The online scriptorium of author and pastor Matthew Burden
Reflections on the Christian Life
Tuesday, November 30, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, November 29, 2021
Quote of the Week
- Cecil Spring Rice
Friday, November 26, 2021
Praying through the Word - Luke 21:25-36
Monday, November 22, 2021
No New Posts This Week (Except Friday)
I'm taking a little bit of a break from the blog over the Thanksgiving holiday, but I'll still post Friday's "Praying through the Word" video, since it's the first installment of the new liturgical year (Advent begins on Sunday!).
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Friday, November 19, 2021
Praying through the Word - John 18:33-37
Thursday, November 18, 2021
Historical Theology: Faith Seeking Understanding - Reason & Revelation
Our initial impulse might be to say, “God’s revelation has given us all we need to know about Christian faith and practice, so we don’t need anything more than what the Bible teaches.” However, in practice, this attitude doesn’t actually work. Because the Bible is a complex book with a lot of different genres of writing, it is open to a lot of different theological interpretations on subjects like the nature of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, the practice of the Lord’s Supper, what the end times will look like, etc. To actually arrive at a theological position on any of these topics, Christian thinkers need to apply the use of reason to the biblical text to find the most plausible interpretations. In fact, most of Christian history has given broad freedom to the use of reason to explore theology, philosophy, and science, and the results of those explorations have given us new ways of thinking about revealed truth. This method of rational exploration, though, does have its dangers.
Anselm & Abelard – Whose Theology Should We Listen To?
The Power of Reason: Anselm’s Rationalistic Apologetics
Anselm was convinced that God had given human beings the power of reason so that it could be used to his glory. His motto was: “Faith seeking understanding,” starting from faith and then reasoning from there, with the expectation that reason could shed an even brighter light on the truth of the Gospel. One area where Anselm put this to the test was in apologetics (the defense of the faith). He wanted to devise an argument for the existence of God that could be proved by reason alone (i.e., that just by thinking through the logic of a statement, without any help from the Bible or Christian experience, he could convince someone that God exists). To do this, he came up with a quirky logical argument (“the ontological argument”) which defines God as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Now, if that thought exists only in our own minds, then it is by definition not “that than which nothing greater can be conceived.” Why not? Because we can conceive of a being that fits that statement and actually exists in reality, not just as an idea in our mind. Thus, since an existent “that than which nothing greater can be conceived” is clearly greater than a non-existent one, then God must exist. This argument has often been viewed as little more than logical sleight-of-hand, but many philosophers today are still convinced of its validity when expressed in certain forms.
Reasoning about the Atonement
Anselm was the first Christian thinker to devise a new way of thinking about the theology of the atonement, based on what he found in Scripture (especially the book of Romans): that our sins can be conceived of as crimes against God, and since God is so great and our crimes so heinous, nothing we could possibly do could atone for them except the ultimate penalty: death. But Christ took the punishment for our sins on himself, so that we now have right legal standing with God. This is known as the “penal substitutionary model” of the atonement.
Other, more ancient interpretations of the atonement also existed, which the church fathers had reasoned out based on biblical evidence: (1) the moral influence model, which Anselm’s rival Abelard championed as the only true expression of atonement theology. This model says that Jesus lived an exemplary life, taught us how to live, surrendered himself non-violently up to death as an illustration of God’s love, and rose from the dead as an inspirational symbol of the power of virtue. In essence, what Christ did on the cross was teach us the right way; (2) the ransom model, in which Christ’s sacrifice paid the ransom-price to redeem us from under the power of Satan; (3) the healing model, in which Christ’s death and resurrection began the deep healing of our sinful human nature; and (4) the Christus Victor model, in which Christ’s death and resurrection was his triumph over the powers of sin, Satan, death, and hell.
What both Anselm and Abelard got wrong was that they assumed that there could only be one right way to think about the atonement—that one of these models was right, and the others were wrong. But Christian tradition has always upheld all of these models to a greater or lesser degree; they do not exclude one another. On the cross, Jesus paid the penalty for our sins and taught us the right way and ransomed us from sin and Satan and began our healing from sin and triumphed over the powers of death and hell.
Tuesday, November 16, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, November 15, 2021
Quote of the Week
Saturday, November 13, 2021
Friday, November 12, 2021
Praying through the Word - Mark 13:1-8
An invitation to prayer through the words of Mark 13:1-8
Thursday, November 11, 2021
Historical Theology: What's Your Problem, Man? - The Theology of the Human Condition
In our Western evangelical tradition, we have a quick answer to this question: sin. Sin is the problem of humanity. However, what we may not realize is that we often think about sin only according to one of its many Scriptural metaphors—that of a legal wrongdoing against God’s law, which puts us in need of legal satisfaction. Thus, we speak mostly about salvation in terms of “forgiveness.” While this element of the theology of sin is certainly present in Scripture, it is not the only way of thinking about mankind’s problem. In fact, it was not the predominant way of thinking about the human condition in the early church.
