Friday, March 16, 2018

On Becoming un-Baptist Part 1: Ecclesiology

On Becoming un-Baptist Part 1: Ecclesiology

I am the son of a Baptist pastor.  My parents even have a picture of me as a baby at my dad’s graduation from Seminary with his M.Div.  My dad pastored in various baptistic denominations through my youth and young adult life.  These were the circles I grew up in and the doctrines within which I was raised.

Like most others, I viewed the context of my upbringing as the standard from which others deviated.  I did not consider ecclesiology (the study of the Church) in any real sense until I was in my master’s degree.  There I encountered other points of view with a semblance of seriousness.  At the same time I sought to form a robust defense of my position against those who held contrary opinions. (It is a very useful exercise to take the best argument from an opposing view and fairly critique it upon its merits.) 

I was decidedly not attempting to leave my tradition during my studies.  However, I was rarely content to just accept an answer without support.  Upon reflection, I was probably an annoying student who asked odd ball questions because I was thinking odd ball thoughts.  I was always trying to think outside of the boxes to see if things actually made sense from every perspective I could consider.

This mode of operation was applied to my thinking about what I believed about the Church.  I remained a firm Congregationalist until a moment I still vividly remember, when my professor said that Titus 1:5 meant that Titus was to have the churches in Crete hold elections to determine their elders.  The problem is that this is not at all what was written in Titus 1:5

“For this reason I left you in Crete, so that you might set right the things that are lacking and appoint elders in each city, just as I commanded you.”[1]

The word “appoint” in the Greek means “to appoint” (among other meanings which would not fit the context).  “Appoint” does not mean “elect” (there is another Greek word which means “to elect”).  All this Greek knowledge left me thinking that the Apostle Paul[2] actually wanted Titus to travel around to all the churches on Crete and to select the men who were to be elders.  No congregational voting; just appointment by Titus.

At this point, I realized that I had tacitly accepted the idea of a monarchial bishop in the time of the Apostles, appointed by an Apostle.  Therefore, in principal though not in practice, I became okay with bishops.  Besides, the cool Baptist churches with multiple campuses already had a lead pastor functioning as a quasi-bishop.  The argument that each church in a town was somehow a separate entity functioning independently and solely under the authority of God’s word, could no longer pass the test.  Especially when I looked at Acts 15 and found that the Council of Jerusalem wrote commands to all the churches in “Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia” (15:36).  The churches in these places are not treated as one individual entity, but they are all given the same (apparently binding) command from the council.

Therefore, it made sense to me when I read the Church Fathers speaking about bishops. It made sense that they would write about bishops because I had already seen the Apostle telling people to act as a bishop (Titus and Timothy being prime examples).  When they had councils, it made sense that they would hold a council and issue a decisive ruling for the faithful.  I did not cease to be a Baptist at this point because I was still firmly convinced of believer’s baptism (the idea that only those who believe in Christ ought to/ could receive baptism).  Therefore I became a Baptist with serious questions about polity.

[1] My own translation.
[2] I generally affirm Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.  If such were to be incontrovertibly proven otherwise, my world would not be too greatly rocked though.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Solus Christus Christ Alone: and the Ambiguous Doctrinal Statement

Solus Christus Christ Alone:
and the Ambiguous Doctrinal Statement

            A while back, I was perusing through the job openings in my field.  As a practice, I check the qualifications and then the statement of faith of the institution to check my qualifications.  Generally, for one reason or another, I opt out of applying because I cannot affirm something in the statement of faith/doctrine.  

I came across one such statement that gave me a bit of a pause.  In fact, I am quite confused as to what exactly was intended by it.  Without naming the institution, I will simply quote the line below:

“WE BELIEVE that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone; that salvation involves the redemption of the whole person and is offered freely to all who exercise faith in Jesus Christ.”

The first part before the semi–colon is the problem for me.  After the semi–colon, there is enough ambiguity for a Protestant, a Roman Catholic, or an Orthodox to affirm it.  However, “WE BELIEVE that salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone” is a problem.  It Coiuld mean several things:
1.      The Father and the Holy Spirit are not involved in the work of salvation. (I highly doubt this was the intended meaning.)
2.      The community of saints has nothing to do with salvation.  Therefore Church (or church) is optional and unnecessary.  (It is possible that his was intended, but doubtful.)
3.      There is not salvation apart from Christ.  (I sincerely hope this is what they meant.)
4.      Salvation comes through the merits of Christ and not the merits of any other individual.  (This is also probable even though it falls into the same difficulty that merit theology has.  See my earlier post here for a further discussion of merit.)
5.      Or this could be a poorly adapted use of the 20th Century addition of Solo Christo (to all my fellow Latin nerds, the ablative case would be used to express the ablative of agent unless an active verb is used then we would use the nominative Solus Christus) Christ Alone to the earlier Solae (Solas) of the Protestant Reformation (Scripture Alone, Faith Alone, Grace Alone).  However, this application lacks the explanation that a priesthood in Apostolic Succession is not necessary for the validity of Sacraments.

