Saturday, June 15, 2019

Thanks for the comments!

Thank you all who commented of the previous post. It appears the commenting system, though not robust, kinda sorta works.

I will be elsewhere for the next three weeks, so it is probable (but not certain) that I will not be posting again until the second week of July.

Cheers!


Monday, June 10, 2019

Comment Test

Two people (which sounds better than the equivalent: 33% of my readers) have told me they can't post comments. If you have a chance, try on this post. If it fails I would appreciate an email to that effect at heddle AT gmail DOT com.

Thanks!

Friday, June 07, 2019

Musings on divine genocide

But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite, as the LORD your God has commanded you, (Deut 20:17) 
I have never heard a comforting exegesis of the genocide commands found in the Old Testament as part of the conquest of the Holy Land.

Virtually every explanation centers on how sinful the ites were—but that is simply a variant of the “thank you God that I am not such a sinner as he” false assurance trap. If being sinful and in rebellion against God was a reason for divine ethnic cleansing 1 then the Jews (and every other ethnicity, ites or not) should have been command to kill one another, with the victors then required to commit mass suicide.

From a theological standpoint I can accept that everything God commands is good. From a human standpoint I recoil at what was commanded and what transpired, and see no good in it, even as I admit that it (the good) must be there, hiding from my sight.

Recently I heard this argument. I’m paraphrasing:
So you find it offensive that God ordained the deaths of these peoples at the hands of the Jews? Is God not sovereign? Would not God have ordained their deaths anyway? Would you find it less offensive if God ordained their deaths scattered over the following 50 years by various means—illness, accident, etc., but nevertheless a death that is just as dead and just as ordained? 
That’s not a helpful perspective (although at least it was novel to me.) Yes I find it more offensive to order one group to annihilate another with the sword even though all deaths, even the deaths by natural causes, are ordained. Not to mention (and the person making this argument did not mention it) that the manner in which God ordained the deaths of these people groups mean the extinction of their bloodlines, as it were. So the argument just doesn’t work. Meh. Thanks for trying.


1 Actually it is, except for God’s mercy. Wherein possibly lies the truth of the matter, regardless of how unsatisfying. And it will likely never be satisfying until we come face to face with the awful reality of God’s holiness. Then it will be like: Oh, yeah...

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

Musings on Original Sin

I believe it is fair to say that there are two views on what one means by claiming an "Augustinian" perspective of Original Sin. One view is this:

V1: That Adam was our representative, and furthermore given that he was chosen by God we can assume he was the best possible representative. When he sinned he lost the moral ability to choose not to sin. Put differently, he lost the ability to please God. This moral inability was then inherited by all his descendants. In other words, we suffer devastating consequences (and in fact, spiritual death) as a result of Adam’s sin.

The other view is:

V2: Everything in V1, plus we are literally charged with Adam’s first sin, as if we committed it.

Now practically speaking the difference between V1 and V2 is completely irrelevant. In both views we cannot save ourselves and we need a savior. However, theologically speaking they say very different things about God. More about that anon. For now, let's discuss the limited question of what did Augustine teach.

More crudely, was Adam's first sin in our debit column? Did the generally credited father of the doctrine, Augustine, teach that? Well, on another site, someone was (politely and cogently) defending the view that Augustine teaches V2, providing as proof quotes from Augustine's works:
In City of God, [Augustine] writes, 
“we all existed in that one man, since, taken together, we were the one man who fell into sin.” Even though “the specific form by which each of us was to live was not yet created and assigned, our nature was already present in the seed from which we were to spring” (13.14). 
Similarly, in On Marriage and Concupiscence [Augustine] states, 
“By the evil will of that one man all sinned in him, since all were that one man, from whom, therefore, they individually derived original sin” (2.15). 
And in A Treatise on the Merits and Forgiveness of Sins, and on the Baptism of Infants (MFS) he makes the connection repeatedly. 
“Adam is the only one in whom all have sinned” (1.19);
“none whatever […] die except in Adam, in whom all sinned” (1.55). 
In A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians, he writes that there are two viable options on how to read the last clause of Romans 5:12, but both reveal the same truth: 
“Let them, then, choose which they will,—for either in that ‘man’ all have sinned, and it is so said because when he sinned all were in him; or in that ‘sin’ all have sinned, because that was the doing of all in general which all those who were born would have to derive” (4.7). 
He says much the same thing two more times in the rest of the chapter, and also explains these two readings in MFS 1.11. Adam’s sin, according to Augustine, was the doing of all (and incidentally, he did lean heavily on Romans 5:12 to make his case, even if the surrounding verses and a few other passages were sometimes also mentioned). And how, exactly, did Augustine picture us existing in that one man? The closest he gets to explaining his reasoning comes from his last work, the Unfinished Work in Answer to Julian (I’m quoting the 1999 Teske translation, though second-hand): 
Some sort of invisible and intangible power is located in the secrets of nature where the natural laws of propagation are concealed, and on account of this power as many as were going to be able to be begotten from that one man by the succession of generations are certainly not untruthfully said to have been in the loins of the father. They were there […] though unknowingly and unwillingly, because they did not yet exist as persons who could have known and willed this (6.22) 
We were all present in Adam in seed form, we participated in the sin with Adam, and the sin corrupted our seed form so that, together with Augustine’s view of concupiscence in sexual union (which I won’t get into now), we are conceived in sin. It isn’t just the sexual act that makes us conceived in sin, but this act confirms the sin we already participated in and bear the stain of.

