Church History (iTunes U): Medieval Scholasticism

August 25, 2015 2 comments

Nearing the end of the RTS Church History series, the last several lectures provide interesting information about the middle and late medieval period, specifically related to Anselm, Aquinas, and the scholastic era. In this section comes consideration of the Christian faith and rationalism, an idea which began with Anselm (late 11th century). Another good basic point — which makes sense considering the variations within Protestant theology and even within overall “Covenant Theology” — is that Medieval Catholicism was not monolithic, with everyone believing and emphasizing the same doctrinal and philosophical ideas. General groups of this time included the mystics and scholastics, represented to varying degrees by several scholars including names I knew at least a little about – Anselm, and Bernard of Clairvaux – along with a few other lesser-known names.

The lectures on the scholastic period note three philosophical approaches to “universals” – ideas about reality and truth and what they are based in — developed especially in the late-Medieval era. As also described in this Wikipedia article, the three views of various Medieval scholastics:

  • Platonic realism: This world is a shadow of reality; universal ideas exist outside of this world, what is actually real; everything in our world is a “shadow” of what exists beyond our world.  (The rationalism /realism of Anselm.)
  • Nominalism takes the opposite view, of skepticism, that there are no “universals” but only what actually exists.  Names associated with this view include William of Ockham and Peter Abelard.
  • Conceptualism / Moderate or Aristotelian realism: a middle-ground position that recognizes universals, but grounds the existence of the universal in the object itself.

The lecture considers as an example the existence of two white stones, and what each of these views would say about it: 1) whiteness is a universal that exists outside of this world and seen in the two stones (platonic realism); 2) no significance whatsoever to the fact that the stones exist and are white (nominalism); and 3) there is such a thing as whiteness but that truth exists in the reality of the stones themselves, not outside. Also briefly noted, over time the nominalist view came to dominate medieval philosophy; and Martin Luther in his early education was taught the nominalist view (which he later rejected). Though all of this is rather abstract, going beyond the explicit teaching of scripture, Anderson observed that these views have implications for our theology, such that he more liberal view of nominalism was thought to be incompatible with the doctrine of the trinity, whereas the two conservative views (platonic realism and moderate realism) do not conflict with Trinitarian understanding.

The first view (Platonic realism) I recognize as basically a teaching of C.S. Lewis, as brought out in the two “Shadowlands” movies about his life, as well as in a scene from the “Chronicles of Narnia” series’ The Silver Chair. The Narnia setting involved characters who lived underground and had never seen the world above, and Lewis’ character Puddleglum philosophizing to the evil witch (who is trying to convince Puddleglum and two human children that her world is all that ever exists) about the reality of the sun, of which the underground world’s lamp is a “shadow” and “like” the sun. Interestingly enough, though the lecturer never mentioned C.S. Lewis in reference to this idea, he did mention the philosophical idea of a creature that only lived underground and had never seen anything of this world.  An overall observation at this point is that C.S. Lewis (who was not at all evangelical, with questionable theology at many points) was quite familiar with medieval theology and philosophy, to the point of including the pre-Anselm popular medieval “ransom” atonement theory (Christ’s death as a payment to Satan) in the plot of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” as well as referencing medieval scholastic philosophy about universals.

This church history series ends with a look at Aquinas for a conclusion to pre-Reformation church history. Again, I appreciate these seminary class series offered through iTunes U, as informative lessons that explore more in-depth the different topics such as church history and worldviews.

Andrew Bonar’s Commentary on the Psalms

August 10, 2015 4 comments

In my continuing study of the covenantal premillennial writers, comes Andrew Bonar’s “Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms,” (available in electronic format, PDF and through Google Play) which includes interesting, concise commentary on each Psalm.  I have found it works best to read through this commentary as I read along in my daily Psalm reading (part of my ongoing genre reading plan which includes two Psalms per set, and a full genre set every day or every other day), now up through Psalm 64.

