Sunday, December 15, 2019

Anselm the Straightforward

The church's long acceptance of impassibility (in all its forms) is rooted in the early fathers' schooling and embrace of Greek philosophy. In particular, the concepts of apathy (apatheia) and sufficiency (Autarkeia). [1]

Divine apathy implies that God can feel no pain or emotion. Divine sufficiency is the notion that no external force can affect God.

In the knowledge of Christ's suffering on the cross, an antinomy is evident. The apathy of God presents an intellectual stumbling block: How can God suffer and yet not suffer?

Another conflict arises with the sheer number of passages in scripture that attribute emotions to God. The bulk of these are swept under the rug with a blunt instrument: the declaration that they are naught but anthropomorphisms. This is fine and dandy when we are talking about God being angry or remorseful. Those are easy to dismiss. It is a little more problematic when we get to God loving us and God having mercy and compassion  on us.

The modern so-called scholars sense that it is impolitic to say that God does not love or display compassion. (I say God does both.) They tend to deal with this non-trivial problem in a variety of unsatisfying ways. Some tend toward a Nestorian solution, for example by asserting that only the humanity of Christ suffered, not the deity. In doing so they get quite close to a denial of the hypostatic union. Others solve it with gobbledy-gook word salad, usually in support of their ultimate slam-dunk solution that sounds like it is saying something deep but is not really saying anything at all. What is this magic, explain-it-all solution? How does an impassible God love us without having an actual unseemly affection, a feeling not fit for any stoic god of Aristotle and Plato? Easy-peasy! God doesn't love, God IS love! God doesn't dispense mercy, God IS mercy!, etc.  (The capitalized "IS" appears to be required for this argument.) Exactly what this means--that God doesn't have attributes, God IS attributes--how that is explained as anything beyond a distinction without a difference--well  do not expect clarity, just prepare yourself for another hefty helping of word salad.

But not from Anselm, one of the early champions of impassibility--he did not mince words. He did not try, as the moderns do, the approach of saying something without really saying it. He surely had the courage of his convictions and should be admired in that regard. For example, how could an impassible God be compassionate? Anselm did not give the modern cop-out: God IS compassion!, as if that answered anything. Nope, Anselm tells that as a natural consequence of impassibility, God, in fact, has no compassion:
BUT how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless? For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched ; but this it is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? How, then, art thou compassionate and not compassionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being. 
Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own. For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling. Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness. [2]
Anselm tells us straightforwardly that God is not compassionate. It is only that we experience the salvation of the cross as if God was compassionate toward us--when in actuality he was not. You have to respect him for  not running away from the doctrine's clear implication.


[1] Dennis Ngien, "The Suffering of God According to Martin Luther's Theologia Crucis", p. 8.

[2] Anselm, Proslogion, ch. 8.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

When Theology is like Evolutionary Psychology

More and more, academic theology is reminding me of evolutionary psychology. If you don’t know what evolutionary psychology is, here is a classic example:

 Question: Why do men prefer blonde women?
[T]he skins of blonde women do age faster BUT their fair skin makes dermal signs of aging such as dark age spots and wrinkles easier to detect. A woman’s fertility and offspring viability decreases with age. As such, men prefer blondes because the signs of aging are much easier to detect. This would enable men to predict the age of a woman fairly accurately to ensure that they mate with a young, fertile woman which would in turn increase their reproductive success.
The criticism of evolutionary psychology is not that it reaches wrong conclusions (though surely it often does), but rather that there is no way to test its conclusions. There is no falsifiability. How do you test whether men prefer blondes because of fertility cues? This is what we call a “just-so” story. To varying degrees it may sound reasonable, but there is no way to be sure. I see this more and more in theology. Take this passage:
14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The LORD the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. (Exod 3:14-15)
What can you really make of this, credibly? In v.14 the first answer to Moses speaks of God’s self-existence, the very meaning of his name. We can easily understand it this way: “Tell the people of Israel that Jehovah has sent you.” The second answer, in v. 15, perhaps necessitated precisely because v. 14 did not simply use the name, or maybe just to drive a point home, is that it is not just any self-existent god who sent Moses, but their God, the God who made promises to the patriarchs. In other words, without much speculation or extrapolation, with firm purchase, I believe we can all agree that these two verses can be paraphrased minimally with a high degree of certainty (qualities that are correlated) as “Tell them Jehovah, the God of their fathers sent you.” End of  story.

In contrast,  here is what Samuel Renihan, in his book “God without Passions, a Primer” says about this passage:
There are many interconnected ideas at play here. [0]  Because God is what he is [1] he is simple. God does not have parts. [2] He is not a composite being [3]. You cannot add up anything in God that constitutes his existence. [4] He simply is. That is why you cannot classify God in any category. [5] There is no higher cause dictating God’s being. [6] And this must be so because any composition, any time two things are put together, implies a higher cause governing the composition. [7] God cannot be God if he is caused. [8] Thus God is simple, spiritual essence. [9] He is not becoming. [10] He is pure being. [11]  (God without Passions, p 53. Footnotes are to my commentary.) 
Renihan bases an entire doctrine of God’s simplicity on this passage. But does this passage really lead, inexorably, to such an extensive, detailed,  and comprehensive conclusion about the very nature of God? Do you really feel comfortable extracting so much from this passage? Well, maybe. But to me it smells just like Evolutionary Psychology explaining why men prefer blondes. It is just an untestable assertion. It's a just-so story. Which is okay, fun, provocative, and instructive even.