I (and others) would argue that everything above quoted from Augustine (or about Augustine), such as being "in Adam in seed form" and the like, is perfectly consistent with V1 as well as V2. It does not require that we are charged with Adam’s actual first sin. In V1 and V2 we are saying that we inherit something awful from Adam (in V2, epsilon more), and Augustine, in the language of his day, is explaining what that is so. Had Augustine written in the modern era, it is not outrageous to speculate that he would have a much easier time expressing the concealed "secrets of nature where the natural laws of propagation" using the metaphor of genetics.

The great reformed confessions, written by men who certainly considered themselves Augustinian, are explicit only about V1. If they meant V2, they left it for our inference. The 1530 Augsburg Confession, for example, writes:
It is taught among us that since the fall of Adam, all human beings who are born in the natural way are conceived and born in sin. This means that from birth they are full of evil lust and inclination and cannot by nature possess true fear of God and true faith in God” (II:2). 
The Heidelberg catechism states:
III.7. Whence then comes this depraved nature of man? From the fall and disobedience of our first parents, Adam and Eve, in Paradise, whereby our nature became so corrupt, that we are all conceived and born in sin. 
The closest that arguably comes to affirming V2 is the Westminster:
VI.3 They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin was imputed; and the same death in sin, and corrupted nature, conveyed to all their posterity descending from them by ordinary generation Even there one could legitimately hold that that while the divines are arguing for imputation, they are explicitly stating the consequences or effect of the imputation (V1) without claiming that the actual sin is in our debit column.
Snide Aside: A sign of being "too reformed" (if that's possible) is using the confessions to prove a theological argument  (see Begging the Question) rather than (as they should be used) to explain a theological position--to give a starting point. 1

Now, I have heard many of my fellow reformed argue that the word "imputed" in the WCF implies that the divines taught V2. But that would be a very different form of imputation than used elsewhere, where either the consequences of the imitation are inarguably beneficial (Christ's righteousness imputed to us) or are voluntarily accepted (our sin imputed to Christ, what a deal!).

Even in the WCF one could legitimately hold that that while the divines are arguing for imputation (of a sort), they are explicitly stating the consequences or effect of the imputation (V1) without claiming that the actual sin is in our debit column.

The bottom line is this: neither Augustine's writings (or Paul's, upon which it is based), nor the confessions demand V2. If someone tells you that they do, it is because they are demanding an interpretation that fits their conclusion.

The speculative consequences of V2

So, what is the big deal if God actually charges us with Adam's sin, as if we committed it? Here are some purely speculative thoughts:

  • Why only Adam's first sin? If Augustine's view really means we were metaphysically bound to Adam such that his sin is our sin as if we committed it (as opposed to V1, where we "only" suffer the consequences of his first sin) why aren't all Adam's sins in our debit column? Where does it teach that Adam's first sin broke that metaphysical connection?

  • Does this not impugn God's character? The obvious thought experiment is this: suppose someone accomplished the impossible and lived a sinless life (it's just a thought experiment!) Would they still face the prospect of eternal damnation for a sin they didn't commit?

  • In the Incarnation, where is it taught that Christ (fully man) was born not only without a sinful moral DNA inherited from Adam, but also had his debit of Adam's first sin erased?

  • Does this not make God unnecessarily cruel, further impugning his character? If we are charged with Adam's sin as if we committed it, why phase two of the fall, in which all of our moral ability is removed? If we have Adam's first sin on our charge, we already stand condemned and in need of a savior.

These are just musings and not intended as well established principles. But I find them worth pondering.


1 And sadly I have seen, over and over, that the more reformed you are the more certain you are correct (about everything theological) and the more likely you are to call your views cardinal, and differing views heresy or, if you are slightly more circumspect, to claim that the differing views, while not outright heresy, will, if not corrected, inevitably lead via the ever-handy slippery slope to heresy. If such a point of view were limited to the Gospel, it would be palatable.

Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Defining the Faith (remix)

Let us quickly review some early church heresies:

Docetism

This was a denial of the incarnation. There were variations, but a common view was that the Christ-Spirit came upon the Jesus-man at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, leaving the Jesus-man to die. Another Docetic school held that Jesus' human form was an illusion, ghost, or phantom. A form of Docetism is even found in the Koran:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)

Gnosticism

Gnosticism generally included Docetism, but went way beyond it. It was, and is, in many ways, the most dangerous of all heresies for its enduring ability to attract advocates. In the modern era it is represented by the New Age movement, Astrology, Eastern Religions, etc. It incorporated the idea of knowledge as being the path to salvation. The goal of acquiring the special knowledge was to awaken the divine within us—remnants of the creation of the material world by a misguided demigod. As it co-opted Christianity, Jesus was presented a messenger of the supreme god, who came to enlighten us as to how we could return to the intended spiritual state.

