A question for pastors, treasurers, financial secretaries, etc.: Why does your church have a savings account?

My opinion of church business meetings vacillates somewhere between complete disinterest and abject abhorrence. When I was younger and knew everything, I wondered why the church I went to had so much money in accounts doing nothing but gaining interest. (It should be noted that, according to Jesus at least, this is only the next to the worst thing that can be done with money- Matt. 25; Luke 19). Now that I am older and know considerably less, I often wonder the same thing. Why do we have so much money in “savings” accounts? A man much wiser put forth the question far more eloquently than I can:

…it was far better to preserve souls than gold for the Lord. For He Who sent the apostles without gold also brought together the churches without gold. The Church has gold, not to store up, but to lay out, and to spend on those who need. What necessity is there to guard what is of no good? Do we not know how much gold and silver the Assyrians took out of the temple of the Lord? Is it not much better that the priests should melt it down for the sustenance of the poor, if other supplies fail, than that a sacrilegious enemy should carry it off and defile it? Would not the Lord Himself say: Why didst thou suffer so many needy to die of hunger? Surely thou hadst gold? Thou shouldst have given them sustenance. Why are so many captives brought on the slave market, and why are so many unredeemed left to be slain by the enemy? It had been better to preserve living vessels than gold ones.

Ambrose, On the Duties of the Clergy, 2.28.137

Why do we have savings accounts when there are souls that need to be saved? I am not sure the Lord is going to be too impressed with our rainy day funds on the Day of His appearing.

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Wisdom from my fathers: Cyprian On the Mortality

It disturbs some that this mortality is common to us with others; and yet what is there in this world which is not common to us with others, so long as this flesh of ours still remains, according to the law of our first birth, common to us with them? So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race. Thus, when the earth is barren with an unproductive harvest, famine makes no distinction; thus, when with the invasion of an enemy any city is taken, captivity at once desolates all; and when the serene clouds withhold the rain, the drought is alike to all; and when the jagged rocks rend the ship, the shipwreck is common without exception to all that sail in her; and the disease of the eyes, and the attack of fevers, and the feebleness of all the limbs is common to us with others, so long as this common flesh of ours is borne by us in the world.

Unless the battle has preceded, there cannot be a victory: when there shall have been, in the onset of battle, the victory, then also the crown is given to the victors. For the helmsman is recognized in the tempest; in the warfare the soldier is proved. It is a wanton display when there is no danger. Struggle in adversity is the trial of the truth.

Why, then, do we pray and ask that the kingdom of heaven may come, if the captivity of earth delights us.

There is no advantage in setting forth virtue by our words, and destroying the truth by our deeds.

We regard paradise as our country—we already begin to consider the patriarchs as our parents: why do we not hasten and run, that we may behold our country, that we may greet our parents?

The preceding words are all from the treatise On the Mortality by Cyprian of Carthage. The occasion of the treatise was an outbreak of a plague. The treatise offers good medicine to one of the ills of the Western church: the idea that God wants you to be, and even promises you will be, healthy and prosperous. Cyprian demonstrates the Scriptural, theological, and logical reasons such thinking must be abandoned.

A Church Father walked into a chapel service in Wisconsin…

“On Thursday, March 15, a plethora of special student-led activities heralded the opening day of the NCAA tournament. The chapel hour was dedicated to the festivities, with the entire Northland family gathering in the gym to hear members of the Athletic Department staff discuss their bracket picks, to watch clips of tournament highlights from the past several years, and to cheer on fellow students who attempted close-up, free-throw line,and half-court shots for a chance to win various prizes. After chapel, pizza was served picnic-style, encouraging students to enjoy the bright sunshine and each other’s company. Dinner was served the same way and was followed by Quartermania in the Rec.Hall, with root beer floats, shaved ice, and various other treats available for $.25 throughout the evening.” (http://ni.edu/about-us/news/spring-2012/march-madness/)

We renounce all your spectacles, as strongly as we renounce the matters originating them, which we know were conceived of superstition, when we give up the very things which are the basis of their representations. Among us nothing is ever said, or seen, or heard, which has anything in common with the madness of the circus, the immodesty of the theater, the atrocities of the arena, the useless exercises of the wrestling-ground. Why do you take offense at us because we differ from you in regard to your pleasures? If we will not partake of your enjoyments, the loss is ours, if there be loss in the case, not yours. We reject what pleases you. You, on the other hand, have no taste for what is our delight.