The only of the above points I could affirm in good conscience would be point number three.  Point one is heresy.  Point two is an absurdity.  Point four relies upon an unhelpful and unbiblical manner of thinking.  Point five is again an absurdity (even most Baptists would argue that only a baptized person can baptize another person.  This requires a certain form of succession).

This leads to the moral of the post.  If you are going to require employees to affirm something make certain it not ambiguous and replete with unintended interpretations.

Friday, November 10, 2017

My reflections upon a Roman Catholic funeral mass

My reflections upon a Roman Catholic funeral mass

I have not been to very many Roman Catholic Masses.  What follow are my impressions from a funeral mass I attended some time ago.

Theological Shock

1.      There was an image of God the Father at the top of the stained glass above the altar.  I was uncertain whether to cry idolatry or heresy first.  The image of the Father is the Son.  No one has seen the Father.

2.      Unless I was at the funeral of a woman who is going to be canonized (which despite her piety and sincerity, I highly doubt will be the case), the statements by the priest sounded down right presumptive.  The priest flat out stated that she was in the blessed presence of Christ.  No purgatory.  More importantly these statements were made as fact and not in prayers for God to have mercy and grant her salvation.

Liturgical shock
1.      The Nicene Creed was dropped out of the liturgy.  The priest stood up and said, “We believe in one God” and then moved onto the remainder of the service.  I was prepared to recite the Creed as revised at the Second Ecumenical Council without any further additions (filioque).

2.      The family of the deceased (all laity) processed around the church by themselves, while carrying the elements about to be sanctified!  And to top it off, no one bowed or made any physical sign of reverence as they went past.  It was very confusing.

3.      A lay woman approached the altar and grabbed a chalice (reverentially I should add) and then proceeded to offer the cup to those who were communing… Because the canons of the Council of Nicaea clearly allow women to approach the altar to serve… oh wait, that is clearly forbidden…

4.      Altar boys actually placed and took things directly off the altar!

5.   There was no censing during the procession.

Things that I considered neutral:
1.      The epiclesis was in the wrong place.

2.      The ceiling was devoid of icons.

3.      Life sized statues of the Apostles with the names in Latin were all the way around the Church on the walls above the pews.  I thought this was a nice touch.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Jesus Magic

Jesus Magic
            There is an idea that a person can pray a prayer once with the proper amount of sincerity and be eternally guaranteed of salvation.  It is perhaps one of the more interesting phenomena that I have witnessed in American Christianity (and has been exported abroad through missions).  I remember when I was in junior high thinking that this practice smelled wrong.  As I have reflected further upon it, I think that the idea of “eternal security” (that once you are “saved” you are always “saved”) and its application to the sinner’s prayer has become a form of magic.  But, not just any magic.  It is Jesus Magic.

The sinner’s prayer is one of the most common expressions of Jesus Magic in our culture.[1]  I call this Jesus Magic because the idea that I can say words that somehow require God to maintain my salvation through the uttering of a short prayer at one moment is magical.  I am using magic here to refer to the idea that we alter and shape reality through supernatural power that is invoked through spoken words.  Indeed, the “sinners prayer” is at times treated as a supernatural invocation, the uttering of which binds God to provide a certain flavor of the eternal state apart from that person doing much or anything else.  Imagine the ability to control how God will judge you at the final judgement through praying a prayer at one point in your life.  It is rather preposterous and runs counter to the things that Jesus and the Apostles actually wrote about the final judgement.

This form of belief is practically evident after things like mission trips, vacation Bible school, or other such “outreach” events.  After things like this, the metrics used to measure the success is often based upon how many people “got saved/ accepted Jesus” through praying the sinner’s prayer.  Biblically speaking, this is an aberration from the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus had a lot to say about what was required to follow Him.  None of the things that Jesus said about following Him or how to be saved ever involved saying a prayer.  Jesus had a lot to say about following Him involving self-denial (take up your cross and follow me) and doing things (such as feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, taking care of the poor, etc...).  It is a very interesting exercise to look through the Gospels and see what Jesus set forth as the requirements to follow Him.  I actually did an exercise like this during my time in Bible College and the study from writing that paper was the final scoop of dirt that buried the once saved always saved view for me.  When I read the Gospels, I am rather intimidated by what Jesus has to say about what is required for those who will follow Him (self-denial and death Matthew 16:24, sell all your possession Luke 18:12, forsaking your employment Matthew 4:19 and 9:9, etc…).