Until it becomes dogma and someone gets hurt.

I would whether take when I can reliably take out of this passage, and leave the details about God's, nature, beyond those that are plainly revealed, as mystery.

There is no indication that God is, in this passage, giving us instruction on intimate details of his nature. There is, however,  every indication in this passage that God is given us instruction on his name.


[0] Not necessarily. The only idea that is certain is that God tells Moses, “Tell them Jehovah, the God of their fathers sent you.”There may be no other ideas at all involved in this passage. Perhaps you are reading  too much into it.

[1] What to make of  this? Of course God is what he is. Everything is what it is.

[2] This is a leap. The passage says nothing about parts. What do "parts" even mean as applied to a spiritual being? And how simple is God? Too simple to be trinitarian? Is God as featureless as white noise?

[3] I think this is a false dichotomy (and a straw man), God being without parts or God being non-composite, when we only really understand what "composite" means in the material realm. We all agree that God is not put together like an Ikea television stand. However, we have no clue that a spiritual being cannot have features.

[4] What does that even mean?

[5] And what does that even mean?

[6] No Christian of any stripe would claim that there is a higher cause.

[7] How do we know this? Here is some speculation: God is self-caused, and that includes a type of spiritual self-composition, such as (in however this works in a spiritual being) God has self-composed himself as a trinity, or, if we want to set aside the trinity for a moment, he has self-composed himself with the features analogous mind and heart, or intellect and affections.

[8] Nobody is saying otherwise.

[9] The word "Thus" is totally unwarranted. "Thus" implies something has been demonstrated. Something has been proved. But nothing has been demonstrated, only speculated, with a great deal of word-salad.

[10] What does that even mean?

[11] And what does that even mean?

Monday, December 09, 2019

It really is that simple

Most of my six or seven readers might, by now, think I have nothing but utter disdain for philosophers. But that's not true. It's not utter. Seriously though, I do admire some Christian philosophers, for example Francis Schaeffer. Consider this little gem:
When we come to a problem, we should take time as educated people to reconsider both the special and general revelations; that is, we should take time to think through the question. There is a tendency among many today to consider that the scientific truth will always be more true. This we must reject. We must take ample time, and sometimes this will mean a long time, to consider whether the apparent clash between science and revelation means that the theory set forth by science is wrong or whether we must reconsider what we thought the Bible says. [1]
This is so simple, and yet so hard to do.

Let me rewrite in a clumsier way:

Lemma 1: 
P1) The bible (special revelation) is the inerrant word of God
P2) The universe (general revelation) is the inerrant creation of God
P3) God is not a god of deception who creates fake evidence to test us
C: The bible and the material universe cannot be in conflict

Lemma 2:
P1) Theology is how men and women study special revelation
P2) Science is how men and women study general revelation
P3) Men and women are fallible [2]
C: Theology and science can be in conflict

Lemma 3: 
P1) Theology can be wrong
P2) Science can be wrong
P3) Theology and science can be in conflict (by Lemma 2)
C: When they are in conflict, one or both must be wrong, and the only way to resolve the conflict is to examine both, and not assume that one's theology or one's science is beyond reproach.

Why can't we follow Schaeffer's simple advice?


[1] No Final Conflict, Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 24
[2] I'll take understatements for $1000, Alex.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Weirdness: The Tower of Babel

1 Now the whole earth had one language and one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar, and they dwelt there. 3 Then they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They had brick for stone, and they had asphalt for mortar. 4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. 6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen. 11:1-9, NKJV)
The Tower of Babel has always been, for me, among the more vexing accounts in scripture. Now, I have no problem with God's supernatural power, so his confusing of the language is an easy pill to swallow.  It's "just" another miracle that God produced--not willy-nilly like a parlor trick-- but as part of his overall redemptive plan, a plan that would take advantage of if not require, millennia later, the existence of many diverse nations. (I believe Gen. 10, the descendants of Noah, includes the timeline of the Strange Incident at Babel.) God needed a chosen people, so in order to have an in-group he is here setting the stage for an out-group.


The problem I had with the account has never been the supernatural, but the natural. I had always imagined, influenced by both the words and the Cecil B. Demille depictions, that the people built a tower with the actual intent of reaching the heavens. How did a Bronze Age (at best) culture have the technology to build a tower that "reached the heavens?"

I don't think they did. I think a tower that "reached the heavens" was both hyperbolic and relative to other construction of the age. I suspect that they were indeed employing bleeding-edge building techniques which to the populace would have been worthy of the hyperbole, but the actual height of the tower was probably on the order of, at most, 100 ft, not the thousand or so feet of my imagination. One age's "reaches the heavens" is another age's "meh."

It's pure speculation, but what may have happened at Babel, in addition to the sowing of seeds for a multicultural, multinational earth, was, as a bonus, the curtailing of a nascent version of "We don't need God" secular humanism. Nipped in the bud in a most efficient manner, although in truth (and alas) only placed in abeyance.

