Who is This Babe Lying in a Manger?

Who is this babe lying in a manger? Mark Lowry famously quipped, “Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man? Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand? Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.”[1] Who is this most celebrated baby? Why all the fuss? This child was special in many ways. In fact, the Child is in fact God come to earth. How do we know this and why is this still controversial?

            I have confronted a few people who still hold to the idea that the divinity of Christ was a concept developed by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD.[2] Such an idea is not rooted in history but a false assumption based upon the edict of the Nicene Council in 325 AD to condemn the ideas of Arius and uphold the ideas of Athanasius.[3] Constantine simply ordered that the church solve the Arian controversy as it was causing great ecclesiastical problems which could cause societal fragmentation.

Arius taught that Jesus was merely a human person and the eternal God. His greatest concern “was the premise that God is an undifferentiated whole. On this basis he argued that the Logos or Son is a creature and therefore must have had a beginning.”[4] Thus, Arius held that Jesus held a position higher than humanity, but lower than God the Father.

Athanasius argued that Jesus was fully divine in all aspects. Athanasius stated that “The Word was made man in order that we might be made divine.”[5] By “made divine,” Athanasius was noting the relationship that humanity held with the divine, being elevated to the level of eternity and perfected in God’s sinlessness. Based upon the Scriptures, the Council declared,

But to those who say, Once he was not, or he was not before his generation, or he came to be out of nothing, or who assert that he, the Son of God, is of a different hypostasis or ousia, or that he is a creature, or changeable, or mutable, the Catholic and Apostolic Church anathematizes them.[6]

But what basis did the Council use to uphold Athanasius’ teaching and condemn Arius’? They used the Scriptures and the teachings of the early church. How do we know this Babe lying in a manger was in fact divine?

The Divine Nature of The Babe Lying in a Manger was Prophesied.

            I recently delivered a message on Zechariah 12. I noticed something that stood out to me that had not in my previous readings. The chapter begins with the words “Thus declares the LORD, who stretched out the heavens and founded the earth and formed the spirit of man within him…” (Zechariah 12:1b).[7] Throughout the chapter, first-person language is employed indicating that the speaker is referencing himself. God is the speaker and later says, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). Remember, God is speaking and he uses first-person language. Thus, God is claiming that he would come to earth and would be pierced for the transgressions of mankind. John the apostle understands this prophecy to have been fulfilled in Christ when, after referring to Christ’s crucifixion, he writes, “And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced” (John 19:37). Again in Revelation, this prophecy is referenced when Christ returns, stating, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him. Even so. Amen” (Revelation 1:7). Another element of Jesus’ divine nature is seen in addition to prophecy.

The Divine Nature of the Babe Lying in a Manger was Professed.

Jesus himself understood himself to be divine. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man who had access to the Ancient of Days[8] (see Daniel 7:10) in Mark 8:38. Again, the “I am” of Jesus indicates the knowledge that he was in fact God come in the flesh.[9] Several other passages could be offered, but space does not allow such treatment.

John the apostle clearly understood Jesus to be co-eternal with the Father when he denotes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:1-3). As C. S. Lewis notes,

A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.[10]

Jesus understood himself to be the Son of God as he claimed a divine status. But Jesus not only claimed to be divine, he demonstrated his divine nature in another fashion.

The Divine Nature of the Babe Lying in a Manger was Proven.

One of the coolest things about Jesus is the fact that he did not just say something about himself, he proved it. Jesus would prove his divine nature by the miracles that he performed (e.g., Mark 2:1-12). He proved his divine nature by casting out demons by his mere word (e.g., Luke 8:26-39). He proved his divine nature by performing supernatural works over nature (e.g., Luke 8:22-25). Jesus proved his divine nature by raising the dead (e.g., John 11:38-44). Finally, Jesus’ divine nature was proven by his own resurrection from the dead (Matthew 28; Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; and John 20:1-21:25).

Conclusion

This Christmas, we celebrate a most marvelous birth. It is the birth of Jesus of Nazareth who is the Christ, the Son of Almighty God. How amazing the incarnation truly is! Ponder about the amazing nature of this event. Mary would give birth to the One who gave her life. Mary would bring forth the One who would save her soul. The most powerful Being in all the universe would humble himself to be born in a humble manger.

While we often stress ourselves trying to find the perfect gift for our loved ones, it is helpful to understand that the greatest gift has already been given. The perfect gift was, is, and forever will be Jesus. This Child, as Paul notes,

who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess  that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father” (Philippians 2:6-11).

May we continue to remember, as the cliché goes, that Jesus truly is the reason for this celebratory season.

© December 19, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene, Mary Did You Know, 1991.

[2] Constantine converted to Christianity. After his conversion, Constantine allowed the free exercise of Christian worship in the Roman Empire beginning in the 4th century.

[3] Saint Nicolas is said to have attended this conference. Nicolas is linked with the popular Santa Claus figure. Saint Nicolas was an ardent defender of orthodox Christianity. It is said that Nicolas smacked Arius due to his heretical concepts.

[4] Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Grand Rapids; Cambridge, UK: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1994), 248.

[5] Athanasius, De Incarnatione 54, in Early Christian Fathers, Henry Bettenson, ed. and trans. (New York: Oxford, 1969), 293.

[6] “The Creed of Nicea,” in The Creeds of the Churches, 3rd ed, John H. Leith, ed (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 31.

[7] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007).

[8] That is, God.

[9] See John 4:26; 6:20, 35, 48, 51; 8:12, 18, 24, 28, 58; 9:5; 10:7, 9, 11, 14; 11:25; 13:19; 14:6; 15:1; 18:5-6.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillian, 1943, 1952), 41.

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The Mystery of Christ’s Incarnation

The Gospel of John opens with these words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made…And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14).[1] Incomprehensible! Often at Christmas time, we are lost in the imagery of a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. One may picture angels overhead with Mary and Joseph seated near the Child, surrounding by shepherds, wisemen,[2] and onlooking animals. But does one contemplate the great complexity of it all? John notes that the eternal Word, the Logos,[3] came to earth and became a human being. God became one of us. How does one understand this complex doctrine? Early in Christian history, two schools sought to develop and understanding on how it was that God came to earth. One developed in Alexandria, Egypt, a center of high intellectualism and which housed one of the largest libraries in human history—known as the Alexandrian school. Another developed in Antioch located in Asia Minor (around modern Turkey)—known as the Antiochene school.

The Alexandrian School of Understanding

The Alexandrian school was home to some powerful Christian thinkers including the great apologist Justin Martyr. Athanasius, the man who defeated the ancient Arian heresy,[4] came from this school of thought as well as Cyril of Alexandria and others. The Alexandrian school “focused sharply on the significance of Christ as savior.”[5] As such, the Alexandrian school focused on the divine nature of Christ and emphasized the divine Logos as He assumed a human nature. Cyril of Alexandria notes,

 “In declaring that the Word was made to ‘be incarnate’ and ‘made human,’ we do not assert that there was any change in the nature of the Word when it became flesh, or that it was transformed into an entire human being, consisting of soul and body; but we say that the Word, in an indescribable and inconceivable manner, united personally to himself flesh endowed with a rational soul, and thus became a human being and was called the Son of man. And this was not by a mere act of the will or favor, nor simply adopting a role or taking to himself a person.”[6]

Apollinarius of Laodicea (c. 310-390) took the Alexandrian understanding of the Logos assuming flesh to the point where he claimed that a human mind and soul were replaced with a divine mind and soul. The Apollinarian school thus devalued the human aspect of Christ, a concept that would be challenged by many Alexandrians and especially the Antiochenes.

The Antiochene School of Understanding

Whereas the Alexandrians focused on the salvific aspect of Christ, the Antiochene school focused on the moral aspects of Christ.[7] The Antiochene school focused on the wholeness of Christ being both divine and human. Unfortunately, like Apollinarius would for the Alexandrian school, a man name Nestorius (c. 386-451) would stretch the Antiochene understanding to the limits of heresy. Nestorius would argue that Christ held two natures: one human and one divine. Yet, Nestorius’ view led to the belief that Christ has two parts to Himself. However, a solution to this enigma would come from the Antiochene school.

The Hypostatic Union

The Antiochene school found a solution to the two natures of Christ in the term “hypostatic union.” That is, the union of the “divine and human natures in Christ—rests in the will of God.”[8] As Theodore of Mopsuestia would denote,

“The distinction between the natures does not annul the exact conjunction, nor does the exact conjunction destroy the distinction between the natures, but the natures remain in their respective existence while separated, and the conjunction remains intact because the one who was assumed is united in honor and glory with the one who assumed, according to the will of the one who assumed him…In this same way here [i.e., in the incarnation] they are two by nature and one by conjunction because the adoration offered to the one who has been assumed is not divided from that offered to the one who assumed him.”[9]

Thus, the solution is found by acknowledging that Christ was both divine and human, compiled into one person—Jesus of Nazareth. The Word became flesh. Therefore, one finds both the divine Word and a human persona in one being.

Conclusion

What mystery! What wonder! The babe lying in a manger was none other than God Himself! God joined the human drama. He became one of us so that He could point us back to Him. I read a story of a farmer who returned from his children’s Christmas program. He could not understand why God came to earth, or even why He would desire to do so. After he tucked his kids in bed, he checked on his animals in the barn on this cold, snowy night. Clomping through the snow and opening the doors to the barn, he heard faint chirping. He looked to find four little birds flopping in the snow. They could not yet fly and the cold snow was freezing them.

The farmer grabbed a broom, sweeping them towards the barn. The more he swept, the more frightened the little birds became. He tried to coax them inside with his voice, yet they could not comprehend his wisdom. He attempted to scoop them in his hands, only to find that the birds would flop back out. The birds were inches away from safety. The barn’s warmth would provide them shelter and warmth for the winter. Then the thought penetrated his mind, leaving him breathless with the insight of the incarnation for which he had long been longing: if he could become one of the birds, he could fix the broken relationship the birds had with the farmer. He could tell them that the farmer meant them no harm. He could lead the birds to safety, saving their lives—if only he could become a bird.

God did just that for all humanity. He lived among us, so that we could live with Him. He would eventually suffer for us, so that we could rejoice. He would die, so that we could live. What mystery! What amazing mystery! And what amazing love!

© December 12, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes:

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

[2] This is an erroneous depiction as the wise men did not appear at the time of Christ’s birth, but rather appeared a few months to a couple of years after the birth of Christ.

[3] The Greek term translated “Word.” The Logos is a complex concept as it depicts the personification of divine wisdom. It was understood as the aspect of God that developed the universe.

[4] Arianism is comparable to the modern Jehovah Witness movement as it denied the divine nature of Christ.

[5] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 277.

[6] Cyril of Alexandria, Second Letter to Nestorious IV, 3-5.

[7] See McGrath, 278.

[8] McGrath, 279.

[9] Theodore of Mopsuestia, “Catechetical Homily,” 8.13-14, Woodbrooke Studies: Christian Documents in Syriac, Arabic, and Garshuni, Alphose Mingana, trans (Cambridge, UK: Heffer, 1933), 89-90.

5 Views Pertaining to the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus

This may seem like an odd topic to be discussing nearing the Christmas season. However, every major Christian holiday is coupled with drawn-out attacks pertaining to the historicity of the event being celebrated. The resurrection of Christ takes center stage in this regard. How do people view the historicity of the events within the pages of the Bible?

I have been reading a fantastic work by Alister McGrath called Christian Theology. On pages 309 through 313, McGrath discusses 5 ways that people during the past few centuries have evaluated the historicity of the miraculous biblical claims. The resurrection of Christ is the pivotal miracle as it most relates to the viability of Christianity.

