Archive | In a Nutshell

The Great Reformation in a Nutshell

There used to be a time when your loyalty to the Protestant cause was judged by how much you hated Catholics. But today, with all the ecumenical dialogue, the Manhattan Declarations, the ECT council, and the postmodern virtue of tolerance, people are much more willing to let bygones be bygones. “Maybe we overreacted” is the thought of many.

To the Catholics, Protestants are no longer anathema (which is pretty bad), but are “separated brethren” (which is not so bad).

Attitudes are changing, we could argue, for the better. But have the issues changed?

Four hundred years ago we had a “situation” in the church. We call it the “Great Reformation.” Catholics understand it as yet another rebellious schism. The first major division in the Christian church happened in 1054 when the Eastern church got fed up with the Pope and thumbed its nose at him (or something like that). The Great Reformation was the second. For Protestants, this was not only a reforming of the church, but a reclaiming of the Gospel, which had been obscured and overshadowed by the institutionalized church of the day.

While there were and are a lot of issues that divide Roman Catholics and Protestants, there are two which overshadow the rest: authority and justification. The issue of authority has been called the “formal” cause of the Reformation, while the issue of justification was the “material” cause. In this brief post I would like to focus on these two issues.

1. Authority: Where do we go for truth?

To the institutionalized church of the day (now known as the Roman Catholic Church), both Scripture (written tradition) and Tradition (unwritten tradition – notice the capital “T”) represented the one ”deposit of faith” that was handed down from the Apostles. The church, as represented by the Pope and the congregation of bishops, protected and guided by the Holy Spirit, could interpret both infallibly. Think of a three-legged stool. These three entities (Scripture, Tradition, and the Church) support the stool of ultimate authority for the church.

To the Protestants, this represented an abuse of authority. While the institutionalized church had authority, it did not have ultimate authority. While tradition (notice the lower case “t”) was very important and to be respected, it did not share equal authority with Scripture; rather, it served Scripture. Everything, including unwritten tradition, the councils, and the Pope, had to be tested by and submit to Scripture. Protestants repositioned both the church and tradition underneath Scripture. Continue Reading →

The End Times in a Nutshell

Considering how the issues of prophecy continue to be one of the most popular and interest-gaining subjects in theology (not to mention this being the year 2012!), I thought it well worth my time to write a primer on how to look at eschatological schemes. Eschatology refers to the “doctrine of the end times.” To be sure, there is no one “Christian” eschatology. In fact, there is not even one “Evangelical” eschatology. The history of the church has seen and allowed for much diversity concerning these issues due, in my opinion, to the relative obscurity of Scripture on the subject. The central issues, agreed upon by all orthodox Christians over the last 2000 years, are that in the last days Christ will come, there will be a resurrection of the dead, and a judgment will follow. Please keep that in mind.

There are a lot of fancy words used to describe how one might label themselves with regard to end-times issues. Pre-Millennial, Post-Tribulational, historicist, Chiliastic, Preterist, historic premillenialist (which seems to be the most popular these days), and are just some of these labels. My only goal here is to try to clear the cobwebs and help people construct a basic structure of the spectrum of eschatology in a nutshell.

There are two categories that I am going to introduce. Then I will follow by showing how these categories relate to the various positions held. These two categories are “Approach” and “Event.” As you will see there is an approach taken to each event. The events describe broad categories that are separated because of the nature, timing, and interpretation of the events they represent.

Category #1: Approaches to Eschatology

Preterist: Belief that the event(s) (such as the tribulation) happened in the past.

Historicist: Belief that the event(s) happen throughout history.

Idealist: Belief that the event(s) are symbolic or parabolic and are always present.

Futurist: Belief that the event(s) are yet future.

Category #2: Events of Eschatology

Event #1: Tribulation: This describes many apocalyptic happenings described primarily in Matt. 24 and Revelation 4-19. Included in this category is the anti-Christ, bowls of wrath, 144,000 witnesses, the Mark of the Beast, and the like.

Event #2: Millennium: This describes the reign of Christ on the present earth (i.e., before the new creation).

Event #3: The Second Coming and The New Creation: This describes the judgment and the creation of the new heaven and the new earth.

