The Incarnation: History cum Doxology

Posted by M.Ferris on


I am not big on Christmas, for all the usual reasons. Commercialization, not a hint of it in Scripture, and the diversion of traditions that too often blunt, rather than enhance our understanding of the incarnation. But as it happens, I am going through Luke’s gospel these days, where we find the most complete narrative of the birth of Jesus. As my perusal coincides with Christmas I am struck by the duality of what Luke records.

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.  – Luke 1:32.

Jesus is called Son of the Most High. The term Most High is full of significance for the Jews, for it is the designation of God Himself. In Genesis 14:22, in his encounter with Melchizedek, Abram answers that he will not take of the spoils he is offered, for “I have lifted up my hand to YHWH, God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth.”  This is the Hebrew ‘elyown, and is also used several times in the Psalms. Not just by David (21:7 “For the King trusts in YHWH, and through the steadfast love of the Most High he shall not be moved.”) but also the Sons of Korah (46:4), Asaph (77:10), and anonymously (91:1, 92:1). This title speaks of power and supremacy. The Most High is Possessor of heaven and earth. The link to Luke’s narrative is both theological and (indirectly) linguistic. It is doubtless the case that when the angel spoke the title to Mary, telling her that Jesus would be Son of the Most High, she knew exactly what this meant. The Magnificat reveals a young Jewish woman who was familiar with the promises to the patriarchs, and their importance. As part of that, she would also know that Son of the Most High was a direct ascription of deity to the baby she would bear.  It is further confirmed in verse 35 of the same chapter. “Therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” The linguistic link is that ‘elyown, when translated in the Septuagint, is rendered as ὕψιστος which is the same Greek word that Luke uses in 1:32. That link, while not inspired, is nonetheless interesting to note.

Here is the answer to Arianism in simplicity and grandeur. Simplicity, because the entrance of God Himself into the world would through an infant. He who called the world into existence would enter it in utter humility. But it is grandeur as well, for He is born not only as Son of God, but he is to inherit the throne of this father David. He is a king, and will rule over the house of Jacob forever. Thus in the person of Christ we have both Son of God, and Son of David, deity and humanity together. When we recognize the incarnation, it is this we identify. Not just the birth of an infant, but the paradox of divine condescension. Others have called it the hypostatic union, which is helpful in the sense of specifying that Jesus is not half God, half man. He is fully God and fully man, yet he is one man in whom these two natures are found. There is no other explanation for Son of God and Son of David.

What Luke has recorded for us is history, but history that is the substance of theology, and should lead us on to doxology. The historical facts of the eternal Son become man should impel us to worship. Since it is biblical history, it is also something to be believed and affirmed. To those who suggest it is not significant how Jesus came into the world, Luke’s record is a rebuke.”When Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me” (Heb 10:5).  His was a body untainted by Adam’s sin, because Adam was not his first father. That aspect of his birth is vital to the salvific value of his death. Being without the sin of Adam goes back to the incarnation. That body was put on the cross, when Jesus did the will of His Father in dying. We should recall this as we think of the birth of Jesus.

Bible/The Church

It’s Not Just Strength of Belief That Matters

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It isn’t news that mainline Protestant congregations are numerically shrinking, but once again, research confirms that it’s the underlying theology of these churches that is the reason for the lack of growth. I say once again, because these observations are not new. the Barna Group has on several occasions highlighted this. Ross Douthat’s 2012 book, Bad Religion also profiled this trend. Further evidence of this is found David Millard Haskell’s opinion piece in the Dallas Morning News, Why Conservative Churches Grow and Liberal Churches Shrink.  But it is opinion supported by research.

Haskell and his colleagues did survey-based research on the beliefs of congregants in the various types of churches, and the results are not surprising to theological conservatives: doctrine matters. What you believe changes behavior, it influences your life, and causes you to live differently.  He notes:

We found, without exception, the clergy and congregants of the growing mainline Protestant churches held more firmly to traditional Christian beliefs, such as the belief Jesus rose physically from the grave and that God answers prayer. The clergy of the growing churches were the most theologically conservative and the declining church clergy the least. 

The research was greeted unenthusiastically by those on the theological left, as they pushed back on the notion that content of belief was determinative. They suggest, rather, that strength of belief is what is important. Looked at solely from the standpoint of church growth, however, the implications of this are clear. If you believe that conversion is a non-essential, you will not be particularly concerned to preach a gospel of Jesus as the only way of salvation. Conservatives preach this gospel. but, “half the clergy at the declining churches held the opposite conviction, believing it is not desirable to convert non-Christians.”

The conclusions to draw from this are not that church growth is the end goal, and that is why treating the Bible as God’s actual words is important. Rather, those who take this view are focusing on transcendent and eternal truths, things that matter beyond this life. If one focuses only on a gospel of social justice or political action, the more effective place to do that is within a political party. In some cases it seems that mainline churches have become just that – political action committees with a side of well-being by sharing these convictions with others. But what is conspicuously absent is a measure of truth.

It is a frequently repeated canard that theological conservatives care only about the spiritual, and do nothing to address the pressing physical needs of humanity. This is simply not true. Faith-based ministries abound that do just these things, provide food, clothing, medical attention, and the gospel. It is also the case that strength of faith is tied to charitable amounts. The reason for this is because the object of faith for committed Christians is the Son of God.

Paul said it bluntly to the Corinthian church: “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” In other words, to disbelieve this central truth of Christianity, while at the same time being part of a church is an exercise in futility. Conversely, an affirmation of the resurrection is a truth that matters, not only for all the implications of this life, but for the one to come. “In fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.”

Worship/The Church

The Primacy of the Lord’s Supper in the Local Church

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“As often as you eat this bread” should not mean as seldom.

The subject of the Lord’s Supper, (or Communion) is a large topic, and has engendered controversy and differing views through many centuries. In what follows, I do not propose any sort of exhaustive look at the subject, but rather to look at the Lord’s Supper with the specific question of how often it should be celebrated, and why. Within evangelical congregations, either “low-church” or even in those where worship is more formal, it is common that the Lord’s Supper is held at the most monthly, and in some cases, quarterly. In a few places it may be as infrequently as once a year. Some discussion of what the Lord’s Supper means will be necessary, but it is not my intention to examine all the many views on what it signifies, and how various Christian traditions have interpreted it. We can, however, say that the frequency or infrequency of its celebration does say something about the meaning of the Supper, or at least how Christians regard its importance in their worship lives.

