Monday, October 18, 2021

Quote of the Week

[Regarding the practice of self-control:]

"One who despises small things will fail little by little."

- Sirach 19:1 (OT Apocrypha)

(Image: German translation of the first chapter of Sirach, 17th century)

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

O God, I offer all that's mine,
'Tis sacred now to Thee:
Self I renounce, mine all resign,
Thine evermore to be.
'Tis pleasing, Lord, to yield Thy right,
And give myself away;
The act affords sincere delight,
And God commends the joy.

- Simon Browne

Friday, October 15, 2021

Praying through the Word - Mark 10:35-45


An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 10:35-45
(Gospel text for RCL Proper 24, Cycle B)

Praying through the Word

One of my great goals in all my ministries is to try to create avenues by which people can draw near to God. I've long wanted to design a regular prayer-exercise for people to use, preferably one in which I could put some of my creative endeavors, like my photography, to work. So I'm introducing a series of videos to be featured weekly, here on my blog and on my YouTube channel, which invites people into a time of reflective prayer. These videos will be brief (usually no more than 10 minutes or so), in order to provide a way for people to easily incorporate them into their prayer lives. They follow the Gospel readings from the current cycle of the lectionary, so if you're part of a church that uses the revised common lectionary, watching these prayer videos on Friday or Saturday will help prepare you to receive the Gospel reading which you'll hear on Sunday. And if you don't use the lectionary, these videos will provide a week-by-week tour through the story of the Jesus, presented as an avenue for prayer. 

Each video will feature my photography in the background, along with some reflective instrumental hymn-music and a bit of my narration to present the Scripture and to guide the viewer into prayer and reflection. If you find that you appreciate a video, please give it a "like" on my YouTube channel (and if you're a regular YouTube user, consider subscribing so that each of my videos will appear in your feed when I post them). You can also find more content of this type (though in an audio form instead of video) by going to, where daily prayer podcasts of a similar nature are provided by a Jesuit ministry in Great Britain.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Historical Theology: How Can Jesus Be Both God and Man? - The Chalcedonian Debates

Question: Our faith teaches us that Jesus is “fully God and fully man”—but why is it necessary for Jesus to be fully man? Does that mean that Jesus had two complete “persons” in one physical body, or was he some kind of mixture of the two? And what are the dangers of over-emphasizing one aspect of Jesus’ being to the detriment of the other?

After the full deity of Christ was affirmed at the Council of Nicea (325 AD) and re-affirmed at Constantinople (381 AD), the Christian church faced a new set of disputes. This time the stakes were not quite so high, since all of the parties agreed that Jesus was both God and man. The disputes were about how those two elements went together. Both sides of the argument saw spiritual dangers in the other side’s positions, so it behooves us to be aware of those dangers. Ultimately, these disputes led us to the final definition of Christ’s makeup, given by the Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD). This creed’s description of Jesus is accepted by most Christians today, but the scars of these disputes still remain—this was the point at which the Coptic Churches, the “Nestorian” Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Churches, and the Armenian Orthodox Church broke off their communion with the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholics.

The New Testament Evidence

On top of the evidence that Jesus is fully God (which we reviewed last week), there are passages in the NT that point to him regularly being able to call on greater-than-human powers in addition to his miracle-working ability. For instance, he seemed to have the ability (at least when he chose to use it) to know the unspoken thoughts in the hearts of those around him (Mark 2:8; Luke 6:8). But on the other hand, there were also limits to his knowledge (Mark 13:32).

At the same time, the NT clearly shows that Jesus shared our most basic human needs and emotions: he could be hungry (Matt. 4:2), thirsty (John 19:28), tired (John 4:6), sleepy (Mark 4:28), indignant (John 2:12-17), sad (Matt. 26:37-38), impassioned in prayer (Heb. 5:7), and maybe even lonely (Matt. 26:40). He was born and grew up, physically and mentally, just as we do (Luke 2:32).

