Christ our God

Emergence of the Catholic Tradition: 100-600 Christians have always confessed that Christ is divine – not a being less than or subordinate to God, but God himself.  Heretics in the early church fought against this doctrine; modern-day cults like Jehovah’s Witnesses still rail against it.  But the deity of Christ is one of the fundamental truths of biblical religion.  Jaroslav Pelikan explains this well in the first volume of his Christian tradition series (The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [100-600]):

“Amid the varieties of metaphor in which they conceived the meaning of salvation, all [early] Christians shared the conviction that salvation was the work of no being less than the Lord of heaven and earth.  Amid all the varieties of response to the Gnostic systems, Christians were sure that the Redeemer did not belong to some lower order of divine reality, but was God himself.  The oldest surviving sermon of the Christian church after the New Testament opened with the words: ‘Brethren, we ought so to think of Jesus Christ as of God, as of the judge of living and dead. And we ought not to belittle our salvation; for when we belittle him, we expect also to receive little.’”

“The oldest surviving account of the death of a Christian martyr contained the declaration: ‘It will be impossible for us to forsake Christ…or to worship any other.  For him, being the Son of God, we adore, but the martyrs…we cherish.’  The oldest surviving pagan report about the church described the Christians as gathering before sunrise and ‘singing a hymn to Christ as though to [a] god.’  The oldest surviving liturgical prayer of the church was a prayer addressed to Christ: ‘Our Lord, come!’  Clearly it was the message of what the church believed and taught that ‘God’ was an appropriate name for Jesus Christ.”

Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition [100-600], Chicago (The University of Chicago Press, 1971),173.

shane lems

We Worship One God in Trinity

  One of the beauties of Reformed liturgy is that it reminds Christians week after week that we worship the Triune God.  In fact, as the pastor of a small Reformed church in rural Washington State, I begin many services with these words: “We are gathered here in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”  In case you were wondering, we (confessional Reformed pastors) don’t say things like that in the liturgy just to be traditional, vintage, or old school.  We say those words to remind everyone that we are part of the historic Christian, Apostolic church and we gather to worship one God in three persons, blessed Trinity.  Jaroslav Pelikan talks about the Trinity and Christian worship in volume one of his excellent series.  Here’s an excerpt.

“…This christology was, the Alexandrians argued, conformable also to the liturgical practice of the church, and they insisted that the christology of their opponents was not.  The admonition of Second Clement to think of Jesus as of God also implied that Jesus Christ was deserving of that worship which was properly paid to God alone.  In the controversy with Arianism, Nicene orthodoxy had made much of the inconsistency between the Arians’ practice of worshiping Jesus Christ and their refusal to acknowledge that he was God in the fullest and most unambiguous sense of the word; the same argument had been used, on the basis of the doxologies, in support of the deity of the Holy Spirit.”

“At this point more than at any other, the application to the christological controversy of an argument invented during the trinitarian controversy proved to be effective.  For the defenders of Nicea refused to distinguish between the worship appropriate to the Father and that appropriate to the Son.  The Detailed Confession of Apollinaris, which summarized Nicene orthodoxy without getting into the speculations about the human soul of Christ for which the author was later condemned, was speaking for the main body of the tradition when it attacked an interpretation of the Trinity that would lead to ‘three dissimilar and diverse systems of worship, [contrary to the institution of] a single legal way of religious observance.’”

“There was, he wrote elsewhere, ‘nothing that is to be worshiped and nothing that saves outside the divine Trinity.’  The Christian worship of God was properly addressed to the Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, without any distinction at all as to degree or kind.  Such was the orthodox interpretation of the Nicene decree and the clear outcome of the post-Nicene development, as eventually stated in the formula that the Holy Spirit was ‘the one who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified’” (p. 238-239).

Or, as the Athanasian Creed says so well, “And the catholic [universal] faith is this: that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity.”  This isn’t theological nitpicking; it has everything to do with our God who has saved us from sin, death, and hell.  The Father chose us in Christ the Son who died on the cross for us, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now gives us his Holy Spirit to sanctify us in his truth and lead us to glory.  “Glory be to the Father! And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost…!”

