Thursday, January 18, 2018

Prayer is a way more difficult subject than Quantum Mechanics

Not long from now one of our elders is going to teach a Sunday School series on the subject of prayer. I look forward to his class. One reason is that he is a gifted teacher. Another reason is that I believe prayer is the most difficult of all biblical subjects (especially when you toss in a strong Calvinistic view of God’s sovereignty.) Any teaching that improves my understanding of prayer is appreciated.  When I was teaching more theological topics, prayer was one topic that I would never even attempt.

I thought about this because I came across this post: 4 Reasons why God Isn’t Answering Your Prayers  from David Qaoud, a Reformed seminarian. The post is well-written and in my opinion theologically sound—and I’m sure Mr. Qaoud is heading for a productive life of ministry to the Kingdom. So probably it’s just me, but the post says just about everything that causes me to cringe when I read  about prayer. I don't mean this as a personal attack on Mr. Qaoud--everything just about anyone has ever written on prayer, even the biggest of big names, has left me unsatisfied. 

I do have to criticize one part of the post. It starts off with a familiar platitude that actually causes me to stifle a scream.

God answers every prayer – but he often says “no”.

What does that even mean? I will believe this to be a meaningful statement if anyone can explain a substantive difference between God not answering a prayer, and God answering “no”.

Let's take a look at the four reasons Mr. Qaoud provides.

1. You are not a Christian
Mr. Qaoud’s first of four reasons is that God doesn’t answer your prayer because you are not a Christian.  He then properly adds the nuance that, in reality, God might answer the prayers of an unbeliever. (And after all, we do encourage unbelievers to pray for repentance and faith, do we not?)  God, however, nowhere promises to answer their prayers.

Fair enough.  But since God does promise to answer the prayers of believers, this exacerbates the angst when a prayer goes unanswered, for it nibbles away at assurance. That’s not a flaw with Mr. Qaoud’s first reason—it’s just the way it is. It's another sign that nobody has a good theology of prayer--it's an enigma.

2. Because  your prayer doesn’t align with God’s will
To me this is as unhelpful as “God did answer, but He answered no.”And really, it's just a variation of the same theme. What is outside of God’s will is not going to happen, what is aligned with his will (his decretive will at least) is ordained. To me, this says: event E will occur or not occur independent and in spite of, not because of, your prayer. And you know what, I believe that to be the case, but I don’t find it a useful reason as to why my prayers are not answered.

3. Because your motives don’t align with God’s Ways
Here Mr. Qaoud invokes James’ epistle: 
You ask and do not receive, because you ask [c]with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasures. (James 4:3). 
But this, again, is another variation on the same theme. My prayer isn’t answered, because my motives are impure. My motives are impure, so my prayer will not be answered. Just like with God’s will, (reason 2) while it is undoubtedly true, as a reason it fails to satisfy because it is tautological.

4. Because you’re not showing your wife honor and living with her in an understanding way.
Same horse, different color.

Let me summarize. You pray for a child to be cured. The child is not cured. The reasons are surely your fault. One or more of these gets God off the hook:
  1. You are not really a Christian
  2. Your prayer doesn’t align with God’s will
  3. You have impure motives
  4. You do not honor your spouse 

Rats. I want a coherent, self-consistent, non-tautological theology of prayer, consistent with my Calvinism, that doesn’t consist of reasons that read like loopholes or fine-print escape clauses.  I pray for such insight. I do not think I’ll ever find one on this side of the river.

For what it is worth, this is as far as I ever got on a personal theology on prayer:

Given what I believe about God’s sovereignty:
  • I pray because God, through his Word, commands me to pray.
  • I don’t expect my prayer will affect God’s actions.
  • It is a privilege to pray, to commune with God, to enter, boldly, the throne of grace. (And I need to remind myself of this regularly, because it often seems more of a burden than an unspeakable privilege.)
  • It is therapeutic, which might just be the humanistic spin on it being a means of grace.

That’s all I got, and I ain't got no more. And it has no answer for unanswered prayer—and I refuse to accept the dreaded “it was answered, but the answer was no.”

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Yo Adrian

So I'll be teaching Sunday School. At a point where I mention the Apollos-Peter-Paul factions that developed in the Corinthian church, I want to use this cartoon for comic relief.

Whaddya think? Does it work? (Click to enlarge.)

Don't worry about hurting my feelings.

Fixed Earth Christianity (modified)

Embarrassing.  A  Christian site that proclaims the earth doesn't move. Not much more can be added. I understand that some people, many of my acquaintances in fact, don't care about the science. They are comfortable with their yom = 24 hours YEC view, and not interested in hearing arguments to the contrary. I have no problem with that. Nor do I have a problem with someone who takes the next step, and says, as I have heard many times: I'm sure you're right about what science teaches, I just don't believe it. Fair enough. But my threshold is crossed when bad science (which is not science at all) is used to impugn good science, and done so with malice aforethought.

I think indifference to science is theologically wrong. We are told that we can learn something of God's attributes through general revelation, and we have the analogy:

Special Revelation : Theology :: General Revelation : Science

Indifference to science is wrong, but somewhat understandable. (As the analogy suggests, indifference to science is more or less the same error as indifference to doctrine.) Still, in the grand scheme of things it's not a big deal if someone doesn't want to reconcile his beliefs with science and takes the honest route of saying: "I don't care what science teaches." But what the fixed earth site and others like it do—well that's just plain 'ole lying for Jesus.

