Friday, July 30, 2010

Book Review: Viola & Barna, Pagan Christianity

314853: Pagan Christianity! Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices Pagan Christianity! Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices

By Frank Viola & George Barna / Barna Books

Many Christians take for granted that their Sunday morning worship service is rooted in the New Testament, but why does the church in the New Testament seem very different from our own expressions of corporate worship? Frank Viola and George Barna come to the startling conclusion that most of what Christians do in church is rooted more in pagan culture than in the New Testament.

Discover how many church customs really originated. This thought-provoking exploration into the background of how believers have worshiped for centuries uncovers many non-Christian roots. From the order of worship to the pastor's sermon, traditional dress codes to Christian education, Viola and Barna take a revealing look at Sunday morning. 304 pages, hardcover from Barna Books.

Frank Viola is an influential voice in the contemporary house church movement. Frank is a nationally recognized expert on new trends in the church, holds conferences on the deeper Christian life, and is actively engaged in planting New Testament style churches.

George Barna is the chairman of Good News Holdings, a multimedia firm in Los Angeles that produces Movies, television programming, and other media content. He is also the founder and directing leader of the Barna Group, a research and resource firm in Ventura California. He has been hailed as "the most often quoted person in the Christian Church today" and is counted among its most influential leaders.


This is one of those books that leave me with mixed feelings. The authors correctly point out a number of examples where traditionalism, structuralism, and misuse of authority are undermining to the ministry of the Church. They rightfully identify numerous biblical teachings such as a plurality of elders, congregational participation in ministry, and an emphasis on the edification of the body that are sadly neglected in many churches. On the other hand the book is written in an unnecessarily provocative style and many of the conclusions drawn from historical analysis are somewhat ill supported. The authors make some good points but also border on throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It is therefore a bit difficult for me to settle on any unified opinion of the book.

The Good

This book points out many important elements of biblical ecclesiology that are either neglected or subverted in modern fellowships. They rightfully highlight the harmful and counterproductive nature of the pastor as C.E.O model and the unbiblical distinction between clergy and laity that exists even in many churches that are doctrinally opposed to the concept. They show how various organizational and architectural structures can reinforce, almost subconsciously, unbiblical views of the Church and the function of its ministry. They rightfully emphasize the necessity of servant leadership and mutual participation in worship, teaching, and fellowship contexts.

The Bad

The book is an apologetic for a particular ministry philosophy and there is no biblical justification made for that philosophy (perhaps that is in the follow up book). There is virtually no exegetical work in the book to demonstrate, from the biblical text, why these various developments in the history of the church are anti-biblical (which is more important than if they are unbiblical). The interpretive perspectives on the scriptures that are presented are simply assumed. The book is filled with footnotes to support its argument; however, many of those are references to other works by the author. The historical research is heavily dependant upon the work of Will and Ariel Durant who are not specialists in church history and wrote primarily for a public audience. Unfortunately, more substantial historical works by those who are specialists are neglected. Much of the historical analysis leaps from the assertion of certain facts to interpretations that are arguable and seem in many cases to be oversimplifications. In fairness to the authors, the book is intended for the layman rather than for historians but that hardly justifies superficial historical support considering the scope laid out in the introduction and implied by the title.


The book raises important issues that should be honestly considered by Christians. We should constantly be examining our practices in light of the scriptures. I particularly encourage those who are pastors, elders, or leaders to read the book and to examine their ministries with regard to the criticisms that are raised. On the other hand, I do not believe that the appropriate response to those criticisms is necessarily the remedy that they suggest. There are other important theological (and historical) considerations that are not addressed. It is a good book to generate discussion as long the reader understands that there are other perspectives. Had the book been written with more strongly argued historical analysis and a less polemical tone it would have been more valuable, but it is still worth a read.

The Problem of Evil part 3

This is the third post in a series introducing the problem of evil to those who are not familiar with it or the Christian responses to it. Please see the previous posts for more background.

Another common element in the Christian response to the problem of evil is a consideration of the nature of evil itself. Among those considerations, the most influential again comes from Augustine of Hippo. His argument is generally combined with other arguments, such as the free will defense, to logically show how God can be the ultimate creator and still not be responsible for the creation of evil.

The nature of Evil

As we saw in part 2, Augustine recognized the reality of evil and attributed the cause to the free choices of created beings. Augustine, however, made an important distinction between moral evil, caused by the choices of created beings, and what he called metaphysical evil. His explanation of metaphysical evil is very interesting and is often used in an ultimate sense to explain both natural evil and moral evil in a way that removes God from being even the ultimate source of its existence. Essentially he argued that evil has no existence in the proper sense of the term.

Augustine argued that God was the creator of all things but that evil was not a thing. He explained that it is a mistake to think of evil as something that is equal to and opposite of good. Proponents of this view explain evil as having no true existence. This does not mean that evil isn’t real, but rather that it is the lack of a thing rather than a thing in itself. Evil according to this view is depravation; it is simply the lack of goodness.

This may sound a bit difficult to understand at first but there are many examples of this distinction that we are all familiar with. Darkness, for example, is not a thing. It has no independent existence. Darkness is simply the absence of light. Coldness also does not have a true independent physical existence. Coldness is simply the absence of heat. While we may speak as though cold and darkness exist the fact is that in actuality they do not. To say that something is dark or cold is not to assert the presence of any actual thing; it is simply to assert the lack of a thing, namely light or heat.