Other passages make it clear that Jesus was, indeed, a flesh-and-blood human being just like us: Hebrews 2:14-17 says that he “shared in [our] humanity” and was “made like his brothers in every way.” Hebrews 4:15 reminds us that he was “tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin.” And 1 John 4:2 says, “Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

The Problem

But how can anyone be “fully man and fully God”? In some respects, the two are contradictory: it would require the same person to be both omniscient and limited in knowledge, omnipresent and confined to a physical body, unchanging and yet always changing.

Two Rival Schools of Thought Develop

In the 300s and 400s, two answers to these questions started emerging, represented by the two great Christian scholastic centers, Antioch and Alexandria. The Antiochene Christology, represented by figures like Diodore and Theodore of Mopsuestia, preferred to think about Jesus as a dual being—a union of two completely separate natures and minds in one body. Jesus Christ was a being who had within him both a completely human nature and on top of that the eternal divine nature of the Son of God, and in all things the human side obeyed and submitted to the divine will. Ultimately, this position was made public in a more radical form by Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople.

Cyril of Alexandria
The rival school of thought, the Alexandrian Christology, led by Cyril of Alexandria and, more radically, Eutyches, preferred to think of Christ as a completely unified nature, in which the human part had been effectively “absorbed” into the divine part. So the human part played into the nature of Christ, but it was not fully present in the way that the Antiochenes suggested.

The dangers of the Antiochene position, according to the Alexandrians, were (1) that it made Christ look rather like someone with multiple-personality disorder, which runs against the Scriptural image of Christ as a fully unified person, (2) that it tended toward a debatable position wherein only the human part of Christ suffered and died (since the nature of God can neither suffer nor die in Greek theology), and (3) that it neglected the Scriptural teaching that even we Christians are not completely separate from God, but are, in fact, “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4), though not of course of his essence.

The dangers of the Alexandrian position, according to the Antiochenes, were that (1) it downplayed Christ’s humanity to the point where it became almost meaningless. The Antiochenes reminded the Church that Jesus Christ had to be a full, authentic human being all the way up through his crucifixion and resurrection, because only a true human being could make valid atonement for humanity’s sins (“That which was not assumed cannot be restored”). (2) The Alexandrian position also seemed to run against the Scriptural paradigm of God choosing to work alongside humanity, choosing instead a model wherein God takes over and does everything himself. (3) Finally, the Antiochenes were not quite sure what it meant to say that the eternal God suffered (even died?) on the cross.

The Chalcedonian Compromise

After a series of bitter debates, another church council came together at Chalcedon in 451 AD. Essentially, the church fathers decided that it was better to live with the “mystery” of Christ’s human and divine natures. They agreed with Phil. 2 that Christ had willingly limited his divine nature in order to join with a human nature. They then affirmed “two distinct natures” along with the Antiochenes, but in one “person” along with the Alexandrians (making it more unified than the Antiochenes’ position of two natures in one “body”). In the Chalcedonian Creed, they don’t tell us how this works, but they do put down some boundary lines against other positions: the two natures are “inseparable” but, at the same time, “unmixed.” This became the accepted position of the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches, but the Coptic church stuck with the Alexandrian position and the Church of the East stuck with the Antiochene position.

The Chalcedonian Creed

We, then, following the holy Fathers, all with one consent,
teach men to confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ,
the same perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood;
truly God and truly man, of a reasonable [rational] soul and body;
consubstantial [co-essential] with the Father according to the Godhead,
and consubstantial with us according to the Manhood;

in all things like unto us, without sin;
begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead,
and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation,
born of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God, according to the Manhood;
one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only begotten,
to be acknowledged in two natures,
inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably;
the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union,
but rather the property of each nature being preserved,
and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence,
not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son,

and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ;
as the prophets from the beginning [have declared] concerning Him,
and the Lord Jesus Christ Himself has taught us,
and the Creed of the holy Fathers has handed down to us.

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

The Evangeliad (22:38-44)

Section 22:38-44 (corresponding to John 5:30-36)

Yet I can do nothing all by myself;
I judge as I hear, and this I will tell:
My judgment is just, for I seek to please
Not only myself, but Him who sent me.

If I witness about myself, it's not true--
To be valid, it needs witnesses two:
And I have another witness for me,
And his words are true, as you have believed.

