Ever watched Adult Swim’s Moral Orel? It’s like a spoof of Davey and Goliath, and serves as a platform for heavy-handed satire of the moralistic idiosyncrasies of some Christians. Most Christians would find it distasteful to watch, although it probably reflects more truth than our kind are willing to admit—when it isn’t’ caricaturing moralistic Christianity.
Upon watching a few clips of this show and seeing just how much they make it look like an edgy version of Davey and Goliath, I was reminded that this show isn’t only a satire of politically Right-wing Christians, but can step on the toes of liberal Christians as well. The fact is that Davey and Goliath was a production of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, a theologically liberal denomination of Lutherans despite the presence of the word “Evangelical” in their name. But it is also true that a generation or more of conservative fundamentalists and evangelicals were raised loving Davey and Goliath and being conditioned to liberal forms of moralism. This must be a small reason why moral and social do-good-ism is an example of common ground shared by today’s conservative culture warriors and liberal progressives. The development of the contemporary political spectrum among Western Christians has a long and storied past, involving the influence of eschatology, pietism and revivalism among other things. These influences raise a question, the answer to which we may find instructive.
“On which is it better for the Christian church to focus her efforts:
civic moral activism, or her own doctrine and practice?”
I submit the following:
- Organized religious efforts toward civic moral activism are derived from a fundamentally utopian vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize doctrine and practice.
- Organized religious efforts to maintain the purity of each denomination’s own doctrine and practice are drawn from a fundamentally realistic vision of eschatology and therefore society, and generally tends to minimize organized religious civic moral activism.
What’s eschatology got to do with it?
- An Augustinian interpretation of the millennium shared in its broadly among Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed branches of Christendom
- The Roman Catholic version promoted medieval Constantinianism (church over state).
- Lutheran and Reformed reformed amillennialism, tended to focus on doctrine and practice (confessionalism), but had little opportunity to engage in organized religious civic moral activism as we know it today.
- Post-Reformation Protestant Europe replaced Constantinism with ecclesiastical establishmentarianism (state over church); Confessional Protestants complied, affirmed the state’s role in defending the church from heresy, and theoretically denied the state’s right to affect church’s doctrine.
- Twentieth/Twenty-first century Reformed Amillennialism of three varieties (at least): Kuyperian, Two-Kingdom and Theonomic (aka, “Dominionist”)
- An “over-realized” (or utopian) form of amillennial eschatology
- Tended to engage in organized religious civic moral activism
- Held by theologically liberal progressives as well as fundamentalists in the early 20th century.
- Twentieth/twenty-first century Reformed Postmillenialists of two varieties (at least): Kuyperian and Theonomic.
- Anabaptist eschatology (Anabaptism a non-Roman Catholic version of medieval monastic mysticism)
- Tended to retreat from society and thus avoided both organized religious and individual civic moral activism.
- Adopted by fundamentalist Protestants during the bulk of the 20th century in reaction against theologically liberal Postmillennialists.
Two religious trends add complexity to the preceding eschatological and social tendencies: Pietism and Revivalism:
- Lutheran deviation
- Focused on personal piety, neglected doctrine and practice
- An essentially Wesleyan trend adapted by Calvinists (Reformed); partly inspired by Pietism.
- Focused on individual conversion and piety and promoted organized religious civic moral activism.
- It is better for the church to focus on maintaining the purity of her own doctrine, piety and practice, and to leave civic activism (moral or otherwise) to the individual.
- Thus, I find that an Amillennial, Confessional Protestantism that is relatively uninfluenced by pietism and revivalism is the ideal approach for the Christian church.
The preceeding is my attempt to organize the many things I’ve been learning over the years regarding the development of modern American Protestant confessionalism, liberalism, fundamentalism and evangelicalism. This being merely a blog post, and not an academic essay, those of you who are more informed on these issues are invited to critique my bullet points for the sake of accuracy. Those readers for whom the above raises questions or critical comments, these are especially welcome. You sharpen my iron, I’ll sharpen yours!
There is quite a debate underway online regarding how Christians should respond to the death of Osama bin Laden. Are we to rejoice over the justice in the death of one who is responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands, most notably the three thousand souls lost on September 11, 2001? Or are we supposed to so major on the fact that “God is not pleased by the death of the wicked” (Ezekiel 33: 11 ) that we should stoically stand by and not “rejoice with those who rejoice,” even though we’ve been previously weeping with them (Romans 12:15)?
The book of Proverbs does read, “When it goes well with the righteous, the city rejoices, and when the wicked perish there are shouts of gladness” (Proverbs 11:10). Furthermore, “When justice is done, it is a joy to the righteous, but a terror to evildoers” (Proverbs 21:15). Methinks the instinct to worry about being too happy over Osama bin Laden’s death is a reflection of the influence of Anabaptist pacifism. It’s pervasive in Western Christianity nowadays. Try not to let it unduly influence you. For an example of what I mean, compare this blogger’s dilemma over how to react. Should he listen to the Anabaptist on the one shoulder, or the red-blooded American patriot chanting “U-S-A!” on the other? That he attributes his angst over the death of a mass-murdering terrorist to Anabaptism shows how this is the application of Anabaptist pacifism. For you Star Wars fans, remember Alderaan? They were a peaceful planet with no weapons, weren’t they? Look what happened to them.
