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Worship/Christology

God Manifested in the Flesh

Posted by M.Ferris on

Among the New Testament mysteries is the peculiar description Paul gives to his precis of the life of Jesus.

Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.

At this time of the year, we focus on that first phrase, “He was manifested in the flesh.” There is little doubt that though unnamed in this passage, he who came in the flesh is the eternal Son of God.
This is more than saying “Jesus was born.” Birth is not unusual nor a mystery. It is common as can be. The mystery is because it is the second person of the Trinity putting on flesh. How can God become man?
While not answering the question of how, Paul has earlier in the epistle answered the why of the incarnation.

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time.” (1 Tim. 2:5)

In the course of church history, two mirror heresies emerged to attack the truth of the incarnation, and Paul has answered both here. Arianism is the teaching that Jesus was less than God. In saying “He was manifested in the flesh” the apostle is affirming something about the identity of the one born in Bethlehem. “He was born” would have sufficed to refer to Jesus’ birth, but to say he was manifested in the flesh speaks to his pre-existence, his eternal identity as God the Son. That is the mystery we do not fully comprehend, but we surely apprehend in worship.

In the latter passage, Paul refers to the man Christ Jesus, and in so saying he expands upon the other truth of “in the flesh.” Jesus had come to earth, humbled himself to take on human flesh. As the writer to the Hebrews says,

“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2:17)

The body God prepared for the Lord Jesus was that which suffered on the cross, bled and died. God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, Paul writes to the Galatians. He is truly man, not only seeming to be a man. Apollinarism is the heresy that Jesus could not have really been a man like us because that would introduce change to deity, which is not possible. But that is like saying miracles are not possible because they contradict the laws of nature. That is why we call them supernatural, they cannot be explained by nature. Scripture speaks of Jesus as both God and man, but this truth (like any other in the Bible) does not stand or fall on our reception if it, and this is why Paul terms this a mystery. It is central to the gospel, to salvation – and indeed to right worship.

Bible

The Truth of Apostolic Succession

Posted by M.Ferris on

Does the Bible have anything to say about apostolic succession?

It does, in fact, but in a different way than what some teach or believe regarding the term. In what is likely his last epistle, Paul writes to Timothy “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” (2 Tim. 2:4.) There is succession, but of the gospel itself and of the body of doctrine taught by the apostles. The power and authority of this message do not come from ordination or office, but that the message is the gospel of God. Mark Dever writes, “The church is apostolic, and is to be apostolic because it is founded on and is faithful to the Word of God given through the apostles. From the apostles until the present day, the gospel that they preached has been handed down. There has been a succession of apostolic teaching based on the Word of God.”[1]

In every age, the gospel comes under siege from various fronts. In the post-apostolic era, some attacked the identity of the Lord Jesus as the eternal Son of God. The testimony of Scripture is that Jesus descends from David, according to the flesh, but also that he is Immanuel – God with us. This mystery of godliness – God manifest in the flesh, is a necessary part of the good deposit to pass on to the next generation.

Later, the idea that salvation is found in the Church rather than in the person of Christ undermined the truth of the gospel. In this same epistle, Paul has written that he knows whom he has believed, not what. Salvation is vested in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ, not in the Bride of Christ. These are but a couple of examples of how the gospel comes under siege, and often by those who claim to adhere to it.

In other words, threats to the gospel very often come from those who ought to know better. The gospel, if personified, could well say, “I was wounded in the house of my friends.”

It is imperative, then, that those who know the gospel and love the gospel, be about transmitting the gospel to those who will handle it with the care and reverence it requires. Paul counsels Timothy to pass on the good deposit he received. He should carefully and faithfully teach and instruct those of the next generation. Why is this essential? The current dangers to the gospel are two-fold. The first is a focus on the relevance of the gospel itself. Several years ago, I heard a youth pastor say that the number one thing he is pressured to be is relevant. This thinking assumes that the gospel needs some modification or some adjustment before it becomes relevant. But the message of mankind’s ruin and alienation from God, and the gospel as the power of God could scarcely be more relevant. We are the ones who need change, not the gospel. Teaching doctrine clearly will demonstrate how utterly relevant the gospel is for every age.

The second danger so prevalent now is the politicization of the gospel. The gospel becomes subservient to a program of social action, and in its crassest form, of achieving legislative goals. These things may or may accord with the New Testament, but they are temporal goals, rather than eternal. The goal of conformity to Christ may well be undermined by such concerns. To transliterate the word gospel from the original gives “evangel.” Evangelicals, then, are those who hold to the gospel. When evangelical comes instead to mean a voting block, it represents a failure to transmit the message, a failure to guard the good deposit. If we make the gospel about power and authority in this world, we have failed to adhere to the apostolic message.