Tertullian, Apology, 38

Creation: How Does the Bible Interpret Genesis 1?

As we consider the debate between those who hold to believe in some form of evolution and those who believe in the traditional Christian belief in direct creation by God over the course of six 24-hour days; one question that has to be answered is “What does the Bible say about the creation of the universe.” In other words, it does not really matter what the traditional Christian belief is. The central question is, “What does the Bible, in fact, teach?” Or, to put it more humbly, “What does the Bible seem to teach?” As we consider texts that speak directly about the creation of the universe, what is the picture they paint?

Genesis 1 is obviously an important place to start. Several aspects demand our attention. First, there are the repeated “let there be” statements followed by “and there was;” “and it was so;” or “God made.” It is hard to escape the immediacy that these statements imply. Furthermore there are the repeated “there was evening, and there was morning, the first [second/third/fourth etc.] day.” In any other discourse if someone talked like this there would be little chance of being misunderstood. If someone made an appointment and said, “After three evening and mornings, after three days, I will meet you.” It would be, or should be, pretty clear when the meeting was supposed to happen. Granted, there are some biblical contexts in which “day” does not mean a 24-hour time period. But our basic methodology is not to ask what a word can possibly mean from other contexts, but what a word most likely means in its present context. We must investigate how the Bible speaks about creation and its days in other contexts that speak of creation; not how it speaks about “days” in contexts that have nothing to do with creation.

This leads to a consideration of Exodus 20:8-11 a context that speaks of days and creation. The Israelites were commanded to work 6 days of the week and cease from their labor on the seventh day of the week. There is no ambiguity here and all interpreters can only assert that such a command was understood and practiced with a literal understanding of the words. The Israelites worked Sunday through Friday and ceased labors on Saturday. Even now, nearly 4,000 years later, the Jewish people practice this. Verse 11 appears to be equally unambiguous: “For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The six days of labor for the Israelites match the six days of labor of the Lord. What indication is there in the text that anyone should take verses 8-10 literally, but not verse 11? Indeed, the very basis for a literal interpretation for verses 8-10 is a literal interpretation of verse 11. When the Bible speaks of days and creation, the Bible seems to interpret the event literally.

But what about the act of creation? How does the Bible present the act of creation outside of Genesis? Consider the following texts:

 Psalm 33:6-9  By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host. He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses. Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him! For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.

Psalm 148:1-5- Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights! Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his hosts! Praise him, sun and moon, praise him, all you shining stars! Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens! Let them praise the name of the LORD! For he commanded and they were created.

Isaiah 45:12, 18- I made the earth and created man on it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host. For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!): “I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Romans 4:17  as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”–in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.

2Peter 3:5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God,

Hebrews 11:3 By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.

Again, what is the impression that these verses leave the reader with. It certainly seems that the Bible wants its reader to believe that everything that came into existence came into existence because of the command of the Lord. It appears that the Psalmist, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and author of Hebrews all understood Genesis chapter one in a “literal” manner.

A common method of contrarians is to atomize the Bible. They seek to separate texts off from one another and explain away details through using irrelevant data. It is certainly important to know the lexical meanings a word can have: even the word day.[1] But the safest way of interpretation is to seek what a word means in its own context and in contexts that are closest in content. If you want to know what “day” means in Genesis 1, look for how the Bible speaks about creation.

When the Bible talks about creation it constantly does so in a way that reinforces a literal interpretation of Genesis 1. Maybe that is why the church has believed it for 2,000 years.


[1] Basil the Great makes a forceful point: “It is the opposite of day which was called night, and it did not receive its name until after day. Thus were created the evening and the morning, Scripture means the space of a day and a night, but calls them both under the name of the more important: a custom which you will find throughout Scripture, Everywhere the measure of time is counted by days, without mention of nights. ‘The days of our years,’ says the Psalmist. ‘Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,’ said Jacob, and elsewhere ‘all the days of my life.’ Thus under the form of history the law is laid down for what is to follow.” (Hexaemeron, Homily 2). Critics debate over what the word “day” means all the while ignoring that God himself define is in the the text: evening and morning.

