The “Historical Nonsense” of Early Pluralistic Christianities (Carson)

The Intolerance of Tolerance This is very much worth reading:

…During the last decade and a half a number of writers with media savvy have unleashed books and articles to support the view that originally Christianity was pluralistic in content and largely tolerant (in the new sense!) in attitude. There was no agreed orthodoxy, but highly diverse theological syntheses. We catch glimpses of the complexities, it is argued, when we peruse the many apocryphal gospels and other writings that never made it into the New Testament canon—books with titles such as Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Peter, and so forth. Unfortunately, we are told, what became “orthodoxy” won out and opposed every view other than that of orthodoxy. Our New Testament canon is such a late development, it is argued; in the first couple of centuries there was much more diversity. If the fourth- and fifth-century church councils formulated creeds still recited today, they did so at the expense of shutting down everyone else. So Elaine Pagels promotes The Gnostic Gospels, which, she claims, advocated tolerance and promoted egalitarianism, while Bart Ehrman bemoans Lost Christianities.

The subtext of these and similar books is that originally Christianity was diverse and tolerant. Sadly, relatively late orthodoxy made it narrow, bigoted, hate-filled, and intolerant. So don’t trust people who talk about orthodoxy. Surely we are in a much better situation today, Ehrman argues, when Western culture is much more akin to the “famous tolerance” of Roman paganism. Of course, the Romans were not very tolerant of the proto-orthodox, sometimes going on persecution sprees and killing quite a lot of them. But it was the Christians’ own fault for being intolerant.

As popular as this view has become, it is historical nonsense. Even a casual reading of the New Testament discloses how many of its writers were concerned to maintain the truth of the gospel (e.g., Galatians 1:8–9; 2 Corinthians 10–13; Jude). Daniel L. Hoffman has painstakingly refuted the central theses of Elaine Pagels. Simon Gathercole’s learned study demonstrates that, far from a narrow orthodox unity being extracted from a rich diversity, the flow went the other way: first to develop was the strong confessionalism; and then, as the passage of time and the pressures from the surrounding cultures spawned more and more aberrant theologies, Christians were forced to devote more thought to formulations that excluded these new aberrations precisely because they had never been part of the Christian heritage. A recent book by Charles Hill demonstrates that the fourfold Gospel structure that we know in the New Testament was not invented in the fourth century but was already well known in the second, by thinkers as diverse as Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, Dionysius, Cyprian, Victorinus, Marinus, Euplus, and, of course, Irenaeus. It does not seem unreasonable to infer that the devotion to diversity that marks so much of contemporary culture lies behind not a little of the revisionist historiography.

 D. A. Carson, The Intolerance of Tolerance (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012), 115–116.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54002

…Relative Value of Temporal Things (Wilberforce)

Jacket In 1797 William Wilberforce published a book called “A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christians, in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity.”  In this book, Wilberforce compared and contrasted true Christianity and nominal Christianity.  The section below is where Wilberforce shows a major contrast between a real Christian and one in name only:

“The true Christian knows from experience that the eternal will probably fade from sight and the temporal will exaggerate itself.  Therefore he carefully preserves those just and enlightened views of the future given to him by divine mercy.  This does not mean he retires as a recluse, for he is active in the business of life and enjoys its comforts with moderation and thankfulness.”

“But the Christian will not be wholly in the world or give up his soul to worldly things.  For the truth sinks into his mind that ‘the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal’ (2 Cor. 4.18).  In the tumult and bustle of life, the still small voice sobers him with the whispered statement, ‘The present form of this world is passing away’ (1 Cor. 7:31).”

“This disposition alone must constitute a vast difference between the habitual temper of the real Christian and that of the mass of nominal Christians.  The concerns of the present world dominate them almost entirely.  They know indeed that they are mortal, but they do not feel it.  For the truth finds its way only into their minds but cannot gain admission to their hearts.  This understanding of the mind is altogether different from that strong practical impression of the infinite importance of eternal things.”

“This attitude of knowing that ‘the night comes, when no man can work’ (John 9.4) produces a firmness of character that hardens us (true Christians) against the buffetings of life.  It prevents the cares and interests, the good or evil of this transitory state from deeply penetrating us.  This proper impression of the relative value of temporal things and infinite importance of eternal things maintains in the soul a dignified composure throughout all of the difficulties of life.  It quickens our diligence yet moderates our zeal.  It urges us to just pursuits, yet it checks any undue care about their success.  It enables us in the words of Scripture, ‘to use this world, not as abusing it’ (1 Cor. 7:31).”