There are theological systems which prevent this tragedy.  Classically speaking, the liturgical practices of the early church preclude this notion of salvation.  This continues among both the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox.  More recently speaking, both Calvinism and Arminianism, through different approaches, preclude the idea that anything a person could choose once would require God to offer eternal salvation.  Calvinists (classically speaking) would affirm that God chooses whom He will save and those people will persevere in the faith.  Arminians (again, classically speaking) would hold those who continue to choose to follow God will be saved.  Through an interesting blending of these two systems divorced from both Scripture and tradition, this form of Jesus magic has emerged.  It is both dangerous and deleterious to your mind and soul.

[1] I am aware that some would posit that transubstantiation is also a form of magic.  I do not think that this is a fair comparison for several reasons.  According to the actual liturgical practice, the Holy Spirit is the one who does the work just as happened in the incarnation of Jesus and we would not posit that the angel Gabriel was the one who brought about the incarnation in his announcement.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Failures of the Reformation: Part 2 Sola Scriptura and Knowing God

Failures of the Reformation: Part 2 Sola Scriptura and Knowing God

            2017 is the 500th year since the Reformation began.  In keeping with this milestone I have composed a couple of reflections upon how I think the Reformation failed and or brought about deleterious effects to the practice of the Christian faith.

            I have been reading through the Henri de Lubac’s Medieval Exegesis as of late.  He made a reasonable argument that Biblical interpretation was fairly consistent until the rise of scholasticism around 1000 to 1100.  I think that his argument works quite well with the caveat that many in the East continued in the same manner and did not join the scholastic bandwagon.  A prime example is Gregory of Palamas (d. 1359) whose exegesis is dramatically more in keeping with patristic exegesis than say that of Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274).

            Scholasticism altered biblical interpretation primarily through the types of questions that were asked of the biblical text.  The deeper shift happened with the rise of the university.  With the rise of university, the study of the Bible began to take place outside of a contemplative and liturgical life which monasteries provided.  These things combined to make the Bible (and I daresay theology) a topic of study treated as another science (although ostensibly the highest of the sciences). 

            In all of this shift in practice, there appears to have been a shift in how the Bible and the study of theology was viewed.  Earlier, there was an understanding that a correct knowledge of God and His revelation required a certain type of person in a particular context.  According to Gregory of Nazianzus, theology must be discussed in stillness when there is opportunity to judge the rightness of what is said.  It should only be heard by those who consider it a serious undertaking and only then should they listen to those things which they are capable of understanding.  It should be done with meditation and prayer.[1]  Indeed, Gregory’s points here place true learning about God in a liturgical setting.  Despite Gregory’s admonitions, scholasticism altered the assumption and began to make information about God objective.  This added to the newly arisen University meant that Theology became a common topic.  This approach was largely reaffirmed by the Reformational focus on Sola Scriptura.  Now, Bible became a thing of study that was open for everyone to read and determine the truth.

            If you are alive and have been formed in the Western mindset which formed this practice, you are probably neutral to positive about this current state of affairs vis-à-vis the Bible.  Yet, this is not necessarily a biblical view of knowledge about God.  Jesus and Paul teach that the knowledge of God is not merely objective, but requires a certain moral character and maturity to understand.  Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.”  This is not a very democratic or egalitarian statement.  In fact, the entire section of who is blessed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount continues in this vein of promising special things to people who have a certain character or experience.[2]

            Paul even has a statement which also demonstrates that knowledge about God is not a purely objective thing for all study equally: “But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1st Corinthians 2:10).  Indeed, from the greater context in 1st Corinthians, it would even appear that not all Christians are capable of equally discerning spiritual matters.  This is why Paul wrote of babes in Christ not ready for meat.  This means that not every Christian has the same ability to rightly understand God or even Scripture.  Regarding Scripture, this can be seen in Acts 17:10-11: “The brothers immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived they went into the Jewish synagogue.  Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”  The reason why many Berean Jews were converted and many of the Thessalonian Jews were not converted (according to Luke) was that the Bereans were of a more noble character and searched the Scriptures.  I am implying that the Thessalonians would have had access to Scripture (the presence of a synagogue makes this safe) and that they could have made recourse to Scripture to determine if Paul’s preaching fit with their texts.  The difference in these two towns then lies in the character of the people who were reading the texts of Scripture.