The content for each Psalm includes the KJV text followed by Bonar’s comments that are part technical – with actual Hebrew words and meaning, along with reference to the views of various scholars of the day (such as Hengstenberg) and footnotes – along with some good devotional thoughts.  Throughout, Bonar relates each Psalm to how our Lord Himself could pray and “use” the particular words in His own experience as man during His First Coming, the One who was truly dependent on His father.  This style or emphasis takes some getting used to, but Bonar addresses texts that specifically mention the writer’s sins and need of forgiveness, by referencing Christ having sin imputed to Him, as well as noting the contrast in Psalm 51 (the occasion of David’s sin with Bathsheba) with the 50 psalms before it.  I also see this emphasis of Christ’s experiences as a man, relating to what I have been studying in the 1689 Exposition series, which in the study of chapter 8 of the confession, brought out this point about Christ’s two natures, the union of these natures and the human experience of Christ in full dependence on the Father, in the Spirit given to Him without measure — and what a great example this is to us in our Christian walk (though in our imperfect way) and dependence upon the Father through the Spirit indwelling us.

Each Psalm commentary also relates the text to all believers, how all believers can pray and relate to the Psalm — the “and His church” part of the title.  The devotional thoughts include the idea of meditating upon certain ideas, considering the “Selah” of some Psalms, and remembering God’s promises.  To end each commentary is a brief summary statement describing the Psalm, such as “Our Joseph and his seed foreseeing the doom of the archers that have shot at them,” for Psalm 64, or, for Psalm 61, “The Righteous One, when an outcast, looking for the day of his Restoration.”

Finally, here are a few good excerpts from Bonar’s commentary:

Psalm 61:  In this life, every member of the Church has a varied lot—now at rest, then troubled; now hopeful, then fearful; now a conqueror, then a combatant. Seated as he is on the Rock of Ages, immovably seated, he sees at one time a fair sky and a bright sun; then, the thick cloud spreads gloom over nature; soon, the beam struggles through again, but soon all is mist once more. Such being the sure complexion of our sojourning here, we rejoice to find sympathy therewith evinced by our God who knows our frame, and evinced by the fact that He so often turns in the Songs of Zion from one state of mind to another, and from one aspect of our case to another.”

Psalm 53: The state of earth ought to be deeply felt by us. The world lying in wickedness should occupy much of our thoughts. The enormous guilt, the inconceivable pollution, the ineffably provoking atheism of this fallen province of God’s dominion, might be a theme for our ceaseless meditation and mourning. To impress it the more on us, therefore, this Psalm repeats what has been already sung in Psalm xiv. It is the same Psalm, with only a few words varied; it is “line upon line, precept upon precept;” the harp’s most melancholy, most dismal notes again sounded in our ear. Not that the Lord would detain us always or disproportionably long amid scenes of sadness, for elsewhere he repeats in like manner that most triumphant melody; but it is good to return now and then to the open field on which we all were found, cast out in loathsome degradation.

Psalm 37: Instead of complaining of our burdens, and anxieties, and cares, and fears, and instead of throwing them off in stoical indifference, let us “roll them on the Lord” (as ver. 5), and then “Wait—be silent”—standing still at the Red Sea, till God opens the way. “The meek” are they who bow to God’s will; they shall as surely “inherit the earth,” as ever Israel entered into possession of Canaan. This is a promise repeated in verses 11, 22, 29, 34, as if to reiterate, “that though you have little of earth and earth’s good things now, all shall yet be yours, and the ungodly be gone for ever.”

Psalm 32: Forgiveness is so great a blessing that all else may follow. If the Lord forgive our sin, what next may we not ask? On this account, then, His people pray. Our Head intercedes, because His offering of Himself was accepted; we pray, because through Him we have already got pardon, and may get any other real blessing. Yes, we may get such blessing, that “at the time of *the floods of great waters,” whensoever that be —whether calamities personal and national, or the waves of the fiery flood, parallel to that of Noah, that shall yet sweep away the ungodly,—even then we shall be altogether safe. The forgiven man is hidden, instructed, taught, guided by God’s tender care.

