Getting Baptism Wrong

augustineIt’s astonishing to me how quickly Christian churches lost the meaning of believer’s baptism in the first centuries after Christ returned to heaven. The early church quickly adopted a baptismal regeneration view of the ordinance; a view that is completely at odds with the New Testament documents.

Perhaps the largest culprit for this misinterpretation is a wrong-headed understanding of Jesus’ words from John 3:5, in which Jesus explains the meaning of the new and spiritual birth to Nicodemus. Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

For several reasons, this is best understood as a double-metaphor, with water and Spirit both referring to the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit in salvation (cf. Ezek 36; Mk 1:8). However, anyone who has spent time reading the early apostolic and post-apostolic literature knows very well how this passage (and others) were interpreted to teach a spiritual regeneration view of the ordinance of baptism.

Indeed, Christian literature from the mid-2nd century demonstrates that some believers thought there was no forgiveness for sins committed after baptism.[1] Again, this isn’t a concept taught anywhere in the New Testament. By the mid-4th century, the process for adult baptism had become quite elaborate and superstitious.[2]

I’ve started reading Augustine’s Confessions, which is one of those books every seminary graduate comes across, knows he should read, but usually doesn’t. Well, I decided I’d better.

Here are some remarks Augustine made about baptism. It gives us a representative glimpse into what Christians in North Africa thought about the ordinance in the mid-4th century. It also shows us how far they’d slipped from any semblance of a New Testament doctrine of baptism:[3]

Even as a boy I had heard of eternal life promised to us through the humility of the Lord our God condescending to our pride, and I was signed with the sign of the cross, and was seasoned with His salt even from the womb of my mother, who greatly trusted in Thee.

Thou sawest, O Lord, how at one time, while yet a boy, being suddenly seized with pains in the stomach, and being at the point of death—Thou sawest, O my God, for even then Thou wast my keeper, with what emotion of mind and with what faith I solicited from the piety of my mother, and of Thy Church, the mother of us all, the baptism of Thy Christ, my Lord and my God.

On which, the mother of my flesh being much troubled,—since she, with a heart pure in Thy faith, travailed in birth more lovingly for my eternal salvation,—would, had I not quickly recovered, have without delay provided for my initiation and washing by Thy life-giving sacraments, confessing Thee, O Lord Jesus, for the remission of sins.

So my cleansing was deferred, as if I must needs, should I live, be further polluted; because, indeed, the guilt contracted by sin would, after baptism, be greater and more perilous.

A few remarks:

  1. Augustine was not a believer at this time
  2. He refers to the church (that is, Christ’s church in a corporate sense) as “the mother of us all.” I believe Cyprian coined this terminology during the Novatian controversy, about 100 years before.
  3. Augustine considers baptism to be “life-giving,” and in some way efficacious to wash away sins. Given the context of his time, he believed in baptismal regeneration. He refers to baptism as “my cleansing.”
  4. His mother deferred Augustine’s baptism, because she didn’t want him to contract sins after baptism if he ended up living after all. This ties back to the false ideas that (a) baptism actually removed sins, and (b) that it only removed sins prior to baptism, and not afterwards.

The New Testament knows nothing of any of this. It’s more important than ever for Christians to hold fast to the inspired word of God. Creeds, confessions, books and theologians are good and helpful guides; very helpful, actually. But, the only infallible source of faith and practice is the Bible.

Always be willing to conform your theological tradition to the Scriptures. We’re all prisoners of our own context and times, even if we don’t realize it. You’ve been molded and shaped by your own unique circumstances, culture and theological tradition. That’s a good thing. But, it can also be an echo-chamber.

Always go to the sources. Always go to the Bible.

Notes

1 See, for example, “Shepherd of Hermes 2.4.3,” in Ante-Nicene Fathers, 10 vols., ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe; trans. F. Crombie (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:22.

2 For an excellent summary of the baptismal rites at the time of Augustine’s baptism from a series of contemporary sources, see David Beale, Historical Theology In-Depth, 2 vols. (Greenville: BJU Press, 2013), 1:342-347.

3 This excerpt is from Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of St. Augustin” 1.1.17, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, 14 vols., ed. Philip Schaff, trans. J. G. Pilkington (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 1:50.

Medieval Christianity

booksThe Middle ages are often neglected by Christians, even by many who actually read church history. The early post-apostolic era usually receives a great deal of attention, along with the reformation era. But, the medieval church is usually the odd man out. Over the past year or so, I’ve been slowly trying to fill this gap in my own mind.

I’ve listened to Dr. Carl Trueman’s introductory course on The Medieval Church. Trueman is a church historian. I’ve been listen to Dr. James White’s Sunday school series on church history, which runs to 60 lessons now. I’ve read some works by Anselm of Canterbury and a bit of Thomas Aquinas. I’ve R.W. Southern’s Western Society and the Church in the Middle AgesI’ve started to read Philip Schaff’s volumes on medieval Christianity (vols. 4-6) from his work History of the Christian Church.

So far, one thing I’ve taken away from this self-study is that there were many people in the medieval church who were, undoubtedly, Christians. God’s truth was not lost, and He has always had His people. I could say more, but I’ll save that for another time. I’ll simply observe that one cannot read Anselm’s Why God Became Man (you can find the book in this volume) and not believe the man was a Christian!

