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Essentials of Christian Thought, part 4

The previous post in this series is here.

The key to this middle way, if it is truly a middle way between extremes, is divine self-limitation—the idea that the God of the Bible is vulnerable because he makes himself so out of love. p.139

… the personal God of the Bible is revealed there as the one “principle of all things,” “both cause and reason” for everything else’s existence. [Emil] Brunner also rightly emphasized that for the Christian this is no “theory of the world,” no rational, speculative hypothesis, but revealed truth of the “one word of God.” p.142

Whether or not one takes the Genesis narratives of creation literally, their theological meaning is obvious to anyone who approaches them without bias against personal theism: The whole world, the universe, everything outside of God, was created by God “in the beginning.” p.143

And, yes, God has mind, intelligence, thought, purpose, but his essence is not “Mind” (Nuos) as Greek philosophy conceived it. p. 145

According to the biblical narrative, then, there are two basic categories of reality—God’s, which is supernatural and personal (but not human), eternal, independent, self-sufficient; and the world’s, which is dependent but good, filled with purpose and value and governed as well as sustained by God. p.145

The distinct, singular personhood of God, the reality of God as a being among beings, not an all-inclusive, unconditioned, absolute Being Itself, is a hallmark of the biblical portrayal of God. p.147

By the free act of creation, by creating something outside of himself with limited autonomy, the God of the Bible has become a being beside other beings and limited by them in a limited way. p.149

… the difference between God and humans is character, not personhood. p.149

As philosopher Plantinga explained, the scientific search for truth assumes nature is not all there is. If nature is all there is, then truth itself is a chimera and our human faculties for discovering and knowing it are unreliable. p.151

As already explained, according to the biblical view of God and the world, the world has a relative autonomy over against God—by God’s own design. Yet neither nature nor history are independent processes operating entirely under their own laws and powers. p. 151

Modern Christian thinkers such as Scottish philosopher Thomas Reid (1710–96), Horace Bushnell (1802–76), and C. S. Lewis, among many others, went out of their way to explode the myth that a miracles must be a divine interruption of nature—as if, in order to act in special ways, God must “break into” a world that operates like a machine alongside of, over against, and independently of God’s immanent, continuing creative activity. The biblical-Christian view of nature and history is the both are in some sens always already the activity of God. That is not to say that everything that happens in them is the direct, antecedent will of God; it is only to say that, from a biblical and Christian perspective, the very laws of nature are, in some sense, simply regularities of God’s general providential activity. And history is always being guided, directed, and governed by God—even when God’s human creatures, endowed with free will, rebel and act against God’s perfect will. According to a biblical-Christian worldview, God’s agency is always the principle and power underlying everything. p.152

That means, then, that a miracle is never a “breaking” of nature’s laws, a “violation” of nature, or a “disruption” of history’s story as if nature and history were normally operating under their own power and overcome by God “from the outside.” That is the myth about the supernatural and miracles imposed by modern naturalism. p.152

Rather, from a biblical-Christian perspective, a miracle is simply an event in which God acts through nature in an unusual way. p.152-3

The ultimate reality of the biblical narrative, God, is self-sufficient but also vulnerable. He is not dependent on anything outside himself and yet, at the same time, opens himself to influence by his own creatures. … God’s self-sufficiency is his freedom; his vulnerability is the product of his love. p.154

According to [Thomas F. Torrance], the Genesis creation narrative itself implies God’s entrance into time. p.157

Catholic Tresmontant affirmed that the God of the Bible, unlike the ultimate reality of Greek philosophy, is not an unchanging sameness but ever active life and action. p.157

For Cherbonnier, God’s immutability is simply his faithfulness, not his static being-ness without becoming or eternity without temporality. p.158

That is, the biblical story consistently correlates virtue and knowledge but not in the Greek sense of “to know the good is to do the good.” Rather, for the Bible and Christian thought generally, “doing the good,” by God’s grace and with faith, produces knowledge of ultimate reality as the ultimate good. p.162

But also, Brunner argued, the whole idea of an objective moral law, “right” and “wrong,” depends on ultimate reality being a personal God. p.162

For biblical-Christian thought, then, metaphysics and ethics are inseparable. p.163

Essentials of Christian Thought, part 3

This post continues from part 2, which is here. The following are more excerpts from Roger E. Olson’s The Essentials of Christian Thought.