In the same way, evil is often considered by Christian philosophers to be simply a lack of goodness or completeness. One way this is commonly explained is that God created everything and it was all good. Its goodness depended upon it being in a correct relation to God from whom all goodness derives. Whenever anything departs from its correct relationship to God it is then lacking in something. For example, human beings after the fall of Adam lack life. They are finite and exposed to death. The evil of death is not something God created in a positive sense, but rather, the result of being cut off from the goodness of God that was intended. Death is not something… it is the lack of something, namely life.

There are many complicated arguments to show how this depravation of good is responsible for the all evil in the world in such a way that God can be said to not have created anything that was not good. In this view evil is like a parasite that is itself dependant upon the goodness of God for its existence. Like all things it has no independent existence but unlike the creation of God it was not brought forth from His creative agency.

This kind of explanation is often combined with the free will defense to show how God can allow evil as a result of the choices of His creatures without creating it as a “thing”. Essentially, God is good and anything that is apart from God will have some lack of good. Evil and calamity is then the result of that lack of goodness.

We will look at another type of response in the next posting on the topic.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book Review: Thabiti Anyabwile, Gospel for Muslims

471116: Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence

By Thabiti Anyabwile / Moody Publishers

* There are several million Muslims living in the United States today. How can you effectively communicate the good news with them despite profound theological differences? As a convert from Islam to Christianity, Anyabwile offers insight to help you focus on the people rather than the religious system---and communicate your faith clearly and confidently! 144 pages, softcover from Moody.

One of the original plans for the blog was to provide quick reviews of various books that might be of interest. I realized today that there weren’t any reviews posted yet so here is the first one to get us kicked off!

When I first saw this title I assumed that it was going to be one of books that would point out a few verses from the Koran that might be helpful, remind not to say certain things that Muslims might find offensive, and provide other “methods” for sharing my faith with Muslims.

It does do some of that but I was pleasantly surprised by what I found within. Anyabwile focuses upon the power in the gospel and encourages us to have confidence in that power in order to witness effectively to Muslims (or anyone else). He reminds us that Muslims have the same spiritual needs and that same spiritual remedy as any other human being. The book was encouraging and was a great blend of sound theology and good practical advice. I have now read a couple of his books and have heard a few of his presentations and Thabiti Anyabwile is quickly moving up my list of teachers to recommend. I shall begin by recommending Gospel for Muslims: An Encouragement to Share Christ with Confidence to anyone who has a heart for evangelism in general, and for Muslims in particular.

Augustine & Free Will

(This is a follow up to the post “The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?”)

It is often asserted that prior to Augustine the only view of the human will that existed in Christian theology was that of a libertine free will (LFW) whereby people possess the power of contrary choice. The claim is made that prior to Augustine the Fathers were unified in this kind of understanding of the will and that Augustine’s teaching was an innovation and a departure from the traditional teaching of the church.

As I mentioned in the previous post, The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?, some of the early fathers, particularly in the east, articulated a libertine view of the will, however, it is anachronistic to assume that they understood it to relate to God’s sovereignty in the way that modern Arminians do. Augustine’s teaching on human ability should not necessarily be assumed to be a departure from the traditional teaching of the earlier fathers even though they never articulated their doctrine of the will they way he did.

Why LFW in Some Early Fathers Is Not Surprising

It shouldn’t surprise us that some of the Fathers, eager to emphasize the ethical and judicial teaching of Christianity against the pagan fatalism of their day, would respond with what seems to be a natural, common sense, explanation of human freedom. They recognized that scripture clearly teaches that humans are moral agents who are responsible for the choices that they make. We all experience our own agency in a way that feels as though we have the power of contrary choice. The “default” view of our own will and liberty is virtually always that of LFW. It is not surprising to me that some early Fathers would not have expressed any other view of the will because there was no compelling reason to do so. Until the Pelagian controversy there was no claim appealing to scriptural authority that the freedom they proclaimed might be in tension with their view of sovereignty. None of the fatalistic arguments of their philosopher opponents would have been convincing to them because they did not highlight any potential difficulties within their biblical understanding. A compatibilist view of the will or a doctrine of prevenient grace was simply not required at the time they were writing.

Even Augustine defended a LFW view early in his early writings. In his book against the Manichaeans, On Two Souls, Augustine writes:

“Wherefore whatever these souls do, if they do it by nature not by will, that is, if they are wanting in a movement of mind free both for doing and not doing, if finally no power of abstaining from their work is conceded to them; we cannot hold that the sin is theirs.”

It is not until later when responding to the challenges of Pelagius and Coelestus that he works out a more complete attempt to reconcile free moral agency and meticulous divine providence. In the same way that it was necessary for the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity to become increasingly precise after challenges were raised, the early expressions of human ability and divine sovereignty were too ambiguous in their early articulations to resolve the Pelagian difficulty with an appeal to the Fathers. The scriptural truths of moral culpability and divine sovereignty were not harmonized within their systems. It is impossible to know what kinds of modifications, if any, the earlier fathers might have made to their understanding of freedom had the same challenge been posed to them.

Innovator or Defender of Church Tradition?

Augustine expressed his teaching on the will in ways that were not explicitly developed in the earlier Fathers. We do not see in their writing a clear distinction between original sin and actual sin in the way we find in him, nor do we see any kind of consistent compatibilism of the will expressed prior to him. It is therefore understandable that many see his work as an innovation and departure from the teaching of the earlier Fathers. However, for reasons discussed in a previous post it would be an oversimplification to consider Augustine’s doctrine as something completely distinct from their teaching because the trajectory of his thought is firmly founded upon important biblical elements that were articulated in their writings.