Here are some comments from Schaff, the renowned 19th century church historian, about medieval Christianity:[1]

Mediæval Christianity is, on the one hand, a legitimate continuation and further development of ancient Catholicism; on the other hand, a preparation for Protestantism. Its leading forces are the papacy, monasticism, and scholasticism, which were developed to their height, and then assailed by growing opposition from within.

Christianity, at its first introduction, had to do with highly civilized nations; but now it had to lay the foundation of a new civilization among barbarians. The apostles planted churches in the cities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and the word “pagan,” i.e. villager, backwoodsman, gradually came to denote an idolater. They spoke and wrote in a language which had already a large and immortal literature; their progress was paved by the high roads of the Roman legions; they found everywhere an established order of society, and government; and their mission was to infuse into the ancient civilization a new spiritual life and to make it subservient to higher moral ends. But the missionaries of the dark ages had to visit wild woods and untilled fields, to teach rude nations the alphabet, and to lay the foundation for society, literature and art.

Hence Christianity assumed the character of a strong disciplinary institution, a training school for nations in their infancy, which had to be treated as children. Hence the legalistic, hierarchical, ritualistic and romantic character of mediæval Catholicism. Yet in proportion as the nations were trained in the school of the church, they began to assert their independence of the hierarchy and to develop a national literature in their own language. Compared with our times, in which thought and reflection have become the highest arbiter of human life, the middle age was an age of passion. The written law, such as it was developed in Roman society, the barbarian could not understand and would not obey. But he was easily impressed by the spoken law, the living word, and found a kind of charm in bending his will absolutely before another will. Thus the teaching church became the law in the land, and formed the very foundation of all social and political organization.

The middle ages are often called “the dark ages:” truly, if we compare them with ancient Christianity, which preceded, and with modern Christianity, which followed; falsely and unjustly, if the church is made responsible for the darkness. Christianity was the light that shone in the darkness of surrounding barbarism and heathenism, and gradually dispelled it. Industrious priests and monks saved from the wreck of the Roman Empire the treasures of classical literature, together with the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings, and transmitted them to better times.

The mediæval light was indeed the borrowed star and moon-light of ecclesiastical tradition, rather than the clear sun-light from the inspired pages of the New Testament; but it was such light as the eyes of nations in their ignorance could bear, and it never ceased to shine till it disappeared in the day-light of the great Reformation. Christ had his witnesses in all ages and countries, and those shine all the brighter who were surrounded by midnight darkness.

Notes

[1] Philip Schaff and David Schley Schaff, History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 4:11–12.

Authorized: An Interview with Mark Ward

wardThis year, Mark Ward published his book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2018). In this book, he makes the argument that Christians deserve a Bible translation in their own common, everyday language – they deserve a vernacular translation:

The KJV beautifully rendered the Scriptures into the language of turn-of-the-seventeenth-century England. Even today the King James is the most widely read Bible in the United States. The rich cadence of its Elizabethan English is recognized even by non-Christians. But English has changed a great deal over the last 400 years—and in subtle ways that very few modern readers will recognize. In Authorized, Mark Ward shows what exclusive readers of the KJV are missing as they read God’s word.

In this interview which I conducted for the website SharperIron.org, Ward explains what his book is about, and why this issue of a vernacular translation is a critical, but often overlooked part of the “bible version” debate that has raged for so long in some Christian circles.

 

Book Review: “Historical Theology In-Depth” by David Beale

bealeDavid Beale, a longtime professor of historical theology at BJU Seminary, published his two-volume Historical Theology In-Depth in 2013. This is an outstanding work, and every pastor and interested Christian should use it as the “go to” text for a foundational explanation of key themes in historical theology.

It doesn’t cover everything, of course. Instead, it hits some high points of historical theology by way of 57 different essays and four detailed appendices over the course of its two volumes. The essays are roughly chronological, written at the introductory level and include helpful bibliographies and extensive citations throughout.

Volume One

The first volume begins with a summary introduction to the early church fathers (1), followed by extensive chapters on major patristic figures (2-8). Beale then moves to the Greek apologists with explanation of their worldview (9), then to a discussion of Christian apologists such as Justin, Irenaeus and others (10-13). He discusses Neo-Platonism (14), Origen and his hermeneutical school (15), Tertullian and Latin Christianity in general (16), then Cyprian and his incipient episcopal ecclesiology (17).

Beale then provides a helpful summary of the “seeds of Roman Catholicism” (18), followed by an essential and superb discussion of the ecumenical creeds from Nicaea through Constantinople III (19-25). He provides some long discussions on different aspects of Augustine’s impact on the Christian church (26-30), followed by an excursus on Manicheanism (31) then some discourses on Nicaea II, icons, and Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism (32-33). Beale closes with a very interesting discussion on the patristic teaching on justification by faith (34), and then some brief discussions of Roman Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation (35-37).

Volume Two

The second volume opens with biographical sketches of Luther (1), Melanchthon (2), Zwingli (3) and Calvin (4) as foils to introduce the Protestant Reformation. Beale never discusses the English Reformation, or any national aspect of the Reformation outside of the four great reformers. He finishes his reformation section with a helpful discussion on Arminianism and Calvinism (5).

This is followed by a 40-page discussion on the sabbath day, an odd choice to take up fully 8% of the volume. This is an extensive discussion, but out of place and perhaps unnecessary. Beale lurches back into the reformation with a brief survey of the first-generation Anabaptists (8), then a critique of Baptist Landmarkism on historical grounds (9) and a discussion of Baptist origins and beliefs (10).