            Returning to sola Scriptura, the notion of Scripture alone could preclude an external norm for how Scripture is to be read.  The Reformers were at least implicitly aware of this and produced creeds and catechisms to serve as communal rules for theology and biblical interpretation.  However, it did not take long for some to read Scripture outside of these norming documents.  At this point, it became a matter of disputation as to whom was correctly interpreting the texts of Scripture.  What is largely lacking from the Reformers and their heirs is the teaching of the ancient biblical practice of acquiring spiritual knowledge through a change in the interpreter’s character.[3]  Instead, the practice has been to set forth in the Scriptures as an objective something and then argue about and divide over differences of interpretation.  This is far more societally acceptable than considering that prayer and purifying the soul makes one person a better biblical interpreter and theologian than another person.[4]

[1] Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 27.

[2] Matthew 5:
3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
4 Blessed are those who mourn, For they shall be comforted. 
5 Blessed are the meek, For they shall inherit the earth. 
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. 
7 Blessed are the merciful, For they shall obtain mercy. 
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God. 
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God. 
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

[3] I would hold that there were many men and women who practiced this approach to Scripture (such as Calvin) and benefitted greatly from it.  However the practice of something is quite distinct from the teaching of something to others.

[4] There are significant implications for the practice of evangelism in this ancient model.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Failure of the Reformation: Part I, Merit and Works.

The Failure of the Reformation:
Part I, Merit and Works.

            2017 is the 500th year since the Reformation began.  In keeping with this milestone I have composed a couple of reflections upon how I think the Reformation failed and or brought about deleterious effects to the practice of the Christian faith.  I have striven to avoid the typical critiques and hopefully these posts will bring some fresh perspectives on a long running debate about the Reformation.

            500 years ago, the Church in the west was riven in twain by the Protestant Reformation.  From my own reading, I would argue that the impetus of the reformation was rooted in the erroneous concept of “merit.”  “Merit” is the idea that the saints somehow went above and beyond the call of God and that the pope has access to transfer these merits to those whom he so chose.  This led to the selling of indulgences because the pope has the power to transfer the accrued extra credit work of the saints to the account of the faithful. It was this practice of indulgences built off of a faulty understanding of merits that started the Reformation.

            The most memorable indulgence salesman was Johann Tetzel.  He is most often remembered for the saying:
“As soon as a coin in the coffer rings
The soul from purgatory springs.”
To the best of my understanding, this is not the official view of the Roman Catholic Church regarding the effect of indulgences purchased for the dead.  Although to the credit of Tetzel, he did appear to be operating under a Papal Bull which was both ambiguous and later rejected.  It was Tetzel’s selling of indulgences that provided the impetus for Martin Luther to post his 95 Theses and begin a debate about indulgences.

            Even though the practice of indulgences was rejected by the Protestants and reworked by the Roman Catholics, the underlying view of merit did not change.  The Catholics continued to affirm a doctrine of merit as did the Reformers.  The difference was not so much in the underlying concept of merit but in the ability of a Christian to merit grace.

            The Reformers were rather univocal in their refutation of the concept that a human could earn God’s grace.  A corollary point was that they circumscribed any notion of freewill more than their predecessors either patristic of medieval (with a couple of possible exceptions) had done.  Despite the delimiting of the ability of the human will, the reformers did not roll back the concept of merit.  Rather, they moved the locus of merit from the human to the Godman.  Personal merit is completely replaced by the merits of Christ.

“That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ.”[1]

“By his obedience, however, Christ truly acquired and merited grace for us with his Father.  Many passages of Scripture surely and firmly attest to this.”[2]

            In these brief statements, the concept remains that grace was merited, but instead of the human meriting God’s grace through their activity, Christ is the one who merited God grace for the human.  The difficulty is that Luther and Calvin moved the locus of the merit instead of going ad fontes (to the fountains) on the concept of merit.  If they had gone to the fountains of the Scriptures and the Fathers, they could have arrived at quite a different conception of merit altogether.