Gnostics, unlike Christians, do not believe that God created the earth, or that creation of the material world was "good."

The identification of the physical as evil resulted in one of two extreme lifestyle choices: asceticism or, following the logic that the flesh is irrelevant, "anything goes."

Marcionism

A sort of minimal Gnosticism in which there are two gods: the lesser god of the Old Testament, who did the unsavory act of creating the material world, and the loving merciful god of the New Testament, who was Jesus’ father. Recall that Marcion’s rewriting of scripture provided the incentive for the Church to make great strides in organizing the canon.

Montanism

One could debate whether this is properly labeled as a heresy or just a misguided sect. While Gnosticism exaggerated the importance of the intellect, Montanism overemphasized the experiential. The Montanists believed that the age of the Son had ended and the age of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had begun. They exalted prophets and prophetess, who spoke not as messengers, “…Thus saith the Lord,” but rather as if they were possessed by God, such as Montanus: "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." The greatest known Montanist was Tertullian.

Defining the Faith

The church had to respond to these early heresies. One important way was through early creeds, used for the most part, especially in the earliest days, during baptisms. The creeds were modified from time to time to arrest the spread of error. Thus the early baptismal creed had to be extended beyond the line:
I believe in God the Father.
Since, for example, Marcion could affirm such a statement, to
I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.
This, neither Marcion (nor any of the Gnostics) could affirm, for it identified the God the Father—whom they would consider the New Testament god—with God the creator, or the Old Testament god. Irenaeus (115-190), Bishop of Lyon, and author of Against Heresies (Full title included Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge, i.e., this work was meant to refute Gnosticism) summarized, around A.D. 180, the church’s beliefs as:
"...one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,' and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all...'" (Against Heresies X.l)
Here it is again made plain that God the Maker is also God the Father, and that the current Christian dispensation is vitally connected to the Old Testament, since through the Holy Spirit it was proclaimed through the prophets.

Here we see our threefold confession: In God the Creator and Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox understanding relationship among the three personalities, however, would not develop so easily, but more of that anon.

The Apostolic Tradition, usually credited to Hippolytus (?-236, and the first antipope) contains the following baptismal liturgy
When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, "I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works."  After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?" And the one being baptized shall answer, "I believe." He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?" When each has answered, "I believe," he shall baptize a second time. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?" Then each being baptized shall answer, "I believe." And thus let him baptize the third time.
Note that from the earlier creedal statement, we see the expansion of the description of Christ. This is adapted into the so-called Apostle’s creed, which we present below annotated so as to clarify its response to Gnosticism.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,
Gnostics taught that the material world is evil, and that God the Father did not make it.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,

Gnostics (and Docetists) denied that God had taken human nature or a human body. As stated, many believed the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, or that Jesus’ human form was an illusion. Against this denial of the Incarnation, the Church affirmed that Jesus was conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit, refuting the Gnostic claim that the Spirit had nothing to do with Jesus until His baptism, that he was born (i.e., he had a real physical body, and not just an appearance) of a virgin (which implied that he had been special from the first moment of his life, and not just from His baptism).
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Affirms that Jesus, in his deity, suffered—he was not whisked away leaving just a human shell to suffer. Recall that Docetic literature such as the Gospel of Peter denied that Jesus as God suffered.
was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into Hades.
The explicit reference to dead and buried, and the descent into Hades (Hell), make it clear that the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word.
The third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic church,
Gnostics believed that the most important Christian doctrines were reserved for a select, intellectual elite. The creed affirms that the fullness of the Gospel was to be preached to the entire human race. Hence the term "catholic," or universal.
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
Gnostics denied that men needed redemption or forgiveness, but enlightenment. Ignorance was the only unpardonable sin. Some of them, believing the body to be a snare and delusion, led lives of great asceticism. Others, believing the body to be quite independent of the soul, held that it did not matter what the body did. They accordingly led libertine lives. Either way, the notion of forgiveness was alien to them.
the resurrection of the body,
The chief goal of the Gnostics was to shed the body, which was but a prison of the spiritual. Their goal was to return spiritually to the heavenly realm. They totally rejected any idea of the resurrection of the body.
and the life everlasting. AMEN

The Nature of the Threefold Revelation

Although the baptismal and doctrinal creeds did much to combat Gnosticism, there still remained the difficult question of the exact nature of the relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This complex issue resulted in additional heresy.

Monarchianism

Monarchianism had a noble goal: addressing the criticism that Christians were tritheists, that is they worshipped three gods. (Today, many non-Christians including Jews, and even some who call themselves Christians, still view orthodox Christianity’s claim of monotheism as being patently absurd.) The various schools of thought know as Monarchianism taught that Jesus and the Spirit were but emanations from God, or that they were merely different forms in which the Father chose to manifest himself from time to time.

