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.

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.

Bringing Sanity to a Mad Kerfuffle

packerEvery Christian agrees that, when an unbeliever hears the Gospel, and repents and believes the Good News and becomes a Christian, God gets the glory. Salvation is from Him. All praise goes to Him. Got it.

Yet, Christians have argued about the mechanics of how salvation works for a very long time. I like to explain it like this – imagine you’re attending a play in a theater …

Out on stage, in front of the curtain, everybody sees what’s going on. This is salvation viewed from the outside. An unbeliever hears the Gospel, repents and believes, and becomes a Christian. God gets the glory. But, backstage behind the curtain, all sorts of things are happening to produce the scene out front. Props are brought in and moved out. Costumes are changed. Backdrops are arranged. Backdrops are moved. And so it goes. Christians disagree about what’s going on behind the scenes, in the heart and mind of an unbeliever, to produce repentance and faith.

Generally, people tend towards either:

  1. A more “God alone” understanding of what happens behind the curtain, or
  2. A more cooperative scheme, where man and Yahweh work together, in some form or fashion, to produce salvation

There are great, wide, terrible and heretical ditches on both sides of this divide, to be sure. These are complicated waters, and unwary Christians can read a whole lot of irresponsible garbage by folks on both sides of this unending theological war. Few of the folks you’ll read on the internet know what they’re talking about. Even some who do know write very irresponsibly, at times.

This is why it warms my heart to see a responsible theologian bring some balance to this difficult topic. How can a Christian reconcile God’s obvious control and sovereignty over everything in creation, and man’s clear responsibility to repent and believe the Gospel? Well, I have a book you might like to consider …

Way back when, in a galaxy far, far away, a theologian named J.I. Packer wrote a little book entitled Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. Here’s how he introduced this topic …[1]

There is a long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not. What has been said shows us how we should regard this controversy. The situation is not what it seems to be. For it is not true that some Christians believe in divine sovereignty while others hold an opposite view. What is true is that all Christians believe in divine sovereignty, but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.

What causes this odd state of affairs? The root cause is the same as in most cases of error in the Church – the intruding of rationalistic speculations, the passion for systematic consistency, a reluctance to recognize the existence of mystery and to let God be wiser than men, and a consequent subjecting of Scripture to the supposed demands of human logic.

People see that the Bible teaches man’s responsibility for his actions; they do not see (man, indeed, cannot see) how this is consistent with the sovereign Lordship of God over these actions. They are not content to let the two truths live side by side, as they do in the Scriptures, but jump to the conclusion that, in order to uphold the biblical truth of human responsibility, they are bound to reject the equally biblical and equally true doctrine of divine sovereignty, and to explain away the great number of texts that teach it.

The desire to over-simplify the Bible by cutting out the mysteries is natural to our perverse minds, and it is not surprising that even good men should fall victim to it. Hence this persistent and troublesome dispute. The irony of the situation, however, is that when we ask how the two sides pray, it becomes apparent that those who profess to deny God’s sovereignty really believe in it just as strongly as those who affirm it.

How, then, do you pray? Do you ask God for your daily bread? Do you thank for your conversion? Do you pray for the conversion of others? If the answer is “no,” I can only say that I do not think you are yet born again. But if the answer is “yes” – well, that proves that, whatever side you may have taken on this question in the past, in your heart you believe in the sovereignty of God no less firmly than anyone else. On our feet we may have arguments about it, but on our knees we are all agreed.

I think Packer does an excellent job presenting this issue from a pastoral perspective. He sounds like a nice grandfather, discussing theology over hot chocolate on a cold winter’s morning …

If this is a topic that interests you, consider picking up a copy of this little book. It’s about 120 pages. You can do it!

Notes

[1] J.I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 1961), 16-17.

Story Time with Uncle Anselm

anselmAnselm was a brilliant guy. A genius. This past year, I read his book Why God Became Man. He published it in 1097, so you could say it’s a bit of a antique. Anselm’s book is really about why Christ had to take on a human nature and be conceived of and born to a virgin. But, along the way, he tackled the reason for Christ’s death and thus popularized the “satisfaction theory” of atonement, which envisioned God as an overlord of sorts who was owed “satisfaction” or payment by his subjects for crimes committed, in order to set things right.

This theory is very intriguing, and it’s not too far from the penal substitution theory most conservative Christians are taught. I’m confident in saying this, because I doubt many Christians (even those in academia who ought to know better) have actually read Anselm’s book. I have.