(Please note, I have not included issues of “personal eschatology” due to their lack of relevance to one’s eschatological scheme. Issues of personal eschatology include hell, the state of the soul between death and resurrection, etc.) Continue Reading →

The Doctrine of the Trinity in a Nutshell

The doctrine of the Trinity is a foundational cardinal truth in Christianity. All three major Christian traditions – Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox – throughout the history of the Church, have been united on this doctrine. A denial of it constitutes a serious departure from the Christian faith and a rejection of the biblical witness to God as he has introduced himself to us. Sadly, many go  astray from the faith due to their refusal to accept these truths. It is my purpose to give a brief overview of the doctrine.

Basic Definition: Christians worship one God who eternally exists in three persons, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, all of whom are fully God, all of whom are equal.

Now let’s break each of these down.

One God:

Christians are monotheists. This doesn’t merely mean we worship only one God, but that we believe there exists only one God. This is a basic teaching throughout the Bible (Deut. 6:4; Isa. 44:6; Isa. 45:5; Mark 12:29; 1Tim. 2:5; 1Cor. 8:4).

While this finds support in the Bible, the very definition of God demands that there only be one. In other words, “God” is not just a being to whom you pray or ascribe great worth and value, but the transcendent creator of all things (Heb. 11:3). Romans 1:18-20 informs us that natural theology and rational thinking necessarily demand there be a singular source for all things. Polytheism (which is the belief in many gods) must redefine the term “god” to mean simply “really powerful beings,” since there cannot be many ultimate creators of all things. There can be only one Uncaused Cause, only one Unmoved Mover, and only one Uncreated Creator. God is the only non-contingent (not dependent) being in the universe. Therefore, his essence is necessarily one.

Eternally exists as three persons:

Christians do not believe in contradictions or logical fallacies. Rational thinking and harmony of truth are found in the essence of God’s being; therefore, God cannot exist as a contradiction. Christians do not believe in three Gods for the reasons listed above. However, we do believe Scripture has revealed that God, while one in essence, is three in person. We often talk about this as “one what, three whos.” While this is a great mystery in the Christian faith, there are many mysteries that we are compelled to believe due to necessity and what has been revealed in Scripture. For example, we believe that God created all things out of nothing (Heb. 11:3; doctrine of creation ex nihilo). We believe that God is the sovereign first cause of all things, yet man is morally responsible for his actions. We believe that while Christ was complete in his humanity, he also remained complete in his deity (often called the “hypostatic union”). We believe that the Bible is the product of humans and the product of God. None of these, including the doctrine of the Trinity, are contradictions, but they are great mysteries.

While the Bible does not use the word “Trinity,” we believe that it is an accurate description of what the Bible teaches concerning God. After all, the Bible does not use the word “Bible,” but we can legitimately use the word to describe a collection of books we believe to be inspired. The Bible does not use the word “aseity,” yet we believe that it accurately represents a Biblical attribute of God. God is “of himself,” in no way dependent upon humans for his livelihood (Ps. 50:7-12).

While there are many passages in the Bible which necessitate a Trinitarian understanding of God, there are a few that stand out more than others:

John 1:1

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was fully God.” (NET) Continue Reading →

How to Study the Bible in a Nutshell

The following is a practical guide to biblical interpretation following a three step process that I have used for years. The Bible is two-thousand years old and often seems very archaic. This makes it hard to know how it applies to us. It can be very frustrating as all Christians are encouraged to read their Bible daily but often are at a loss as to how to understand it and apply the message to their own lives. This process has served me well and I believe it is representative of the best way to interpret the ancient word of God and apply it to today. I hope that it will alleviate some of the “Bible interpretation anxiety” that is out there, allowing the Bible to become real and relevant to your life.

click on image to enlarge

Notice the three sections of the chart. There are three audiences that everyone needs to recognize in the process of interpreting the Bible. In the bottom left, you have the “ancient audience.” This represents the original audience and the original author. The top portion represents the “timeless audience” which transcends the time and the culture of the original situation. It is that which applies to all people of all places of all times, without regard to cultural and historical issues. Finally, we have the “contemporary audience” in the bottom right. This represents the audience of today. Here we will find application of the Bible with regard to our time, culture, and circumstances.

In Biblical interpretation, it is of extreme importance that one goes in the order of the chart. The goal is to find out what the Bible meant, what it means, and how it applies to us. So many people start with the third step and fail miserably in understanding God’s word. Others start with step number two, attempting to force their own theology on the text. It is important that all steps are covered to ensure interpretive fidelity.