John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God: Introduction and Sermon 1

John Chrysostom delivered the series of 12 sermons known as On the Incomprehensible Nature of God over the course of the years 386 and 387. The target of the addresses was the heretical group known as the Anomoeans. Johannes Quasten describes the first five sermons in which Chrysostom:

…attacked the Anomoeans, the most radical of the Arian parties which pretended to know God, as God knows Himself (Hom. 2,3), and maintained not merely the inequality but the dissimilarity of the Son’s nature to that of the Father. Their founder was Aetius, but their chief teacher Eunomius, from who they were also called Eunomians. Chrysostom castigates their blasphemous arrogance which dares to confine God to the limits of human reason and to empty out the mystery of divine essence. He defends the ineffable, inconceivable and incomprehensible nature of God against these rationalistic tendencies, which deny the transcendence of the Christian religion. At the same time he points out the co-equality of the Son with the Father.[1]

The claim of the Anomoeans was that they were able to “know God as perfectly as God knows himself.”[2]

The nature of the discussion touches on multiple themes: theological, philosophical, epistemological, etc. At the risk of over-simplification, however, the core issue is the extent of man’s knowledge of God. The argument is not over whether man is able to know anything true about God. There are knowable and certain truths about God that man may confidently cling to. There are two main questions in the debate. Can man know God completely? Or, in other words, is man’s knowledge of God comprehensive? Can man know everything there is to know about God? A first grader flies through simple addition problems and says he knows math. But give him a calculus book and see how far he gets. Secondly, and closely related, can man know God in His essence? Whereas the first question addresses the extent of man’s knowledge, the second addresses the depth of man’s knowledge.

The text of Chrysostom’s first sermon is 1 Corinthians 13:8, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away.” Chrysostom’s proposition is that the passing away of knowledge refers to the passing away of our imperfect knowledge (10-12).[3] Support for this proposition is drawn from verses 10-12 and the illustration of growing from childhood to adulthood. The statement of Scripture that offers the most support of Chrysostom’s argument is, “Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” So it is not that all knowledge will pass away when “the perfect comes”, it is imperfect knowledge passing away to mature knowledge.

The content of paragraph 19 is crucial to understanding the entire discussion of the knowledge of God. It is one of the mail pillars of the patristic teaching on the nature of man’s knowledge of God:

 I, too, know many things but I do not know how to explain them. I know that God is everywhere and I know that he is everywhere in his whole being. But I do not know how he is everywhere. I know that he is eternal and has no beginning. But I do not know how. My reason fails to grasp how it is possible for an essence to exist when that essence has receives its existence neither from itself nor from another. I know that he begot the Son. But I do not know how. I know that the Spirit is from him. But I do not know how the Spirit is from him.[4]

These words demonstrate the tension of truth at the foundation of this subject: truths about God are known, but not understood. God has revealed truth that can be known, but God cannot be comprehended. Until and unless this distinction is understood progression in this debate is impossible.

Moments later (21) Chrysostom offers some a jaw dropping bit of logic that simultaneously eviscerates the position of his opponents and supports his interpretation of 1 Cor. 13:8. If man has perfect knowledge of God now; and in the future that knowledge will pass away; then what knowledge will there be left to had? It is only his position, that imperfect knowledge will pass away, that makes sense of the passage.

While Chrysostom’s concern and tone throughout the series of sermon is intended to be winsome, pastoral, and rehabilitative (38-40, 45-48), he is not afraid to be direct in his description of the error of the Anomoeans. Those who would claim to know God completely, or know the essence of God are “obstinately striving” in “ultimate madness.” It is the “very height of folly” to claim to know God fully (23).

Chrysostom then begins a discussion of the Scriptural evidence to support the proposition that God is incomprehensible (24-30). When David considers the knowledge of God he can only say, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it” (Ps. 139:6). The prophet Isaiah rhetorically questions the one who could declare God’s generation (Is. 53:8)? Paul rhapsodizes that the judgments and ways of God are inscrutable and unsearchable (Rom. 11:33). The rewards of God are unimaginable (1 Cor. 2:9). The peace of God passes understanding (Phil. 2:9). The gift of God is indescribable (2 Cor. 9:15). Chrysostom concludes the discussion,

 What are you heretics saying? His judgments are inscrutable, his ways are unsearchable, his peace surpasses all understanding, his gift is indescribable, what God has prepared for those who love him has not entered into the heart of man, his greatness has no bound, his understanding is infinite. Are all these incomprehensible while only God himself can be comprehended? What excessive madness would it be to say that?[5]

Before concluding his first sermon, Chrysostom briefly makes use of a line of argument that will appear more fully in later sermons: the relation of angels and God (34-37). If the angels in God’s presence are unable to even look upon God, who is man to say that he can know God completely?