At the risk of upsetting some of my readers and fiends, the difference between the fixed earth site and AiG or the ICR is simply a matter of spit-polish and funding. Rather than admit the possibility that their private interpretation of Genesis might be wrong, they all prefer to make God into a god of confusion--one whose creation doesn't proclaim his glory, it proclaims his deceitfulness. How could it proclaim the glory of God, if the information it reveals cannot be trusted?

Monday, January 15, 2018

I know so little about the Holy Spirit

Yesterday we were reminded that we do not give enough studious attention to the Holy Spirit.

This was not taught, this is what my cynical self thinks: part of the reason is a widespread (thankfully not universal) Baptist flaw--we have a history of overreacting. Not satisfied with "Baptism doesn't save" we (speaking in Baptists generalities here) turned the sacraments into The. Real. Absence. May it never be that something supernatural occurs! Don't use that "means of grace" phraseology, it implies something mystical.

In the fairly mainstream "purely commemorative  Baptist position, God, at baptisms or communion, is the same level of passive observer as at any other time.

The Holy Spirit is not the only "person" we tend to ignore. Baptists run away from Mary, lest we be too Catholicky. And for some reason (a personal peeve, because he's a personal biblical hero) we don't talk enough about Stephen. We might mention his courage and fortitude in facing martyrdom, but we don't tend to exposit the text of his self defense, which was utterly amazing. But of the three, neglecting the Holy Spirit is the worst offense--given that He's, you know, God.

But, speaking for myself, scripture makes it difficult to wrap my head around the Holy Spirit. Actually one of more more vexxing passages is that famous verse concerned with Jesus' return:
32 But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone. (Mark 13:32)
We tend to go to great lengths, often with very bad theology (at times very very bad) to explain how Jesus the man-God did not know when he would return. But rarely do we address the fact that the passage, with no obvious wiggle room, suggests that the Holy Spirit doesn't know either--and that would seem to be problematic.

What's the solution?

I haven't a clue. The Holy Spirit mystifies even when He's not mentioned.

UPDATE: Fixed typo. It's commemorative not comparative. Grr.

Friday, January 12, 2018

In The Beginning

If pushed, I would say that the first three words (in any standard English translation) of the bible comprise the only definitive scientific statement found in scripture.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

We don't need no stinkin' Copernican Principle (repost)

I have often written that there are four ways to explain the fact that our universe is (at least apparently) fine-tuned.
  1. It really was fine tuned. That is, Goddidit.
  2. There are multiple universes, most of them sterile, but obviously ours is not. (A solution by large numbers.)
  3. The fine tuning is an illusion.
  4. Unimaginable luck.
It is interesting to see that some scientists are presenting a fifth possibility: the Copernican Principle is wrong.

The Copernican Principle is the cherished belief that we are not in any special place in the cosmos. It is essentially the same thing as the idea that the universe is homogenous--it looks the same, on a large scale, from any location. The article linked above discusses the non-homogeneous possibility that we are in fact in a very special low density bubble within the larger universe. Even more un-Copernican-like, we would have to be in the center of this bubble to explain the high degree of isotropy seen in the microwave background.

From the article:
This startling possibility [accelerated expansion] can be accommodated by the standard cosmological equations, but only at a price. That price is introducing dark energy - an unseen energy pervading space that overwhelms gravity and drives an accelerating expansion. Dark energy is problematic. No one really knows what it is. We can make an educated guess, and use quantum theory to estimate how much of it there might be, but then we overshoot by an astounding factor of 10120 [The so-called "worst" fine tuning problem in all of physics].

That is grounds enough, says George Ellis, a leading cosmology theorist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, to take a hard look at our assumptions about the universe and our place in it. "If we analyse the supernova data by assuming the Copernican principle is correct and get out something unphysical, I think we should start questioning the Copernican principle."

A cool, for some, Sophie's Choice: Which do you hate less, a fine tuned universe or the death of the Copernican Principle?

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Defining the Faith (modified)

Let us quickly review the early church heresies that we discussed in the previous post.


This was a denial of the incarnation. There were variations, but a common view was that the Christ-Spirit came upon the Jesus-man at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, leaving the Jesus-man to die. Another Docetic school held that Jesus' human form was an illusion, ghost, or phantom. As we saw last time, a form of Docetism is even found in the Koran:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)


Gnosticism generally included Docetism, but went way beyond it. It was, and is, in many ways, the most dangerous of all heresies for its enduring ability to attract advocates. In the modern era it is represented by the New Age movement, Astrology, Eastern Religions, etc. It incorporated the idea of knowledge as being the path to salvation. The goal of acquiring the special knowledge was to awaken the divine within us—remnants of the creation of the material world by a misguided demigod. Jesus was a messenger of the supreme god, come to enlighten us as to how we could return to the intended spiritual state.

Gnostics, unlike Christians, do not believe that God created the earth, or that creation of the material world was "good."

The identification of the physical as evil resulted in one of two extreme lifestyle choices: asceticism or, following the logic that the flesh is irrelevant, "anything goes."


A sort of minimal Gnosticism in which there are two gods: the lesser god of the Old Testament, who did the unsavory act of creating the material world, and the loving merciful god of the New Testament, who was Jesus’ father. Recall that Marcion’s rewriting of scripture provided the incentive for the Church to make great strides in organizing the canon.