(This is a re-post from August 2016)

The above slightly edited quotes come from William Wilberforce, Real Christianity, p. 102-3.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

How Far Can We Trust Him? (Machen)

When the Christian says “Jesus is God,” he does not mean Jesus is a god, or that Jesus is god like we are all gods.  “Jesus is God” does not mean Jesus is an avatar of some deity, it does not mean that Jesus had the spark of the divine in his bosom.  It means that Jesus of Nazareth, the man who lived and died in and around Jerusalem in the 1st century, is God the creator and sustainer of the world.  “Jesus is God” means that the man who rose from the dead and ascended into heaven is Lord of all, King of kings, eternal, infinite, and holy.  J. G. Machen defended this truth well around 100 years ago as he faced the liberalism of his day.  Here’s the ending of a radio address he gave on the deity of Christ:

“The Bible from Genesis to Revelation presents a stupendous view of God, and then it tells us that Jesus Christ is all that God is.

What interest has the Christian man in all that? What interest has the Christian man in knowing that Jesus Christ is very God, what interest in knowing that it was through Him that the worlds were made, what interest in knowing that He pervades the remotest bounds, what interest in knowing that He is infinite in knowledge and in power?

No interest, say modern unbelievers; these things are mere metaphysics.

Every interest, say Christians; these things are the very breath of our lives.

We have trusted in Jesus. But how far can we trust Him? Just in this transitory life? Just in this little speck that we call the earth? If we can trust Him only thus far we are of all men most miserable. We are surrounded by stupendous forces; we are surrounded by the immensity of the unknown. After our little span of life there is a shelving brink with the infinite beyond. And still we are subject to fear—not only fear of destruction but a more dreadful fear of meeting with the infinite and holy God.

So we should be if we had but a human Christ. But now is Christ our Saviour, the one who says, “Thy sins are forgiven thee,” revealed as very God. And we believe. Such a faith is a mystery to us who possess it; it seems folly to those who have it not. But if possessed it delivers us forever from fear. The world [creation] to us is all unknown; it is engulfed in an ocean of infinity. But it contains no mysteries to our Saviour. He is on the throne. He pervades the remotest bounds. He inhabits infinity. With such a Saviour we are safe.”

J. G. Machen, The Person of Jesus, p. 27-28.

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

Admire or Imitate Christ?

Soren Kierkegaard was a 19th century Danish philosopher.  He is known as one of the leading existentialists – a school of thought that rejected rationalism and romanticism.  He is known for other things as well, including his critique of the Danish state church of his day; he was critical of it because, he said, many were Christians in name only.

On this topic Kierkegaard wrote a piece called “Practice in Christianity” with a subtitle being “A Contribution to the Introduction of Christianity into Christendom.”  There’s more to be said about this theme and essay, and I don’t agree with it all, but one part is worth mentioning here.  The following statements stuck with me and made me think about what it means to follow Christ.  Kierkegaard starts with a prayer:

“Lord Jesus Christ, you did not come into the world to be served and thus not to be admired either….  You yourself were the way and the life – and you have asked only for imitators.  If we have dozed off into this infatuation, wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.”

In Kierkegaard’s view, many in the Danish church admired Christ from a distance, but never personally followed him.  He goes on to talk about how the preaching of his day reflected this fact by keeping Christ distant, as an object to be admired – sort of like a painting.  Later he writes,

“…[Christ] never says that he asks for admirers, adoring admirers, adherents; and when he uses the expression ‘follower’ he always explains it in such a way that one perceives that ‘imitators’ is to be meant by it, that it is not adherents of a teaching but imitators of a life….”

“What then, is the difference between an admirer and an imitator?  An imitator is or strives to be what he admires, and an admirer keeps himself personally detached, consciously or unconsciously does not discover that what is admired involves a claim upon him, to be or at least strive to be what is admired.”

Of course Jesus is more than an example – he’s also the Messiah, Son of God, the Savior of sinners.  But I appreciate how Kierkegaard says that there is a difference between admiring Jesus and following him.  Admiring is detached viewing that doesn’t really imply a way of life: I admire a beautiful lake, a diving catch down the right field line, an old Plymouth Barracuda.  But admiring these things doesn’t have much to do with the way I live.  Imitating, however is personal and does involve my whole life: take up a cross, deny self, and follow Jesus by trusting in, obeying, and imitating him.  To echo Kierkegaard’s prayer above,

“Lord…wake us up, rescue us from this error of wanting to admire or adoringly admire you instead of wanting to follow you and be like you.”

