Christianity 201

August 24, 2012

Essentials and Non-Essentials

NIV Eph. 4: 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called ; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all…

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Yesterday we looked at five areas of Christian doctrine that will always contain an element of mystery.  Today I want to look at five areas where we have potential for unity.  In March of 1998, Rev. Dr. Arnold Cook was the president of the Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada and wrote this story:

It was 1990. The despotic dictator of Romania had been toppled late in 1989. In domino fashion other Eastern European countries overthrew Communism. Dr. Mariam Charter and I were part of two probe teams which the Alliance sent to check out possible ministries in four of these countries. Agenda? How do we introduce ourselves to leaders in these countries who have never heard of the Alliance? Amazingly within 45 minutes we agreed on the following points:

  1. The centrality of Christ
  2. A strong commitment to missions
  3. Focus on the work of the Spirit
  4. A commitment to church planting
  5. No position on Calvinism versus Arminianism

Christian leaders we met were incredulous that a denomination existed which took a middle stance on such issues as the security of the believer and the charismatic controversy.

The C&MA in Canada is known for what is called “middle ground theology.” People in Canada are often just as incredulous as the people in Eastern Europe when they learn that a growing Evangelical denomination permits some variance at the pastoral or congregational level on what others consider hot button issues.  Dr. Cook goes on to name a few:

Historical theological issues: e.g. Reformed theology versus the holiness tradition. Both streams have contributed to the formation of the Alliance.

Prophetic aspects of the end times: e.g. The chronological timetable of Christ’s return related to the Great Tribulation. We have focused on His coming, relating it to the completion of world evangelization. (Matt 24: 14; 28: 16-20)

Faith healing controversy: e.g. Is healing in the atonement? What about faith healers? We stand squarely on healing in the atonement and simply teach and practice divine healing for today.

Charismatic controversy: e.g. Are all the spiritual gifts for today or did some or all case with the Apostolic church? We are out in the middle, believing in all the gifts for today, but not considering ourselves charismatics.

Church governments: e.g. Are we Congregational, Presbyterian or Episcopalian? We are a hybrid; akin to Presbyterian with representative government, but having a healthy congregational dimension.

Women in ministry/leadership: Most evangelicals adhere to one of three positions: hierarchical (no public ministry); complementarian (many ministry roles excluding eldership); or egalitarian (no limitations to leadership roles). Historically, we have held to the complementarian position, where women have ministered with great blessing.  [Note: This year the C&MA in Canada moved to permit women as elders.]

Why this middle stance?

An outsider could perceive us as spineless. Proponents of the Canadian conservatism theory might label us “typical Canadians” who cross the road to get to the middle! Historically this stance has been rooted in strong Biblical convictions versus compromise. Our theology and ethos have been forged by the centrality of Christ. This passion for our all-sufficient Christ has relegated every other good cause to secondary status.

Forty-four autonomous national churches form the Alliance World Fellowship. What holds these culturally diverse churches together? It appears to be the Fourfold Gospel, i.e. Christ our Savior, Sanctifier, Healer and Coming King. No one is sure where it originated. Some feel it is simplistic. But it does fulfill the criteria for an effective mission statement: i.e. It’s short, understandable by a sixth grader and repeatable at gun-point!

“Middle ground stance” — there must be a more dynamic term. Thanks to one of our pastors I have found it: The Radical Middle. Why “radical”? The tendency of Christian movements is to polarize. Few find the middle ground. Even the points of the Fourfold Gospel have never been fine-tuned theologically. Why? How could we justify energy spent fine-tuning details of Christ’s second coming when a third of the world has never heard of his first coming.

August 23, 2012

If There Isn’t Mystery, It Isn’t Really Faith

Some people want everything in Christian theology to be cut and dried; as neat as a pin. You have to wrap up all your loose ends in the final scene before the credits roll, or they get quite perplexed.

