Monday, January 31, 2022

Quote of the Week

"What Christianity most needs in her opposition to every form of falsehood and unbelief, is holy living."

- Theodor Christlieb, 19th-century German theologian

Friday, January 28, 2022

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Historical Theology: Science & Religion

Question: What is the relationship between science and religion (specifically, Christian faith)? Are they in conflict with one another? Or do they present complementary means of understanding the true nature of the world we live in?

You can receive a wide variety of answers to this question depending on who you ask. Many Christians today are very skeptical about the claims of the modern scientific project, particularly in areas like evolutionary biology, which to many people seems to contradict the biblical record of creation, or in the study of cosmology, where some scientists are creating theories of the universe’s beginnings that don’t seem to fit well with Christian faith. On the other side of things, many scientists are very skeptical about Christianity’s truth-claims, which they sometimes regard as ancient myths rather than historical realities. At the same time, there are quite a few prominent theologians and scientists who see no conflict between the science and religion, but claim instead that these perceived “conflicts” are due to a misunderstanding, on the part of both scientists and lay Christians, as to the true nature of the Bible’s historical and scientific claims.

The Middle Ages: Theology as “Queen of the Sciences”

There were very few advancements in scientific theory during the first 1500 years of Christian civilization in Europe (though there were some staggering achievements of applied science, especially in the areas of technology, engineering, and agriculture). The academic study of science simply held onto some of the major scientific theories of the pre-Christian world, notably those of Aristotle and Ptolemy. These systems suggested that Earth was the center of the universe, and that the other celestial bodies—sun, moon, and stars—revolved around the earth as different levels of successive “heavenly spheres.” This scientific theory was well suited to the Christian and biblical picture of the universe, which appeared to consider Earth and humanity as the center and pinnacle of God’s plan of creation and redemption. So science was felt to be perfectly in harmony with Christian belief, and theology was taught at university in the place of utmost honor: as the “queen of the sciences.”

The Copernican Revolution

The trouble with the Earth-centered view was that the movement of the planets was immensely complex—they had to be described as a “dance.” Just before his death in 1543, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus published his groundbreaking thesis, On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres, in which he made the case that the sun was at the center of the universe, not the Earth. This theory allowed the planets to move in smooth revolutions rather than erratic dances. Within two years, a Catholic clergyman named Giovanni Tolosani had responded in his own book, criticizing Copernicus for positing the movement of the Earth through space (against all apparent observations). He wrote that he wanted to “stamp out the Copernican doctrine,” and he worried that the new theory would cause a crisis in biblical interpretation: “From this situation, there could easily arise disagreements between Catholic expositors of holy scripture and those who might wish to adhere obstinately to this false opinion.” On the Protestant side, Martin Luther’s fellow theologian Philip Melanchthon also objected to the Copernican theory, writing to a government official in the hopes of having the theory repressed. Finally, in 1616 (during the Galileo affair), the Roman Catholic Church officially decided to suppress the work of Copernicus, declaring the Copernican theory “false and altogether opposed to Holy Scripture.” But Copernicus’ theory spurred on a new generation of scientists, though, like Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, who both advanced the new field of astronomy, and Giordano Bruno, who suggested that the stars were not simply lights on a rotating heavenly sphere, but were themselves “suns,” perhaps with planets of their own—for this idea, and for a few other daring speculations, Catholic authorities burned him at the stake in 1600.

The Galileo Affair

Galileo was one of the most prominent scientists of all time, an Italian who made major discoveries in multiple fields, including astronomy, optics, and the basic laws of physics. He ran into trouble with the Catholic Church, however, when he claimed that he had found proof that Copernicus’ system of planetary motion was correct (Copernicus’ system was the only one to correctly predict the phases of Venus which Galileo observed). In 1616 the Catholic Church officially declared Copernicus’ theory to be a heresy, and forbade Galileo from believing it or teaching others about it. In 1633 Galileo published another book which subtly supported Copernicus, and for this the Roman Catholic Inquisition tried him, found him “gravely suspect of heresy,” and sentenced him to indefinite imprisonment. He was under house arrest for the next nine years, until his death in 1642.

The Resolution

Within a few generations, the evidence made it absolutely clear that Copernicus and Galileo had been right, and the theologians who opposed them had been wrong. (Though it took until 1835 for the Catholic Church to drop its prohibitions against Copernicus’ and Galileo’s work.) Biblical interpretation was able to shift fairly painlessly to a new understanding of the controversial points, a process which actually led to a more faithful understanding of Scripture within its own cultural context.


