Evangelicals and Historical Theology

For a few years now I’ve felt that evangelicals need to reevaluate our relationship with the Christian tradition. Some of this is related to my own experience with tradition, while other aspects of this impulse arise, I think, from seeing how evangelicals use the tradition in their own work, whether in service of their scholarship or of their understanding of liturgy. I am concerned that, for most evangelicals – including myself  – the tradition is at best, a blunt instrument to be (sparingly) used, or, at worst, something completely ancillary or even inimical to our commitments to sola Scriptura. I’ve written about the latter elsewhere; here I want to highlight a few ways in which I think we as evangelicals need to reconsider how we approach tradition as simply a tool to be used rather than as a gift to be received under the authority of Scripture.

A word before I do about why this is important – tradition, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is the living faith of the dead. When quoting someone we are not merely citing abstract ideas or sentences from thin air; we are attempting to receive and continue to pass down the faith once delivered in, by, and to the communion of the saints. Treating tradition rightly is a matter of loving one’s neighbor, both through receiving rightly – accurately and faithfully – what those before us have passed down and through ministering it to others. With that context set, how do many evangelicals (including myself) use tradition?

  1. Tradition is useful as a concept when I want it to be. We evangelicals often talk out of both sides of our mouth about tradition. On the one hand, we want to uphold sola Scriptura, often to the point that it effectively becomes nuda or solo Scriptura. This total rejection of tradition in service of (supposedly) proving and bolstering our commitment to Scripture’s final authority has resulted in a generation of Christians, lay and academic alike, who by and large haven’t thoroughly read the Fathers or the Medieval theologians, who don’t know enough about the intricacies of the historical development of Christian theology, and who haven’t been trained to read with the communion of the saints under the authority of Scripture. On the other hand, we want to claim tradition when it is useful. We pull it out of the closet in which we’ve shoved it when we need it, whether to spur on our hobby horses or to hammer our opponents. We say to tradition, “you should not be seen or heard unless spoken to,” and we only speak to it and call on it to speak when it is convenient for us. We use it as a blunt instrument, instead of seeing it as a gift from our brothers and sisters in Christ to be received and passed on in like-minded service.
  2. Tradition is useful for proof-texts. Because of our common lack of training in the tradition, the means by which tradition is useful to many of us can only be by proof-texting. Not many of us have read through the corpora of the Fathers or through Anselm or Aquinas (much less Ephrem or Bernard or the like). This leaves us with only one option when we need to call on the tradition – proof-texting. There are, of course, times when one verse from Scripture or one sentence from an historical figure has a meaning that is unequivocal and obvious. But more often than not, proof-texting leads to misinterpretation and misuse of texts, biblical and historical alike.
  3. Tradition is useful because it is malleable. Because we are not trained in the tradition, because we only need proof-texts, and because we see it as lacking in authority in any sense, tradition is continually subject to individual judgment in each generation. This means we can change it based on our own individual interpretive judgments – excising creedal clauses being the most obvious and egregious example.

So what are some ways to turn the tide on these problematic approaches to tradition? Here are some suggestions for moving from a utilitarian approach to tradition to what I hope is a more healthy view and appropriation of it.

  1. Read through the corpora of a few major historical figures. Take some time to read through all of the major works of Irenaeus and Augustine. Or all of Gregory of Nazianzus and Athanasius. &c. You’ll be challenged, surprised, encouraged, and convicted. You’ll also be confused sometimes, and even find yourself in disagreement. That’s fine – we all need to learn how to read charitably and critically at the same time. Most of the major works of major historical Christian figures are available for free at ccel.org.
  2. Read the recent scholarship on ancient Christian exegesis and the historical development of Christian theology. Because earlier generations of Christians, and particularly those in the Patristic and Medieval periods, do not share our cultural contexts, there are times where they are difficult to understand. There is much recent scholarship on the hermeneutical, philosophical, and theological commitments of early Christian theologians that will assist in accomplishing #1. You could find many resources for each theologian and for each period, but I’d start with John Behr, The Way to Nicaea, Lewis Ayres, Nicaea and its Legacy, and Frances Young, Biblical Exegesis and the Formation of Christian Culture. 
  3. Read with charity and humility. Neither of the above points matters if we aren’t reading primary and secondary sources in order to love our historical neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ, but instead are reading them to use and abuse them for our pet arguments and projects. These are men and women to be loved as image bearers of God and as brothers and sisters in Christ. That means we need to treat them and their ideas with love and respect. Critique is necessary, because we’re all finite and fallen, but critique must come from within the confines of Christ’s Church, the unity we have in him by the Spirit, our common goal of bringing glory to the Father, our common table, and our common final biblical authority. Both reception and critique also must come with an acknowledgment that, again, we are all finite and fallen. When I read, I read as one who is not God, either in terms of my intellect or my authority. I do not know everything, and the things I know I only know by the grace of the one true God who reveals himself to me by his Word and Spirit and who made me in his image. This means that I must be circumspect when I critique, because I do not critique from a place of omniscience or ultimate sovereignty but as a fellow beggar trying to help another beggar know what good bread looks like. Of course all Protestants, including myself, will see places where we disagree with the tradition. But we need to do so having given our interlocutor, our brother or sister in Christ, a fair, generous, and full hearing before doing so.