The Protestant Reformers insisted that even their much stronger Augustinian doctrine of the will was historical and that it was Rome who had deviated from the original faith. Martin Luther, for example, who was never reluctant to point out what he saw as errors in the fathers said:

The very name, Free-will, was odious to all the Fathers. I, for my part, admit that God gave to mankind a free will, but the question is, whether this same freedom be in our power and strength, or no? We may very fitly call it a subverted, perverse, fickle, and wavering will, for it is only God that works in us, and we must suffer and be subject to his pleasure. Even as a potter out of his clay makes a pot or vessel, as he wills, so it is for our free will, to suffer and not to work. It stands not in our strength; for we are not able to do anything that is good in divine matters.”

-Luther Table Talk chapter 259

Likewise, John Calvin also insisted that Protestant doctrine flowed logically from the teaching of the early fathers. In the preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin says:

“It is a calumny to represent us as opposed to the Fathers (I mean the ancient writers of a purer age), as if the Fathers were supporters of their impiety. Were the contest to be decided by such authority (to speak in the most moderate terms), the better part of the victory would be ours. While there is much that is admirable and wise in the writings of those Fathers, and while in some things it has fared with them as with ordinary men; these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt; so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold. Then, with dishonest clamor, they assail us as enemies and despisers of the Fathers. So far are we from despising them, that if this were the proper place, it would give us no trouble to support the greater part of the doctrines which we now hold by their suffrages.”

-John Calvin, Preface to King Francis

Of course, Luther and Calvin might have had their own reasons for claiming that there was support from the fathers but more importantly Augustine, himself, was adamant that he offered no novel doctrine. He saw his work as a refinement and a development of the traditional teaching of the church and went to some lengths to show that his views were not “new”. Luther and Calvin’s competence as patristic scholars is open for debate and a great deal has been published on both sides of this issue regarding the accuracy of their claim. Augustine, however, was writing for an audience that was much closer in time, culture, and familiarity with the earlier fathers than were the Reformers and the majority of his contemporaries accepted his claim.

Referring to his work against the Pelagians, Jerome writes the following words to Augustine in one of his letters, “You are famous throughout the world. Catholics revere you and point you out as the establisher of the old-time faith; and - an even greater glory - all heretics hate you.” Notice that Jerome asserts specifically that Augustine is defending the old faith against heretics and that this opinion is widespread. It is unlikely that this is mere flattery since the Augustinian position was in fact confirmed by many subsequent synods and councils, most notably those of Ephesus (431) and Orange (529).

There were, of course, many contemporaries of Augustine, such as John Cassian, who argued against his views. In fact, although both the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian view of human ability was rejected by the Council of Orange, the Semi-Pelagian view, as taught by Cassian eventually became the dominant view in Roman Catholic theology. It is essentially a version of this view that is made the official position of the Roman church at the Council of Trent in 1545 in response to the Reformation. The fact remains, however, that at the time he was writing most of the teachers of the church accepted Augustine’s view as consistent with scripture and the historic teaching of the church.


Although Augustine develops a view of the will that is different than that expressed by many of the earlier fathers he does not do it in opposition to their teaching. He develops his doctrine in such a way as to retain the moral culpability they emphasized while retaining the divine initiative in salvation that was also assumed in their writing. It can be argued that the Pelagian controversy itself arose because the church teaching did not satisfactorily harmonize the tension between those two truths found in scripture. If faced with the same challenge there is really no reason to be confident that the earlier fathers would have resolved this tension with anything akin to the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace any more than they would be likely to follow a more Augustinian direction. Augustine’s work, while original, shares a logical foundation with the early understanding of important doctrinal truths which the fathers expressed in their writings.

At the end of the day, what matters is that we derive our theological positions based upon careful exegesis of the bible rather than the teaching of any theologian regardless of how highly esteemed or ancient. There is no need to seek out candles when we have the noonday sun to light our path. The argument that Augustine essentially invented his doctrine of grace virtually out of nothing, however, is not true. An understanding that God is the active agent in salvation has been an important teaching through all of church history. How that is reconciled with the biblical teaching that we are responsible for our moral choices, however, has developed over time as new questions have been raised.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Early Fathers: whose side were they on?

The relationship between God’s sovereignty and the will of man is one of the most contentious, difficult, and longstanding debates in history. Philosophers, both ancient and modern, have wrestled with the question and it was a well known debate among Jewish teachers. The Jewish historian Josephus, writing for a Roman audience, says the following:

“Of the two first-named schools, the Pharisees, who are considered the most accurate interpreters of the laws, and hold the position of the leading sect, attribute everything to Fate and to God; they hold that to act rightly or otherwise rests, indeed, for the most part with men, but that in each action Fate co-operates.” … “The Sadducees, the second of the orders, do away with Fate altogether, and remove God beyond, not merely the commission, but the very sight, of evil. They maintain that man has the free choice of good or evil, and that it rests with each man’s will whether he follows the one or the other.”
-Josephus, The Jewish War (70 A.D.)

This question has tremendous significance in Christian theology and has been at the center of some of the most important disputes in church history. The debate involves a number of disagreements related to the interpretation of the biblical text. Although they are not considered in the Protestant tradition to be authoritative the question still arises: Which side were the Early Church Fathers on?

Were the Early Fathers Arminians or Calvinists?

The fact is that the Early Church Fathers taught neither a Calvinistic nor an Arminian system of doctrine. Even Augustine, the great defender of the biblical doctrine of Sola Gratia, never approached anything like the Protestant doctrine of Sola Fide which both Calvinists and Arminians accept. Although there are many antecedents to Protestant systems in the Fathers none of them taught a coherent system of doctrine that is analogous to those developed during the Reformation. Both Calvinism and Arminianism are substantially different in many ways from the systems found in the Fathers.