            To the best of my knowledge, the notion that the Christians is saved by the “work/merit” of Jesus is unbiblical in that it cannot be found in the Scriptures.  When the Gospels speak about the works of Jesus, they consistently refer to Jesus’ miracles.  Likewise, the closest one can find in the epistles is that God worked in Christ in his resurrection (Ephesians 1:20) and how God works through Jesus to complete Christians (Hebrews 13:20).  This makes the entire discussion about the merit(s) of Christ a type of theologizing that is not directly connected to the texts of Scripture, nor is it drawn from the liturgical practices of the Church.  This enters into a realm quite foreign to the theological controversies and debates of the Patristic era.

            Turning to the Patristic era, I have found the work of Saint Mark the Ascetic (400’s) very helpful to understanding the relation to works to salvation.  The work is titled, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works, and provides a break down
  St. Mark started off by noting that the kingdom of heaven cannot be a reward for works:

“Wishing to show that to fulfill every commandment is a duty, whereas sonship is a gift given to men through His own blood, the Lord said: ‘When you have done all that is commanded you, say; “We are useless servants: we have only done what was our duty”’(Luke 17:10).  Thus the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.”[3]

Because we can only ever do our duty, there is no room for any concept of merit in that a person is capable of doing more than God commanded.  Further, works cannot actually satisfy God: “If we are under obligation to perform daily all the good actions of which our nature is capable, what do we have left over to give to God in repayment for our past sins?”[4]  Because we cannot do more than God has commanded and because we have not always done what God has commanded, works are incapable of providing satisfaction for prior sins.

            While the reformers would likely have agreed with Mark’s assessment about the ability of works to merit anything with God, Mark’s assessment of Christ’s role is quite distinct from the Reformers.  Instead placing the onus of merits upon Christ, Mark places emphasis upon the divinity of Christ and the fact He is the savior.
"When Scripture says “He will reward every man according to his works,” do not imagine that works in themselves merit either hell or heaven.  On the contrary, Christ rewards each man according to whether his works are done with faith or without faith in Himself; He is not a dealer bound by contract, but God our Creator and Redeemer."[5]
This quote is important because of the two points he brings up.  One, rewards are based upon works, but the basis for judging works is faith.  Two, we are not to view works in a contractual manner.  This lack of a contractual understanding of salvation leaves no place to imagine that Christ must then perform the deeds which we were incapable of performing.  It is not the merits, but the grace of Christ which saves us (which is technically the Roman Catholic view) according to Saint Mark:  “Christ is Master by virtue of His own essence and Master by virtue of His incarnate life.  For He creates man from nothing, and through His own blood redeems him when dead in sin; and to those who believe in Him He has given His grace.”[6]  There is no merit, because grace is not earned; it is given.  It actually seems rather odd that God would have to merit the thing He gives freely to those who believe in Him.  God is unbound and grace is free.

            St. Mark paints an accurate picture on the limits of works.  However, he does not fall into the trap of arguing that personal works have no place in our salvation.  Through works we do not deal with former sins, but through them we make peace with God. [7]  Works (i.e. repentance) is the means through which the Christian experiences the full illumination of the Holy Spirit who was already indwelling the Christian.  In short, works are the means by which the Christian strives toward theosis.  Or, to put it another way, works are the means by which we become Christ like. 

            St. Mark’s understanding of God not being bound by contract is quite helpful for understanding how salvation is presented in the parable of the landowner and the workers in Matthew 20.[8]  In this parable, the landowner hires workers at different hours of the day.  At the end of the day he pays those who worked just one hour the same wage as those who worked all day long.  This parable is told as a parable of the Kingdom of Heaven.  At the end of this parable Jesus said that the last will be first and the first will be last.  As a parable of the kingdom, I am left with a clear impression that recompense for labor (if we were to imply such a thought into the parable) is not only the same for all the workers regardless of the length of their labors because it is purely contingent upon the wishes of the landowner.  I think that within this parable, there is an implicit critique of the notion that one could somehow work so that God owes them more. 

            Taking all these things together (the parable of the landowner, St. Mark’s observations concerning the impossibility to accomplish more than what God requires, and the biblical language concerning salvation), the concept of merit is foreign and deleterious to the discussion of salvation.  That the reformers failed to jettison the notion of merit is problematic and should not be discounted for how it affected their entire soteriological framework and the soteriological frameworks of those who followed in their footsteps.  This also leaves the issue that grace is still understood to be something that is merited instead of given without external constraint by God.

[1] Luther’s Preface to Romans full text here.

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II.17.3

[3] Saint Mark the Ascetic, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works 2.

[4] Saint Mark the Ascetic, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works 43.

[5] Saint Mark the Ascetic, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works 22.

[6] Saint Mark the Ascetic, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works 21.