For you have asked John; he witnessed for me--
Not that I need human testimony,
But I tell you this that you may be saved,
For you have listened to what he proclaimed.

John was a lantern which burned and gave light;
You chose for a time to follow his light.
But I have a witness greater than John:
The works of the Father's appointed one.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

Photo of the Week

Arise and shine, your light has come!
The Lord has set you free;
The chains of darkness bind no more;
Go forth in liberty!

- from a hymn by Carrie Ellis Breck

Monday, October 11, 2021

Quote of the Week

"Christianity is always out of fashion because it is always sane; and all fashions are mild insanities."

- G. K. Chesterton

Saturday, October 09, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

I, a pilgrim of eternity, 
stand before Thee, O eternal One. Let me not seek to deaden or destroy the desire for Thee that disturbs my heart. Let me rather yield myself to its constraint and go where it leads me: through the grace of Christ my Savior. Amen.

- John Baillie

Thursday, October 07, 2021

Historical Theology: Is Jesus Really God? - The Challenge of Arianism

Question: What is the relationship between Jesus of Nazareth and the eternal God who created the universe and reigns sovereign over all? What is the best way to actually characterize the nature of Jesus’ own being?—human, divine, or some mixture of the two?

In the earliest forms of Christianity represented in the New Testament, it is absolutely clear that Jesus was regarded as divine. All of the Gospels and most of the epistles attest to this belief. However, aside from the Gospel of John, most of these documents didn’t go to great lengths to spell out exactly what this meant. The ancient Greco-Roman world allowed for a wide variety of “degrees of divinity,” including humans who were accepted into the company of gods (like the Roman Emperors), the half-divine offspring of gods and humans (like Hercules), gods who oversaw certain aspects of world (like Athena, Demeter, or Aphrodite), and supreme gods (like Zeus or, in Jewish religion, Yahweh). So where did Jesus fit?

Virtually all Christian denominations today affirm the doctrine of the Trinity as outlined by the Council of Nicea (325 AD). A few lone voices (like Jehovah’s Witnesses), though, argue for a slightly lesser “divine” status for Jesus. The debates around this issue are important to know, not only to understand what we believe about the Trinity, but also to help us stand our ground against false beliefs we may encounter.

The New Testament Evidence:

A few references in the New Testament make it clear that Jesus was associated with the highest level of divinity—equated with God himself (John 1:1; 8:58; 10:30; 14:9; Colossians 1:15; Hebrews 1:3; Revelation 5:6).

But most of the references are a little more ambiguous—Jesus commonly being called “the Son of God,” or being described as having come from heaven/God, or given authority that only a divine being could have.

Jesus is also shown in roles that differ from the role of God the Father (shown in his prayers to God the Father in the Gospels, and in his current role of interceding as our heavenly high priest). So the NT shows Jesus as equal to God the Father in being, and, at the same time, somehow distinct from him. The NT itself doesn’t hand us a fully-formed “doctrine of the Trinity,” so early Christians had to figure out how these things went together.

Making it more difficult, there are also a handful of references in the NT which, at first glance, seem to run against the verses that place Jesus on the same level as God the Father. For instance, Jesus says that “the Father is greater than I” (Jn. 14:28), and asks “Why do you call me good? No one is good, except God alone” (Mark 10:18).

The First Challengers: the Adoptionists

All early Christians, as near as we can tell, worshipped Jesus as divine. The church was able to zero in on what they really meant by that through a process of confronting occasional heresies that would pop up. One that emerged by the 2nd century was an idea that Jesus was indeed the divine “Son of God,” but that this meant that the human Jesus had been “adopted” by God as his son at a certain point in his earthly life—either at his baptism (Mark 1:9-11; cf. Ps. 2:7), or at his resurrection (Acts 2: 22, 36; Rom. 1:4). Unfortunately for the adoptionists, they couldn’t reconcile their views with the clear teaching of John on the pre-existence of Jesus as God.