The question remains, however, if there was any consensus amongst the Fathers on the key point of disagreement between Arminians and Calvinists, namely the nature and ability of the human will. Did the early Fathers all teach that humans possessed a libertine free will?

Did the Fathers Teach Free Will?

To begin with the “Fathers” are not a homogeneous group. Early Christian teachers held differing views and emphases on various doctrines. In the case of the freedom of the will there are some examples of Fathers giving very clear explanations as to their view of the will and in other cases it isn’t so clear. From what I have read of them it is clear that they universally rejected the pagan views of fate, asserted that human beings have a free will, and that they were responsible moral agents. Both Calvinists and Arminians would agree with those assertions and in many cases nothing more is said by the Fathers. In other cases, however, they speak of election and predestination in conjunction with God’s foreknowledge regarding the actions of men. Therefore, it is quite easy to find quotations from the Fathers that appear to strongly support a view of the will very similar to that which is held by Arminians. On the face of it, it would seem as though many of Fathers were firmly in the Arminian camp on this issue and that the others (who offer no explanation) might possibly be as well.

Of course, the truth of neither view depends upon the witness of the Fathers so there is really no reason even for Calvinists to shy away from the conclusion that the Fathers held to a libertine view of the will if that is supported by the evidence. I think, however, that such a conclusion would be an oversimplification for a few reasons.

First, Calvinists also reject the pagan view of fate and the kind of determinism that the Fathers were reacting to is not what Calvinists teach. Calvinists do affirm that humans have a will that is free but in a different sense than do Arminians. Depending upon how they are understood many of the pro-will statements made by the Fathers would be perfectly consistent with a Reformed view.

Secondly, the Fathers emphasize other elements in their teaching that should cause us to pause before assuming that they taught that the libertine will as created remains intact after the fall. There is nothing I have seen that would lead one to the conclusion that they maintain a general grace which overcomes the depravity inherited from Adam for all mankind. Many of the “free will” quotes popularly given from the Fathers are, in their context, referring to the nature and constitution of man as originally created.

Third, it is anachronistic to take statements made prior to the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian controversy and read back into them answers to questions they never addressed. The Fathers, particularly those writing very early, assert both man’s freedom and God’s sovereignty. They do not develop the relationship of the concepts as later writers do. Trying to understand how they might have responded in light of later developments is a rather uncertain task. They did not address many of our concerns as specifically as later writers would because the questions had not yet been raised. As is common to every age they tended to carefully articulate and work out doctrines that were being debated or challenged in their day. Therefore, we expect to see well defined expressions of doctrines such as The Trinity, the nature of Christ, etc. while expecting less developed statements regarding other issues that were not the central subjects of their writing. I will develop why it is not unexpected that they should write the way they do prior to Augustine and why he can rightfully be seen as building upon their foundation in an upcoming follow up post to this one.

A Closer Look at Their View of Ability

As I mentioned previously, the pre-Augustinian Fathers do often write in a way that sounds very consistent with an Arminian view. One such example are the comments of Irenaeus regarding the will of man:

For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually. And therefore does He give good counsel to all. And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves. On the other hand, they who have not obeyed shall, with justice, be not found in possession of the good, and shall receive condign punishment: for God did kindly bestow on them what was good; but they themselves did not diligently keep it, nor deem it something precious, but poured contempt upon His super-eminent goodness… But if some had been made by nature bad, and others good, these latter would not be deserving of praise for being good, for such were they created; nor would the former be reprehensible, for thus they were made [originally]. But since all men are of the same nature, able both to hold fast and to do what is good; and, on the other hand, having also the power to cast it from them and not to do it,—some do justly receive praise even among men who are under the control of good laws (and much more from God), and obtain deserved testimony of their choice of good in general, and of persevering therein; but the others are blamed, and receive a just condemnation, because of their rejection of what is fair and good.
-Irenaeus Against the Heresies Book 4, Chapter 37 (175-185) [the date of the works will be provided in parenthesis]

This is a somewhat typical statement that one might easily find in the writings of the Fathers. It is rather clear and seems on the surface to be conclusive regarding his position. The complication with Irenaeus and others is that they make other statements attributing various causal elements of belief and obedience directly to God. Elsewhere in the same book he makes numerous statements such as this:

“…but since it was impossible, without God, to come to a knowledge of God, He teaches men, through His Word, to know God.”
-Irenaeus Against the Heresies Book 4, Chapter 5 (175 -185)

An argument could be made that these should be understood as references to the general outward ministry of the Holy Spirit and not to an inward ministry of regeneration; however, in many of the Fathers it is clear that they believed the fall had such an impact on human nature that a special means of grace was necessary to bring about faith and obedience. The depravity imparted by original sin was clearly seen as limiting the free exercise of the will.

“But whence should they perceive or understand these things? Howbeit we having justly perceived the commandments tell them as the Lord willed. To this end He circumcised our ears and hearts, that we might understand these things.”
-Epistle of Barnabas (date uncertain 70-131)

“Anything like boasting in one's own praise is hateful, although we cannot in reality boast but only be grateful for whatever we do not ascribe to man's virtue but declare to be the gift of God; so that now we sin not is the beginning of the work of faith, whereas that we sinned before was the result of human error. All our power is of God; I say, of God.”
-Cyprian Epistle to Donatus (246)

There is the underlying assumption on the part of the Fathers that the will cannot properly operate apart from the gracious work of God (they were certainly not Pelagians). The assumption often seems to be that our wills are free but that special grace is required for conversion. Prior to Augustine there is no attempt to develop a compatible view of the will but neither is there any development of a doctrine of prevenient grace. The two truths simply stand side by side without reconciliation.