Where Are All the Patristics Scholars in Evangelicalism?

During my graduate work at Criswell College, I was fortunate to have a systematic theology professor who had studied patristic theology in his doctoral work, and a patristic theology professor who majored in the discipline and wrote his (now published) dissertation on early Christian exegesis and Irenaeus. I was more spoiled at the time than I realized.

As a Ph.D. student in theology, I’m spending more time than ever reading the patristics, and I’ve begun to realize how little definitive work on patristic theology has been done by evangelicals. Aside from a few notable contributions by evangelicals, the field is mostly dominated by Catholic theologians and the occasional non-evangelical Protestant. (I do think, however, that this is going to change. Evangelical theologians and pastors in my generation seem to care more than ever about patristic retrieval.)

On Twitter last year, Seumas Macdonald tweeted a short thread with some thoughts on why there’s been a dearth of evangelicals working in patristics. That thread is now no longer available, but he wrote a blogpost outlining many of the same thoughts. To summarize the five-tweet thread, Macdonald made the following points:

  1. Some evangelicals act as though church history started with the Reformation.
  2. As such, evangelicals short-sightedly read earlier church history through a Reformation lens.
  3. Most evangelical seminary tracks contain only one early church history course, and there’s likely not a patristic specialist there to teach it.
  4. Evangelicalism, thus, is caught in a vicious cycle of marginalizing patristic theology and thus marginalizes those who specialize in the field.
  5. In worst cases, evangelicals who focus on or fall in love with patristic theology end up leaving evangelicalism for more (perceived) friendly denominational/theological/ecclesiological pastures.

There’s so much more to be said, for sure, but Macdonald is onto something here. I remember during my graduate program, many of the undergrads moved from Baptist or other evangelical churches to Catholic or non-evangelical high church traditions. They did this, largely, because they felt as though evangelicalism isn’t tied to the tradition of the church, and so they were unable to connect with Christians of the past through evangelical ecclesial structures (or lack thereof).

I can’t say I blame them. I was tempted at times myself. But—sorry for the shameless plug—but this is precisely why we founded the Center for Baptist Renewal. The Baptist tradition and other similar evangelical groups are not—or at least should not be—disconnected from the great Christian tradition. I’m thankful, however, that some Baptists are trying to retrieve the Tradition. And personally, I’d rather be a catalyst from within than a critic from without.

The “allegorical” readings of the Patristic Fathers, the Catholic flavor of the first thousand or so years of church history, etc. are not reasons to abandon pre-Reformation theology. And yet, so many evangelicals immediately bristle at this notion on the principle that we should care more about the five solae of the Reformation. These five truths recovered the gospel in many minds. I recently wrote a study on the five solae, so I understand this sentiment and greatly appreciate the correctives that came with it. The Reformation was an act of God—I truly believe that—but we should consider two things.

1. Primarily, we should be willing to learn from those in the midst of the expansion, canonization, and creedal development of Christian orthodoxy. If we’re truly orthodox Christians, then we affirm major creeds like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed. The affirmations forged and fought for in these creeds are essential to Christian faith and practice, and yet we take for granted the time and context in which these theological foundations were laid. We act as though we can take the creeds and leave everything else; however, the creeds didn’t happen in a vacuum.

2. Further, we shouldn’t forget that the Reformers relied heavily on the early church, especially the work of Augustine. Not even the Reformers cut themselves off from the great tradition. It’s a common joke to say that all of Western theology is a footnote to Augustine, but it’s especially true of the Reformation.

