An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 12:28-34
The online scriptorium of author and pastor Matthew Burden
Reflections on the Christian Life
Friday, October 29, 2021
Praying through the Word - Mark 12:28-34
An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 12:28-34
Thursday, October 28, 2021
Historical Theology: Depraved Man, Sovereign Grace - The Legacy of Augustine
This is a tricky theological question. It’s tricky because, on the one hand, we would like to think that we actually have genuine free will, including the ability to choose to follow God simply because we choose to do so. However, the Bible seems to teach in several places that human beings are so immeasurably sinful, right from the moment of birth, that it is only by the grace of God that we can choose to follow him. Thus, our wills do have a part to play, but we are only able to choose God if God first makes it possible for us to do so. Almost all Christian denominations now hold this position (theologically referred to as part of “original sin” or “the depravity of man”), but in a variety of different forms.
- Augustine was one of the leading lights of the early church fathers in the western Roman Empire, pastoring a church in present-day Tunisia and writing many theological works during the late 4th and early 5th centuries. Many of his theological models became dominant in the thinking of the medieval Catholic church, and were passed on to great Reformers like Luther and Calvin (and, as such, even some of our Baptist theology is Augustinian in flavor).
- Around the turn of the 5th century, a British theologian named Pelagius came to Rome and began to teach that human beings have free will in the complete sense—they can choose to be righteous simply by the power of their will alone. Although Pelagius thought that in practice, everyone eventually sins, in theory he believed it possible to be sinless simply by always choosing righteousness. He did not believe in the idea of a hardwired disposition towards sinfulness in all human beings (what we refer to as “original sin.”)
- Augustine opposed Pelagius and his followers with great passion. He felt that not only did the Pelagian position run against the teaching of Scripture, it also seemed to empty Christ’s sacrifice of much of its meaning. If human beings could, in theory, be sinless simply by the exertion of their wills, then, in theory, there could be people who would have no need of the forgiveness that Christ won for us on the cross.
- To combat Pelagius, Augustine put forward his view of the biblical doctrine of original sin:
(1) that all humans are hardwired with a predisposition to sin (as an effect of the Fall, not of God’s original creation), making it impossible for anyone to be sinless outside of Christ’s sacrifice (Gen. 8:21; Psalm 51:5; Rom. 3:9-12);
(2) that because of sin, human beings are not even able to say “Yes” to God unless God gives them a special dispensation of grace by which to say yes (Ps. 14:2-3; John 6:44; Rom. 5:6; Eph. 2:1-5);
(3) that we also inherit the “guilt” of sin simply by nature of being human, meaning that we all stand under the wrath of God as the legal consequence of Adam’s sin—this is sometimes referred to as imputed sin (Rom. 5:12, 18-19; Eph. 2:3);
(4) and that, further, God only gives His special grace, enabling conversion, to some people, not to all. This leads to Augustine’s famous doctrine of predestination—that God knows and chooses in advance those who will be Christians, and only enables those specific people to respond with a “Yes,” to salvation (Rom. 8:29-30; Eph. 1:5, 11). Those who are not predestined cannot be saved.
- Reception of this doctrine: #1 and #2 of this doctrine are currently accepted by all major Christian denominations. #3 is largely accepted in the West (by Catholic & Protestant churches, but not by Eastern or Oriental Orthodoxy), and #4 is still hotly debated (in evangelical circles, this debate is known as Calvinism vs. Arminianism).
- A Little Deeper on #4: Augustine’s reasoning for predestination is that God is omniscient and outside of time, so he already knows everyone who will respond to him with a yes. The combination of this foreknowledge and his sovereignty means that, in effect, only those who are foreknown to be saved will even get the chance to say yes to God. (This doctrine would later be presented in an even harder form by some later Calvinists.) In opposition to predestination, some theologians hold to a doctrine called prevenient grace—although we indeed do need the help of God’s grace in order to say yes to him, God has made that grace already available to everybody through Jesus Christ (John 1:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; Titus 2:11); thus anyone, through the gift of prevenient grace, can say yes to God if they choose to do so.
- How do we decide between predestination and prevenient grace? In a certain sense, this is a choice between shades of gray—both positions hold that all people are sinful and in need of God’s grace, that God has made a way for people to come to him in faith through Jesus Christ, and that we as Christians are obligated to preach the Gospel to everybody. The major difference seems to be a point of emphasis: predestination emphasizes the glory and sovereignty of God, and prevenient grace emphasizes His love for all people. Because of the rules of logic, both positions can’t be entirely true, but the Bible seems to leave either option open, so either one is a possibility for genuine Christian belief.
Whether we accept the Augustinian doctrine of predestination or not, the Bible makes it clear that God reached out for us, chose us, and saved us in spite of our sinful inability to come to him on our own—for that, the only appropriate response is to give thanks!
Under either way of looking at the question of sovereignty, we always have to remember the Bible’s teaching that God does indeed love all people and that we have an obligation to spread the Gospel. Even those who hold to predestination say that a fatalistic attitude (“If God has predestined who will be saved, then He’ll do it all by himself and I don’t have to do anything”) is inappropriate—so share the good news!
Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, October 25, 2021
Quote of the Week
"He who is gentle in God's sight is wiser than the wise; and he who is humble in heart is stronger than the strong."
- Mark the Ascetic, 5th century
Saturday, October 23, 2021
Friday, October 22, 2021
Praying through the Word - Mark 10:46-52
An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 10:35-45
Thursday, October 21, 2021
Historical Theology: When is Jesus Coming Back? - Early Eschatologies
For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.
…That day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God.
For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.
Tuesday, October 19, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, October 18, 2021
Quote of the Week
Saturday, October 16, 2021
Friday, October 15, 2021
Praying through the Word - Mark 10:35-45
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 pray-as-you-go.org, 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
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
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.”
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 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.
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.
Tuesday, October 12, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, October 11, 2021
Quote of the Week
Saturday, October 09, 2021
Friday, October 08, 2021
Thursday, October 07, 2021
Historical Theology: Is Jesus Really God? - The Challenge of Arianism
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:
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 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.
Tuesday, October 05, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, October 04, 2021
Quote of the Week
Saturday, October 02, 2021
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):