Liturgical historian James F. White says, “The eucharist is usually not the most important service for most Protestants, at least not in terms of frequency. Most Protestant worship, historically and at present, has not made the eucharist its central service. When the eurcharist is celebrated, it is often tacked on to the end (or beginning) of the usual Sunday service.”[1] I am looking at it from an evangelical Protestant perspective, and while I will look at history to see how the Lord’s Supper was regarded in various ages, and how the evangelical church has arrived at the current state, what previous generations believed is not any sort of binding authority on how the Christian now views the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament itself is the sole authority for the Lord’s Supper.

The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament

The New Testament puts forth two ordinances; baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The first is a one-time event, and not to be repeated, as it symbolizes something that itself happens but once – the new birth. The second, the Lord’s Supper, is to be celebrated repeatedly, but with what frequency should it be done? My purpose is to show that having the Lord’s Supper each Lord’s Day is the pattern set forth in the New Testament. When we turn to the New Testament, the teaching on the Lord’s Supper falls into two categories: narrative and didactic. In the synoptic gospels Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper in the upper room, during the Passover meal with his disciples. Matthew 26:26-30 records the scene in the upper room.

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”  And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Mark’s gospels records substantially the same thing:

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it.  And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” (Mark 14:22-25).

Luke’s gospel follows the same basic outline, but with the additional detail of Jesus telling the disciples this is to be done in remembrance of him.

And when the hour came, he reclined at table, and the apostles with him.  And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves.  For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

John’s gospel contains no parallel institution of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus. Some have assigned Eucharistic meaning to Jesus’ discourse in chapter 6, where Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”   (John 6:53-54). But it is by no means clear that Jesus is hear speaking of what would later be known as the Lord’s Supper. Donald Guthrie comments on the “difficulties in treating the words as an allusion to the Lord’s Supper.”[2] “The word sarx (flesh) is used instead of sōma (body), and this must be regarded as a significant difference. There is no mention of the eating of Jesus’s flesh in the synoptic accounts of institution (or in Paul’s). The words must bear a symbolic meaning, since they are connected with heavenly bread. (6:58). The difference in wording between sarx and sōma should introduce a caution against too readily assuming that John is simply giving his own version of the words of institution.”[3] Earlier in the chapter, Jesus tells his hearers, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” He thus links coming to him with eating, and believing in him to drinking. Eating and drinking are presented as metaphors of receiving Jesus by faith. John’s gospel is replete with such metaphors. Jesus likens himself to a door and a vine as well, but no one assumes these to be other than pictures of spiritual truth.

The synoptic gospels, then, are the only narrative passages that present the Lord’s Supper to us. They contain but few details on the how or why of the ordinance, and nothing explicit on the when. One other passage from Acts provides some insight at least into the nascent practices of the earliest Jerusalem community. The apostle Peter preaches with boldness to his Jewish brethren in Acts 2, resulting in three thousand being saved on that single day. Following this, we see some of what they did.

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47).

Most scholars view the term “breaking of bread” to include a common fellowship meal, which culminated in the Lord’s Supper. Alford says “The Holy Communion was at first, and for some time, till abuses put an end to the practice, inseparably connected with the ἀγάπαι, or love-feasts, of the Christians and unknown as a separate ordinance.”[4] Whatever it says about the joining of a fellowship meal with the Lord’s Supper, Acts 2 speaks of the frequency of the practice. Indeed, verse 46 indicates this was a daily custom. We should also note the transitional nature of the book of Acts. At many points, the apostle’s expectations had to catch up with what God was doing – extending the gospel offer to Gentiles is the plainest evidence of an unforeseen direction by Holy Spirit. Moreover, the identity of these first disciples as Jews is also plain. Their attendance at the Temple as well as keeping the Jewish hours of prayers indicates they viewed their faith in Jesus as in no way a repudiation of their Jewish faith or ancestry. Rather, as Peter said to his fellow Israelites:  “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36).

            This has led some to conclude that because of the disciple’s Jewish identity, the origins of the Lord’s Supper are found in the Jewish Passover feast, and that Jewish custom plays a very large part in a proper understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Much research and scholarship has been devoted to this question, but it is beyond my purview to enter into that enquiry in detail. Liturgical historian Paul Bradshaw comments, “Whether or not the Last Supper was a Passover meal has been a topic of great debate. Some scholars accept as genuine the claim made in the synoptic gospels that it was indeed a Passover meal, and regard the different chronology of the Fourth Gospel (which situates the Supper on the day before the Passover) as an adjustment made by the Evangelist for a theological purpose – so that the death of Jesus would coincide with the very time that the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple.”[5] Closely identifying the Lord’s Supper with the Passover means that some draw conclusions about its frequency. James D.G. Dunn says “In the absence of any firmer data probably the best explanation is that the Lord’s Supper was initially an annual celebration – the Christian equivalent of the Passover: the first Christians were Jews after all.”[6] (I will have more to say about whether this connection and timing is warranted by the scriptural record.)

Turning to the didactic passages, we have only 1 Corinthians 10 and 11.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul is keen to correct the many problems he has learned the local congregation is suffering from. In chapter 10, he admonishes the believers about their responsibility to flee from idolatry, and to eschew any actions that would cause others to stumble. An important, abiding principle in the chapter is that the Lord’s Supper is a statement of our membership in and participation in the body of Christ. “The Lord’s Supper brings Christians into fellowship with one another on the highest plane of their lives. The communion is communion with one another in Christ. So that great scholar, W.G. Rutherford, translates I Cor.x. 16, 17, thus: ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not thereby we have communion with each other in the blood of Christ? The loaf which we break, is it not that whereby we have communion with each other in the body of Christ? As the loaf is one loaf, so we the many partakers are one body; for we share, all of us, in the one loaf, from which the portion of each is broken.’”[7]

In other words, our commonality in the body of Christ is declared when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Our participation together as members of Christ, our membership in the one body is proclaimed when we celebrate it. Ralph Martin expands on this. “The fellowship has a horizontal as well as a vertical reference. As we are knit with an unseen yet present Lord at His Table, so we are united with His people. This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians x, 17 (R.V. marg.): ‘Seeing that there is one bread, we, who are many, are one body; for we all partake of the one loaf.’ There is one loaf (Paul is saying) which is broken so that all who are present may have a share. But, he goes on, this common participation in a single loaf now joins you together as the spiritual counterpart of the one loaf. You are the body of Christ, the Church…”[8] We again find no mention of the frequency of the Supper, but it seems that the vehemence of Paul’s words indicate this was not a rarity within the congregation.