Denominations are fine, even important at times. They help us build accountability, missional partnerships, and communal identity. But we can’t become so polarized and dichotomized within our denominations that we fence ourselves off from the bloodline of Christianity—the theological heritage of two millennia of Christian thought. Timothy George said it well:

I believe in an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. We do not advance the cause of Christian unity by abandoning our biblical understanding of the church. But how do we hold these together? Three things: First, recognize the centrality of Jesus Christ. The closer we come to Jesus Christ, the closer we come to one another as brothers and sisters in him. Second, study the Bible together. The Bible belongs to the whole people of God, not just to one denomination or church tradition. We can clarify differences and find a deeper unity by going deeper into the Scriptures. Third, prayer. Jesus prayed to his heavenly Father (John 17:21) that his disciples would be one so that the world might believe. We can join our prayer to the prayer of Jesus and in so doing become a part of its fulfillment.

May we continue to recover and retrieve pre-Reformation theology and tradition, keeping our denominational distinctiveness without sacrificing our Christian theological heritage.


Note: If this post looks familiar, it’s because a version of it originally appeared at my old Patheos blog.

My 5 Favorite Books of 2017​

It’s become a somewhat annual tradition for me and many others to write a post like this. But people love books lists as they consider last-second Christmas gifts or are looking for ways to spend their Amazon gift cards.

There are a few reasons why I’ve compiled this list. First, I love reading and I love to share what I’m reading. Second, I’m also always encouraged by others’ thoughts and their lists often help me pick out a few last books for my Christmas wish list. Third, I get a lot of books from publishers, and while I don’t review or share books I don’t end up liking, I’m always willing to recommend a good book if it is, in fact, good.

In no particular order, here are my five favorite books that I read in 2017. Check out my 2015 list and 2016 list at my old Patheos blog.

Hengel Son of GodThe Son of God by Martin Hengel

Published in 1975, this book was one of many in which Hengel dismantled and reconstructed Christological debates in the mid-20th century, arguing that Christians believed in the divinity of Christ very early on. In this book, Hengel explains the role the title “Son of God” played in that early development of divine Christology. Only coming in at around 100 pages, Hengel still does some significant Christological heavy lifting.

Way of the Dragon StrobelThe Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel

Of all the books I read this year, this one was the most impactful on me personally. It proved to be the final straw that broke my social media camel’s back. I deleted all my social media accounts soon after finishing it.

Through biblical exegesis, personal reflections, and interviews with men like J. I. Packer and Eugene Peterson, Goggin and Strobel lay out the case for a view of ministry and leadership (and indeed, life) that resembles the way of the Lamb—generosity, self-sacrifice, wisdom in speaking truth, love, etc. Too often, we fall into the way of the dragon (Satan himself)—selfishness, pride, vitriol, hate, etc. And where I saw myself falling into the way of the dragon the most was on social media and the struggle of “platform.”

On God and Christ NazianzusOn God and Christ by St. Gregory of Nazianzus

I’ve read this book several times, and reading it again in 2017 reminded me of its beauty. Simply put, it is one of the most important books (originally a set of sermons) in the history of the Christian church due to its formative impact on Trinitarian theology and Christology. If the Trinity debate made you scratch your head or piqued your interest in the subject, this is a must-read. We’d all do well, actually, to read the Fathers on the Trinity before we get too far down the Trinitarian road.

Sojourners and Strangers AllisonSojourners and Strangers by Gregg Allison

Over the past year, I’ve been in the eldership process at my local church. Since it’s been nearly two years since I served in a church staff position and about five years since I was a pastor, I decided to read this book over the summer to brush up on my ecclesiology and to solidify (or challenge) some of my core beliefs. I was not disappointed. Allison masterfully deals with every topic in ecclesiology—from how theology proper trickles down, to the qualifications of elders and deacons, to the sacraments/ordinances, and much more—without avoiding thorny issues or over-simplifying complex matters. And though it is an ecclesiological tour de force, it’s written accessibly and from a pastoral heart.

Tyndale House Greek NTThe Greek New Testament, Produced at Tyndale House

I received a copy of this only a few weeks ago, but I love it more than I thought I would. Obviously, I’ve not read the entire NT in Greek in the past few weeks, but I’ve found this edition to be my go-to for casual reading or reference since the day I cracked it open.