Those who are in a position to teach, to pass on (and there are few who aren’t in some way able to teach others), bear a responsibility to teach sound doctrine, which is all the relevance anyone needs. This is the real succession that is apostolic: the faithful proclamation of God’s truth.

 

[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2012), p. 18-19.

Catholicism/Reformation

Is Doctrine a Matter of the “Wisdom of the Crowd?”

Posted by M.Ferris on

The recent quincentennial of the Reformation brought a passel of celebration within Protestantism. For the most part, this has been a reaffirmation that whatever else he failed to reform, Luther’s recovery of justification by faith alone a thing to be cherished.  Even Pope Francis, speaking of Luther’s view of justification by faith alone said, “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.”[1]

But as the Twitterati were rejoicing over these Reformation truths, not all agreed. Some still view the Reformation not only as a mistake but as innovation, the introduction of new doctrine previously unknown and not held by any believers. In the midst of such a conversation, someone made this statement on social media:

“Please point me to one Christian community in the first millennium that has salient Protestant beliefs (none exist).”

There are a couple of assumptions behind this statement, and they are worth examining. These are as follows:

  1. No one held to salient Protestant beliefs before the Reformation.
  2. For a belief to be valid, one must demonstrate that some early community of believers held the belief.

I’ll take these in reverse order.

A demonstrable community holding to a truth is a kind of “Wisdom of the Crowd” for what constitutes the body of doctrines Christians should believe. While it’s not called this in Roman Catholic teaching, the elements of it are there in the sensus fidelium, or sense of the faithful. When the whole body of the faithful adheres to a teaching, this gives it validity. But this is manifestly false on a number of counts. It is an inversion of authority. It represents the people themselves dictating what is right and true, rather than the Scriptures being the source of truth.  The Catechism may claim “The People unfailingly adheres to this faith, penetrates it more deeply with right judgment, and applies it to daily life”[2], but the many instances where the people were wrong show the fallacy of this. There was a time, as Jerome wrote, “The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”[3] Arianism held sway, and had many adherents. One could point to communities that believed in Arianism, but it is heretical doctrine – despite how many may have held to it. Some may answer that there was a course correction. Arianism was vanquished and the orthodox doctrine of Christ prevailed. I would argue the same thing about justification by faith. The Reformation represented a course correction, and the orthodox doctrine of justification prevailed. The Pope himself admitted as much.

Moreover, the “sense of the faithful” does not prevail today either.

A 2005 Gallup poll of Catholics found only 41.9% of respondents agreed that the teachings of the Vatican are very important. Some 42% disagreed that Catholicism contains a greater share of truth than other religions. When asked who should have the final say as to a divorced Catholic remarrying without getting an annulment, 41.8% replied that this should be up to the individual, rather than church leaders. And 22.5% said that a person can be a good Catholic without believing that Jesus rose from the dead.[4]

In February 2008, the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University conducted a survey of US Catholics to ask them about all aspects of their faith. About six in ten Catholics (57%) agree that Jesus Christ is really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. The remaining 43% said the bread and wine are symbols of Jesus, but that he is not truly present.[5]  Both of these surveys demonstrate that the faithful are not unfailingly holding to what the hierarchy says they must.

The other assumption behind my interlocutor’s statement is that for a belief to be right it must be ancient, that is, it must be traceable to the first millennium. As it’s been put in the vernacular, “What’s true isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t true.” I concur with that, but with some distinctions. I would say the first millennium is far too late. The body of apostolic doctrine was finished with the apostles. Sub-apostolic writings have no Scriptural authority. They may be interesting history, but they carry no authority. When that standard is applied to many later doctrines, they fail the test. Things such as the Treasury of Merit, Papal Infallibility, the assumption of Mary were all unknown in the first millennium of Christian history. On the latter, Father Joseph Mitros says, “Thus the definition of the Assumption of Mary has created particular difficulties (to take only one example), since neither scientific exegesis nor a history of the first centuries of the Church has been able to discover even traces of this doctrine.”[6]

This is where the argument about the origin of doctrine cuts both ways. The Church often says that later doctrines were there in nascent form very early on. But even were we to say that were true, it surely does not constitute these things being held as salient beliefs by a Christian community. In fact, as Father Mitros points out, it isn’t the case that this doctrine was found at all in the earliest centuries of Church history.