From here, Beale moves straight into colonial America and never leaves it. He provides a fascinating chronicle of the rise of Unitarianism in America (11), then the saga of the rise and fall of Harvard (12) and Yale (13-14). Indeed, these colleges are almost used as foils to describe the theological scene in colonial America. These are fascinating glimpses of early promise and zeal for God ruined by apostasy and unbelief. It’s a sober reminder that all institutions are earthly, but our triune Lord and His word alone are eternal.

Beale discussed Jonathan Edwards and the birth and incestuous growth of New Haven theology (14-16) and its impact on 19th century evangelicalism (17). He then provided a survey of apologetics and bibliology from 1800 to the present (18). He closed with a survey of pagan, Jewish and Christian attitutes towards abortion (19), and added four appendices on the shape and age of the earth, and the doctrine of creation.

Highlights

It’s very difficult to pick out the highlights from 57 essays! However, I’ll provide two examples that will illustrate how valuable Beale’s work is.

Creeds and Confessions (vol. 1, ch. 19)

Beale explains that doctrine is vital for two reasons; for the spiritual health of the church and to combat false teaching (1:208). False teachers ply their trade by doing three things; subtraction, addition or misrepresentation of the truth (1:209). He explains, “[t]he Scriptures provide protective guidelines for keeping our churches spiritually healthy and for combatting false doctrine. These guidelines constitute the basic paradigm and essentials for our own confessions of faith,” (1:209).

Beale then provides an extensive summary of the confessions of faith we find throughout the Bible (1:209-215). He clearly establishes that, from the beginning, God’s people have been interested in codifying what they believe and writing it down, so it could be passed on. Beale’s work here is very valuable in demonstrating that God’s people have always had a concrete “rule of faith.” If a Christian is troubled by the Bauer hypothesis of Christian origins, which is the theory Bart Ehrman advocates in scholarly1 and popular2 writings with evangelical fervency, then this chapter is a good place to direct him.

Creeds, Beale argues, are a good thing:

In historical theology the most permanent responses to error have been creeds and confessions. A creed can be both confessional and didactic. It can be both apologetical and polemic. It can be defensive and offensive. As a badge on the breast, created out of exposition, a creed can bring to the surface underlying truth from Scripture previously assumed but never fully defined. Like a raised sword, crafted out of conviction, a creed can militate against heresies and make them more decipherable (1:216).

Creeds are guardrails for orthodoxy. They’re “explanations rather than quotations,” (1:216). And, from the beginning of the Christian church, God’s people have been compelled to write their faith down, particularly in response to heresy. Beale then provides excerpts of several creedal statements from the early patristic era (1:217-222), then moves immediately into a long and extraordinarily helpful discussion of the ecumenical councils (chapters 20-25). This section is critical background for any pastor when teaching or studying Christology, and Beale points him to easily accessible, public domain source documents (e.g. NPNFand NPNF2) for further study.

Eternal Sonship, not Generation (vol. 2, ch. 7)

Beale doesn’t believe in the doctrine of eternal generation. To him, the doctrine “originated from the metaphysical blending of the meanings of the two New Testament words begotten and monogenes,” (2:142). The standard lexicons make it clear, he argued, that the Greek word translated begotten primarily means “to be born or conceived” (2:142). The Bible teaches Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And, the word monogenes means “unique” or “one and only.” But, Beale argues, “[o]n the dubious assumption that the word monogenes derived from gennao (‘to beget’), fourth-century patristic writers depicted monogenes as ‘only begotten,’” (2:142). So, the doctrine developed based, in part, on a faulty understanding of two Greek words.

In addition, Beale insists, the very idea of “eternal generation” implies some kind of derivation of essence. Yet, he cautioned, “[a]n essential attribute of deity is self-existence. Christ’s deity inherently includes the perfection of autotheos, meaning ‘God in Himself,” (2:143). Beale quotes Calvin3 as denying eternal generation. However, I must note that, in this same section, Calvin admits “in respect of order and gradation, the beginning of divinity is in the Father.”4 Beale also quotes Warfield as saying the act of “begetting” is not an eternal act, but an eternal fact about Jesus’ eternal Sonship.5

At the Council of Constantinople, the Christian leader’s mistakes on the etymology and meaning of gennao and monogenes resulted in “the transfer of begotten from a literal-historical event into an eternal concept,” (2:145-146). Platonic philosophy unconsciously colored their thinking. Beale argues strongly that:

“[b]y definition, the concept of eternal generation highlights derivation and subordination. It obfuscates Christ’s selfexistence, which is an essential attribute of deity. It blurs his uniqueness. It is impossible even to express the concept of eternal generation without the use of terms indicative of eternal derivation and subordination,” (2:146).

Beale then provides a historical survey from Justin, to Origen, to Jerome and thence to the Nicean-Constantinople creed (2:147-166) to “show how the terms begotten and monogenes were gradually codified from the grammatical and historical into the conceptual and speculative,” (2:147). He ends the discussion by concluding, “Unfortunately, many have equated the term eternal generation with a separate and fundamental doctrine of Christianity, the eternal sonship of Christ,” (2:167).

I am torn on this. To be honest, I’ve never been comfortable with the doctrine of eternal generation, for the very reasons Beale objects to. I’ve always been more confused after reading theologians try to explain it.

