miraculous event. In the New Testament, those who watched the ministry of Jesus were seized with amazement (cf. Luke 5:25) at the miracles he performed, and the apostles in the early church regularly performed signs and wonders among the people (Acts 5:12).

Yet today, such miraculous events seem rare and, when we do hear reports of miracles, many Christians are skeptical. At the very least, Christians feel that there is something different about the way God worked in the Old and New Testament periods and the way he works today. This raises a valid question: Why don’t we experience today the miracles we read about in the New Testament?

To answer that question, we need to understand not only how God works through providence and common grace [link to previous standalone post on miracles and providence], but we must also understand the purpose of miracles in the Bible.

 

The Purpose of Miracles in Scripture

Miracles in Scripture are acts of God that proclaim his sovereign power over creation as well as his commitment to the good of his people. Miracles are often significant because they serve a larger purpose in God’s redemptive plan, giving evidence of the authenticity of God’s messengers who bring his revelation to humanity. This is one of the primary functions of miracles in the Scriptural narratives: “When miracles occur, they give evidence that God is truly at work and so serve to advance the gospel.”[1] Miracles serve as an authentication of God’s message and his messengers.

In the Old Testament, Moses did miracles to attest to his authority as God’s spokesman (Exod. 4:1–9). Similarly, the prophets were given words to speak from God, and in order to verify their authority God granted them the ability to perform miracles (1 Kings 17:17–24, 18:36–39, 2 Kings 1:10).

Whereas “the miracles of the Old Testament age authenticated Moses and the prophets as men of God…the miracles of the New Testament age authenticated in turn Christ and his apostles.”[2] Nicodemus, for example, recognized that God was with Jesus because of the miracles he did (John 3:2). Luke records approximately 20 of Jesus’ miracles and four—all healings—are unique to only Luke. Jesus’ miracles authenticate his authoritative role in the divine plan that brings salvation (Luke 7:22). In fact, the scope of Jesus’ healings shows the breadth of his authority. He heals the sick, casts out evil spirits, and cures a variety of specific conditions: a flow of blood, a withered hand, blindness, deafness, paralysis, epilepsy, leprosy, dropsy, and fever. He resuscitates the dead and exercises power over nature.

Miracles also point to God’s kingdom and the restoration of creation. John calls the miracles of Jesus “signs” (John 4:54, 6:15), and Jesus suggests that his miraculous works verify that the kingdom of God has come (Luke 11:14-23). Jesus performed healings, exorcisms, and “nature” miracles (such as turning water into wine and multiplying food) as a sign that the kingdom of God had come to earth. As Grudem puts it, the one of the purposes of miracles was “to bear witness to the fact that the kingdom of God has come and has begun to expand its beneficial results into people’s lives.”[3] This is exactly the point of what Jesus says in Matthew 12:28: “But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.” Because of Jesus’ miraculous works, those who saw him knew that the God of Israel was once again acting in their midst.

Tim Keller points out that miracles

“lead not simply to cognitive belief, but to worship, to awe and wonder. Jesus’s miracles in particular were never magic tricks, designed only to impress and coerce…Instead, he used miraculous power to heal the sick, feed the hungry, and raise the dead. Why? We modern people think of miracles as the suspension of the natural order, but Jesus meant them to be the restoration of the natural order.”[4]

Jesus’ miracles reveal his divine identity—an identity that calls for worship. This is the response of the disciples after Jesus walks on the water: “Truly you are the Son of God” (Matt. 14:33). When asked whether he was the “one who is to come” (Luke 7:19) Jesus, instead of answering with a word testifying that he is the Messiah, points to his miracles. Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is focused on his authority and the promise he brings. Jesus’ saving work inaugurates the kingdom of God, delivers sinners, secures forgiveness of sin, and provides the Spirit.