One could debate whether this is properly labeled as a heresy or just a misguided sect. While Gnosticism exaggerated the importance of the intellect, Montanism overemphasized the experiential. The Montanists believed that the age of the Son had ended and the age of the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had begun. They exalted prophets and prophetess, who spoke not as messengers, “…Thus saith the Lord,” but rather as if they were possessed by God, such as Montanus: "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." The greatest known Montanist was Tertullian.

Defining the Faith

The church had to respond to these early heresies. One important way was through early creeds, used for the most part, especially in the earliest days, during baptisms. The creeds were modified from time to time to arrest the spread of error. Thus the early baptismal creed had to be extended beyond the line:
I believe in God the Father.
Since, for example, Marcion could affirm such a statement, to
I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth.
This, neither Marcion (nor any of the Gnostics) could affirm, for it identified the God the Father—whom they would consider the New Testament god—with God the creator, or the Old Testament god. Irenaeus (115-190), Bishop of Lyon, and author of Against Heresies (Full title included Detection and Overthrow of the False Knowledge, i.e., this work was meant to refute Gnosticism) summarized, around A.D. 180, the church’s beliefs as:
" God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father ‘to gather all things in one,' and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, ‘every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess; to him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all...'" (Against Heresies X.l)
Here it is again made plain that God the Maker is also God the Father, and that the current Christian dispensation is vitally connected to the Old Testament, since through the Holy Spirit it was proclaimed through the prophets.

Here we see our threefold confession: In God the Creator and Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The orthodox understanding relationship among the three personalities, however, would not develop so easily, but more of that anon.

The Apostolic Tradition, usually credited to Hippolytus (?-236, and the first antipope) contains the following baptismal liturgy
When the elder takes hold of each of them who are to receive baptism, he shall tell each of them to renounce, saying, "I renounce you Satan, all your service, and all your works."  After he has said this, he shall anoint each with the Oil of Exorcism, saying, "Let every evil spirit depart from you." Then, after these things, the bishop passes each of them on nude to the elder who stands at the water. They shall stand in the water naked. A deacon, likewise, will go down with them into the water. When each of them to be baptized has gone down into the water, the one baptizing shall lay hands on each of them, asking, "Do you believe in God the Father Almighty?" And the one being baptized shall answer, "I believe." He shall then baptize each of them once, laying his hand upon each of their heads. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and died, and rose on the third day living from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father, the one coming to judge the living and the dead?" When each has answered, "I believe," he shall baptize a second time. Then he shall ask, "Do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Church and the resurrection of the flesh?" Then each being baptized shall answer, "I believe." And thus let him baptize the third time.
Note that from the earlier creedal statement, we see the expansion of the description of Christ. This is adapted into the so-called Apostle’s creed, which we present below annotated so as to clarify its response to Gnosticism.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth,

Gnostics taught that the material world is evil, and that God the Father did not make it.
And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary,

Gnostics (and Docetists) denied that God had taken human nature or a human body. As stated, many believed the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and departed from him at the crucifixion, or that Jesus’ human form was an illusion. Against this denial of the Incarnation, the Church affirmed that Jesus was conceived through the action of the Holy Spirit, refuting the Gnostic claim that the Spirit had nothing to do with Jesus until His baptism, that he was born (i.e., he had a real physical body, and not just an appearance) of a virgin (which implied that he had been special from the first moment of his life, and not just from His baptism).
Suffered under Pontius Pilate,

Affirms that Jesus, in his incarnation, suffered—he was not whisked away leaving just a human shell to suffer. Recall that Docetic literature such as the Gospel of Peter denied that Jesus as God suffered.
was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into Hades.
The explicit reference to dead and buried, and the descent into Hades (Hell), make it clear that the death of Jesus was not just a swoon or a coma, but death in every sense of the word.
The third day he rose from the dead, he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the holy catholic church,
Gnostics believed that the most important Christian doctrines were reserved for a select, intellectual elite. The creed affirms that the fullness of the Gospel was to be preached to the entire human race. Hence the term "catholic," or universal.
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
Gnostics denied that men needed redemption or forgiveness, but enlightenment. Ignorance was the only unpardonable sin. Some of them, believing the body to be a snare and delusion, led lives of great asceticism. Others, believing the body to be quite independent of the soul, held that it did not matter what the body did. They accordingly led libertine lives. Either way, the notion of forgiveness was alien to them.
the resurrection of the body,
The chief goal of the Gnostics was to shed the body, which was but a prison of the spiritual. Their goal was to return spiritually to the heavenly realm. They totally rejected any idea of the resurrection of the body.

The Nature of the Threefold Revelation

Although the baptismal and doctrinal creeds did much to combat Gnosticism, there still remained the difficult question of the exact nature of the relationship among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This complex issue resulted in additional heresy.


Monarchianism had a noble goal: addressing the criticism that Christians were tritheists, that is they worshipped three gods. (Today, many non-Christians including Jews, and even some who call themselves Christians, still view orthodox Christianity’s claim of monotheism as being patently absurd.) The various schools of thought know as Monarchianism taught that Jesus and the Spirit were but emanations from God, or that they were merely different forms in which the Father chose to manifest himself from time to time.

One Monarchian school was Dynamism. Christ, according to the Dynamists, was a faculty, feature, or emanation of God, like the rays of the sun or a stream from a fountain. The bottom line: the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are but a single Person. One of the leading proponents of Dynamism was the scandalous Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata. In 268, the Church condemned him as a heretic. He was accused of acquiring great wealth by illicit means, of showing haughtiness and worldliness, of having set up for himself a lofty pulpit in the church, and of insulting those who did not applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, of admitting women to live in his house, and had permitted the same to his clergy.)