While it is regrettable that Osama bin Laden never repented of his sins and trusted Christ for salvation from sin and the wrath of God—none of us are glad because he’s now suffering eternal conscious torment in hell. We’re relieved with the loved-ones of bin Laden’s and al Qaida’s victims that justice is served. There is no contradiction here.
At Underdog Theology, Warren Cruz takes the approach that our deceitfully depraved hearts may take us down the slippery slope of rejoicing in bin Laden’s eternal destiny though we intended to only rejoice in the temporal justice in his demise. Be that as it may, I’m inclined to take Luther’s approach (HT: Wikiquote):
If you are a preacher of mercy, do not preach an imaginary but the true mercy. If the mercy is true, you must therefore bear the true, not an imaginary sin. God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sin be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death and the world. We commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. We however, says Peter (2 Peter 3:13), are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth where justice will reign.
Letter 99, Paragraph 13. Erika Bullmann Flores, Tr. from:Dr. Martin Luther’s Saemmtliche Schriften Dr. Johann Georg Walch Ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, N.D.), Vol. 15, cols. 2585-2590
In other words, don’t let the fact that you may imperfectly rejoice in the justice of bin Laden’s death keep you from so rejoicing. Christ’s perfect righteousness covers the imperfect righteousness of those who trust him.
Update: For a tad more balanced and scholarly approach to making the same point, try Michael Horton writing for Christianity Today today in “The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?” Here’s the second of Horton’s three implications of the so-called Reformation doctrine of the Two Kingdoms as it relates to the only event in today’s headlines:
Second, it means that we cannot rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than does God (Ezek. 18:23). We may take satisfaction that temporal justice has been served, but Christians should display a sober restraint. When Christ returns, bringing infinite justice in his wake, his saints will rejoice in the death of his enemies. For now, however, he calls us to pray for our enemies, even for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This is the day of salvation, calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We may delight in the temporal justice shown to evildoers, but leave the final justice to God. (HT: Riddleblog).
How timely. The March/April 2011 issue of Modern Reformation magazine has arrived, featuring an article related to the postmodern liberal (aka, “emerging”) emphasis on being “missional.” Editor-in-Chief Dr. Michael Horton attempts to demonstrate how this emphasis tends to emphasize certain aspects of medieval monasticism in his piece called, “Missional Church or New Monasticism?“.
Medieval monasticism was divided between those who prized the contemplative life (spiritual ascent to heaven through private disciplines of the mind) and those who gave priority to the active life (spiritual ascent through good works, especially for the poor). Francis of Assisi–and the Franciscan Order named after him–emphasized the latter.
First, today we see a revival of contemplative spirituality. It is a traditional evangelical emphasis on personal piety: discipleship as inner transformation through spiritual disciplines. Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline (1979) introduced many evangelicals to the medieval mystics and contemplative writers. From The Divine Conspiracy (1998) to The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (2006), Dallas Willard has repeated this call to discipleship: inner transformation through the spiritual disciplines.
Next, Horton explains how contemplative and postmodern liberal writers tend to confuse Scriptural gospel indicatives with sin-exposing legal imperatives of Scripture, tending to warp the gospel into how one lives, rather than the message Christ sent ambassadors to proclaim.
Both contemplative (“spiritual disciplines”) and active (Emergent) writers tend to blur and merge commands and promises, indicativees and imperatives. That is, there is a strong tendency to identify the gospel with what we do rather than with what God has done for us–and the world–in Jesus Christ. We are active agents more than beneficiaries and witnesses of God’s reconciling work, building his kingdom through our efforts more than receiving a kingdom that expands through preaching and Sacrament. . . . (emphasis mine)
Although the Emergent movement reflects a more communal emphasis on social transformation, it shares the medieval, Anabaptist, and Pietist emphasis on deeds over creeds. Brian McLaren explains, “Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life,” focusing on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount rather than on Paul and doctrines concerning personal salvation [Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 2004), 206.] More than proclaiming Christ’s finished work of reconciling sinners to the Father, the focus is on completing Christ’s redeeming work of social transformation. Tony Jones, another leader in this movement, relates: “In an emergent church, you’re likely to hear a phrase like ‘Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world–to cooperate in the building of God’s Kingdom.'” Trying to anticipate Reformed objections he notes, “Many theological assumptions lie behind this statement,” although “the idea that human beings con ‘cooperate’ with God is particularly galling to conservative Calvinists, who generally deny the human ability to participate with God’s work” [Tony Jones, The New Christian: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2009), 72].