Grudem’s description of miracles in the Old and New Testaments is worth quoting:

“It seems to be a characteristic of the New Testament church that miracles occur. In the Old Testament, miracles seemed to occur primarily in connection with one prominent leader at a time, such as Moses or Elijah or Elisha. In the New Testament, there is a sudden and unprecedented increase in the miracles when Jesus begins his ministry (Luke 4:36–37, 40–41). However, contrary to the pattern of the Old Testament, the authority to work miracles and to cast out demons was not confined to Jesus himself, nor did miracles die out when Jesus returned to heaven. Even during his ministry, Jesus gave authority to heal the sick and to cast out demons not only to the Twelve, but also to seventy of his disciples (Luke 10:1, 9, 17–19; cf. Matt. 10:8; Luke 9:49–50).”[5]

The miracles of the early church, then, served an immediately relevant purpose in redemptive history: verifying the authenticity of God’s revelation and signaling the coming of the new eschatological age among God’s people.

Consider the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. One of the largest disputes in the early church concerned whether or not Gentile converts to Christianity had to keep the Old Testament Law and be circumcised. It became such an issue of dispute that Paul, Peter, and Barnabas met with the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to debate the issue. What is interesting is that, as Acts 15:12 says, “all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles.” Here the miraculous works of God served as evidence to the Jewish Christians that God was in fact working in a new and unique way among the Gentiles as well.

 

Miracles Today

How should Christians think about miracles today? First, we must realize that the sheer volume and close proximity of the countless miracles in the Old and New Testaments served significant purposes in God’s redemptive plan at the time. However, this does not mean that God does not still do miracles today. Indeed, as Wayne Grudem notes, “There is nothing inappropriate in seeking miracles for the proper purposes for which they are given by God: to confirm the truthfulness of the gospel message, to bring help to those in need, to remove hindrances to people’s ministries, and to bring glory to God.”[6] Miracles still happen, and Christians should avoid the two extremes of seeing everything as a miracle and seeing nothing as a miracle.

Second, Christians need to expand their understanding of God’s action to include both his providential sustaining in daily affairs and his miraculous works of redemption in the church. For example, in John 14:12, Jesus says “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” But it is not immediately clear what Jesus means when he says that those coming after him will do “greater works.” Some may think that these “greater works” refer to more miracles and other such events. However, D. A. Carson’s insights here are helpful:

Greater works…cannot simply mean more works—i.e. the church will do more things than Jesus did, since it embraces so many people over such a long period of time—since there are perfectly good Greek ways of saying ‘more,’ and since in any case the meaning would then be unbearably trite. Nor can greater works mean ‘more spectacular’ or ‘more supernatural’ works: it is hard to imagine works that are more spectacular or supernatural than the raising of Lazarus from the dead, the multiplication of bread and the turning of water into wine.”[7]

Instead, Carson says that the “greater works” done by those coming after Jesus point primarily to the new eschatological order established by Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.

The ‘signs’ and ‘works’ Jesus performed during his ministry could not fully accomplish their true end until after Jesus had risen from the dead and been exalted. Only at that point could they be seen for what they were. By contrast, the works believers are given to do through the power of the eschatological Spirit, after Jesus’ glorification, will be set in the framework of Jesus’ death and triumph, and will therefore more immediately and truly reveal the Son. Thus greater things is constrained by salvation-historical realities.[8]

And while these works certainly included the signs and wonders done by the early church in the Spirit’s power, they are not limited to those miraculous deeds. Instead, they also included the “mystery” of Gentiles being included into the one new people of God, to which Paul referred in Ephesians and Colossians. God’s miraculous works in the church include the forgiveness of sins and the inclusion of those who were formerly far off into God’s one new people. Healings, signs, and wonders are extraordinary, but no more extraordinary than the redemption accomplished by Christ.

What this means, ultimately, is that just because we do not frequently see any extraordinary miraculous events happening around us, it does not mean that God is inactive. Rather, we should recognize (a) that God is active in the regular (natural) processes we see every day; (b) that God is miraculously calling people to himself as his church grows and expands; and (c) that people are experiencing God work in miraculous supernatural ways in their lives in other parts of the country or world. To miss this is to miss the scope and significance of God’s action described in Scripture.

Whether or not we are privileged to witness obviously miraculous, supernatural events, Christians can be confident that God is actively at work in the world, bringing people to himself, bringing glory to Jesus, and building his church (Matt. 16:18).



[1] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[2] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 412.

[3] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 360.

[4] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, 95–96.

[5] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 359.

[6] Grudem, 371.

[7] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 495.

[8] Carson, John, 496.