Ironically, this Paul, a heretic, is noteworthy for introducing into the theology of the trinity the Greek adjective homoousios (of the same substance) which will be important in the orthodox formulation.

Dynamism was usually coupled with Adoptionism, which taught that Jesus the man was promoted to the rank of Son of God because of his perfect obedience. This heresy makes its way into classic literature, when Milton, in Paradise Regained, puts these words into the mouth of the Father:
This perfect Man, by merit call'd your Son.
A more popular school of Monarchianism was called Sabellianism (after Sabellius, priest of Northern Africa, ~215) or Modalism. According to this school, The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are simply three roles played by God. The Sabellianists do not deny, for example, the Apostle’s creed, for it describes the three manifestations of God while saying nothing of His inner being.

The Sabellianists were also called Patripassians, (pater –father, passio –suffering) for their doctrine implied that the Father and the Son are essentially the same person, and so the father suffered on the cross. The Sabellianists, according to Tertullian, “drove out prophecy and brought in heresy, expelled the Paraclete (Holy Spirit) and crucified the Father.”

In the same way that Marcion stimulated the church begin formalizing the canon, Monarchianism forced the church to examine the scriptures to formulate the correct view of the triune God. In particular, Sabellianism (Modalism), while not completely unattractive, was simply incompatible with scripture that spoke of the Father sending the Son, or the Father and Son sending the Holy Spirit, or the Son praying to the Father, etc.
that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him. (John 5:23)

that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. (John 17:21)

And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" (Gal. 4:6)

16I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– 17the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17)

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
The problem, then and now, is summarized succinctly by F. F. Bruce: Our conception of God must fall short of His real being, and our language about him must fall short of our conception.

In defining an orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, it has proved extremely difficult to find the right terms that avoid error in the two extremes: Modalism, in which the Father, Son, and Spirit are just three ways that God alternately reveals himself, or tritheism, in which the three are so distinct as to constitute three different gods.

It must be established that, axiomatically, Christianity, and the New Testament, affirms monotheism as ardently as Judaism. Whatever else we may, as Christians, say about the nature of God, we solidly affirm that He is One. As Christians, we agree with the Jewish creed of Maimonides that states:
I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be His name, is a Unity, and that there is no unity in any manner like unto His, and that He alone isour God who was, is, and will be.

But, unlike Jews, we do not see the unity of God as a monolithic unity. As the early theologians struggled to find ways to express this, we must remember that they were not merely waxing philosophical, but trying to find expression that did justice to revelation and experience. God had revealed Himself, and had been experienced, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in His word. God did not, as the Adoptionists taught, wait around until a man of Jesus’ stellar character arrived; God took the initiative in sending the Son.

Among the church fathers, Hippolytus was forceful in his attack on the Roman bishops (popes) Zephyrinus (202-217) and Callistus (217-222) in what he regarded as their complicity in the spread of Sabellianism, although it must be added that Callistus eventually excommunicated Sabellius.

It was, however, Tertullian who provided the greatest service in developing the terms that began to express what Christians believed but couldn’t say.

It is to Tertullian to whom we owe the word “Trinity”, and also the language of one substance in three persons. And though we still use the words substance and persons in describing the trinity, they do not mean exactly what they meant for Tertullian, and so in some ways our expression of the Trinity suffers somewhat.

For Tertullian, the Latin word persona denoted one who played a part or performed a function in society. Tertullian adopted the word to theology, and spoke of three persona in the indivisible Godhead. Today, the word means more that it did to Tertullian, essentially meaning “persons”, but three persons is closer to a tritheist view that we really want to go.

Likewise, when Tertullian used the word substance (Latin substantia) we again have a problem. Tertullian did not mean it as we do today; for us the word substance is inextricably tied to materiality. We view "of one substance" as meaning "made out of the same stuff." Tertullian would have meant something closer to the modern meaning of "essence" rather than substance. For Tertullian and other third century theologians:
God is one Being, eternally existing the threefold relationship of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; each of these three is "the one God, thinking, willing and acting, in one of His three eternal spheres of thought, volition and activity… the indivisible Godhead subsisting and operating in one of the essential relations of His Tripersonal life." (H.B. Swete, The Holy Spirit in the Ancient Church)
Origen of Alexandria, probably the church's greatest thinker and scholar of the first three centuries, also struggled with the doctrine of the Trinity. In Origen's reaction to Monarchianism, he went too far. He thought that the Father, Son, and Spirit occupied a hierarchical position within the unity of the Godhead. The Son was subordinate to the Father, and the Spirit to the Son. He even taught that the Son was a creature, not in the sense that he was a created being but that the Son's being was derived from the Father's and is subject to His will. (He was not, however, an Arian—a heresy of the following [fourth] century that denied the divinity of Christ, which we will discuss later.)

The third century did not end (if indeed it ever has ended) the debate on the doctrine of God’s inner being. The next big advancement would come with the Arian controversy.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Some Early Heresies (modified)


Before the end of the first century, indeed before John wrote his gospel, the Greek belief that matter was inherently evil manifested itself in an early heresies. The name of one earliest being docetism, from the Greek dokein, which means “to seem.” It was especially a problem in the region of Asia Minor.