Augustus Strong, as Beale warned, speaks of Christ’s sonship and eternal generation as synonymous. He explained eternal generation was,

“Not creation, but the Father’s communication of himself to the Son … not a commencement of existence, but an eternal relation to the Father … not an act of the Father’s will, but an internal necessity of the divine nature … not a relation in anyway analogous to physical derivation, but a lifemovement of the divine nature, in virtue of which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while equal in essence and dignity, stand to each other in an order of personality, office, and operation, and in virtue of which the Father works through the Son, and the Father and the Son through the Spirit.”6

I confess I have no idea what this means. I never have. Berkhof tries to explain …7

It is better to say that the Father generates the personal subsistence of the Son, but thereby also communicates to Him the divine essence in its entirety.

But in doing this we should guard against the idea that the Father first generated a second person, and then communicated the divine essence to this person, for that would lead to the conclusion that the Son was not generated out of the divine essence, but created out of nothing. In the work of generation there was a communication of essence; it was one indivisible act. And in virtue of this communication the Son also has life in Himself.

… but I still don’t get it. His summary definition doesn’t help, either.8 So, Beale has succeeded in really making me think deeply about some theological assumptions. He hasn’t convinced me yet, but I’ve certainly been thinking about the doctrine of eternal generation a lot lately!

Conclusion

There are some gaps in Beale’s text, which is why it isn’t really a “church history.” It’s more a series of essays chronicling key themes in historical theology (like the sub-title says!):

  • He covers the patristic era very, very well
  • The medieval church is largely ignored completely. There’s no discussion of Lombard, Anselm, the and very little of Aquinas, for example. The middle ages is a black hole here.
  • The Reformation is barely sketched. You’d do well to use something else, or refer interested folks to Carter Lindberg’s The European Reformations.
  • In America, Wesleyans and Methodists apparently don’t exist. Harvard and Yale as used as foils to chronicle the state of religion in Colonial America, followed by a quick run through bibliology from 1800 to Barth.
  • Beale’s extensive bibliographic suggestions at the end of each chapter direct the reader to more specific books for further study.

So, make no mistake; this is a series of essays on historical theology. It’s not a church history text. But, what Beale covers, he does very, very well.

In summary, this work is excellent. It belongs on every pastor’s shelf. Any Christian will benefit enormously by reading this text and growing to appreciate the rich theological and historical heritage the Christian church has. Church history didn’t start with Billy Sunday! I cannot recommend this work highly enough.

Notes

1 Bart Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, updated ed. (New York: OUP, 2011).

2 Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities: The Battle for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew (New York: OUP, 2005).

3 In Historical Theology, 2:144, Beale quotes Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.29.

4 Calvin, Institutes, 1.13.24.

5 In Historical Theology, 2:144 (footnote 5), Beale quotes from Benjamin Warfield, Biblical and Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: P&R, 1968), 58-59.

6 Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), 341-342.

7 Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans publishing co., 1938), 93–94.

8 “It is that eternal and necessary act of the first person in the Trinity, whereby He, within the divine Being, is the ground of a second personal subsistence like His own, and puts this second person in possession of the whole divine essence, without any division, alienation, or change,” (Ibid, 94).

 

Growing Stronger with Strong

strongI’ve just finished my latest reading project, and am now embarking on another. I’ve decided to read a good deal of Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology text. Strong’s work was the old standard in many Baptist seminaries for most of the 20th century. It was first published in 1886, and he released the last edition in 1907. It’s largely been replaced by Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology , which was first released in 1983 and recently went into it’s third edition (2013).

I spent a great deal of time with Erickson last year, and read through perhaps 50% of his systematic. This year, I plan to do the same with Strong. I haven’t read much from him. Strong’s ecclesiology (i.e. doctrine of the church) is, of course, superb. He still has the best systematic doctrine of the church I’ve read anywhere. Contemporary Baptist theologians from the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition still reference his work.[1]

In addition, Strong’s discussion of the doctrine of the Trinity was extraordinarily helpful to me years ago. It’s also the best discussion of that doctrine that I’ve ever read from a systematic theology. It’s better even than Erickson, who’s written on the Trinity at length in separate works.[2]

So, all that gives me good confidence that Strong will be well worth my time. Having said that, I thought I’d share these encouraging words from the preface to his text. This was clearly written in the context of the ongoing fundamentalist-modernist debates of his era, but Strong’s passion for theological truth and the “fundamentals” of the faith should be encouraging to any Christian:[3]

Neither evolution nor the higher criticism has any terrors to one who regards them as parts of Christ’s creating and educating process. The Christ in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge himself furnishes all the needed safeguards and limitations. It is only because Christ has been forgotten that nature and law have been personified, that history has been regarded as unpurposed development, that Judaism has been referred to a merely human origin, that Paul has been thought to have switched the church off from its proper track even before it had gotten fairly started on its course, that superstition and illusion have come to seem the only foundation for the sacrifices of the martyrs and the triumphs of modern missions. I believe in no such irrational and atheistic evolution as this. I believe rather in him in whom all things consist, who is with his people even to the end of the world, and who has promised to lead them into all the truth.

Philosophy and science are good servants of Christ, but they are poor guides when they rule out the Son of God. As I reach my seventieth year and write these words on my birthday, I am thankful for that personal experience of union with Christ which has enabled me to see in science and philosophy the teaching of my Lord. But this same personal experience has made me even more alive to Christ’s teaching in Scripture, has made me recognize in Paul and John a truth profounder than that disclosed by any secular writers, truth with regard to sin and atonement for sin, that satisfies the deepest wants of my nature and that is self-evidencing and divine.