The Arians

The next group to come along, in the early 4th century, were the followers of a church elder named Arius (thus, “Arianism”). While they held that Jesus was divine and was pre-existent with the Father, they argued that Jesus was not equal in being or glory with the Father. They claimed that Scripture taught clearly that Jesus was “begotten”—that is, that the Father is the only eternal, self-sufficient divine being, and that he, at some point before history began, created a divine being of slightly lesser glory: Christ. The Arians proved to be tremendously difficult to argue against, because they were able to use certain opaque passages of the New Testament itself to argue their position. They were also difficult to beat because they knew how to play the politics of the Roman Empire, eventually winning some emperors to their position even after Arianism had been condemned by the Council of Nicea. It was only the fervent actions of two generations of great Christian heroes like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers that eventually won the debate for the orthodox Christian position. (Even so, Arianism lingered around for another 200 years as the preferred version of Christianity among the Germanic tribes overrunning the western Roman Empire.) The Arians lost the debate on several points:

- First, their view turned Christianity into a polytheistic religion. It was one thing to maintain that Jesus somehow shared in the divinity of the one eternal God; it was another to describe him as a different divine being altogether. If Arianism were true, then that meant that the OT was wrong to insist that there was only one God.

- Second, Arius’ position was an innovation. Almost all Christians had been directing worship to Jesus Christ as God for three centuries already. We can trust the Holy Spirit was leading his church in the right direction.

- Third, although they were able to exploit certain NT passages to their own advantage, their position did not do justice to what the Gospel of John says about Jesus’ claims of identity with the Father. Nor were they able to account for how Jesus so perfectly fulfilled the roles in Israel that only the one true God was supposed to fill (forgiving sins, replacing the Temple with his own abiding presence, etc.). In the end, the church fathers decided rightly that the biblical evidence made better sense if we accepted the “high Christology” passages at face value and interpreted the “low Christology” passages relative to their contexts, rather than vice versa. 

Bottom line: the orthodox Christian position makes better sense of the biblical data on the question of Jesus’ divine identity.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021

The Evangeliad (22:34-37)

Section 22:34-37 (corresponding to John 5:26-29)

For just as the Father has life in himself,
Life that belongs to God and none else,
So too the Son in himself has this life,
Yes, life to give forth that the dead may arise!

And the Father also unto the Son
Has granted power to judge everyone;
All this authority rests in his hand,
For he truly is the great Son of Man!

Don't marvel at this, all you standing here,
For far greater things have yet to appear.
A time is coming when all in their graves
Will hear his voice call, and all will awake--

Yes, those who've done good will rise unto life;
At hearing his life-giving voice, they arise!
But to evildoers judgment will come,
The condemnation for what they have done.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Photo of the Week

We thank you that your church, unsleeping, while earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world its watch is keeping, and never rests by day or night.
So be it, God, your throne shall never, like earth’s proud empires, pass away.
Your reign endures and grows forever, until there dawns your glorious day.

- from a hymn by John Ellerton

Monday, October 04, 2021

Quote of the Week

"If you ask for wealth, you may not get it; for it is a small and paltry thing which the Lord may not care to give you. But if you ask for eternal life, you shall have it; for this is a great thing and God delights to give the greatest blessings to those who come to Him by Christ Jesus."

- Charles Spurgeon

Saturday, October 02, 2021

Saturday Synaxis

Lord of my time, whose hand hath set
New time upon my score;
Then shall I praise for all my time,
When time shall be no more.

- Thomas Ken

Friday, October 01, 2021

2022 Calendar Available

One of my projects this year, in response to a few of my church folks who expressed a desire for more of my photography, was to produce a calendar for 2022. It's inspired by my Tuesday posts here on the blog, so if you like those, you might be interested in this. It combines some of my best nature photos with select stanzas from classic hymns. You can find the calendar by clicking this link, or by clicking the picture in the sidebar. It's available in a wall-calendar format (two size options) or a desk-calendar format. Even if you choose not to buy one, I thought I'd share the finished photos with you here, since I'm pleased with how they turned out (click to enlarge):

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Historical Theology: Church and State