“… whether the free-will which is in us, by reaching the knowledge of the good, leaps and bounds over the barriers, as the gymnasts say; yet it is not without eminent grace that the soul is winged, and soars, and is raised above the higher spheres, laying aside all that is heavy, and surrendering itself to its kindred element. … “Wisdom which is God-given, as being the power of the Father, rouses indeed our free-will, and admits faith, and repays the application of the elect with its crowning fellowship.”
-Clement of Alexandria … Stromata Book 5, Chapter 13 (182-202)

In many places the Fathers recognized the inability of fallen man to overcome his own sinfulness and also that God ordains ends in accordance with the nature of the creature. These truths are held together, both inability and freedom asserted.

“Having then in the former time demonstrated the inability of our nature to obtain life, and having now revealed a Savior able to save even creatures which have no ability, He willed that for both reasons we should believe in His goodness and should regard Him as nurse, father, teacher, counselor, physician, mind, light, honor, glory, strength and life.”
-Mathates epistle to Diognetus Chapter 9 (130-200)

“Neither let any one either take comfort from, or apologize for what happens from fate. Let what happens be of the disposition of fortune, yet the mind is free; and therefore man’s doing, not his dignity, is judged. For what else is fate than what God has spoken of each one of us? who, since He can foresee our constitution, determines also the fates for us, according to the deserts and the qualities of individuals. Thus in our case it is not the star under which we are born that is punished, but the particular nature of our disposition is blamed.”
-The Octavius of Minucius Felix Chapter 36 (160-250)

They also often teach that the willful choices of men are confirmed by God and those who are saved are not saved through their own power but through the grace of God a remnant is saved and made manifest. We see both God preserving for Himself a people as well as a defense of human agency in salvation.

"… if the word of God foretells that some angels and men shall be certainly punished, it did so because it foreknew that they would be unchangeably [wicked], but not because God had created them so. So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God…”
-Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 141 (150-160)

“But now, by means of the contents of those Scriptures esteemed holy and prophetic amongst you, I attempt to prove all [that I have adduced], in the hope that some one of you may be found to be of that remnant which has been left by the grace of the Lord of Sabaoth for the eternal salvation.”
-Justin Martyr Dialogue with Trypho Chapter 32 (150-160)

These are just a few of the hundreds of quotations that could be brought forward to demonstrate that the Fathers did teach that the liberty of the will was affected by the fall thus limiting its ability to respond without grace. Arminians and Calvinists agree on that point. The Fathers provide a clear teaching on neither compatibilism nor prevenient grace as a method of bridging their view of liberty and the necessity of grace. They simply let stand various comments about the will that are not reconciled with their view of providence, original sin etc. Both the Reformed and Arminian systems are distinctive in the way they explain the relationship between spiritual inability and freedom. The Fathers often do not and when they do it is often not done in a way that modern readers would find satisfactory.

Although the Fathers do often speak in a way that seems quite consistent with an Arminian view of the will they also teach human inability and that the decisive action in salvation is an action of God. Following are a few quotes from the earliest church Fathers whose lives overlapped with some of the apostles and other disciples who had actually seen and heard Christ.

“Ignatius, who is also called Theophorus, to the Church which is at Ephesus, in Asia, deservedly most happy, being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father, and predestinated before the beginning of time, that it should be always for an enduring and unchangeable glory, being and elected through the true passion by the will of God the Father, and of our Lord Jesus Christ our Savior”
-Ignatius Epistle to the Ephesians (90-115)

“The Christian is not the result of persuasion, but of power. When he is hated by the world, he is beloved of God. For says [the Scripture], “If ye were of this world, the world would love its own; but now ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of it: continue in fellowship with me.”
-Ignatius Epistle to the Romans Chapter 3 (90-115)

“All these, therefore, were highly honored, and made great, not for their own sake, or for their own works, or for the righteousness which they wrought, but through the operation of His will. And we, too, being called by His will in Christ Jesus, are not justified by ourselves, nor by our own wisdom, or understanding, or godliness, or works which we have wrought in holiness of heart; but by that faith through which, from the beginning, Almighty God has justified all men; to whom be glory for ever and ever.”
Clement 1 Epistle to the Corinthians Chapter 32 (80-140)

“Let him that is pure in the flesh boast not of it, knowing that it is another that gives him the power of continence. Let us consider, brethren, of what matter we are made, of what sort and who we are that have come into the world, as it were out of the tomb and darkness. He that made and fashioned us hath brought us into this world, having prepared beforehand his benefactions, even before we were born. Having, therefore, all these things from him, we ought in all respects to give thanks unto him, to whom be glory world without end.”
-Clement of Rome Epistle to the Corinthians chapter 38 (80-140)


Did the Early Church Fathers prior to Augustine teach that man had a free will? Yes, they asserted the freedom of the will against the pagan forms of determinism of their day and some did so in a way that assumes a libertarian view of the will. They also, however, acknowledged that sin limited the ability of the will to choose right and that we cannot, apart from grace, obtain salvation. Because there had yet to be a scriptural challenge to those notions there was no development of how to biblically reconcile the freedom they saw in creation with the inability they recognized in the fall as we find in both Arminianism and Calvinism.

Many Arminians like to point out that the Fathers, like Arminians, teach a form of inability, predestination, and sovereignty along with a libertine view of the will. They are generally and technically correct so far as that goes. It does not follow, however, that they would have reconciled them in the same way that Arminius did. Given their other doctrinal commitments it is just as likely that they would have reconciled them in a way that was more Augustinian than Arminian. Augustine vehemently claimed that he was simply defending the historic view of the earlier Fathers and many of his contemporaries agreed with him. It is not necessary, given the broad sweep of the doctrinal commitments of the Fathers, that one sees Augustine’s view of freedom as a deviation from their teaching. I will develop this further in a future post.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 2

(see part 1 for the intro)

The most common Christian response to the problem of evil is the “free will” defense. There are a number of differences between various versions of this argument but they all essentially rest upon the premise that God cannot be held responsible for evil since it is the result of the free choices of created beings, whether angelic or human. The first person that I am aware of to give this type of defense was Augustine although the most famous articulation of it in our time is by Alvin Plantinga.