But the realm of faith is never quite so tidy. Some things have to be, as we say here, “consigned to the realm of mystery.” C. Michael Patton listed five key areas at Parchment and Pen recently. As usual you’re encouraged to read things at source — they have a graphic that suits this well — so click through to The Five Great Mysteries of the Christian Faith.

As I do the math, there are five great mysteries in theology:

1. Creation out of nothing (ex nihilo): How did God create being out of non-being? Being transcendent in relation to the universe (above all time, space, and matter), the reason for God’s being is necessary (hence why we often call him the “necessary being”), so his existence does not require a cause-and-effect answer. Yet where did he get the “stuff” to create all that there is? It could not have come from himself, as that would place him in our universe of time, space, and matter. Then we would just be looking for the really real God. The same is true if the “stuff” was outside himself. All that there is must have come from nothing as a rational and philosophical necessity. All other options are formally absurd. While creation out of nothing is not formally absurd, it is a great mystery or paradox.

2. Trinity: We believe in one God who eternally exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This would only be a formal contradiction if we said we believed that God was three Gods and one God or if we said we believed he was three persons and one person. But to say that the Trinity is one God in three persons is not a formal contradiction, but a mystery.

3. Hypostatic Union: We believe that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, is fully God and fully man (at least since the time that he became man). We don’t believe that he is fifty percent God and fifty percent man, or even ninety/ten. Christ is everything that God is and has eternally, even in the incarnation, shared in the full divinity of the one God, yet he is everything that man is forevermore. Whereas the Trinity is one nature with three persons, Christ is one person with two natures. This is indeed a mystery, but has no earmarks of a formal contradiction.

4. Scripture: We believe the Bible is fully inspired of God, yet fully written by man. God did not put the writers of Scripture in a trance and direct their hand in the writing of Scripture (often referred to as “mechanical dictation”), but he fully utilized their personality, circumstances, writing style, and mood in producing the Scriptures. Another way to put it is that the Scriptures are the product of the will of God and the will of man. Mystery? Yes. Contradiction? No.

5. Human Responsibility and Divine Sovereignty: God is sovereign over the entire world, bringing about his will in everything. He does as he pleases in heaven and on earth. There is not a maverick molecule in all the universe. He even sovereignly predestined people to salvation before they were born, while passing over all others. Yet man is fully responsible for all his actions. There will be a judgment of the unrighteous one day in which God will hold people responsible for their rejection of Christ. How could there be a judgment if people were doing only what they were predestined to do? I don’t know. But I do know that they are truly responsible for their actions and rejection of God.  This is a mystery beyond any human ability to solve, yet not a contradiction.

Are there more than these? Most certainly. But in theology, these are the biggies. These are the big pieces of our puzzle that are missing. Why are they missing? I don’t know. I just know they are. God chose not to tell us. I will ask him when I get there. But I will try to trust him until then. After all, don’t I have to borrow from his morality in order to judge him for leaving the puzzle unsolved? I think I will pass on that.

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with trying to solve these, and I think everyone needs to get into the ring and wrestle with these issues. But church history has seen that whenever these are “solved,” heresy or serious aberration is always the result. Unfortunately, many continue to opt not to let these mysteries remain. Often with good intentions, Christians have found “solutions.” But these “solutions” normally have to distort God’s revelation to do so. Preferring a settled logical system, many find pieces of another puzzle and force it to fit. The result is an obscured and inaccurate, sometimes even damnable, view of God.

Where God has left the puzzle pieces out, so should we. He knows what he is doing. Let’s just thank him for the pieces we do have and worship, for now, in the white mysterious area. Hand firmly over mouth is a good theological posture sometimes.

Let’s see if I can get you a verse here . . . Got it!

Deut. 29:29
“The secret things [missing puzzle pieces] belong to the Lord, but the things revealed [present puzzle pieces] belong to us and our children forever.”

Oh, and one more (my default NT go-to verse in these matters):

1 Cor. 13:12
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Keep the original design. It’s good stuff.

~ C. Michael Patton

Scripture portions quoted at Christianity 201 are always in green because the Scriptures have LIFE!