Question: According to Scripture and Christian tradition, what is the appropriate relationship between church & state? Is it best for governments to be non-affiliated with any religion, while giving freedom of religion to all? Or is it better to aim for a “Christian nation”? Also, how should Christians act toward a government that is hostile to their faith? And, depending on what kind of government exists, should Christians seek to serve in political office? Should they serve in the military?
Of the three possibilities listed above (secular government, Christian government, and anti-Christian government), most nations in our world today, including our own, aim to be in the first category. Here in the US, we are in the odd position of being a country that has a distinctly Christian tradition while also holding to a non-religious government that allows freedom of religion for all. Thus, Christians often feel threatened on both sides: if we’re told that we can’t say prayers at school, we feel betrayed by a government that used to have strong Christian roots; however, if it were suggested that schools start using Christian prayers as well as Muslim and Buddhist prayers, we would feel just as uneasy about that. Even after 2000 years of Christian history, it’s hard to find a balance on this issue that feels right. Early Christians faced the same dilemma.
Church & State in the New Testament
- One of the difficulties when facing this question is that the NT only really deals with the third and final possibility—an anti-Christian government, which is what they were facing at the time. The NT gives no direct guidance on how to balance church & state under secular governments, nor even whether it would be a good idea to try to build a “Christian nation.” What it does say is simply to submit to the authorities (except where they transgress the law of God—Romans 13:1-5; Acts 5:29), to pay taxes and give respect to leaders (Rom. 13:6-7), and to pray for one’s rulers (1 Tim. 2:1-2).
Church and State in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries
- From the end of the NT period until the early 300s AD, Christianity flourished quietly. It grew mostly by word-of-mouth and the holy living of Christians, and it did this under an environment that was largely anti-Christian. The Roman Empire was extremely tolerant of other religions, with one exception: religions (like Christianity) that refused to acknowledge the validity of the other cults. (Jews mostly got a pass from the Romans because their religion was an old and deeply-rooted tradition.) Christians suffered severe bursts of persecution, especially in the 250s and early 300s. Those Christians living in Persia suffered a persecution in the 300s even more severe than anything that happened under the Romans.
The Constantinian Revolution (313 AD)
- Just a few short years after the Great Persecution under Emperor Diocletian, an unforeseen change happened: one of the rivals for the imperial throne, Constantine, received a dream on the eve of a battle in which he was told to paint the symbol of the Christian cross on his soldiers’ shields: “Conquer in this sign.” He did so, and won a resounding victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Constantine quickly pledged himself as a worshipper of Christ, and proceeded to declare religious tolerance for all Christians. As emperor, he became an active patron of Christianity, granting bishops massive grants to build churches and calling ecumenical councils (such as Nicea in 325) to resolve theological disputes. Christianity quickly became the majority religion of the Roman Empire, and, a few generations later, it became the official religion, having completely displaced Greco-Roman paganism.
The Reaction of the 4th and 5th Centuries
- A few Christians watched these developments with caution. First, it was troubling how easily Constantine was able to bring imperial power to bear on church disputes. Later emperors would abuse this power, lobbying heavily for their own favorite theological positions. Second, many were not convinced that the wealth and safety that came from being the official church were a good thing for Christians—believers tended to become lax. Third, there was the question of whether Christians themselves should serve in government positions, when the teaching of the NT indicated that Christianity was a kingdom apart from the kingdoms of the world. Based on these concerns, a number of Christians began renouncing wealth and living lives of voluntary poverty, and others refused to serve in the military for fear that doing so would force them to break Christ’s command to love their enemies.
“The Two Swords”
- As time went on, a pattern developed in the middle ages favoring the alliance of powerful governments with the church. This was known as the doctrine of the two swords, taken from the disciples’ exchange with Christ in Luke 22:38. But there were troubling things about life as a “Christian nation”—on the one hand, the governments, being run by fallible humans, were constantly doing non-Christian things (like conquests, massacres, extortion, persecution of other religions, etc.), and on the other, the power and privilege that went with being a church official in such a position often led to severe laxity among clergy.
The Protestant (Anabaptist) Reaction
- By the 16th century, at least one major wing of the new Protestant churches—the Anabaptists—were questioning this union of church and state. They believed that the use of force which was inherent in government made the union of the two sides a mistake. In their eyes, the Constantinian revolution had been “the fall of the church.” They believed they as Christians were citizens of a separate kingdom, and, as a church of peace, that they ought not to serve as soldiers. Their influence helped to lead to the early Baptist position, one of the first groups in the world to promote “the separation of church and state.”
Reflection Questions
- This question is still good food for thought: Does being a soldier mean that you are breaking Christ’s command to love your enemies?
- Given the history of Christianity as a whole, do we really want America to be a “Christian nation” in anything but a majority-religion sense? Already, our way of talking about America as “Christian” has given Muslims a terrible misconception of how Christians live.
- Have we really taken to heart the NT picture of Christianity not just as a faith-choice, but as whole “kingdom” of its own here on earth, with its own distinct loyalties and values?
(Painting by Anthony Van Dyck, "Emperor Theodosius Forbidden by Saint Ambrose to Enter Milan Cathedral," Inset photo by Son of Groucho, statue of Constantine at York Minster, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Evangeliad (22:30-33)