Often it is an argument based upon the hierarchy of priorities of God in creation. God, for some purpose, determined that it was more valuable for Him to create creatures that were free to choose either good or evil than it was to create a world where evil did not exist. Usually this is thought to be in order to create a world that has the best possible reality. As I already indicated, there are many versions of this argument that differ from one another in a number of details. A common (although simplified) version of the argument is as follows:

The Free Will Defense

1. Although God is all powerful (omnipotent) there are still things that He cannot do. God cannot do what is logically impossible for Him to do. For example, God cannot create square triangles or rocks too heavy for Him to lift etc.

2. God desired to create a world where at least some of the creatures have a free will. (Some versions argue for why this is the case and others do not)

3. It is not logically possible for God to create a world that contains free beings without allowing the possibility that they would make evil choices. If He did create beings without the capability of choosing evil then they would not be free (choices of moral goodness would also not exist).

4. Evil is therefore the result of the free choices of created beings. God cannot logically eliminate evil without undermining another purpose of His, namely that creatures would have free wills.

Often the additional argument is given that God brings about the best possible world given the existence of free moral beings.

This is a strong argument, particularly as Plantinga states it, because it demonstrates the possibility that God, as described by Christians, is not logically incompatible with the existence of evil found in the world. It is not necessary that the argument is sound (true) in order for it to defeat the deductive problem of evil. It shows that there exists at least one possible scenario where the God of the Bible and the world as we know it can coexist logically. If there is at least one logically possible scenario for that to happen then the deductive problem of evil is overcome. Many non-Christian philosophers have admitted that the modern version of the Free Will Defense has demonstrated that evil is not logically incompatible with the Christian God while others have continued to work on restating the problem to account for this defense.

There are, however, also weaknesses to this argument, many of which are too technical to cover in this kind of introduction but I will briefly mention a few.

1. This argument relies upon the premise that freedom is incompatible with determinism. Meaning that in order for someone to be “free” there can be no other force that determines what they will choose with certainty. There are many theologians and philosophers (both Christian and not) who do not accept that freedom is logically incompatible with determinism. If in some sense determinism and freedom are compatible then it is not a logical impossibility for God to create free creatures while also ensuring that evil does not exist.

2. Even if freedom and determinism are logically incompatible and that free creatures will eventually make an evil choice it does not mean that God could not have created a world of a particular duration so as to contain no evil. Meaning that in light of the limitations imposed upon God by the freedom of His creatures God could have chosen not to create, created a series of worlds that would cease to exist at the first introduction of evil, or provided for the immediate judgment of those who do evil (this would presumably be an effective deterrent to the spread of evil).

3. Some argue that freedom of choice is a freedom of “opportunity” rather than a freedom of “success”. This means that even if God must logically allow free creatures to choose evil He does not have to allow those choices to be successful in bringing about evil. God could have included in creation circumstances that prevent free choices from having evil effects. The choice would be freely made but the realization of those choices would be thwarted.

Although this is the most popular kind of response to the problem of evil it is certainly not the only one. We will look at another type of response in the next posting on the topic.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Advanced Study

Rather than have a single huge "recommended reading" list we have decided to narrow things down in an effort to be more targeted and helpful to those who use the site.

We have included a page for those who are looking for advanced material to further their studies called "Advanced Study". We list only a few books on each topic that will provide advanced students with resources for further study. Please take a look at the list (linked at the top of the main page) and let us know where we went wrong or what we could do to improve the list.

Starter Kit

Rather than have a single huge "recommended reading" list we have decided to narrow things down in an effort to be more targeted and helpful to those who use the site.

We have included a page for those who are looking to find books that will help get them started studying a particular topic called "Starter Kit". We list only a few books on each topic that will provide a good foundation to get them started on a serious study of the topic. Please take a look at the list (linked at the top of the main page) and let us know where we went wrong or what we could do to improve the list.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Problem of Evil part 1

I was asked by a friend if I could post a Christian response to the problem of evil specifically targeted to those who do not have a background in theology or philosophy. I am not sure it will be possible to tackle that question adequately in blog format but I promised to try. This is the first of a number of separate posts that will attempt to give a basic introduction to the Christian responses to the problem of evil.

What is the Problem of Evil?

The problem of evil is that Christians hold a number of beliefs, essential to their overall system of belief, that seem to be contradicted by the evil that we encounter in the world. Essentially, it is the argument that if such a being as Christians describe as God exists then the world that we live in could not. A fairly typical formulation of the problem looks like this:

Christians believe that God is perfectly good, all powerful, and that He knows everything. If God is perfectly good then He would have the desire to eliminate evil. If God is all powerful then He has the ability to eliminate evil. If God is all knowing then He knows how to eliminate evil. However, evil exists, therefore either God is not good, not all powerful, not all knowing, a combination of those, or is non-existent all together.

This is a powerful argument because it is undeniable for the Christian that there is evil in this world and if God lacks any of the attributes mentioned above then the Christian God does not exist and Christianity is false. The critics who use this argument against us are correct that we believe in each of the points (premises) mentioned. We believe that God is all powerful, all knowing, and all good. We also agree that evil exists in this world.