The Holy Spirit, The Incarnation And Pentecost

July 24, 2015 2 comments

The 1689 Exposition Series has several lessons regarding the Christological view of what happened at Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Some of this material, regarding the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament age as compared to now, was also addressed and in more depth, in David Murray’s blog post series (reference this previous blog post):  the quantitative difference, that the indwelling Holy Spirit in OT saints was like a water-dropper as compared to a pressure washer.

From this 1689 series lesson, another interesting difference between the work of the Holy Spirit in the OT versus now:  The Holy Spirit came in an Official, Formal sense at Pentecost; Christ also made His official/formal entrance at His incarnation.  Christ, the second Person of the Trinity, always existed and was active and present in the Old Testament (before His formal entrance at the incarnation).  Christ even appeared, in the many theophanies/Christophanies of the “Angel of the Lord,” in visible form many times to the Old Testament saints — such as to the patriarchs, Moses, and later Joshua, as well as later appearances (such as to Samson’s parents in Judges 13).  1 Corinthians 10:4-5 further tells us that Christ was the Rock that followed the people of Israel in the wilderness.

In like manner, we can know that the Holy Spirit existed before Pentecost (no error of Sabellianism, a type of modalism), was active and present in that age, and indwelled believers.  What came at Pentecost, that had not occurred before, included the greater quantity (a great outpouring, seen in the later massive number of believers saved in the book of Acts, as compared to the relative trickle of believers before that time) as well as this formal, official entrance — an entrance that occurred in connection with the other historical events of that time.  Following after Christ’s incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, came what Christ had promised would come, what He told the disciples to wait for (Acts 1:4-5).

 

 

 

Christ’s Burial and the Apostles’ Creed

July 13, 2015 11 comments

Continuing through the 1689 Exposition series, the in-depth study of chapter 8 of the confession (Christ’s mediatorial work) includes a lesson on the question of Christ’s burial (available here) and time in the grave, specifically looking at the issue of the Apostles’ Creed (see this recent post that also mentions the Apostles’ Creed) and its statement that “he (Christ) descended into hell.”

This statement did not appear in the earlier forms of the Apostles’ Creed, but showed up by the 4th century.  Later Christians have considered the importance of this early creed, desiring to show the continuation of the orthodox faith from its early history — and have thus attempted to explain what the early church meant by this statement.  This lesson in the 1689 series mentions six “interpretations” of what was meant by “he descended into hell”:

  1. Rufinus  – the first interpretation, from A.D. 390:  it means “he descended into the grave, the abode/realm of the dead.”  Yet this is redundant, as the previous phrase has already told us that “he was buried.”
  2. John Calvin – the view described in the Heidelberg catechism.  Jesus suffered hell on the cross; the sufferings, felt in His soul, an infinite amount of wrath in a finite period of time.  Certainly this is true, but does not fit with what the Apostles’ Creed meant—the sequence is wrong.  If they had meant this, the line would have been earlier in the creed, instead of after the part about being crucified, buried and dead.
  3. The view of the Westminster confession and the 1689 London Baptist Confession, also stated in the Westminster Larger Catechism:  “He remained in the state of the dead; the realm of the dead.” Again, redundant to say buried and descended into being dead.
  4. The “Roman Catholic” view, which is also commonly taught in Arminian Baptist churches: this view expands into much speculation, though at least they come up with scripture references, as for instance the story in Luke 16 of the rich man and Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom.  Here is the idea that Christ during this time went in His soul (not His body) into the holding place where OT saints were waiting for the application of redemptive work; He preached the gospel to them (“got them fully saved”) and then brought them out from there into heaven.  Other proof-texts for this view include Ephesians 4:8-9 – “He descended into the lower regions” (some think this means hell, below Earth, instead of the Earth itself).  A better way to understand this, though, is the contrast between the lower regions as the earth, versus the higher regions (ascending to heaven).  Additional texts for this view include 1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:4-6, and the above lesson explains the supposed idea here as well as other ways to understand these texts.
  5. The Lutheran view: Jesus went to hell, to the place of torment for the damned – not to suffer, but to preach judgment upon them and declare His victory and Lordship, as somehow an inauguration of His victory march. The problem here is complete speculation with no proof from scripture, plus the fact that Christ’s burial was part of His humiliation; this was before the resurrection, and not at all the time of His exaltation.
  6. The Anglican view: Jesus went down to the place of the dead, and gave a fuller explanation of the gospel to the OT saints who were waiting there. Again, this is only speculation, with no proof from scripture or any indication that the writers of the apostles’ creed believed this.