Here, I want to provide an extended excerpt, and some brief commentary. Anselm’s book is fascinating for two reasons; (1) he structures it as a dialogue between himself and a bright student named Boso, and (2) he’s remorselessly logical. Anselm would have been a swell lawyer.

As you read this, remember two things:

  1. There really were Christians in the Medieval period
  2. Christians in 1097 really were smart

Here we go …

What it is to sin and to give recompense for sin

Anselm: What we have to investigate, therefore, is the question: ‘By what rationale does God forgive the sins of men?’ And, so that we may do this more clearly, let us first see what it is to sin and what it is to give satisfaction for sin.

Boso: It is for you to demonstrate and for me to pay attention.

Anselm: If an angel or a man were always to render to God what he owes, he would never sin.

Boso: I cannot contradict this.

Anselm: Then, to sin is nothing other than not to give God what is owed to him.

Boso: What is the debt which we owe to God?

Anselm: All the will of a rational creature ought to be subject to the will of God.

Boso: Perfectly true.

This is pretty brief, but it’s good enough for me. God made us, so our duty is to be completely subject to God’s will in our lives. That’s an umbrella definition, but it’s more than big enough to cover the bases. So far, so good.

Anselm: This is the debt which an angel, and likewise a man, owes to God. No one sins through paying it, and everyone who does not pay it, sins. This is righteousness or uprightness of the will. It makes individuals righteous or upright in their heart, that is, their will. This is the sole honour, the complete honour, which we owe to God and which God demands from us. For only such a will, when it can act, performs actions which are pleasing to God. Even when it cannot act, it is pleasing in itself, because no work without it is pleasing. Someone who does not render to God this honour due to him is taking away from God what is his, and dishonouring God, and this is what it is to sin.

God demands your entire will be subject to Him. You exist to serve Him. If you fail to do this, you commit sin and dishonor God, who is your Creator. This is fine. Excellent stuff.

As long as he does not repay what he has taken away, he remains in a state of guilt. And it is not sufficient merely to repay what has been taken away: rather, he ought to pay back more than he took, in proportion to the insult which he has inflicted.

For just as, in the case of someone who injures the health of another, it is not sufficient for him to restore that person’s health, if he does not pay some compensation for the painful injury which has been inflicted, similarly it is not sufficient for someone who violates someone else’s honour, to restore that person’s honour, if he does not, in consequence of the harmful act of dishonour, give, as restitution to the person whom he has dishonoured, something pleasing to that person.

This makes sense, doesn’t it? You can’t just repay God by doing what you should have done. No, you have to do more than that in order to set things right. Isn’t that what Leviticus says? If you steal from a guy, you have to pay him back more than what you stole (Lev 6:1-5). That’s why Jesus knew Zaccheaus was actually sorry (Lk 19:1-10).

One should also observe that when someone repays what he has unlawfully stolen, what he is under an obligation to give is not the same as what it would be possible to demand from him, were it not that he had seized the other person’s property. Therefore, everyone who sins is under an obligation to repay to God the honour which he has violently taken from him, and this is the satisfaction which every sinner is obliged to give to God.

Things won’t be right between you and God unless and until you repay the honor you stole from Him by your crimes. You have to “satisfy” God in order to set things right. This is not far at all from the penal, substitutionary theory. The two theories are very, very close cousins. Perhaps even step-siblings.

Boso: With regard to all these matters, seeing we have undertaken to adopt a logical approach, I have nothing to say in contradiction, though you frighten me a little.

Who says Medieval guys don’t have a sense of humor!?

Whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of what is owed to him

Anselm: Let us now return to the main argument and see whether it is fitting for God to forgive a sin out of mercy alone, without any restitution of the honour taken away from him.

Boso: I do not see why this should not be fitting.

Isn’t this still a question, today? Why doesn’t God just forgive and forget? Why doesn’t He just be “loving” and forgive sin, without demanding satisfaction? Isn’t that what real love is, to forgive unconditionally?

Anselm: To forgive a sin in this way is nothing other than to refrain from inflicting punishment. And if no satisfaction is given, the way to regulate sin correctly is none other than to punish it. If, therefore, it is not punished, it is forgiven without its having been regulated.

Boso: What you say is logical.

If you don’t punish a criminal, then you’re left with unregulated lawlessness. We instinctively understand this in society, with the criminal justice system. This is why it’s “not fitting” if a municipality unconditionally “forgives” a serial killer, and lets him go without punishment. Why can’t we understand this when it comes to God’s criminal justice system, too?