In concluding the first sermon, Chrysostom again asserts his desire to win back heretics to the true faith but warns his hearers that they must shun those who show persistence in pursuing error (43).

As mentioned earlier, this type of discussion necessarily enters multiple fields. In the area of theology, the question must be asked, “What type of God is worthy of worship?” Is a God that can be fully comprehended really worth pursuing? Could such a God even be considered God in any meaningful sense? Along these lines, a vivid quote is provided in a footnote from Gregory of Nyssa describing the man who approaches God:

 He finds himself, as it were, on a steep cliff. In fact, let us imagine a smooth and precipitous rock whose bulk sinks down into the sea to a limitless depth and raises up its ridge on high, whose summit plunges down from its brink into a yawning abyss. Then, what generally happens to a man  whose toes touch the brink which overhangs the abyss but find no support for his foot nor grip for his hand, this same sensation which has gone beyond any place where it  had a footing as it searched for the nature which is before time  and cannot be measured by space. Since this soul no longer has anything on which to take hold—neither place, not time, nor measure, nor anything else—it no longer finds any support for its thoughts. As it feels that what is incomprehensible is slipping away on all sides, the soul is gripped by dizziness and it has no way to get out of its difficulty.[6]

 

 


[1] Johannes Quasten, Patrology vol III The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature (Utrecht/Antwerp: Spectrum Publishers, 1963), 451.

[2] Paul W. Harkins, St John Chrysostom On the Incomprehensible Nature of God, The Fathers of the Church A New Treanslation (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1984), 28.

[3] All parenthetical references to the content of the sermon refer to Harkins’ translation cited above.

[4] Ibid, 57-58. Cf. paragraph 33 p. 65.

[5] Ibid, 64.

[6] Ibid, 61.

Origen on Jesus Alone

Jesus alone was able to take to himself the whole load of sins on the cross that was for all things other than God; he alone was able to bear it by his great might. For he alone was able to bear subjection, as the prophet Isaiah has it, saying, “A man under blows and knowing what it is to bear subjection.” And he it was who bore our sins and suffered ignominy for our sakes, and the punishment that was necessary for our instruction and reconciliation fell on him. Origen, Commentary on John, 28:19 (trans. Mark J. Edwards)

The Presbyterian & Reformed on Creation: Slouching toward Evolution

I am neither Presbyterian nor Reformed, but I continue to gain much and have much of my thinking shaped by those who are. But there is a current of thinking swelling up that I hope to fall into. Certain people with a platform continue to dismiss the historical reliability of Genesis 1-11. They continue to question the Church’s traditional, literal, young-earth, interpretation. As this post links too, William B. Evans is another who has laid his cards on the table. Men like Evans make intellectual appeal to science and ancient literature and tell us that our interpretation must take these things into account.

Carlton Wynne eviscerates such thinking:

The need of the hour, it seems to me, whether we are discussing the relative merits of competing creation views, confessional subscription and interpretation, or any other related issue, is to state as clearly and as boldly as we can that the authoritative nexus of meaning–the divinely sanctioned access point for the meaning of a biblical text–lies within the canon of Scripture itself and not in reference to anything extra-biblical, especially apparent similarities with ANE literature. This is an indispensable corollary to Scripture’s authority and sufficiency that we lose to our epistemological and hermeneutical peril. On a related note, however informative ANE literature may be for studying isolated texts, we cannot allow it to norm our reading of Scripture nor determine what Scripture, as a whole, is. The book of Hebrews alone, with the scant authorial and extra-biblical contextual evidence available to us today, ought to check our dependence on background studies for interpreting the Scriptures and lead us to read it, and every other biblical text, ultimately in light of its canonical perspective and place in the unfolding organism of special revelation.

The denial of the plain meaning of Genesis 1-11, the denial of the Church’s historical understanding of Genesis 1-11, is a denial of sola Scriptura. I am not sure how Wickipedia can understand sola Scriptura- “Sola scriptura is the teaching that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all—that is, it is perspicuous and self-interpreting“- and men like Meredith Kline, Bruce Waltke, Tremper Longman, and William B. Evans cannot. Is the Bible able to stand on its own? Can the Bible offer its own authoritative interpretation? That is the question here.