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Faith of Our Fathers

In the first of his five-volume series on the history and doctrinal developments of the Christian church, Jaroslav Pelikan evaluates, explains, and summarizes the Christian beliefs of the catholic (universal) church from 100-600 AD.  Since many people today are writing – and duped by – historical revisions of the early church and its beliefs, it is good for us to find accurate and reliable books and studies on ancient church history.  Though not perfect in every way, Pelikan’s series is both reliable and accurate.

The following quote from volume one is a quote that shows Pelikan’s level-headed approach to studying the beliefs of the early church fathers.  Anyone who has read various writings, tracts, and treatises of teachers like Cyril, Cyprian, and Augustine (etc.) knows that it can be difficult to get a detailed and orderly snapshot of early Christian theology.  Pelikan’s notes here are helpful in this area.

“Against various heresies and schisms, the orthodox and catholic church defined as apostolic doctrine that which it believed, taught, and confessed.  This doctrine, so it was presumed, had been believed and taught by the church before heresy demanded that it be confessed.  Yet the task of reconstructing it from the existing documents is a complex one.  A large part of the Christian literature which has been preserved was preoccupied either with the defense of Christianity against the cultured among its despisers or with polemics against heresy.”

“Hence the interpretation of what was Christian doctrine during the second and third centuries is likely to concentrate on these same issues, at the expense of other doctrinal themes in the belief and the piety of the church.  The methodological problems in the attempt to uncover those themes in the documents are formidable, but the documents themselves make the attempt both necessary and justifiable.”

“To cite one of the most explicit instances from the second century, Athenagoras opened his apologetic for the resurrection with a distinction between a ‘plea for the truth,’ addressed to skeptics and doubters, and an ‘exposition of the truth,’ addressed to those who were prepared to accept the truth; he noted that the exposition was more valuable and important, but that pagan hostility to the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the dead made it necessary for him to give precedence to the plea over the exposition.  Athenagoras’s distinction justifies the effort to supply as much as possible of the missing ‘exposition’ in defense of which the ‘plea’ was made” (p. 121).

Though the discussion is detailed, Pelikan made a great point here.  Much of the early Christian literature was more of a defense of the Chrsitian faith and not a point by point exposition of it.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t find the exposition in the defense.  Though it is sometimes difficult to find the “exposition” woven in the “defense,” it is certainly right and proper for us to do so.  There is such a thing as historical Christian orthodoxy that our forefathers believed, taught, confessed, and defended!

Again, the quote was taken from Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), p. 121.

shane lems

Early Attacks on the Christian Gospel

One of my favorite sources for studies of the history of Christianity is Jarsolav Pelikan’s five-volume set, The Christian Tradition.  Reading through volume 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), I appreciated the section on how the early church apologists answered some critics’ attacks on the person and work of Jesus.  Specifically, the opponents of Christianity attacked the gospel of grace and the resurrection of Christ.  Here are two paragraphs on these two topics.

“Sometimes the pagan attacks struck at the very heart of the Christian gospel.  Despite the ambiguity that seems to be present in the fathers of the second and third centuries on the questions of justification, grace, and forgiveness, they did have to deal with these questions in the attacks of their pagan opponents.  Celsus was the spokesman for much of paganism when he attacked the gospel of forgiveness as cheap grace: ‘Those who summon people to the other mysteries make this preliminary proclamation: ‘Who has pure hands and a wise tongue.’ …But let us hear what folk these Christians call.  ‘Whoever is a sinner,’ they say, ‘whoever is unwise, whoever is a child, and in a word, whoever is a wretch, the kingdom of God will receive him.’  Julian expressed a similar judgment about the promise of forgiveness in baptism.  Such attacks prompted even some fathers whose doctrine of grace was not very profound to see that if ‘you compare the other deities and Christ with respect to the benefits of health [or salvation] given by them,’ it would be recognized that ‘aid is brought by the gods to the good and that the misfortunes of evil men are ignored,’ while, by contrast, ‘Christ gave assistance in equal measure to the good and the evil.’  More perhaps than they themselves could recognize, these spokesmen for Christianity pointed to the distinctive character of the Christian message as a promise of health and rescue based not upon worthiness but upon need; here as elsewhere, the pagan critics of Christianity seem sometimes to have been more profound in their identification of this distinctive character than were the defenders of Christianity.”