Irenaeus of Lyons: What was God’s original purpose for humanity?
We tend to assume that God created humanity in its intended state—that when he created Adam and Eve, their situation represented the ideal state of the human condition: innocence of wrongdoing and relationship with God. However, this is merely one interpretation of the Genesis story, and it’s not the only one. An earlier interpretation comes to us from Irenaeus of Lyons (c. 200 AD), who interpreted Genesis to say that God created Adam and Eve in a situation of moral infancy (for instance, no knowledge of right and wrong—Gen. 2:15-17; 3:4-5), and thus God’s original intention was that humanity should grow towards ever greater moral and spiritual development, and ever deeper relationship with God. It is a view of humans as being always in progress towards God, with the Garden of Eden as just the starting point, not the final ideal.
If this way of thinking about humanity is true, then sin is not simply a case of “paradise lost” which can be restored by dealing with sin’s legal debts. Rather, sin must be seen as an obstacle on our path to our greater growth towards God. Sin, in this conception, is not a legal offense against God, it is a failure to live up to what God has intended for humanity. (This is, in fact, the closest literal definition for the Hebrew word for sin: “missing the mark.”)
The Plot Thickens: The Effects of Sin
|Irenaeus of Lyons|
1.) First, there is ancestral sin (sometimes called “original sin”)—the inherent, inborn tendency of all human beings to choose sin rather than God (Rom. 3:23; 5:12). This is often described by the church fathers as having the nature of a disease—as such, we need healing from sin (Ps. 41:4; Mark 2:17; James 5:16; 1 Pet. 2:24).
2.) Second, there is death (Rom. 5:12). There are two dimensions to this—because of sin we suffer spiritual death, which is separation from God (John 5:24; 8:51); we also suffer physical death (Gen. 3:19; Rom. 6:23; 8:10). Physical death is an obstacle to gaining of God’s goal for us—we cannot be ultimately united with an eternal God if we are not eternal ourselves. Thus, physical death needs to be overcome. (On the other side of the coin, though, many early church fathers considered that God’s penalty of physical death in response to Adam’s sin was actually a mercy—“so that sin would not be everlasting.”)
3.) Third, there is bondage to Satan—his kingdom is characterized by rebellion from God, so by choosing our own way instead of God’s plan, we have essentially transferred our allegiance to Satan’s kingdom. But to get out from under Satan’s dominion, we need more than a simple transfer of allegiance—Satan’s kingdom has no citizens, it has only slaves. As such, we are in need of freedom (Acts 26:17-18).
What Did Jesus Accomplish for Us?
1.) By the mere fact of Mary’s assent to God’s plan (the reversal of Eve’s rejection of that plan) and the incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus united human nature and divine nature in his own person (John 1:14), and opened a way for us to fulfill our ultimate destiny of being raised up into union with God.
2.) By his teaching and his example of godly living and self-sacrifice, Jesus taught us how to live so as to grow towards our ultimate goal (Phil. 2:5-6; 2 Pet. 1:3).
3.) By his death on the cross, Jesus became the ultimate sacrifice for sin (Col. 1:22). In Jesus, the Son of God gave himself up to the penalty of death—both physical death and, at least for a moment, spiritual separation from the Father (Mark 15:34).
4.) By his Resurrection from the dead, he defeated death definitively, shattered the power of Satan’s kingdom, and began the healing of the human race from sin (Rom. 5:19; 6:9; 1 Cor. 15:21-22, 54-55; Heb. 2:14-15)
5.) By his ascension to the Father’s side, he glorified human nature into full union with the Father (Heb. 4:14-15); thus, as we become united to him through the Holy Spirit, we begin to share in the life of God himself (1 Cor. 6:19; 2 Pet. 1:4).
A Deeper Vision of Salvation
According to the early church, then, forgiveness is only one part of what God has done for us in salvation. He has begun the healing of our sin nature, he has defeated the power of death, and he has redeemed us from our slavery to Satan’s kingdom. Not only do our sins not count against us now, but we are actually able to continue the journey that God intended for humanity from the very beginning—to grow progressively deeper in virtue, higher in our knowledge of God and our practice of love, and, as we grow, to experience more and more union with God’s own nature. Ultimately, the church fathers believed that we could grow so close to God that his own nature—his goodness and beauty—would fill us up in the same way that iron in a forge takes fire’s own nature into itself. As C. S. Lewis puts it, “Christ became man so that men could become ‘little Christs’.”