Monday, December 02, 2019

It's cheap to charge heresy

James Renihan wrote an article for Credo Magazine on What is Impassibility. He starts by teaching that impassibility is not the same as impassability, the latter referring, in his example, to the inability of one car to pass another, faster car. Well, alrighty then. That’s not too much of a waste of pixels. 

After that weighty and important discussion of homonyms, Renihan gives a definition of Impassibility:
“God does not experience emotional changes either from within or effected by his relationship to creation.”
Fair enough. His paper, his definition. But it is worth noting (which he neglects to do) that others define it differently. Very differently. For example, J.I. Packer defines it this way:
It means simply that God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart form his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.
Sproul does not so much give a definition as to describe what Impassibility is not:
Sometimes the impassibility of God is expressed philosophically in such a way as to describe God as being utterly incapable of feeling. In a desire to protect the immutability of God and to free Him from all passions that would be dependent upon the actions of the creature and to insure the constant and abiding state of pure and total felicity in God, the accent falls on His being feeling-less. This robs God of His personal character and reduces Him to an impersonal force or blob of cosmic energy.
Karl Barth writes, on Impassibility:
But the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible. He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power. But this does not mean that He is not capable of moving Himself. No, God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in His own free power, in His innermost being: moved and touched by Himself, i.e., open, ready, inclined (prpensus) to compassion to another’s suffering and therefore to assistance, impelled to take the initiative to relieve this distress. It can only be a question of compassion, free sympathy, with another’s suffering. God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so.
Barth, while stating explicitly that God is not impassible, nevertheless gives a rather standard definition, that God is not subject to emotions or sufferings that from outside, as the creatures are, but only those to which he wills.

I could go on. Some theologians only connect Impassibility with God’s inability to suffer. So you must watch for sleight of hand here. It is true that the Doctrine of Divine Impassibility has been around since, oh, the second century. It is not true that Renihan’s definition has held sway. Thus when Renihan writes, concerning the WCF:
The phrase “without … passions” refers to the doctrine of divine impassibility. It has been consistently confessed by Christians through the ages.
He is technically correct. However, do not be fooled into thinking that everyone (including the Westminster divines) who agrees that God is without passions would accept Renihan’s definition of Impassibility.

What really ticks me off is where Renihan goes next. But it is oh, so expected. It’s as if the modern Baptist scholastics have only one arrow in their quiver, the heresy arrow. Renihan writes:
To deny the doctrine of divine impassibility is to open the door to heresy. In the seventeenth century, this was expressed by a group of people known as Socinians.
Even if we grant that denying Impassibility, to use Renihan’s weasely cop-out language, “opens the door” to heresy, we do not need to grant that denying Reneihan’s version (which he tacitly wants you to believe is the true and timeless version, never acknowledging the theologians through the ages differed in their definition of Impassibility) does so.

He attempts to prove his case by anecdote. And it is an awful choice of anecdote. The Socinians rejected just about every orthodox doctrine. To link their heresy in any way to a rejection of Impassibility is simply bad scholarship.

Not being able to resist such a sound strategy, Renihan employs it again, telling us that Clark Pinnock denied Impassibility and became an Open Theist. This man, whom I believe is the president or provost equivalent of a seminary, is seemingly unaware of the pitfalls of arguing by anecdote: Tom survived a plane crash! Plane crashes are safe! 

An argument from anecdote is virtually pointless. The church from which the Reformers broke, because of that church's apostate view of justification, has a proud tradition of affirming Impassibility. One could just as cheaply use Rome as a rather large counter anecdote, and imply that an affirmation of Impassibility opens the door for heresy. It would be just as bad of an argument as Renihan’s. The argument that "if you deny X it opens the door for heresy" is an Argument from Intimidation. It is cheap, unworthy, scurrilous, unscholarly, and simply wrong.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

The Rise of the Papacy (remix)

The Fall of Imperial Rome


During the glory of Rome, we have the notion of Pax Romana, describing the longest period of enforced peace in the history of the western world. (There was a time when people hoped for a Pax Americana, but nobody talks about that anymore.) Nevertheless, the Imperial Roman Empire came down in the fifth century, as barbarians with superior military strength began crossing the borders. As they began to chip away (and ultimately occupying) territory, the ultimate doom of the empire was inevitable.

We should stop and look at the sovereignty of God at play. God raised up Pharaoh for the purposes of bringing him down. Likewise he raised up Rome, it would seem, for the purpose of providing the infrastructure and stability needed for the rapid growth of the church. Then He brought Rome down—and ironically the "feeble" and army-less church would not only survive Rome's collapse but would end up conquering the conquerors, as many of the barbarians converted to Christianity.

Consider, for example, the case of Alaric, a leader of the Visigoths, pushed by the Huns and later followed by Attila the Hun. Alaric invaded Rome (for the second time) more-or-less unopposed in 410, an event that shocked the western world and is generally regarded as the end of the Roman Empire. (By that time Rome had already ceased to be the seat of the imperial court.) It was a bishop with no military power that persuaded Alaric to leave. Likewise Attila the Hun, known as the “Scourge of God”, stood (in 452) on the road to Rome, with no opposition before him, when Pope Leo the Great left Rome, marched out to meet Attila and, in words that sadly have not been preserved, persuaded him to spare the ancient capital.