Evans and his cohorts say Moses was only using faulty ancient tradition. Evans and his cohorts say the Westminster divines were relying on faulty science. I heard the exact same thing in 2009 when I was involved in a reading group of Calvin’s Institutes: passages in which Calvin clearly demonstrated a belief in a young-earth, 6-day creation, were acknowledged with the comment that Calvin was only depending on the science of his day. Apparently Moses was proficient enough to write Scripture, but not truth. Apparently Calvin was discerning enough to see errors in Rome, but not the “science of his day.” The Westminster Assembly was able enough to set creedal standards that guided a denomination for 350 years, but not able to know what they were really talking about.

So the problem with Moses, Calvin, the Westminster Assembly et al. was that they all were held captive to the thinking of their day. None of them were able to penetrate the fog of their own age’s ignorance. They were all slaves to the thought of their contemporaries. Am I the only one on whom this irony is not lost? Evans charges the ancients with communal ignorance as he embraces the wisdom of this world.

Zeitgeist is not all it is cracked up to be.

Earliest Christian Engraving? MSNBC blows it again.

MSNBC is reporting that the earliest Christian may have been found and that it is mixed with pagan elements: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44759608/ns/technology_and_science-science/

Oh my!

How shocking!

Except that it is not Christian. It is from Valentinus- one of the more infamous heretics in the early centuries of the church’s existence. While perhaps not on the level of Marcion or Cerenthius, he certainly was in the same league. Which is to say, he was not a Christian. One might as well say that Joseph Smith was a Baptist. Or that Hugh Hefner was a Puritan. The article does go on to say that he was “eventually be declared a heretic.” But even that is glossing over the facts. Irenaeus was writing against Valentinus during the same time period as the discovered inscription. Were they to actually read Irenaeus’ Against Heresies they would not be surprised to find pagan elements in anything from Valentinus. Indeed, it is surprising to find any Christian elements. Perhaps if the astute authors could put down their heretical readings and consider what actual Christians were writing, such mistakes would not be made.

But I won’t hold my breath.

Why do I read the church fathers?

Why do I read the church fathers? Why, after thousands of years do I prefer their voice to that of my contemporaries? One reason is that they were not limp wristed theological pansies. The fathers are bold, assertive, certain: yes, even when they might be wrong. This is not only a reason why I read them, it is a reason they are read at all by anyone. Who really wants to toil through 2,000 year old pacifist theology? What is the point of reading men who are afraid to disagree with others and take a stand on the true meaning of Scripture? Rodney King is good drunk, but a lousy theologian. No, we can’t just all get along.

We are told that God did not really create the world in six days. We need to be open and charitable to those who have other view points. Genesis 1-11 did not really happen it is just a picture or symbol to explain the world we are in. Peace, peace. There are more important things then whether God really created the world and everything in it in the space of six days. Is it really a big deal to believe that God could not, or did not, create the world and everything in it in 6 24-hour days? Couldn’t God have used time, evolution, etc. over thousands of years?

This manner of speech may perhaps be plausible or persuasive to those who know not God, and who liken Him to needy human beings, and to those who cannot immediately and without assistance form anything, but require many instrumentalities to produce what they intend. But it will not be regarded as at all probable by those who know that God stands in need of nothing, and that He created and made all things by His Word, while He neither required angels to assist Him in the production of those things which are made, nor of any power greatly inferior to Himself, and ignorant of the Father, nor of any defect or ignorance, in order that he who should know Him might become man. But He Himself in Himself, after a fashion which we can neither describe nor conceive, predestinating all things, formed them as He pleased, bestowing harmony on all things, and assigning them their own place, and the beginning of their creation. Whom, therefore, shall we believe as to the creation of the world — these heretics who have been mentioned that prate so foolishly and inconsistently on the subject, or the disciples of the Lord, and Moses, who was both a faithful servant of God and a prophet? (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.ii.4,5)

Like a breath of fresh air.

Irenaeus identifies what it really comes down to: who are we going to believe? PhDs or prophets? Scientists or apostles? If denying the plain meaning of Scripture is the price for acceptance and respectability it is too high for me. I welcome and embrace the label of narrow-minded literalist. I will stick with the Bible and the men who defended it against all enemies. I have no compulsion to reconcile what Scripture says with what man thinks.

 It is therefore better and more profitable to belong to the simple and unlettered class, and by means of love to attain to nearness to God, than, by imagining ourselves learned and skilful, to be found [among those who are] blasphemous against their own God, inasmuch as they conjure up another God as the Father. (Irenaeus, Against Heresies, II.xxvi.1)

The only one can give an authoritative statement about the creation of the universe is the One who was there. He has, and I’ll take him at his word.

 By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
and by the breath of his mouth all their host.
Psalm 33:6