One Monarchian school was Dynamism. Christ, according to the Dynamists, was a faculty, feature, or emanation of God, like the rays of the sun or a stream from a fountain. The bottom line: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are but a single Person. One of the leading proponents of Dynamism was the Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata. In 268, the Church condemned him as a heretic. He was accused of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, of admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.)

Ironically, this Paul, a heretic, is noteworthy for introducing into the theology of the trinity the Greek adjective homoousios (of the same substance) which will be important in the orthodox formulation.

Dynamism was usually coupled with Adoptionism, which taught that Jesus the man was promoted to the rank of Son of God because of his perfect obedience. This heresy makes its way into classic literature, when Milton, in Paradise Regained, puts these words into the mouth of the Father:
This perfect Man, by merit call'd your Son.
A more popular school of Monarchianism was called Sabellianism (after Sabellius, priest of Northern Africa, ~215) or Modalism. According to this school, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by God. The Sabellianists do not deny, for example, the Apostle’s creed, for it describes the three manifestations of God while saying nothing of His inner being.

The Sabellianists were also called Patripassians, (pater –father, passio –suffering) for their doctrine implied that the Father and the Son are essentially the same person, and so the father suffered on the cross. The Sabellianists, according to Tertullian, “drove out prophecy and brought in heresy, expelled the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and crucified the Father.”

In the same way that Marcion stimulated the church begin formalizing the canon, Monarchianism forced the church to examine the scriptures to formulate the correct view of the triune God. In particular, Sabellianism (Modalism), while not completely unattractive, was simply incompatible with scripture that spoke of the Father sending the Son, or the Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit, or the Son praying to the Father, etc.
that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. (John 5:23)

that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:21)

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6)

16I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
The problem, then and now, is summarized succinctly by F. F. Bruce: Our conception of God must fall short of His real being, and our language about him must fall short of our conception.

In defining an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, it has proved extremely difficult to find the right terms that avoid error in the two extremes: Modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three ways that God alternately reveals himself, or tritheism, in which the three are so distinct as to constitute three different gods.

It must be established that, axiomatically, Christianity, and the New Testament, affirms monotheism as ardently as Judaism. Whatever else we may, as Christians, say about the nature of God, we solidly affirm that He is One. As Christians, we agree with the Jewish creed of Maimonides that states:
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is a Unity, and that there is no unity in any manner like unto His, and that He alone isour God who was, is, and will be.
But, unlike Jews, we do not see the unity of God as a monolithic unity. As the early theologians struggled to find ways to express this, we must remember that they were not merely waxing philosophical, but trying to find expression that did justice to revelation and experience. God had revealed Himself, and had been experienced, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in His word. God did not, as the Adoptionists taught, wait around until a man of Jesus’ stellar character arrived; God took the initiative in sending the Son.

Among the church fathers, Hippolytus was forceful in his attack on the Roman bishops (popes) Zephyrinus (202-217) and Callistus (217-222) in what he regarded as their complicity in the spread of Sabellianism, although it must be added that Callistus eventually excommunicated Sabellius.

It was, however, Tertullian who provided the greatest service in developing the terms that began to express what Christians believed but couldn’t say.

It is to Tertullian to whom we owe the word “Trinity”, and also the language of one substance in three persons. And though we still use the words substance and persons in describing the trinity, they do not mean exactly what they meant for Tertullian, and so in some ways our expression of the Trinity suffers somewhat.

For Tertullian, the Latin word persona denoted one who played a part or performed a function in society. Tertullian adopted the word to theology, and spoke of three persona in the indivisible Godhead. Today, the word means more that it did to Tertullian, essentially meaning “persons”, but three persons is closer to a tritheist view that we really want to go.

Likewise, when Tertullian used the word substance (Latin substantia) we again have a problem. Tertullian did not mean it as we do today; for us the word substance is inextricably tied to materiality. We view "of one substance" as meaning "made out of the same stuff." Tertullian would have meant something closer to the modern meaning of "essence" rather than substance. For Tertullian and other third century theologians:
God is one Being, eternally existing the threefold relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each of these three is "the one God, thinking, willing and acting, in one of His three eternal spheres of thought, volition and activity… the indivisible Godhead subsisting and operating in one of the essential relations of His Tripersonal life." (H.B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church)
Origen of Alexandria, probably the church's greatest thinker and scholar of the first three centuries, also struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. In Origen's reaction to Monarchianism, he went too far. He thought that the Father, Son, and Spirit occupied a hierarchical position within the unity of the Godhead. The Son was subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. He even taught that the Son was a creature, not in the sense that he was a created being but that the Son's being was derived from the Father's and is subject to His will. (He was not, however, an Arian—a heresy of the following [fourth] century that denied the divinity of Christ, which we will discuss later.)

The third century did not end (if indeed it ever has ended) the debate on the doctrine of God’s inner being. The next big advancement would come with the Arian controversy.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Yikes. I am writing on abortion.