The Enlightenment View: The Resurrection as a Non-event

First, there is the view held by individuals in the days of the Enlightenment.[1] Individuals during the days of the Enlightenment, as least those accepting the popular claims of the time, viewed history with great skepticism, especially if that historical event is rooted in the miraculous. David Hume claimed that any miraculous event was impossible to prove and impossible to believe because the event did not represent what was the normal operation. Anything that operated beyond the scope of those things that are normally observed could not be proven, and, therefore, could not be accepted as fact.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing was more lenient than Hume concerning miracles. However, he still did not view the miraculous as something that could be demonstrated as history. Lessing noted,

 “I do not for one moment deny that Christ performed miracles. But since the truth of these miracles has completely ceased to be demonstrable by miracles happening in the present, they are not more than reports of miracles…I deny that they could and should bind me to have even the smallest faith in the other teachings of Jesus.”[2]

Thus, Lessing, like Hume, did not accept the miraculous as a historical event due to Lessing’s belief that miracles did not continue to occur. Thereby demonstrating that miracles hold no legitimate claim to history, Lessing felt that faith in the teachings of Christ was invalid. Lessing and the views of those in the days of the Enlightenment were extreme. A less critical view was held by Strauss.

The View of David F. Strauss: The Resurrection as a Mythical Event

David Friedrich Strauss, in his work Life of Jesus, notes the “central importance [of the resurrection] to the Christian faith.”[3] However, due to the Enlightenment criticism of the miraculous, the resurrection is best seen as a myth according to Strauss. Strauss believed that the resurrection was the result of the disciples’ “social conditioning and cultural outlook”[4] more than a recollection of a real, historical event. Thus, while Strauss accepted that the disciples believed in some form of resurrection, the idea was more an allegory than an event found in reality. Strauss’ views would be picked up and expanded by a man who served as a predecessor to the modern, liberal Christian outlook—Rudolf Bultmann.

The View of Rudolf Bultmann: The Resurrection as a Mental Event

Bultmann, like Strauss before him, believed that miracles were impossible to accept in a scientific age. Miracles were not acceptable to modern, scientific minds according to Bultmann. Unfortunately, many accept Bultmann’s cynical prognosis. Because of this, Bultmann thought that the church must de-mythologize the Bible to keep Christianity relevant for modern minds. Otherwise, Christianity would fade away in the halls of history. So what does Bultmann do with the resurrection, the pivotal event of the Christian faith?

Bultmann accepted the resurrection as a “mythical event, pure and simple.”[5] Bultmann denotes,

“The real Easter faith is faith in the word of preaching which brings illumination. If the event of Easter Day is in any sense an historical event additional to the event of the cross, it is nothing else than the rise of faith in the risen Lord, since it was this faith which led to the apostolic preaching. The resurrection itself is not an event of past history.”[6]

In other words, Bultmann believed that the resurrection of Christ was not the literal bodily revivification that orthodox Christians accept. Rather, Bultmann thought that the resurrection of Christ was the continuation of the Christian message after Christ’s death. Taking Bultmann’s concept to its end, the body of Jesus still lay in a tomb. However, the message of the Christ continued. For Bultmann, that was the resurrection. Luckily, Bultmann’s beliefs did not represent all of Christianity. Karl Barth would legitimize the resurrection event where Bultmann and Strauss did not.

The View of Karl Barth: The Resurrection as a Faith Event

Karl Barth was amazed at the writings of Bultmann. Barth accepted the resurrection as a historical event. He emphasized the importance of an empty tomb, especially later in life. However, Barth did not place a lot of emphasis on the historicity of the resurrection event. Rather, he focused on the faith in the event which he thought was the emphasis of the early disciples. Barth did not so much question the historicity of the resurrection as much as he questioned the historical enterprise. Could anything be accurately demonstrated as historical? As McGrath notes, “Barth is left in what initially seems to be a highly vulnerable position. Concerned to defend the resurrection as an act in public history against Bultmann’s subjectivist approach, he is not prepared to allow that history to be critically studied.”[7] Another individual would take the historicity of the resurrection to another level—Wolfhart Pannenberg.

The View of Wolfhart Pannenberg: The Resurrection a Historical Event

Wolfhart Pannenberg accepted both the historicity of the resurrection event and the historicity of the events described in the Bible. Faith only makes sense if it is rooted in reality. Pannenberg writes,

“History is the most comprehensive horizon of Christian theology. All theological questions and answers have meaning only within the framework of the history which God has with humanity, and through humanity with the whole creation, directed towards a future which is hidden to the world, but which has already been revealed in Jesus Christ.”[8]

For Pannenberg, the resurrection of Jesus Christ was a historical event. Because it was a historical event, it is open to the scrutinies of historical research. Therefore, the historian researching the resurrection event should approach the event without preconceived biases against the miraculous. The historian must be neutral. So which of these approaches best works with the miraculous events of Christ and Scripture in general?

Conclusion

Bultmann and Strauss are children of the Enlightenment. The views of the Enlightenment, Strauss, and Bultmann all find themselves in some form of a Humean philosophical presupposition (that is, the idea that miracles cannot occur because they are aberrations to the norm—stemming from secular humanist David Hume). However, just because something does not ordinarily occur does not indicate that the event could never occur.

For instance, the Chicago Cubs have not won a World Series in over 100 years. People derived from the Cubs post-season performance that they would never win another World Series. Their presupposition was based upon the ordinary workings of the Chicago Cubs. Enter the 2016 Cubs team. The 2016 Cubs team defeated the Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series! Was their win a historical event? Absolutely! Had it normally happened? No.

Bultmann, Strauss, and the thinkers of the Enlightenment think either that God does not exist (e.g., Hume) or that God does not interact with the world in miraculous means (implied by Bultmann and Strauss). Therefore, their ideology is rooted in an anti-supernatural bias. For the record, Craig S. Keener has written a 2-volume work titled Miracles which reveals various modern day miracles performed in the name of Jesus. While miracles are not the norm, such an investigation divulges that they are not as uncommon as Humean thinkers suppose.

Karl Barth accepts the resurrection as a historical event. However, he exposes a critical weakness in his argument when claiming that such things cannot be demonstrated historically. Did the event truly happen? If so, then it stands to reason that the event actually occurred within space and time. If the event took place within space and time, then the event is historical. If the event is historical, then it can be historically scrutinized. Such an argument reveals the weakness in Barth’s view and the strength of Pannenberg’s.

I also take issue with Barth’s idea that the disciples only pleaded for faith in Christian adherents rather than acceptance of things taking place in history. Throughout the OT, one finds reminders of God’s deliverance of the people from the hands of Egypt. In addition, one finds reminders of the reality of Christ’s historical resurrection. Paul argues that “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:17, 20).[9] Paul directed the attention of the Corinthians back to the reality of Christ’s historical resurrection. Much more could be said, but I have far extended the length of most of my articles. So, let us conclude by saying that Christ’s resurrection is a historical event. Therefore, it should be possible to examine the resurrection from a historical perspective. The same is true for most miracles in the Bible.

 

© December 5, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] The Enlightenment is a period lasting from the 17th and 18th century found mainly in Europe. The period focused on importance of human reason, claiming that human reason could explain all things. Miracles and the sort were viewed with great skepticism. David Hume, the great secular humanist, lived in this period.

[2] Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, “Uber den Beweis des Geistes und der Kraft,” in Gotthold Ephraim Lessings samtlichen Scrhriften, vol. 13, Karl Lachmann, ed (Berlin: Goschen’sche Verlagshandlung, 1897), 4-8, 20.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackburn, 2011), 310.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rudolf Bultmann, “New Testament and Mythology,” in Basic Questions in Theology, vol. 1, George Kehm, trans (London: SCM Press, 1970), 15.

[6] Ibid.

[7] McGrath, 312.

[8] Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Redemptive Event and History,” in Basic Questions of Theology, vol. 1, George Kehm (London: SCM Press, 1970), 15.

[9] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

Christian Ethics are Derived from Christian Theology

An atheist Christian minister. That sounds like an oxymoron of illogical cohesion. Could an atheist serve as a Christian minister? According to the United Church of Canada and the Reverend Gretta Vosper, the answer is, yes. Gretta Vosper came out of the closet at her church. She came out of the closet, not as a homosexual, but rather as an atheist! Instead of firing her, the church embraced her as their Christian atheist minister. Vosper recounts,

“My congregation belongs to The United Church of Canada, probably the most progressive Christian denomination in the world. It ordained women over seventy years ago and has been ordaining openly LGBTQ leaders for decades. But theologically it remains in the closet about the human construction of religion and all its trapping. I couldn’t stay in that closet.
I came out as an atheist in 2001. After I spontaneously preached a sermon in which I completely deconstructed the idea of a god named God, rather than fire me, the congregation chose to step out on an unmarked path. With them, I’ve laboured, lamented, lost, and loved. It’s hard road but a worthy one with no finish line in sight.”[1]

gretta-smile-for-jean-960x1440_c

How does this work? According to Vosper, she holds to the ethical standards of Christianity but dismisses the idea of a supernatural, intervening God. Thus, she holds that Christianity provides supreme ethical standards, but little things like God, heaven, hell, salvation, sin, human value in God’s eyes, the resurrection, miracles, and eternity are simply defined as “archaic ideas and the prejudices trapped within them [should be] traded for contemporary knowledge and understanding.”[2] I hope you can see the sarcasm behind the previous statement. Such issues are not minor. Rather, they constitute the core fundamentals of the faith. Can one separate Christian ethics and Christian theology? I say, no. Christian theology formulates Christian ethics in at least three areas.[3]

Christian ethics are formulated in divinely placed human value.

Why did Jesus place so much emphasis on right living in the Sermon on the Mount? It was because the Father had placed so much value on humanity. Human beings are made imagio dei (i.e., the image of God). From the opening moments of Scripture, human value is emphasized. Human value is shown to be placed in the divine value attributed to humans due to their being made in God’s image. God “created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).

Thus, while Vosper is to be commended for placing high value on the lives of her fellow human beings, her value is void without God. Life holds no value without God. The so-called “archaic view of God” is actually the glue that holds together her presuppositions of human life. Therefore, without the Christian fundamentals, Vosper’s ethics fall apart.

Christian ethics are formulated in divinely placed human standards.

Why should a person desire to treat others ethically in the first place? If there is no God, then why does it matter how I treat another person? It may be nice to be nice. But sometimes I don’t feel so nice. I may have the tag “reverend” before my name, but I do not always feel so reverential. Why not run those Sunday drivers off the road when they are driving 20 miles under the speed limit? Why not plow through a gaggle of cyclists when they refuse to get out of the way? Why do we have to act nice?

The reason humans have standards is because of the knowledge of a supreme authority governing the universe. Atheism falls short. While atheists can be good moral people without God, their reasons for acting moral do not stand. In stark contrast, Christian theism demonstrates that there is a God who has provided a moral standard upon all humanity. This God has eyes that “are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good” (Proverbs 15:3). Let me illustrate this point further.

This past Thanksgiving, our family met together for a wonderful meal. My sister and two cousins all have young toddlers about the same age. My son is about 7-years older than his younger cousins. We watched as the toddlers interacted with one another for the first time. The kids would sometimes take a toy away from another. The moms and dads said, “No! You cannot do that. It is not polite.” For the toddlers, they were being taught the proper dos and don’ts of playtime etiquette. Why? It was because they had a higher authority governing them—that is, my sister, cousins, and their spouses. Likewise, ethics without a higher governing authority collapses. Thereby, Vosper’s atheistic Christianity flounders without the fundamentals of orthodox Christianity.

Christian ethics are formulated in divinely placed human eternity.