Different Aspects to the Problem of Evil

There are a few distinct aspects of the problem that need to be distinguished from each other because they each focus the problem in a slightly different way. They are:

1) The moral problem of evil: Evil resulting from the choices (actions & inactions) of human beings.

2) The natural problem of evil: Evil resulting from natural processes such as tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis etc.

3) The deductive form of the problem: The argument that the Christian God is logically inconsistent with the world that actually exists. This is the form I gave above.

4) The inductive form of the problem: The argument that the existence of evil makes the existence of God highly improbable (they admit it is possible for both the Christian God and evil to exist together but argue that it is highly unlikely).

A Few Thoughts Before We Begin

Before I move on to giving an introduction to the Christian responses to this problem I would like to take a moment to point out something that does not often get mentioned with regard to this particular criticism of Christianity. Namely that critic often relies upon ideas imported from Christianity in order to make the argument. If the problem of evil proved what critics claim that it does then the only two alternatives would be either some other understanding of God that avoids making the claims that Christians make regarding Him or a non-theistic view such as atheistic materialism.

In my experience this argument is most often used against Christians by atheists in an attempt to argue for the non-existence of God. The problem is that atheists are relying upon a code of morality that is quite often borrowed from the Judeo-Christian tradition in order to show that evil exists. We (Christians) admit that evil exists and it is easy for us to do so because in the Christian system things are defined as good or evil based upon their relationship to the law of God and His nature as revealed in the bible. It is entirely consistent with our beliefs to make value judgments because we have a qualitative standard against which we can compare all thoughts and actions. Atheists, however, cannot appeal to any universal moral code in order to support their assertion that evil exists in this world.

Who decides what is good and evil if there is no God? It is a bit disingenuous for an atheist to point to an action such as murder and claim that such an action is evil without first demonstrating how such a judgment can be made based upon their principals. After all, if there is nothing beyond the physical world the only way we have to learn what is true or false is by observing the physical world. While that kind of observation can help us to understand what is the case it cannot help us to understand what should be the case. No observation of the physical world can provide a universal moral standard of any kind. Some atheists try to argue that there is a type of moral code inherent in humanity but even if that were true, by their view, it would have to be the product of evolution and therefore could not be universal. It is very difficult for atheists to prove based upon their own views how any particular action could be considered good or evil in a universal way.

I point this out because there are many people who claim to have rejected the Christian God as a result of all the evil present in the world. Having rejected God, however, they often retain a sense of morality that is actually rooted in the very God that they have rejected. If they think carefully about this they will find that many of the moral distinctions that they make are meaningless if, in fact, God does not exist. They have not only the problem of evil to deal with but also the problem of good.

Of course there are other critics who, while not atheists, still reject the Christian understanding of God based upon this argument. They must either hold to a view that God is limited in either power, goodness, or knowledge or that evil does not actually exist. There are those who hold to all of those views each of which has its own problems.

Of course, none of this gets the Christians off the hook because the argument points to a potential inconsistency within the Christian system so it isn’t necessary that the critic has a satisfactory answer to the problem in their own system. The burden is on the Christian to show how such a state of affairs does not lead to a logically inconsistent (and therefore impossible) faith. We will begin looking at how Christians respond to this problem in the next posting on this topic.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Groaning in the Spirit: John 11:28-44

Although knowledge of the original languages is no doubt a great advantage to students of the Word the plain teaching of scripture comes through clearly and adequately in the better English translations. A few years ago I began to study Koine Greek and although it is valuable, I find its chief benefit is a better understanding of the emphasis and nuances of various texts as well as enabling a better understanding of the more scholarly commentaries. It is comforting to me that nothing I have learned thus far in Greek has overturned any doctrinal understanding I derived from the English versions I had been studying. If anything, it has helped me to be more confident in certain interpretations and to better appreciate the difficulties in others.

Although scholars may argue about the relative clarity or fidelity of various translations to the form or intent of the manuscripts there is seldom anything of great consequence regarding the basic meaning of any entire passage. Emphasis, phrasing, or a word here and there may differ between the major English translations but in general they are in substantial agreement. Where they do differ there is usually some textual variant, ambiguity in the Greek, or a different philosophical principal of translation at work (i.e. the translation of idioms etc.).

Therefore, I was quite surprised when I recently read D.A. Carson’s book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. In chapter 4 of that book Carson is giving an exposition of John 11 where Jesus raises Lazarus. According to Carson the rendering of that passage in English is frequently incorrect. He argues that the verb enebrimesato found in 11:33 and 11:38, often translated “he was deeply moved”, actually means “outraged” when applied to humans. If true this drastically changes the way that the passage is understood. Below is a sampling of some prominent English translations of verse 33:

NIV- “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.”

NASB- “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled,”

ESV- “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.”

The closest to Carson’s interpretation is that of the King James Version (and NKJV) but even that does not convey the strength of “outrage”:

KJV- “When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews also weeping which came with her he groaned in the spirit, and was troubled,”

Consultation with a number of lexicons seems to confirm Carson’s view that the word strongly implies not mourning but outrage. Strong’s concordance gives as the first definition as “to snort with anger”, the Blue Letter lexicon also give to snort with anger as the literal construction but gives the first definition as “to charge with earnest admonition”, others suggest that the word means to “have indignation”, “to groan”, “to sigh”, and even “to thunder”. It is doubtful to me that most readers will assume that Christ was “deeply moved” with indignation or outrage. It seems that the likely conclusion from the English translations would be that he was moved with grief, especially since we see Him weeping in the passage.