[7] “He who repents rightly does not imagine that it is his own effort which cancels his former sins; but through this effort he makes his peace with God” (Saint Mark the Ascetic, On Those Who Think That They Are Made Righteous by Works 42).

[8] Matthew 20:1-16  NKJV "For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.  2 "Now when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard.  3 "And he went out about the third hour and saw others standing idle in the marketplace,  4 "and said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right I will give you.' So they went.  5 "Again he went out about the sixth and the ninth hour, and did likewise.  6 "And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, 'Why have you been standing here idle all day?'  7 "They said to him, 'Because no one hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.'  8 "So when evening had come, the owner of the vineyard said to his steward, 'Call the laborers and give them their wages, beginning with the last to the first.'  9 "And when those came who were hired about the eleventh hour, they each received a denarius.  10 "But when the first came, they supposed that they would receive more; and they likewise received each a denarius.  11 "And when they had received it, they complained against the landowner,  12 "saying, 'These last men have worked only one hour, and you made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the heat of the day.'  13 "But he answered one of them and said, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius?  14 'Take what is yours and go your way. I wish to give to this last man the same as to you.  15 'Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with my own things? Or is your eye evil because I am good?'  16 "So the last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few chosen."

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Retractions: The Millennium: Why it Matters and Why it Does Not

Retractions: The Millennium:
Why it Matters and Why it Does Not

            In my earlier posts, I wrote about how and why I do not believe in a rapture.  The reason I did this was because of all the baggage associated with the doctrine of the rapture.  I believe that Jesus will physically return to earth, the dead will be raised, there will be a final judgement, and there will be a new heavens and a new earth.  What is missing from this is the belief that between Jesus second coming and the final judgement is that there will be 1,000 years in which Christ will physically reign on earth as king.  This 1,000 year reign is commonly referred to as the millennial reign of Christ of simply the millennium is something I once espoused and now no longer do.

            I once was a solidly pretribulational literal millennium future for ethnic Israel type of guy.  The last part of this system to fall was my belief in a literal/physical millennial reign on earth.  When everything else faded, I found great comfort in the historic premillennial view espoused by George Ladd.  However, I abandoned this as well when confronted with the text of Scripture and how it has been interpreted by the Church through the ages.

            The millennium is a fairly difficult thing to wrestle with.  The biblical support for belief in the millennium is derived from the 20th chapter of Revelation.  The actual text of Revelation 20 does not limit Christ’s reign to a time period of 1,000 years.  The millennium can only be understood to refer to a physical 1,000 year reign on earth, when Revelation 20 is read in light of certain other Old Testament prophetic works.  The interpretation of a 1,000 year physical reign upon earth is then dependent upon one’s understanding of how Old Testament prophecies and promises will be fulfilled.

            The millennium is important because it is a result of how one understands the Bible and also how one understands the working of God with His creation.  Therefore someone who believes in premillennial coming of Christ will understand the millennium to be the time when God will fulfill all the promises of land and such from the Old Testament to ethnic Israel.  Others would still hold to a physical reign of Christ on earth, but would understand the OT promises to refer to the Church and not ethnic Israel.  Then there is what is termed the post millennial view in which the Church will bring about the millennium prior to the coming of Christ through the spread of the Gospel and the advance of the Church bringing peace and tranquility to the earth.  There is also the amillennial view which understands the millennium as primarily a spiritual event.  This view can be divided between the understanding that the millennium is a current reality and those who would posit the millennium is a metaphor for the reign of Christ with His saints in the New Heavens and the New Earth.

            There are many complexities that need to be addressed when considering how to understand the millennium.  The millennium is only mentioned in one passage in the book of Revelation.  There can be some difficulty in rightly interpreting something that is only mentioned once in Scripture.  This difficulty is compounded if that one passage occurs in Revelation and all the more so if it involves a number.  The reason for this is that Revelation is a work that is filled with symbols and symbolism, of which numbers are often used in symbolic ways.  Further complicating this situation are the various theories about how one should read Revelation (predominantly in the past, mix of past/present/future, or predominately in the future).  These factors can be quite dissuasive for those attempting to consider eschatology.  Indeed, part of the reason this post took so long was my own process of wading through these issues.