One of the great losses of Vosper’s atheist Christianity is the loss of hope found in eternity. How would she counsel someone who had lost a loved one? Would she say, “Well, they are not experiencing the great nothingness that comes from death. You don’t have to worry. You’ll never see them again.” What type of comfort is that, especially if they loved the person they lost?

Ethical standards carry over into eternity. God has given each person the opportunity to respond to the gospel message. A person’s decision to follow Christ or to deny Him follows through for all time. In a similar fashion, a person’s work on earth follows them also. But wait! Aren’t a person’s sins forgiven never to be remembered to any further extent? Yes and no. In one sense, a person’s sins are forgiven and washed away. Their sins will not keep them from God’s eternity. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul teaches in what is called the Judgment Seat of Christ. That is to say, every believer will be judged according to what they have done while in the body of Christ. Paul explains,

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).

What will a person’s rewards mean in eternity? I don’t really know. They mean something as indicated by Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. Those without Christ will be judged at the Great White Throne Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15). The unbeliever’s work will be gauged as well. The difference is that they will not have anything to atone for their sinful behaviors.

Vosper’s ethical standards mean nothing without an eternal standard. Why should people treat others nicely? Vosper’s atheistic Christianity would claim, “Because it is the nice thing to do.” Classical Christianity would exclaim, “Because there is a higher standard than yourself and you will be held accountable for what you do.” Again, Vosper’s worldview collapses as the foundations that uphold her outlook have been removed.

Conclusion

On November 17th, 2016, I delivered a message entitled “Signs of a False Shepherd” from Zechariah chapters 10 and 11. While I considered leaving the topic for another one, I cannot seem to leave the discussion just yet due to the infiltration of so many false teachers in our time. Simon Peter noted, “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction” (2 Peter 2:1).[4] Craig Keener, in his commentary on the text, quips, “In earlier Scripture, false prophets spoke from their own imaginations rather than from divine inspiration…they often comforted people in their sin rather than speaking God’s true warning of divine judgment.”[5] Thus false prophets such as Gretta Vosper promote false doctrine in three ways.

  1. False prophets elevate opinions over truth.
  2. False prophets deny the existence of absolute truth.
  3. False prophets promote what’s popular over what’s true.

Much more could be said about this issue. Perhaps, we will address this issue in further detail here at BellatorChristi.com. Suffice to say for now, false prophets remove the foundations of the hope within them in order to be popular with society or to uphold one’s progressive stances. True prophets uphold the truth in order to be faithful to the God of all eternity.

© November 28, 2016. Brian Chilton.

 Notes

[1] Gretta Vosper, “About,” GrettaVosper.ca. http://www.grettavosper.ca/about/, retrieved November 28, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] This list is certainly not exhaustive.

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

[5] Craig S. Keener, “2 Peter,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 2191.

4 Views on How God Interacts with Creation

Theologians often ponder the distinct attributes of God. God is known to be spirit, omniscient, omnipotent, omnisapient, omnibenevolent, and omnipresent. Creation is finite, holds no knowledge in and of itself, is limited in power, without wisdom, holds no sense of morality,[1] and is limited to space and time. How does an all-powerful, perfect, Creator engage with a limited, imperfect, creation? I have been reading Alister McGrath’s stellar work entitled Christian Theology: An Introduction[2] and noticed four particular theories as to how God interacts with the world. I will present the four theories and will then provide which best represents the Christian tradition in the conclusion.

Deism: A Laissez-faire God.

Deism is a concept that reached its zenith of popularity in the 18th century. Deists accept the existence of God, as well as God’s involvement with the early stages of creation. However, deists do not think that God continues to involve Himself with creation. The God of deism winds up creation like a top and spins it, allowing creation to naturally spin itself out with no intervention. In deism, miracles would seem frivolous if not invalid. McGrath quips, “The Deist position can be summarized very succinctly as follows. God created the world in a rational and ordered manner, which reflected God’s own rational nature, and endowed it with the ability to develop and function without the need for any continuing divine presence or interference.”[3] That is, God developed the world, but is currently “hands-off,” or holds a laissez-faire mentality. The second position allows for more involvement by God.

Thomism: The Prime-Moving God.

Thomism is a concept developed by medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas made the distinction between primary and secondary causes. That is, necessary and contingent actions. Aquinas held that God was the Prime Mover.[4] And from the Prime Mover, creation came to be. Furthermore, God’s actions resulted in secondary actions. Often, as McGrath notes, Aquinas held that “God can act indirectly, through secondary causes.”[5] Therefore, God is completely hands on, however God can serve as an indirect cause through the scope of natural law—that is, cause and effect. God is transcendently causing thing to happen, but those causes result in natural secondary actions within the space-time continuum.

This type of philosophical understanding is especially helpful in understanding how God (who can do no evil) can allow evil in a good world, but use that evil to bring out the greater good. More could be said of this concept. Suffice to say for now, this theory views God as a hands-on God, but resulting in hands-off reactions (however, the hands-off reactions are perfectly within the control of God—unlike the deist understanding). That is to say, God is a prime-moving God.

Process Theology: A Persuasive, Changing God.

Of the four theories presented by McGrath, the process theory is perhaps the most confusing. In the process theory, God is not transcendent,[6] but rather completely immanent.[7] Process theology is attributed to Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947).[8] In this scheme, the universe is seen as dynamic, always changing. God acts as a persuasive agent without forcing a natural or moral agent. McGrath explains,

“Process thought argues that God cannot force nature to obey the divine will or purpose for it. God can only attempt to influence the process from within, by persuasion and attraction. Each entity enjoys a degree of freedom and creativity, which God cannot override.”[9]

The process viewpoint is so distinct from the normal understanding of divine action that McGrath notes “the God of process thought seems to bear little relation to the God described in the Old or New Testament.”[10]

While process theology is quite controversial, it is enjoined with another theory called occasionalism. This viewpoint is quite different from process theories. The next section will address occasionalism.

Occasionalism: A Dictator God.

The final theory is not covered in great detail by McGrath, but is given as a side note—that is, a bit of an afterthought. For that reason, one would tend to think that the theory is quite controversial. Islamic writer Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) presented the view often termed “occasionalism.” Al-Ghazali did not accept the existence of any natural cause. If a fire burned a forest, the fire was not responsible for burning each individual leaf, rather God was. McGrath uses the example of lightning striking the ground, causing a fire.[11] Al-Ghazali would not attribute the fire to lightning, but as a direct act of God. Thus, God does not indirectly cause anything but directly causes everything. So, which of these theories work best with the theistic Christian worldview?

Conclusion

There are a few considerations that must be addressed before offering a verdict. What does the Bible say of God’s attributes? What does the Bible say of creation? What does the Bible say of God’s work? The following observations are made.

God is immutable, independent, and omnipresent. Much can be said (and has been said here at BellatorChristi.com) of God’s attributes. The Bible makes it clear that God is immutable and independent of creation. God, speaking through the prophet Malachi, says, “I the LORD do not change” (Malachi 3:6).[12] In Acts, it is noted that “God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:24-25). God is also shown to be omnipresent as God says, “Am I a God at hand, declares the LORD, and not a God far away” (Jeremiah 23:23-24)?

From the noted attributes given above, process theology is deemed inadequate, and even possibly unbiblical. God is not manipulated by creation (while I do think that God feels emotions). Nevertheless, process theology is eliminated from possibility due to the attributes of God.

God is the Creator of all things and has established systems of operation. Nehemiah notes concerning God that “You are the LORD, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you” (Nehemiah 9:6). In the book of Job, God responds to Job saying, “Do you know the ordinances of the heavens? Can you establish their rule on the earth” (Job 38:33)? Throughout God’s message, several systems are noted, demonstrating that God not only created all things, but developed systems of natural operation.

From what we can see Scripturally-speaking as it relates to the creation of all things and the order of operation of natural processes, occasionalism is void. God creates all and knows all. Certainly! But, God has given nature certain laws and functions as ordained from the halls of heaven.

God’s work within creation. If you have been taking notes, you will note that only two systems remain: Deism and Thomism. To answer which of the two find biblical precedence, one will need to discover whether God currently acts in creation. This is not difficult to answer. As one will find countless miracles throughout the Bible, it is appropriately deemed that God certainly does work in creation. Through Christ, God brought about healing to the blinded eyes, sound to the deafened ears, and life to the death-filled soul. Thus, deism is also proverbially knocked out of the competition.

So which of the four theories work? Only Thomism is a viable option. However, it should be noted that God operates more often than what was noted in McGrath’s book. God is functionally working within creation. I believe that God feels emotions and obviously hears prayers. Therefore, one should not take the Thomistic theory to extreme ends. Nevertheless, Thomism is the clear winner as it pertains to God’s operation within creation.

 

© November 21, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Speaking of creation, not the creatures within creation.

[2] This book comes highly recommended by the Ph.D. theological department at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

[3] Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), 212.

[4] Especially pertinent in Aquinas’ 5 ways, see the Summa Theologica.

[5] McGrath, 213.

[6] That is, beyond the scope of creation.

[7] That is, within creation.

[8] McGrath, 214.

[9] Ibid., 215.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 213.

[12] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

Reasons Why One Should Accept the Traditional Authorship of the Gospels

The Four Gospels are the primary documents that describe the life and teachings of Jesus. Traditionally since the earliest times of the church, the Evangelists[1] have been ascribed to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Modern critical scholarship has been more critical of the traditional authors. Many scholars will claim either that the Gospels were pieced together by various writers, or that the writings were pseudonymous but given the names of the Four Evangelists to propel their apostolic authority.

Despite the cynicism of critical scholarship, good reasons exist to hold to the traditional view of authorship for the four canonical Gospels (that is, that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the Four Evangelists). This article will provide five such reasons.

 Internal Evidence of Authorship.

 Within the four Gospels, one will find internal evidence of authorship. That is, the Gospels give clues who the writers were within the text itself. For instance, Matthew was a tax collector who was called by Jesus while sitting in the tax collector’s booth. The First Gospel notes that “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at a tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him” (Matthew 9:9).[2] Matthew’s Gospel goes into more detail on his calling (Matthew is called Levi in the other Gospels). Additionally, the Gospel provides a great deal of monetary details. Even if Matthew did borrow material from Mark’s Gospel (which would make sense since Mark obtained his information from Simon Peter), there is no reason to deny Matthean authorship to the First Gospel.

Mark’s Gospel, who wrote down the words of Simon Peter, provides internal evidence that one who closely knew Simon Peter wrote the Second Gospel. Peter’s life experiences with Jesus is the prime focus of the Second Gospel.

Luke writes a detailed biography of Jesus in the Third Gospel. Luke was not an eyewitness as admitted in the opening verses of the Gospel. The detail and level of complexity in the Greek validates that a highly-educated man wrote the Third Gospel. Luke was a physician. Thus, it stands to reason that Luke was the author of the Third Gospel.

The Fourth Gospel provides great internal evidence that John the apostle wrote (or at least dictated to another) the text. Strewn throughout the text, one will find the beloved disciple passages. The Fourth Gospel indicates that the author was an apostle (1:14; 2:11; 19:35), one of the Twelve Disciples (13:23; 19:26; 20:2; 21:20), and John the son of Zebedee is associated as the beloved disciple who accompanies Peter (13:23-24; 18:15-16; 20:2-9; 21:2-23). The evidence is so strong for Johannine authorship that I feel like I am taking crazy pills when someone denies that John wrote the Fourth Gospel.

External Evidence of Authorship.

External evidence for traditional authorship is quite strong. The early church unanimously accepted traditional authorship for the Four Gospels. Matthew is accredited with the First Gospel by Papias, bishop of Hieropolis (c. A.D. 120) and Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons in Gaul (c. A.D. 175). John Mark is accredited with the Second Gospel, Luke is credited with the Third, and John is ascribed with the Fourth Gospel by Papias and preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea (A.D. 260-340).[3] In addition, John is ascribed with the Fourth Gospel by Irenaeus in his work Against Heresies.[4] The church unanimously accepted Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the authors. If one is to claim otherwise, there should be a great deal of evidence.[5] No such evidence exists outside of modern skepticism.