Step one: Exegetical Statement

What did it mean then?

The first step is the most important. Here the goal is to ascertain the original intent of the writing. It is very important that one enters into the world of the author and the audience. Sometimes this will be easy, sometimes it will be very difficult, requiring quite a bit of study.

Here are the different issues that you must consider:

Historical issues: There will be historical circumstances that will aid in your understanding of the text. Here, you will ask questions of “occasion.” Who is the original author? Who is the original audience? What purpose did the writing have? When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, what was his occasion or purpose? Was it to give an exhaustive history of the world to everyone or to prepare the Israelite religious community to exist in a theocratic society under Yahweh? When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, what was his purpose? Knowing that in 2 Corinthians he was writing to defend his apostleship as other false apostles were opposing him is essential to understanding every verse. As well, what was Paul’s disposition toward the Galatians when he wrote to them? Was it to commend, condemn, or correct? The occasion will determine so much of our understanding. Continue Reading →

The Problem of Evil in a Nutshell

The problem of evil is certainly one of the greatest apologetic issues that Christians face today. In a postmodern world, people’s questions, objections, and problems with the Christian worldview are usually connected to the reality of evil in the world, and their attempts to harmonize this reality with the seemingly contradictory notion of an all-powerful, all-good God. So valid is this issue that Ronald Nash, the late evangelical philosopher, said a few years ago (and I quote him loosely), “It is absurd to reject Christianity for any reason other than the problem of evil.”

We must be careful not to relegate this problem exclusively to the intellectual realm. I think J.P. Moreland and William Lane Craig have it right when they say we must distinguish between the intellectual problem of evil and the emotional problem of evil (Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 536). The intellectual problem of evil asks, “Is it possible for a good, all-powerful God to exist in a world where evil is present?” The emotional problem of evil asks, “Why would God allow such a thing as _______?” See the difference? One question is concerned with the objective coherence of God and evil, the other is concerned with the subjective coherence of God and evil.

While I think the primary issue today is more with the emotional problem of evil, I do believe that the intellectual problem is one that must be faced before the subjective problem can be addressed with integrity. Therefore, I believe that while the two can be distinguished, they should not be separated.

The foundation for both comes from this syllogism:

1. If God is all-powerful (omnipotent) and
2. If God is all-good (omnibenevolent)
3. Then His goodness would motivate Him to use His power to eradicate evil.

The intellectual problem of evil is easier to answer since evil’s existence does not, in reality, present the logical contradiction the syllogism suggests. In other words, the conclusion is not a necessary conclusion, only a possible one. While God could use His power to eradicate evil, His goodness does not necessitate such an act. The following will attempt to explain.

There are three possible defenses to the problem of evil:

1. The free-will defense: Many would say that God cannot create a world where there is true freedom, yet determine all that happens. In other words, being all-powerful does not mean that God can do anything. There are many things that God cannot do. For example, God cannot make a square circle, He cannot make a rock so big that He cannot pick it up, He cannot sin, He cannot commit suicide, and He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). In short, God cannot do anything that is inconsistent with His character, and He cannot harmonize logical contradictions (since, by definition, they are beyond reconciliation). According to the free-will defense, it would be a logical contradiction to say that God can create a world where true freedom exists, yet evil is guaranteed not to exist. Continue Reading →

The Rise of Rome in a Nutshell

In order to be a good Protestant, you must be a good anti-Catholic. I am not Catholic. I am Protestant. There are many doctrines of the Roman Catholic church that I am against, but there are many things that I appreciate about them.

Both Protestants and Roman Catholics have our lineage in the catholic church. Yes, I just said that. I am catholic, but not Roman Catholic. I’ve got some info for you: If you are a Christian, you are catholic too. This differentiation between catholic and Roman Catholic is part of a solid Protestant polemic against Roman Catholicism. It normally drives Roman Catholic apologists crazy, since it undermines their belief that they are the one true church. But it is true; Protestants are catholic Christians, but not Roman Catholic Christians. The word “catholic” was used very early to describe the church. It simply meant “universal,” describing the church’s universality. The church is not exclusive to Gentiles, Jews, Greeks, Romans, those in the East, or those in the West. The church that Christ built is universal, or “catholic.”