There were variants, but the common theme was a denial that the Son of God really became a man and really died. The incarnation, according to Docetic thought, was an illusion. John goes out of his way to address this heresy (attesting to its early appearance) and to affirm the humanity of death of Christ. In his gospel he wrote:
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
Christ did not assume “the appearance” of flesh, but actual flesh. He also wrote:
But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. (John 19:34)
Which emphasizes that Christ died in the flesh. John also addresses Docetism in his epistles:
this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God (1 John 4:2)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. (2 John 7)
A big lesson: heresy can break on a time scale not of generations, but of just a few years (or less.)

One school of Docetism followed Cerinthus, a contemporary of John. Cerinthus taught that the Christ-Spirit came upon the man Jesus at his baptism, and left him at the crucifixion. According the (very) non-canonical Docetic Gospel of Peter:
10 And they brought two malefactors, and crucified the 11 Lord between them. But he kept silence, as one feeling no pain. And when they set the cross upright, they wrote 12 thereon: This is the King of Israel. And they laid his garments before him, and divided them among themselves and 13 cast the lot upon them. But one of those malefactors reproached them, saying: We have thus suffered for the evils which we have done; but this man which hath become the 14 savior of men, wherein hath he injured you? And they were wroth with him, and commanded that his legs should not be broken, that so he might die in torment. 15 Now it was noonday, and darkness prevailed over all Judea: and they were troubled and in an agony lest the sun should have set, for that he yet lived: for it is written for them that the sun should not set upon him that hath been 16 slain (murdered). And one of them said: Give ye him to drink gall with vinegar: and they mingled it and gave him 17 to drink: and they fulfilled all things and accomplished 18 their sins upon their own heads. And many went about with 19 lamps, supposing that it was night: and some fell. And the Lord cried out aloud saying: My power, my power, thou hast forsaken me. And when he had so said, he was taken up. (The Gospel of Peter)

F. F. Bruce comments:
The docetic note in this narrative appears in the statement that Jesus, while being crucified, 'remained silent, as though he felt no pain', and in the account of his death. It carefully avoids saying that he died, preferring to say that he 'was taken up', as though he - or at least his soul or spiritual self - was 'assumed' direct from the cross to the presence of God. Then the cry of dereliction is reproduced in a form which suggests that, at that moment, his divine power left the bodily shell in which it had taken up temporary residence.
Other tidbits about the Gospel of Peter: It is quite anti-Semitic, and completely whitewashes the complicity of Pilate.

Another form of Docetism taught that Jesus’ humanity was of a “phantom” nature, and that those who crucified him were deceived. Jerome (~340-420) would later write:
While the apostles were still surviving, while Christ's blood was still fresh in Judea, the Lord's body was asserted to be but a phantasm. (adv. Lucif. 23)
Finally, there was also a school that taught that it was Simon of Cyrene who was crucified while Jesus looked on from a place of safety.

Docetism is even found in the Koran’s teaching on Jesus:
And for claiming that they killed the Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, the messenger of GOD. In fact, they never killed him, they never crucified him - they were made to think that they did. All factions who are disputing in this matter are full of doubt concerning this issue. They possess no knowledge; they only conjecture. For certain, they never killed him. (Koran 4:157)


Gnosticism is another early Christian heresy, and in fact the most dangerous, but its roots are much older (and new research keeps pushing back the origins.) Gnosticism is best described as a mythology that collided with Christianity and then absorbed some of its features and attempted to carry the mantle forward.

Perhaps the origins can be stated thusly: There was, even before the Christian era, a mythological belief regarding the structure of the universe, or cosmology. This view, in addition to corrupting early Christian thought, bifurcates into Astrology and the quasi-scientific astronomy of the second century astronomer Ptolemy. The former line continued the Gnostic way of thought, alive and well today as “New Age” thinking, while the latter ultimately lead to true Astronomy.

This early, pre-Christian cosmology taught that the universe was comprised of clear, hard, earth-centered concentric spheres. Each planet had its on sphere upon the surface of which it was constrained to move, and beyond these was the sphere of the “fixed” stars. Beyond the sphere of the stars lay the realm of the supreme god.

Each of these astronomical objects was the spirit ruler of its particular sphere. In scientific terms, this represented an advancement over earlier cosmologies that, for example, viewed the earth as the floor of a giant tent.

The theology associated with the cosmology held that the lords of the spheres served as intermediaries between god and man, and that the supreme god could have no direct contact with man.

This new way of thinking was given the name gnosis, from the Greek word for knowledge. However gnosis was used in a more substantive way—much like we sometimes use Science instead of science—as in “Science tells us.”

Those who possess gnosis were called Gnostics. When Christianity arose, they attempted to shoehorn its beliefs into their schema. There were many sects of Gnosticism, and they despised one another as much as they hated the orthodox. In general, however, they agreed that garden-variety orthodox Christianity was for the unenlightened, and only they, the intellectual elite, could attain the truth.

The material world was the mistaken creation of a demiurge, not the supreme god. The supreme god had created and intended only a spiritual world. So to Gnostics, unlike Christians, the earth is not of divine creation, but the mishap of a far lesser being. Some Gnostic sects identified this demiurge with the God of Israel, which brings to mind the teachings of Marcion that we discussed last week.