As Hodgins observed, in quoting Wayne Grudem on this subject, certainly we should appreciate the Apostles’ creed as an early statement from the historic church.  But the historical importance alone is not a good reason for “keeping” this phrase and seeking to somehow explain it away.  We don’t really know exactly what the early church meant by it, and a survey of early church history does tell us that the early church fathers were wrong on some of their theology.  This is certainly brought out in the RTS Christian History series, including the fact that understanding of the Trinity, and even the nature of the Father and Son, was not fully developed until the Arian controversy in the mid-4th century; before that time, even Tertullian held onto some idea of the Son being subordinate to the Father and just didn’t develop his thoughts to the full level that is now considered an orthodox view of the Trinity.

The Puritan Papers: Five Volumes About the Puritans and Their Theology

July 6, 2015 2 comments

From my recent reading: volume one of a collection called “Puritan Papers,” which I first learned about through a special offer from Westminster (WTS) publications, then available for reduced price in Kindle format; at the time I did not have a Kindle, but found a good price on a used copy of volume 1. These volumes come from a series of conferences, which took place from 1956 through 1969, with many essays that highlighted the Puritans and their theology. Edited by J.I. Packer, this volume includes many informative essays from the years 1956 through 1959 – a few authored by J.I. Packer, also Iain Murray, though most of the names are less known. (Each of the five volumes is available in used-print and Kindle format.)

The topics include important Puritan doctrines: sovereign election, assurance and the witness of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, law and the covenants, as well as essays explaining the Puritan view of the Sabbath and Puritan worship and “daily life.” Several essays feature particular Puritan writers, names I had not heard of, including “Mrs. Hutchinson and her teaching” (not the notorious Anne Hutchinson of American Colonial history, but English Lucy Hutchinson, author of “On the Principles of the Christian Religion” and “Of Theology”), plus an overview look at the writings of Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, Richard Baxter and others. The 20th century writers also note areas where particular Puritans erred, such as Welsh Puritan Morgan Llwyd (who believed in free will, the possibility of Christian perfectionism, and ideas that were favorable to the Quaker position).  Especially helpful in this area (where certain Puritans erred) is J.I. Packer’s analysis of observations made by Charles Spurgeon in an 1863 sermon (one I have read), “The Warrant of Faith.”  Packer acknowledges some areas of valid criticism, concerning the three men Spurgeon named — John Rogers, Thomas Hooker, and Thomas Shepard — who over-emphasized and went beyond scripture in the matter of “qualifications for coming to Christ.”

The reading content assumes at least basic understanding of the Puritans, from a Calvinist/Reformed background, and from that starting point, these are quite helpful, a good overview and introduction to the subject. The various 1950s authors were interested in returning evangelical Christianity to what it now lacks and has forgotten, the depth of theology and experience from the Puritan age, thus teaching the current generation about this great Christian era, for what we can learn from them. Considering the state of American Christianity over the last 50 years since then, the Puritan understanding of the Christian life is even more needed today.