When we turn to chapter 11, we find the only full-scale teaching in the epistles on how the Lord’s Supper is practiced. Yet it too comes in the midst of corrective teaching by the apostle. Paul begins by chastening them.

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. (1 Cor. 11:17).

He is clearly displeased with the reports he has received about their disorderly worship. But he goes on to say,

For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. When you come together, it is not the Lord’s supper that you eat. (1 Cor. 11:18-20).

Paul ascribes their disorder to those times when they come together as a church. Here, then, is an indication that the Christians of Corinth were gathering regularly, and as we know from Acts 20:7, (“On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread”), this was the first day of the week, Sunday. Concerning this, F.F. Bruce notes “The reference to the meeting for the breaking of bread on ‘the first day of the week’ is the earliest text we have from which it may be inferred with reasonable certainty that Christians regularly came together for worship on that day.”[9] It makes sense as well that the Acts 20 meeting occurs in the evening, for “the first day was a regular work day for Romans: Christians met together that day as work allowed, either early or late.”[10] If Dunn’s contention that the Lord’s Supper was only an annual celebration initially has any merit, it clearly did not remain so for long.

It is evident that the reason Paul writes as he does to the church is precisely because this was not uncommon or only annual behavior, but rather every time they came together as a gathering of believers. From the Acts 2 passage as well, where the sharing of meals was occurring daily, it makes no sense that these earliest disciples began with a daily celebration but moved to an annual one because of their Jewish heritage. Bradshaw believes the wrangling over how closely the Lord’s Supper should be associated with the Passover is to be immaterial. “The question of whether the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal is not particularly crucial. Even if it were a Passover meal, no exclusively paschal practices seem to have been retained in the primitive Church’s Eucharistic celebrations; and even if it were not a Passover meal, it still took place within a Passover atmosphere and context.”[11]

Ralph Martin agrees that with Jesus’ institution of the Supper, “it does seem clear that Paschal ideas were in His mind as He sat with the Twelve. The early Church looked back to this meal and its symbolism as portraying Him as the true Passover (1 Corinthians v, 7,8).[12] All manner of symbolism comes with the identification of Christ as our Passover. The Israelites were saved by being “under the blood”, as Christians are redeemed by the blood of Christ. The Passover lamb had to be without blemish, as was Jesus himself. We are redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot (1 Pet. 1:19). In other words, the sign of the Passover lamb is that it pictures Christ himself and his sacrifice on our behalf. It is unnecessary, and adds nothing, to insist that the Lord’s Supper is a continuation of the Passover, because for the believer the Passover is not an end in itself, but rather a marker of the person and work of Christ. It is symbol, but Christ is the substance.

Returning to 1 Corinthians 11, it is clear that the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper in a way that was both inconsiderate to fellow believers, and incongruous with how those who belong to the one body of Christ should behave. It is likely that some fellowship meal was part of this early celebration of the Supper, “For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One goes hungry, another gets drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not.” (v. 21-22). Rich and poor are gathered together, yet in the church these class distinctions should not be emphasized – quite the contrary – and Paul was angry that those who had more were shaming those with less. This was not the way for believers to conduct themselves toward fellow members of the body.

In the following section, Paul rehearses the institution of the Lord’s Supper, saying that he has received it from the Lord. He includes the phrase found only in Luke “This do in remembrance of me.” Since Luke traveled with Paul, one wonders whether Paul is quoting Luke’s gospel here, as he evidently does with Luke 10:7 (“The laborer is worthy of his wages”) in 1 Tim 5:18. The important thing to note is that the apostle is underscoring the Lord’s Supper as remembrance of Jesus; who he is and what he has done. This is one of the chief reasons in favor of a weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. It is an act that is centered on the Lord Jesus. He is the one who has brought us light and life and should we not remember him with greater frequency in this act, rather than less? Do we honor him more by an infrequent remembrance of him through the Supper? There are some acts that grow in importance as we do them more, and honoring the Lord through this remembrance is surely such an act.

The final verse of the paragraph brings out another aspect of the Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (v. 25). Here, too, the word “often” speaks of the frequency rather than the irregularity of the Lord’s Supper. The apostle’s assumption is that whenever they gathered together each Sunday, the Supper was part of the gathering. Whether it is in Acts or here in 1 Corinthians, the testimony of the New Testament is that Christians were gathered on the first day of the week to worship together, and when they did so, partaking of the Supper was a part of that.

The second half of the verse carries a very important purpose in the Lord’s Supper, in that it functions as a kind of gospel preaching; a proclamation of the saving death of Jesus and all that it means. That this preaching is to those who are already born-again in no way lessens the importance of it. On the contrary, David was speaking to his own heart when he said “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” (Ps. 103:2). Believers need to remind themselves of the atonement and all that Jesus suffered in order to bring us to God. This is no secondary doctrine, but is of first priority to the believer. Quite often in the Protestant celebration of the Lord’s Supper, these verses from 1 Corinthians 11 are read out as an invocation before the bread and wine are distributed. But congregations need not be restricted to these verses alone. These types and pictures just noted from the Old Testament speak to us of Christ’s death, and the book of Psalms and the prophets as well are filled with messianic references that also help to “proclaim the Lord’s death.”