I am distressed by some common theological tendencies of our time, because I believe them to be false to both science and religion. How men who have ever felt themselves to be lost sinners and who have once received pardon from their crucified Lord and Savior can thereafter seek to pare down his attributes, deny his deity and atonement, tear from his brow the crown of miracle and sovereignty, relegate him to the place of a merely moral teacher who influences us only as does Socrates by words spoken across a stretch of ages, passes my comprehension.

Here is my test of orthodoxy: Do we pray to Jesus? Do we call upon the name of Christ, as did Stephen and all the early church? Is he our living Lord, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent? Is he divine only in the sense in which we are divine, or is he the only-begotten Son, God manifest in the flesh, in whom is all the fulness of the Godhead bodily? What think ye of the Christ? is still the critical question, and none are entitled to the name of Christian who, in the face of the evidence he has furnished us, cannot answer the question aright.

Under the influence of Ritschl and his Kantian relativism, many of our teachers and preachers have swung off into a practical denial of Christ’s deity and of his atonement. We seem upon the verge of a second Unitarian defection, that will break up churches and compel secessions, in a worse manner than did that of Channing and Ware a century ago. American Christianity recovered from that disaster only by vigorously asserting the authority of Christ and the inspiration of the Scriptures. We need a new vision of the Savior like that which Paul saw on the way to Damascus and John saw on the isle of Patmos, to convince us that Jesus is lifted above space and time, that his existence antedated creation, that he conducted the march of Hebrew history, that he was born of a virgin, suffered on the cross, rose from the dead, and now lives forevermore, the Lord of the universe, the only God with whom we have to do, our Savior here and our Judge hereafter.

Without a revival of this faith our churches will become secularized, mission enterprise will die out, and the candlestick will be removed out of its place as it was with the seven churches of Asia, and as it has been with the apostate churches of New England.

I print this revised and enlarged edition of my “Systematic Theology,” in the hope that its publication may do something to stem this fast advancing tide, and to confirm the faith of God’s elect. I make no doubt that the vast majority of Christians still hold the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints, and that they will sooner or later separate themselves from those who deny the Lord who bought them. When the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord will raise up a standard against him. I would do my part in raising up such a standard.

I would lead others to avow anew, as I do now, in spite of the supercilious assumptions of modern infidelity, my firm belief, only confirmed by the experience and reflection of a half-century, in the old doctrines of holiness as the fundamental attribute of God, of an original transgression and sin of the whole human race, in a divine preparation in Hebrew history for man’s redemption, in the deity, preëxistence, virgin birth, vicarious atonement and bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord, and in his future coming to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe that these are truths of science as well as truths of revelation; that the supernatural will yet be seen to be most truly natural; and that not the open-minded theologian but the narrow-minded scientist will be obliged to hide his head at Christ’s coming.

The present volume, in its treatment of Ethical Monism, Inspiration, the Attributes of God, and the Trinity, contains an antidote to most of the false doctrine which now threatens the safety of the church. I desire especially to call attention to the section on Perfection, and the Attributes therein involved, because I believe that the recent merging of Holiness in Love, and the practical denial that Righteousness is fundamental in God’s nature, are responsible for the utilitarian views of law and the superficial views of sin which now prevail in some systems of theology.

There can be no proper doctrine of the atonement and no proper doctrine of retribution, so long as Holiness is refused its preëminence. Love must have a norm or standard, and this norm or standard can be found only in Holiness. The old conviction of sin and the sense of guilt that drove the convicted sinner to the cross are inseparable from a firm belief in the self-affirming attribute of God as logically prior to and as conditioning the self-communicating attribute. The theology of our day needs a new view of the Righteous One. Such a view will make it plain that God must be reconciled before man can be saved, and that the human conscience can be pacified only upon condition that propitiation is made to the divine Righteousness. In this volume I propound what I regard as the true Doctrine of God, because upon it will be based all that follows in the volumes on the Doctrine of Man, and the Doctrine of Salvation.

The universal presence of Christ, the Light that lighteth every man, in heathen as well as in Christian lands, to direct or overrule all movements of the human mind, gives me confidence that the recent attacks upon the Christian faith will fail of their purpose. It becomes evident at last that not only the outworks are assaulted, but the very citadel itself.

We are asked to give up all belief in special revelation. Jesus Christ, it is said, has come in the flesh precisely as each one of us has come, and he was before Abraham only in the same sense that we were. Christian experience knows how to characterize such doctrine so soon as it is clearly stated. And the new theology will be of use in enabling even ordinary believers to recognize soul-destroying heresy even under the mask of professed orthodoxy.

Notes

[1] Rolland McCune, for example (A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity, 3 vols. [Detroit: DBTS, 2010], 3:195 – 297) relies heavily on Augustus Strong’s Systematic in his own discussions on Baptist polity.

[2] See, for example, God Made Flesh: A Contemporary Interpretation of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), The Word Became Flesh: A Contemporary Incarnational Christology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), God the Father Almighty: A Contemporary Exploration of the Divine Attributes (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), Making Sense of the Trinity: Three Crucial Questions (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) and Who’s Tampering with the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordination Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).

[3]  Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1907), vii–xi.