Expense of Documents.

 Interestingly enough, documents the size of the Gospels were quite expensive in antiquity. John Walton and Craig Keener note the following:

  “Writing material was expensive; for example, a copy of the Gospel of Mark may have required the equivalent early twenty-first-century buying power of $1000-$2000 U.S…Works as large as these were major literary undertakings, requiring so much papyrus that in terms of early twenty-first century buying power the larger Gospels may have been worth thousands of dollars of U.S. dollars…Normally in antiquity readers knew who produced such major works, whether by information on the outside of the scroll or by knowledge circulated only by word of mouth. In a work this size [speaking of the Gospels, mine], authorship would be one of the last details forgotten.”[6]

If Mark is noted to have cost around $2000, then larger works like Matthew, Luke/Acts, and John were probably around $4000 (Luke and Acts could have been $6000 a piece). This would have been a major undertaking. No one is going to forget the writers of the Gospels in the early church, especially if the early leaders request the works. It should be rightfully assumed that the church must have raised the funds in order to have the canonical Gospels written.

Early Manuscript Attestation.

 It has been noted that nearly all early manuscripts would have the authors name written on the first page or the exterior of the text (see footnote #6). Thus, the authors’ names would have followed the text. There are reasons to believe that the names were associated with early manuscripts. Thus, here is another reason to hold to traditional authorship.

Oddity of the Four Writers.

 It seems somewhat bizarre that if the early church were going to make up four writers for the Gospels that the four writers that we were given were chosen. John the apostle would make sense as he was one of the inner circle disciples. Yet, John did not hold the prominence of a Simon Peter or James. Even more bizarre is the choice of Mark. Mark is an odd choice as he does not appear in the Gospel story, except for a possible odd inclusion in Mark 14:51-52. If John Mark had nothing to do with the Gospel and only served as an amanuensis, why not attribute the Gospel to Peter? The acknowledgement of Mark verifies the early church’s focus on getting the information correct.

Luke is an oddity also. For one thing, Luke was not an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life. So, why have Luke as the author if one is merely passing authority onward? Second, it is possible that Luke could have been a Gentile, or at least half-Gentile. If this were the case, it makes it even more bizarre that the church would invent Luke as the writer of the Third Gospel.

Lastly, Matthew is an extremely bizarre choice. “Wait!,” one may postulate, “wasn’t Matthew one of the apostles? Would that not make his claim all the more probable if the church were to invent an author?” Not really. Matthew was a tax-collector. Tax-collectors were hated in ancient times. Tax-collectors were considered the lowest of the low. In other words, they are loved as much now as they were back then. Tax-collectors were notoriously known for charging far more than what the government required so that they could pocket the additional revenue. Furthermore, Matthew is a fairly obscure disciple. He is not one of the inner circle disciples.[7] If the church were to invent an author for the First Gospel, why not accredit it with James or Andrew? Why Matthew, an obscure disciple with a former hated occupation?

Conclusion

The early claim that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the Evangelists only make sense if in fact they were the writers of the Four Gospels. It is possible that Matthew, Luke, and John dictated their Gospels to appointed disciples (particularly John). Well and good. But that does not demerit the claim that they were the authors. If a person is going to dismiss early testimony to the authorship of the Gospels, that person had better possess strong reasons to overturn such a claim. While critical scholars have every right to believe as they wish, the data does not support their claim. This article has demonstrated five strong reasons to hold to the traditional authorship of the Four Gospels. While I appreciate the works of critical scholarship, the data strongly supports the claims of the early church. Until it can be proven otherwise, this writer will continue to adhere to the testimony of the early church as it pertains to the identity of the four canonical Evangelists.

 

© November 14, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] That is, the authors of the Four Gospels.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2011).

[3] See Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2; 3.39.14-16.

[4] See Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.2.

[5] To the degree of evidence needed to overturn a touchdown in the NFL.

[6] John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener, “Introduction to the Gospels and Acts,” NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 1603.

[7] That being Peter, James, John, and perhaps Andrew.

Is 1 Peter 3:15 Accurately Used as an Apologetic Text?

Often at BellatorChristi.com, I receive comments to which I try to respond as quickly as possible. This past weekend was no exception. For most comments, the responses I attempt to leave suffice for the question or comment presented. However, this weekend a commenter left a response that baffled me to my core. He challenged apologists in using 1 Peter 3:15 as a call to do apologetics. At face value, it has always appeared to me that 1 Peter 3:15 was an apologetic text. For heaven’s sake, if Norman Geisler, Gary Habermas, William Lane Craig, and other heavy hitters in the apologetics world used this text in support for the use of Christian apologetics, one would assume that the text holds some merit. Nevertheless, I have learned never to assume anything. Thus, I pose this question on today’s blog; are apologists using 1 Peter 3:15 contextually accurate as a call to do Christian apologetics?

While I was somewhat anxious scrutinizing the use of the text—does anyone really want to say that the entire apologetics world is wrong—my anxieties were quickly dispelled when reading the text of 1 Peter 3:15 in its appropriate context. I found quite speedily that the text has been used appropriately much to the chagrin of my opposing critic. Why? When one determines the meaning of a text in relation to the context of the passage, one needs to look at the text in relation to the message of the book it is in; the surrounding chapters, and the context of the statement itself. Before beginning the process, let’s first see what the text in question states. Peter writes, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander” (1 Peter 3:15-16).[1]

Context of the book argues for an apologetic understanding of 1 Peter 3:15.

What is the message of 1 Peter as it pertains to 1 Peter 3:15? The apostle Simon Peter writes this letter to the provinces in Asia Minor (1 Peter 1:1-2) during the 60s.[2] For the Christians in the area, the 60s were a time of great hostility. Not only did Jewish groups ostracize the early believers, the Roman imperial government was in the process of turning up the heat on them as they were thought to be “‘atheists’ (for rejecting the gods), ‘cannibals’ (for eating Jesus’ ‘body’ and drinking his ‘blood’) and incestuous (for statements like ‘I love you, brother’ or ‘I love you, sister’).”[3] Obviously, any casual student of the Bible, much more a serious one, will know that these accusations were ungrounded and rooted in a false understanding of the Christian faith. Thus, the ancient Christian would need to hold a good apologetic in order to defend his or her faith against the false indictments posed against them in popular society, both eccelesiastically (Jewish opposition in the synagogue) and governmentally (Roman opposition in the courts). Therefore, 1 Peter 3:15 holds an apologetic thrust when held against the context of the book. But what about 1 Peter chapter 3? Is it apologetic-oriented?

Context of the surrounding chapters argue for an apologetic understanding of 1 Peter 3:15.

The first section of 1 Peter 3 continues the thought begun in 1 Peter 2:11. Peter instructs the churches to live godly lives in the pagan society in which they live. Peter notes that they are to “as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). Living in the pagan culture as they were, the Christians were going to have more temptations than they would had they lived in Jerusalem or Capernaum. Peter argues that their very lifestyles were to be an apologetic argument for the faith. Peter notes that the believers were to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Peter 2:12). 1 Peter 3:8 shifts the focus, as will be examined in the next section. In 1 Peter 4, Peter again picks up the topic of living for God and the reality that the Christian would most likely suffer for their faith (1 Peter 4:12-19).

Context of the pericope argues for an apologetic understanding of 1 Peter 3:15.

1 Peter 3:8 shifts the focus from living well in the face of pagan opposition (1 Peter 2:11-3:7) to suffering well in the midst of persecution; a topic picked up again in chapter 4. It is in this pericope that the text in question is found. Peter instructs the believers that in Asia Minor that they can anticipate threats. However, the believers were not to be frightened (1 Peter 3:14). Why were they not to fear? They should not fear because they had truth on their side. Peter redirects the believer’s focus to the reason that they were believers in the first place—the truth of Christ. It is here that 1 Peter 3:15-16 is given. The believers could face opposition and give a well-reasoned and rational defense for their faith because of the truthfulness of the faith. However, the believers were to provide the reason (Gk “apologia,” also translated “defense” [ESV]) for their faith but with the previously instructed good behavior and gentleness. Barker and Kohlenberger note that “Christian hope is so real and distinctive that non-Christians are puzzled about it and ask for a ‘reason’ (Gk 3364). The type of questioning could be either official interrogations by the governmental authorities (cf. Ac 25:16; 26:2; 2 Ti 4:16) or informal questioning.”[4] The believers were to have orthodoxy (“right belief”) an orthopraxy (“right conduct”) as part of their apologetic argumentation.

Conclusion

From the three points observed (the context of the book, the surrounding chapters, and the text itself), one can safely say that apologists are correct in using 1 Peter 3:15 as a proof-text for the use of apologetics. Modern Christians find themselves in a similar situation as the recipients of Peter’s first letter in Asia Minor. For our brothers and sisters in places of great persecution, 1 Peter speaks to them to continue to stand strong despite the woes they face. The rewards will be greater in heaven for those who have suffered martyrdom than for those of us who do not have to live with the threat of physical harm. However, for Western Christians, 1 Peter has a lot to say, as well. Western Christians find that pressures against them for holding their Christian faith are increasing at an alarming rate. A society which once adhered to the principles of the Judeo-Christian worldview is quickly crumbling into an abysmal moral chaos. Like the believers of old, modern Christians must stand firm, honoring Christ as Lord, being quickly ready to provide a defense (an apologetic) for the hope that one holds. 1 Peter 3:15 strongly advocates the use of Christian apologetics. Modern Christians would do well to listen to Simon Peter’s appeal.

© October 24, 2016. Brian Chilton.

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture in this article comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[2] I am a traditionalist in the sense that I hold to the early church’s understanding of who wrote the New Testament texts. I accept that John the apostle wrote the Fourth Gospel and the letters attributed to him. I, in turn, accept that Simon Peter wrote the letters that bear his name.

[3] John H. Walton and Craig S. Keener, NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016), 2177-2178.

[4] Kenneth L. Barker and John R. Kohlenberger, III., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, New Testament, abridged ed (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 1053.

Recap of 2016 National Conference on Christian Apologetics

Last Friday and Saturday, Southern Evangelical Seminary held its annual apologetics conference at Calvary Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. On Thursday, a special women’s edition of the conference was held. I had the distinct honor to attend this conference which was titled “The Defense Never Rests.” This was my fourth conference and quite honestly it was one of the best yet.

Due to an illness, Lee Strobel was not able to attend the conference as previously scheduled. Dr. Norman Geisler stepped up to fill in for the ailing Strobel. Geisler addressed the freedoms that America was built upon, particularly addressing the role that the Judeo-Christian ethic played in the development of the country. One fascinating fact that quite interested me was that for nearly 300 years, Americans read the Bible, prayed, and learned the Ten Commandments while in public school. From 1960-1963, prayer, devotional readings of the Bible, and the adherence to the Ten Commandments were eliminated from the public school system. Since that time, divorces and abortions have increased over 200%. Is there a connection? I agree with Geisler in saying that there is.

Dr. Frank Turek led the next lecture I attended. His lecture was titled “When Reason Isn’t the Reason for Unbelief.” Turek revealed that reason is not the stumbling block that keeps most atheists from coming to the Christian faith: the consequences of the Christian faith do. Assembling some of the material from his book Stealing from God, Turek concludes that atheists often must steal principles from God in order to make their case. I loved Augustine’s quote given which says, “We love the truth when it enlightens us. We hate the truth when it convicts us.” How true! Morality is only known because of the standard given to us by God. While many feel they are somewhat less righteous than Mother Teresa and far more righteous than Hitler, Turek noted from Scripture that everyone is unrighteous before God. Turek brought a great lesson!

