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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.

 

 

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

June 8, 2015 7 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.

Refuting Errors About the Incarnation

June 3, 2015 1 comment

Continuing in the 1689 Exposition series, a few messages on the incarnation address an error that I first heard about two years ago (as put forth by a local Sunday School teacher):  the idea that for Christ to be sinless, He could not have had any of Mary’s DNA; he was human but with no physical, genetic relation to Mary. As noted in this series (see these messages: “The Incarnation”  and “The Virgin Conception”), this view is called ‘seminal headship’, the idea that sin is transmitted through physical substance, and idea in contrast to ‘federal headship,’ in which the sin nature is a legal condition placed upon every person descended from Adam.

Even when I first heard this idea (though not knowing the specific background or terminology), I realized how wrong this is, for several reasons, rooted in the important fact that Jesus was fully God AND fully Man.  This is one of the basic doctrines of Christianity, the hypostatic union, addressed by the early church in response to so many heresies regarding Christ’s nature: errors that said He was only a man, or only God.  But it’s part of basic understanding of true science, how God has propagated the human race, that we all have DNA, the genes passed down from parent to child.  No one could really be human if he did not have the DNA of any human parents. Furthermore, if Jesus did not inherit any human genes from his human mother, He would not be descended from the line of David and would not even be a Jew – another serious theological error. Plus, if He was not really descended from Mary, without Mary’s genes, then He was not the seed of the woman prophesied in Genesis 3:15.  The Messiah was to come from the woman (Mary; Genesis 3:15), from the Jews and the line of Judah (Genesis 49:10), and descended from David, per the terms of the Davidic covenant.  As to Jesus’ physical appearance:  we know that the Jews slandered Jesus for his “illegitimate” birth and the question of who was His father (reference John 8:41).  But they never brought forth the charge that He was not really Mary’s son and did not belong to Mary’s family – which certainly would have been the case if He had not inherited any of Mary’s DNA and had no physical resemblance to Mary or His human brothers and sisters.

The series from Arden Hodgins notes that a few theologians have held to seminal headship, including William G.T. Shedd, Lorraine Boettner, plus Amish and Mennonites. Amish and Mennonite groups hold to an idea of “heavenly flesh.”

An excellent point to counter this idea: sin is not contained in physical substance such as the human seed. That is a gnostic idea, that something physical is bad or sinful. Also, our righteous nature — regeneration and indwelling of the Holy Spirit — does not come to us through any physical means; the new nature does not come to us through the genes.  So why should people think that the sin nature is transmitted through physical means? “Federal headship” makes sense concerning both our sinful nature inherited from the first Adam (a legal state put upon us), and our new righteous nature given to believers in the Last Adam.