The Isaiah Connection (Mark 7:31-37)

isa 35 (5-6)The New Testament is soaked in the glorious experiences and expectations of the Old Covenant scriptures. This is clear in Mark 7:31-37, where the entire passage hinges on understanding the miracle account in the context of the Old Covenant promises.

The prophets often warned Israelites to turn from their sins and return to serve Him with their whole hearts. Yet, Yahweh knew many wouldn’t listen; “they are a rebellious people, lying sons, sons who will not hear the instruction of the LORD,” (Isa 30:9). God often juxtaposed these warnings of certain judgment for rebellion with promises of His future blessing, despite their wickedness. Here, I’ll briefly journey from Isaiah 32:1 – 35:10, to provide Messianic context for the miracle account from the Gospel of Mark (7:31 – 37). This context will help us appreciate the trinitarian implications of Jesus’ actions.

A vision of the kingdom

Isaiah promised, “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule in justice,” (Isa 32:1). These leaders, particularly the king, would be a true shelter in the time of storm for the Israelites (Isa 32:2). Eyes and ears will be opened (Isa 32:3-4), and the upside down moral value judgments of corrupt men will finally be set right; “the fool will no more be called noble, nor the knave said to be honorable,” (Isa 32:5).

But, that’s all far in the future. For the moment, the women of Israel should cry and plan for the worst, because Jerusalem will be made a wasteland in the meantime (Isa 32:9-14). What will be the trigger for this glorious renewal? When will it happen? When will God’s curse be lifted from His people? Isaiah answers; “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). Then the national blessings will flow (Isa 32:15). Then justice and righteousness will flow from the very wilderness and the fruitful fields, “and the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust for ever. My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places,” (Isa 32:17-18).

This king will be the promised Messiah, and the Spirit will be poured out in the blessings of the New Covenant (cf. Mk 1:8) during the king’s reign, when Yahweh Himself will return to Zion (cf. Zech 8). Isaiah explains that it’s Yahweh (“the LORD”) who will be exalted in that day, who “will fill Zion with justice and righteousness,” (Isa 33:5). The king and Yahweh are both distinct from one another and united together (cp. Isa 32:1, 33:5). And, the treasure they’ll both bring to the world is “abundance of salvation, wisdom, knowledge [and] the fear of the Lord,” (Isa 33:6).

Again, the evil order will be overthrown, and things will be set right (Isa 33:13-16)! Yahweh tells the people, “your eyes will see the king in his beauty,” (Isa 33:17; another distinction between Divine Persons), and they’ll never see their oppressors again (Isa 33:18-19). Why? “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our ruler, the LORD is our king; he will save us,” (Isa 33:22; note that now Yahweh is King)!

The nations will be destroyed, “for the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host,” (Isa 34:2). They’ll be annihilated, and God will gather His people by His Spirit back to their home (Isa 34:16). National blessings will follow, and God encourages the Israelites, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you,” (Isa 35:4).

And, when all this happens, what will it look like? What will the Messiah’s reign over the whole world be characterized by? Isaiah tells us, in this all-important passage (Isa 35:5-10):

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a hart,
and the tongue of the dumb sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.

And a highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not pass over it,
and fools shall not err therein.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

These promises are like glittering diamonds, shining bright with glory. The curse of the fall will be removed (or severely curtailed) for God’s people, God’s world and God’s city. There will be a highway of holiness leading to the celestial city, and Yahweh’s people will come to Him singing salvation’s song and praising Him all the day long! These are Messianic markers, signs that the promised Kingdom of God has come. These are the very signs Jesus showed a preview of during His ministry in general, and this miracle story in particular (Mk 7:31 – 37).

The man from gentile country

This miracle account is one specific incident from the general situation Matthew summarized in his own story (see Mt 15:29-31).1 Jesus has left the region of Tyre and Sidon (cf. Mk 7:24) and taken a meandering route back to the region of Decapolis near the Sea of Galilee (Mk 7:31). He’s been here before, when He healed the demoniac and sent him back to tell his Gentile friends about the Gospel (cf. Mk 5:1-20). That missionary assignment clearly had some impact, because “they brought to him a man who was deaf and had an impediment in his speech; and they besought him to lay his hand upon him,” (Mk 7:32).2 Perhaps the former demoniac was there, that day!

Notice this poor man was deaf and couldn’t speak. These problems are representative of the curse of the fall which Isaiah promised the Messiah would reverse, once for all. They wanted Jesus to “lay his hand upon them,” but He chose a different way.3 Jesus took the man aside privately and mimed what He was about to do. Commentators have speculated endlessly about Jesus’ actions. Was He appropriating cultural expectations, and implying His saliva had magical properties?4 Did He do the same for His ears? The truth is that the man couldn’t speak and couldn’t hear. Jesus simply mimed His actions so the man would understand what followed, as if to say, “I’m going to fix this, then I’ll fix this.”5 And, in addition to this simple communication technique, Jesus also made it clear to the man by the results that He alone had the power to perform this miracle.6

Jesus continued to mime His actions, looking up to heaven as if to say, “Now, I’ll ask my Father if this is His will.” He sighed, to physically communicate His depth of compassion for the poor man through silent prayer.7 He then spoke, and issued one simple command, “Be opened,” (Mk 7:34). Immediately,8 the man’s “ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly,” (Mk 7:35). There’s no reason to assume, from the word “released,” that the man’s speech was held captive by a demon. This is a straightforward miracle account, not an exorcism.9

The Isaiah connection

Isaiah identified the coming King as both distinct from Yahweh, and as Yahweh Himself (cf. Isa 32:1; 33:5, 17, 22; 35:4). Elsewhere, Isaiah wrote that Yahweh would come, marching along the highway through the wilderness that His own people would prepare (Isa 40:3-5). “He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosum, and gently lead those that are with young,” (Isa 40:11). And yet, Mark tells us Jesus came, the Father’s eternal Son, to do just that (Mk 1:1-3).