The Biblical Evidence

            The really fun part is the biblical support for the millennium.  In Revelation 20, the phrase “a thousand years” occurs five times.[1]  Yet none of these occurrences refers to Jesus reigning for a thousand years.  Satan is bound for a thousand years (20:2).  The souls of those beheaded on account of Christ come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years (20:4, 6).  The rest of the dead do not come to life until after the thousand years (20:5).  After the thousand years, Satan is released from prison (20:7).  From this, we see that beheaded martyrs reign with Christ for one thousand years, but this does not necessitate the interpretation that Christ will reign on earth for 1,000 years.  Indeed, the textual support for this reading is rather thin and requires reading these verses within a larger interpretive framework to arrive at a millennial view.  This what the early Christians did who affirmed a millennial view.  They argued that the seven days of creation were symbolic of the history of the world and that after 6,000 years, 1,000 years of Sabbath rest would follow with the righteous being raised to bodies that would eat, drink, and beget children (click here for my earlier post on this topic).  In a similar manner, most who hold to a millennium at the present would also do so in part because they expect the promises of land made in the Old Testament to be fulfilled in a literal manner to ethnic Israel (to see my view of this consult my earlier post here).

Exegetical descriptions from Revelation 20

            Exegetically speaking, the millennium is set forth as a time when the devil has been bound and (a possibly select group of) martyrs reign with Christ.  The text does not explicitly affirm that Christ’s kingdom will last for one thousand years.  This is important because it means that the idea of a physical 1,000 year reign of Christ on earth is derived by implication and not direct assertion. 

            Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for   the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a  thousand years.  The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection (Revelation 20:4-5).

Reading the text literally, the only saints who come to life and reign with Christ while the devil is bound are those who have been beheaded as martyrs.  Again, reading this at face value, this means that martyrs who died by means other than beheading do not partake of this millennial reign.[2]  This subset of beheaded martyrs also experience something very unique.  They are the only ones (we are explicitly told) who experience the first resurrection.

            This level of a literalistic reading cannot find support in any of the Church Fathers (amillennial or premillennial), and does not make the most sense out of the text of Revelation.  In Revelation 6:10-12, we read about the martyrs under the throne calling out for vengeance.  This group of martyrs is in no way circumscribed by their mode of death like the martyrs in Revelation 20 are.  These two groups of martyrs share great similarity.  They were killed: “because of the word of God and the testimony” (6:9) and “because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God” (20:4).  However, there are many more details in Revelation 20 that are lacking from the martyrs in Revelation 6.  Indeed, the patristic consensus is that those who come to life with Christ are not only the martyrs, but all the righteous.[3]  Therefore, the two groups of martyrs are understood to be the same group of martyrs and that they represent the whole number of the saints who come to life in the millennium.

            Perhaps one of the most interesting portions of Revelation 20 is how it speaks about both a first death and a first resurrection as well as a second death and a second resurrection.  The first death is not explicitly identified for the rather obvious reason that we are all familiar with the definition of physical death.  John is kind enough to identify the second death: “This is the second death, the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14).  The second death then takes place after the final judgement. 

            The interesting part comes when trying to understand what is meant by the first and the second resurrections: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.  6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years” (20:4-6).

            The second resurrection is implicitly defined as the universal resurrection before the final judgement.  The difficulty is then in how we understand the first resurrection.  Irenaeus and Tertullian both argued that the discussion of two resurrections pointed to an order of how the righteous were raised in the millennium.[4]  The greater the deeds of a Christian, the sooner one would be raised from the dead to enter into the millennial reign.  Needless to say, this view required a physical millennial reign and fell out of favor with the premillennial view.

            The key to understanding the “first resurrection” is the description of those who experience this first resurrection, “Over such the second death has not power.”  This means that those who experience this resurrection will not be subject to the second death which awaits those whose names were not found in the Book of Life.  Some have sought to posit that this first resurrection is baptism on the basis of Romans 6:5 “For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection”; and 2nd Timothy 2:11-12: “This is a faithful saying: For if we died with Him, We shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him.”  There is some validity to this position.  Augustine understands this “first resurrection” is applied to the Church militant, because they reign with Christ in His kingdom at the present, and to the Church triumphant, because they are commemorated at the altar at each Eucharist service.[5]  In saying this, Augustine is relying upon lengthy exegesis of multiple passages (of which a summary would take around a page) and the practices of the Church to form his interpretation.  To the vast majority of Protestants, the commemoration of the deceased has never been experienced in a liturgy.  Despite its absence from current Protestant worship, it was a universal practice in the early Church in the time of Augustine and likely had been since the 100’s.[6]  In so doing this, Augustine implicitly affirms the idea that the first resurrection is baptism with his understanding that only the baptized elect are reigning with Christ.