However, since the creation was the work of a (flawed) spiritual being, there are still bits and pieces of the spirit realm sprinkled here and there, trapped in the flesh. The Fall, to the Gnostics, was the fall of this divine element into the material realm. Our spirits are “asleep” in our bodies, and Christ is the spiritual messenger who has come to reawaken our true nature. Gnostic salvation is not merely individual redemption of each human soul, but more of a cosmic process. It is the return of all things to what they were before an error (on the part of a lesser god) brought matter into existence
The Gnostics and Docetists had much in common, including their disdain for the material. But the Gnostics went much, much farther, for they believed that gnosis lead to salvation. In other words, they possessed a special, secret knowledge, reserved for the enlightened, and that knowledge was the key to salvation.

Whereas Judaism and Christianity, and almost all pagan systems, hold that the one obtains salvation by obedience of mind and will to the God, i.e. by faith and works, (in Christianity, of course, by faith alone through grace alone) it is Gnosticism that uniquely ties salvation to the possession of knowledge of the mysteries of the universe and of magic formulae indicative of that knowledge.

What the Gnostics borrowed from Christianity was a bastardized notion of redemption. Christ was the redeemer, but not by His blood. Instead the Gnostic Jesus descended the lower world (earth) in order to release the divine element that had become imprisoned in the flesh, and to lead it back to its true home.

Gnosticism lacks the idea of atonement. There is no sin to be atoned for, except ignorance, which in Gnosticism is the equivalent of the unforgivable sin. Nor did Christ in any sense benefit the human race by his sufferings. Nor does he immediately and actively affect any individual human by the power of grace. He was a teacher, he once brought into the world the truth, the knowledge of which alone can save.

Many Gnostics did not claim to be Christians, only those that proclaimed Jesus as the spiritual messenger come to reawaken the essence trapped within the flesh. Some sects proclaimed other redeemers, including one branch prevalent among the Samaritans that proclaimed Simon Magus (Simon the magician of Acts 8) as the redeemer. Thus many afford Simon the dishonor of being the first Christian heretic (for this Simon, according to scripture, believed and was baptized.)

However, even the Christian Gnostics are, in fact, pantheists. Well they recognize that one god is the supreme god, there is a whole zoo of other lesser gods, at least in most Gnostic theologies. The least pantheistic Gnostics are the dualistic Marcionists, which we’ll discuss in a moment.

To Gnostics, a human being is really an eternal spirit, or part of a spirit, that became trapped inside a body. Since the body is a prison, it is necessarily evil, therefore the ultimate goal of the Gnostic is to escape the body and the material world, and to reunite with the spiritual.

Since the flesh is evil, the Gnostics reject the humanity of Christ. They may have allowed that Jesus had a body, but it was not human body, but a spiritual body masquerading as physical. Naturally they also reject the birth of Christ, for this would imply an unimaginable defilement of the spiritual within a womb of flesh. (One could attribute a slight Gnostic flavor to the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, insomuch as it is supported by the notion that Christ could not be placed in a sinful womb.)

Many Gnostics held to the concept of an “elect.” Not all humans contained remnants of their spiritual creator—some were fully carnal. Thus only some humans were destined for enlightenment, while others were slated for destruction when the material world ceased.

So how should the present life, then, be lived? The bulk of the Gnostics argued that since the body is inherently evil, all its urges and lusts must be fought against. Hence, a common expression of the Gnostic lifestyle was an extreme form of self-denial or asceticism. On the other hand, a minority of Gnostics believed that since the body was essentially irrelevant as far as the spirit is concerned, they were free to adopt an anything-goes libertine philosophy.

All Gnostic sects baptized. The formulae used by Christian Gnostics seem to have varied widely from that taught by Christ. The Marcosians said: "In the name of the unknown Father of all, in the Truth, the Mother of all, in him, who came down on Jesus.". The Elcesaites said: "In the name of the great and highest God and in the name of his Son, the great King". Elsewhere we find the formula: "In the name that was hidden from every divinity and lordship and truth, which [name] Jesus the Nazarene has put on in the regions of light".

Magic was important in Gnosticism (which explains the rise of Simon the Magician). For example, power is attributed to the utterance of the vowels: alpha, epsilon, eta, iota, omicron, upsilon, omega. The Savior and His disciples are said to have at times broken out in an interminable gibberish of only vowels. Gnostic magic spells have come down to us consisting of vowels. Probably each vowel represents one of the seven planets, and the seven together represent the Universe, but without consonants they represent the Ideal and Infinite not yet imprisoned and limited by matter.
How old is Christian Gnosticism? Well, scripture addresses both schools of Gnostic thought addressed above. To the Colossians, Paul writes:
8See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. 9For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, 10 and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. (Col. 2:8-10)

Here he addresses the nascent form of Christian Gnosticism, with a reference to elemental spirits, reminding the Colossians that the fullness of Christ’s deity resides within the body of Christ, and that as Christians they have been filled with Christ, not sparks from the spiritual realm.

(Some translations use “basic principals” in place of “elemental spirits”, but in any case the Greek word translated here was used to mean the gods of the stars and planets.) A little bit later, Paul really lays it own, also attacking the useless asceticism of the Gnostics:
18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations-- 21"Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch" 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used)--according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Col. 2:18-23)

In the epistle of Jude, the brother of James (and half-brother of Christ), the antinomian expression of Gnosticism is rebuked.

For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ. (Jude 4)

7just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. 8Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (Jude 7-8)


In the middle of the second century, Marcion was clearly influenced by both Docetism and Gnosticism. He shared this with those earlier (and still thriving) heresies: an insistence that the material world is evil, a strict asceticism including a denouncing of marriage for himself and his followers, and the belief that a demiurge created the material world since the supreme god would not contaminate himself with the physical.