“In the same way, the pagan critics acknowledged the distinctiveness of Jesus Christ in a manner that was sometimes more trenchant than the theology of the Christian apologists and that thus called forth a more profound statement of Christian doctrine than would have appeared without the challenge.  It was not only the story of the resurrection of Christ that drew the fire of pagan critics as a fable or the report of a hysterical woman, but the significance attached to the resurrection by Christian theology.  Nowhere is that significance more unequivocally expressed than in the polemic of some Christian theologians against the pagan doctrine of the immortal soul.  ‘The soul is not itself immortal, O Greeks, but mortal.  Yet it is possible for it not to die.’  In these words Tatian voiced the doctrine that life after death was not an accomplishment of man, much less his assured possession, but a gift from God in the resurrection of Christ.  Even when the apocalyptic vision had been eclipsed and the immortality of the soul had become a standard element in Christian teaching, this stress on divine initiative in the achievement of life everlasting continued to act as a check on the more drastic implications of these changes.  In these and other ways the attacks of pagan authors on the Christian message left their mark on the church’s doctrines long after their external challenge had lost its effectiveness” (p. 29-30).

These are some great observations.  In God’s providence, the attacks upon Christianity forced Christians to better formulate their doctrines from Scripture and explain them clearly.  Sometimes the opponents of Christianity actually understood what Christians were teaching, which means that the church was getting the message out.  Also, it means that the church needed to be able to not only stand firmly on the truth, but to defend it as well.  Thankfully there were many good apologists in the early church and their work still benefits us today.  It is good for us to know our Christian past.  This set by Pelikan is a good set to have to help keep us historically minded.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Extent of the Atonement (Gottschalk)

Gottschalk (d. 869) was one of those theologians in the medieval church that stood firmly on the doctrines of sovereign grace (much like Augustine did in the early church context).  In J. Pelikan’s Growth of Medieval Theology, there’s a section about Gottschalk’s explanation of Christ’s atonement – specifically the extent of it (that is, definite or indefinite atonement).  Here’s a fascinating paragraph from that section.

“Any answer to the question of whether Christ had suffered for all men or only for the elect had to be squared, even by those who contended that Scripture dealt only with the predestined, with the various statements of Scripture about redemption.  On the basis of a concordance study, Gottschalk listed ten senses in which the word ‘redemption’ was used in the Bible, and he put his argument into that context….  In this framework it was possible to argue that such New Testament phraseology as ‘reconciling the world’ and ‘expiation for the sins of the whole world’ referred only to the elect rather than to all men, since God had ‘elected a world from out of the world.’  The frequently discussed words of Christ, ‘I will draw all men to myself,’ must be understood to be using ‘all men’ to mean only the elect, ‘gathered together from all classes of men.’  The statement of the apostle Paul that Christ ‘gave himself as a ransom for all’ was speaking of all who were truly regenerate.  It had to be interpreted in light of the parallel statement of Christ himself about ‘a ransom for many.’  By saying that he was shedding his blood ‘for many,’ Christ showed that ‘all men’ identified ‘those many for whom the Lord…says that his blood was shed.’  In instituting the sacrament, Christ had explicitly said, not ‘for all’ but ‘for many,’ not ‘for others’ but ‘for you.'”

This was Pelikan’s summary of Gottschalk’s teaching along with another medieval theologian named Florus, a contemporary of Gottschalk who also taught double predestination.

The paragraph I quoted above is found on page 92 of Pelikan’s The Growth of Medieval Theology.

shane lems