In 476 the barbarian Odoacer deposed the last (and by now impotent) western emperor and became, in effect, emperor himself. This would be the final nail in the coffin of Imperial Rome.

Later we find the barbarian King Theodoric (c. 454 – 526) become a Christian—so much so that he was the recipient of a false accusation of being an Arian heretic.

So Imperial Rome fell. She was replaced by something even more powerful, an empire with not one but two swords: an ecclesiastical sword and a political sword. The rulers of this empire tyrannized the bodies and the souls of men. In that sense they were twice the tyrant of many of the Roman emperors—most of which, in the later empire, were tolerant in religious matters.


The Rise of Ecclesiastical-Political Rome


As we will see, the tyranny on the souls of men will be made manifest in the doctrine identified by the Latin phrase: Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. It translates as "Outside the Church, there is no salvation." Now it should be pointed out that the statement, as it stands, is correct. It is a question of whose church are we talking about? There is indeed no salvation outside of Christ's church. However, this was in reality a pernicious code phrase meaning there is no salvation outside the Roman Catholic Church. Why is such a statement tyranny? For the simple reason that men, especially the pope, held the power of membership in the Roman Catholic Church. If your membership was revoked, your salvation was lost. The pope literally held salvation in his hands.

So the Catholic Church (from this point on, "Catholic Church" always means the Roman Catholic Church) had an ecclesiastical sword of awesome power—the very power of salvation. It also had a political sword of great power, but this sword it wielded indirectly. Officially, the state held that sword. But the state would be under the control of the Catholic Church. It was the state who executed, but it was the Catholic Church that pronounced the death sentence. It is this slight indirection that allows the Catholic Church to maintain the fiction that she never executed anyone, even during the Inquisition. (The Inquisition was a tribunal, presided over by Dominican friars, who were charged with rooting out heresy. Those suspected of heresy were brought before the tribunal and given a chance to recant. If they didn’t, they were handed over to civil "puppet" authorities, because "the Church never sheds blood.")


Papal Authority


Non-Catholics generally regard Leo the Great as the first pope, at least in the modern sense of the word. For he was the first to use a misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18 as biblical support for his divine authority.
"I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matt. 16:18)
In a sense, three errors were committed that lead to the rise of the papacy.
  1. A mistaken belief in the supremacy of Peter
  2. The misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18
  3. The invention of apostolic succession


Paul, not Peter, was the greatest Apostle


At first this must sound a little silly--arguing about who is greater than whom. But what is really silly, but understandable in today’s society, is to dogmatically proclaim that all apostles made contributions of identical value. They did not, and it should be obvious that such is the case.

Peter was a great and godly man, and a great leader, and was loved dearly by Jesus. But it was Paul, not Peter, who was the New Testament Moses. Paul wrote most of the New Testament. Paul explained the life and ministry of Jesus more comprehensively than any other inspired writer. Paul founded more churches than any other apostle, engaged in more missionary work than any other apostle, and who, in the book of Romans, provided us with the most thorough (inspired) doctrine of salvation. It was Paul who made two substantive visits to Rome. Peter probably made one short visit to Rome and probably, like Paul, was martyred there. What Peter did not do, and what some Catholics still believe, is spend twenty-five years in Rome as bishop.


Misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18


The misinterpretation of Matthew 16:18 can be stated this way: Catholics see "only Peter" in the passage. But it was not Peter the man that would be the rock upon which the church would be built, but Peter in faith confessing in the Lordship of Christ two verses earlier:
Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." (Matt. 16:16)
Peter, here, is the archetype Christian: one who believes and confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, and Our Lord and Savior. Upon this "model" as it were, the church will be built. Catholicism sees only the man Peter, not the confessor Peter, and thereby elevates Peter well beyond Christ's intent. In effect, the position of the Catholic Church is that, at this moment in time, Christ has delegated to the Apostle Peter the power over salvation.

Amazingly, just a few verses later, just after Catholics say Jesus bestowed upon Peter the awesome power of salvation, the first pope makes a serious error:
21From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 
And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you." 23But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man." (Matt. 16:21-23)
The possibility that shortly after Peter was divinely appointed to a papal throne he was then called "Satan" by Jesus makes the mind reel.

(Note: some Protestants believe that Jesus isn’t even referring to Peter when he uses the word rock, which is feminine. That is probably not true. Jesus was probably referring to Peter throughout Matt. 16:18, but, as stated, not Peter the man but Peter the archetype Christian because of his previous, powerful confession.)


Invention of Apostolic Succession


The mistakes of exaggerating the importance of Peter and in misinterpreting Matt. 16:18 would be bad enough, but what the institution of the papacy requires is that Peter, who they believe held, through the keys of the kingdom, the power of salvation, passed along that god-like authority to subsequent Roman bishops. Even if you agree that Jesus abrogated his authority to Peter, nowhere in scripture is a successor to Peter mentioned, or even alluded to, a fact acknowledged by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church must find her support for apostolic succession not in scripture, but tradition, a subject we will talk about later.