For [Emil] Brunner, and for me, natural theology means only (1) that the biblical-Christian worldview better answers life’s ultimate questions than its competitors and alternatives, and (2) that eyes of faith for whom the Bible “absorbs the world” see the natural world as God’s good creation—”charged with the grandeur of God”—even if eyes of unbelief cannot see it as such. p.75

For biblical-Christian thought, in contrast with Greek philosophy, souls are created by God, they are not emanations, offshoots, of God’s own substance. p.81

Nearly all extra-biblical philosophies struggle with the [biblical] idea of a personal, related, vulnerable ultimate reality capable of being influences by what creatures do. p.84

Brunner believed God is revealed in nature and in the human spirit generally (general revelation). p.92

First, … nature and universal human experience, general revelation, yield only a “thatness” of God but not God’s “whoness,” personhood, and will. What humanity needs is to know God personally, not just God’s nature as ultimate reality. Second, according to Brunner, in complete agreement with most classical Protestant theology (and the Bible in Romans 1!), reason, or the use of reason, has been spoiled in humanity by sin. p.93

The reason the human person cannot use his own reason to arrive at a satisfying life philosophy or vision or reality is his own natural tendency to minimize evil—especially in himself. p.93

Brunner argued that “everyone who philosophizes does so from a definite starting point, upon which he, as this particular man, stands. The Christian philosophizes from that point at which God’s revelation sets him.” p.94

For Brunner, the God of biblical revelation is supernatural and personal but not human. p.95

God is both ontologically beyond and personally present. p.98

The point of this entire chapter is that there is a biblical, narrative-based metaphysic that contrasts with other metaphysical visions of ultimate reality, is not irrational, lies at the foundation of Christianity itself, and is being retrieved by Jewish and Christian scholars who are also separating it from extrabiblical philosophies that conflict with it. p. 99

Many scholars tend to define the difference between philosophy and theology as revelation—theology uses it and philosophy does not. There are, however, exceptions. “natural theology” is the rational exploration of the evidence of God in nature and universal human experience. “Philosophical theology” is philosophy that explores reasons for belief in God …. p.100

Brunner coined the term eristics for his own belief that, when set alongside alternative worldviews, Christian philosophy is superior. p.106

… the biblical narrative requires belief that God’s existence precedes the world’s not only temporally but ontologically. That is, the world is dependent on God, not vice versa. p.119

[Plantinga’s] conclusion, therefore, is that there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic belief, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism. p.122

Humanism is simply any belief in the dignity and creativity of human persons, that human beings are unique and above nature, in some sense transcendent, capable of great culture achievements as well as terrible destruction. It places special value on humanity. … the real humanism is Christian humanism because of the biblical-Christian emphasis on humans as created in the image and likeness of God. p.123

functional naturalism—belief that although God exists and is person, he does not intervene in history or human lives, which are ruled by natural laws and explainable by science. p. 125

Classical Christian theism, born in the cauldron of philosophized Christianity in the second and third centuries in the Roman Empire, reached its zenith in Anselm and Aquinas. p.132

Gradually, Christian began to envision ultimate reality, God, along the lines of Platonic metaphysics—including the idea that God, being metaphysically complete and perfect in every way imaginable, cannot suffer or be affect by temporal events or creatures. The word for this was and is impassibility. p. 136.

The next post in this series is here.

Basic Gospel Message

Vic Scaravilli is a Catholic who put the following on his website here. I’m reposting it (with permission) and note that Evangelicals would agree that this is the gospel, with some nuances about baptism.

The Basic Gospel Message

By Vic Scaravilli

God loves each one of us. He loves me and He loves you with an unconditional love. You are precious in His eyes.

There is something that has kept us separated from God, something that has kept us from experiencing His love in our lives. That something is called sin. The result of sin is spiritual death. We have all sinned and never can be perfect.

Does that mean we can never know and experience God’s love? No, because God loved us so much He sent His only Son to die for each one of us. Jesus is the only bridge that takes us from our sin to the love of God. By His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of heaven for everyone.

This is called salvation. It is the free gift of eternal life that is completely given to us by God’s grace. Salvation is the life in Jesus that begins now and will be for all eternity.

The free gift of salvation must be accepted in order for it to be our own. We must experience an internal conversion experience that changes our hearts. Once we accept Jesus into our hearts and allow Him to come into our lives, we begin to experience His love.

In order to become children of God, we must be born again. The sacrament of Baptism forgives your sins, gives the gift of the Holy Spirit, restores the grace lost by Adam, and makes you a member of His family.

This is the gift of salvation. We have the opportunity of eternal life because of what Jesus did for you and me. All we have to do is personally accept it by faith and be obedient to Him. Baptism and conversion are required to begin this process.

Jesus paid a debt He did not owe because we owed a debt we couldn’t pay.