It’s simplified—almost like a Greek “reader’s Bible”—but still contains basic textual notes. It’s not something I’m using in my doctoral work (it’s not built for that level of analysis), but it’s a perfect on-the-go Greek NT for someone like me, who needs as many practice reps in Greek as he can get!

 

 

Arguing from Silence in the Early Church

This summer Luke Stamps and I had a relatively brief interaction about penal substitution and its catholicity. One of the common objections to penal substitution is that it is not found in the early church’s theological reflection. While we gave some brief examples in our posts of where it might be found, at least implicitly, there is a larger problem with this kind of approach to the Patristic period. We often use the early church in one of two problematic ways: either to proof-text in support of our position or to make an argument from silence against a position we oppose. While methodologically speaking the former is a bit easier to confront, the latter seems more prevalent these days (at least in my reading). Our hermeneutics classes have warned us of proof-texting enough that I think it’s easier to reject that approach not just biblically but historically. What is harder to reject, but what is just as problematic, is citing the silence of the Fathers as proof that a doctrine isn’t biblically or theologically warranted.

This is methodologically suspect on at least two levels. Historically, it ignores the fact that Christian doctrines develop over time. Theology does not exist in a vacuum, nor is it worked out in all its loci all at once immediately after the last apostle passes away. It should be clear to those who have studied church history that the Patristic and Medieval periods are given over to working out the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology. Soteriology and ecclesiology are the focus of theological reflection in the Reformation and post-Reformation periods, while anthropology and eschatology (to name just two) are being worked out in much more detail in contemporary theological discussions. To ask a second century apologist to speak about the Triune God with the same level of exactness as fifth century Christians is anachronistic. And to argue that a particular understanding of the atonement (e.g. penal substitution, or justification by faith alone) is not warranted because the Fathers do not mention it[1] is to miss the point that soteriology is largely assumed and not worked out with particular fervor or exactness until the Reformation. In other words, historically, this “argument from Patristic (or Medieval) silence” is an error of anachronism.

The “argument from silence” is also theologically problematic. For Protestants, the ultimate doctrinal standard is not a particular period in church history or how early or late a particular doctrine is widely attested, but whether or not a particular doctrine is faithful to Holy Scripture. While we certainly want to pay attention to any belief’s development, our assessment of it, if we are to be fully Protestant, should rest finally with whether or not it conforms to God’s Word. As Protestants, we affirm that the church can and does make mistakes, ethically, interpretively, and doctrinally. Just because the first, second, or third (etc) generations of Christians after the apostles believed something does not make it automatically true, nor does their lack of attestation to a belief make that belief necessarily false. Sola Scriptura demands that we make those judgments ultimately from Scripture, not via picking a particular period of church history as more important than another.

That said, there is a reason we often look to the Patristic period for validation of our beliefs – it is important both historically and theologically. Historically, it is most immediate to the apostles and their teaching. More importantly, perhaps, is that, theologically, the conclusions of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon are accurate summaries of biblical teaching about the Trinity and about Christ, and therefore can be used (penultimate to Scripture’s authority) to assess whether or not later doctrinal developments are faithful to the good deposit of Scripture and the church’s summary of it in the three ecumenical creeds. So it is not as though I am arguing that the early church is unimportant in theological reflection. By no means! But I am saying that arguments from silence are not proper method, either historically or theologically.

[1] I’d argue they do, but it is still a very minor theme in their discussion of salvation when compared to its prominence in contemporary evangelical theology.

Is Nicaea Enough?

A sentiment with which I sympathize and which I hear often is that “Nicaea is enough.” By this people seem to mean that, when trying to articulate boundaries for orthodoxy and, thus, for who is and who isn’t a Christian, the Nicene Creed, or more often the Apostles’ Creed, serves as the arbiter. In this model, someone who affirms historic Christian teaching on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the necessity of Christ’s work for salvation, the church as the people of God, and the expectation that Christ will return in glory should be considered a Christian. I sympathize with this approach because, well, look at that list! It covers many issues that are vitally important for the Christian faith.