The Investiture Struggle


One manifestation of the rise of papal power can be seen in what is know as the investiture struggle. This can be stated simply: Should the pope crown the king, or should the king crown the pope? (And who should ordain bishops?) This was a battle concerning the supremacy of church or state.

That the church would even presume that she should crown the king is a sign of how things had gone wrong. It is a sign that the church looked favorably upon the idea of a theocracy—and this is a serious error. (Today some conservative Christians support the notion of a theocracy—it remains a serious error.)

In Old Testament times, of course, Israel was a theocracy. But in the New Testament, we see two things that tell us that the time of theocracy is over.

The first is that the New Testament we are told to obey (secular) rulers:
1Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.  2Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. (Rom 13:1-2)
The second and more important reason is that Christ tells us that His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36.) We are not to fight with secular authorities; Christ even rebukes Peter when Peter takes that approach at the time of his arrest.

How did Christ’s kingdom come to be, under the medieval Catholic Church, "of this world?" Well, for the most part people asked for it. People viewed the church as a preferred ruler, even on matters of state, and the state accepted the invitation.

This was unique to the west. In the east, the czars won the investiture struggle, and they remained in authority over the eastern church. And in Islam, the two parts are united in the Sultanate.


Three Important Popes


At this point, we examine three medieval popes who contributed substantively to the rise the papacy.

Gregory VII (Hildebrand) 1075-1089

The investiture struggle reached its climax under Pope Gregory VII and his battle with (German) King Henry IV (who had succeeded to the throne at the age of six). Over the investiture controversy, Henry IV deposed the pope, the pope in return excommunicated the emperor.

What happened next was astounding. Not only did Gregory excommunicate Henry, he freed the people from any obligation to submit to Henry’s civil authority. In effect, he established as a rule of law that the king had to be a Christian in good standing, and since Henry, having been excommunicated, was no longer a Christian, he could no longer rule. In response, Henry adopted a brilliant strategy. In 1077 Henry, having been excommunicated, stood barefoot in the snow, outside the papal palace, begging for forgiveness. Gregory was between a rock and a hard place. He was obligated by church law to forgive and restore any person with a sincere outward appearance of repentance, and not many men had ever looked more sincere than Henry. But if he forgave Henry, he was certain that Henry would use his restored power against him.

That’s exactly what happened. The pope forgave Henry and restored him to the church and his throne. Henry returned the favor by exiling Gregory. Nevertheless, and important and non-biblical precedent had been established: according to the Catholic Church and contrary to scripture, people were not subject to the authority of their rulers unless the church sanctioned that authority.

Innocent III 1198-1261

Under Innocent III, Papal authority reached its highest level. And under Innocent we see the seeds for the later Protestant Reformation being sown, for under Innocent the way to salvation changed from the biblical gospel: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved (Acts 16:31), to a gospel that is unrecognizable.

Innocent III presided during the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215, and may scholars agree that this is where papal authority reached its apogee, while at the same time (and not coincidentally) the Catholic Church sank to her lowest level, completely instituting her own way to salvation.

Innocent III commanded Crusades, presided over the introduction of the seven sacraments and the sacramental system, including making confession to a priest necessary, and instituted the penitential system.

Two of the sacraments are not relevant for this discussion. These are "holy orders", i.e., related to the ordination of priests, etc., and marriage.

The other five are:
  • Infant Baptism
  • Confirmation (at age 12)
  • The Eucharist (Lord’s supper of transubstantiated elements)
  • Penance
  • Extreme Unction (Last Rites) 
What is so wrong with the sacramental system? The problem can be stated this way: if you did what the church instructed, and followed the sacramental system from womb to tomb, it essentially guaranteed salvation. You would likely spend time in purgatory, but you were baptized as an infant, confirmed at 12, partook of the Lord’s supper, confessed your sins to a priest, performed acts of penance, received Extreme Unction, and were buried on holy ground, you were on your way to heaven.

This represented such a grave distortion of the gospel that it is basically unrecognizable as related in anyway whatsoever to the scripture. What the Fourth Lateran Council under Innocent III tells you to do in order to be saved bears no resemblance to what Paul tells the Philippian Jailer.

Boniface VIII 1294-1303

Under Boniface VIII we find the most dramatic and blatant assertion of papal power. In 1302, Boniface issued the Papal Bull know as Unam Sanctum, which declared that submission to the pope was required for salvation.

Unam Sanctum begins this way:
Urged by faith, we are obliged to believe and to maintain that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and also apostolic. We believe in her firmly and we confess with simplicity that outside of her there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins
And ends with these amazing words:
Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff. 
It should be noted, that, to the extent possible, the Roman Catholic Church views Boniface as something of an embarrassment.

Although bold in words, Boniface was weak in power, and was effectively deposed by King Philip. Because of his arrogant pronouncements yet ignominious end, it is said of Boniface: "he crept in like a fox, reigned like a lion, and died like a dog."

The Councils of the Church

There are many councils of the church. It is helpful, I think, to have a summary that tells us which ones, as Protestants, we accept.