Beginning with Genesis 3:15 and the ‘proto-evangelium’ of the serpent bruising the hell of the woman’s seed, the death of Christ is put forth in the earliest pages of scripture as a prophetic certainty. The Passover lamb, as we have seen, typifies Jesus in his death. He is the burnt offering of Leviticus 1, giving himself wholly and completely to do his father’s will. He is the grain offering, “a pleasing aroma to the Lord”, (Lev. 2) finding its counterpart in Ephesians 5:2, “Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. ” He is the peace offering (Lev 3) who is our peace, having reconciled us through the cross. (Eph. 2:14-15). He is the sin offering (Lev 4), who, for our sake was made to be sin who knew no sin. (2 Cor. 5:21). This is but to scratch the surface of what the scriptures present to us as all that the Lord Jesus suffered and endured on our behalf to accomplish our redemption. As Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote, “The death of Christ is neither incidental, accidental, nor fortuitous. It is the central truth of the Bible, and the central fact of the universe.”[13] Recalling these truths, and proclaiming them to one another is a primary purpose – indeed privilege – of the Lord’s Supper. Shall we think about these things less by our infrequent celebration of it?

The final clause of 1 Cor. 11: 25 is also important. We proclaim the Lord’s death, until he comes. There is an eschatological element to the Lord’s Supper that we often forget. The promise of the New Testament is that Jesus will return in glory. In the synoptic gospels, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not again eat of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes. He points forward to that time when he will return. We do indeed proclaim his death during this age of grace, an age when people may call upon him to be saved, but we look ahead to that time when the kingdom will made visible upon the earth. “Until He comes (1 Corinthians xi, 26) unmistakably points to the future. The Gospel ordinance belongs to the Church age which will run its course until the inbreaking of the final Kingdom. The Table bids the Church look to that day when the Kingdom will be fully consummated; and our invocation of Marana tha (Our Lord, come!) as a prayer for the end and the establishment of the Kingdom came naturally to find a place in the Communion services of the Early Church.”[14] The Lord’s Supper is a perennial celebration for the church to observe, but it is also a feast that points forward to the hope of Jesus return, to his manifestation as king. Not only will those who trust him acknowledge his kingship, but every knee will bow, and every tongue confess that He is Lord.

The Lord’s Supper in History

In the many centuries since the post-apostolic era, the way in which the church celebrated the Lord’s Supper changed profoundly. I will have space to survey only a brief amount of evidence. Even in these early centuries, we see innovation in the way the Supper was regarded. Hippolytus writes

“Frequency of communion among the laity declined after the fourth century, such that the Synod of Agde (506) decreed the minimum communion to be the aforementioned three occasions: Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas.”[15] This decrease in frequency of communion had occurred hand in hand with an increase in the prestige of the clerical class.

In the high middle ages, we witness a divination of the Eucharist itself, and those who serve at the altar are of a separate order entirely from those who hear the mass. “Church authorities determined that a properly ordained priest was the only person who could make Christ present in the Mass. The Eucharistic celebration that emerged form these centuries, then, tended to transform the Mass into a spectacle performed by the priest for the laity whose participation in the sacrament took place through devotions other than those of the liturgy itself.”[16] It is not without significance that a priest says mass, while the laity hear mass.

Prior to the Reformation itself, there were those who called for the people to once again receive the Eucharist in both kinds. The cup was long denied to the laity, and was only allowed to priests. The term utraquist (“in both kinds”) designates the belief that Christians should receive both the bread and wine during the Eucharist. Jan Hus, the Czech priest and martyr was most associated with this view.

When we reach the time of the Reformation, the Mass and the Eucharist had strayed very far afield of the New Testament simplicity. Because of this, some Reformers sought to purge popular belief of any of the practices struck them as superstitious.

“Four walls and a sermon” was all that John Calvin (1509-1564), the paradigmatic Reformed theologian, had required of the worship service. By reading scripture, individuals might receive divine revelation directly, without the intervention of a priest or the sacramental system.”[17] The restoration of the authority of the Bible was doubtless the motivation for the four walls and a sermon. In the liturgical apparatus, built up over long centuries, devoted to relics, veneration of saints, and Eucharistic adoration, the preaching and teaching of the Scriptures had suffered greatly. Yet Calvin himself was not one who diminished the importance of the Lord’s Supper. Indeed, he argued with the city fathers of Geneva for a weekly celebration. The conclusion is that due to their wariness over any medieval superstition, and their desire to restore the Scriptures to their rightful place, some of the Reformers diminished the Lord’s Supper to a degree that swung to the other extreme. They were satisfied with an infrequent celebration of the Supper, even if it did not accord with the New Testament pattern.

Evangelicals need to recover the primacy of the Lord’s Supper in its biblical context. Too many view it as an ancillary event in our worship, rather than a proclamation of Jesus death, which is the center of the gospel. Regarding it so need not, and should not lead one into a sacramental view. It is possible to hold to the importance of the Supper without lapsing into mystagogy or falsehood. There is blessing in doing what the Lord commanded us, remembering him as he asked us, and in proclaiming his death until he comes.

[1] James F. White, Protestant Worship: Traditions in Transition (Louisville, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), p. 14.

[2] Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 729.

[3] Guthrie, p. 729-730.

[4] Henry Alford, The Greek New Testament: An Exegetical and Critical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1980), p.29.

[5] Paul F. Bradshaw, The Search for the Origins of Christian Worship: Sources and Methods for the Study of Early Liturgy (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 48.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity, 2nd ed. (London, SCM Press, 1990), p. 163.

[7] J.W. Hunkin, “The Origin of Eucharist Doctrine” in The Evangelical Doctrine of Holy Communion, A.J. MacDonald, ed. (Cambridge, W. Heffer & Sons, Ltd., 1930), p. 23

[8] Ralph P. Martin, Worship in the Early Church (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), p. 123.

[9] F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), p. 384.

[10] Craig Harline, Sunday: A History of the Day from Babylon to the Super Bowl (New York, Doubleday, 2007), p. 8.

[11] Bradshaw, p. 51.

[12] Martin, p. 113.

[13] Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Vol. 4 (Dallas, Dallas Seminary Press, 1948), p. 10.

[14] Martin, p. 128.

[15] Ian Christopher Levy, “The Eucharist and Canon Law in the High Middle Ages,” in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 407.

[16] Gary Macy, “Theology of the Eucharist in the High Middle Ages”, in A Companion to the Eucharist in the Middle Ages, Ian Christopher Levy, Gary Macy, Kristen Van Ausdall , eds. (Leiden, Brill, 2012), p. 365-366.