Christ’s reign limited to 1,000 years

            What is utterly lacking from Revelation 20 is the idea that Christ’s reign is in any way limited to a one thousand year time period.  If anything, the reign of the saints and the binding of satan are the only two things limited to a one thousand year period of time.  Indeed, there are exegetical reasons to affirm that Christ’s reign does not end.  This can be seen in a couple of passages:

“And in the days of those kings the God of heaven shall set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed: and his kingdom shall not be left to another people, but it shall beat to pieces and grind to powder all kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever (Daniel 2:44).

“And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:33).

            The interpretation that Christ’s kingdom will have no end is the creedally preserved interpretation.  The Nicene Creed concludes with the statement: “His kingdom shall have no end.”  The problem regarding the millennium is that the support for the view that Christ will reign for one thousand years on earth and then that kingdom will end with the end of this earth is not explicitly stated in the texts of Scripture whereas the affirmation that Christ’s Kingdom will have no end is clearly affirmed and understood to be the definitive interpretation of this issue.

An argument for the millennium

            The strongest biblical argument for the millennial view is the description of how Satan is bound for 1,000 years.  This is a commonsensical argument:  It does not appear as though Satan is presently bound.  Therefore, the millennium is still yet to come.  However, this view of the binding of Satan does not quite with what Jesus had to say about his ministry and the interpretation of the early Christians.

            There is a passage in all three synoptic Gospels (Matthew 12, Mark 3, and Luke 11) in which Jesus spoke about how he had bound Satan.  Jesus cast out a demon and the Pharisees

said, “This fellow does not cast out demons except by Beelzebub, the ruler of the   demons.”  But Jesus knew their thoughts, and said to them: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.  If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?  And if I cast out demons by Beelzebub, by whom do your sons cast  them out? Therefore they shall be your judges.  But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? And then he will          plunder his house.” (Matthew 12:24-29, New King Jimmy Version)

Jesus here refutes the idea that he cast out demons by the power of the devil.  Rather, he spoke about himself as the one who bound the strong man (the devil) and plundered his goods.  This interpretation is affirmed repeatedly in the writings of the early Christians.[7]  Indeed, there are two points at which they would note that Jesus had bound the devil.  In His incarnation and in His resurrection.  In both of these actions, the devil is bound and Christ frees those who were under the power of the devil and his minions.[8] 

            Therefore, with Satan already bound, the Church reigning with Christ, and Church being the New Israel who have inherited the promises made to Israel, a physical and literal millennium is superfluous and awkward.  In this sense the millennium does not matter.  At the same time, we are living in the millennium.  As such, Christians ought to conduct themselves in the knowledge that Christ has bound Satan and that they have experienced the first resurrection in baptism.  Not even death can separate a Christin from reigning with Christ.

[1] Revelation 20:1-20:15 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain.  2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.  4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.  5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection.  6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.  7 And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison  8 and will come out to deceive the nations that are at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea.  9 And they marched up over the broad plain of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city, but fire came down from heaven and consumed them, 10 and the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.  11 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.  12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.  13 And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done.  14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire.  15 And if anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. 

[2] Historically speaking, the believers who would have been beheaded for the sake of Christ in the Early Roman Empire would only have been Roman citizens who were martyred.  Thus at the time when John first penned these words, his audience would have considered this to be a reference to martyred Roman citizens such as the Apostle Paul.  This anecdote offers some clarity as to how John would have understood this.  It is perhaps ironic that the citizens of the Empire of John’s age who are killed for their perceived treachery against the Empire are the very ones who are seen to reign with Christ for one thousand years.

[3] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 82; Irenaeus, Adverus Haereses, 5.32.1; Commodian, Instructiones adversus Gentium Deos pro Christiana Disciplina 45.

[4] Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses 5.36.2-3; Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem 3.24.

[5] Augustine of Hippo, City of God 20.9.
[6] This is a prime example of how worship forms theology more than theology forms worship.  For an example of this see the Martyrdom of Polycarp and how the Early Christians treated Polycarp’s remains (Martyrdom of Polycarp 18).
[7] A few examples: Cyril of Alexandria Commentary on Luke Homily 81; Chrysostom Sermons on Matthew Homily 41, Augustine of Hippo Harmony of the Gospels Homily 21 and City of God 20.7; Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 8; see also Irenaeus of Lyons for how Christ bound the demons in His resurrection Proof of the Apostolic Preaching 83.

[8] See also Revelation 12 when the devil is thrown out of heaven around the same time as Christ ascended into heaven.