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

God & Feminine Language and Imagery

If you read the Bible, it is pretty clear that primarily masculine imagery is found throughout the Old Testament in reference to God (“father,” “warrior,” or “jealous husband,” for example). However as Leonard Swidler points out, we also find feminine language and images applied to God, even if to a lesser degree, as well as applied favorably to virtues such as wisdom.

Seamtress

And Yahweh God made tunics of skins for the man and his wife and clothed them. (Genesis 3:21)

Swidler comments: “Already in the most ancient part of the Bible…one finds Yahweh performing a customarily female task in Hebrew society (cf. Prov 31:10-31): Yahweh God acts as a seamstress.”

Mother and Nurse

Was it I who conceived all this people, was it I who gave them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, like a beloved little mother with a baby at the breast?” (Numbers 11:12)

Swidler comments: “When the Israelites in the desert complained of their problems to Moses, he in turn complained to Yahweh with rhetorical questions that by negative implication project onto Yahweh the images of a mother and a wet nurse.”

 Loving Mother

When Israel was a child I loved him, and I called my son out of Egypt. . . . I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms; yet they have not understood that I was the one looking after them. I led them with reins of kindness, with leading-strings of love. I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him his food. (Hos 11:1, 3, 4)

O Yahweh, . . . I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child on its mother’s lap. (Psalm 131:2)

Yahweh’s Motherly Compassion

Is Ephraim my dear Son? My darling child? For the more I speak of him, the more do I remember him. Therefore, my womb [“heart” ESV] trembles for him; I will truly show motherly-compassion (rachem arachamennu) upon him. (Jeremiah 31:20)

Swidler comments: “In Hebrew, rechem means womb. The plural form, rachaim, extends this concrete meaning to signify compassion, love, mercy. The verb form, rchm, means to show mercy, and the adjective, rachum, means merciful. Thus to speak of compassion or mercy automatically calls forth maternal overtones. This motherly compassion is attributed to God in a number of places.”

God in Birth Pangs

Yahweh God goes forth. . . . “But now, I cry out as a woman in labor, gasping and panting.” (Isaiah 42:13-14)

Israel in the Womb of God the Mother

Listen to me, house of Jacob and all the remnant of the house of Israel who have been borne by me from the belly (beten), carried from the womb (racham), even until old age I am the one, and to gray hairs am I carrying you Since I have made, I will bear, carry and save. (Isaiah 46:3-4)

Nursing Mother

For Zion was saying, “Yahweh has abandoned me, the Lord has forgotten me.” Does a woman forget her baby at the breast, or fail to cherish the son of her womb? Yet even if these forget, I will never forget you. (Isaiah 49:14-15)

 Comforting Mother

For thus says Yahweh: . . . Like a son comforted by his mother, so will I comfort you. (Isaiah 66:12-13)

Midwife

Yet you drew me out of the womb, you entrusted me to my mother’s breasts. (Psalm 22:9)

Swidler comments: “In Ps 22:9, Yahweh is depicted in an intimate female role, that of a midwife.”

Wisdom Personified as a Woman

Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks. (Prov 1:20-21)

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold.  She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her  fast are called blessed. (Prov 3:13-18)

Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud. (Prov 8:1-3)  (Proverbs; Job 28)

In the book of Job, Swidler explains, “the hymn of praise to the feminine Hokmah is continued. She is not subject to the laws of the cosmos but is its mistress. She is inaccessible to humanity, being known only by God. The feminine Hokmah is again both personified and an attribute of God.”

For example, But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its [“her”] worth, and it [“she”] is not found in the land of the living. The deep says, “It [‘She’] is not in me,” and the sea says, “It [‘She’] is not with me.” (Job 28:12-14)

 

I don’t use feminine pronouns to refer to God, but reading these passages make me wonder if I’m being more conservative than the Bible. The main reason I don’t is not because of convictions about gender and roles. It is simply because Jesus didn’t use feminine language or images about God and did use male imagery, specifically “Father.” But as soon as I say that I feel the tension as if I’m pitting Jesus agains the very scriptures that are all about him.

Instead of using feminine pronouns, I prefer to the term “God’s self.” For example, “God reveals God’s self both in Jesus Christ and in the holy scriptures.” I like the awkwardness of using that term.  I  like that “Gods self” doesn’t seem to fit so well in our linguistic constructions. That seems theologically correct to me.