Anselm: But it is not fitting for God to allow anything in his kingdom to slip by unregulated.

Boso: I am in fear of sinning, if I want to disagree.

Indeed.

Anselm: Therefore, it is not fitting for God to forgive a sin without punishment.

Boso: That follows.

Yes, it does.

Anselm: There is another thing which also follows, if a sin is forgiven without punishment: that the position of sinner and non-sinner before God will be similar— and this does not befit God.

Boso: I cannot deny it.

Why obey the law, if the law-breaker faces no penalty? Why shouldn’t we all just do whatever we want, if there’s no incentive for holy behavior? We’ll all be forgiven in the end, right? So, why not party?

Anselm: Consider this too. Everyone knows that the righteousness of mankind is subject to a law whereby it is rewarded by God with a recompense proportional to its magnitude.

Boso: This is our belief.

Anselm: If, however, sin is neither paid for nor punished, it is subject to no law.

Boso: I cannot interpret the matter in any other way.

Nor can I …

Anselm: Therefore, sinfulness is in a position of greater freedom, if it is forgiven through mercy alone, than righteousness— and this seems extremely unfitting. And the incongruity extends even further: it makes sinfulness resemble God. For, just as God is subject to no law, the same is the case with sinfulness.

Boso: I cannot object to your reasoning. But, when God teaches us to forgive those who sin against us, he seems to be being contradictory— in teaching us to do something which it is not fitting for him to do himself.

Exactly! God wants us to forgive, but He won’t do the same without first demanding “satisfaction?” Why on earth? What a good question!

Anselm: There is no contradiction in this, because God is giving us this teaching in order that we should not presume to do something which belongs to God alone. For it belongs to no one to take vengeance, except to him who is Lord of all. I should explain that when earthly powers take action in this way in accordance with right, it is the Lord himself, by whom they have been appointed for the task, who is acting.

Interesting answer. God can demand satisfaction, because He is Creator, and vengeance belongs to Him (Deut 32:35).

Boso: You have removed what I thought to be an inherent contradiction. But there is another matter about which I want your answer. For, since God is so free that he is subject to no law and no judgement, and is so benevolent that nothing can be conceived of more benevolent than he, and since there is nothing right or proper except what he wishes, it does seem surprising that we should be saying that he is in no way willing to forgive an injury to himself, or that it is not permissible for him to do so, whereas we are in the habit of seeking forgiveness from him even for things we do to other people.

Boso wants to know why God is intent on demanding satisfaction when He Himself can set (or abolish) the very principles by which he demands this satisfaction! In other words:

  1. God made this standard,
  2. which means He’s not bound by it (i.e. it’s not an external compulsion forced upon Him),
  3. which means He could abolish the requirement for satisfaction if He wanted to.

Anselm: What you say about God’s freedom, his will and his benevolence is true, but we ought, in our reasoning, to understand these concepts in such a way as not to impugn his dignity. For the term ‘freedom’ relates only to the freedom to perform what is advantageous or fitting, and one should not give the name of ‘benevolence’ to something which brings about a result unfitting for God. A statement that, ‘What God wills is just and what he does not will is unjust’, is not to be understood as meaning that, ‘If God wishes anything whatsoever that is unfitting, it is just, since it is he who wills it’.

Ok, fair enough. God will not will something that is against His own character. To suggest He would do so impugns His dignity. Got it.

For the argument that, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie, it is just to tell a lie’, is a non sequitur. Rather, the liar is not God. For a will cannot wish to tell a lie, if it is not one in which the truth has been corrupted, or, more accurately, one which has been corrupted by the fact of deserting the truth. When, therefore, one says, ‘If it is God’s will to tell a lie’, this is no different from saying, ‘If God is a being such as to wish to tell a lie’. It does not follow, then, that telling a lie is just.

Unless, that is, we adopt an interpretation of the kind used when we say with reference to two impossibles, ‘If this thing is so, then that thing is so’, when neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’ is the case; for instance, if one were to say, ‘If water is dry, then fire is wet’, given that neither is true. It is therefore only true to make the statement, ‘If it is God’s will, then it is just’, about things which it is not unfitting for God to wish. For if it is God’s will that it should rain, then it is a just thing that it should rain; and if it is his will that some man should be killed, then it is just that he should be killed.