We must always remember to ask ourselves if the apparent battles between the Bible and science are true “conflicts” in which we must defend the truth at any cost, or opportunities to discover ways of interpreting Scripture that are even more faithful to its original meaning and to the truth of God’s creation.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Photo of the Week

O let me hear Thee speaking
In accents clear and still,
Above the storms of passion,
The murmurs of self-will.
O speak to reassure me,
To hasten or control;
O speak, and make me listen,
Thou guardian of my soul.

- from a hymn by John Ernest Bode

Monday, January 24, 2022

Quote of the Week

"Human happiness has no perfect security but freedom; freedom none but virtue; virtue none but knowledge; and neither freedom, virtue, nor knowledge has any vigor or immortal hope, except in the principles of the Christian faith."

- Josiah Quincy

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Saturday Synaxis

Heavenly Father, if I should suffer need, and go unclothed, and be in poverty, make my heart prize Thy love, know it, be constrained by it, though I be denied all blessings. It is Thy mercy to afflict and try me with wants, for by these trials I see my sins, and desire severance from them. Let me willingly accept misery, sorrows, temptations, if I can thereby feel sin as the greatest evil, and be delivered from it with gratitude to Thee, acknowledging this as the highest testimony of Thy love.

- from a prayer of the Puritans

Friday, January 21, 2022

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Historical Theology: Sacraments or Ordinances? (Part 2: Baptism)

Question: First, what does Baptism actually accomplish? Second, is there only one proper way to do it? Third, who is eligible to be baptized?

- In the Baptist tradition, our answer to the first question is that baptism is not efficacious to accomplish anything in and of itself. It is a symbol of our conversion to faith in Christ. However, we would say that it is set apart as a special rite which God can use in powerful ways in each person’s life if it is approached in the right way. But this is due to the work of God and the cooperation of the baptisand, not by any power inherent in the baptism itself.

- We believe that the most appropriate way to perform baptism is to do it as it was done in the New Testament: apparently by full immersion and the invocation of either the name of Jesus or of the whole Trinity. However, since we believe that it is a symbol, then this isn’t necessarily the only proper way to do it—exceptions can be made when necessary.

- Following the example of the New Testament and the theological principle that a necessary part of faith in Christ is the capacity to make a decision to follow Him, we believe that only those old enough to make an informed decision for themselves are eligible to be baptized.

- It is worth noting that in all three of the above answers, we in the Baptist tradition hold a minority opinion—most other denominations throughout history have practiced baptism differently, and it’s worth considering why.

Baptism in the New Testament

- Baptism was considered obligatory for Christians, it was a once-for-all ritual, and was to be done as soon after conversion as possible.

- Although baptism is given a theological meaning in the New Testament, it is not clear whether it is considered efficacious in and of itself.

- The only clear record we have is of the baptism of adults; however, there remains the possibility of the baptism of children/infants because of the practice of baptizing whole “households.”

Baptism in the Early Church

- The earliest traditions show a preference for baptism by immersion in running water and the following of the NT invocations, but no sign as to whether baptism was understood sacramentally or symbolically, nor whether children were eligible.

- Within the first two hundred years, though, it is clear that the early church did begin to understand baptism sacramentally—that is, as actually being an efficacious means of grace—and practiced the regular baptizing of infants. These two trends continued throughout the medieval church until the Reformation.

Baptism in the Reformation of the 1500s

- Most of the new Protestant branches of the church retained the medieval way of doing baptism—as a holy sacrament to be given to all new converts and to the infant children of Christians.

- The only dissenters from this pattern were the Anabaptists, who followed a very literal interpretation of the New Testament. Since infant baptism isn’t shown in the New Testament, they didn’t practice it. Later, in the 1600s, the Baptists followed the Anabaptist interpretation.

Sacrament or Symbol?

- The sacramental interpretation of baptism is that God actually uses this rite to bring a person to salvation. Conversion from the old life to the new is actually accomplished in baptism; the person dies spiritually to the old life and is raised again with Christ to new life. Individual faith is not enough on its own to save a person, because salvation is more than just a matter of “me and God”—rather, salvation and relationship with God is found by being a member of the Body of Christ, attached to the vital spiritual power of Christ in the church. And since baptism is the rite of entrance into church membership, it must be the way of salvation.