According to McLaren, being “missional” means that we encourage Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews to become better Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews as followers of Jesus’ example. It is not what we proclaim but how we live that transforms the world. McLaren writes, “To say that Jesus is Savior is to say that in Jesus, God is intervening as Savior in all of these ways, judging (naming evil as evil), forgiving (breaking the vicious cycle of cause and effect, making reconciliation possible), and teaching (showing how to set chain reactions of good in motion)” [McLaren, 96]. There is no mention of Christ bearing God’s wrath in our place–in fact, no mention of the cross having any impact on the vertical (God-human) relationship. “Then, because we are so often ignorantly wrong and stupid, Jesus comes with saving teaching, profound yet amazingly compact: Love God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, Jesus says, and love your neighbor as yourself, and that is enough.” This is what it means to say that “Jesus is saving the world” [McLaren, 97]. Although Jesus called this the summary of the law (Matt. 22:37-40, citing Deut. 6:5) for McLaren it becomes the summary of the gospel.
Horton then goes on to constructively explain the proper distinction between law and gospel:
First, “living the gospel” is a category mistake. By definition, the gospel is news (euangelion, “good news”). You don’t “do” news: you do law and you hear gospel. Second, the specific content of this good news is the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection. We are beneficiaries of this action, not active participants. Scripture certainly teaches that we live in view of God’s mercies, in a manner worthy of the gospel we profess, and so forth. However, it represents our lives and good works as the fruit of the faith created by the gospel, not as part of the gospel itself. (emphasis mine)
Third, the Scriptures teach consistently that faith comes through the proclamation of the gospel, not through good works. Christ himself was not arrested and arraigned because he was trying to restore family values or feed the poor. Even his miraculous signs were not by themselves offensive, except as they were signs testifying to his claims about himself. The mounting ire of the religious leaders toward Jesus coalesced around him making himself equal with God (John 5:18) and forgiving sins in his own person, directly, over against the temple and its sacrificial system (Mark 2:7). In fact, at his trial he was chared by the Jewish Council with announcing the destruction of the temple. When the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus answered: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” With that, “the high priest tore his garments and said, ‘What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:53-64).
Jesus was never charged on the grounds of trying to bring world peace: quite the contrary (Matt. 10:34-37). Jesus’ opponents never included a revolutionary blueprint for improving world conditions among the indictments against him. In fact, his mission was an utter failure for those who saw him as a leader of political revolution. He will return in glory to judge, to deliver, and to make all things new in a global political kingdom of righteousness and blessing. However, between his advents is the space in history for repentance and faith.
Thus, Horton contrasts the Jesus of the Bible and the Christianity of the Bible with the Jesus of postmodern liberalism and it’s appropriation of medieval contemplative spiritual disciplines and politically liberal social justice activism. The simple fact is that the Christian is not the gospel, and his Christian obedience is not the gospel (but rather its result)–the gospel of Jesus Christ will be heard each Lord’s Day at a church that is committed to proclaiming it, and that is likewise committed to doctrinal (doctrines like the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, his penal-substitutionary atonement, etc.) as well as practical discipleship in Christian obedience that leaves Christians to work this out in the various vocations to which the Lord may call his people, not specifically the favored social agenda of any local church, be it a liberal or conservative agenda. Here is the context in which true liberty in Christ will emerge, in a spirituality that will gradually, neither instantaneously nor holistically (in this age before Christ’s return to glorify his people) see Christians growing in love for God and neighbor in response to the preached gospel of the grace and forgiveness of God in the Lord Jesus Christ.
In an attempt to explain why he wrote such an extensive presentation of the development of the doctrine of baptism in Word, Water and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism, Dr. John Fesko paints a picture of a pair of believers who begin discussing their differences on a given theological issue, and the lively conversation lasts a number of hours. When a third party approaches and asks what they’ve been talking about, they are faced with the daunting task of rehearsing the entire track of the conversation. On a broader scale, just such a conversation has been going on, not just for a few hours, but for nearly two thousand years. Getting his readers caught up on this conversation was Dr. Fesko’s goal for the historical-theological section of his book, which makes up roughly half of the book. This is intended to help the reader see that what the Roman Catholic believes about baptism differs from what the Reformed Protestant believes and teaches, and also the differences between Reformed and Lutheran, as well as Anabaptist and Baptist.
In Part I: “The History of the Doctrine,” Dr. Fesko covers early church witnesses such as Augustine and what the medieval church thought about Augustine’s doctrine of baptism. There is also a presentation of medieval theologians such as Bonaventure, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. The bulk of the historical section covers Reformation views, with a chapter on the view of Luther and the later Lutherans. He also brings us through the developments of figures like John Calvin and Ursinus, with the contributions of the venerable Three Forms of Unity. His description of this development progresses on from the writers between the time of the Reformation and the production of the Westminster Confession of Faith, through the later development of the London Baptist Confession. Sketching the history up to the present day, theologians such as Moltmann and Karl Barth are treated.
Dr. Fesko introduces the Roman Catholic teaching that baptism literally cleanses the recipient of sin, introducing what is known as the “created grace” of God into him. He explains that uncreated grace is the Holy Spirit’s incommunicable power; created grace is created by God and infused into the recipient at baptism. This is said to then create a “habit,” the newly formed ability to do good works.