Of course, God being spirit is neither, strictly speaking, male or female in the embodied human sense. This sort of language is used in the Bible in order to better communicate to us in terms we can relate to. Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that Old Testament descriptions of God encompass both the masculine and feminine.

What You Believe Matters

What You Believe Matters

What you believe about God changes everything.

It affects how you love, work, live, marry, parent, evangelize, purchase, and worship. Is God an impersonal blob, distant and disinterested in the world except for figuring out who the good and bad people are? Is “god” a karma vibe making sure everyone gets what they deserve? Is God a myth that weak, stupid, or oppressive people use to console themselves or dominate other people? Is God a cosmic cheerleader who is concerned mainly with helping you achieve immediate happiness and self-actualization? Or is God someone else?

WE BELIEVE…

God reveals himself to sinners and saves them for his glory. Theology is not obscure, abstract theories about the divine. Rather, theology is the study of a personal God and how he relates to his creatures.

Some people think of theology as dry and academic, as opposed to passion and simple heartfelt love for God and people. God is a person, not just a system of ideas. But that is exactly why we should want to learn all there is to know about him and what he has told us. A husband who deeply loves his wife wants to become intimately familiar with who she is, how she thinks, and what she loves, because spouses’ knowledge of each other is an essential part of their relationship. In the same way, our knowledge of who God is, what he has done and said, and what he wants for us is essential for a relationship with him that will affect every part of our lives.

START WITH THE HEART

When God saves us, he makes us new. This means new lives, desires, motivations, thinking, and action. Learning, growing, and training should incorporate all of these. What our heart loves, our minds will ponder and our wills will pursue. Unless training gets to the heart level, it fails. Lots of training is exclusively for either practical training or filling people’s heads with information. But real change begins with our desires, so we concentrate on heart-level issues like worship and idolatry, love and hate, gospel and slavery.

Knowledge and wisdom are essential components to every leader’s training: biblical knowledge, theology, church history, apologetics, ecclesiology, and the like. While knowledge without zeal is abstract, zeal without knowledge is dangerous. What good is passion and knowledge without action? Philippians 2:13 says that God works in us to will and to do his good pleasure. Leaders need to have repentant hearts and solid theology so they can do the work God has called them to. Leaders need to be trained in a way that leads knowledge and passion into effective action.

WE ARE ALL THEOLOGIANS

Whether we’re aware of it or not, we all have ideas about who God is, what he expects, and what our place in the world is. Our theology shapes how we live. For example, the more we understand God’s grace toward us in Christ, the more we are freed and motivated to love God and others out of the abundant grace he’s shown us. Grace motivates.

We are all theologians. The question is, are our thoughts about God true?

 


 

Many Christians don’t know about the history of their faith, but they want to learn more. That is why I wrote these two books: Know the Heretics and Know the Creeds and Councils.

These accessible overviews walk readers through the most important expressions (and denials!) of the Christian tradition–not with dry focus on dates and places, but with an emphasis on the living traditions of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. They are ideal for group uses and study.

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

How Is God Working in the World? Understanding Miracles and Providence

The pages of the Bible are filled with miraculous acts of God, and those who believe in the trustworthiness of Scripture surely believe in miracles. Yet today, when someone claims to have witnessed a miracle, even evangelical Christians tend to chuckle inside, perhaps attributing the “miracle” to an overactive imagination or the advancements of modern science. We are faced with a difficult paradox: on the one hand, we long for miraculous signs and wonders like those in Scripture, but often when we see or hear of events worthy of being called “miraculous” we struggle to overcome our modern skepticism. Has God ceased to work in the world the way he did in biblical times?

In order to answer this question, we need to develop a theology of miracles that will help us rightly understand the way God works in the world today so that we avoid the extremes of making everything a miracle, on the one hand, or allowing nothing to be a miracle, on the other. We need to determine what a miracle is and is not.