Marcionism’s distinctive feature can be found in the profound reference that its founder Marcion had for Paul. It has been said of Marcion: he was the only man in the post-apostolic world that understood Paul, and even he misunderstood him!

In particular he misinterpreted Paul’s teaching of the supremacy of the gospel over the law to mean that the Old Testament had no authority for Christians. Marcion’s Docetism is evident in the very beginning of his rewritten gospel (of Luke) which begins:
In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, Jesus came down to Capernaum. (Marcion, The Gospel)

It was to be supposed that it was “down from heaven” from which the adult Jesus came.

Again, as we noted last time when discussing his unintended but beneficial effect on the formation of the canon, Marcion was perhaps the first to teach that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was the Gnostic demiurge who created the material world. So in some ways Marcion was a minimalist Gnostic, having but two Gods, the righteous Jehovah (who created the world) and the “good” Father.

Amazingly, since its prohibition against marriage meant that it could not perpetuate itself, Marcionism survived as a rival church for many generations. In fact, the basic tenet of Marcionism, the repudiation of the Old Testament, manifests itself now and gain throughout Christian history.


While the Gnostics over emphasized the intellectual, believing that special knowledge led to salvation, the Montanists, a movement of the second century, placed excessive importance on the experiential. It is debatable whether they should be described as heretical—but schismatic they certainly were.

We have already seen that prophets were a part of the apostolic church. The Montanists were the result of enthusiasm for prophets being taken to an exaggerated degree.

This reached a head in Asia Minor, which is to heresies what Virginia is to presidents, around 156 CE. Montanus began teaching that while the dispensation of the Father had given way to the dispensation of the Son when Christ came, so now the dispensation of the Son is ending and the dispensation of the Spirit is beginning. He claimed that Christ’s promise of the coming Paraclete (Holy Spirit) had been fulfilled, and that he, Montanus, was the Spirit’s mouthpiece. Furthermore, this signaled the imminent return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in one of the towns of Asia Minor. It has been said that this idea also recurs throughout history, “when the new wine of a new spiritual movement is too potent to be contained in the old wineskins of the established church.” The features of Montanism may be summarized:

  1. An emphasis on the Holy Spirit 
  2. A belief that the Holy Sprit was increasing manifested supernaturally through prophets and prophetesses 
  3. A stern and exacting standard of Christian morality 
  4. Rigorous fasts and penances for purity 
  5. A tendency to set up prophets against bishops 
  6. A belief that the second advent was near, and along with it an indifference to ordinary human affairs.
What distinguished Motanistic prophecy from other prophecy was that it was given in first person rather than third. There was no "Thus saith the Lord," but rather “possessed by God” utterances such as Montanus’s "I am the Father, the Word, and the Paraclete." He also prophesied: "I am the Lord God omnipotent, who have descended into to man", and "neither an angel, nor an ambassador, but I, the Lord, the Father, am come"

By the end of the second century, the movement reached Africa, and there it attracted its greatest convert: Tertullian, probably attracted by its stern Puritanism.

According to the Catholic Encylopedia:
But Tertullian is the most famous of the Montanists. He was born about 150-5, and became a Christian about 190-5. His excessive nature led him to adopt the Montanist teaching as soon as he knew it (about 202-3). His writings from this date onwards grow more and more bitter against the Catholic Church, from which he definitively broke away about 207. He died about 223, or not much later. His first Montanist work was a defense of the new prophecy in six books, "De Ecstasi", written probably in Greek; he added a seventh book in reply to Apollonius. The work is lost, but a sentence preserved by Prædestinatus (xxvi) is important: "In this alone we differ, in that we do not receive second marriage, and that we do not refuse the prophecy of Montanus concerning the future judgment." In fact Tertullian holds as an absolute law the recommendations of Montanus to eschew second marriages and flight from persecution. He denies the possibility of forgiveness of sins by the Church; he insists upon the newly ordained fasts and abstinences… the Catholic Church consists of gluttons and adulterers, who hate to fast and love to remarry.

A Montanist sect called the Tertullianists lasted in Northern Africa until the fifth century, and Montanism, in Asia Minor lasted until the sixth.

Friday, January 05, 2018

It's odd when fishermen miss the boat

In Acts 11, we read of Peter's report to the Jerusalem Church following his visit to the Gentile home of Cornelius. The meeting with the church began not as a joyous celebration of a Gentile family receiving the good news, but rather Peter, the apostle Peter, being called in on the carpet:
1Now the apostles and the brothers who were throughout Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God. 2 So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcision party criticized him, saying, 3 “You went to uncircumcised men and ate with them.” (Acts 11:1:3
Only after justifying himself by recounting his experience with a supernatural vision (of Acts 10) is Peter's mission accepted. Keep in mind that while much of the text centers around the dietary "violations", that (while vitally important in its own right) is something of a red herring. The central issue here is that the gospel was preached to the Gentiles. Many translations will label this section "Gentiles hear the Good News" rather than "Peter justifies the end of dietary restrictions." Matthew Henry comments:
The preaching of the gospel to Cornelius was a thing which we poor sinners of the Gentiles have reason to reflect upon with a great deal of joy and thankfulness; for it was the bringing of light to us who sat in darkness. (Matthew Henry Commentary on Acts 11.
I find this puzzling. This is Acts 11, not Acts 2. "The" Pentecost happened some time prior. The Jerusalem church is thriving. The gospel has spread to Greek Jews (The Hellenists, including Stephen, already martyred) and Africa (the Ethiopian Jewish pilgrim, and likely to Alexandria where Apollos hears it, at least in some form). Perhaps some Gentiles had heard it (there is no record) --but certainly not first-hand from the apostles or from missionaries sanctioned by the apostles.