However, there was an institutional arm of the catholic church that eventually became known as the Roman Catholic church, complete with its own hierarchy, doctrines, and liturgical distinctives. The type of institutionalization that eventually characterized the Roman Catholic church is one of the major issues the Protestants battled against, believing that it had corrupted the catholic church to the core, even obscuring the Gospel itself. We now call it the Roman Catholic church due to its identification with the “seat of Rome.” This seat, according to the Roman Catholics, is the perpetual seat of ultimate authority that Peter passed on. It is known today as the papacy, which is the office of the Pope. The Pope sits in the seat of Rome, having the infallible authority to guide and direct the church in matters of faith and practice. He, along with the magisterium, form the institution and can, through “ordinary” or “extraordinary” means, intervene in church life and doctrine in a binding way. If a heresy arises in the church, the institution can condemn it, thus securing the faith of the church. Intervention rarely takes place (though this is debated), but this infallible safeguard  can theoretically step in at any time and protect the church from corruption.

How did this come into being? Protestants are right to point out that this institution is not biblical. If this is the truth, and this system is not biblical, how did such an institution come into being?

The answer is very complex, but let me attempt to give you a bird’s eye view by means of some charts!

Apostolic Succession

First, let’s get introduced to a concept called “apostolic succession.” This is not simply a Roman Catholic concept. As we will see, in its uncorrupted and ideal state, apostolic succession is very important for the church, Roman Catholic or not. Notice the chart. It starts with Jesus. Jesus handed his teaching over to twelve Apostles. The Apostles were authorities in the early church. When they spoke, people listened. Why? Because they were trained by Christ. They were witnesses of his death, burial, and resurrection. They carried unique authority in the establishment of the church. Continue Reading →

Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ in a Nutshell

Just as we test the historicity of any event, not through emotional conviction, but with historical evidence, I would like to devote some time to laying out a brief historical case for the Resurrection of Christ, the central issue of the Christian faith. If Christ rose from the grave, it is all true and we just have to work out the details. If Christ did not raise from the grave, Christians are to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:13-19).

Here is what we need:

1. Internal Evidence: Evidence coming from within the primary witness documents.

In this case, the primary witness documents are the twenty-seven works that make up the corpus that Christianity has traditionally called the New Testament. These works stand or fall individually from an historical standpoint. Therefore, they provide twenty-seven sources of documentation, not one.

2. External Evidence: Collaborative evidence coming from outside the primary witness documents.

Some may include the non-Gospel works of the New Testament in this category. However, since most of the works suppose to come from eye-witnesses of the event in question, it is proper to keep them primary.

Internal Evidence:

  • Honesty
  • Irrelevant Details
  • Harmony
  • Public Extraordinary Claims
  • Lack of Motivation for Fabrication

Honesty:

A hallmark of embellishments and fabrications is that they display people in a positive light, normally only bringing to light their successes and triumphs. True history, on the other hand, will contain accounts that might cause some embarrassment.

The entire Bible records both successes and failures of the heroes. I have always been impressed by this. It never paints the glorious picture that you would expect from legendary material, but shows them in all their worst moments. The Israelites whined, David murdered, Peter denied, the apostles abandoned Christ in fear, Moses became angry, Jacob deceived, Noah got drunk, Adam and Eve disobeyed, Paul persecuted, Solomon worshiped idols, Abraham was a bigamist, Lot committed incest, John the Baptist doubted, Abraham doubted, Sarah doubted, Nicodemus doubted, Thomas doubted, Jonah ran, Samson self-served, and John, at the very end of the story, when he should have had it all figured out, worshiped an angel (Rev 22:8). I love it!

And these are the Jews who wrote the Bible!

In addition, the most faithful are seen as suffering the most (Joseph, Job, and Lazarus), while the wicked are seen as prospering (the rich man). In the case of the Gospels, the disciples who recorded it claimed to have abandoned Christ and did not believe in His resurrection when told. Even after the resurrection, they still present themselves as completely ignorant of God’s plan (Acts 1:6-7). Women are the first to witness the resurrection which has an element of self-incrimination since a woman’s testimony was not worth anything in the first century. If someone were making this up, why include such an incriminating detail? (I am glad they did—what an Easter message this is for us today!)

(The primary departure from this, although in the OT, is 1 and 2 Chronicles which does hide some of King David’s failures. But, even then, the accounts are not promising for Israel as a whole). 

