Historical Proof for the Existence of Jesus (Powell)

 Some of us might have friends, family, or colleagues that reject Christianity.  There are many reasons people reject the Christian faith – that’s a huge topic!  One reason (humanly speaking) that people reject Christianity is because they don’t believe it has any solid historical basis.  They may view the stories of the Bible as myth or a twisted form of history.  Or they might not believe that Jesus of Nazareth really existed.

If you know someone who doubts the existence of Jesus, it might be helpful to show this skeptic some historical evidence that proves as much.  Using tact, love, and proper timing, proving the historicity of Jesus might cause a skeptic to doubt his or her doubt.  On this topic, Doug Powell gives some helpful notes.  He gives proof of Jesus’ existence from some ancient texts that are neither Christian nor pro-Christian:

Here’s an excerpt from the Roman historian Tacitus (d. 117AD) which mentions Christ and Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.

Here’s a letter from Pliny the Younger to Emperor Trajan written around 110AD:

I have asked them if they are Christians and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for, whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and their unshakable obstinancy ought not to go unpunished.… They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: that they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery.… This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture of two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.

Finally, here are some words from the second century Greek writer Lucian:

(Christians) still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.… The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence.

Powell then summarized these early sources proving the historicity of Christ and early Christianity:

Just from the… citations quoted above we see that Jesus was a real person who lived in Palestine during the time of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate. He had a reputation for working wonders and teaching radical doctrine. He was worshiped as God. His followers met on a certain day of the week and exhibited an extreme devotion, even to the point of enduring torture and welcoming death. There was a communal culture that cared for the welfare of all believers. His followers were bound by oath to adhere to a high ethical standard.

All of these things, written by neutral parties at best, corroborate the New Testament. And many other ancient non-Christian writings join these in supporting the history documented in the New Testament.

Doug Powell, Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2006), 167.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

“The Mighty Lesson of Dying” (Kuyper)

  In his devotional called To Be Near Unto God, Abraham Kuyper wrote a great meditation on Hebrews 11:21 which says, “By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff” (NIV). The title of the meditation is “Dying He Worshiped.”  The whole devotional is very much worth reading. I won’t quote the whole thing here, but I did want to share one part where Kuyper talks about different ways to die: in faith or in unbelief.  Here’s what he says about dying “quietly and peaceably” without faith in Christ:

Of those who die without Christ it is continually said, that they died equally quietly and calmly; even perhaps with less perturbation of mind, than many a child of God that is harassed by anxiety and doubt. Nothing of a serious nature was said to them. They themselves made no reference to anything. The physician assured them that there was no need of alarm. And so the patient passed quietly away, without having known any terror of death. And others, seeing this, were impressed that there is really nothing to dying; it was all so quiet and gentle. Then came flowers to cover the bier. Visits of condolence are no longer paid. In this way nothing connected with death is spoken of. And when the funeral is over, ordinary matters form the topic of conversation, but not the things that are eternal. And thus the mighty lesson of dying is lost. Death ceases to be a preacher of deeper seriousness. And the Lord of life and of death is not remembered.

This is so true! How many of us have been to funerals where the reality of death is for the most part avoided? How many of us have been at a funeral where nothing deep, significant, or eternal is touched upon, and as Kuyper said, “the Lord of life and of death is not remembered?”  It’s true: in these situations “the mighty lesson of dying is lost.”  Here’s how Kuyper went on:

We, Christians, should not encourage this evil practice. And yet, we do it, when imitating the way of the world we say of such dead that they “peaceably passed away.” Not calmly and peacefully, but fighting and conquering in the Savior, should be the dying bed in the Christian family. He who has not the heart for this, but is careful to spare the patient all serious and disquieting thought, is not merciful, but through unbelief he is cruel.

In other words, when the Christian is talking to people in the context of death, it is cruel unbelief to avoid mentioning the Lord of life and the reality of what lies beyond the grave – eternity.  I’ll end with this next paragraph in the devotional:

In dying Jacob has worshipped. On the death bed one can pray. One can pray for help in the last struggle. Intercession can be made for those that are to be left behind and for the Kingdom of God. By itself such prayer is beautiful. On one’s deathbed to appear before the face of God. This last prayer on earth, when every veil drops away, and the latest supplication is addressed to God, who awaits us in the courts of everlasting light. Such prayer teaches those, who stand by, to pray. Such prayer exerts an overwhelming, fascinating influence.