But often when I hear or see people say, “Nicaea is enough,” it appears to me that what they mean is that we don’t need to hold others to doctrinal or ethical standards beyond what was laid down in the fourth through eighth centuries. On the former, I am not talking about those working toward an evangelical ecumenicity, like Timothy George; I am referring, rather, to those who seek to elide and escape doctrinal convictions beyond what is taught in the Nicene or Apostles’ Creed. So, for instance, bibliology is not addressed in the Creeds; therefore, according to this “Nicaea is enough” way of thinking, Christians can believe a whole host of different positions about Scripture. The latter rationale for “Nicaea is enough,” the ethical, is the more popular these days, though. In this respect “NiE” is used to say that, for instance, sexuality is not addressed in the Creeds, and therefore Christians can believe a whole host of different ideas about gender and sexuality. To be frank, it seems to me that “NiE” is used most often not as a genuine attempt at doctrinal catholicity but rather as a euphemism for giving in to our current cultural climate regarding sexuality. Rather than an attempt at a catholic (small c!) orthodoxy, this sentiment is more often used to sneak in non-traditional ethical or doctrinal teachings through a supposed creedal gap.

What can we say to this? As a Protestant and evangelical, I think there are at least four responses we can give to this sentiment and ultimately claim that Nicaea, or even the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils all together, is not enough to measure what is properly Christian.

  1. Creeds and councils are not the ultimate measure of Christian doctrinal and ethical faithfulness; Scripture is. The first and most important point to make here is that the creeds and councils are not the ultimate arbiter of what counts as properly apostolic. That position, from a Protestant perspective, lies ultimately with Scripture alone. While creeds and confessions help codify, at a particular historical moment, the church’s ministerially and derivatively authoritative summary of Scripture, it is Scripture alone that holds the primary place. Therefore, even if we do not have a creed that addresses an explicit departure from Scripture, it is still just that – a departure from Scripture. And Scripture is clear that there are simple errors and then there are departures; the former, mistakes to be corrected, the latter, clear rejections of biblical teaching that results in communal exclusion (see point #2).
  2. There are a number of teachings, including permitting sexual immorality, that Scripture identifies as “false teaching” and enough to cast one out from the ecclesia. The idea that only those issues addressed by the early church warrant excommunication misses the force of many scriptural statements about casting out false teachers. And while many assume that “false teaching” is only directly related to doctrinal issues, like John’s forceful argument against docetism in 1 John 4, Scripture does not limit false teaching to doctrine. For instance, Jesus threatens covenant exclusion for those in the churches of Pergamum and Thyatira who follow, respectively, the Nicolatian and Jezebel-ian teachings about sexual immorality (Rev. 2:14-15; 19-23). We could add to this the instances where Paul addresses excommunication and ties it explicitly to divisiveness (e.g. Titus 3:10). The point is that exclusion from the covenant community is not limited in Scripture to doctrinal issues, or to some kind of arbitrary doctrinal ranking system. Instead, it covers doctrinal, ethical, and communal rejections of biblical authority.
  3. The “NiE” sentiment wrongly assumes that everything doctrinally or ethically important was settled in the first five centuries of the church’s history. This ignores both the function and history of creedal statements. Regarding the latter, it should be obvious from studying church history that, while the doctrines of the Trinity and Christology were relatively settled by the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils, these are not the only doctrines that caused first-order controversies. One only needs to remember the Reformation to realize that, in that case, the doctrines of soteriology (esp. justification) and ecclesiology still needed to be clarified at an ecclesiastical level. For Protestants, the five solas of the Reformation function creedally, even while they are not technically formalized in a creed. The point is that, as important as the three ecumenical creeds and seven ecumenical councils are, they did not address every doctrinal issue that could be considered of first importance. And this brings us back to the former aspect of creeds and confessions that “NiE” ignores: they arise out of specific socio-cultural situations where certain doctrinal controversies must be addressed. In the providence of God, the church first had to deal with the Trinity and Christology. But this doesn’t mean that controversies surrounding other doctrines are not of first-order importance. Of course, that doesn’t mean that every controversy is of first-order importance. But it does mean that some deviations from traditional Christian teaching are. The Patristic and early Medieval period addressed the Trinity and Christology; the Reformation addressed soteriology and ecclesiology; and it seems to me that, today, we need to address bibliology and anthropology. The way to tell if modern deviations from traditional Christian teaching are first-order departures brings us back to point #1 – does it clearly depart from the apostolic deposit, Holy Scripture, and in such a way that it can be characterized as a rejection of Scripture’s authority? (FWIW here’s my attempt to describe what counts as “biblical.”) Yes, people can come to different interpretive conclusions, but this does not make them all correct. And as Protestants, our theological method calls us to return to Scripture again and again.
  4. “Orthodox” is not the only term we can use to communicate what counts as Christian teaching and what does not. But if we use another term, as Derek Rishmawy and others have argued, it had better have enough force to communicate that deviation from it warrants exclusion from the Christian community.