One last thing that I think belongs in this category: None of the Gospel writers give their names. In other words, the reason why we believe Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (two disciples and two colleagues of the disciples) wrote the Gospels is due to early tradition. Even John simply refers to himself as “the one whom Jesus loved.” Initial reaction is one of skepticism (even though the traditions are very early). Why didn’t they include their names? However, from another historical perspective, this is a significant mark of genuineness. The MO of the day was to write pseudopigrapha. Pseudopigrapha are writings that seek to gain credibility by falsely attributing their work to another of more prominent stature. It would be like me writing a book and saying it was by Chuck Swindoll in order for it to sell more copies. Pseudopigrapha normally came late (hundreds of years) after the death of the supposed author. However, since the Gospel writers did not include their name, it demonstrates that they were not following this model of fabrication. This actually adds another mark of historical credibility. Why would they leave their names out if it was a fabrication? If these works were not really by them, they would have no hope of acceptance.

Irrelevant Details:
The Gospel writers (especially John) include many elements to their story that are really irrelevant to the big picture. Normally, when someone is making up a story, they include only the details that contribute to the fabrication. Irrelevant details are a mark of genuineness in all situations.

Notice this small segment of the Gospel of John 20:1-8 (adapted from Gregory Boyd):

“Early on the first day of the week (when? does it matter?), while it was still dark (who cares?), Mary Magdalene (an incriminating detail) went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one who Jesus loved (John’s modest way of referring to himself—another mark of genuineness) and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have taken him!” (note her self-incriminating lack of faith here). So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. They were running, but the other disciple out ran Peter and reached the tomb first (who cares who won the race? a completely irrelevant detail). He bent over (irrelevant, but the tomb entrance was low—a detail which is historically accurate of wealthy people of the time—the kind we know Jesus was buried in) and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in (why not? irrelevant detail). Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb (Peter’s boldness stands out in all the Gospel accounts). He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus’ head (irrelevant and unexpected detail—what was Jesus wearing?). The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen (somewhat irrelevant and unusual. Jesus folded one part of his wrapping before he left!). Finally the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went inside (who cares about what exact order they went in?)

The best example I can think of is the polar bear. What? Okay, only those of you who watched the television series Lost will get this. In the first season, there was a polar bear in the show. We all wondered why it was there on the island. How did it get there? What is the meaning of the polar bear? How is it going to fit into the big picture of the story? These are all legitimate questions that many of us sat on the edge of our seat for five seasons waiting to get the answers to. However, the polar bear (along with so many other incidentals) were never explained. There was a great outcry because there were so many questions left unanswered. So many irrelevant details that remained irrelevant. The reason why the outcry was legitimate was because in fictional (or fabricated) stories, details are never irrelevant. They are written into the script and have a purpose that supports the whole of the fictional story. However, if the show Lost were not fictional but historical, the irrelevant details would be expected. True history does not have to work itself out into a paradigm of the story arch. When irrelevant details are present, while not conclusive, it does speak to the historicity of the story.

Harmony:
The four Gospel writers claim to have witnessed the resurrected Christ. The same is the case for most of the other writers of the NT. The four Gospel writers all write of the same event from differing perspectives. Although they differ in details, they are completely harmonious to the main events surrounding the resurrection, and all claim that it is an historical event.

Many people are disturbed by the seeming disharmony among the Gospels since the Gospel writers do not include all the same details. However, this is actually a mark of historicity since if they all said exactly the same thing, it would be a sign that they made it up and collaborated together. However, the Gospel writers contain just enough disharmony to give it a mark of genuine historicity.

Public Extraordinary Claims:
The Bible records that the resurrection of Christ happened and gives the time, place, people involved, and it names many of the witnesses. In other words, the extraordinary claims were not done in secret as would be the case if it were fabricated. Look to all the ancient myths and you will see how obscure the mythology has to be in order to claim historicity. Why? Because if you give too many details of times, people, and places it can be easily disproven. If it was a fabrication, the author should have said only one person knew about it. He should have said it happened in a cave or a place no one has ever heard of. We have those type of stories that start religions.

I made this graphic last month that caused quite a bit of a stir. It is appropriate to post it here:

 

As Paul says to King Agrippa, “For the king knows about these matters [concerning the resurrection of Christ], and I speak to him also with confidence, since I am persuaded that none of these things escape his notice; for this has not been done in a corner. (Act 26:26) Continue Reading →