The third lecture I attended was led by Dr. Barry Leventhal and titled “The Problem of Evil and The Holocaust.” Leventhal told something that I had never before heard. He told of individuals surviving the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp who had visions of the Messiah. One particular individual despised Christianity so much that it became a means of survival. Joseph Herschowitz was his name. Herschowitz kept telling himself, “If I ever get out of here, I will make those Christians pay.” Why did he blame the Christians? It was because they stood idly by and did not say anything to the Jews defense. Herschowitz, to his surprise, had an encounter with what Leventhal called “The Mysterious Messiah.” Leventhal addressed the hiddenness of God and noted that what we know of God pales in comparison to the great depths of God that we do not know. As Leventhal noted, we do not know just how many people in the shadows of the concentration camps met this Mystery Messiah that we know to be Christ Jesus. The term “powerful” does not do justice to the might of Leventhal’s lecture.

The fourth lecture I attended was led by Norman Geisler. I caught just a bit of his lecture. Geisler’s second address was on the title of the conference, “The Defense Never Rests.” He spoke of the challenges that the church has met since its illustrious inception. His main focus was on the importance of defending the truth of God’s Word against any and all errors. I hope to hear this lecture in its entirety soon.

The fifth lecture was given by Dr. Doug Potter. Potter’s lecture was titled “The Book of Enoch, Angels, and Giants, O My…” This lecture was all about the pseudopigraphal book known as 1 Enoch. Some question whether 1 Enoch should be included in the canon since Jude quoted from 1 Enoch. Potter argued that it was possible that Jude and the mysterious writer of 1 Enoch could have pulled from another unknown source. But even if Jude did quote 1 Enoch, this does not grant that 1 Enoch should be included. For instance, Paul was known to quote from non-Christian literary texts of his day. Potter concludes that 1 Enoch does not find a home in the New Testament canon. While 1 Enoch is interesting, I most certainly concur with Dr. Potter.

The sixth lecture I attended was led by Dr. Hugh Ross of Reasons to Believe. Ross’ lecture was on the “Faint Sun Paradox: New Proofs of Creation.” My specialty is in the realm of theology, so I dare not try to explain all of what Dr. Ross said. Nevertheless, Dr. Ross noted that as the sun grows older, it becomes larger, hotter, and more luminous. Without enough light, the earth would be a snowball. With too much light, the earth would be a fireball. We find ourselves in a perfect position where life is allowable. In addition, Dr. Ross presented other fascinating signs of design which must be in place to allow for life to exist. Dr. Ross clearly illuminated the fact that a Creator not only put everything into place, that same Creator works within creation keeping things balanced so that life can exist. However, this information came with a warning. Unless God intervenes, life cannot continue to exist much past 1,400 years. While not going into much more detail, he did say that other factors may bring that time-frame into centuries. So the notion that Jesus is coming soon is far more relevant that the skeptic may want to think.

The seventh lecture I attended was led by Dr. Sean McDowell. His lecture was of great interest to me being the lover of history that I am. McDowell gave the lecture titled “The Fate of the Apostles.” McDowell addressed the history and legendary material surrounding the fate of the apostles. He noted that we can know with high probability that Peter, Paul, James the brother of Jesus, and James the son of Zebedee died as martyrs. He also noted that we can know with good probability that Thomas and Andrew also died as martyrs. However as it pertains to the remaining apostles, the historian cannot be certain although there are reasons to think that the apostles all, or nearly all, died as martyrs. I had a chance to speak with McDowell after the lecture. Let me just say, Sean McDowell is a kind man and extremely intelligent. He noted that John was the most interesting of the apostles he studied. There are some indications suggesting that he could have died as a martyr, but nothing conclusive. Other sources indicate that he died a natural death while ministering in Ephesus. In my humble opinion, I feel that John 21:20-24 indicates the latter as I also feel that there are good reasons to hold that the apostle John dictated his Gospel to an amanuensis. Fantastic lecture!!!

On Saturday, I attended three lectures. The eighth lecture of the conference was led again by Hugh Ross. Ross’ second lecture was titled “Habitability for Redemption.” Ross argued that the habitability index of creation is just right to allow countless billions of individuals to come to faith. God designed creation so that the maximum number of individuals could hear the gospel and enter into a relationship with God. Excellent lecture!

The ninth lecture I attended was led by Jay Sekulow of the American Center of Law and Justice. Sekulow is a defense attorney who has defended religious freedoms in the United States of America as well as defending the persecuted church at the United Nations. Concurring with Dr. Richard Land, hearing Sekulow is what it must have been like to hear the apostle Paul. Sekulow shared with us the importance in staying true to our Christian convictions, but doing so in an intelligent fashion. Sekulow noted that while politics is an important endeavor, politics never raised someone from the dead. Excellent point! It was also fascinating to hear of Sekulow’s testimony in how he came to know Yeshua (Jesus) as his Savior.

The tenth and final lecture I was able to attend was led by J. Warner Wallace. Mr. Wallace is an extremely likable fellow. Wallace is a former cold-case homicide detective for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), star of the movie God’s Not Dead 2, and author of the books Cold-case Christianity and God’s Crime Scene. In his second lecture, Wallace presented material found in his book Cold-case Christianity. Wallace used the evidence of a cold-case homicide detective to demonstrate that the four Gospels are documents penned by eyewitnesses. Wallace’s presentation was top-notch and left one on the edge of their seats. He performed well under pressure because Dr. Gary Habermas and two Ph.D. students were in the front row. Apparently they gave him two thumbs up after the presentation had concluded. I was certainly cheering him on. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Wallace’s early dating of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) as I feel the logic and evidence using the lack of information concerning the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D. in Acts and the synoptics weigh in favor of an early dating. Mr. Wallace added the capstone to what was, in my opinion, one of the best apologetics conferences yet.

The only trouble was, I wanted to hear much more! My good buddies J. Andrew Payne and Devin Pellew presented what I heard were excellent lectures on apologetic methodologies and answering objections to the Christian faith. If you have not attended, you need to make sure to check http://conference.ses.edu for details on the 2017 edition of the National Conference on Christian Apologetics. God-willing, I hope to be there again.

 

(c) October 17, 2016. Brian Chilton.

The Debate on Biblical Authority: Mohler vs. Stanley

Debates are often good. What?!? Yes, I reiterate, debates are good. Disagreements, when handled in a godly, civil fashion, can lead to a furtherance of learning and understanding. No one is perhaps better at debating than Baptists…although some Baptist debates lose their godliness and certainly their civility. In the theological world, a debate has been ensuing between Andy Stanley and Dr. R. Albert (Al) Mohler. Stanley is the son of the great Dr. Charles Stanley (pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta) and is senior pastor of North Point Community Church also in Atlanta. Dr. Al Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. The debate surrounds the comments made by Stanley in his message “The Bible Told Me So” (see link below). Stanley essentially states that the Bible is not the supreme authority–Christ is. He further goes on to note that if we are to reach individuals in this post-Christian culture, we must appeal to the evidential sources of Christianity and not the Bible alone (Stanley 2016, NorthPoint.org).

Mohler responds to Stanley’s message with a warning. He claims that another individual sought to do what Stanley is supposedly doing. That person is Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theological liberalism. Schleiermacher, says Mohler, sought to “salvage spiritual and moral value out of Christianity while jettisoning its troublesome doctrinal claims, supernatural structure, and dependence upon the Bible. He was certain that his strategy would ‘save’ Christianity from irrelevance” (Mohler 2016, albertmohler.com).[1] Who is right? Well, without trying to straddle the fence, I do believe that both individuals bring important truths to the table.[2] Mohler and Stanley are correct in at least three areas.

mohler

Mohler is right about the authority of Scripture as it relates to the Christian’s life (2 Timothy 3:16).

If there is a serious problem plaguing the modern church, it is the rise of biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy is not going to be solved by avoiding the Bible. In fact, Christian leaders must engage the Bible even more in their messages and lessons. Quick anecdotes and savvy punchlines will not improve the lack of biblical knowledge in our day. It will take in-depth expository messages to turn the tide. Mohler’s high view of Scripture is justified. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).[3] Paul was addressing the Old Testament Scriptures (also known as the Hebrew Bible). But the New Testament writings would quickly assume the same status. Paul writes to Timothy, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). The first quote comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. But the second quote is especially interesting. Paul quotes directly from Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Notice that Paul says “For the Scripture says.” Paul elevated the Gospels to the same status as the Hebrew Bible. Peter also elevates the epistles of Paul in 2 Peter 3:15-16 when the aged apostle quips, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Note here again that the New Testament writings are elevated to the status of Scripture. Thus, Mohler is right to be concerned with the lack of Scriptural exposition taking place in many modern churches. It is the Word of God that will bring a change in the lives of believers.

Mohler is right about the inspiration of Scripture as it relates to the final revelation of God (Titus 1:2).

I also share Mohler’s view of Scripture. I hold to the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. The logic makes sense. Paul reminds Titus, “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). God does not lie. It is not that God chooses not to lie. God cannot lie if He is absolutely holy. With this logic in place, it stands to reason that God cannot speak falsehood. Giving that the Bible is the revelation of God, then it only stands to reason that the Bible is true and cannot be false. Thus, a believer should place a high value on the written words given by God. I still remember, and will never forget, the advice given to me when I first entered the ministry. My mentors would say, “If you keep your messages between the covers of Genesis and Revelation, you’re on solid ground. If you go beyond these covers, you’re on your own.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Mohler is right about the safeguard that comes with a high view of Scripture.

I also share Mohler’s concern with the erosion that comes when the safeguard of Scripture is removed. Schleiermacher’s well-intended liberalism, which sought to spare Christianity from the flood of doubt coming its way from the times, led to one Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann, a German theologian, sought to de-mythologize the Bible by removing all its miraculous content. Bultmann, who was undoubtedly influenced by Humean philosophy,[4] led a movement that would ultimately give rise to such groups as the Jesus Seminar and the like. Liberal theology has led to the doubts of many. Liberal theology has not led to the strengthening nor the salvation of Christianity. In contrast, it has led to many towards atheism and agnosticism. Mohler is right to be concerned with the lack of biblical exposition in modern churches.

While Mohler is right on several points, I find myself in agreement with some of what Stanley says as well. I agree with Stanley on three points.

andy-stanley

Stanley is right about the authority of the Christian tradition as it relates to the final apologetic (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).

Stanley points to the authority of the pre-New Testament traditions and sources. I am surprised that Mohler takes issue with Stanley on this point. The Bible’s authenticity is strengthened by the strong evidence relating to these traditions, creeds, and formulae found in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps the most important of all these early traditions is that which is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. Here, Paul relates to the Corinthian church what he had received a few years after Christ arose from the dead. Paul writes, “For what I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

The Bible does not hold authority because it is the Bible. The Bible holds authority because it is the truth. The believer should not worry. Christianity is an evidential faith. Christianity has been tested and it stands on its own. Why? It is because Christ literally rose from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is not a fanciful wish or desire. Christ’s resurrection is reality.

Stanley is right about the primacy of Christ above all else (Colossians 1:15ff).

I also agree with Stanley that we must worship Christ and not the Bible. The reason the Bible is the Word of God is because of God Himself. Thus, the Bible points us to the reality of the triune God. Paul, writing to the church of Colossae, notes that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:15-16a). While we must place great emphasis on the Bible, we cannot allow the Bible to itself become an idol. Our worship is of the risen Christ Jesus.

Stanley is right about the need to appeal to evidence to reach the current generation.