Jesus’ healing of this man showed, in microcosm, that the kingdom of God had broken into human history in Himself, the promised King. That king is both human and divine, distinct from Yahweh and yet one with Him, too. When John the Baptist’s disciples wondered if Jesus really was the Messiah, He pointed them to Isaiah:

And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is he who takes no offense at me,” (Lk 7:22-23).

If Satan has been bound, and Jesus is the stronger man who’s cheerfully plundering His house, then what should a reasonable person conclude? “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you,” (Lk 11:20).

The context of the Messianic promises from Isaiah (and many other prophets) shows us who Jesus really is. He’s the king who’s been sent from God, yet He’s also God in the flesh at the same time. He can heal and restore the sick on command, and He looks to the heavens above for confirmation of His Father’s divine will as He does it all. Even Isaiah speaks of the Spirit as a separate entity from the King and the LORD, one who’ll be “poured upon us from on high,” (Isa 32:15). We see the doctrine of the trinity in the ordinary, unassuming way the Old Testament at different points distinguishes and conflates Yahweh and His eternal Son, and by the way the New Testament clarifies their roles.10

This miracle account is a trailer of coming attractions, a preview of the kingdom breaking into this wicked world in a small way. And, irony of ironies, Jesus performs this work in Gentile territory, among the people to whom His message should have sounded stranger than ever. The story makes us long for that kingdom and for that King and Savior, as we worship our triune God and await the Son’s return.

Notes

1 Read the passage for yourself, and see especially Robert L. Thomas and Stanley N. Gundry, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1978), 112.

2 Robert Guelich wrote, “Those bringing him to Jesus obviously have an expectation which implies knowledge of at least Jesus’ reputation to heal. Read in the larger context of Mark’s narrative, their coming may have resulted from the ‘preaching’ of the Gerasene demoniac in the Decapolis (cf. 5:1–20) about all that Jesus had done for him,” (Mark 1-8:26, in WBC, vol. 34a [Nashville, TN: Nelson, 1989], 394).

3 “In dealing with people the Lord chooses his own methods,” (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Mark [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1975], 303).

4 Mark Strauss remarked, “Spittle was commonly viewed in the ancient world as having medicinal and/ or magical powers, and the saliva of an important person was considered to be particularly powerful. Both Tacitus and Suetonius relate an account of a blind man who approached the emperor Vespasian in Alexandria, Egypt, and begged to be healed by his saliva. While the use of spittle was rejected by some rabbis as magical, others accepted its medicinal value …Did Jesus consider these actions efficacious, either medicinally or magically? Was he merely condescending to the expectations of his contemporaries? We simply do not know. Yet we should be cautious in attributing magical technique to Jesus in light of the paucity of such material elsewhere in the gospel tradition (only 8:23; John 9: 6). Whatever the significance of these actions, the healing itself does not come through any technique but through the authoritative command of Jesus: ‘Be opened!’ It is Jesus’ messianic authority rather than magic that accomplishes the healing,” (Mark, in ZECNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014], 322).

William L. Lane also suggests, “Through touch and the use of spittle Jesus entered into the mental world of the man and gained his confidence,” (The Gospel of Mark, in NICNT [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974], 266 – 267).

5 See especially R.C.H. Lenski, Interpretation of St. Mark’s Gospel (Columbus, OH: Wartburg, 1945), 309 – 311. See also Hendriksen (Mark, 303) and R. Alan Cole (Mark, in TNTC, vol. 2, [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989], 194).

6 “Thus, by touching the tongue with spittle, he intended to point out that the faculty of speech was communicated by himself alone; and by putting his finger into the ears, he showed that it belonged to his office to pierce the ears of the deaf,” (John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, and Luke, vol. 2 [Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010], 271–272).

7 Strauss (Mark, 322).

8 Some printed Greek texts do not include εὐθέως here. The UBS-5 grades it as a “C” for probability and encloses it in brackets. Mark likes this word in his narrative, and it appears in a 3rd century papyrus fragment, a 5th century manuscript, and then in the 8th century and beyond (see the CNTTS apparatus). I take it to be original and have no qualms about using it.

9 Guelich wrote, “Whereas the phrase may have its origin in the popular concept of the demonic cause of one to be “tongue tied,” reading it more than figuratively here seems to read too much into an account which offers no other hint of the demonic or even the hostility that accompanies such encounters,” (Mark 1 – 8:26, 396).

10 “The New Testament clarifies in crucial ways all of this which God has foretold through the patriarchs and prophets. It does so in terms of Jesus Christ. Christology always occupies the center of our trinitarian thinking because it is only through Christ by the Spirit that a right understanding of YHWH’s triune identity is known, confessed, and worshipped,” (Carl L. Beckwith, The Holy Trinity, in Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, vol. 3 [Fort Wayne, IN: Luther Academy, 2016; Kindle ed.], KL 4631-4634).

 

Is ‘Justification by Faith’ a New Doctrine?

courtroomI’ve been reading a delightful, two-volume historical theology text by David Beale, a longtime Professor of Church History at BJU Seminary. I’ve just finished the first volume, where Beale discusses what early church fathers taught about the doctrine of justification by faith.