We could add other points here, like the fact that the entire Christian tradition has assumed a particular anthropology, which includes a particular sexual ethic, for the first two thousand years of its history. But I think these four points summarize the methodological problems with the “NiE” sentiment, even if we could say more about particular doctrinal issues and how to argue for the properly Christian position on them.

 

Earthy Signs of Israel’s Restoration

At the end of Hosea, God promises to restore Israel, and he declares his redemptive purposes using the earthy symbols of grain and vine:

They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow;
    they shall flourish like the grain;
they shall blossom like the vine;
    their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon (Hos. 14:7).

The following book, Joel, reverses this earthy restoration with a promise of YHWH’s judgment:

The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes (Joel 1:10).

Notice that a third earthy element, oil, is added into the mix. We could also add here the sign of water; throughout the Old Testament, water is a sign of judgment in both its excess (e.g. Genesis 6) and its lack, as well as a sign of restoration (e.g. Ezek. 47:1-12). For Israel, then, the earthy signs that they are looking for, the signs that demonstrate that YHWH has renewed them through his Messiah and Spirit, are water, oil, grain, and vine (cf. also Deut. 7:13 for the initial promise of blessing via these elements). Israel’s redemption is pictured as a redemption of the Land, and particularly of those four elements.

When Jesus comes, he comes as Israel’s Anointed – “Messiah” just means “anointed one.” He is anointed both at the beginning of his ministry in baptism and at the end of his ministry, just before his Passion, with oil (Matt. 26:6-13). In other words, Jesus embodies these restorative signs of Israel’s salvation, water and oil, in his Messianic anointing. With respect to the grain and vine, two elements crucial to Israel’s commemorative and formative Passover meal, Jesus embodies these as well, this time in the Last Supper. As he breaks the bread and takes the cup, identifying them as his body and blood, he is taking up the rich symbolism of Israel’s redemptive hope and culminating it in himself. There is now bread to eat, and there is now the fruit of the vine to drink – in Christ. We could also point to the “I AM” statements in John; Jesus is, among other things, Israel’s Bread, Light (associated with oil lamps), Living Water, and Vine.

Jesus, in other words, takes all these earthy symbols of Israel’s redemptive hope upon himself, and fulfills them. Jesus is the fulfillment of all of Israel’s hopes, including its hope of restored Land. By taking these earthy symbols on himself, Jesus is declaring that in him Israel, including the Land itself, is redeemed. All of Israel’s promises, including the Land promises, are fulfilled in the incarnate Son.

But neither Jesus nor the NT stop there with respect to these symbols. These earthy symbols are not only fulfilled in Jesus but also instituted as signs of his Kingdom. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah and King, but he does not isolate the presence of the Kingdom in his person. Instead, through pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost, Jesus spreads his Kingdom from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via the proclamation of the gospel by his Church. And as his Spirit-filled Church expands, they bring with them signs of the Kingdom, namely the Lord’s Supper and Baptism. These two ordinances are instituted by Christ as signs of the Kingdom because they are signs of Israel’s redemption in him and therefore also signs of Israel’s restoration as YHWH’s people in Christ’s multi-ethnic church.

Jesus’ body and blood – Israel’s redeemed grain and vine – are proclaimed to us in the Supper, and therefore the Supper is a sign of Israel’s redemption. Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed to us in baptism, and therefore our identification with Christ in our submergence into and reemergence out of the waters is a sign of Israel’s redemption. And as we anoint ministers, we anoint them (historically with oil) to minister the Word – the vehicle of Christ’s authority in his Church – to his people. The congregation sits under the kingship of the anointed Christ as anointed ministers proclaim his Scriptures. The Church’s symbols are therefore Israel’s symbols, and thus as the Church worships Christ they are doing so as the renewed and restored Israel, the Israel of God, because they are united to Israel’s Messiah who redeemed Israel in his own flesh.