It is as if they completely forgot the Abrahamic covenant--even though they now had a complete context in which to understand fully its implications, including the teaching of John the Baptist, who pointed out that the seed of Abraham was spiritual, not genetic (see Matt. 3:9.) 

Most incomprehensible to me is that they seem to have missed the message of the Great Commission:
19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, (Matt 28:19
It is as if they understood "all nations" to be restricted to "Jews of the diaspora, from all nations."

There is a theory, which I have discussed a bit here: (The New Community). (Which also will be part of a Sunday School I'll be teaching starting 21 January. More on that later.) In a nutshell it is that the Jerusalem church, up until God supernaturally opened Peter's eyes, was supernaturally blinded by God's providential protection. To have reached out too soon to the Gentiles would have cost the early Jerusalem church its tenuous support among most of the parties of the Sanhedrin-- a counter to the animus from the majority party of the Sadducees who were just barely restrained from going after the apostles. As soon as the Nazarenes began proselytizing  Gentiles, and not requiring the men to get circumcised or follow the dietary customs like routine Jewish converts, their feeble but important support among the Pharisees would vanish. And that is indeed what happened.

The title of this post is pretty catchy, dontcha think?

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Jacob's Genetic Engineering (modified)

A passage that is sometimes put forth to demonstrate that the bible is incompatible with science comes from the 30th chapter of Genesis:
Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. (Gen 30:37-39)
Some background: what we have here is a case of two rascals, Laban and his son-in-law Jacob, trying to outsmart one another. Laban wants to buy favor from Jacob's God, whom he fears only through divination. And Jacob wants to become wealthy at Laban's expense. Jacob makes what appears to be a fool's bargain, to claim as his payment for services rendered all unusually colored livestock (and only those) from Laban's flocks. Jacob then "genetically engineers" the flocks to breed, preferentially, the animals of a different color by having them breed while gazing at colorful striped branches.

Jacob, I would say, is by far the most colorful (no pun intended) of the patriarchs. To me it is as if God decided to use one of the patriarchs to make special demonstrations of his sovereignty. It is about Jacob that we are given one of the most explicitly Calvinistic statements in scripture, when Paul, in Romans 9, quotes the Old Testament to tell us that God loved Jacob and hated his privileged (first born) brother Esau. Not content to stop there, Paul then tells us that this choice was made before they were born to demonstrate God's sovereign right of election. To drive home the theological point, and to demolish Arminianism, Paul then anticipates the Arminian response (that's not fair!) and answers it.

But to further emphasize sovereign election, it would seem, we have Jacob himself behaving as a poster child for the cause. Esau was the likable, man's-man of the two brothers, while Jacob was the mama's boy who stole his brother's birthright and his father's blessing. Jacob did not come to God Arminian style, carefully weighing the options in his unregenerate heart before making a personal commitment, from his fallen free will, to God—instead God wrestled him and made him "say uncle."

But back to the passage. If the bible explicitly taught that the animals were born spotted or speckled or striped because of the branches, we would have a serious conflict with science. What we know is that either (a) Jacob believed that to be the case or (b) God, in an unrecorded discourse, told Jacob to do it. Now before the advent of modern theories, theologians more or less took this at face value. For example, Calvin wrote:
Moreover, as it respects physical causes, it is well known, that the sight of objects by the female has great effect on the form of the fetus.
OK, that doesn't really cut it in light of the theory of genetics. 

The explanation here is quite simple: it is God's sovereign plan in action: i.e., it was a miracle.  In fact, Jacob's genetic engineering is one of my favorite biblical miracles in that it flies under the radar. (In fact a plain reading implies that Jacob may have been completely oblivious to God's intervention, and merely considered himself exceedingly clever in outwitting Laban.) And like all miracles, it is not willy-nilly, but rather an integral part of God's redemptive plan. Looking back at redemptive history, we see that it was God's plan for Jacob to be a man of wealth: All redemptive history lead's back to the bottleneck of Joseph's multi-colored coat, the garment of the son of a wealthy man!

Whether Jacob believed in his breeding techniques or whether God instructed him to perform it as a sort of rite, like Moses holding up his rod so that the Jewish army would prevail over the Amalakites, we do not know. In either case, God, not invalid theories of breeding, increased Jacob's flock at the expense of Laban's. 

Some will argue that it is too easy to invoke a miracle to explain a seeming violation of science. Tough. I don't do it for your benefit, but for my own. God, by definition, is supernatural and can perform supernatural acts. I have no problem with miracles. Does that mean the bible can never be at odds with science because one can always invoke miracles? It does not. If the bible stated that the universe had no beginning, it would be at odds with science. If it stated (apart from figures of speech that we still use today) that the earth was flat or that it was at the center of the universe, it would be at odds with science. If it stated unambiguously that the earth was formed only thousands of years ago, it would be at odds with science. If the Bible stated that anyone can utilize Jacob's breeding technique to create unusually colored livestock, there would be a violation of science. Miracles, however, are not at odds with science because by their very definition they cannot be explained by science. It's a feature, not a bug.