- The opposing viewpoint (held by Baptists) is that salvation and relationship with God is available to anyone, anywhere. It certainly is experienced by being part of the church, but we believe that we are made a part of the spiritual, worldwide Body of Christ at the moment of belief, not at baptism. Baptism is a symbol and a sign of that conversion, a completion of our intellectual assent to the Gospel by practicing a bodily assent as well. It reminds us of the truth of our spiritual death and of our new life in Christ, but it does not accomplish these things itself. The New Testament seems to be clear that it is belief in Christ that saves us.

Immersion or Sprinkling?

- Many denominations practice baptism by sprinkling or pouring as their first choice. This is usually for practical purposes; it is far simpler than immersion. It also adds in the biblical imagery of an anointing. However, the NT evidence seems clear here: immersion was the preference of the apostles and the early church, and it fits better with the theological symbolism of death and resurrection.

Adult baptism or infant baptism?

- Most denominations that practice infant baptism see it as the Christian fulfillment of the Jewish rite of circumcision. In the Old Testament, circumcision was the rite by which infants were committed to God and welcomed as a full member of the people of God. As such, infant baptism is also the rite in which children are welcomed into God’s family. Usually, the child will have to make a reaffirmation of their faith when they are older, as part of the rite of “confirmation.” In essence, this parallels Baptist practice of offering “baby dedications” for infants and then baptism for teens and adults. In both practices, there is a ritual for welcoming children into the church, and another in which teens or adult converts can affirm their faith in Christ.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Photo of the Week

O Word of God incarnate, O Wisdom from on high,
O Truth unchanged, unchanging, O Light of our dark sky,
We praise thee for the radiance that from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps, shines on from age to age.
O make your Church, dear Savior, a lamp of purest gold
To bear before the nations your true light, as of old.

- from a hymn by William Walsham How

Monday, January 17, 2022

Quote of the Week

"It would do much good to the settlement of your heart, to consider that by fretting and discontent you do yourself more injury than all your afflictions could do. Your own discontent is that which arms your troubles with a sting."

- John Flavel, seventeenth century Puritan pastor

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Saturday Synaxis

Oh, let Your love enkindle mine,
Set all my soul on fire;
Exalt my voice to strains divine,
And utmost praise inspire.
And while with tuneful tongue and heart
I celebrate this grace,
Let all my actions bear a part,
And my whole life be praise.

- Simon Browne

Friday, January 14, 2022

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Historical Theology: Sacraments or Ordinances? (Part 1: Communion)

Question: What’s really going on in the Lord’s Supper?

Our Baptist answer to this seems pretty standard to us: communion is symbolic, and is usually practiced as a communal way to “remember” the sacrifice of Christ. However, even within the stream of Protestant tradition, this is not necessarily the standard answer. In the process of breaking off from the Roman Catholic church in the 1500s, several new views about communion arose.

Communion in the New Testament - It is clear from the New Testament that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was a regular and focal part of Christian practice. The first three Gospels all prominently record its institution by Jesus, and the Gospel of John has a long teaching of Jesus about “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood” (John 6:25-59). It is mentioned again in Acts 2:42 and 20:7, apparently as a common practice, and Paul teaches about it extensively in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In these passages, we can see that…

- Celebration of communion was a standard, frequent part of Christian worship

- It was understood in terms of “Christ’s body” and “Christ’s blood,” but whether this understanding is literal or symbolic is not made clear

- It was understood as a representation of the unity of the church

- It may have included just the elements of bread and wine, or it may have been a more substantial meal—a “love feast”

- It was a foreshadowing of the coming Kingdom-feast at the end of time

Communion in the Early Church

The first few Christian centuries had a fairly high view of communion. It came to be seen as the definitional practice of Christian assembly—i.e., it became a focal part of every Sunday worship service. It quickly became known by the name “Eucharist” which means “thanksgiving.” Most of the early church fathers seem to have felt that the actual presence and power of Christ was manifest in the elements of communion, but they did not specify as to how or when or by what means this happens. (This continues to be the view of the Eastern Orthodox churches—communion is truly the Body and Blood of Christ, but its function is “a holy mystery.”) Early in church history, communion was not seen as being, in and of itself, a “sacrament” (that is, an independent means of grace), but rather as being the fullest expression of the sacramental nature of the church itself.

Roman Catholic view on Communion

During its medieval development, and especially under the scholastic theologians of the 14th and 15th centuries, the Roman Catholic church spelled out a very specific, very literal view of communion: that when the priest invoked the Holy Spirit and said the words of institution “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body,” etc.), the bread and wine were actually transubstantiated into the actual flesh and the actual blood of Jesus Christ. Even though the outward form of the elements did not change, their inner essence did. As such, the receiving of communion itself became emphasized as the most important aspect of worship, and certain other practices followed: since this was truly the physical presence of God the Son among them and must be accorded the respect it deserved, laypeople were barred from receiving the cup—only priests could take communion in both elements (this practice has since been corrected in modern times); and the consecrated elements could be set aside in “adoration chapels” as objects of private veneration, apart from the actual communion service of the church.