I also find myself in agreement with Stanley in the need to provide evidence for the post-Christian generation which we are trying to reach. Most people are not going to listen to what we say about the Bible until they know that there are reasons to accept the Bible as an authentic document. Apologetics is necessary to do evangelism in modern times. William Lane Craig has noted on his podcast, Reasonable Faith, that we are amid an exciting time. An apologetic renaissance has begun. This renaissance is not something to fear. Rather, it is something that Christians, including Mohler, should embrace. This website has noted the resistance that the modern church has held against apologetics, which is quite bizarre.

So, what can one draw from this debate? I think the following conclusion can be made:

Mohler is right in his strong view of Scripture and Stanley is right in his strong view on apologetics: therefore, the appropriate view consists of a blending of both.

Let me say, I respect both Al Mohler and Andy Stanley. Both have contributed greatly to the kingdom of God. However, I think Mohler and Stanley are both guilty of accepting an “either/or” mentality when they should accept a “both/and” approach to this issue. Yes, the Christian should preach and teach the truths found in the Bible. I think Stanley is guilty of taking too low a view of Scripture. 

Yes, the Christian should engage the evidences and promote apologetics. I think Mohler has taken too high a view of Scripture, bordering on the level of fideism.[5] Quite honestly, the modern preacher should seek to find a balance between Mohler and Stanley’s view. The Christian leader would do well to wholeheartedly focus on the truths of God’s Word, discipling people in the truths of the Scripture, while also standing ready to provide evidence for the faith one holds (1 Peter 3:15). Theology and apologetics are two sides of the very same coin. Both are necessary. Both should be sought. Both should be accepted.

© October 3, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Sources Cited

McKnight, Scot. “In the Beginning: The Gospel—Al Mohler vs. Andy Stanley.” Jesus Creed (October 3, 2016). http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/03/in-the-beginning-the-gospel/?platform=hootsuite.

Mohler, R. Albert. “For the Bible Tells Me So: Biblical Authority Denied…Again.” AlbertMohler.com (September 26, 2016). http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/09/26/bible-tells-biblical-authority-denied/.

Stanley, Andy. “Why ‘the Bible Says So’ Is Not Enough Anymore.” Outreach Magazine (September 30, 2016). http://www.outreachmagazine.com/features/19900-the-bible-says-so.html/3.

Stanley, Andy. “The Bible Told Me So.” North Point.org (August 28, 2016). http://northpoint.org/messages/who-needs-god/the-bible-told-me-so/.

Notes

[1] For full fairness on this topic and the authors involved, the links to all the writings and resources concerning this debate are posted in the “Sources Cited” section of the article.

[2] In full disclosure, I am a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. Even though Mohler is part of the SBC and Stanley has connections to the SBC, I seek to examine the points of view from both participants in this debate.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007).

[4] Humean philosophy comes from the atheist philosopher David Hume who rejected the miraculous and argued that it was impossible for the miraculous to take place. Furthermore, it assumed that it was impossible to prove that a miraculous event took place in history.

[5] Fideism is the view that faith alone is necessary without any evidence whatsoever. In many ways, fideism is a blind faith and ends up committing a circular reasoning fallacy.

Does Divine Omniscience Hinder Human Freedom?

A friend and I recently discussed the impact of divine omniscience as it pertains to human freedom. Omniscience is the term used to describe the complete knowledge of God. The critical question of God’s omniscience in theological circles is whether divine omniscience hinders a person’s choice to choose x or y. If God knows with certainty that person A will choose x and person B will choose y, do persons A and B really have the freedom to choose? I argue that God’s knowledge does not impede human freedom. I would like to present four reasons why divine omniscience does not hinder human freedom.

The “Could, Would, Will” omniscient knowledge of God.

In his book Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach, Kenneth Keathley argues that divine omniscience includes what he calls the “‘could,’ ‘would,’ and ‘will’”[1] knowledge. “Could knowledge” represents God’s natural knowledge; that is, that “God knows all possibilities.”[2] God knows all the possibilities that could take place. “Would knowledge” is more popularly known as God’s middle knowledge. Middle knowledge is a concept that is accepted in Molinist and Congruist perspectives.[3] In other words, “God knows which possibilities are feasible.”[4] Put another way, God knows what free creatures would do when placed in certain situations. Finally, “will knowledge” is God’s free knowledge in that “God exhaustively knows all things.”[5] Thus, if God knows with certainty what could happen in the potentials of the created world, and God knows the things that will happen from His knowledge of what free creatures would do in certain circumstances, then there is no reason to believe that God’s knowledge would impede human freedom in any way. Now God may place people in certain circumstances to bring about a certain reaction. But even in doing so, the free creature would still have the freedom to choose x from y.

The relationship of omniscient knowledge to future actions.

If one grants that God holds could, would, and will knowledge, some would still argue, “But now if God knows with certainty what will happen, doesn’t that still imply that a person could not have chosen differently?” This view is called theological fatalism. Is it true? Not really. The person is given an opportunity to choose and willfully does so. Knowledge holds no bearing on a person’s choice. For instance, given the model provided by Keathley, picture someone you know who is quite the hot-head. And suppose that this hot-head really steams up over liberalism. Now suppose that a hyper-liberal approaches this conservative hot-head (and by the way, the roles could easily be reversed) and tries to coerce the conservative hot-head to accept hyper-liberal philosophies. You know the result of the encounter. The hot-head will blow up and lose his cool. Did your knowledge of his reaction impede the freely chosen response by hot-head in this story? No! Knowledge is just that—knowledge. Thus, God, even given His placement of events in a person’s life to lead one to salvation, does not hinder a person’s free will by the certain knowledge of future events that will transpire.

The intimacy of omniscient knowledge.

The debate between Calvinists and Arminians often revolves around the issue of how God chooses whom to save. The Calvinist will say that God elected to save some and reject others due to God’s own will. The Arminian will say that God chose whom to save because He foreknew what people would do in advance. But why couldn’t the answer involve both? Thomists, Molinists,[6] and Congruists hold that God’s election involves His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, evangelical Thomist Norman Geisler notes that “whatever God fore-chooses cannot be based on what He foreknows. Nor can what He foreknows be based on what He fore-chose. Both must be simultaneous, eternal, and coordinate acts of God. Thus, our moral actions are truly free, and God determined that they would be such.”[7] God’s election is greatly based on His intimate knowledge of individuals. For instance, God told Jeremiah “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).[8] God knew Jeremiah intimately before Jeremiah’s birth. This, however, does not mean that Jeremiah did not have a free will. Consider the issue with Pharaoh. Yahweh tells Moses, “When you return to Egypt, see that you perform before Pharaoh all the wonders I have given you power to do. But I will harden his heart so that he will not let the people go” (Exodus 4:21). But how did God harden the heart of Pharaoh? This question is answered in chapter 8 of Exodus. God had brought forth a plague of frogs. Pharaoh had asked that God would take away the frogs. Yahweh did just that. He provided His grace to Pharaoh and the people of Egypt. But what did Pharaoh do? One reads that “when Pharaoh saw that there was relief, he hardened his heart and would not listen to Moses and Aaron, just as the LORD had said” (Exodus 8:15). Did Pharaoh have the opportunity to choose differently than he did? Yes. Did Yahweh know what Pharaoh would choose when He provided grace unto him? Yes!!! So, did God’s knowledge hinder Pharaoh’s freedom to choose? No, not at all. God’s omniscience as it pertains to election is based on His intimate knowledge of each individual.

The sovereign nature of omniscient knowledge.

Due to the fact that God is beyond the scope of time and creation, God is sovereign over all things. God cannot lie (Titus 1:2), thus if God promises to bring about a certain thing, it is certain that the promised thing will come about. However, God has given individuals the freedom to choose how to live and how to respond to His grace. If God can be trusted in what He says about future things, then one must accept God’s complete and thorough knowledge of the past, present, and future. Yet, this knowledge does not demerit the ability of free creatures to choose. If God is sovereign, then He must know what would take place when mixing two parts hydrogen with one-part water—the creation of water. God would know what would need to take place for live to be able to exist. Thus, it should not trouble anyone to think that God would hold absolute knowledge of a person’s future choices. It is because of this thorough knowledge that we can trust in God’s amazing sovereignty while holding to a view of human freedom.

Conclusion

As this article has sought to demonstrate, there need not be a conflict in holding God’s sovereignty along with a healthy view of human freedom. Thomas Aquinas felt that if there were no freedom of the human will, then laws and morality made little sense.[9] I concur. Too often people think that the theologian must choose between divine sovereignty and human freedom—an either/or paradigm. Yet, when one considers the potential “could, would, will” knowledge of God; the relationship of God to future actions and outcomes; the intimate nature of divine omniscience; and the sovereign nature of omniscience; then the theologian can rest in the choice of a both/and scenario. God is sovereign AND people have freedom. Theologically speaking—it’s the best of possible worlds (pun intended).

Sources Cited

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica: Complete Edition. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Catholic Way Publishing, 2014.

Geisler, Norman L. Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will. Third Edition. Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010.

Keathley, Kenneth. Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010.

Copyright, 9/19/2016. Brian Chilton.

Notes

[1] Kenneth Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty: A Molinist Approach (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 17.

[2] Ibid.

[3] It is here that Congruism parts ways with classical Thomism. Congruism accepts effectual grace which also differs from classical Molinism. Congruism is best seen as the middle path between Molinism and Thomism.

[4] Keathley, Salvation and Sovereignty, 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] There are differences of opinions in the Molinist camp concerning this issue.

[7] Norman L. Geisler, Chosen but Free: A Balanced View of God’s Sovereignty and Free Will, 3rd ed (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2010), 145-146.

[8] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the New International Version (Grand Rapids: Biblica, 2011).

[9] See Thomas Aquinas, “Of Free Will (Four Articles),” Summa Theologica, Kindle.

A Review of “God and Time: Four Views”

Ganssle, Gregory E., ed. God & Time: Four Views. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2001. $24.00. 247 pages. Contributors: Paul Helm, Alan G. Padgett, William Lane Craig, and Nicholas Wolterstorff.

Of the issues in theology, God’s relationship to time has become one of the most complex. How does God relate to time? This question is coupled with two theories of time. A-theory (or the process theory) holds that time moves from one point to another in a unidirectional line. The B-theory of time (or the stasis theory) holds that time essentially stands still. B-theorists holds that the process of time is an allusion and time itself is rather static, or unmovable. I readily admit that I have had the book God & Time: Four Views on my shelf for quite some time and have anticipated the time when I could read it as this topic has become interesting to me. Recently, I was able to accomplish that task. Gregory Ganssle edits the book God & Time: Four Views. (Note: it is essential that the reader reads through Ganssle’s introduction. Ganssle provides a necessary background for the complex issues that lie ahead.) The book has four contributors, all holding different perspectives about how God relates to time.

 First, Paul Helm (J. I. Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, B.C.) argues for the divine timeless eternity view. That is, God is absolutely timeless and exists beyond the scope of space-time. Helm holds a version of the B-theory of time, although it could be said that there is a combination of A-theory and B-theory in his viewpoint. While Helm offers one of the most traditional views (and perhaps most biblical), Helm seems to one one hand argue that the universe is co-eternal with God, while on the other hand holding that the universe is a special creation of God coming into existence at a particular point. Elements of Helm’s argument were quite persuasive. However, I was left somewhat confused and bewildered at his explanation. It seemed that Helm argued for a beginningless, beginning for all of creation as Helm did not seem to hold to creation ex nihilo, which is quite odd.