Abraham Kuyper, To Be Near unto God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans-Sevensma Co., 1918), 286–287.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

A Common Reformed Sin: Intellectual Pride

 Reformed theology is robustly biblical and it echoes the truths of Scripture so very well and clearly.  I’m not Reformed because it’s cool or because I grew up that way.  I believe Reformed truths like God’s sovereignty, total depravity, definite atonement, presbyterian ecclesiology, infant baptism, and the regulative principle of worship because they’re rooted in Scripture.  I want to be part of the historic Christian church that has submitted to and followed God’s word.

Reformed and Calvinistic Christians and churches, however, are not perfect. [I’m far from perfect!]  One major blemish found in Reformed and Calvinistic circles is the sin of intellectual pride.  Or it might be called doctrinal pride.  This is when someone who is well-versed in Reformed doctrine lets it go to his or her head.  This person becomes a self-proclaimed expert theologian who begins to look down on others who do not know as much doctrine or who have “inferior” doctrine. Sometimes this kind of person can even become unteachable and very critical of and impatient with other Christians and their views.  It’s even worse when someone who is self-taught gives himself an honorary doctorate in theology!

By contrast, the person who lives a truly Reformed life with a Reformed heart and mind will not be arrogant, but extremely humble and patient.  One essential aspect of Reformed theology is that our sovereign God alone deserves all the glory, honor, and praise and that people are finite, sinful, and completely dependent upon him in every way.  No one who is Reformed or Calvinistic should be doctrinally arrogant at all!

Petrus Van Mastricht (d. 1706) made an excellent point on intellectual humility when he applied the doctrine of God’s omniscience (omniscience is the fact that God knows all things in a divine way that is far, far beyond our understanding).  Here’s a slightly edited excerpt:

[The doctrine of divine omniscience] offers us an argument for being humbled by a comparison of our ignorance and folly with the infinite knowledge and wisdom of God, after the example of Asaph (Ps. 73:22) and Agur (Prov. 30:2-4).

…Here, therefore, what will more effectively batter down our arrogance than to think how much there is that we do not know, especially when we compare our superficial wisdom with the abyss of God’s knowledge and wisdom? What will more effectively invite us to humility?

God instills this humility (Jer. 9:23), teaching us

1) To think that God is most wise since he is the one who made us wiser than brute beasts (Job 35:11).
2) To exclaim to ourselves, ‘What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you brag as if you did not receive it?’ (1 Cor. 4:7).
3) To take what you have freely received above others and to render it to God with submissive gratitude, and in that way ‘to cast down thoughts and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God.’ (2 Cor. 10:5).
4) To think about God’s dreadful judgment upon the arrogance of worldly wisdom (1 Cor. 1:19-20).

Again, it’s worth noting that Reformed and Calvinistic Christians are sinful like other Christians. And sometimes we Reformed Christians don’t live out the theology we believe and confess. Sometimes we believe a doctrine but do not apply it to ourselves and live accordingly.  May God help us live out the theology we believe and confess with humility, patience, and a strong desire to see his name be glorified – not ours!

The above quote is found in Petrus Van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, p. 272-3.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Did Paul Write the Pastoral Epistles? (Schnabel)

Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?: A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture Edited by James K. Hoffmeier, Dennis R. Magary, cover image In the past 100 or 150 years, some scholars have argued that the pastoral epistles (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) were probably not written by the apostle Paul. There are various theories out there; it’s hard to summarize all the scholarship and positions in just a few sentences. Basically, some argue that Paul couldn’t have written the pastoral letters because they differ from Paul’s other letters in these ways: vocabulary, Greek style, and method of argument/reasoning.

I appreciate how Eckhard Schnabel refutes these critical arguments in his essay called “Paul, Timothy, and Titus: The Assumption of a Pseudonymous Author.”  It’s important to remember that when critics doubt aspects of Scripture, there are almost always reasonable answers to the criticism.  It’s not like no Christian has ever thought about the critic’s criticism!   Here’s an edited summary of what Schnabel wrote in response to the argument that Paul could not have written the pastorals:

First, the Pastoral Epistles are too small for statistical analysis, which according to linguistic experts requires texts with at least 10,000 words. The Pastoral Epistles together only have 3,488 words, which makes statistical analysis a problematic proposition. Also, the fact that the vocabulary of the ten undisputed Pauline letters (2,301 words) is only a fraction of the total number of words in ancient Greek makes conclusions based on the nonoccurrence of words futile.