Wrong Views of Miracles

Many false views of miracles persist today. For example, some people believe God created the world like a watch that just needed to be wound up, only to be left alone, operating according to a set of natural laws. In this view, God isn’t usually involved in the world, and miracles are those times when he chooses to interrupt the laws of nature. But this view squeezes God out of any ordinary, providential sustainment of the created order. That is, it assumes God doesn’t normally act in creation, which, as we’ll see, is not biblical.

A second wrong view of miracles also tries to squeeze any divine action out of the world, but in a different way. This view suggests that there are really no such things as miracles because, by definition, miracles violate the laws of nature. However, because we don’t have an exhaustive understanding of the laws of nature, how can we be sure any given miracle did in fact violate some such law? Ironically, this position happily admits some things that happen in the world surpass our comprehension—it just attributes those mysteries to science rather than to God.

The opposite of the second perspective is the “God of the gaps” view, which basically attributes anything we don’t presently understand to the miraculous power of God. Rather than explaining an extraordinary event by “mere science,” the “God of the gaps” view explains any gap in scientific knowledge by divine existence or action. But as scientific knowledge grows, and the gaps in our knowledge shrink, so does the God who supposedly filled them.

Yet another wrong view of miracles turns every mundane action of God in the world into an extraordinary miracle. Michael Horton describes this view well in The Christian Faith: “In reaction against naturalism, it is often asserted by Christians that God is in fact involved regularly in the course of their lives in the form ofmiracles. Starved for some practical sense of God’s concern for their daily lives, many Christians flock to groups and individuals promising them a daily encounter with miracles. What is lost in the bargain is a sense of God’s ordinary providence in and through creaturely means and natural processes that he has created and sustains” (page 368).

That is, some Christians are so worried that modern secularism has no place for God that they overcompensate, calling everything extraordinary that happens a miracle. But when everything is a miracle, nothing is a miracle.

Miracles vs. Providence

One of the most basic Christian beliefs is that God—as the creator, sustainer, and redeemer of all life in the universe—acts in, on, and through that which he has created. In one sense, the entire Bible is an account of miracle after miracle—of God’s continual special working in creation to redeem and restore a covenant people for himself. The Westminster Confession states this point succinctly: “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by his most wise and holy providence, according to his infallible foreknowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of his own will, to the praise of the glory of his wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.”

So what is a miracle, and how is a miracle distinguishable from regular divine action? How can we maintain both a robust understanding of general divine providence and special divine intervention in miracles? In order to understand miracles rightly, Christians must account for God’s everyday sustaining providence.

According to Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology, “A miracle is a less common kind of God’s activity in which he arouses people’s awe and wonder and bears witness to himself” (355). Or, as Horton puts it, “Unlike God’s ordinary providence, his miraculous intervention involves a suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes in particular circumstances” (368). Notice both of these definitions of miracles presuppose that God is already involved in creation continually. 

God is involved in the world through more than just miracles; even natural processes can be attributed to divine agency. As Horton observes, “When a burn heals, it is God who heals it through the natural processes with which he has richly endowed and so carefully attends it” (369).

When we understand that God providentially guides and sustains our everyday lives, the distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” fades. Horton explains: “We frequently distinguish natural and supernatural causes, but this too may reflect the false choice of attributing circumstances either to God or to nature. The Scriptures know nothing of a creation or a history that is at a single moment independent of God’s agency. The question is not whetherGod is involved in every aspect of our lives but how God is involved.Therefore, with respect to providence, the question is never whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous” (369, italics original).

“Interventionist” views of divine action see any activity of God as miraculous, diminish God’s providential guidance, and create too strong a dichotomy between God’s agency and creaturely agency. In contrast, a view that sees miracles as a special instance of God’s activity acknowledges that “even in his miraculous activity God usually works through creaturely means, but he sanctifies them for extraordinary service” (368).

To be disappointed at not seeing “Bible-like” miracles in our own lives is to misunderstand the significance of God’s providential care over creation. “Not only when God intervenes extraordinarily, suspending his natural order, but in his design and faithfulness to that order, we have reason to give thanks,” Horton writes. “Not only when one’s cancer mysteriously disappears, but when it is conquered through the countless layers of creaturely mediation, ultimately God is the healer” (369).

Whether we experience God’s power in an obviously miraculous way, such as a healing, or simply through his providential guiding of a surgeon’s hands, God is equally near to us, for “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).