 

April 7, 2012

The Nuances of Grace and Resurrection

This story is widely blogged:

In What’s So Amazing about Grace?, Philip Yancey recounts this story about C. S. Lewis:

During a British conference on comparative religions, experts from around the world debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith.

They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death.

The debate went on for some time until C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked, and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions.

Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.”

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree.

The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every instinct of humanity. The Buddhist eight-fold path, the Hindu doctrine of Karma, the Jewish covenant, and Muslim code of law—each of these offers a way to earn approval. Only Christianity dares to make God’s love unconditional.

While I like the story, had I been present, I would have challenged the notion that other religions have verified accounts of resurrection. One of the other things that sets Christianity apart is the evidence for the resurrection; evidence which forms the themes of countless books on Christian apologetics.

But where I want to go with this today is this: If you think about it, grace and resurrection are somewhat similar ideas. The DNA present in the concept of grace is embedded in the concept of resurrection, and the DNA of resurrection is embedded in the concept of grace.

Both represent a ‘pass’ if you will.

I sin, but forgiveness is made available by the grace of God.

I die, but in expectation of being raised to eternal life just as Christ conquered death.

I avoid having to perform acts of penance or go through acts of contrition in order to recover my spiritual dignity; I simply need to sincerely ask God’s forgiveness, it is a gift from God, not involving effort or earning.

I avoid having to wonder if my remorse was sufficient, I can receive assurance from God’s Word that my transgressions are forgiven, because he is ever-faithful and ever-just.

I avoid a meaningless death, but die knowing that this is not the end; that death itself is a gateway to something greater that God has in store; something my eyes have never seen, my ears have never heard, my imagination has never conjured up.

Now, some will argue that avoiding the consequences of sin and someday experiencing the reality of victory over death is really the same thing; and I would agree. The two are linked.

But imagine — and you don’t have to — a belief system that includes both grace and resurrection. Why would you look anywhere else?

December 7, 2011

Deconstructing Depravity, Totally

Oh Oh! We’ve used up our three wishes. Apparently Jim Greer’s writing has already graced the pages of Christianity 201 three times, including some rather recently.  But how could I let this one pass? It’s just too good not to have you all consider this topic. So you can do the polite thing and click over to Not For Itching Ears, or you can simply keep reading the post here which I have stolen borrowed. Jim, I promise, one more and we’ll put you on the payroll.  For the rest of us, I guess instead of reading at the newsstand, we should just buy a subscription…  (Click now!  This means you! Yes, you!)

Could the Doctrine of Total Depravity be Totally Depraved?

Over here at Not For Itching Ears we like to discuss issues that challenge our view of Christianity and the Church.   It is healthy to consider what one believes about the Christian faith and how we express that faith in our corporate church life.  If all we ever do is listen to ourselves, we can inadvertently become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about:  People who surround themselves with “teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear.”  Today’s post is an attempt to counter that tendency among us as we discuss the Doctrine of  Total Depravity.  To do this, we turn to a passage from  “Reconsidering Tulip”by Alexander J. Renault.  It is written from an Orthodox perspective.

Like many of you, I have always assumed that Total Depravity was a doctrine universally accepted by the church of all ages.  But I was wrong.  It is a rather new concept.  In fact the early church fathers, categorically rejected the idea.  That troubles me a lot.  If Paul understood humanity to be totally depraved or to have a total inability, why did his disciples and the disciples after him flat-out deny it?  Calvinism doesn’t work without this idea, so I can see why we would hesitate to even discuss it.  It wasn’t until Calvin that this idea became the unquestionable doctrine it has become.

I don’t think this article settles the question, but the author does bring out some interesting things that most of probably have not considered.

So, let the Discussion begin…

“The immediate concomitant of the first sin was the total depravity of human nature. The contagion of his sin at once spread through the entire man, leaving no part of his nature untouched, but vitiating every power and faculty of body and soul.” Louis Berkhof

The ontological problem with Total depravity is with the word “nature.” According to Total depravity, our very nature has changed. But what is a nature? In technical terms, “nature” refers to the essence of something—that which makes a thing a thing at its deepest level.