Tuesday, November 09, 2021
Photo of the Week
Monday, November 08, 2021
Quote of the Week
Saturday, November 06, 2021
Friday, November 05, 2021
Praying through the Word - Mark 12:38-44
Thursday, November 04, 2021
Historical Theology: Daily Life in Early Christianity
Question: What are the best day-to-day practices that characterize a good Christian life?
Here in our own 21st-century Baptist tradition, we have our own answers to this question: having a daily “quiet time” in which to pray and read the Bible, being part of a local church fellowship, giving to the church, etc. But it’s good to realize that not all of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout history have shared our list of preferred practices. In many cases, although the underlying big ideas of Christian practice—like prayer, generosity, etc.—remain the same, the actual practices can look quite different. It can be an inspiration and a challenge to examine closely what other Christian traditions have done in order to live a good Christian life.
How to Become a Christian (a hypothetical early church conversion)
Step #1 – You encounter the Christian message. Most probably, you will be told about it by a family member or friend; or, just as likely, you might witness a miraculous healing or an exorcism, or be impressed by the way Christians in your city are taking care of plague victims and unwanted babies. You start attending a local church to explore this faith a bit for yourself. Impressed by the beauty of the liturgy the power of Scripture, and the love of the Christians, you profess faith in Christ.
Step #2 – You become a “catechumen.” For three years, you will be part of a closely-guided group of new believers who will be instructed in basic doctrine and trained to live a moral, upright life. In every worship service, you are dismissed partway through, since you are not yet allowed to participate in communion.
Step #3 – If you pass through the moral and doctrinal training of catechesis, on the morning of Easter Sunday, you will be baptized. Before baptism, you symbolically renounce Satan and his kingdom, and transfer your allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. You might also be “chrismated,” that is, anointed with oil and given a new Christian name. As a baptized person, you can now be a full part of the church.
Day-to-Day Practices of Early Church Christians:
Prayer – Most early Christians would have been taught to pray not only daily, but usually multiple times a day (for laypeople, usually three times a day), using a system known as “the hours” or “divine offices.” Prayers could be spontaneous or recited, but almost always included the Lord’s Prayer. (1 Tim. 2:1; Eph. 6:18)
Fasting – Although it wasn’t a legalistic requirement, most early Christians would have made an attempt to participate in a mild fast every Wednesday and Friday. (Matthew 6:17-18; Mark 2:19-20)
Hospitality – One of the regular practices of early Christianity was that Christians had homes that were always open to other Christians who were traveling through, whether already acquainted with them or not. (Heb. 13:2; 1 Pet. 4:9; Rom. 12:13; Matt. 10:40-41, 25:34-35)
Almsgiving – Giving was expected of Christians, not only in the church service itself, but a whole-life orientation of generosity, which included giving alms to the poor. (Luke 11:41, 12:33; Acts 9:36, 10:30-31; 2 Cor. 9:6-9; Gal. 2:10)
Confession – Early Christians were very serious about trying to live holy lives, and so they carried out the Scriptural command to confess their sins to each other (usually to the leader of their church, but sometimes another lay Christian). (James 5:16)
Scripture – Most early Christians would not have had access to their own copies of the Bible, so they framed their worship services around the public reading of Scripture. (1 Tim. 4:13)
Are There Different Types of Christians?
Early on in Christian history, Christians began to think of themselves as separated into two or three different “orders”—(1) clergy, such a pastors/priests and bishops, (2) laypeople, and (3) monks, hermits and nuns.
Why did they make these distinctions?
The distinction between clergy and laity arose early. Even though the New Testament teaches “the priesthood of all believers,” it also assigns some special roles and ministries to a certain few (1 Tim. 3:1-10; Titus 1:5). Thus, gradually, “clergy” became the class of those who spent all their time on the ministry, whereas “laity” were those engaged in work that was not specifically ministry-oriented.
The distinction between laity and monks, however, rose a bit later. Christians began to feel a dynamic tension between some of the commands of Scripture that gave a very high standard for Christian life and what they were actually able to accomplish (Matt. 5:48, 19:21; 1 Thess. 5:17). So while the laity strove to keep the faith and observe the “spirit of the laws” of the New Testament, monks represented those few Christians who could give all their time, energy, and effort to keeping every command of the New Testament to the fullest degree.
- Take your moral responsibility as a Christian seriously. The early church trained its new believers for three full years in the hard skills of fighting sin, practicing spiritual disciplines, and being serious about pursuing holiness. We need to recognize that living a God-glorifying Christian life is something that needs continuous work.
- Try out some of the practices of the early church. In our tradition, we tend to be much weaker than the early church was on the practices of hospitality, fasting, and confession.
- Let yourself be challenged and moved to action by Scripture’s call to “perfection.” But at the same time, recognize that we are not “lone ranger” Christians; we are part of one Body, and the spiritual gifts of other Christians help to fill in the gaps of our own giftedness.