325, I Nicea, Arius is a heretic—Son of one sunstance with Father—Nicene creed

381, I Constantinople, Reiteration of Nicea—divinity of Holy Spirit

431, Ephesus, Condemnation of Nestorius (Jesus is two distinct persons)—Mary “mother of God”

451, Chalcedon, Condemnation of of Eutyches

553, II Constantinople, Condemnation of 'Three Chapters'

680-681, III Constantinople, Condemnation of monothelism (Jesus had two wills)—condemnation of Pope Honorius

787, II Nicea, Images/Icons worthy of veneration (but not worship)

869-870, IV Constantinople, Ended schism of Photius

1123, I Lateran, Confirmed Concordat of Worms

1139, II Lateran, Compulsory clerical celibacy

1179, III Lateran, Determined method of papal election

1215, IV Lateran, Transubstantiation—confession and communion at least yearly

1245, I Lyons, Declared Emperor Frederick II deposed

1274, II Lyons, New regulations for papal elections (essentially the modern rules)

1311-1312, Vienne, Suppression of the Templars

1414-1418, Constance, End of great schism

1431-1445, Basel/Ferra Florence, Nominal reunion with Constantinople

1512-1517, V Lateran, Condemned schismatic council of Pisa

1545-1563, Trent, Condemned Protestant reformation—sacred tradition—denounced justification by faith alone and Sola Scriptura 

1869-1870, I Vatican, Papal Infallibility

1962-1965, II Vatican, Liturgical renewal (native language) – social concerns – protestants as “separated brethren”


Well, we can agree with the first four, and probably the next two, but the instituting of image veneration in the seventh council (II Nicea) in some sense marks the point where the Catholic Church really began to diverge.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Do not place your kids at risk of Death by Doctrine

Teach your children wisely.

You want to teach your children sound doctrine. Your doctrine. Big mistake.

The hardest part, you see,  is admitting that you might be wrong. But here is the deal: other than the Gospel (and what is explicit in scripture, with no possible ambiguity) it is not the case that you might be wrong, it is rather the case that you are almost certainly wrong, at least in some of the details. And not just on some of your doctrine, but most or all of it. We fallible miserable creatures all are wrong, to some degree, about everything except the Gospel. Deal with it.

The best way to teach your children is to have the largest possible circle of orthodoxy. Or, to invert that, to have the smallest number of line-in-the-sand doctrines.

You don’t have to avoid teaching what you believe to your children. By no means. You do not have to be ecumenical. You just have to be clear that other Christians have other viewpoints, and nobody will really know for certain about so many things until we all are on the other side of glory, and then it won’t matter if we were wrong. It won’t matter then, and it doesn’t matter now. This is hard. You don’t want to take that route, do you? Hint: that is not your righteousness pricking you, it’s your ego and pride.

The more you shrink your circle of orthodoxy, the more you place your children at risk. 1

The obvious case is creation. If you teach your children that they must accept that creation occurred in six literal days, and that it is an important doctrine, they will likely, up to say age 14 or so, maybe a little longer, accept your teaching. You just better hope that when they get to college they do not study science, because they will be presented with the incontrovertible evidence that the earth and universe are billions of years old. 2 If they lose their faith at that point, (I’ve seen it happen more than once) you’ll resort to blaming the pointy-headed professors. But it won’t be their fault. It will be your fault. You will have set them up for failure. At that point, all your good intentions will not be worth a bucket of warm spit.

You don't see that happening do you?  No, you are molding your stout sons and daughters into your version of creation orthodoxy and they are responding better than you ever could have hoped or  imagined.

You fool. That's for now. Enjoy it while it lasts. They are still children. They think you are actually quite smart and reliable. Soon they will not be children.

On the other hand, if you teach them that some fine Christians think the earth is old, and we can agree to disagree on this unimportant doctrine, then the risk is minimized.

Your solution to the Problem of Evil? It’s wrong. You do not have one. You may have something that allows you to sleep at night, which is fine. But Problem of Evil quasi-solutions do not transfer well. That is, nobody is ever truly satisfied with anyone else’s PoE “solution”. So do not tell your kids that they must deal with this insoluble problem the way you deal with it. Do not teach them a solution; teach them how to cope as well as they can with the fact that, at least up until now, there is no solution.

Your doctrine of God? Your doctrines of immutablility, impeccability, impassibility, simplicity? To varying degrees you have them wrong. It is virtually guaranteed. The “derivations” of these from scripture are not deductive, even with the premise that the bible is the infallible word of God. No, they are based, as any examination of their "proofs" will show,  on tenuous threads of inductive reasoning. They might be right. There may even be a high probability that they are right. But it is not 100% certainty. And since even the proponents of these doctrines (in three out of four cases, that would be me) differ in the details, it is almost certainly the case that your (and my) particular version of any of these doctrines is wrong.

That’s okay.3 Teach your children (older in this case) that this is the conclusion you have reached. But you might be wrong. You can say that, can’t you?

The more your child comes to disagree with doctrines that you taught as absolute, the more they will face an unnecessarily difficult and painful path. Choose your lines in the sand wisely.

The Nicene creed, I submit, is a very wise choice of the maximum quantity of theology about which one can teach their children in an uncompromising manner. In everything else be flexible.