I am feeling very conflicted about abortion law these days.

Don’t get me wrong; I think abortion is killing a human being made in the image of God.

However, I cannot agree with the absence of nuance many Christians bring to this issue, and often in a very unappealing self-righteous manner. As if a refusal even to acknowledge that while it may be murder, the killing of an uninvited resident of one's body (albeit a fully human resident) is not the same thing as killing an autonomous being. Both may be sins, but they are not the same sin. If you think so, then you are, in my opinion, wrong. Think about it some more. Think about why the civil law makes a distinction between burglary, robbery, and theft, and in the use of deadly force in responding to each of those crimes.

I could not look at a young woman who was raped by her father and tell her she must carry the baby to term. I would counsel her to do so, provide prenatal and postnatal health services, and arrange for the care and/or adoption of the child, but I cannot support the state forcing her to carry to term. I am compelled to leave it up to her conscience. She is a free moral agent.

There are all kinds of tricky theological questions that arise in thinking of abortion. Thorny God’s sovereignty in tension with free-will questions. But I’m not going there. We can stipulate that from a Christian perspective abortion is a sin.

That means Christians should not do it regardless of the law of the land. (It also means that some Christians will do it and that it is not the mythical unpardonable sin.)

However, we are talking about civil law, not God’s law. And when it comes to civil law I am an anti-theonomist. I support (or reject) civil laws based not on God’s law, but on the smooth and safe functioning of society. I think there should be laws against stealing, but not because it is a Commandment, but because society would be more chaotic without such laws. Christians should not steal (because it is a Commandment) even in a weird utopian society where it was not illegal.

I think anti-theonomists and theonomists are at least self-consistent, although at least one group is self-consistently wrong. But garden-variety Christians are hypocritical when it comes to civil law. They generally want laws based on God’s law in certain (easy-to-claim-the-moral-high-ground) cases—like abortion or same-sex marriage, but not on other less marquee sins. If you tell me you are for outlawing abortion and against the legalization of same-sex marriage because they are sins, then unless you tell me you are also for outlawing covetousness (which would most likely mean the end of advertising and capitalism) then I will view you as a hypocrite in regards to your approach to the civil law.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Gospel is not "too good to be true"

I heard a beautiful and compact (those are often correlated attributes) definition of legalism: legalism:  the belief that the Gospel is too good to be true.

I really like that definition, because it includes but is not limited to the form of legalism that probably first comes to mind: imbuing the law (either actual biblical law or man-made laws that apparently God didn’t have time to mention, such as a prohibition on voting for a Democrat) with necessary salvific power.

This definition of legalism is richer: it includes doctrinal legalism. Doctrinal legalism is when the Gospel plays second fiddle (at best) to other (derived) doctrines. You can tell a doctrine (say, Doctrine A) is elevated above the Gospel when there is an explicit claim that denying Doctrine A will ultimately lead to a denial of the Gospel. That makes the Gospel subservient to Doctrine A. May it never be.

In my life, I have heard this most often when it comes to creation.  I can’t count the number of times that I have been told (either directly or in word) that denying the young earth view of creation will inexorably lead, slippery-slope style, to a denial of the Gospel. Al Mohler, for one, is quite fond of this argument.

But I have encountered other examples of this legalism. Where secondary doctrines (many/most of which are very important and worthy doctrines) trump the doctrine: the Gospel.  To be sure this is not made explicit (usually) but rather effectively through the same slippery-slope mechanism. I have seen this with eschatology and with the litany of doctrines under the “Doctrine of God” umbrella. While important,  worthy of study,  and edifying, these secondary doctrines often become the tail wagging the dog.

Consider the thief on the cross. There is no indication that he had any doctrine of creation, doctrine of eschatology, doctrine of God, etc. What he appeared to have was a rudimentary gospel, the knowledge that he deserved his punishment while next to him was a man who did not, and that he was utterly dependent on this innocent man for admittance into the Kingdom of God. This limited doctrine, a mere micro-subset of the Gospel (but a proper subset) was sufficient.

Note this is not a “just give me Jesus” plea. Anyone who knows me knows I love studying and discussing (although for years I haven’t had the chance to do that, except with myself on these pages and Mrs. Calvinist at home) doctrine and theology, and the more esoteric the more I like it, which is not necessarily healthy. 

Sunday, May 19, 2019

The End of the Apostolic Age (remix)

The End of the Apostolic Age

Paul spent the winter of A.D. 56-57 in Corinth (Acts 20:2). While there, he wrote a letter to the church in Rome, to prepare them for his planned visit to Rome on his way to Spain:
I planned many times to come to you, but have been prevented until now. I long to see you, so that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith. God is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times. I thank for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. I have seen some fruit as a result of my activity in other parts of the Gentile world, and I should also like to see some among you as well. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel to you who are at Rome, for I am not ashamed of the gospel. Not that I desire to settle down in Rome, for that would be building on someone else's foundation –the very thing I have avoided doing. From Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ. But now that there is no more place for me to work in these regions. Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. So after I have completed this I will go to Spain and visit you on the way. (Summary of Rom. 1:8-26, 15:14-29)
As we will see, Paul does make it to Rome, but not until three years had passed, and not as he planned. From Rome, we find that he did head west, but most believe that he did not make it to Spain.