On the other end of the spectrum, Dr. Fesko describes how that the Anabaptists in Zurich, Switzerland developed the unintended consequences of Ulrich Zwingli’s doctrine of baptism. Zwingli did accept the term sacrament, but he emphasized the term’s patristic-era usage as an oath taken by a Roman soldier who swears loyalty to his commanding officer. From this, he concluded that baptism was no more than one’s pledge of allegiance to the Lord. While Zwingli did include more nuance than this in his own teaching, the first Anabaptists reduced his argument and developed a doctrine that featured exclusively this oath-taking emphasis. For the Anabaptists, baptism became no more than the believer’s pledge of fidelity to the Lord. In this view, there was no grace attached at all to the rite.
Thus, whereas the Roman Catholic formulates an undue admixture of grace and the water of baptism, the Anabaptist radically separates the water of baptism from almost any reference to the grace of God, making it merely a believer’s pledge and in no way God’s pledge. Insofar as modern Baptists generally tend to appear to hold a view that appears to broadly coincide with this Anabaptistic kind of emphasis, Dr. Fesko assures his Baptist friends that he understands that they teach what man is doing in baptism, but he would ask them what they believe that God is dong in baptism, if anything. Why water? Why not some other substance? Or, why not some other ceremony? Even Charles Ryrie, he indicates, suggested a non-water ceremony would be just as acceptable. Maybe this could be a viable option, if baptism is all about what the believer is doing, but the historical Reformed tradition calls baptism a sign and a seal. It signifies Christ, not a thing or a substance, but Christ himself. Dr. Fesko says that what he likes about the historical Reformed view is that it reflects the ancient view that baptism is the visible Word: that which is heard in preaching is seen, felt and tasted in the sacraments—baptism, no less than the Lord’s Supper—making them what some have called “the double preaching of the Word.” In this regard, the sacrament is dependant upon the presence of the Word preached for its efficacy. The Word preached may stand alone and retain its efficacy apart from the sacrament, but the sacrament has no efficacy apart from the Word preached and so cannot stand alone.
According to Dr. Fesko, contemporary theologians are trying to run as far away from tradition as fast as they possibly can. They’ll claim that previous ages engaged too much in bad philosophy, and simply desired to defend “the traditional view.” But to these innovators, Dr. Fesko says our generation was not the first to open the Bible. For example, the middle ages are maligned as always and only engaged in extra-biblical, or even unbiblical philosophical speculation. But consider, for example, the case of Aquinas, who, before he taught theology, was first required to teach exegesis, and wrote a number of Biblical commentaries. This does not mean we must uncritically accept everything he wrote, but it at least indicates that medieval theologians were not utterly disengaged from the text of Scripture, and many of their writings do contain Scripturally-based insights from which the church in all ages can benefit.
Next time, we’ll review Dr. Fesko’s description of Part II: Biblical-Theological Survey of the Doctrine.
I heard an interesting description of how American Christianity effectively developed into a form of Anabaptism. Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California (WSC), was interviewed this past week on Christ the Center podcast episode #157 regarding his contribution to Always Reformed, a festschrift that has recently been published in honor of WSC President and Professor of Church History, Dr. Robert Godfrey (see Dr. Clark’s post here). From what I’ve been able to gather over the past couple of years, Dr. Godfrey is an earnest student of the phenomenon of Sister Aimee McPherson’s ministry in the 1920’s, and holds her up as an example of what American Christianity is. Clark’s chapter is entitled, “Magic and Noise: Reformed Christianity in Sister’s America.” To some extent, it seems that this very subject of the Anabaptistic flavor of American Christianity is at the heart of this chapter, as may be inferred by the chapter’s title itself.
About twenty-two minutes into the interview, Clark introduces this topic by urging the study of “Sister” (as she is wont to be called) on Reformed believers. He does this because, according to Clark, in many ways McPherson’s type of Christianity is more indicative of the nature of American Christianity than the Reformed faith can lay claim to anymore. America has come a long way since the faith of the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and the Salem witch trials (which is probably all Americans remember about those early Christian settlers (for help with that, listen to this and this). Clark believes that the Reformed would be aided in reaching America for Christ, and American evangelicals for the Reformed faith if they would see themselves more as cross-cultural missionaries, rather than natives.
Dr. Clark offers the disclaimer that his Anabaptist diagnosis of American Christianity is largely due to the fact that his primary field of research is the sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformation, rather than early twentieth century Christianity. He admits that in part he is interpreting the McPherson phenomenon and the nature of “native” American Christianity in the light of the sixteenth century Anabaptist movement, but he does attempt to support his conclusion with appeals to others who have written more extensively on Christianity in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
There are parallels between the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century and current American Christianity. Clark explains that people tend to think of the Anabaptist movement as just another facet of the Protestant Reformation, but he points out that the Anabaptists (also known as “Radical Reformers”) more or less “rejected all of the key doctrinal commitments” of the Protestant Reformation in favor of much more radical positions. Clark’s thesis is that the way American Christians commonly think about the nature of authority, epistemology (how we know what we know), Scripture and its authority, the church and eschatology (the doctrine of the end times) often bears strong resemblance to sixteenth and seventeenth century Anabaptism. Dr. Clark goes into a little more detail on this in the interview between minutes 33:15 and 42:06.