J.I. Packer’s introductions (which were written some time after the conference, date uncertain) include some great quotes about the contrast between our generation and the Puritan era, as with these excerpts:

Whereas the Puritans demanded order, discipline, depth, and thoroughness in every department of the Christian life, the modern evangelical temper is rather one of casual haphazardness and restless impatience. We crave for stunts, novelties, and entertainments; we have lost our taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in our callings and in our prayers. … Whereas the Puritan outlook had God and His glory as its unifying center, and was in consequence a broad, balance, biblically proportioned whole, its modern evangelical counterpart has a different center. It revolves around the individual man, as if he were the real hub of the universe. . . .

and

In teaching the Christian life, our habit is to depict it as a life of thrilling feelings rather than of working faith. We stress supernatural experiences at the expense of rational righteousness. And even in dealing with Christian experience we are one-sided, for we dwell continually on the themes of joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul with no balancing reference to the divine discontentment of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens and strains which the responsibility of living as a child of God brings with it. Thus the spontaneous jollity of the carefree extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, so that jolly extroverts in our churches are encouraged to become complacent hypocrites, while saintly souls of less sanguine temperament are driven almost to distraction because they find themselves unable to bubble over in the prescribed manner. From “Puritan Papers Volume 1” (introduction to the 1958 articles).

I also appreciated the sampling of quotes from Puritan authors, such as the following from Stephen Charnock:

To dispossess man of his self-esteem and self-excellency, to make room for God in the heart where there was none but for sin, as dear to him as himself, to hurl down the pride of nature, to make stout imaginations stoop to the cross, to make desires of self-advancement sink under a zeal for the glorifying of God and an over-ruling design for His honor, is not to be ascribed to any but an outstretched arm wielding the sword of the Spirit.

The “Puritan Papers” are good reading (at least the first volume, what I’ve read so far), informative and instructive, for anyone interested in learning more about the Puritans.

iTunes University: Early Church History, The Greek and Western Leaders

June 16, 2015 5 comments

I continue to appreciate the iTunes U seminary lecture series, for greater depth of material than what is offered even from the best online sermon series. RTS’ (Reformed Theological Seminary) course on “The Church and The World” was quite helpful; now I am listening to an early church history series: Christian History I (RSS Feed Here) the legacy version from 1994, which has somewhat different topics than the more recent one). After this one I may listen to at least some of the more recent course, as it covers other topics.

The legacy course features the theology of the early church leaders, with some interesting observations about the different groups and their understanding of theology and influences.  One point is clear: the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries was still in its infancy, and its theology was expressed in simple terms and often with erroneous ideas.  Soteriology was often expressed in terms of reward for good deeds, and Christ was seen as subordinate to the Father (and not in the Reformed sense of “economic subordination” but ontological, the essence, nature, and attributes of God).

Here it is observed that the Greek apologists (Justin Martyr plus a few others) relied heavily on the gospel accounts, but nothing of the apostle Paul’s letters, which they may not have had access to.   Another factor was their background as Greek philosophers, pagan Greeks who only converted to Christianity as adults, and who highly valued Greek philosophy as what helped to bring people to Christianity.  They all had interest in knowledge, the “gnosis,” and at least some of the Greeks were influenced by gnostic and platonic ideas.  Origen is the well-known Greek theologian who took such ideas even further, with focus on the “deeper meaning” and “deeper knowledge” beyond the plain truth of a text, and non-orthodox, gnostic-influenced ideas concerning the atonement, as well as his universalist view–unbelievers go through a time period of purifying fire with some pain, and yet all people end up saved.