Two obvious questions arise from this letter: First, there is already a significant community of believers in Rome. Where did they come from? And second, who is this other man who laid a foundation in Rome?

As he stated, Paul first set out for Jerusalem, his last visit (and second since the council), and arriving in May of 57 along with delegates. (This is spite of being warned [Acts 21:10] by the prophet Agabus who told Paul that he would be bound (arrested) by the Jews in Jerusalem. This Agabus had credibility: you may recall that fifteen years earlier predicted the famine in Jerusalem [Acts 11:27-28]].) Together they bore gifts for the church in Jerusalem. James and the elders welcomed Paul, but there was an undercurrent of a problem. A subtle variant of the old Judiazer issue: while it had been decided by the council that Gentiles did not have to be circumcised or follow Mosaic Law, James was concerned that Paul was also teaching the Jews of the dispersion likewise, and that was not acceptable:
Then they said to Paul: "You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law. 21They have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs. 22What shall we do? They will certainly hear that you have come, 23so do what we tell you. There are four men with us who have made a vow. 24Take these men, join in their purification rites… (Acts 21:20-24) 
Some believe that the Jerusalem church was not applying the same level of liberty to the Jerusalem Gentile Christians and those Gentile converts in the outer regions, who were living under the freedoms established at the Jerusalem Council.

Nevertheless Paul, always willing to compromise on all but the gospel, went along with the request to prove that he was a law abiding Jew. As we find in his letter to the Corinthians:
To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. (1 Cor. 9:20).

The Church at Rome

There is no explicit account of the formation of the church at Rome. What we know must be pieced together. We are aided by the fact that, unlike Jerusalem, there has been no breach in continuity of Rome from apostolic days.

Recall that included in the crowd at the feast of Pentecost in A.D. 30 were pilgrims from Rome (Jews, not Gentiles). Since Romans are the only Europeans listed in the account (Acts 2:10) we feel justified in assuming that some of them believed Peter’s message and carried the gospel back to the Imperial City. Regardless, all roads lead to Rome, and Paul’s missionary journeys had created churches along major arteries which must have resulted in the message being carried to Rome.

The history of Jews in Rome is fascinating. There was a Jewish colony in Rome in the second century B.C. When Pompey (who had battled the rebellious slave Spartacus) captured Palestine for Rome in 62 B.C., he returned with many more Jews who were ultimately set free. Successive Roman emperors safeguarded the rights of the Jews, and at least a handful of synagogues flourished.

Rome, however, had the habit of purging itself of “oriental” incomers, including the Jews. In A.D. 49, Claudius expelled Jews from Rome, and expulsion that included Priscilla and Aquila. Whether it was a literal or an “effective” expulsion is the subject of debate. The historian Dio Cassius (155-?) writes:
As the Jews had again increased in numbers, but could hardly be banished from the city without a tumult because of their great numbers, he [Claudius] did not actually expel them but forbade them to meet in accordance with their ancestral customs.
Another writer, the biographer Suetonius (75-160) wrote that "Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome because they were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus."

Chrestus was a variant spelling of Christus. Here we may extrapolate that Suetonius, writing seventy years later, mistakenly assumed that this "Chrestus" was a leader of one of the Jewish factions in Rome. In a sense he was right: the rioting was likely between Jews and "Nazarenes". It is probable that Priscilla and Aquila were already Christians when they arrived in Corinth, a theory bolstered by the fact that their conversion is not mentioned in scripture.

Another amazing reference is found a few years after the expulsion, in A.D. 52, when a writer named Thallus describes the preternatural darkness that covered Palestine on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. The darkness was attributed to a solar eclipse. That explanation is impossible, since the Passover season falls at a full moon, at which time a solar eclipse can not occur. Even if Thallus was only referring to Christian "stories" of the darkness, it still points out that details of Christ’s death were being retold in Rome by the middle of the first century.

In the same year Paul wrote to Rome, Pomponia Graecina, wife of the Roman conqueror of Britain, was charged (later acquitted) with having embraced a foreign superstition. This could not have been Judaism: for Judaism was a legally recognized religion. An embrace of Judaism would have been scandalous but not illegal. Accounts of her lifestyle, which included a withdrawal from Roman society and its idolatrous excesses, have caused many to speculate that the foreign superstition was Christianity.

More evidence of the maturity of the community of Rome comes from the end of Paul's letter, where he sends greetings by name to various Roman believers. This includes a couple named Andronicus and Junias, “my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” He also mentions Rufus “chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too”. This Rufus may have been the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’ cross (Mark 15:21). Paul also greets Priscilla and Aquila who had returned to Rome.