This portion of the interview caught my attention because Clark’s comparison is consistent with a conclusion I came to in my own personal pilgrimage from independent Baptist fundamentalism to Reformed theology and practice. After learning that the ultimate source of the bulk of historic Baptist theology comes from the Reformed Westminster Confession of Faith (see my newly updated “Creeds, etc.” page), and the parallels I saw between Baptist distinctives and the historic Anabaptist movement, I concluded that everything that’s right in the Baptist tradition was learned from the Reformed tradition, and everything that’s wrong in the Baptist tradition was learned, or “caught,” if you will, from Anabaptism. I realize that the 1689 Baptist Confession disclaims any formal connection between their doctrines and those of the Anabaptists, but the parallels are just too striking to Reformed paedobaptists.
This is why I encourage you to take time to listen to at least this section of the interview, if you don’t have the time or inclination to enjoy all of it. It’ll be thought-provoking time well-spent, if you ask me.
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:14-15 ESV).
Recently, I heard an Independent Fundamental Baptist preacher comment that he believes in salvation “by the blood of Christ, not his death.” One who heard this comment with me registered his shock at the statement. Having discussed this issue with this particular preacher in the past, I knew what he meant by it, and was able to fill in my companion. The following bullet points are a summary of the things I shared with him.
Suffice it to say that there is a segment of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism that so wants to defend the “literal” interpretation of Scripture that it will often deny simple figures of speech in Scripture to the extent that it begins to distort the very fundamentals it intends to defend. One such fundamental of the faith that has suffered such distortion is that of the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures, of which the historic conciliar statement produced by the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) expresses the Biblical doctrine quite thoroughly and has served the church well in defining the orthodox position. Although an appeal to the so-called “Definition of Chalcedon” as an expression of Scriptural teaching on the matter falls on deaf fundamentalist ears, it does not change the fact that, historically speaking, for the Protestant as well as the Roman Catholic, to dissent from this Ecumenical Council on the hypostatic union is to be led by blind guides into the ditch of formal heresy. Sad to say, this is the fate of the kind of irresponsible Biblicism that often goes on in the Fundamentalist movement.
I’ve posted on this topic before here and here. The names I’ve used for this fundamentalist heresy are “Divine Blood” and “Celestial Flesh.” These titles describe the ways in which fundamentalists blur the distinction between Christ’s human and divine natures to a possibly heretical extent. This explains the use of these terms in the following bullet points:
- Divine Blood proponents believe a biological myth that the male seed provides the blood to the conceived egg (see this post).
- Divine Blood proponents believe in the seminal headship of Adam to the neglect of his federal headship. The Reformed affirm that seminal headship conveys actual moral corruption by means of “ordinary generation” (WCF 6.3), and that federal headship is the imputation of Adam’s guilt to all of his posterity (aka, “original sin”).
- Divine Blood proponents therefore conclude that sin itself is actually transmitted in human blood from Adam through the father to his offspring, and that therefore Christ was sinless primarily because he did not have a human father who would transmit his sin-tainted blood to him, thus making him a sinner.
- Divine Blood proponents misinterpret Heb 10:5 to teach that God the Father specially created an embryo and implanted it in Mary’s womb, so that Jesus was not the result of the supernatural fertilization of one of Mary’s eggs. This Christological error dates back to the radical reformation of the Anabaptist movement in a teaching called the “Celestial Flesh of Christ” (see this post).
- Divine Blood proponents believe that the references in Hebrews to a “greater and more perfect tabernacle” (Heb. 9:11-10:14) mean that Christ had to actually transport this divine blood shed on the cross into the presence of God after his resurrection, but before his appearance to the apostles, in a “literal” heavenly temple to pour it on a “literal” mercy seat. Little do they realize that Scripture elsewhere reveals Christ as the true Temple (see John 2:18-22; Heb. 10:20). Thus his sacrificial death, associated with and proclaimed as the fulfillment of the Old Testament sacrificial system by metonymous reference to his blood, is his offering of this ultimate sacrifice “once for all (time)” on the cross (Heb. 7:27; 9:12, 26; 10:10). His ascension and heavenly session actually serves as the anti-type to the references to the yearly repetition of the Aaronic priesthood which is contrasted with Christ’s sitting down at the right hand of the Father after making his ultimate once for all sacrifice (Heb. 10:11-14).
- Thus, Divine Blood proponents confuse the human and divine natures of Christ. If his blood isn’t ordinary human blood derived from a human conception, albeit overshadowed by the Holy Spirit, then his blood is less than fully human, a compromise of the historic orthodox interpretation of Scripture, which is exemplified by the Chalcedonian Definition. The confusion of Christ’s human and divine natures repeats the kind of mistake made by the monophysites of ancient church history. The “hypostatic union” of a completely human nature and a completely divine nature without confusing them or so separating them that they are no longer united in one person, Jesus of Nazareth, is the orthodox, biblical teaching on the God-Man. One should not define Christ’s human nature in terms of his divine attributes, nor define his divine nature in terms of his human attributes. To hold to a “celestial flesh” and “divine blood” view of Christ’s nature is just such an error.