The Good News of Holy Saturday

In Protestant American churches, and particularly in evangelical ones, Easter, along with Christmas, is the highlight of the church year. Pastors exhort their congregations to invite their neighbors, the worship leader may prepare some special music, and families will gather together afterward to eat some/a lot of New Covenant ham. In between these two poles of celebrating Christ’s birth and resurrection, though, many evangelical congregations have lost a sense of the rest of the Christian calendar. Even when a pastor mentions Holy Week, the most an evangelical church might do is have a Good Friday service.

One day in particular that suffers from this apathy towards the traditional church calendar among evangelicals is Holy Saturday. While Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and some mainline Protestants still practice the Holy Saturday evening liturgy, both the practice and theological impact of the Great Sabbath have been lost in many evangelical churches. So what does Holy Saturday mean? Why is it important not only that Christ “died, and was buried,” but also that “he descended to the dead”?

First, when I affirm that Christ descended to the dead, what I mean – and what I think the Bible teaches – is that Jesus experienced the fullness of death as the incarnate Son. In other words, his human body went down to the grave, his human soul went to the place of the dead (and more particularly, the place of the righteous dead, Paradise), and both of these occurred while his human nature was all the while hypostatically united to the divine nature of the Son. So the God-man experiences death – not just in a moment, but the state of death, remaining dead for three days. I think, then, we can point to at least three aspects of Christ’s time in the tomb that are good news – part of the gospel.

  1. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ Sabbath rest. Jesus declares on the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and, as the Triune God rests after the work of creation is finished, so Jesus rests after his work of new creation is finished. Saturday is the seventh day, the day of rest, and Jesus is resting after completing his work of redemption. Of course, we’re still waiting on the resurrection – without Easter Sunday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday mean nothing. But Jesus’ mission is effectively completed when he gives up his spirit at the crucifixion.
  2. Holy Saturday is when Jesus experiences death for us. The Nicene Creed declares that Jesus came “for us and for our salvation,” and his time in the tomb is part of what he does for us. As the God-man, Jesus experiences death. He has not just died for a moment and then received life again, nor did he revive after being placed in the tomb and then just chill until Sunday morning. Jesus remained dead. I think this is particularly comforting for those facing death, or who have loved ones facing death – Jesus has experienced this with us and for us. We have nothing to fear because Christ our Brother has faced and experienced the same death we all face.
  3. Holy Saturday is Jesus’ victory over death. Again, we’re still waiting on the consummation of Christ’s victory over death in his resurrection on Easter Sunday, but in a very real sense the fact that Jesus remains dead for three days is in itself defeating death. He doesn’t just experience death for us; by experiencing it as the God-man, he also defeats it for us. Death therefore has no sting or victory anymore (1 Cor. 15:55). In the early church, Holy Saturday was when Jesus declared his victory to all the dead, righteous and unrighteous, since he was in the place of the dead with them. So we can say on Saturday Jesus’ announced victory and on Sunday he demonstrated it.

Trinity Sunday

Today is Trinity Sunday, the day the Church celebrates the triunity of God. It’s also the day that begins Ordinary Time, the time between Pentecost and Advent. In the cycle of the church year, we now await Advent. In terms of the church calendar, we wait for the celebration of the first advent, Christ’s incarnation, but this also reminds us that we are expectantly waiting for the second advent, his arrival on the clouds and return in salvation and judgment.

Below are the three ecumenical creeds, each of which is at pains to assert the triunity of God and the second person of God’s, the Son’s, incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, who came for us and for our salvation.

Christian, this is what we believe. This is the foundation of our faith. Celebrate today!

The Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into hell; the third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic* Church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.

* catholic means “universal” and is not a reference to the Roman Catholic Church.

The Nicene Creed

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; He suffered and was buried; and the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures; and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and He shall come again with glory to judge the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The Athanasian Creed

Written against the Arians.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.

And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one: the glory equal, the majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three Eternals, but one Eternal. As there are not three Uncreated nor three Incomprehensibles, but one Uncreated and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is almighty, the Son almighty, and the Holy Ghost almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties, but one Almighty. So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods, but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords, but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, So are we forbidden by the catholic religion to say, There be three Gods, or three Lords.

The Father is made of none: neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son: neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before or after other; none is greater or less than another; But the whole three Persons are coeternal together, and coequal: so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in Unity is to be worshiped. He, therefore, that will be saved must thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore, it is necessary to everlasting salvation that he also believe faithfully the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right faith is, that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God of the Substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and Man of the substance of His mother, born in the world; Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, and inferior to the Father as touching His manhood; Who, although He be God and Man, yet He is not two, but one Christ: One, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by taking the manhood into God; One altogether; not by confusion of Substance, but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man, so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead; He ascended into heaven; He sitteth on the right hand of the Father, God Almighty; from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies, and shall give an account of their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.