Section 22:30-33 (corresponding to John 5:22-25)
Even in judgment, the Father entrusts
All things to the Son--he'll serve as the judge--
That all to the Son may lavish their honor,
Just as they render it unto the Father.
Whoever, then, doesn't honor the Son,
But dishonors the Father's chosen one,
That person is pouring out their dishonor
Not just to the Son, but to the Father.
Truly I tell you, if you listen to me,
If you hear my word and if you believe
In the One who sent me, then you have life!
You've passed from judgment and death into life!
Yes, truly I tell you, an hour will come--
An hour already upon everyone--
When the dead will hear the voice of the Son,
And on those who hear, eternal life comes!

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Photo of the Week

Blest Jesus! when my soaring thoughts o’er all Thy graces rove,
How is my soul in transport lost in wonder, joy, and love!
Where’er I look, my wondering eyes unnumbered blessings see;
But what is life, with all its bliss, if once compared to Thee?

- from a hymn by Ottiwell Heginbotham

Monday, September 27, 2021

Quote of the Week

"Live, while you live," the Epicure would say,
"And seize the pleasures of the present day."
"Live, while you live," the sacred preacher cries,
"And give to God each moment as it flies."
Lord, in my views, let both united be;
I live in pleasure, when I live to Thee.

- Philip Doddridge

Friday, September 24, 2021

An Encouragement to Pray & Work for the Kingdom

Just a few thoughts that I hope might serve as an encouragement to prayer: I ran across some news a few days ago that showed me how God has been working to answer some prayers that I prayed seventeen years ago. Sometimes it takes years for prayers to be answered and for Kingdom-seeds to grow, but remember in the meantime that none of those labors are in vain. Nearly two decades ago, I went to do mission service in Sudan, which at that time was under a violent Islamist regime that was fighting genocidal wars against Christians and indigenous peoples in the south and west of the country. I was there to help launch the development of some basic linguistic tools for Sudanese Arabic, which, it was hoped, would enable other programs and missionaries to come in and do their work. While I was living there in Khartoum, I walked through the city and prayed every day for God to change that country dramatically for the sake of the gospel. I didn't see any immediate results of those prayers. But now, nearly two decades later, I can look back and see a Sudan where the Islamist regime has fallen, where its wars against its own people have largely ended, and where Christians can, at least for now, worship openly instead of in secret. All those things are breathtaking answers to prayer, and dramatic changes from the Sudan I knew. But there's more: earlier this week, I ran across this article, which says that Sudanese Arabic is now being used as a Bible-translation "hub language" to provide Scripture for 80 unreached people groups in that country--and it's a pretty good bet that they're using some of the very linguistic tools that I helped to develop back in 2004. It's hard to fully explain just what a delight this is for me--more than any of the books I've written or academic projects I've done, this work for Sudan is close to my heart, and to see that my work and my prayers are being used as part of something extraordinary--it feels almost unbelievable. But friends, unbelievable things are what happen when we pray and work for the Kingdom. We may not see the answers immediately, but that doesn't mean that God isn't moving behind the scenes. What seeds are you planting right now, in prayer and in work, that God might use to raise a harvest in the years to come?

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Historical Theology: How the Early Church Read the Bible


Question: What is the best way to interpret the Bible? As a literal, historical account of God’s relationship with his people? As an allegory, in which the Holy Spirit put hidden and symbolic meanings into the text? Or some combination of these two?