I found an excellent, but lengthy, treatment of this doctrine by an Irish Reformed minister. If you’ve ever heard of this doctrine before, and are the least bit concerned about it, please invest the time in reading “Fundamentalists and the ‘Incorruptible’ Blood of Christ” by Martyn McGeown of Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Ballymena, North Ireland. Although it’s by an Irish writer, much of his essay interacts with American fundamentalist contributions to the controversy as well.
The April 25, 2010 episode of The Heidelcast, a weekly podcast by Dr. R. Scott Clark, Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, and writer of the Heidelblog, contains a discussion between Dr. Clark and Martin Downes, author of Risking the Truth, about how “biblicism” is fundamentally rationalistic, and so undermines the sole authority of Scripture, which it intends to uphold. What follows is a transcript of this short segment of their interview.
Clark: What happens when a fellow comes with his Bible open, as Faustus Socinus did (an anti-Trinitarian heretic)? He had his Bible open, and his uncle Laelius Socinus, managed to convince Heinrich Bullinger that he was basically orthodox. And so, both of these fellows said, “Listen, we believe the Bible, but we just don’t think that you’re getting it right. We’re more biblical than you. In fact, we want to get rid of all of this systematic theology and these confessions, and we just wanna follow the Bible.” What’s wrong with that approach, which scholars have called “Biblicism”?
Downes: The real problem is that, although it claims to be, upholding Sola Scriptura and the sole authority of Scripture, actually what’s really going on beneath that claim is a subtle form of rationalism.
Something that Jehovah’s Witnesses are always saying to people is, “Did you know the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible?” As if to say, “Ah, crums! It’s not there. Well, perhaps the idea isn’t really there.” Perhaps somebody invented that and imposed it upon the text.
I think what we find is that Biblicism demands that truth be stated in a certain way, and will not accept that we believe things, because of the express statements of Scripture, but also what “by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 1, section VI).
But it is very subtle, and I think that’s why it does take more people in. It’s an appeal to a standard of authority that we want to hold to whole-heartedly, but actually beneath that appeal, I think is a form of rationalism.
Clark: Doesn’t it also put the autonomous, individual Bible interpreter in charge of Scripture? And this is something of which Protestants are often accused, but it’s not really true. If someone pays attention to the history of Protestant theology, and the history of the Reformation, one would know right away that there was a huge difference between the Anabaptists, who were radicals and individualists and the Socinians, who were radicals and individualists…between them, and, the confessional Protestant Reformers, who actually worked within a churchly (ecclesiastical) context.
Downes: I remember once after an evening service, I chatted to a man at the door, and . . . I happened to mention what we are discussing—this particular issue—He said, “I’m not interested. That’s just a man made document.” But he wanted me to be interested in what he was saying, and his insights into the Scriptures.
So I said to him, “Look, why would I want to put aside a document that has churchly sanction, that represents the reflection from Scripture, and the thinking, not of an individual, but actually of the whole body of divines. And so, really what his claim was, “I’m not interested in what they think. I’m just interested in what I think. I just want you to believe what I’m saying. I struggle to find humility in that approach.
Clark: Not only is it arrogant, it’s essentially an Enlightenment-inspired, modernist approach to truth and error. At the end of the day, it’s not really God’s Word as understood and confessed by a body of believers, which is norming things, I’m norming things by my, private personal interpretation of Scripture. And so, at the end of the day, I, really, am the measure. I say I’m following the Bible, but I know better what the Bible says than anyone. And, unfortunately, I think, and maybe you’ll agree or not, I don’t know, that there’s a pretty radical misunderstanding of Sola Scriptura. What’s the real difference between Sola Scriptura as understood originally, and Biblicism?
Downes: I think it goes back to what you were saying about individualism. That it’s not seeing Christian belief in the context of the church, and the church is the pillar and ground of the truth, and maybe some of that is a fear of the Catholic element, with a large C and an R before it—maybe some of the squeamishness has to do with that—but I think fundamentally it is that individualistic mindset that it’s just me and my Bible. Well, it’s a big book. What does it teach? We ought to, if we are wise, consider very carefully two thousand years of Christian belief, in terms of the great creeds and the Reformed confessions.
Here’s a follow-up on my series of posts on “Compromising the Full Humanity of Christ” which dealt with the “heavenly flesh of Christ” heresy. In my reading through Calvin’s Institutes in commemoration of his quincentenary, I recently got to a passage in which he deals with this very issue, which he indicates that it predates Anabaptism, tying it to Manichaeism. Let’s read Calvin himself on this . . .