[17] Conrad L. Donakowski, “The Age of Revolutions” in The Oxford History of Christian Worship, Geoffrey Wainright, Karen B. Westerfield Tucker, eds. (Oxford:New York, Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 361-363


Reformation 499

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Let the revisions begin

martin_luther_cranachToday is the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s declaration of war, or thus it amounted to. Indeed, Luther may have intended the 95 theses to be grist for university debate, but they struck so fundamental a blow to medieval religion that the tide could not be stopped, and the Reformation was set in motion. A reading of the 95 theses reveals that while they have an air of protest about them, they aren’t in any way a full-throated Protestant manifesto. Luther would certainly progress from these early complaints to more overtly biblical stances. In this year of run-up prior to the actual quincentenary, revisionist history is sure to be written. You’ll see a plethora of articles on interpreting and reinterpreting the Reformation. Part of this is driven by an anachronistic look at the contemporary church, and to view things as so much better than in Luther’s day, was the Reformation really necessary? This is not necessarily new, but in a manifestly post-modern intellectual (and spiritual) milieu, Luther has suffered in the house of his friends. From Erik Erickson’s Young Man Luther, to proponents of the New Perspectives on Paul who often surmise that, at least on his understanding of the apostle to the Gentiles, the Wittenberg monk was off the mark. In the year ahead, as you read the appraisals and assessments of the influence of the Reformation through the preceding half millennium, I think it is important to keep a few things in mind.

Ecumenism is not the measure of truth

Some of the archetypical Reformation foes – Roman Catholics and Lutherans – have sought to bridge the divide that it created. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is an example of efforts to say that we really do agree on the signal doctrine that Luther insisted upon. Pope Emeritus Benedict said just a few years ago, “It was indeed biblical to say, as did Luther, that it was the faith of a Christian, not his works that saved him.”[1] His successor, Francis, said much the same, referring to Luther’s views on justification by faith alone. “On this point, which is very important, he did not err.[2] But these statements have to be reconciled with the insistence “The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation”[3] Declaring justification by faith alone, while at the same time saying that certain acts must be performed cannot be squared as sola fide. As a never more appropriate cliché says, the devil is in the details. The Vatican is often interested in ecumenism as a means to invite people to “come home.” You see, we really do agree on so very much. Ecumenism wears the mantle of nobility. Being charitable to those who disagree with you on certain points is evidence of an open-minded and magnanimous attitude is it not? But we should not confuse charity with truth.

Looking for common ground with all who name the name of Christ, we may feel the pull to diminish our differences, even if they involve fundamental tenets of faith. That is, those who want to see the Reformation breach healed will be keen to paper over the differences and to proclaim that we are all in agreement now. We can do no better than the apostle Paul on this, who asked the Galatians, “Have I become your enemy by telling you the truth?” We should not forget the things that incensed and animated Luther: the selling of salvation, and the attitude of a priestly class toward the ordinary believer. Though justification was the central grievance Luther had, there were other things he decried in the church of his day. Ecumenism shouldn’t blind us to the fact that putting the Church in the stead of the Holy Spirit, for example, is still a feature of the Roman Catholic Church.

The priesthood of all believers is vital

One of the things Luther did that had lasting value was to highlight the status of every Christian as equal in God’s sight. Indeed, Western civilization has so adopted and expanded this with respect to human rights that it may seem odd to think otherwise. But in the medieval church it was otherwise. Clergy had a status above that of laymen, and were believed to possess special abilities. Part of the controversy was political and economic. The clergy enriched themselves at the expense of the laity, and there was pent up resentment of this among the faithful. The medieval Church was, after all, an entity with the power of taxation. But it was also theological. By virtue of the sacrament of ordination, only a priest could celebrate mass, baptize, and safely shepherd a soul through life with the likely outcome of a period in purgatory. For Luther, ordination was not a sacrament, but a public declaration of a man’s calling to the work of ministry. It did not raise the man above his fellows in God’s estimation. The ancillary effect of the priesthood of all believers was Luther’s desire to get the Word of God into the hands of the faithful in the vernacular. Luther was following the path of Wycliffe in this, but the effect was profound on the German speaking peoples.

One may look at the Catholic church of today and say that Luther’s reforms have indeed taken hold. Bible reading is permitted, we have a far more realistic view of the clergy, and the Church has long since ceased to have any taxing authority. But if we look closer, the hierarchical church still wields its power. Bible reading is allowed, but not particularly encouraged, and even then the final authority for interpreting the Scriptures rests with the Magisterium. It is still the case that “the minister who is able to confect the sacrament of the Eucharist in the person of Christ is a validly ordained priest alone.”[4]  There is lip service to the priesthood of all believers, but in practice, there is very little of it. And this is not only among the more liturgical churches. Sadly, even among evangelical churches, there is too much reliance on pastors who are vocational ministers, and not enough Bible study in the congregation. Evangelicals of all people, should celebrate this New Testament truth by exercising it.

The centrality of the Word of God

Behind all Luther’s reforms stood the Word of God. A study of the Word had taught him justification by faith alone, it taught him that peace with God was the possible, not through the sacraments, let alone purchasing pardon from God, but by reckoning on the sure and certain promises of the New Testament. It is difficult to perceive at the distance of these centuries the accretions that had shaped and formed the understanding of theology of Luther’s day. Scholasticism and Aristotle, the allegorical lens applied to Scripture, and above all, the authority of the Church – these were the things Luther began to sweep away and insist there be scriptural justification for any obligation upon believers. The authorities of the day were not prepared to grant him any of his fundamental points, and thus, he could do no other.

Part of the knock on Luther is that he set in motion a virtual free-for-all in terms of scriptural interpretation. Look at the plethora of denominations under the Protestant banner and see where this principle leads, the criticism goes. But it is a ruse to imagine that some centralized authority or body can pronounce the true and certain meaning of the Bible. This is evident for several reasons. Unanimity is worthless if the interpretation is wrong, and even the hierarchical church has repudiated the legacy of allegorical exegesis. Secondly, as Thomas Bergler notes in The Juvenalization of American Christianity, Roman Catholics feel every bit as empowered as Protestants to pick and choose what they want to believe from Church teaching. The central authority is rather ineffective. But most importantly, the Scriptures promise no continuing authority apart from the Holy Spirit guiding the Church, but not through a hierarchy. The church is a who and not a what; an organism, not an organization. This belief still separates the Reformation parties.