Carson argues that “He is outraged by the death that has called forth this loss, by the sin that lies behind that, and by the unbelief that characterizes everyone’s response to it.” Rendering the word as outrage sheds a completely different light on the passage. As we consider Jesus coming upon this funerary scene with the clamor, noise, and weeping typical of that time we get a picture of our Lord not just mourning the loss of His friend but as the savior of the world confronting the ultimate enemy, death, and preparing to demonstrate His power over it by raising Lazarus.

I have been unable to find any compelling explanation as to why most English translations choose to avoid the more common way of rendering enebrimesato in this particular passage. Is there some textual reason that D.A. Carson has been unable to identify? Is it simply the weight of the translation tradition as Carson conjectures?

I have no doubt that the English translations are reliable and stand as a sufficient and accurate communication of God’s revelation. I do, however, find it strange that there would be an instance such as this where virtually all of the English translations are in general agreement in translating a passage in way that, based upon a quick review of a number of lexicons, seems to be misleading. I could perhaps understand one or two… but all of them?

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Authority & Essentials

In 1529 the first Protestant council, the Marburg Colloquy, was held. It was called by prince Philip of Hesse who was hopeful that certain doctrinal differences between the two great leaders of the Reformation, Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli, could be resolved. Phillip’s concern, however, was not solely religious. He felt that a unified Protestant theology would pave the way for a united political front among the Protestant countries allowing for a stronger defense against the Roman Catholic emperor Charles V so he arranged for a meeting of the leading theologians of the Lutheran and Reformed camps at Marburg.

Concerned that direct discussion between Luther and Zwingli (both fiery personalities) might be counterproductive, provision was made to pair each man up with a representative of the other. Philip Melanchthon represented the Lutherans in discussions with Zwingli and John Oecolampadius represented the Zwinglian position in discussions with Luther.

After a couple of days of discussion Luther was asked to draw up a statement of faith so that the two sides could identify precisely where they agreed and where they differed. Luther penned 15 articles of faith and to his surprise the Zwinglians quickly accepted 14 of them with small modifications and partially accepted the 15th. Only a single point of doctrine related to the nature of the presence of Christ in communion stood between the unification of the two main streams of Reformation.

Both sides rejected the Roman Catholic teaching of transubstantiation that through a miracle the elements were transformed into the body and blood of Christ such that the substance of the elements was replaced by the real substance of Christ’s body & blood. The Lutherans held to a form of consubstantiation where although there was no miraculous transformation, the real corporeal substance of the body and blood of Christ was present in, with, and under the elements. The Zwinglians taught that the elements were a memorial feast instituted by the Lord and that Christ was spiritually present with the faithful as they celebrated rather than substantially present in the elements.

The two sides were unable to reach a unified understanding on this issue. Luther became rather agitated insisting that the words of the Lord were plain and meant that the supper literally involved His body. Whenever Oecolampadius tried to explain that such language should be understood metaphorically Luther emphatically repeated the phrase “Hoc Est Corpus Meum!” (this is my body).

Oecolampadius explained that both were in agreement that there was a real presence of Christ in the sacrament and did not understand why Luther insisted that it must be explained as a corporeal presence in the elements themselves. Frustrated, he asked Luther what ultimate difference it made whether or not believers were literally partaking of the substance of Christ. Luther famously responded “I do not know, but if He ordered me to eat dung I would do it”. There was to be no consensus.

Rather than leave with this one point as an issue of open study and consideration a break in fellowship occurred. Due to this issue Luther considered the non-Lutheran reformers “of another spirit” and believed that the Reformed churches were ignoring plain scriptural teaching. Strangely, I am told that years later when Luther read Calvin’s dynamic presence view, which is very similar to the view that Oecolampadius and Zwingli held, Luther was said to have approved of it. If this is true then Marburg has to be one of the most unfortunate moments in Church history.

We are commanded in scripture to contend for the faith and stand on the truth. Doctrinal error is a very serious matter, however, we are also told to be sensitive to the weaker brother, to be gracious, to lift one another up. There is often an inherent tension between these commands that requires a great deal of wisdom to negotiate. Many churches have accepted Augustine’s famous dictum “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity”. This seems to be a humble and reasonable approach except that there is the thorny question of who exactly determines what is essential. Often churches consider salvation issues or the collection of doctrines articulated in their creed to be what is essential but what biblical ground is there for recognizing those things as uniquely important? Who decides?

Many see Luther’s inflexibility at Marburg to be an example of dogmatic bullheadedness but Luther recognized that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is necessarily related to ones understanding of the very nature of Christ. I don't agree with Luther's position on this issue but he is correct that an argument about the presence of Christ in the elements is actually an argument about how the divine and human natures of Christ relate to one another. These discussions of theological details become so vigorous becase of the interconnectiveness of all biblical doctrine.

Obviously there are some understandings that are foundational such as the deity of Christ, the resurrection, imputation etc. and there are other biblical issues that are certainly not worth breaking fellowship over. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “I will not argue with you about whether Adam had a belly button or not”. The problem is that there is a lot of gray area between those extremes and if we are to make distinctions we must have a guideline for determining what is essential and what is non-essential. No two people are going to agree 100% on every issue and yet we are to come together in unity to worship together. When does difference of opinion become disunity?

Some churches, in an attempt to avoid such unpleasant experiences, simply do not define what they consider “essential” and others use rather arbitrary democratic or oligarchic processes. Is there a clear biblical process for establishing that which is essential vs. that which is non-essential? If not, is this power delegated to church leaders?

The only good example I can think of is the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Is it reasonable to assume that the model in Acts 15 is normative for the church for all time? The early church apparently thought so, and usually called ecumenical councils to address serious doctrinal issues, but as we saw at Marburg you can’t always put humpty dumpty back together again.