Indeed, the genuineness of his human nature was impugned long ago by both the Manichees and the Marcionites. The Marcionites fancied Christ’s body a mere appearance, while the Manichees dreamed that he was endowed with heavenly flesh. But many strong testimonies of Scripture stand against both (Book 2, chapter 13, section 1)…Marcion imagines that Christ put on a phantasm instead of a body because Paul elsewhere says that Christ was “made in the likeness of man . . . . being found in fashion as a man” (Phil. 2:7-8)…Mani forged him a body of air, because Christ is called “the Second Adam of heaven, heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:47) (Book 2, chapter 13, section 2).
You can read summaries of both of these sections at “Blogging the Institutes” from Reformation21.org, just follow the links in the two parenthetical references in the excerpt above.
Finally, in section 4, Calvin concludes his defense of the biblically orthodox view of Christ’s full humanity (which accords with the Definition of Chalcedon), explaining how it is that Christ’s human nature could be identical to our human nature without original sin–for Calvin, it’s simple, the Holy Spirit sanctified his human nature:
The absurdities with which they wish to weigh us down are stuffed with childish calumnies. They consider it shameful and dishonorable to Christ if he were to derive his origin from men, for he could not be exempted from the common rule, which includes under sin all of Adam’s offspring without exception. But the comparison that we read in Paul readily disposes of this difficulty: “As sin came in . . . through one man, and death through sin . . . so through the righteousness of one man grace abounded” (Rom. 5:12, 18). Another comparison of Paul’s agrees with this: “The first Adam was of the earth, and earthly and natural man, the Second of the heaven, heavenly” (1 Cor. 15:47). The apostle teaches the same thing in another passage, that Christ was sent “in the likeness of sinful flesh” to satisfy the law (Rom. 8:3-4). Thus, so skillfully does he distinguish Christ from the common lot that he is true man but without fault and corruption. But they babble childishly: if Christ is free from all spot, and through the secret working of the Spirit was begotten of the seed of Mary, then woman’s seed is not unclean, but only man’s (you can hear that from many independent Baptist fundamentalists in the 21st century–I heard it all my life.) For we make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall. And this remains for us an established fact: whenever Scripture calls our attention to the purity of Christ, it is to be understood of his true human nature, for it would have been superfluous to say that God is pure. Also, the sanctification of which John, ch. 17, speaks would have no place in divine nature (John 17:19). Nor do we imagine that Adam’s seed is twofold, even though no infection came to Christ. For the generation of man is not unclean and vicious of itself, but is so as an accidental quality arising from the Fall. No wonder, then, that Christ, through whom integrity was to be restored, was exempted from common corruption! They thrust upon us as something absurd the fact that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined within the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: the Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continuously filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!
That Christ’s human nature is equally sinless and at the same time the product of Mary’s reproductive system is easily seen in Scripture. The Spirit illumined this to my understanding by a simple reading of Luke 1:35 once I came to realize the modern fundamentalist heavenly flesh view with which I was raised had to be wrong:
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.”
See the word “therefore” in this verse? The former activity is the reason for the latter condition; the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing Mary in Jesus’ conception is the reason for his holiness. It’s as simple as that! Long ago, I got a grasp of the fact that names in Scripture usually reflect something of the nature or behavior of the people who bear them. In this case, the Spirit’s name is “Holy Spirit.” In short, he’s the Spirit who makes people holy. The human nature of Jesus was holy because of his conception via the Holy Spirit. And believers today are being sanctified (being made holy) by the Holy Spirit through the ordinary means of the preaching of Law and Gospel, signified and sealed to them in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
One of the most effective ploys to scare Arminians and moderate Calvinists away from Calvinism is to paint John Calvin as some evil, persecuting tyrant who reigned over a theocracy of his own making in Geneva, Switzerland–twisting the facts, and omitting many other facts relevant to the unfortunate episode that was the burning of anti-trinitarian heretic, Miguel Servetus. In the following video, Reformed apologist James White sets the historical record straight by simply listing related facts that Calvin’s critics never get around to presenting which sheds a whole new light on the incident.
Yes, Calvin was a man of his times, and the part he played in the execution of Servetus is not to be excused, however, Calvin’s 21st century critics are also men of their time, and it’s equally inexcusable to slander dead Reformers (or anyone else, for that matter).
The progress (or perhaps, regress) of my theological views from independent Baptist fundamentalism to confessional Reformed theology results from my desire to get to the true roots of the Baptist tradition. Sort of a “back to the basics” quest. Essential in the post-Reformation development of Reformed theology, and even the development of the original Baptist movement, is Puritan theology. As Baptist historian, Leon McBeth, writes at the Baptist History and Heritage Society website, “Our best historical evidence says that Baptists came into existence in England in the early seventeenth century. They apparently emerged out of the Puritan-Separatist movement in the Church of England.” Several notable Puritans, like the great John Owen, renounced their paedobaptistic distinctives in favor of the emerging Baptistic alternatives, which I still contend are due to Anabaptistic, rather than Reformed, influence. But I digress (for more on the ongoing debate about an Anabaptist/Baptist connection, read this article from the Baptist Standard).