Luther had his inconsistencies, and in some areas did not allow the Bible to fully hold sway over his thinking. But do not mistake his imperfect outworking of principle for a deficiency in that principle. The need to subject our faith and practice to the Bible remains. Historians and commentators who suggest that the Reformation was unnecessary, or a misunderstanding, should recall the state of the medieval church. To whatever degree the institutional church has reformed, we can thank Martin Luther for this. Some things are indeed different today, but the need to continually turn to the Scriptures for guidance and authority, for the warrant of all we believe and hold – this need has not changed. In this sense the Reformation is not over, nor should it ever be.

[1] http://www.christiantoday.com.au/article/luther.rome.and.the.bible/5255.htm

[2] http://www.dennyburk.com/pope-francis-says-he-agrees-with-martin-luther-about-justification/

[3] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 319.

[4] http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/_P38.HTM

Bible/Canon of Scripture

How Does Your Knowledge of the Canon Measure Up?

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The canon is both history and theology.


The New Testament canon of Scripture is a subject that is too little understood by believers. As a topic most often left to specialists and scholars, the Christian very frequently has an inadequate understanding of how we got our Bible. But the importance of understanding this has grown, rather than diminished, over time. That is, as scholarship has advanced through centuries it has both sharpened our knowledge, while at the same time increased opposition to the idea and content of the New Testament canon. Canon means rule, or measuring rod, and the idea of the canon of Scripture is that it is the rule against which teaching and doctrine are measured. It is the norma normans non normata, or the standard over which no standard exists, but can believers explain exactly why? As scholars such as Bart Ehrman produce books and research that putatively debunks Scripture and the canon, it is vital that Christians – all Christians, not just scholars – be able to articulate the reasons for believing the canon of Scripture is God’s record. There are a couple of points where believers often get tripped up.

“The Church gave us the Bible.”

The idea that we wouldn’t have the books of the Bible if the church didn’t give them to us appears logical at first, but when the question is more thoroughly examined, it falls apart. This is in fact reversing the order of things. God’s word produces God’s people, not the other way around. “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth” (James 1:18), and “Since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God.” (1 Pet. 1:23). We as God’s people were created, formed as the Church, by the word of God. We do not form God’s word. The church indeed receives the word from God, but she is not the source of it. As Michael Kruger has commented, “the role of the church is like a thermometer, not a thermostat. Both instruments provide information about the temperature in the room—but one determines it and one reflects it.”[1]

Some will point to various councils that seem to ratify the canonical list of books, and say that this represents the church “giving” us the Bible. But this is to confuse reception with authority. John Barton comments, “When fourth-century Fathers and councils attempted to regulate the ‘canon’, they were doing little more than codifying what was already almost universally accepted.” [2] With this, James J. O’Donnell agrees, saying “Before translocal hierarchies of bishops and eventual popes and patriarchs ever evolved to have any doctrinal authority, Christians had come to agree, without noticing it, without debate, without anybody planning it, that scriptural texts, gathered in collections of apostolic authority, would prevail.”[3] Neither the church through some grand decision, nor through conciliar agreement gave us the Scriptures. Rather, the books of the New Testament are self-authenticating, and possess innate and inherent authority. To suggest otherwise is to confuse authority with canonicity. The church recognized these books as authoritative, and the decision to “canonize” them is but an acknowledgement of this divine and inherent authority that belongs to these books.

There were many writings extant during the apostolic era, but our 27 books have prevailed while others have not. And to refer to any such writing as apocryphal is not really correct. Apocryphal means hidden, and these books were by no means hidden or underground. They simply did not contain God’s truth and the believing community did not regard them as Scripture. There is no evidence for the idea that a bunch of bishops sat around and by a show of hands said yea or nay to including the Gospel of Thomas.  If indeed the Word of God is living and active, what God has inspired to be written is able to vindicate itself as his authoritative writing.

“There are so many manuscripts, what about the differences?”

This is perhaps more a question of textual criticism, but it is so closely allied with the questions surrounding the canon that it is important to note. Some have fancied that the plethora of manuscripts has somehow made it more difficult to determine the true words of Scripture, but quite the opposite is the case. Consider for a moment an event where there is but one witness. What that witness says must be regarded as the truth, because there is no one to contradict him. Now imagine there are two witnesses and their stories differ. This presents a problem of knowing which of the two is correct. But if we have hundreds of witnesses, and the vast majority of those witnesses agree, there is far more confidence that one has gotten the correct version of events due to the bulk of evidence from so many voices. There are approximately 5000 manuscripts containing the whole or part of the New Testament. This evidence dwarfs that of other ancient writings. For example, Metzger points out that “Among the tragedians the witness to Euripides are the most abundant: his extant works are preserved in 54 papyri and 276 parchment manuscripts, almost all of the latter dating from the Byzantine period.”[4]

The bounty of manuscripts for the New Testament allows us to have more confidence, not less, that we have the Word of God. By comparing manuscript with manuscript – engaging in textual criticism – this provides an exceedingly high degree of assurance about the accuracy of our Bible. Centuries of manuscript sleuthing has produced ever more evidence for the 27 books we know as the New Testament. Believers should have confidence that weight of evidence keeps pointing in the same direction.

Is the canon really that important?

I believe having at least a working knowledge of the New Testament canon is exceedingly important. Christianity is a relationship with Jesus based on the apostolic records left to us. We are admonished in the New Testament to desire the pure milk of the word, to show ourselves approved, rightly handling the word, and to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Without the canon of Scripture, none of these are possible. To have an understanding of how those books came to be, why we believe that we indeed have the right books – the books God wants us to have – these are not ancillary concerns. Further, as opposition to biblical faith increases, believers need to have confidence in God’s book,  and to be able to explain why we hold to the canon we have. The canon is not the same as inspiration, but it is an allied doctrine. In short, Christians believe that the God who was able to raise Jesus from the dead was also perfectly capable of getting it right at the printer.

For those wanting to delve more into the topic, the following are some recommendations for further reading:


[1] Michael J. Kruger (2012-04-05). Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Kindle Locations 2772-2773). Good News Publishers. Kindle Edition.