1 As a Calvinist I don’t believe you can place your children at eternal risk. They are either elect or they are not. However, you can certainly contribute to their path being more difficult than necessary by placing them, for no reason other than your ego and pride, in a needless state of cognitive dissonance.

2 If you send them to a university that doesn’t teach real science, like Liberty University, you’ll just be delaying the inevitable.

3 Except for the fact that the modern so-called scholars who like to attach the heresy word to non-affirmation of these doctrines. Only they do it (in my experience) in a cowardly way. They say “Such and such dead theologian (bonus points if it was a marquee Reformed theologian or for even more bonus points, a Puritan) believed that a denial of this or that doctrine was heresy. They generally lack the you-know-what to tell you that they view it as heresy. Even though you both know that they do. I would respect someone who calls me a heretic outright, rather than letting a dead guy be the bad cop. Sigh. Like atheists, they don't make pharisees like they used to!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

A comment on DeYoung on impeccability

I do not recall having read Kevin DeYoung, even though I know he is something of a celebrity. It’s nothing personal, I just never had an occasion. But I followed a tweet from someone I admire very much (I hope they will not be upset with me for disagreeing) who recommended DeYoung’s primer on impeccability.

If you don’t know, the Impeccability of Christ is the doctrine that not only did Jesus not sin, he was, even in his human nature, utterly incapable of sinning. As you'll see, I disagree with this doctrine.

Young’s primer begins this way:
Christ’s impeccability has been widely affirmed throughout the history of the church and defended by most of the leading Reformed systematicians. 
Fair enough, although I grow weary of this type of argument. I often wonder why theologians who make this type of argument even bother to be theologians. The argument (from authority) amounts to this: we don’t need to do theology, just history, because the theologians of the past got everything right. I can’t recall the last time I read a discussion from my camp (the Reformed camp) that used only scripture and not an appeal to dead theologians. (Though not a theologian, I am also guilty of this, as in the appendix below. Pot. Kettle. Black.)

Now that is just a nit. What really disturbs me is when DeYoung turns to scripture, beginning a defense of the doctrine with the bold heading: First, Christ’s impeccability can be deduced from Scripture.
If Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb. 13:8), he must be unchanging in his holiness.
It's that blasted immutability again. So many arguments of the attributes of God are based on immutability. But nobody ever seems to stop and ask: do we have that doctrine right? We keep using that word; are we sure it means what we think it means? (If you know me you know that I am not denying God’s immutability. I’m questioning the tacit claim, and the basis of many arguments, that of all the attributes of God, the only one we have really nailed, with no possibility of error, is immutability. Further, it is the only perfectly commutable attribute. Immutability means exactly the same thing for God as it does for man, even though only one of these is also transcendent.)

Think how much weight DeYoung is putting on Heb 13:8 to establish Immutability with a capital ‘I’. If you read Hebrews 13 in its entirety, I think you’ll agree that the topic being discussed is the consistency of the Gospel message. The writer is not injecting, in a discourse that spans from hospitality to the submission to leaders, a one-verse definitive theological teaching on the doctrine of immutability beyond assuring his readers that the Gospel message has not and will not change. This  is  proof by isolated verse proof-texting. And it was all so unnecessary. DeYoung’s conclusion from his misuse of Heb 13:8, that Christ has an unchanging holiness—this we all would accept as an ansatz.

DeYoung then writes:
A mutable holiness would be inconsistent with the omnipotence of Christ and irreconcilable with the fact that Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2).
This is perhaps where, rightly or wrongly, my training as a scientist takes offence. In my discipline an uncategorical statement such as this requires proof. We do not accept proof by assertion. Skipping the question (because I do not see the relevance) of the inconsistency with omnipotence, I think that a much more defensible (and sufficient) statement is this: if Christ’s holiness mutated, because he sinned, then he could not save himself let alone be the author and finisher of our faith.

DeYoung continues:
Christ is unlike the first Adam in that he is the fountain of all holiness, and from him can proceed nothing but life and light.
Okay, that is a nice theological platitude. But I do not see the relevance. Moving on:
If Christ were able to sin, his holiness would, by definition, be open to change—his obedience open to failure—even if Christ proved in the end to be faithful.
I agree with all of this.

Then the section’s conclusion:
A peccable Christ is a Savior who can be trusted only in hindsight.
This misses the boat. We do not have to trust Christ in hindsight. We know from infallible scripture that he Did. Not. Sin. That is the only relevant fact. No trust is required in regards to the incarnate Christ's sinlessness. (As a counter-example, we trust he will return as promised. ) We need not concern ourselves with the theoretical possibility that Christ might have sinned and ruined everything. Because he didn’t. Game over, man. The good team won.