Briefly, this doctrine is a summary of the clear Biblical teaching that:

  1. people are born inherently evil and wicked (indeed, as guilty criminals), and
  2. people are only justified (i.e. declared innocent) in God’s eyes when they repent and believe in who Jesus is and what He’s done (i.e. He lived a holy and perfect life in our place, He suffered, died and endured the punishment for our crimes, and He miraculously rose from the dead after three days to defeat Satan for us, as our representative)
  3. and, the merits of everything Jesus did for us (see above) are legally applied to our account when we repent and believe the Gospel
  4. so, Jesus’ perfect righteousness is imputed (or applied) to our account by God

The 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith puts it this way:

We believe that the great gospel blessing which Christ secures to such as believe in him is Justification; that Justification includes the pardon of sin, and the promise of eternal life on principles of righteousness; that it is bestowed, not in consideration of any works of righteousness which we have done, but solely through faith in the Redeemer’s blood; by virtue of which faith his perfect righteousness is freely imputed to us of God; that it brings us into a state of most blessed peace and favor with God, and secures every other blessing needful for time and eternity.

And, you can see a slightly different explanation from the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith (chapter 11):

Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth, not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; not for anything wrought in them, or done by them, but for Christ’s sake alone; not by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness; but by imputing Christ’s active obedience unto the whole law, and passive obedience in his death for their whole and sole righteousness by faith, which faith they have not of themselves; it is the gift of God.

The big question

But, Christians want to know – where was the doctrine of justification by faith taught before the Protestant Reformation, in the 16th century? To be sure, the Bible clearly teaches it, so we know people believed it. But, who officially taught it? Where was it taught? Did the earliest Christians leaders, after the apostolic era, teach it?

Beale says there is no evidence for it. He wrote:

In the anonymous Epistle to Diognetus (unknown date), there is a brief but fluent expression of God’s giving His Son as a ransom to cover our sins and His giving our sins to His Son to justify us:

He Himself took on Him the burden of our iniquities, He gave His own Son as a ransom for us, the holy One for transgressors, the blameless One for the wicked, the righteous One for the unrighteous, the incorruptible One for the corruptible, the immortal One for them that are mortal. For what other thing was capable of covering our sins than His righteousness? By what other one was it possible that we, the wicked and ungodly, could be justified, than by the only Son of God? O sweet exchange! O unsearchable operation! O benefits surpassing all expectation! that the wickedness of many should be hid in a single righteous One, and that the righteousness of One should justify many transgressors! (9)

Reading that paragraph prompts a longing for more. Regrettably, however, there is not one extant treatise from the patristic centuries on the biblical teaching of forensic justification by faith alone, or on the blood of Christ as the only ground for justification. Many of the earliest fathers, such as Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias obviously believed in the efficacious character of Christ’s blood and death. None denied it. Ignatius even speaks of the shedding of ‘God’s blood.’ Among the apologists, though, the emphasis is centered on the incarnation of the Logos, and the actual work of redemption is largely ignored. Origen packages it with a ransom deal with Satan and, in effect, Irenaeus’ detailed recapitulation theory ultimately fails to go beyond the idea of a ransom to the Devil. There is no hint of the blood of Christ being the basis for justification by faith alone. The biblical doctrine of forensic justification by faith suffered great neglect (1:484-485).

That doesn’t mean the post-apostolic leaders in the Christian church didn’t believe it or teach it.[1] It just means we don’t have much on paper which proves they did. This is very interesting. The more I read of the early church fathers, the more I see they were men of their times and their writings (and, remember, we don’t have all of them) reflect their own contexts and challenges, just as ours do, too. They aren’t infallible men, and they certainly aren’t perfect. The Bible teaches the doctrine, even if early Christian leaders after the apostolic era didn’t write much about it.

We must always look to the Bible, the only infallible source of faith and practice God has given us.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
By guarding it according to thy word.
With my whole heart I seek thee;
let me not wander from thy commandments!
I have laid up thy word in my heart,
that I might not sin against thee.
Blessed be thou, O LORD;
teach me thy statutes!
With my lips I declare
all the ordinances of thy mouth.
In the way of thy testimonies I delight
as much as in all riches.
I will meditate on thy precepts,
and fix my eyes on thy ways.
I will delight in thy statutes;
I will not forget thy word (Psalm 119:9-16).

Notes

[1] The Reformed understanding of justification sees God imputing Christ’s righteousness because of His active and passive obedience; that is, because He both (1) obeyed God’s law for us perfectly, and (2) He suffered, bled and died in our place, for our sins. There are some evangelicals who do not believe Christ’s active obedience is part of imputation, and only speak of His death as the grounds of justification. Beale appears to fall into the latter category here, because he keeps referring to “Christ’s blood” and never mentions His perfect, sinless and holy life.

You can see this distinction between the 1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith as they each define “justification.” I provided the relevant excerpts from both confessions, above. The 1833 NHCF does not mention Christ’s active obedience (i.e. His perfect and holy life, in our place). It only mentions His death. However, the 1689 LBCF specifically mentions both. Incidentally, the excerpt from the Epistle to Diognetus suggests both active (“the blameless One for the wicked”) and passive (“He gave His own Son as a ransom for us”) obedience.

I personally agree with and follow the Reformed view.