Lutheran view on Communion

The Protestant Reformers like Martin Luther reacted against the highly-specific Catholic view of communion, but did not want to throw out the early church traditions. Luther, then, described communion as a mystery and a sacrament (that is, a means of grace), but did not hold to the physical transubstantiation of the elements. Rather, he described the presence of Christ as being “in, with, and under” the elements.

Reformed view on Communion

Somewhat similarly, John Calvin and the other leaders of the Reformed churches developed a view of communion that rejected transubstantiation but kept a sense of the “real presence” of Christ in the communion rite. They described Christ as being “spiritually present” at each enaction of the Lord’s Supper—or, to put it more accurately, that in the Lord’s Supper we are spiritually united to the sacrificial feast of Christ in heaven itself.

Zwinglian view on Communion

The third major reformer in terms of influence, after Luther and Calvin, was Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss pastor. After rigorous study of the New Testament, he came to articulate the position that most evangelicals hold today: that Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper as a symbolic rite. Thus, there is no actual change in the elements themselves, and while the mystical presence of Christ is indeed present at the Lord’s Supper, it is because Christ is always present with the gathered church, not because of any special powers attributable to the bread and cup. As such, the Lord’s Supper is practiced as an ordinance, not a sacrament: i.e., we practice it because the Lord ordered us to do so, but we believe that his grace is freely available to us in the entirety of our Christian lives, not only in this one rite. It is a symbol that reminds us of Christ’s death, affirms our unity, and looks forward to Christ’s return.


Although our tradition tells us that communion is symbolic rather than literal, we do it a disservice when we talk about it as “just a symbol.” The original meaning of “symbol” refers to something that can bring together two realities in one—in this case, heavenly realities and earthly realities, brought together in one ritual (interestingly, the opposite of “symbol” in Greek is “diabolos,” the word for “devil”). A symbol is something of great power and solemnity, and it should not be treated lightly. And even though we do not agree with some other traditions that communion is a source of special grace in and of itself, we should take seriously the fact that we believe that the spiritual presence of Christ is always with his church and that his grace and power is freely available to us when we seek him with sincere hearts—exactly how we should approach the practice of holy communion.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Photo of the Week

Praise the Lord! God’s glories show,
Saints within God's courts below,
Angels round the throne above,
All who see and share God's love:
Age to age, God’s mercies trace;
Praise God’s providence and grace!

- adapted from a hymn by Henry Francis Lyte

Monday, January 10, 2022

Quote of the Week

 As a rule, I don't use my own quotes for these Monday Maxims. However, I'm making an exception this week, since my new book--my first theology book--just came out (Who We Were Meant to Be).

"Weekly church services are the main venue for our main responsibility as human beings. In our role as God's royal priesthood, we serve as worship leaders for all of creation, representing the chorus of nature's praise before the Father. We serve as intercessors, bringing the needs of the world before him. And we serve at the forefront of the eternal, angelic symphony of worship beyond all space and time. If we abscond these high and glorious duties, no one else may do them for us. There are no other creatures in all the universe endowed with the same grand vocation." (p. 112)

Friday, January 07, 2022

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Historical Theology: Pacifism and the Radical Reformation

Question: Is it permissible for Christians ever to use violence against other people?

For many of us, our initial gut instinct will be to say, “Yes, of course.” We can easily think of situations in which violent physical force has been useful in protecting the innocent from harm. But a quick glance at the Bible and at Christian history tells us that this question is not so simple. There is nothing in the New Testament that gives Christians permission to use violence; and, in fact, there are a few passages that seem to prohibit it. The history of the church also bears this out—for the first three centuries of Christianity, before it became a “state religion” of the Roman Empire, there is very little evidence of any Christian use of violence, either on their own behalf or as part of the Roman army.

“The Just War” – When it became clear that Christianity was becoming interwoven with Roman civilization, though, more and more Christians could be found using violent means: sometimes serving in the army to protect the Empire against non-Christianized nations. In this environment, some later church fathers like Augustine described the idea of the “just war” (though even he thought any war was a tragedy). A just war is one in which it would be permissible to use violence, and even to kill other human beings. Such a war would need to be: (1) only entered into to combat sure and serious evil (not for material gains nor even for warding off possible future threats); (2) the last resort, having exhausted all other means to curb the threat of evil; (3) the war must not produce evils greater than the evil to be eliminated (thus, it must be limited in its scope—never accepting high civilian casualties, for instance). Unfortunately, most modern wars fail to live up to these points.