Second, the analysis of vocabulary is distorted if it is carried out on the three Pastoral Epistles as a group and on the undisputed Pauline Epistles as a group.  Since the authenticity of each letter should be determined individually and not part of an assumed corpus, the problem of statistical analysis is even more pronounced: 1 Timothy has 1,591 words, 2 Timothy 1,238 words, and Titus 659 words.

Third, the difference in distinctive subject matter accounts for vocabulary clusters with unusual words in all Pauline letters.  Vocabulary that is generally acknowledged as ‘characteristically Pauline’ occurs in a very erratic manner throughoutPaul’s letters.

Fourth, the notion that an author has a consistent style is a romantic notion of the modern Western world.  In the Greco-Roman world, the rhetorical ideal was prosopoiia (writing in character or personification).  It is the occasion that determines the style adopted.

Fifth, the dialogical style of Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Galatians owes at least some of its characteristics to the use of the diatribe mode rather than to Paul’s personal ‘style’ of writing.

Sixth, both Old Testament quotations and early Christian traditions affect the language of Paul’s letters.

Seventh, discussing the question in terms of Pauline or non-Pauline authorship often does not take into account indications that the process of composition seems to have been complex.  Paul dictated some of his letters…and mentions composers in some of his letters, which means others may have had some part in the formulation of the text.

Eighth, the difference in vocabulary and style between the accepted letters of Paul and the Pastoral Epistles can be explained with the difference between (conceptual) orality and (conceptual) writing.

Ninth, the earliest church fathers, who never doubted the Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles, were native speakers of Greek whose sense of ‘style’ was surely on par with that of modern scholars, who learn Greek in classroom settings as teenagers or later in life and who never attain the fluency of a native speaker.  The certainty of modern scholars concerning the Greek style of the New Testament documents is more impressive in its audacity than convincing in its cogency.

In sum, the degree of the difference between the style of the Pastoral Epistles and the Pauline letters generally accepted as authentic is a matter of judgment.  The language of the Pastoral Epistles, despite some distinctive characteristics, renders Pauline authorship neither impossible nor implausible.

Eckhard Schnabel, “Paul, Timothy, and Titus: The Assumption of a Pseudonymous Author,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? p. 383ff.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

Subjection to the Governing Authorities

 Romans 13 was one of those parts of Scripture that were formative for me in my later teenage years.  I had to think about it quite a bit since I served in the U.S. Army (Reserves).  And it’s still a text that I think about quite a bit since submitting to the civil government is part of God’s good and acceptable will for us (Rom 12:2). Speaking of being “subject to the governing authorities” (Rom 13:1 NIV), here are some reflections on that theme from various helpful commentaries.

Chrysostom (d. 407 AD) wrote this – and I appreciate how he said that a Christian’s submission to the governing authorities will “stop the mouths of those that malign us”:

For lest the believers should say, You are making us very cheap and despicable, when you put us, who are to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven, under subjection to rulers, he shows that it is not to rulers, but to God again that he makes them subject in doing this. For it is to Him, that he who subjects himself to authorities is obedient. Yet he does not say this—for instance that it is God to Whom a man who listens to authorities is obedient—but he uses the opposite case to awe them, and gives it a more precise form by saying, that he who listeneth not thereto is fighting with God, Who framed these laws.

…When then you show our common Master giving this in charge to all His, you will at once stop the mouths of those that malign us as revolutionists, and with great boldness will speak for the doctrines of truth. Be not then ashamed, he says, at such subjection.

 John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans,  (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1889), 512.

John Stott mentions cooperation rather than subversion:

That church and state have different roles, and that Christians have duties to both God and the state was clearly implied in Jesus’ enigmatic epigram, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.’ Now Paul enlarges on the state’s God-appointed role and on the role of Christian people in relation to it, although his emphasis is on personal citizenship rather than on any particular theory of church—state relations. What he writes is specially remarkable when we recall that at that time there were no Christian authorities (global, regional or local). On the contrary, they were Roman or Jewish, and were therefore largely unfriendly and even hostile to the church. Yet Paul regarded them as having been established by God, who required Christians to submit to them and cooperate with them.