The early church Fathers used the term ousia for nature or essence. God is one nature (ousia) and three persons. Christ and the Father are of the same ousia. The incarnate Christ has two natures—human and divine.

So, if humans are intrinsically sinful in their essence (i.e. “sinful nature”), then God created sin. The Reformed will of course argue, “No, man was created with a good nature, but that nature changed.” But how can a nature change? A nature is the definition of a thing, and can only be defined by the one who creates the thing. What is the nature of a brick, for example? It’s a small, rectangular, hand-held fire-baked building block. If a single brick is broken, it doesn’t change the definition of brick nature. even if someone destroys every brick in the world, that still doesn’t change the definition of what a brick is. It doesn’t change brick nature. A man cannot change his nature any more than a brick could change its nature. Only God can change the nature/definition/essence of a thing. But to do so would make God the author of sin. . . . . . .

To take it to a more personal level, did God make you personally? Did He knit you together in your mother’s womb? If not, then God is not your creator, and I suppose it doesn’t matter what He thinks. But if He did create you, then what kind of nature did He create you with? A good nature, or a sinful nature? The answer that the church has historically given is that you are created with a good nature. You are created in the image of God. You are created to be an icon of God—a picture of God, here on earth.

But like a gold ring in a pile of manure, we are glorious creatures bound by sin and corruption. The nature or value of the gold ring doesn’t change, even if the environment does. Likewise, it is difficult for our true nature to be seen when we’re buried in a stinking pile of death and rot.

. . . . . Again, if sin is intrinsic to humanity, then Adam wasn’t human before he fell, nor will we be human when we’re in heaven, where there will be no sin. But if sin is foreign to our true nature, foreign to the image of god, then it makes little sense to say that we have a “sinful nature” . . . .

. . . . Another major problem is encountered when we confuse person with nature. What is a person? We might say that it is a unique manifestation of a nature. The early greeks used the term hypostasis for person and ousia for nature. Christ is one person (hypostasis) with two natures (ousia). The Trinity is one in essence, but with three persons (hypostases). There is only one human nature (or “humanity”) expressed uniquely in six billion different human persons. . . .

. . . The doctrine of Total depravity states that we are “utterly unable to choose to follow God or choose to turn to Christ in faith for salvation.” This is because, as Berkhof says, we have depraved natures, and we only choose what our nature dictates. In other words, we cannot help but to choose sin, because we have a sinful nature. But is choice a function of person or of nature?  Do people choose to do things or do natures choose to do things? I believe it’s a function of person, not nature.

Think about this idea of person vs. nature with the Trinity: God is one divine nature (ousia) and three persons (hypostases). can “holiness” be separated from God the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit? No, because holiness is an aspect of God’s nature. It is a natural attribute. Can “incarnation” be separated from God the Father? Yes. God the Father was not incarnate, but the Son was. Thus, incarnation is a personal attribute of the second person of the Trinity, not a natural attribute shared by all three persons of the godhead. . . .

. . . . Likewise, sin is a personal attribute and not a natural/essential one. If our choice to act sinfully was from our nature, then that would imply that all of our actions are simply the result of what our nature dictates. But the problem with that line of reasoning is that God Himself couldn’t help but to create, redeem, etc., because it’s His nature and not His personal free choice. This would mean that God created the world not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. He saved us not because He chose to, but because He had to, according to His nature. I’m inclined rather to agree with St. Patrick of Ireland, who said that the lord “gladly and of His own free will pardoned me.”

We can begin to see how a confusion of person and nature leads to a very limited God with no free choice. . . .

. . . . of vital importance to the discussion on Total depravity, and unfortunately all but neglected by most Reformed in my experience, is the doctrine of the incarnation. This brings the discussion of human nature out of the simply anthropological realm and into the christological realm.