The above quotes are found in The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Howard Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 373ff.

shane lems

“I AM”

I appreciate the following words from Ravi Zacharias (emphasis his):

“At the heart of every major religion is a leading exponent.  As the exposition is studied, something very significant emerges.  There comes a bifurcation, or a distinction, between the person and the teaching.  Mohammed, to the Koran.  Buddha, to the Noble Path.  Krishna, to his philosophizing.  Zoroaster, to his ethics.”

“Whatever we make of their claims, one reality is inescapable.  They are teachers who point to their teaching or show some particular way.  In all of these, there emerges an instruction, a way of living.  It is not Zoroaster to whom you turn.  It is Zoroaster to whom you listen.  It is not Buddha who delivers you; it is his Noble Truths that instruct you.  It is not Mohammed who transforms you; it is the beauty of the Koran that woos you.”

“By contrast, Jesus did not only teach or expound his message.  He was identical with his message.  ‘In Him,’ say the Scriptures, ‘dwelt the fullness of the Godhead bodily.’  He did not just proclaim the truth.  He said, ‘I am the truth.’  He did not just show a way.  He said, ‘I am the way.’  He did not just open up vistas.  He said, ‘I am the door.”  ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’  ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’  ‘I am the I AM.’

“In Him is not just an offer of life’s bread.  He is the bread.  This is why being a Christian is not just a way of feeding and living.  Following Christ begins with a way of relating and being.”

Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (Nashville: Word Publishing, 2000), 89-90.

shane lems

A Christian View of Knowledge (K. Samples)

One of my favorite books on apologetics and worldview is A World of Difference by Kenneth Samples.  I’ve mentioned it here on the blog from time to time; while I was recently flipping through it again, I re-read a helpful discussion of the Christian, biblical view of knowledge (Christian epistemology).  I’ll summarize it here:

1) Extreme skepticism is self-defeating.  Like the universal denial of truth, extreme skepticism with regard to knowledge is self-defeating and therefore false.  The skeptic’s reasoning (‘one cannot know’) backfires for surely he at least claims to know that he doesn’t know – an assertion which is self-referentially incoherent or absurd.

2) Knowledge is possible with God as its source and foundation.  The Bible indicates that human beings can attain genuine knowledge of God, the self, and the world (Ps. 19:1-4, Acts 17:27-28, Rom. 1:18-21).  The Creator sustains the universe and the mind and sensory organs of man in such a way that they correspond with each other and him.  Because man is created in God’s image, human beings can trust in the reliability of the basic process of knowing.

3) Knowledge is directly connected to God’s revelatory acts.  God’s general and special revelation make knowledge available.  In other words, people can come to ‘know’ through exercising their God-given rational capacities, through empirical observation.

4) Knowledge is properly justified true belief.  1) Knowledge involves belief.  It is a necessary part of knowing, for no one can know something unless he believes it. 2) A person can only know things that are true.  An individual can think she knows something to be true but, in fact, be wrong.  3) A person can believe something to be true, that is in fact true, but it wouldn’t constitute knowledge if it lacks proper justification.  Knowledge involves some form of confirmation or evidence.

5) Human knowledge is limited and affected by sin.  1) Human beings, though quite well-endowed intellectually by way of bearing God’s image, are nevertheless finite creatures by nature.  As a result, unlike God, they have limitations with regard to knowledge and rational comprehension in the essence of their being.  2) Human reason has been negatively affected by sin.  To some degree sin impairs human intelligence and rationality.  (However, sin does not effect the laws of logic or of correct reasoning.)

6) The Christian faith involves knowledge and is compatible with reason.  1) The Christian faith affirms that there is an objective source and foundation for knowledge, reason, and rationality; that basis is found in a personal and rational God.  2) Christian truth-claims – though they often transcend finite human comprehension – do not violate the basic laws or principles of reason.  3) The Bible encourages the attainment of knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.  4) The truths of the Christian faith correspond to and are supported by things such as evidence, facts, and reason.  Biblical faith can be defined as confident trust in a reliable source (God or Christ).  Reason and faith function in a complementary fashion.