Paul's Circuitous Route to Rome


Paul arrived in Rome around February of A.D. 60, in the custody of Roman "federal marshals." How did this come about? As stated, he under went a purification rite to demonstrate his “Jewishness” to the Nazarenes. However, it was the Jews who were the real problem, and his appearance led to a riot in which he was nearly lynched. Paul had been charged by the Jews in Jerusalem of violating the sanctity of the temple. In particular, he was the victim of a rumor claiming he escorted a Gentile into the inner court of the temple, a crime punishable by death. (Notices in Latin and Greek separated the inner and outer courts, announcing that Gentiles were forbidden to proceed any further, under pain of death.) So serious of a crime was the violation of this edict that Rome even authorized the execution of Roman Citizens for this offense.
"Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place." (Acts 21:28)
In 1871 one of the warnings (in Greek) was uncovered in Jersualem. It read:
No foreigner may enter within the barricade which surrounds the sanctuary and enclosure. Anyone who is caught doing so will have himself to blame for his ensuing death."
When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:
For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility (Eph 2:14)
the metaphor refers to the temple barrier beyond which no Gentile could pass.

Fortunately the commotion caused by Paul was huge, so huge that his summary execution was prevented by a Roman garrison rushed in to secure order. A lengthy litigation followed. Eventually Paul, fearing that the procurator Felix might be inclined to seek favor of the Sanhedrin, exercised his right as a Roman citizen to be tried in Rome. He would spend two years awaiting trial in Rome, enjoying the company of friends such as Luke, Aristarchus, and John-Mark, with whom Paul reconciled.

There is something in the story at this point that about which it is not pleasant to speculate. Paul was nearly lynched in Jerusalem and spent a couple of years in captivity in Jerusalem and Caesarea before finally being shipped, as his right as a Roman citizen, to Rome. There is nothing either in Acts to indicate that the Jerusalem Church made any effort to intervene on his behalf, which allowed the Sanhedrin to make repeated charges against Paul.

How Mark arrived in Rome leads us to the question of who laid a foundation in Rome. Since the time of the rift between Paul and Barnabas, Mark (the cause of the dispute) had become attached to the apostle Peter. At some point in the fifties, Peter appears to have launched his own missionary journey, with Mark serving as his chief of staff. It appears most likely that between 55 and 60 Peter reached Rome (ahead of Paul) . When Peter left, Mark stayed behind and recorded his gospel, essentially transcribing what Peter had told the Romans. When Luke visited Roma with Paul, he probably used Mark's writings to help him draw up his own history of Christianity.

Paul's case probably went before prosecutors at the end of A.D. 61, just before the expiration of the statute of limitations. It is likely that Paul was released and left Rome for a period, for Clement of Rome wrote to the church in Corinth (~A.D. 95) that “Paul reached the furthest bounds of the West”, which may or may not have meant Spain. Playing phone-tag, when Paul leaves Rome, Peter returns, where he pens 1 Peter, writing from "Babylon" as he puts it, and referring to Mark as his "son" (1 Pet. 5:13). In his epistle, Peter refers to a coming "fiery trial" during which Christians would suffer, not for law-breaking but merely for being Christians. The Christians are susceptible because they can no longer protect themselves as a “sect” of Judaism—they are seen by all as a separate religion one that, unlike Judaism, is an illegal religion. The blind eye being cast by the emperor (now Nero) can open wide at his pleasure.

Adding to the peril of the Christians was that, not only was unstable Nero the emperor, the empress Poppaea was a friend of the Jews which meant an enemy (of sorts) of Christians. This information comes to us via Josephus:
But when I was in the twenty-sixth year of my age, it happened that I took a voyage to Rome... At the time when Felix was procurator of Judea there were certain priests of my acquaintance… whom on a small and trifling occasion he had put into bonds, and sent to Rome to plead their cause before Caesar. … Accordingly I came to Rome, though it were through a great number of hazards by sea; for as our ship was drowned in the Adriatic Sea, we that were in it, being about six hundred in number, swam for our lives all the night; when, upon the first appearance of the day, and upon our sight of a ship of Cyrene, I and some others, eighty in all, by God's providence, prevented the rest, and were taken up into the other ship. And when I had thus escaped… I became acquainted with Aliturius, an actor of plays, and much beloved by Nero, but a Jew by birth; and through his interest became known to Poppea, Caesar's wife, and took care, as soon as possible, to entreat her to procure that the priests might be set at liberty. And when, besides this favor, I had obtained many presents from Poppea, I returned home again. (Josephus, Life, 3).

Rome Burns

In A.D. 64, Rome was largely destroyed by fire. The fire was probably accidental, but rumors quickly spread. Nero himself as the culprit was the subject of much consideration. This is probably false, and in fact he actively worked to help those who had been devastated by the fire. Nevertheless, he had to deal with the rumors, which he did by redirecting them onto a scapegoat: the Christians. The historian Tacitus wrote:
To dispel the rumor, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was Emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following. First, then, those who confessed themselves Christians were arrested; next, on their disclosures, a vast multitude were convicted, not so much on the charge of arson as for hatred of the human race. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed. Nero had thrown open the gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or drove about in a chariot. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but glut one man's cruelty, that they were being punished.
Note that Tacitus despised the Christians, but nevertheless acknowledged their innocence in the conflagration, their punishment not stemming from guilt as arsonists but rather for “hatred of the human race.” Among the brutalities: Nero used Christians as human torches to light his gardens. When Saint Peter’s was rebuilt in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a number of bodies wrapped in linen and placed in stone coffins were discovered. Also uncovered were stone chests filled with ashes and burnt bones—presumably the remains of those burned by Nero.