While we evangelical Christians usually opt for the first option (a literal, historical reading which prefers to look for the clear message of the author to the original audience), much of the early church preferred the allegorical method. They accepted the historical significance of the Bible stories as true, but saw that as simply a surface element—the deeper meaning was allegorical. So, for instance, while they believed that the parting of the Red Sea actually happened, they thought that the text as a whole was intended by God to point towards an allegorical meaning: salvation through the waters (i.e., baptism).

New Testament uses of the Old Testament

In the NT itself, OT passages are usually treated under the literal-historical method. However, in some instances, they are also interpreted as allegories in the primary sense—Jesus seems to treat the Jonah story as an allegorical foreshadowing of the resurrection (Matt. 12:39-41), Paul treats the story of Hagar and Ishmael in this way (Gal. 4:21-31), and Peter treats Noah’s flood as a symbol of baptism (1 Pet. 3:18-22).

Allegory in the Early Church

Driven by a NT that not only treated the OT as allegory, but also included allegorical texts itself (such as Revelation), the earliest Christians took the allegorical method to its extreme. They wrote their own allegories, such as the Shepherd of Hermas, and began allegorizing the OT Law (the early document Epistle of Barnabas, for example, tries to turn the Jewish dietary laws into a symbolic, moral warning against associating with the wrong kinds of people).

Origen and the Alexandrian School

By the 3rd century, the rules for interpretation of Scripture (“hermeneutics”) became increasingly clarified. The great scholar and theologian Origen (184-254 AD) laid the groundwork for an understanding of three senses of Scripture, levels of meaning that have been divinely structured into the text:

   1.) Literal: The plain, historical meaning of the text

   2.) Moral: Principles on how to live a good life

   3.) Spiritual: Hidden meanings that teach about Christ, the Church, or the Christian life. For Origen, this was the primary meaning of Scripture, often only discerned through allegorical interpretation.

   Example: the story of the brass serpent in Numbers 21 can be read in three different ways, all complementary: as a story of something that happened to Israel during its wanderings (literal), as a lesson illustrating the importance of obedience (moral), and as a parable of salvation through Jesus’ death on the cross (spiritual/allegorical). Note that the most important meaning, in the eyes of the NT and the early church, is the spiritual one, but that’s one that you can’t find explicitly in the text of Numbers 21—it only comes out from a Christian, Spirit-inspired reading.

The Antiochene School

After Origen’s method was picked up by the dominant school of theology of Alexandria, some obvious abuses started to appear. People started applying the allegorical method anywhere they wanted, and it often degenerated into people making up fanciful symbols that correlated to every nitpicked aspect of a text. For example, some interpreters pulled apart the parable of the Good Samaritan and made it an allegory—thus the beaten man represented the state of fallen mankind, the priest and Levite represented the ineffective efforts of human morality and religion, the Samaritan represented the unexpected grace of God revealed in the incarnation of Jesus, the donkey represented the Holy Spirit, the inn was the church, etc., etc. Clearly, as creative as this is, it’s mostly made-up. So a rival school of interpretation developed at Antioch, and they emphasized a return to a more cautious, literal-historical method.

Lectio Divina: the devotional practice of exploring the Bible’s layers of meaning

“Lectio Divina” (holy reading) is a devotional practice of reading Scripture, developed by early medieval monks, and it helps to open our hearts and minds to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to say through a text.

     Step 1 – Read: After preparing yourself through prayer, simply read through the passage. Don’t try to assign a meaning to it yet.

     Step 2 – Meditate: Read it through a second time, now inviting the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the words of the passage. Pause and linger over the words as you go, ponder the phrases that jump out at you.

     Step 3 – Pray: Take the message that you heard the Holy Spirit speaking to you, and use it to begin praying—for example, asking God to make that revealed message a regular part of your life.

     Step 4 – Contemplate: With the Scripture passage still in front of you, spend a few more minutes just in silence, focusing your mind and heart on God’s presence with you. Let go of all your words and desires, all the thoughts that crowd your head, and just rest in his presence.