In consequence of this reasoning, if it is not fitting for God to do anything in an unjust and unregulated manner, it does not belong to his freedom or benevolence or will to release unpunished a sinner who has not repaid to God what he has taken away from him.

Boso: You are removing all the objections which I thought could be raised against you.

Hopefully, this little excerpt is having the same impact on you as it did on poor Boso! Why don’t you buy Anselm’s major works, and read this little book for yourself?

How Can We Know God?

booksMore wisdom from the Belgic Confession (1619), about how we can know who God is (Article 2):

We know him by two means: first, by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe; which is before our eyes as a most elegant book, wherein all creatures, great and small, are as so many characters leading us to contemplate the invisible things of God, namely, his eternal power and Godhead, as the Apostle Paul saith (Rom. 1:20). All which things are sufficient to convince men, and leave them without excuse.

Secondly, he makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word; that is to say, as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.

Somebody created the universe. Somebody preserves the universe to keep it intact. Somebody also governs it, by establishing and upholding it day by day. I particularly like the description of the creation as “a most elegant book.” We can look at creation, and tell something of our Maker and Sustainer.

To be sure, this world isn’t the way Yahweh originally made it. But, even though marred and ruined by the Fall, it still reveals His glory, goodness, grace and kindness each and every day. This is enough to “convince men, and leave them without excuse” that He exists, and it tells us something about His “eternal power and Godhead.” This general knowledge doesn’t tell us how to know God, who He really is, or what has gone so wrong with our world (and with us). It doesn’t even tell us His name! But, it does tell us He is there, He is powerful, and He is Almighty.

From there, God “makes himself more clearly and fully known to us by his holy and divine Word,” which another confession of faith calls “a perfect treasure of heavenly instruction,” (1833 New Hampshire Confession of Faith, Article 1). The Bible doesn’t tell us everything there is to know about Him. But, it does tell us everything “as far as is necessary for us to know in this life, to his glory and our salvation.”

So, if you want to know God – look at the world around you, see the evidence of His presence in creation, and His goodness and grace in sustaining that creation. Then, look to His Holy Word, and read about who He is, and what He sent His eternal Son to do so long ago.

Start with one of the Gospel accounts, like Mark.

Read a summary of the Good News. Go through this short presentation. Contact me, if you wish.

No Creed But the Bible?

creedCarl Trueman has some wise words about creeds and confessions:

The fact that I am a confessional Christian places me at odds with the vast majority of evangelical Christians today. That is ironic, because most Christian churches throughout the ages have defined themselves by commitment to some form of creed, confession, or doctrinal statement. This is the case for the Eastern Orthodox, for Roman Catholics, and for Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican Protestants. Some streams of Baptists have also had confessions; and many independent churches today that may not think of themselves as confessional have brief statements of faith that define who they are and what they believe.

Furthermore, as I shall argue later, even those churches and Christians who repudiate the whole notion of creeds and confessions will yet tend to operate with an implicit creed.

Despite this, it is true to say that we live in an anticonfessional age, at least in intention if not always in practice. The most blatant examples of this come from those who argue that the Protestant notion of Scripture alone simply requires the rejection of creeds and confessions. Scripture is the sole authority; of what use therefore are further documents? And how can one ever claim such documents have authority without thus derogating from the authority of Scripture?

I do want to make the point here that Christians are not divided between those who have creeds and confessions and those who do not; rather, they are divided between those who have public creeds and confessions that are written down and exist as public documents, subject to public scrutiny, evaluation, and critique, and those who have private creeds and confessions that are often improvised, unwritten, and thus not open to public scrutiny, not susceptible to evaluation and, crucially and ironically, not, therefore, subject to testing by Scripture to see whether they are true.

Anticonfessionalism among evangelicals is actually closely related to their putative rejection of tradition. For many, the principle of Scripture alone stands against any notion that the church’s tradition plays any constructive role in her life or thought.

Carl R. Trueman, The Creedal Imperative (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012; Kindle ed.), KL 153 – 162; 165 – 171.

I’m a Baptist, so here are some creeds and confessions I’ve found particularly helpful (the last two are not from the Baptist tradition, but are still extraordinarily useful):

 

Against Cardboard Shepherds

5000Trinitarian heresies usually stumble over who Christ is. Without fail, these heretical groups, sects and movements brand themselves as “renewal movements.” God gave us the Scriptures but, alas, things went haywire after the apostles died. The church lurched into heresy bit by bit. These groups warn us that the Greeks influenced Christian thinking, and eventually this pagan philosophy corrupted our doctrine of God, and the church was in darkness. Until . . . (cue theme music) . . . someone read the Bible for himself and discovered The Truth (insert heresy now).