As for a Christian account, we have Clement of Rome:
But, to pass from the examples of ancient days, let us come to those champions who lived very near to our time. Let us set before us the noble examples which belong to our generation. By reason of jealousy and envy the greatest and most righteous pillars of the Church were persecuted, and contended even unto death. Let us set before our eyes the good Apostles. There was Peter who by reason of unrighteous jealousy endured not one nor two but many labors, and thus having borne his testimony went to his appointed place of glory. By reason of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the prize of patient endurance. After that he had been seven times in bonds, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, had preached in the East and in the West, he won the noble renown which was the reward of his faith, having taught righteousness unto the whole world and having reached the farthest bounds of the West; and when he had borne his testimony before the rulers, so he departed from the world and went unto the holy place, having been found a notable pattern of patient endurance. Unto these men of holy lives was gathered a vast multitude of the elect, who through many indignities and tortures, being the victims of jealousy, set a brave example among ourselves. By reason of jealousy women being persecuted, after that they had suffered cruel and unholy insults as Danaids and Dircae, safely reached the goal in the race of faith, and received a noble reward, feeble though they were in body. (1 Clement 5:2-6)
The "vast multitude" of martyrs referred to by Clement is identified with the "vast multitude" described by Tacitus. Furthermore, it is a natural inference to conclude that both Peter and Paul were martyred at the same time. (Clement’s refrain of jealousy is meant as jealousy toward, not by, the apostles and believers. The dangers of jealousy forms the substance of his letter to the Corinthian church.)

Roman Catholic insistence on the continuity of the Roman church back to Peter’s preaching at Pentecost in A.D. 30 has at times caused some (Eusibus and Jerome) to favor the notion that Peter arrived in Rome as early as A.D. 42 and launched a twenty-five year episcopate lasting to A.D. 67, but this is very difficult to support. At the beginning of that period, he was known to be in Jerusalem and Antioch, and in A.D 57 when Paul wrote his Roman epistle hid did not greet Peter (so one can infer he was not there) nor does it appear that Peter was present when Paul arrived in custody in A.D. 60. Some Catholic scholars acknowledge this, for example the French scholar Jacques Zeiller writing in 1927:
How long had St. Peter lived in Rome before his martyrdom? Here we must confess an almost complete ignorance. The so-called tradition of the twenty-five years of Peter’s episcopate rests on no historic data…of Peter’s life in Rome we know for certain only the last act: His martyrdom. 
No, Peter spent those twenty-five years proclaiming the gospel throughout the provinces, only to arrive in Rome after Nero’s ascension to the throne in A.D. 54. Most consistent with the facts is that when Nero became emperor he rescinded the expulsion (five years earlier) of the Jews by his predecessor Claudius and that shortly thereafter Peter arrived (with Mark) and helped reconstitute the Roman church and laying the foundation upon which Paul was hesitant to infringe. The bottom line is that Nero was already the emperor when Peter arrived in Rome.

A Roman presbyter by the name of Gaius wrote (~A.D. 200) that the trophies of Peter and Paul, meaning either the locations of their martyrdom or their tombs, are found on Vatican Hill and the Ostian Road respectively. This is why the emperor Constantine erected the basilica of St. Peter on the slope of Vatican Hill.

Tradition teaches that Peter was crucified and Paul was beheaded. (The tradition that Peter was crucified upside down is probably apocryphal.) The manner of their deaths is consistent: Paul, as a Roman citizen, would have been afforded the less ignominious death.

The death of James, the brother of Jesus

In A.D. 61 the procurator Festus died. In the three months before his successor Albinus arrived in Palestine, the Jewish High Priest Ananus was able to cause trouble. From Josephus:

AND now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. … this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrim of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: (Josephus, Antiquities, XX, 9, 1).

Thus we see that by about the mid sixties of the first century, Peter, Paul, and James had been martyred. In a few years, civil war would break out. The Jews, encouraged by the party of the Zealots, were emboldened by the news of the death of Nero in A.D. 68, only to be crushed and nearly exterminated at the hands of Titus, the son of Vespasian, the successor of Nero. The temple, no longer important to a people who had access through their High Priest Jesus Christ to the heavenly realm, was destroyed in A.D. 70, as had been prophesized by Jesus:
1Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. 2"Do you see all these things?" he asked. "I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down."

34I tell you the truth, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. (Matt. 24:1, 34).
From here the next stage of Christianity begins, a stage in which its ties to the temple have been severed.