…The state is a divine institution with divine authority. Christians are not anarchists or subversives.

 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Romans: God’s Good News for the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 339–340.

Here’s F.F. Bruce, who also notes the role of conscience that Paul mentions in Rom. 13:5:

Christians of all people, then, ought to obey the laws, pay their taxes and respect the authorities—not because it will be the worse for them if they do not, but because this is one way of serving God.

The Christian has a higher motive for obeying the ruler than the unpleasantness of the consequences of disobedience; the Christian knows that such obedience is in accordance with God’s will, and by rendering it will preserve a good conscience in relation to God.

 F. F. Bruce, Romans: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 6, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 237.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

“…Mid All Harms” (Luther)

 Here’s a great Reformation hymn with an excellent structure: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  It’s by Martin Luther and it’s called “We All Believe in One True God.”

We all believe in one true God,
Maker of the earth and heaven,
The Father who to us the power
To become his sons have given.
Soul and body guard us, guide us,
‘Mid all harms will keep and cherish,
That no ill shall ever betide us.
He watches o’er us day and night,
All things are governed by His might.

And we believe in Jesus Christ
Lord and Son of God confessed
From everlasting days with God
In like power and glory blessed.
By the Holy Ghost conceived,
Born of Mary, virgin mother,
That to lost men who believed
He should Savior be and Brother;
Was crucified and from the grave,
Through God, is risen,
Strong to save!

We in the Holy Ghost believe,
Who with Son and Father reigneth,
One true God; He the Comforter,
Feeble souls with gifts sustaineth,
All his saints, in every nation,
With one heart this faith receiving,
From all sin obtain salvation,
From the dust of death reviving;
These sorrows past, there waits in store
For us, the life forevermore!

Martin Luther, from “We All Believe in One True God” found in The Hymns of Martin Luther.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

The Unspeakable Consolation of Divine Providence

 One of the great things about the Christian faith is the deep comfort it brings to the weary heart.  I’m thinking specifically of God’s sovereign providence over all things.  Scripture abounds with teaching that our Triune God is in complete control of all things for the good of his people (e.g. Lk 21:18, Rom. 8:28, 1 Cor. 15:27, 2 Cor. 9:8, etc). Here are a few comforting quotes on providence from some Reformation confessions and teachers:

 “This doctrine affords us unspeakable consolation, since we are taught thereby that nothing can befall us by chance, but by the direction of our most gracious and heavenly Father.” Belgic Confession of Faith XIII.

 “As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so after a special manner it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.”  Westminster Confession of Faith 5.7.

 “Knowledge of this doctrine…is the beginning of true happiness.”  Caspar Olevian in A Firm Foundation.

 “Our faith does not look to those means which God uses [in providence], nor does it depend on them, but rather to God who alone can relieve all our necessities, either with or without means as it appears good to him.”  William Ames in The Marrow of Theology.

 “God by his providence preserves his church in the midst of enemies; a spark kept alive in the ocean, or a flock of sheep among wolves.”  Thomas Watson in A Body of Divinity.

“It is above all by faith in Christ that believers are enabled – in spite of all the riddles that perplex them – to cling to the conviction that the God who rules the world is the same loving and compassionate Father who in Christ forgave them all their sins, accepted them as his children, and will bequeath to them eternal salvation. … Although the riddles are not resolved, faith in God’s fatherly hand always again arises from the depths and even enables us to boast in afflictions.”  Herman Bavinck in Reformed Dogmatics II.

 “Now to understand in a spiritual way the universality of providence in every particular happening from morning to night every day, that there is nothing that befalls you but there is a hand of God in it – this is from God, and is a great help to contentment.”  Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.

 “From this contemplation of God’s providence, there ought to arise in the hearts of believers an earnest desire of patience and humility in adversity by the example of Christ, of Joseph, of Job, that in all things which happen somewhat harshly to us we may acquiesce without a murmur in the will and providence of God.”  Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, I.

(This is a re-post from August, 2010).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015