One of the Reformed podcasts I follow weekly, “Christ the Center,” by the Reformed Forum, features an interview of Rev. James O’Brien, pastor of Reedy River PCA on the Christ-centered, and piety-enriching benefits of reading the Puritans (listen to the episode here). Puritan literature is available, not only from Banner of Truth Trust, and other Reformed publishers who reprint their works, but a world of Puritan literature is also available at Archive.org, and Google Books. But to get an easy start, you or some Christian you know probably has a copy of Matthew Henry’s commentary. Pull it off the shelf and peruse it. I bet you won’t regret it.
Founders Ministries posted a video of a sermon by the late, great Southern Baptist pastor, Dr. W. A. Criswell entitled, “The Bible Kind of Salvation.” In his opening remarks, Dr. Criswell explains clearly that this is a sermon on the election and choosing of God. The fact that Founders Ministries is promoting this sermon says something about on which side of this great debate Dr. Criswell comes down (Who was Dr. Criswell?). Southern Baptists who are reading this blog are urged to consider the remarks that one of your great leaders of the recent past proclaimed as the truth of the matter on what the Bible teaches about the doctrine of election and the so-called “sovereign grace” of God.
In the “about us” page of Founders Ministries, it reads as follows:
Founders Ministries is a ministry of teaching and encouragement promoting both doctrine and devotion expressed in the Doctrines of Grace (what are the doctrines of grace? click here) and their experiential application to the local church, particularly in the areas of worship and witness. Founders Ministries takes as its theological framework the first recognized confession of faith that Southern Baptists produced, The Abstract of Principles. We desire to encourage the return to and promulgation of the biblical gospel that our Southern Baptist forefathers held dear.
As a deacon in a Southern Baptist church, I’m personally convinced that everything that’s right about the Baptist tradition it learned from
Reformed theology, and everything that’s wrong with it was adapted either intentionally or unintentionally from Anabaptism. I further believe that a return to a more consistent application of Reformed theology (aka, the doctrines of grace or Calvinism) is the key that will solve many of the issues that trouble Southern Baptists churches today.
The following is part one of a four part series. If you need help finding parts 2-4, click here.
In case you don’t know, I’m a music lover. And although I decidedly come down on the “traditional” side in the worship wars (in fact, I just got my “Organ Music Rocks” t-shirt from Old Lutheran dot com!), I happen to enjoy some of the music produced by some of those who may differ with me on that issue, I just happen to reserve it “for entertainment purposes only”. Not that I don’t find it edifying as well, at times.
For instance, when it comes to Southern Gospel music, there is very little that I can stand for very long. One or two songs and I’m pretty well done. Any more than that, and I start getting visibly uncomfortable. But not so in the case of Reformed Presbyterian harmonica player extraordinaire, Buddy Greene (visit his official site). I could listen to him all day. I just added a few YouTube videos of Greene excercising his gift to my personal YouTube page (you can visit it here). The first song is “Denomination Blues” (no harmonica in this one) and he pokes fun at a few select denominations, starting with his own (even false churches like Roman Catholicism and Unitarianism). But I was surprised that he didn’t have a verse on the Baptist denomination. If you can write a good one in the vein of Buddy Greene’s song, post it in the comments. I’ll add mine when I come up with one, too.
Here’s one where he pulls out his harmonica. It’s one of my all-time favorite songs, “God Is With Us.” This has more of a black gospel feel to it:
Lutheran professor of Systematic Theology and Christian Apologetics, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt, co-host of The White Horse Inn radio show, was interviewed yesterday,
Thursday, February 4th, on “Lutheran Public Radio,” a show called Issues, Etc. on the topic of repentance. Dr. Rosenbladt’s WHI co-hosts, Mike Horton and Kim Riddlebarger, began calling him “Dad Rod,” chiefly, I think, because it was his sense of urgency that American Evangelicalism needs to be reintroduced to the gospel, that drives the vision of their show. Among other things, revivalism has transformed American Protestant Christianity into something more akin to the medieval Roman Catholic spirituality and Anabaptistic enthusiasm (don’t ignore this link!) than anything produced by the Protestant Reformation of the Magisterial Reformers, Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli. One of the things that revivalism has “De-formed” in America is the doctrine of repentance.
The revivalist version of the doctrine of repentance is one which puts all the emphasis on the work of the believer to be sorry or contrite enough, really mean it when he repents, and shows that he’s really repented because he has actually ceased and desisted of any recurrence of the particular sinful behavior repented of. “Dad Rod” clearly and simply summarized the Reformation view of repentance from the believer’s perspective when he said . . .
“Our repentance is always imperfect and always half-hearted. . . This is preparation for believing the gospel promise (of forgiveness). . . and we do that half-heartedly, too. But God saves us in Jesus anyway.”
If you didn’t just breathe a sigh of relief, watch out! You may just be one of those dishonest people who thinks they’ve got this obedience to the Law thing down.
By the way, you can learn more pearls of wisdom from our Lutheran Dad Rod at his very own website, New Reformation Press.