Next, Alan G. Padgett (Professor of Systematic Theology, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN.) argues for the relative timelessness view. Padgett holds the A-theory of time. He argues that God is timeless and remains timeless despite creation. God, thus, operates in a sequence of events in eternity. Yet, God operates in time taking part of the sequential aspect of space-time. Overall, Padgett offered a compelling argument. I was left, however, unsatisfied with his argument of divine foreknowledge. Padgett argues that God knows the future. But since the future has not happened, it seemed that Padgett accepted some limitation in divine foreknowledge. (Note: I may have misunderstood Padgett in this regard.)

William Lane Craig (Research Professor, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA) holds what is called timelessness and omnitemporality view. William Lane Craig, one of the greatest Christian philosophers and apologists of our time, holds the view that God was timeless before creation began, but then became temporal (in time) when creation came into being. I was not surprised by Craig’s argument. I previously read Craig’s work Time and Eternity: Exploring God’s Relationship to Time. My major qualm with Craig’s view is that the theologian is left accepting divine immanence without transcendence. Christian theologians have accepted for the vast majority of church history the duality of God’s transcendence and immanence. In fact, theism tends to rest upon such understanding. God is not time. God is not creation. God is outside the realm of both. Plus, since God created time, this view seems to limit God by the scope of His creation, something problematic when it comes to divine omniscience and omnipotence. Therefore, while I greatly respect William Lane Craig and his work, I hold reservations with his views pertaining to God and time.

Finally, Nicholas Wolterstorff (Noah Porter Professor of Philosophy, Yale Divinity School, New Haven, CT) argues the unqualified divine temporality view. Wolterstorff holds that God has always been temporal, acting in time. While God is everlasting, God acts in a sequential mode. Creation takes part in that sequence of time. However, many physicists accept that time is a created thing, coming into being when the universe first started. Of all the views presented, I was least satisfied with Wolterstorff’s view.

I had waited for some time to read this book. Unfortunately, I was left largely dissatisfied. Some contributors were far better than others. It’s interesting that Thomas Aquinas was used to prove nearly all of the four viewpoints. From my reading of Aquinas, I feel he would accept Helm and Padgett’s viewpoints more than any other. Nevertheless, this reader was left wondering if there could not be a fifth view. It seems that one could posit a view where God is outside the scope of time and able to see all points of created space-time (like Helm’s argument), but operated in a sequential modus operandi (as found in Padgett’s viewpoint), and related to creation (as found in Craig and Wolterstorff’s cases). While some views seemed more reasonable than others, none seemed to capture the classic theological viewpoint that I had hoped for.

I give this book three out of four stars. I think the book is an important work. One will find, though, that the book is not an easy read. Those who have not had exposure to philosophy and the God and time debate will struggle with this read. I would suggest reading up on the issues of God and time before engaging this work. Be sure to thoroughly read Ganssle’s introduction also as it will help immensely.

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Copyright, September 10, 2016. Brian Chilton.

The Importance of Rest for the Impact of Your Ministry

Americans celebrate the holiday known as Labor Day on the first Monday of September each year. This day celebrates the hard working men and women on the labor force, offering for many a day of rest. One of the most important things Christian apologists and ministers can do to benefit their ministries is to take a necessary break.

On last week’s podcast, Nick Peters wisely warned that apologists can often become “married to their ministries.” Such is not only true of Christian apologists, the same is also true of pastors and church leaders. In fact, the danger is greater with Christian leaders actively involved in church ministry. Meetings here, study time there, and countless other tasks can drain the minister and lead to ministry failure if the minister does not take necessary time for rest and recuperation.

One of the most important classes I took during my Master of Divinity program at Liberty University was a class called Preventing Ministry Failure. The advice given in that class is invaluable. I would like to share some important truths that I learned in that class.

1. Set necessary boundaries.

It’s important to have boundaries in ministry. Michael Todd Wilson and Brad Hoffman note that “Personal boundaries help us prioritize our relationships…and focus on things consistent with our calling” (Wilson and Hoffman 2007, 140). It’s okay to say no to some ministerial offers. Many ministers think that the eleventh commandment should be, “Never say no.” However, it is often necessary to set time aside for oneself and one’s family.

2. “If you don’t control your schedule, someone else will.”

Dr. Kevin King of Liberty University once quipped, “If you don’t control your schedule, someone else will.” King is dead on the money. One of the things I am learning (and I am still a work in process) is the great importance of time management. The congregation and the minister must remember that the pastor is NOT omnipresent. He does not hold the ability to be in all places at all times. Scheduling helps gauge more important ministerial tasks from those of lesser importance.

3. Your first calling is to your family.

Somehow Paul’s admonition to church leaders is often forgotten. Paul notes that “if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church” (1 Timothy 3:5, ESV)? The minister’s first ministry is the ministry to his family. If this is forgotten, then it does not matter how many degrees he possesses, how expositionally sound his messages are, or how many individuals he has visited that week. The minister will have failed. To sustain his family, the man of God must take sufficient time with his wife and children.

4. Take time alone with God.

Mark’s Gospel documents a noteworthy aspect of Jesus’ ministry–His prayer life. Mark notes that Jesus rose “very early in the morning, while it was still dark…and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35, ESV). Simon Peter and the apostles could not find Jesus. Apparently, Jesus must have walked far into the wilderness to take time alone with His Father. If Jesus (the Son of God) needed time alone with the Heavenly Father, how much more do we? It is critical that the minister and apologist take appropriate amounts of time alone with God. The Christian ministry is a spiritual work. If the minister’s spiritual tank is empty, his ministry will be too.

Conclusion

Randy Kilby was the president of Fruitland Baptist Bible College when I attended the school in the late 90s. He used to say, “You must get under the spout, where the glory comes out. Then the glory you experience will flow out to others.” In addition to the numerous issues the church faces today, there is yet another problem that challenges the church. Many individuals in ministry are leaving. Wilson and Hoffman provide the following startling statistics:

“Of ministers in the United States: 25 percent have been forced out of or fired from their ministry at least once; 90 percent feel inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands; 80 percent believe that pastoral ministry affects their families negatively; 45 percent say they’ve experienced depression or burnout to the extent that they needed to take a leave of absence; 40 percent have serious conflict with a church member at least once a month; 20 percent admit to having an affair while in the ministry; 37 percent admit that Internet pornography is a current struggle; 70 percent do not have someone they consider a close friend” (Hoffman and Wilson 2007, 31).

The struggle in ministry is real. To make a long-term impact, the minister must realize that he is not Superman. He is not the Savior of the world. There is only one Savior–Jesus Christ. Understand your limitations and take the necessary rest that is needed. If the minister and apologist does so, then the impact of his ministry will grow exponentially.

(c) September 5th, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Wilson, Michael Todd and Brad Hoffman. Preventing Ministry Failure. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007.

“People Do Not Come to Faith by Arguments!” 4 Objections to Apologetics

Some time ago, I was in a meeting with pastors and other church leaders from various backgrounds discussing a potential ministry opportunity. I noted the importance that apologetics plays in the realm of collegiate ministries, especially with the mainstream attacks on Christianity from ultra-liberal voices. For instance, the collegiate ministry known as Ratio Christi has held a profound positive influence on the intellectual and spiritual lives of college students across the nation. To my surprise, one particular ministry leader said, “It’s my experience that people are not brought to faith by arguments.” The statement was shocking enough. However, I was even more bewildered by some who seemed to agree with him. I replied, “What do you say of Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and J. Warner Wallace who were former atheists and became believers because of the evidence for the Christian faith?” The conversation quickly moved to a different topic.

I do not tell this story to demonize or demoralize anyone. The denominational worker who voiced opposition to apologetics was a good, caring individual who loves the Lord and the people he serves. However, we must engage the question he presented. Do logic and argumentation bring people to faith or are such disciplines useless endeavors? The mission statement of Bellator Christi is that it exists to take up the sword of Christian theology and the shield of classical apologetics in order to take Christian truth into the arena of ideas. But if people are not argued into the faith, this ministry would seem a bit futile, at least in the latter portion of the mission statement. So, are apologetic argumentations necessary? This article will review 4 common objections given to apologetics by the modern church. Each objection will contain an explanation and an appropriate reply.

Objection #1: Arguments do not bring people to faith.

The ministry leader I mentioned posed the first objection against the use of Christian apologetics. This objection claims that arguments do not really bring people into faith. Faith is a matter of the heart, not of the mind.

Reply:

One could provide several replies to the first objection. To keep the post brief, I will present only two. First, objection 1 is in reality a self-defeating statement. How so? Well, the objector is presenting an argument to persuade others that arguments do not persuade. The objection is much like someone claiming to be a married bachelor or saying “I cannot speak a word of English” in English.

Second, the Bible presents several examples where people came to faith or were persuaded to faith by various argumentations. For instance, the miracles and teachings of Jesus provided a case for His claim to be Messiah. The miracles served as a sign. Why were such signs offered? Signs were provided to present an argument for the Messianic claims of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus argues that “the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me” (John 5:36). In addition, Jesus challenged His adversaries to “search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Other examples could be offered such as Paul’s defense of the faith before various groups of people, including the Athenians. Consider Philip’s argumentation to the Ethiopian that Isaiah 53 referred to Jesus of Nazareth. All such arguments were used to bring people to faith.

Objection #2: The Holy Spirit brings people to faith, so argumentation is useless.

Some people have objected to the use of Christian intellectual arguments due to the assumption that the Holy Spirit leads people to faith. If the Holy Spirit leads people to faith, then why should one worry about intellectual argumentation.

Reply:

Let me first say, I wholeheartedly agree that the Holy Spirit leads people to faith. Jesus noted that when the Holy Spirit comes that He would “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because you do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:8-11). While the Holy Spirit convicts, we are told that we have a part to play in the evangelism process. Jesus also told the disciples before His ascension, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). One could argue; If the Holy Spirit brings people to faith, then why evangelize? Christians evangelize because God commanded us to do so. Through the preaching of the Word, people are convicted by the Holy Spirit to come to faith. The Holy Spirit uses our evangelistic efforts to save people. The same is true for apologetics. Intellectual argumentation is often used by the Holy Spirit to bring people to faith. While the majority of Athens did not follow Christ after hearing Paul’s intellectual defense of the faith, the Book of Acts states that “some men joined him and believed, among whom were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them” (Acts 17:34).

Another problem I have with this statement stems from the spirit of laziness that exists in some Christians today. I heard a person tell a pastor, “You don’t have to study to preach. Just follow the Holy Spirit.” While I wholeheartedly agree that a person should follow the Holy Spirit, I also accept that the Scripture tells us the “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1). How does a person test a spirit? One tests a spirit against the Word of God. Testing spirits require study. I truly believe that it is the increased biblical illiteracy and lack of study that has led the modern church into many great heresies.

Objection #3: No one has ever come to faith through argumentation.

Anti-apologetic apologists argue that no one comes to faith through intellectual argumentation. Why bother if no one comes to faith through argumentation?

Reply:

This is an easy objection to answer. The claim is false. Many have come to faith through intellectual argumentation for the faith. Among such converts include: C. S. Lewis (famed English professor and writer), Josh McDowell (author of countless Christian books), Lee Strobel (former legal editor of the Chicago Tribune, atheist turned Christian pastor and writer), Fazale Rana (Christian biologist), and J. Warner Wallace (former Los Angeles cold-case homicide detective turned Christian apologist). These individuals only scratch the surface of those who have come to Christ because of the evidence for Christianity.

Objection #4: If someone is argued into faith, then someone could be argued out of faith.

Lastly, objectors to Christian apologetics often claim that if it is by evidential argumentation that one comes to faith, then one could be easily led astray by some other persuasive argumentation.

Reply:

This objection holds two problems in my estimation. 1) The objector does not understand the power of the Holy Spirit. If Christianity is true and a person comes to faith in Christ, then the Scripture states that the Holy Spirit will abide with the repentant person (John 14:15-16). Jesus notes that the Holy Spirit would lead a believer in truth (John 15:26-27). Thus, it would appear that the objector places less value on the power of the Holy Spirit than the advocate of Christian apologetics.