Branches of Christianity

Christians accept the four gospels as four different perspectives on the gospel. In fact, each is properly titled, “The Gospel According to …” That is, there is one gospel but four perspectives on it. While it is an interesting exercise to compare the gospels with each other, they are best thought of as parallel accounts of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

There are four branches of Christianity, corresponding to the four Gospels. The parallels between each gospel and each branch of Christianity show this. The four branches are the Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches. Like the one gospel, there is only one church, but there are four perspectives on the one church.

The gospel of Matthew shows Jesus as the Messianic King. The gospel of Mark shows Jesus as the Suffering Servant. The gospel of Luke-Acts shows Jesus as the Son of Man. The gospel of John shows Jesus as the Son of God. From considerations like this, one can see the Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal branches, correspond to the gospel according to John, Matthew, Mark, and Luke-Acts, respectively.

Christians have learned to accept the four versions of the one gospel, and their different perspectives. It is past time that Christians learn to accept the four branches of the one church, and their different perspectives.

Convergence point of Christian unity

Christendom was a Christian culture and civilization that, historically speaking, began with Constantine. It started to divide with the Great Schism between East and West in the 11th century. It divided again with the Protestant Reformation beginning in the 16th century. It further divided during the Enlightenment movement beginning in the 18th century. Christendom has so divided that the word is almost archaic now.

Where does Christian unity come together? Where does it converge? Although Christ is the head of the church, where is the unity on earth after his ascension?

Since the early centuries of the church, the elders, called bishops, united in regional hierarchies that maintained mutual respect. When heretics threatened to divide the church, it was the bishops that met together to define the line between orthodoxy and heresy. The bishops united formed the unity of the church on earth.

In time the bishop of Rome asserted authority over all the other bishops. As Rome was the seat of the empire, so it should be the seat of the church. As the apostles Peter and Paul had been martyred in Rome, so there must be a divine seal on that location. The papacy was the convergence point of Christian unity, at least in the West.

The papacy has a simplicity that makes it a strong point of unity. However, it means that a pope may compromise the whole church. If he decides to sell indulgences, then the church sells indulgences and is compromised. That was the last straw for Luther.

Luther wanted to reform the church, which many agreed needed reform. But it was not to be and the Reformation turned into a schism. What did the Reformers propose as the convergence point of Christian unity? The Holy Bible. With the advent of the printing press and the translation of the Bible into the common languages of Europe, the Bible was newly available to the whole church.

Although the Bible has the advantage that it doesn’t change, it doesn’t do anything by itself either. What is called sola scriptura presumes some agreement on what the scriptures mean. That turns out to be harder than the Reformers thought. So the Reformation led to the formation of hundreds of groups, each of which revered the Bible but disagreed on some point of doctrine.

Where does that leave Christians today? Largely disunited, and unable to work together for common purposes. That is a point of weakness. The ecumenical movement attempted institutional unity but missed the unity of heart and mind. Progress has been made to at least recognize one another but common action is rare.

What can be done to achieve Christian unity now? The best that can be done is to foster specific projects that Christians can agree on. Aid to the persecuted. Assistance to the poor and marginalized. Reaffirmation of Christian morals. And prayer for unity.

Christianization of the world

In Mt 13:33 reports of Jesus: He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” Christianity is the leaven of the world. Put it into the world and gradually the whole world is leavened. This is the Christianization of the world.

Note that leaven works from the inside out, not the outside in. Christianization does not mean the world is given a coating of Christianity in hopes that it will penetrate further down. Rather, it means that the leaven of Christianity is put into the middle of the world and gradually works its way throughout.

When this is done, the outside at first may look as if nothing much has changed. But if the inside has changed, then sooner or later the outside and everything in between will change. That is what genuine Christianization means.

Christianity is a meta-religion: it “comes after” religion because it takes a religion and transforms it. The first religion Christianity was applied to was Judaism, as recorded in the New Testament. After that, the pagan religion of the gentiles in Europe was Christianized. Many of the customs associated with Christianity today come from Christianized Judaism and paganism. For example, Easter is a Christianized spring festival (the name comes from the Teutonic goddess of spring) and Christmas is a Christianized winter solstice festival.

Other religions have not been Christianized as much, but they could be. Music is one aspect which has been Christianized. There are Christian songs in every music tradition. Converts from any religion should be able to retain parts of their culture with a new focus and interpretation. Christianity is not about replacing the cultures of the world but about redeeming them.

The kingdom of God is the Christianization of the world. Where the kingship of Christ is, there is the kingdom of God. The world in all its diversity can be redeemed — and preserved — through Christ.

 

Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical

This post is about the words catholic, orthodox, and evangelical and what they mean. The first question is whether only one branch (denomination) of Christianity can legitimately use any of these words. The answer is No; many churches can use them.

The Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed includes the words “In one holy catholic and apostolic Church”. So any church that accepts this creed has some claim on the word catholic (as well as the word apostolic).