When it comes to something such as justification by faith, would early examples of the teaching be enough to establish it? Nathan Busenitz’s recent book, Long Before Luther, contains a plethora of such examples.

  • Irenaeus of Lyons (ca. 130-202) “The Lord, therefore was not unknown to Abraham, whose day he desired to see; nor, again, was the Lord’s Father, for he had learned from the Word of the Lord, and believed Him; wherefore it was accounted to him by the Lord for righteousness. For faith towards God justifies a man.”[7]
  • Marius Victorinus (ca. 290-364) “Only faith [sola fide] in Christ is salvation for us.”[8]
  • Hilary of Potiers (ca. 300-368) “Wages cannot be considered as a gift, because they are due to work, but God has given free grace to all men by the justification of faith.”[9]
  • Ambrosiaster (4th Century) “They are justified freely because, while doing nothing or providing any repayment, they are justified by faith alone as a gift of God.”[10]
  • Jerome () “We are saved by grace, rather than by works, for we can give God nothing in return for what he has bestowed on us.”[11]

These are a handful of the many, but it demonstrates justification by faith was no novelty of the Reformation. That the theological barnacles needed to be scrubbed away from the ship of faith is without question, but that is a different thing than saying a teaching is brand new.

What then, is the difference between this “Wisdom of the Crowd” stance, and how Protestants understand doctrinal development? All Christians have the right (and privilege) of searching the Scriptures to find the truth. Some like to chide Protestants for reading the Bible with an individualism that results in all kinds of division. But that is a caricature of how Protestants read Scripture. Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey address just such a misconception. “Even if one can deconstruct Protestantism this way, this radical democratization of interpretation is a principle only. It does not actually work out this way because most learn to read the Bible within an interpretive tradition that exercises considerable heft.”[12]  Protestantism doesn’t ignore history, but Protestants recognize that the Scriptures are sufficient in themselves to guide us into all the truth.

Most certainly, there is within Protestantism and evangelicalism plenty of doctrinal malfeasance; Christians believing what they should not, simply because it is popular or comfortable. What I describe is how Protestantism has historically understood Scriptural authority. Do many facets of evangelicalism need to repent of carelessness when it comes to the truth? Absolutely, But the solution that is not to substitute biblical authority for an ersatz, man-made authority.

The historical Protestant understanding is very different from the Roman Catholic model. Doctrine does not need to be tied to Scripture, nor be provable from it. The shifting sense of the magisterium from century to century means that what’s new can be declared true. For example, in 2008, five cardinals sent a petition to Pope Benedict XVI asking him to proclaim Mary as “the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the co-redemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race.”[13]  If this catches on with enough people, does it then dictate by the “sense of the faithful”, it is now dogma? Nothing would prevent this in Roman Catholic teaching.

The question, then, of whether “salient Protestant doctrines” were held in the first millennium is a misleading one. To make the church or a Christian community’s reception of truth, the measure of what is true is to turn authority upside down. Roland Hanson and Reginald Fuller aptly summarize the fallacy this encompasses: “It is not Scripture, it is not even tradition in the strict sense that is the test of belief, but ‘the sense or sentiment of the faithful’, ‘the instinct’, the ‘present thought of the Church’, ‘the intention of the heart’, ‘the feeling’ of the faithful. Within certain very broad limits and under given conditions, in matters doctrinal, whatever is, is right – because it is.”[14]

 

 

[1] https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/full-text-pope-francis-inflight-press-conference-from-armenia-45222

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 93.

[3] Jerome, “Dialogue Against the Luciferians”, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf206.vi.iv.html

[4] http://www.thearda.com/Archive/Files/Codebooks/GALLUP05_CB.asp.

[5] “Sacraments Today: Belief and Practice Among US Catholics”, http://cara.georgetown.edu/sacraments.html.

[6] Joseph Mitros, S.J, “The Norm of Faith in the Patristic Age, in Theological Studies, 29.3, (1968), p. 469.

[7] Nathan Busenitz, Long Before Luther (Chicago, Moody Publishers, 2017), p. 170.

[8] Ibid, p. 171.

[9] Ibid, p. 172.

[10] Ibid, p. 173.

[11] Ibid, p. 178.

[12] Scot McKnight and Hauna Ondrey, Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy (Waco, Baylor Univ. Press, 2008), p. 219.

[13] “Cardinals Hoping for a 5th Marian Dogma,” http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/z5mardogm.htm

[14] Richard Hanson, Reginald Fuller, The Church of Rome: A Dissuasive (London, SCM Press, 1950), p. 69.