The crux of the matter is this: if Christ did not have a human nature, then He cannot save us. If Christ was fully human, but not fully God, then He cannot bring us up to God. If He is fully God but not fully human, then He cannot come completely down to us and bridge the gap between us and God. The first several ecumenical councils of the church all dealt with this issue.

It is generally agreed among the Reformed that Christ was fully God and fully human. Unfortunately, the implications of this are not always understood by the Reformed. For if Christ is fully human, then He must have a human soul, a human will, a human mind—in short, a human nature. And yet He was without sin. This tells us that sin is not an integral part of human nature, and that one is still human apart from sin. Otherwise, either 1) christ was just as sinful as we are, or else 2) christ wasn’t fully human and can’t really save us.

John 1:14 – And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

Heb 2:11, 17 – For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren … Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High priest in things pertaining to God, to make expiation for the sins of the people.

This Hebrews passage is especially significant regarding Christ’s  human nature. It says that “in all things” He had to be made human.   And yet He was without sin. This would suggest that “sin nature” is in  fact foreign to true “human nature.

For Another interesting discussion on a topic you may have always assumed could not be challenged, see our series of articles called “A Compelling Argument AGAINST Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) or our series called “A Strong Argument Against Calvinism?”

~Jim Greer

For today, I’m closing comments here in order to encourage you to generate discussion at the source blog, where Jim is, I’m sure, more prepared to deal with issues arising from today’s discussion than I would be !!  I’m sure that for some of you this strikes at the heart of all you hold dear, but remember that ‘holding dear’ shouldn’t be the basis of establishing a personal, systematic theology for any of us.

May 30, 2011

I Believe What I Believe is What Makes Me Who I Am

“It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man”
~Rich Mullins, Creed

I had a friend tell me once that his denomination’s members were “not creedal people.”  I realized later it was just his way of saying that he didn’t want to be nailed down on anything.  Some of doctrines should be written in pencil, not ink, because as we mature in Christ and grow in both grace and knowledge, we realize that the things we held as absolutes may not be exactly as we think.  However… no wait, let me put that in capitals… HOWEVER, there are some core beliefs which should be not subject to negotiation; the basics, the essence of the Christian faith summed up in a few short sentences that we should “always be ready to give account” concerning.

The lyrics to Creed appear on the screen in this version.

  • Here’s a bonus article from TOL, written in response to the ongoing controversy concerning the Trinity.
  • Here’s another TOL piece, for those of you who get tripped up in the “holy Catholic church” line from the Apostles’ Creed.

September 14, 2010

Simple Christianity

Filed under: Uncategorized — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:49 pm
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A discussion I had today with a pastor reminded me that many of us grew up with very, for lack of a better word, simple approaches to various aspects of faith when we were younger which, over time, have shifted to a view of things which is either (a) more complex, (b) more in tune with the idea of mystery or (c) simply different than what we held at earlier stages of our faith journey.

We are not all the theologians that we were when we started down the path.

And yet, as the conversation progressed and we ennumerated the aspects of Christian teaching on which our views have shifted, he reminded me that for most of us, the core doctrines or non-negotiables have never changed.

In other words, in our younger, perhaps even more enthusiastic days, we held some things as black-and-white that we now see, not as gray, but as part of a different picture.    Back then it was all so simple.   We accepted the package of belief.    But now, careful reading of the scripture, and discussion with the broader range of Christ followers has indicated that certain doctrines should be written in pencil, not in ink.

But on the matters of God, Jesus Christ, atonement, the authority of scripture, the eventual return of Christ, etc.; on these matters we hold to the basics we first learned.     Following Christ is a matter of simple faith; a faith that anyone, regardless of intellectual capacity can catch the essence of.

What’s important here — and I hope I am making this clear — is that when we feel we are progressing or graduating beyond simple faith on some matters (most of which are peripheral to the core doctrines) it is important we don’t start tampering with the essential elements of Christian faith.

« Previous Page