Enter the Radicals
– During the Protestant Reformation, at the same time as Luther and Calvin, small groups of Christians began appearing in Switzerland and Germany who believed that Scripture alone should be our guide (Luther believed this too, but he also thought it good to consult with the interpretations of the early church fathers). As such, they made major changes to their Christian practice in three main areas:

- Baptism: This “Radical Reformation” threw out the centuries-old practice of infant baptism, because they could find no warrant for it in the New Testament. As such, they baptized all their adult members and earned the name “Anabaptists.”

- Simplicity: Choosing to follow Jesus’ teachings quite literally, they followed an ideal of simplicity in material things; almost poverty in some instances. Believing that, as the New Testament teaches, money and physical comforts can be a grave danger to the soul, they chose instead to practice a very simple lifestyle (this persists today in most of their spiritual descendants, such as the Amish and Mennonites).

- Pacifism: Again following Jesus’ teachings literally, they decided that it was never appropriate to use violence or physical force of any kind.

The Biblical Evidence that Might Permit Violence

- The Old Testament, from beginning to end, shows a clear willingness of the people of God (and of God himself) to use violent means toward their ends. However, such instances are always given by direct command of God himself, and only against nations that had gravely violated his laws (such as by the worship of demons, child sacrifice, and genocide). Further, Anabaptists would point out, the Old Testament represents a different stage in salvation-history, in which the people of God were an actual nation-state, and as such needed to have some physical defense from other nation-states. This situation has changed, since Christians now represent not an earthly nation but a heavenly kingdom spread throughout the earth.

- Jesus appears to use physically forceful means in clearing the Temple (Mt. 21:12).

- In Romans 13, Paul states that governments have a legitimate, God-given right to use violence and force in upholding what is right. However, in Paul’s day, there were no Christians in government or the army, so it’s not quite clear whether or not he would envision a Christian in that position being able to use force.

- In Rev. 19, Jesus is shown returning to earth with a conquering army. However, the vision may be allegorical rather than literal, and, even if it is literal, the fact that Jesus has divine prerogative to use violence tells us nothing about our right to do so.

The Biblical Evidence Against Violence

- One of the two greatest commandments for Christians is to “love your neighbor.” Can killing another person ever be construed as an act of love toward him?

- Jesus himself says, “Do not resist an evil person. If he strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Later, he tells us to “love our enemies” (Mt. 5:39-44).

- Jesus rebukes Peter for using violence in trying to protect him (Jn. 18:10-11).

- Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest” (Jn. 18:19).

- Christians are told to be peacemakers (Mt. 5:9, James 3:18), to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18, Heb. 12:14), to live peaceful and quiet lives (1 Tim. 2:2), to be peaceable and considerate and always gentle to everyone (Titus 3:2), to pursue peace-loving wisdom (James 3:17), and to seek peace and pursue it (1 Pet. 3:11).

Pacifism as Active, not Passive – Unfortunately, there’s a popular misconception that those who are pacifists just want to sit back and do nothing. But in Anabaptist thought, seeking peace is a call to hard work (often much harder and more dangerous than using violence): it requires going to one’s enemies, ministering to their needs, seeking to understand and to love them, and, at times, giving up one’s own life for the sake of that love.

So where does this leave us? - (1) Nations are permitted by God to use violent force to maintain what is right and to curb evil. Each Christian must decide for themselves whether their conscience will allow them to participate in these actions. (2) Christians are not given much leeway to use violence for personal defense, but perhaps a bit more freedom if protecting the innocent from grave harm. (3) Christians are called to the active pursuit of peace, even to the point of laying down their own lives for the sake of loving their enemies.

Monday, January 03, 2022

New Book Release!


I'm happy to announce the release of another book, the second of my two projects from 2021! It's called Who We Were Meant to Be: Rediscovering Our Identity as God's Royal Priesthood, from Wipf & Stock publishers! It leads the reader along a theological journey through the wisdom of the early church, casting fresh light on the familiar story of the Bible and challenging Christians to live into their identity as God's royal priests. (If you're interested, you can click the image to be taken to the book's Amazon page.)

Quote of the Week

"Oh, that I could begin this year with God, and spend the whole of it to his glory, either in life or death!"

- David Brainerd, 18th-century missionary