Another group more familiar to our evangelical way of thinking: the Western theologians.  “Western Christianity” and Medieval thought–interest in the truth itself and our relationship with God, rather than the Greek interest in knowledge and “deeper meaning”–began with Tertullian, in the late 2nd and early 3rd century: not in full form, but at least some features.  I first learned of Tertullian several years ago, in reference to the interesting martyr story of Perpetua and her friends in Carthage, Africa in 202 A.D.  Tertullian also is frequently mentioned in reference to the Montanist error, which he apparently embraced at least at some point in his life.  This series provides more details about Tertullian, who was the first of the early church fathers to write in Latin (rather than exclusively in Greek).  Tertullian was very anti-gnostic, and a strong personality, a type of Martin Luther in his day, described as a rebel: one who rebelled against his pagan parents, and later rebelled against moral laxity in the church, taking a hard line against those who “lapsed” in times of persecution.  Having been greatly immoral in his pre-Christian life, Tertullian (who became a Christian sometime between ages 30 and 40) as a believer held to a life of high moral standards, similar to the Puritans.  Tertullian advanced the early church understanding of the Trinity, as the first one to use the Latin term for the word Trinity.  He came closer (than previous early church leaders) to the full idea of the Trinity, yet still did not quite arrive at the now orthodox view, instead holding to some notion of Christ being subordinate to the Father, that somehow both were God and yet Christ not at the same level as the Father.

Upcoming lectures in this series look further at the Western theologians: more regarding Tertullian, as well as Irenaeus and Cyprian, with later lectures about various theological controversies, plus Augustine and Anselm.  I look forward to the upcoming lessons in this interesting series.

 

 

Hymns and Poor Theology: Holy God “Became Perfect Man”? (Modalism)

June 8, 2015 3 comments

It’s time again for a topic I occasionally write about (see previous posts):  Hymns and wrong/bad theology.

At least some churches now frequently sings a simple, one paragraph song called “The Gospel Song,” with the following lyrics:

Holy God, in love became Perfect Man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin. By His Death I live again.

No doubt the people singing it understand the real doctrine of the trinity, and just don’t think about what song lyrics actually say – and might claim I am being too picky. If so, I am in good company, following the example of the late S. Lewis Johnson, who often pointed out the wrong theology in hymns, as for example with one of the phrases in the chorus of “One Day” (“living He loved me, dying He saved me, buried He carried my sins far away, Rising He Justified, Freely forever”):  I don’t sing that, “Rising, He justified,” because it seems to me that what the apostle teaches here is that the resurrection of Christ is the evidence that the justification has been completed.  We’re not justified by the resurrection.  We’re justified by His death.

The simple “gospel song” above has a much more obvious problem, in that by its simple lyric, leaving so much of Christian truth out, it actually teaches modalismHoly God … became Perfect Man(?)

The early church, responding to the many errors and heresies regarding the nature of God and Christ, would have found such a song quite unwelcome. Modalism — one God who becomes different members of the Trinity at different times — appeared by the early 3rd century and was strongly denounced by early leaders including Tertullian. The Church, in its creeds and confessions, carefully worked out its statements about the Triune nature of one God in three persons, and Christ having two natures in one person.

Of course local churches like to introduce new songs, especially ones that have a simple tune and simple words. But why not, instead, provide a song with lyrics of actual confessions or creeds from the historic church, such as the Apostles’ Creed (itself a fairly brief statement, yet far more correct and comprehensive than the above “gospel song”). Indeed, two of my favorite Christian rock groups from years past, Petra and Rich Mullins, have tunes with the lyrics from the Apostles’ Creed, as noted in this interesting article.  The Rich Mullins song stays close to the original wording of the Apostles’ creed; and put to song, this creed is easily learned — and a much better alternative to a four-line “gospel song” which omits too much, to the point that its statement about God denies the Trinity for the teaching of modalism.

Creed, by Rich Mullins

I believe in God the Father, Almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth,
And in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified and dead and buried.

CHORUS:
And I believe, what I believe is what makes me what I am.
I did not make it, no it is making me.
It is the very truth of God and not the invention of any man

I believe that He who suffered, was crucified, buried, and dead
He descended into hell and on the third day, rose again.
He ascended into Heaven, where He sits at God’s mighty right hand.
I believe that He’s returning to judge the quick and the dead of the sons of men.

CHORUS

I believe in God the Father almighty Maker of Heaven and Maker of Earth
and in Jesus Christ His only begotten Son, Our Lord.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, one Holy Church, the communion of Saints,
The forgiveness of sin, I believe in the resurrection.
I believe in a life that never ends.

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