For example, Anthony Buzzard, a conservative Unitarian, writes,

Though I believe with a passion the extraordinary and yet eminently sane claims of the New Testament writers, I have the strongest reservation about what the Church, claiming to be followers of Jesus, later did with the faith of those original Christians. I believe that history shows an enormous difference between what has through the centuries come to be known as the Christian faith and what we find reported as first-century Christianity.[1]

The truth is that these cults are reading the Bible in a very flat, sterile way. The Gospels are thoroughly Trinitarian, and the cults cannot find their doctrine through a systematic exposition of Scripture. Here, in our text this morning, we see Jesus as the shepherd over Israel:

The apostles returned to Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. And he said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place, and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.

And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves. Now many saw them going, and knew them, and they ran there on foot from all the towns, and got there ahead of them. As he went ashore he saw a great throng, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things (Mk 6:30-34)

Mark is the only Gospel writer who specifically explains why Jesus “had compassion on them.” It was “because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Why were they seeking Him? It wasn’t for the free food; that would come later (Jn 6:26)! It was probably a combination of excitement because of His status as a miracle worker (cf. Mt 14:34-36), and also His unique teaching on the Kingdom of God, which everyone acknowledged carried enormous authority (cf. Mk 1:22).

Mark tells us Jesus “began to teach them many things.” Matthew adds He “healed their sick,” (Mt 14:14) and Luke explains “he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing,” (Lk 9:11).

Who is this shepherd?

It’s easy to pass by this reference to Jesus as the shepherd without comment. That would be a mistake. Jesus has already identified Himself as Messiah, and commanded everyone to repent because the Kingdom of God was at hand (Mk 1:14-15). His entire ministry identifies Him to not be an ordinary prophet or messenger. He is altogether extraordinary:

  • He’s the one John the Baptist preached about, who would baptize the faithful with the Holy Spirit (Mk 1:7-8).
  • God ripped the heavens open to proclaim Jesus as “my beloved Son” at His baptism (Mk 1:10-11).
  • He’s the One who withstood all Satan’s temptation for forty days (Mk 1:12-13); the Last Adam triumphed where the first failed so miserably.
  • He’s the one who gathered disciples to “become fishers of men,” (Mk 1:17), to call people to repent and believe in Christ and His coming Kingdom.
  • The demons are terrified of Christ, identify Him as God’s Holy one, and beg Him for mercy (Mk 1:23-24). The congregations in the synagogues are astonished, “What is this? A new teaching! With authority he commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him,” (Mk 1:27).
  • He heals the sick, conducts exorcisms with ease, commands the demons to be silent – and they obey (Mk 1:32-34, 39)

I don’t mean this to be a tedious recitation of Jesus’ deeds. I believe Christians are so familiar with the Gospel accounts that we often forget how extraordinary they are. Jesus has proved His credentials by the end of Mark’s first chapter, and there are 15 more to go! Remember that, when Jesus was plainly asked if He was the Messiah, He pointed to His deeds as proof the Kingdom of God had broken into this present, evil world (Lk 7:18-23).

So, realize that Jesus’ actions and words already tell us He isn’t only a king. He’s divine and equal to the Father, yet distinct. This context is important when you consider Mark’s comment; “he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things,” (Mk 6:34). This is a very important phrase throughout the Old Testament.

To modern ears, the notion of Jesus as “the shepherd” evokes pastoral images. However, in Scripture, the “shepherd” is the leader and ruler of Israel. These are echoes of military victory and royal government, not pastoral sensibilities.[2] Though, to be sure, in Jesus both these themes merge together.

Moses’ True Successor

Moses asked God to appoint a successor for him, “that the congregation of the LORD may not be as sheep which have no shepherd,” (Num 27:17). He worried the Israelites would falter if they didn’t have a strong and godly leader to show them the way. In our text, Jesus sees His countrymen who had followed Him so far; some desperate with disease, others desperate for news about the promised Kingdom. He had compassion on them because they were lost. They had no guidance. They had no leader. Remember, immediately before this account, Mark just finished recounting Herod Antipas’ debauchery and his murder of John the Baptist (Mk 6:14-29). Antipas is the nominal Jewish leader of Galilee and Perea in Jesus’ day, and what a contrast!