[2] John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p.15

[3] James J. O’Donnell, Augustine: A New Biography (New York, Harper Collins,2005), p. 277.

[4] Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 2nd ed. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 34.


We’re Still Treating Worship War Casualties

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It’s the music that carries the text, CCM or otherwise.

A recent post on a Christianity Today blog caught my eye because of the topic of music in the Church. This is a well-worn subject, and I can’t say everything I want to here, because it’s too broad (and I’m writing something more extensive), but I’m glad the topic hasn’t simply been dismissed with a hand-wave, as if to say “We’re done with that!” Christians need to keep talking about it. If in the evangelical world we haven’t quite reached resolution, we have in many quarters at least reached a truce, but it has come at a cost. By this I mean many churches have a traditional service and a contemporary service. This is another way of saying we have effected an amicable church split, or perhaps friendly separation may be the better term. Those who feel strongly about one style over the other will always attend that service, and so there are functionally two congregations meeting in the same building, one after the other. This has facilitated peace, but not necessarily unity.

Karl Vaters, the post’s author, makes some good points, and I’m sure that he would agree there is much more to say than his brief article allowed. He begins with the question of whether churches are targeting unbelievers with contemporary music, as a hook to get them into the church. He answers in the negative, and gives some reasons why his church uses the music it does. Some of these are absolutely valid reasons, and as he says, “Every old song used to be a new song.” That is certainly true, and in the Western church, even those who advocate for “traditional” music are using a fairly narrow definition of that. They mean the quasi-popular music that dates back about 200 years or so, running through the mid 20th century. But the history of the church is much longer than that, and tunes that were sung 1000 years ago would sound very strange to our ears today. One can make the case that this music is even more traditional than Western hymns, because it has a much older lineage, but no one sings those tunes because they are culturally foreign to us. I don’t mean the words are foreign, I mean the music itself, and that part of the question gets too little attention.

Vaters makes the point that “There is no such thing as “church music” outside of the lyrical content.” I understand what he means, but I don’t think that statement suffices for everything that’s going in with music. It’s true that one cannot say, “aha, that is a Christian f-sharp”, but it’s also true that music is not created in a vacuum. It is culturally located, and comes with connotations and associations that are sometimes so firmly entrenched that they cannot be dislodged. I am not referring to words and music together, but to the music alone. That is, the notes, rhythms, tempi, harmony, instrumentation – all of the elements that make up music.

The music alone tells a story and colors the words. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ll give an example. Years ago there was a radio ministry called the Haven Of Rest, (now Haven Today), and the resident musicians were a male quartet. They came and did a concert at Moody Church in Chicago, which I heard over the radio. In a nod to the radio program, the quartet sang four verses of the hymn. “Haven of Rest.” The first verse was sung as one would expect – straight. The second was sung in an operatic or “classical” fashion, as they explained that Chicago was a city with a renowned symphony orchestra. The audience chuckled a bit at this. The third verse was sung in a country and western style, which the audience found quite funny. The final verse was sung in a rap style, and the audience laughter was the strongest of all. Without realizing why, the audience recognized this digression in tone of words and music with each verse. As the music (and its connotations) departed farther away from the text, the satire increased. This effect is what makes the idea of a parody in song at all possible. If the text alone dictates whether a piece of music is Christian or not, then there would be nothing humorous at all in this. I could cite other examples too, (Oliver Sachs Musicophilia is filled with several) and the whole idea of a film soundtrack is based on the idea of music influencing us in ways we may not even realize.

Local churches should at least ask these questions about associations with their music. Traditional or contemporary, it all carries a message apart from the text. People can overcome certain associations, and learn to enjoy and be moved by music that was previously uncomfortable for them, but it may be a formidable effort. Quite often, it’s a youngest common denominator that determines our music, (how many worship leaders are over 40 I wonder?), but the biblical model is that age brings wisdom. Churches that are mono-generational are impoverished. Whether they know it or not, younger Christians desperately need older believers among them. It’s a shame if musical choices prevent that. Am I saying that the older Christians must dictate the type of music in a local church? Not at all, but there is a real need for education, to talk about what happens in music, that is, within us as people. It’s insufficient to take a text, pair it with music we like and say we know have “Christian music.” Does the tune, support or undermine the message of the text? What about the rhythm, meter, and instrumentation? All of these subtly add or subtract from what the text is conveying. Vaters notes, “New Songs give voice to how people express worship today.”
They do indeed, but music – all music – doesn’t simply express, it impresses. It influences us and shapes us, and being aware of that effect is not always appreciated by many who plan worship.


Evangelical Heterodoxy

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The term “Evangelical” no longer has meaning

A recent study by Lifeway and Ligonier points out once again that the term “Evangelical” means next to nothing these days. The doctrinal survey points out that those who self-identify as evangelicals are all over the theological map in terms of their beliefs. If there is an overarching theme it is that American evangelicals are products of their time, and are far too influenced by the surrounding culture. They are being transformed alright, but not toward a more biblically-shaped mind. It should surprise no one that Americans in general hold heterodox views, and the study data must be read carefully to distinguish when the respondents are Americans in general, or whether the answers reflect only evangelicals.

“Two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) say God accepts the worship of all religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Twenty-four percent disagree. Twelve percent are not sure.” The exclusivity of salvation through Jesus is very clear in the NT. “No man comes to the father except through me”, Jesus told his disciples. That cannot be squared with “God accepts the worship of all religions” when no other religion defines Jesus as God incarnate. Among evangelicals, those who agree with this statement drops to 46%, but that is still a shocking number. Nearly half of evangelicals apparently believe that all faiths are more or less equal in God’s sight.

Not surprisingly, the majority of Americans are not clear on one of the most fundamental aspects of the gospel: You cannot earn salvation. “Three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) say people must contribute their own effort for personal salvation. Half of Americans (52 percent) say good deeds help them earn a spot in heaven.” That drops to 36% agreement among evangelicals, but again, a startling number of believers are confused on a most basic aspect of salvation.

It should be noted that were the survey to segment other groups aside from evangelicals, I don’t doubt that the results would be similar. That is, if Roman Catholics, Methodists, etc. were categorized, the results would not be any different. (See Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenalization of American Christianity for such evidence.) In other words, this problem is not unique to evangelicals, but indeed it should be the case that evangelicals are the outliers due to their orthodoxy, not their heterodoxy.