Catholic means universal so any church that identifies with the universal church (whether as part of it or the whole of it is another matter) has a claim on this word. This includes every branch of Christianity, though the Church of Rome has taken it their moniker.

It is similar with the word orthodox. Any church that considers its doctrine to be orthodox Christianity has a claim on this word. That covers every branch of Christianity, although the churches of Eastern Christianity have taken it as their moniker.

The word evangelical simply means “pertaining to the gospel.” Any church which promotes the gospel has a claim on this word. That covers every branch of Christianity, though some Protestant churches (especially revivalist ones) have taken it as their moniker.

We could say that the words catholic, orthodox, and evangelical have generic and specialized meanings. Their specialized uses are usually capitalized. No one branch of Christianity has a monopoly on any of these words, though it sometimes seems so.

 

Evangelical varieties

The word evangelical means simply “of or according to the teaching of the gospel (the good news)”. Evangelical was used by Martin Luther to characterize the Reformation so that in Europe it is often a synonym for Protestant. In America the term (often capitalized) has come to have a particular meaning, characterized by historian David Bebbington with the following four distinctives:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus.
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

To avoid confusion those who follow the theological tradition that runs closer to Martin Luther could be called Lutheran Evangelicals, though they are often called simply Lutherans. Similarly, those who follow the theological tradition that runs closer to Jean (John) Calvin could be called Reformed Evangelicals, though they are often called simply Calvinists.

These latter two groups would not insist on a conversion experience, being satisfied with Baptism and Confirmation. Other than that, they (or at least the more theologically conservative among them) would fit in with those called simply Evangelicals. Accordingly, to be more precise about which variety of evangelical is referenced, Evangelicals in America could be called Conversionist Evangelicals.

There are other qualifiers that could be used, too: Wesleyan Evangelicals, Holiness Evangelicals, Pentecostal Evangelicals, Charismatic Evangelicals, Fundamentalist Evangelicals, etc.

Religion in Ngrams

Google’s Ngram Viewer gives the frequencies of words and phrases in books since about 1800. It is an interesting way of looking at history in the last two centuries. What follows are some observations about the usage of words associated with religion and Christianity:

Usage of the word religion has gradually decreased since 1810, steeply until 1860. The words virtue, virtues and virtuous have declined since 1810. Trinity has decreased since 1815.

The words priest and pastor are parallel with priest more common and both declining moderately since 1860.

Several words have declined since 1840: irreligious, evil, wicked, church, God, Jesus Christ, Christianity. The word theology had a peak in 1890 and a trough in 1940. Christian declined from 1850 to 1920 then leveled off.

The words atheism and atheist decreased until 1920 then leveled off. The terms evangelical (or Evangelical) and reformed (or Reformed) declined from the 1840s to 1920 then leveled off.

The words moral and prayer declined from 1840 to 1940 then leveled off. Holy Spirit decreased from 1840 to 1940 then increased as Holy Ghost declined.

Contrary to this trend Christmas increased from the 1830s to the 1940s, declined until 1970 and then has increased since then. Charles Dickens’ novella A Christmas Carol was published in December 1843 and likely contributed to the rise.

The words secular and secularism have increased since 1920. The phrase organized religion took off from 1900 to 1940, and has oscillated since then.

Bible peaked in the 1850s but has been on the rise since the 1970s. Bible study had a steep peak in 1915, declined to the 1940s, and a steep rise since the 1970s.

So the period 1840 to 1920 had a general decline in usage of religious words. Since then it is more mixed: some decline but also some increases, Bible study being the most dramatic.

Fourfold Gospel

There is one Gospel but four ways of understanding it.  These correspond to the four “Gospels”, that is, the Gospel according to Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John.  They each emphasize different aspects of the good news of Jesus Christ.  For example, see Characteristic Differences of the Four Gospels (which Kregel Publications calls “Four Views of Christ”) by Andrew Jukes.

The fourfold Gospel includes a fourfold atonement corresponding to the key roles and accomplishments of Jesus Christ:

(1) Victor:  He overcame death, hell, sin, and Satan, that is, evil and all its manifestations, without denying the rights of Satan and his minions.  Christ is Lord, King, and Ruler of all.

(2) Sacrifice:  He provided a way for God to forgive us without compromising righteousness.  He did this by satisfying the requirements of justice on our behalf.  Christ is Priest, Lamb, and Temple for all.

(3) Mediator:  He restored our relationship to God, that is, overcame our alienation from God, without ignoring the development of our alienation.  Christ is Prophet and Intercessor for all.

(4) Exemplar:  He embodied the way, the truth, and the life of God, showing us how to live, what to think, and which actions to take.  Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

2005