For the full discussion, including some more Scripture references, see pages 78-83 of A World of Difference.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Avoiding False Spirituality/Spiritualities

The Christian's Reasonable Service, 4 VolumesThere are many popular quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities in existence today.  The “Christian” bestsellers typically include books about spirituality without a clear explanation of or belief in the gospel.  Some popular “Christian” authors deny key aspects of the historic faith and others talk about being spiritual without much dependence on Scripture.  You can find bestselling books about someone supposedly going to heaven and you can read a book that puts words in Jesus’ mouth.  Most of the time, these spiritualities are quite man centered, focused on internal feelings and emotions.

These things have happened before in history.  For just one example, after the Reformation there were radical reforming groups such as the Anabaptists – some of whom rejected the written Word of God only to focus on the inner voice/word/light (called “mysticism”).  Around 1700, Dutch Reformed pastor Wilhelmus a Brakel even addressed this pietism/quietism/mysticism in his systematic theology, since Quakers, Pietists, and other such sects had come on the scene.  The chapter is called, “A Warning Exhortation Against Pietists, Quietists, and all Who in a Similar Manner have Deviated to a Natural and Spiritless Religion under the Guise of Spirituality.”  In this chapter, Brakel gives 6 propositions to help Christians stand firm in biblical spirituality and avoid quasi- and pseudo-Christian spiritualities.  Here’s an edited summary:

1) A Christian must have great love for the truth; all splendid pretense void of love for the truth is deceit.  The truth is the way of salvation as revealed by God in his Word (John 17:17, Eph. 1:13).  There is no other way unto salvation but one.  Christ’s church has this truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and it is the means whereby God draws sinners out of darkness (James 1:18, 1 Pet. 1:23).  God’s truth in Scripture is what true faith rests upon and what our life must be regulated by.  We are obligated to stand on this truth and uphold it – we must never trifle with the truth.

2) A Christian must have great love and esteem for the church (Ps. 27:4, 122:1-2).  The church is the congregation of the living God (Rom. 9:26), his people whom he loves.  Who would not have the highest esteem for the church which as God and the Lord Jesus as King?  How can one claim to love God and love the church – his children – an not have esteem for her? (1 John 5:1).  If you do not love the brothers, you certainly do not love God – regardless of what you may say.

3) The Holy Scriptures are the only rule for doctrine and life.  In the Word all saving truth is comprehended, upon which the church is built, and which God has given to the church for the purpose of spreading and preserving the truth.  This the Pietists either reject or minimize.  The Word is everything to the church.  There is no church without the Word and there is no Word without the church.  He who wishes to live godly and desires to be saved must regulate his intellect, will, affections, words, deeds, and entire religion according to this Word.

4) Regeneration is the originating cause of true spiritual life, and of all spiritual thoughts and deeds (Luke 6:45, Rom. 8:5). A person can appear to be very religious and spiritual, which even shows up in the writings of pagans, but if a person is not regenerated by God, this religion and spirituality is nothing but darkness and pollution, and not worthy of being called spiritual.  Regeneration is not separating yourself from the world; it is not ‘sinking away in God;’ it is not losing sight of yourself.  Rather, it is a complete change of man wrought by the Holy Spirit through the Word.  It is being brought from death to life and involves the whole man.

5) A Christian continually avails himself of faith.  True religion means going to Christ, receiving him and entrusting yourself entirely to him.  Faith in Christ is a daily exercise, a daily reality.  It is not as if one can believe a few times, and then move along.  Rather, one exercises faith as long as he lives.  Although true faith waxes and wanes, it constantly trusts in Jesus.

6) All of man’s felicity, here and hereafter, consists in communion with and the beholding of God.  God savingly reveals himself to his reconciled children who presently believe in him, and thus not to the world – not to unconverted and natural men (Mt. 11:27, John 6:46, 2 Cor. 4:6, etc).  Many unconverted engage themselves in beholding God by means of their natural light.  They speak about divine meditations, doing so with expressions which are lofty as their imaginations can devise.  But we must follow the advice of the apostle: Believe not every spirit, but test the spirits… (1 John 4:1).  To follow one’s own spirit and ideas, as if they were from the Holy Spirit, is to run to one’s own destruction.  Therefore it behooves all Christians to live in the presence of God, avail themselves to his will found in the Word, and to heed the Spirit speaking in the Word.

We need these propositions today as much as God’s people did in 1700!  Remember, not every spirituality and religious thought is biblical and Christian.  Brakel’s six propositions, which are based on the Word, will help us steer clear of false spiritualities and religions and help keep our feet firmly planted in the historic Christian faith.

You can read the entire chapter in volume 2 of Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

shane lems