So, God chose Joshua, “a man in whom is the spirit,” (Num 27:18). Interestingly, Moses prophesied about a man who would be raised up from among the Israelites, who would be like him, and to whom all Israel would be obligated to listen. This man is Jesus (Acts 3:22-23), who certainly had the Spirit, too (Mk 1:8,10)! Mark is identifying Jesus as the true leader of Israel, the successor par excellence to Moses.

The Bold Prophet

In another passage, King Ahab of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah form an alliance against Syria. They seek a rubber-stamped blessing form the Lord, and their hirelings oblige with flattering words. Jehoshaphat asks if Ahab has another prophet handy. Ahab admits that, yes, there is another prophet, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil,” (1 Kings 22:8).

This prophet, Micaiah, initially offers a rote prediction of smashing success. When pressed, he gives the real message: “I saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd’ and the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace,’” (1 Kings 22:17).

Micaiah’s point is clear – Ahab is such a worthless and pagan leader that the Israelites, in effect, have no shepherd at all. The prophet exited with this warning to Ahab, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me!” (1 Kings 22:28). In contrast, Jesus is the promised Messiah, the true shepherd of God’s people.

The Coming King

In Zechariah, the prophet tells us the coming King will come on the scene in a meek and lowly manner. Yet, this king “shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea,” (Zech 9:9-10). Because of the blood of this king’s covenant with them, He’ll set the Israelites free (Zech 9:11). He will lead them into battle and crush all Israel’s enemies; they’ll trample their foes so terribly the blood will flow like wine (Zech 9:12-15).

Why is this conquering king necessary? Because, in Zechariah’s present day, “the teraphim utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; the dreamers tell false dreams, and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for want of a shepherd,” (Zech 10:2).

The theme is the same. The current leadership in Israel was apostate and worthless, even in the early years of the return from exile! But, take heart – a new king would come! That king is Jesus, who came to shepherd His people.

Yahweh the Shepherd

In the Book of Jeremiah, the Lord promised the Israelites that, one day, He’d destroy the Babylonians, the very nation which was gathering to destroy Israel in their day. When Babylon eventually fell, God promised, something marvelous would happen:

In those days and in that time, says the LORD, the people of Israel and the people of Judah shall come together, weeping as they come; and they shall seek the LORD their God. They shall ask the way to Zion, with faces turned toward it, saying, ‘Come, let us join ourselves to the LORD in an everlasting covenant which will never be forgotten.’

My people have been lost sheep; their shepherds have led them astray, turning them away on the mountains; from mountain to hill they have gone, they have forgotten their fold (Jeremiah 50:4-6).

Their leaders have led them to disaster; they wander about like lost sheep who can’t find their way home. Interestingly, Jeremiah tells us that Yahweh is the shepherd who will re-gather Israel and tend to them (Jer 50:19-20). Yahweh is the true shepherd; yet, Mark tells us it is Jesus.

The psalmist also tells us, “Know that the LORD is God! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture,” (Ps 100:3). David confessed Yahweh is his shepherd (Ps 23:1).

Jesus the Shepherd

This context helps us understand Mark’s comment better. Jesus felt this compassion for the people because He was their true and promised leader; the Anointed One. His words and actions (briefly summarized from Mark’s first chapter, above) prove He is not merely a man, but the Father’s unique Son, distinct from Him, with equal power and glory. He was their “shepherd” because He was the promised leader; the one who would succeed where Moses, Ahab, and the leaders in Jeremiah and Zechariah’s day failed so terribly. In that capacity, He “taught them many things” about the Kingdom, and about what it means to truly love God (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6). Zechariah tells us Yahweh is their shepherd, yet Jesus is the One who came. What does this tell us?

The Scripture is soaked in the Trinity; in the distinction and unity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Those who deny the Trinity often protest they’re simply following the monotheistic faith of Abraham, and reinterpret the New Testament through this grid. “There is not a word in the New Testament about any such revolutionary changes in the definition of God.”[3]

These men and women would likely find nothing noteworthy in Mark’s comment about Jesus as the shepherd who had compassion on his lost people. This is a flat, sterile, cardboard way to read Scripture. Jesus’ deeds, words, and the Old Testament teaching about the coming shepherd and Messiah prove otherwise.

Notes

[1] Anthony Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian: A Call to Return to the Creed of Jesus (Morrow, GA: Restoration Fellowship, 2007; Kindle ed.), KL 296-300.

[2] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, in PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 191.

[3] Buzzard (Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian, KL 215).