This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.

The Benefits of Baptist Theology and Practice

A couple of weeks ago Luke and I wrote two posts on ways Baptists can learn from the larger Christian tradition in our worship practices, specifically through reciting the ecumenical creeds and through more frequent and intentional Scripture readings. These reflections, and more like them that we will write in the coming weeks, are in part a continuation of a paper we delivered together at last year’s ETS meeting and subsequently published in the Journal of Baptist Studies, “Baptists and the Catholicity of the Church: Toward an Evangelical Baptist Catholicity.”

After delivering the paper, one of the questions we received, and one which we continue to be asked, went something like this: “While I appreciate what you’ve said, I find myself on the other side of the coin asking, ‘what can/should other Christians learn from Baptists?'” This is not a question I take lightly, and it is one that I believe we should ask. The reason that we started from the other direction, and continue to write on it, is because we think that it is that side of the coin – what can Baptists learn from other Christians? – that has been neglected in Baptist life. Nevertheless, we still do believe and wholeheartedly affirm that Baptists are theologically and liturgically distinct in some ways from other Christians, and that these distinctions can be sources of growth and reform in non-Baptist denominations. So then, what are some areas where non-Baptists can learn from this “people of the Book?”

1. That nickname, “people of the Book,” points to the first area where non-Baptists can learn from Baptists. We are doggedly biblical, in at least two ways. First, in our theology, we want first and foremost to be faithful to the biblical text. This means that creeds and confessions, while able to serve as hermeneutical guides, are never the last word. If a creed or confession can be shown to contradict or even to obfuscate biblical teaching, then we feel free to revise said creed or confession. We believe that the Baptist vision comes closest to semper reformanda (“always reforming”), simply because we are always willing to reform. Now, this commitment to be biblical has sometimes resulted in distortions of sola scriptura, namely “no creed but the Bible!” and a suspicion of virtually all creeds, confessions, and systematic conclusions. But that has not been the historic Baptist approach to historic theology; instead, Baptists throughout our history have been appreciative of and have learned from Christians in our past and present. But this has been coupled with a willingness unsurpassed by other denominations to depart from those we learn from when they are wrong.

This is particularly true in two areas – baptism and polity. Baptists, in our view, did not go beyond the Magisterial Reformers but instead completed the reform that they began and did not finish. We baptize only adults because we believe that this is the clear teaching of Scripture, rather than an implication of it and/or a practice handed down throughout church history. The same can be said for church polity, with respect to congregational government, regenerate church membership, and the balance of form and freedom in worship practices. This is not to say that implications of Scripture or church tradition are never important, but it is to say that when the Bible clearly teaches otherwise we are called to jettison them and hold on to what is explicit in the prophets and the apostles.

Baptists are also doggedly biblical is in our worship services. We, perhaps more so than any other Protestant tradition, insist on the primacy of the Word in worship, and especially of the preached word. This is of course not to say that other traditions do not emphasize the preached word – Presbyterians particularly come to mind as being similar in their liturgical focus. But it is to say that Baptists have a long history of great preaching and of seeing preaching as the culmination of the worship service.

2. Another way that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists is in our commitment to evangelism and missions. Baptists have a long history of urging hearers of the Word to respond to the message that has been preached. The Word of God calls for a response, both to believers and unbelievers, and so it is wholly appropriate to invite sinners to repent, believe, and be baptized if they have not trusted in Christ, or to repent, believe, and continue in their walk with God if they have trusted in Christ. There are ways to twist this practice into something that is not biblical, and Baptists in the past have fallen prey to these. But that is not to say that the heart of the matter – the call to respond to the Word of God as it is preached – is not biblical. That most certainly is.

Baptists have also been at the forefront of the modern missions movement at virtually every step. While other Christians certainly affirm the need to share the gospel with all nations, it is Baptists who have continued to place this front and center in their local and denominational life.

There are surely other ways that non-Baptists can learn from Baptists, but these are two that come immediately to mind.

The Benefits of Baptists Reading Scripture Publicly

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13

Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:

It is biblical.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

It is historical.

So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)

In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.

It is instructive.

Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.

Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.

And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.

Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.