2) In addition, the objector must consider the following point. If Christianity is true, then it will always remain true. The truthfulness of Christianity will never change. Truth is unchangeable. Thus, if a person is truly convicted of the claims of Christianity and truth does not change, then the person (although doubts may come) will not leave the faith due to the truth claims.

Conclusion:

While I respect the objections made and the people who make them, it cannot be said that such objections hold any merit or value. Christianity is true. Period. If Christianity is true, then it is worth defending. If Christianity is true, eternity is at stake. Some people do come to faith when they are met with the evidences for Christianity. It may be true that some people do not require the same level of evidence that other people require. But, refusing apologetics to the one who needs it is like refusing insulin to a diabetic because not everyone needs insulin. It is, to a degree, a categorical mistake. Remember, Peter tells us, as has been noted several times before, that we must “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).

Check out this video by Brett Kunkle of Stand to Reason as he engages this issue: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0cS2xGUj5KQ

[1] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

© August 30, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Is God’s Jealousy a Negative Attribute?

The Bible attributes several attributes to God. Many of the more popular attributes are God’s love, holiness, and grace. Any serious theologian will know the four core “omni” attributes: omniscience (all-knowing), omnipotence (all-powerful), omnipresence (all-presence), and omnibenevolence (all-loving). While these attributes are all positive, many critics pinpoint another attribute of God as being greatly problematic: God’s jealousy.

Critics charge that jealousy is a bad trait to hold. Famed atheist Richard Dawkins claims that God breaks “into a monumental rage whenever his chosen people flirted with a rival god.”[1] Paul Copan notes that “Oprah Winfrey said that she was turned off to the Christian faith when she heard a preacher affirm that God is jealous.”[2] Jealousy is condemned for the human being. One of the Ten Commandments states that a person should not “covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17).[3] Thus, jealousy seems to be a negative trait. But wait! Doesn’t the Bible claim that God is jealous? It does.

The Bible states at least 13 times that God is jealous for His people. For instance, Moses notes that “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deuteronomy 4:24). Later in Deuteronomy, God says, “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deuteronomy 32:21).

What do we make of this? Jealousy seems to be a negative trait. The Bible presents God as jealous. Therefore, it would seem that God holds negative traits. One is left with three options: 1) One could claim that God holds negative attributes meaning that He is not completely perfect; 2) One could claim that the Bible is erred in its presentation of God; 3) One could claim that our understanding of God’s jealousy could be misunderstood.

The first option demerits the Bible’s presentation of God as valid. If God exists, then God must be a maximally great Being. If the God of the Bible is not a maximally great Being, then the God of the Bible is not really the God of the universe at all.

The second option devalues the Bible, the Word of God. The New Testament writers extracted their understanding of God from the Old Testament. Therefore, if the Old Testament is erred in its presentation of God, then that would carry over into the New Testament. This causes a serious problem for the believer. If we cannot accept the presentation of God in the Bible, then can we accept the God of the Bible?

The third option is best. Our understanding of God’s jealousy must be defined. There must be some misunderstanding that we hold as it pertains to the idea of divine jealousy. In fact, the third option is the only real valid option on the table. When one honestly evaluates God’s jealousy, the person comes to the understanding that God’s jealousy is actually rooted in love. Thus, God’s jealousy becomes a positive trait for three reasons.

God’s jealousy over His people is positive as it relates to God’s passion.

God has a passion for His people. Let’s go back to the passage in Deuteronomy. We all know that Scripture is often taken out of context. Placing Deuteronomy 4:24 in context, one will find that Moses was addressing the issue of the peoples’ covenant with God. God had already blessed the people immensely. God brought them out of slavery. God was about to bring them to a special place prepared for them. God was going to build a great nation out of them. However, the people kept cheating on God. God poured out His love to the nation. He was eventually going to bring the Chosen Messiah, the Savior of the world, in their midst. But they kept cheating on God. Moses says in Deuteronomy 4:23, “Take care, lest you forget the covenant of the LORD your God, which he made with you.”

The marriage analogy is often used to describe God’s jealous passion for His people. Paul Copan rightly notes that “A wife who doesn’t get jealous and angry when another woman is flirting with her husband isn’t really all that committed to the marriage relationship. A marriage without the potential for jealousy when an intruder threatens isn’t much of a marriage.”[4] God had a passion for His people. While Dawkins may think that God’s jealousy is a negative attribute due to the peoples’ “flirting with other gods,” it should be remembered that idolatry is adultery against God.[5] Thus, God’s jealousy is rooted in His love.

God’s jealousy over His people is positive because it relates to God’s purpose.

God’s jealousy is also rooted in His purpose. Wayne Grudem defines God’s jealousy by “God continually seeks to protect his own honor.”[6] Critics may charge, “See! God only concerns Himself with His own glory and elevated role. This means that God is not humble.” But not so fast. Let’s put this in perspective.

Human jealousy is wrong because one covets something that he/she holds no claim in holding. It is wrong for me to covet my neighbor’s car because I hold no claim to the car. In like manner, human pride is bad because it elevates a person’s position higher than what the person possesses. I can think all day that I am the President of the United States. I can walk around like a peacock telling everyone about my successful presidency. The reality is, however, that I am not the President and will most likely never be. But what if someone who holds the office claims to be President? Right now, the President of the United States of America is Barack Obama. Regardless of your thoughts of him and his presidency, let’s ask: is it wrong for Obama to claim to be President? Is it wrong for him to demand respect for his position? Is it wrong for him to do presidential things? No. Why? It is because he is the President. Is it, therefore, wrong for God to call Himself God and to expect to be treated like God? No. Why? It is because He is God. Paul Copan rightly notes, “Is God proud? No, he has a realistic view of himself, not a false or exaggerated one. God, by definition, is the greatest conceivable being, which makes him worthy of worship.”[7]

Simply put: it is not wrong for God to be jealous over His purpose and glory. Such purpose and glory belongs to God and God alone.

God’s jealousy over His people is positive because it relates to the human protection.

I am a big brother. My sister is about 7-years-younger than I. Big brothers normally have a protective instinct. I most certainly do. My sister is a loving, free-spirited woman who always sees the good. I, in contrast, see the world the way it really is. My son is much like my sister. I find that my protective juices flow overtime being a parent. Without guidance, it would be easy for my son to take the wrong path as the first shiny, attractive thing gets his attention. As a parent, it is my job to help keep him on the right track. I have a jealous love for my son because I want what’s best for him.

God’s jealousy works in much the same way. God’s jealous love is actually for the benefit, not the detriment, of human protection. God is omniscient. That means that God knows all things. God is also omnisapient, meaning that God possesses all wisdom. Going back to Copan, he notes, “God seeks to protect his creatures from profound self-harm. We can deeply damage ourselves by running after gods made in our own image. God’s jealousy is other-centered.”[8] I agree wholeheartedly with Copan’s assessment. God’s jealousy is actually for the greater human good.

Conclusion

God’s jealousy is not the same as human jealousy. The difference primarily lies in authority. It is wrong for people to be jealous over something that someone else holds because they hold no true claim to such thing. God, in contrast, having the greatest, supreme authority and power is completely justified in being jealous over His people. His jealousy is actually rooted in His love, purpose, and even human protection. Thus, God’s jealousy is not a negative attribute. It is actually a gloriously positive one.

© August 22, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Sources Cited

[1] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), 243.

[2] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster? Making Sense of the Old Testament God (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 34.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

[4] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 35.

[5] See the book of Hosea for a full treatment of this analogy.

[6] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 205.

[7] Copan, Is God a Moral Monster?, 28.

[8] Ibid., 40.

Allow Biblical Theology to Shape Systematic Theology, Not Reverse

This week on the Bellator Christi Podcast, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Chad Thornhill. Dr. Thornhill is the Professor of New Testament Greek, the Chair of Theological Studies, and Associate Professor of Apologetics at Liberty University. Dr. Thornhill discussed his findings from his book A Chosen People: Paul, Election, and Second Temple Judaism as it pertained to the understanding of individuals in the Second Temple Judaist period.

In addition to his discussion pertaining to his research, one of the most important points made by Thornhill on the podcast related to biblical hermeneutics (that is, Bible interpretation). He said that he taught his students not to read information back into Scripture, seeking to prove a particular point. Rather, the student should interpret the Bible according to the information given by the author to his intended audience.[1] This technique is much more difficult as it must involve in-depth research by the Bible student. But the difficulty is worth the time invested as it presents a far more accurate interpretation.

Truthfully, adherents of all theological interpretations have been guilty of reading into a passage what the person wants to read. This is true for both Calvinists and Arminians, for Molinists and Thomists alike. In the end, biblical theology must shape a person’s systematic theology. What is meant by “biblical theology” and “systematic theology”?

Biblical theology is understood as the “study of the Bible that seeks to discover what the biblical writers, under divine guidance, believed, described, and taught in the context of their own times.”[2] In other words, biblical theology is the understanding of the biblical writer’s theology. What did he believe? What was he intending to communicate? What did he desire for his readers to know? What were the circumstances surrounding his message? To answer these questions, one must use exposition to find the answers; that is, to remain true to the writer’s intention. Using this method, a person will eventually see the big picture of the Bible, which leads to a true systematic theology. Now, what is “systematic theology”?

Systematic theology is understood as an articulation of “the biblical outlook in a current doctrinal or philosophical system.”[3] Systematic theology looks at the overall picture as it pertains to particular doctrines. Whereas biblical theology will seek to examine, for example, what John believed about Jesus in his Gospel and letters; systematic theology will show what the Bible teaches about the identity of Jesus. It is imperative that one possesses a strong biblical theology before one can hope to hold a strong systematic theology.

Often and unfortunate as it may be, biblical expositors will often elevate the systematic theology of John Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, Arminius, Wesley, and Molina over that of the biblical text. When this is done, the expositor will jump through hoops in order to twist the Scripture into his/her theological system. Expositors force passages such as John 3:16, 2 Peter 3:9, and Romans 9 into their paradigm, while often being untrue to the nature of the text. If such a passage does not fit into one’s systematic theology, then that particular aspect of one’s systematic theology needs to be examined against the biblical text and against the overall message of the Bible itself. The great theologians such as those mentioned earlier need to be studied fervently. If perchance a person holds to a doctrine that has been rejected by the vast number of theologians throughout history, then one had better possess strong and valid reasons for accepting such a claim. Yet while Calvin, Aquinas, Wesley, Molina, and Arminius are important and extremely knowledgeable, one should take note that they are not infallible. The Scriptures are infallible. The theologians were mere mortal men trying to understand the truths of Scripture. So, we should study them with the understanding that if their teachings contradict the Scriptures, then the Scriptures should be accepted and the particular theologian’s viewpoints rejected.

Systematic theology is extremely important! My major in graduate school was in theology, particularly systematic theology, so I hold a great deal of interest in the matter. Do not misread the message of this post. I believe that systematic theology is of utmost importance. However, I do think the challenge offered by Dr. Chad Thornhill should be adhered by all students of the Bible. The Bible should shape our systematic theology, not the other way around. Such is true also for a person’s political and social beliefs. If the Bible is God’s Word (which I believe it is), then it is the final authority of truth.

© August 16, 2016. Brian Chilton. 

Sources Cited

[1]  Chad Thornhill, interviewed by Brian Chilton, Bellator Christi Podcast (August 15, 2016), podcast, http://www.blogtalkradio.com/pastorbrianchilton/2016/08/15/election-from-the-perspective-of-second-temple-judaism-w-dr-chad-thornhill.

[2] Walter A. Elwell, Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), Logos Bible Software..

[3] Ibid.