I don’t think the rest of DeYoung’s argument gets any better 1, but I do not have the time to go through it line by line. Judge for yourself. However, I will comment on one analogy that DeYoung makes is his section entitled: Third, impeccability is consistent with temptation. Here he is trying to dismiss the reasonable argument that a Christ unable to sin renders the temptations of Christ, those very experiences that allow him to sympathize with our plight, meaningless. He uses this analogy:
Christ’s inability to sin does not make his temptations less genuine. The army that cannot be conquered can still be attacked.
That is, in my view, a bad analogy. An impeccable Christ is much more than an army that cannot be conquered. It is an army that cannot, even in principle, suffer even the slightest of casualties. That makes it an army that cannot in any meaningful way be attacked. I would say that we (the elect), along with the incarnate Christ, we all are armies that cannot be conquered. Christ, however, was the only one that withstood every attack while sustaining zero casualties. The rest of us leave in our wake utter carnage. But still, we will not be conquered.

Appendix

Just a couple of Reformed theologians who disagree with the doctrine of impeccability:
“This sinlessness of our Lord, however, does not amount to absolute impeccability. It was not a non potest peccare. If He was a true man He must have been capable of sinning. That He did not sin under the greatest provocation; that when He was reviled He blessed; when He suffered He threatened not; that He was dumb, as a sheep before its shearers, is held up to us as an example. Temptation implies the possibility of sin. If from the constitution of his person it was impossible for Christ to sin, then his temptation was unreal and without effect, and He cannot sympathize with his people.” Charles Hodges, Systematic Theology, III.iv.2.2  
I may be wrong 2, but I think it is wrong to believe that Christ’s divine nature made it impossible for his human nature to sin. If that were the case, the temptation, the tests, and his assuming of the responsibility of the first Adam would have all been charades. This position protects the integrity of the authenticity of the human nature because it was the human nature that carried out the mission of the second Adam on our behalf. It was the human nature uniquely anointed beyond measure by the Holy Spirit. (R. C. Sproul)  

1 In fact, I think it gets worse, that is it gets even more abstract and Aristotelian.

2 Thank you RC. Imagine, a theologian who actually begins a discussion with “I may be wrong.” You simply do not hear that anymore. It doesn’t just speak to Sproul’s humility—it is tacit acknowledgement that this is not a cardinal doctrine; disagreement does not imply (as I have, at times, been warned) heresy.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Church Leaders: You do not need to protect the Lord's Supper

Church leaders should protect the Lord’s Table in a literal, physical sense. That is, from those who might vandalize or mock the sacrament, or steal the elements, or encourage the thievery of the elements, such as that total embarrassment to my profession, P.Z. Myers (an old post, but he hasn’t changed his repulsive spots).

The protection should stop there. Because as we all know, God himself will protect the Lord’s Supper from invisible assaults. You cannot do it with any reliability, only God can, so don't  even try.

I do not grasp the concept of fencing the Lord’s Table from non-members. If someone wants to participate, then unless you have a threshold of negative information, welcome them. What is the threshold? I submit it is something like this: if you have enough reliable data that would, if they were a member, clearly bring them under church discipline, then exclude them. Otherwise let God take care of it.  You know, he has not actually asked for your help in this matter.

My question for church leaders is this: on judgment day, would you prefer for God to ask you why you gave communion to a closeted unbeliever, or ask you why you withheld it from someone whose sincerity you had no reason to  doubt? 

To me the second question is much scarier.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Immutability and Prayer

Then God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God relented from the disaster that He had said He would bring upon them, and He did not do it. (Jonah 3:10)
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. (James 3:16)
The first verse, where God appears to change his mind regarding the fate of Nineveh, is rather easy to dismiss as nothing more than an anthropomorphism. It is not necessarily correct to do so, but it sure is easy. You simply make a question-begging argument (though fallacious, it doesn't mean it reached the wrong conclusion) that God is immutable, and that means he cannot change his mind, and so, ipso facto, he didn't change his mind.

The second case is more problematic. The question of prayer is already difficult for those of  us with a strong view on God's sovereignty. Throw in an extreme view of immutability and you are left with one of the reasons we are supposed to pray (the clinical reason: because we are commanded to pray) as virtually the only reason we are to pray. And you are left with no way to explain James 3:16 and other similar passages that indicate prayer can be effective--and not just as a catharsis for your soul (although it certainly is that) but truly effective.

There is no way, that I see, to wield the broad "it's just an anthropomorphism" brush when it comes to passages that teach that prayer can be effective. Such scripture gives the clear indication that the universe is heading for state A, but your prayer might cause God to divert it to state B.

God "relenting" (whatever that means, but it means something), or God being alternately "angry" and "pleased" (whatever that means, but it means something), or God answering prayer (whatever that means, but it means something) are different sides (three of 'em!) of the same coin. They require, in our time, a change of direction. Throw out one, you throw out all three. They stand or fall together.

The (I believe) proper view of immutability, if not solving the problem, at least makes it less vexing. In this view God is strictly immutable in his transcendence, outside of space and time. We, on the other hand, tread an inexorable, one-dimensional, constant direction, and constant speed path through time, seeing only here and experiencing only now. God relented because Nineveh repented, but these data were known to God from eternity.

God has a full range of "emotions" (whatever that means, but it means something) but the changes in God's disposition and affections toward us are already known (and experienced) to God outside of time, and though fully immutable are to  us are very real changes in response to very real actions on our part.

To me, it is the only way to integrate immutability, a gazillion occurrences in scripture that speak of God's "emotions" changing, and the passages that speak of the power of prayer--passages that cannot be dismissed as anthropomorphic.