The solution to this is not a new one: Faithful exposition of the Bible. No amount of catechesis that is divorced from the biblical record can do this. The creeds are not living and active, able to divide between soul and spirit. Only the Word of God is able to do that. American evangelicals need to recover a regard for the Bible once again, not as supreme authority, but as Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, as sole authority.


The Scriptures Are Disappearing

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Influence on public life aside, Christians need more of the Bible.

Kenneth A. Briggs is a longtime journalist covering religion who is out with a new book, The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America. The theme is the vanishing of the centrality of the Bible in American life, and more importantly, in the church. This is but a further step of decline in what the Barna Group wrote about in its 2010 survey, citing six megathemes of the church’s direction. Number one on that list, “The church is becoming less theologically literate.” Theological literacy begins with the Bible, and Mr. Briggs work serves to highlight the sad and startling fact that among professing Christians, the Scriptures are simply not read very much.

Evangelicals should pay heed to what Briggs notes when asked about places he expected to find the Bible, but didn’t. “In the mega-type churches – the churches that were really heavily loaded with the visual and the audio and the rest of the electronic stuff, the music – I was really stunned by what I saw as that alternative version of Christianity being delivered through those means.”

Christians cannot grow spiritually beyond their knowledge of Scripture. We may have relational ministry, we may have worship teams, we may have what some view as crass “theotainment”, but if we do not have a deep and growing relationship with reading the Bible, we will not have conformity to Christ. No amount of community can make up for our lack of attention to the written word of God. Our pedigree means nothing. It doesn’t matter who started your church,  or what association or coalition we are part of. If a personal engagement with an open Bible is not part of our faith, we will be spiritually anemic. My sense is that Briggs’ book is part investigative reporting, part lament. He is saddened, as all christians should be, by the erosion of the Bible in not only our public discourse, but in our churches. Take, and read.


Both conservative and liberal Catholics agree – Pope Francis is changing church teaching

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Is the pope playing a theological shell game?

Amoris Laetitia, the apostolic exhortation, is a document that offers pastoral guidance for Roman Catholic clergy toward the reintegration of Catholics into congregational and sacramental life. Specifically, those Catholics who are divorced and remarried, or who are in other situations referred to as “Irregular unions.”  Damon Linker refers to Francis as a ‘stealth reformer’, and charts the path of how he is undoing previous doctrinal positions ever so quietly. A stealth reformer such as Francis, “keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.”

Linker has no doubt about Francis’ methods, nor his goal. He means to change doctrine by turning a blind eye to enforcement, and to leaving it to the discretion of parish priests as to whether it is acceptable to admit people to the sacraments. The pope is, in a way, covering his ears and shouting “la! la! la!” He doesn’t want to know or hear about what goes on at individual parishes. Linker expresses consternation with conservative Catholics who are upset by the apostolic exhortation, referring to their “retrograde intransigence.” Where he once espoused the conservative position, Linker seems ready to be done with a Church that refuses any dialogue on issues. Francis has broken this mold, and is a man very different from his two predecessors.

While Linker finds this encouraging and refreshing, others such as Michael Brendan Dougherty, find it a betrayal of the ancient faith. Dougherty agrees with Linker in this: Pope Francis is changing doctrine, if only by obfuscation and evasion. For those who believe this is an impossibility (“As the church teaches and has always taught”), what Francis propagates in the apostolic exhortation is, according to Dougherty, cowardice, confusion, and recklessness. Conservatives recalling the halcyon days of John Paul II and Benedict, doubtless find the current papacy hard to stomach. Convert Luma Simms is also one who all but declares Francis is peddling bad doctrine. She, too, accuses the pontiff of obfuscation, waffling, and of casting believers back on individual, private judgement. Those who insist that the church never changes its doctrinal positions are faced with difficult choices.  One matter on which conservative and liberal Roman Catholics are agreed, even as they quibble about method: the pope is changing the teaching of the Church. 


The Case for Domestic Pacifism

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Is our hope in superior fire power?

The Washington Post re-ran a piece by John Piper, titled Should Christians Arm Themselves? that presents a counterargument to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s recent comments that Liberty University students should carry guns. Falwell’s comments came in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings, attributed to Islamic terrorism. Piper’s argument is that it is not consistent with the teaching of the New Testament that Christians face inevitable persecution with armed resistance. His position is a careful presentation of the biblical evidence to the contrary. He makes several points that are unassailable. A brief excerpt provides a mildly sardonic example of where Falwell’s logic would lead:

I think I can say with complete confidence that the identification of Christian security with concealed weapons will cause no one to ask a reason for the hope that is in us. They will know perfectly well where our hope is. It’s in our pocket.

Piper goes on as well to ask the question where all discussions of christian pacifism lead:

A natural instinct is to boil the issue down to the question, “Can I shoot my wife’s assailant?”

He provides a 7 point answer to this question, and is forthright enough to say, I do not know what I would do before this situation presents itself with all its innumerable variations of factors. And I would be very slow to condemn a person who chose differently from me. 

Piper’s logic and reasoning hews very closely to a book I read several years ago, Choosing Against War: A Christian View, by John D. Roth. Roth is a professor at Goshen College in Indiana.  Goshen is a Mennonite school, and Roth presents a position consistent with historical anabaptism. Roth, too, said he didn’t know what he would do at the moment in a hypothetical situation of his wife or family being threatened. Roth is a thoroughgoing pacifist, and would thus refuse all military service. I don’t get the impression from Piper’s article that he holds to that view. And this is why I use the term “domestic pacifism.” If we exclude service in the military, and limit armed resistance to ordinary citizens carrying guns, then I think the Christian case against Falwell’s stance and for domestic pacifism is air-tight.

For a Christian, the worst that can happen is not death, but rather entering into a Christless eternity. If I have the power to take the life of another, and to send them to such an end, do I want to exercise that power? Can I assert with confidence that God would want me to take the life of another in this way? Though I didn’t always hold this view, I have to come to see that domestic pacifism is the most faithful to the New Testament, and in my view, the one most consistent with Christian witness.