In this episode, Zach, Stan, Billy and our special guest Bp. Kenneth Myers talk about atonement theories (but mostly penal substitutionary atonement). The guys talk about our understanding of why Jesus had to die and what it means for our salvation. Zach uses a precarious Indiana Jones analogy and Ken talks about salvation and how/why we got it wrong. If you’ve ever wondered why some Christians believe or don’t believe in Christ’s sacrifice the same way you do, this is a great episode to listen to.
The Bible Code
About a decade or more ago, the “Bible Code” book was gaining a lot of attention by Christians and non-Christians alike. It was a book from a reporter who had spent some time with researchers that had come up with a computer program that could scan to find acrostics, like buried secret codes within the aligned letters of the ancient Hebraic texts. Many of the acrostics were of many important current and future world events. For example, the JFK assassination date was presumed to be found deep within the writings.
Of course, people stopped paying attention after the concept was debunked by running the same software through other bulky texts, like Shakespeare.
The Pre-figured Gospel
In this series, I hope to help certain stories rise to the surface from the Old Testament that we don’t often think about in Christological terms. This is called “typology”. We sometimes read the scriptures looking for input into our own lives and our own situations, or to help us get a grasp on what the future holds. Yet, we don’t often read for the Gospel as the pre-eminent story which informs our understanding of many Old Testament stories. Maybe we consider reading typologically as primitive or irrelevant for today’s world.
Typology is exemplified in New Testament scriptures as well as early church writings. Many writers used typology a lot when explaining concepts in the epistles. Hebrews is a prime example, such as when Christ is proclaimed as “a priest in the order of Melchizedek” in chapter 7. The author dove into the Genesis text and saw Christ. He drew Christ out of the Old Testament text.
(Read the rest on my new website for bridging modern Christianity and Tradition with theology at Theologues.com)
I’ll soon be moving a lot of my writing over to Theologues.com, a website I’m developing with some of my friends. For now, we’ve started a podcast to whet the appetite of all of you students of the Gospel!
We got together to record an hour long podcast on the Church, theology, culture, philosophy and most of all…Jesus Christ! We’ll be doing this on a regular basis, so feel free to subscribe on iTunes or through our RSS feed.
Our 1st episode is titled “Why does theology matter?“ and we discuss some of the groundwork for faith. We talk about how Christian theology should be for everyone and how that looks in our daily lives. Bonus: Brandon Peach expounds on bathroom readers and we ask the question “Who would win in an armwrestling match…C.S. Lewis or N.T. Wright?” The show quickly unravels from there.
Coming soon… We’ll release an episode about tackling the holy scriptures. On May 10th, we’ll interview and converse with Glenn Packiam, formerly of “The Desperation Band”, an executive pastor of New Life Church in Colorado Springs (Ted Haggard’s former church) and is a newly ordained Anglican priest. We’re very excited for the Roundtable’s future and for Theologues.com, which we will be revving up on May 5th!
As I’ve been writing this blog, I have always tried to convey theology in a common language that (hopefully) everyday people can understand. I’ve been far removed from my faith and I’ve also been enamored by some of the more trivial aspects, but I’ve always tried to be open to encountering God. There are times though, where words fail.
When I got out of high school, I spent several months in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. I would see families huddle into a small cinderblock building for Sunday morning worship. As they sang together, I saw people looking for relief from a life filled with burden. When they worshipped they found it. I could not deny that. Some light would come upon their face and when you talked about Christ, they were filled with joy. They didn’t really care about minute details of Christian doctrine. They just knew that they were lost and wounded and the shepherd came and found them.
When I’ve volunteered in inner-city ministries where drug addicts, the abused and used people would come to seek food and life, they’d find Christ in compassion and genuine servanthood of volunteers and ministry workers. If you weren’t walking the walk, they didn’t really care to listen to you evangelize.
When the apostle Paul would journey from city to city, He would preach the truth of God and He wasn’t handing out exams afterwards to make sure people understood all the answers correctly. Instead, He asked them to repent and devote their lives to Jesus Christ.
See, I believe that theology and doctrine are signposts which point to God. They aren’t apart from scriptures – they are the scriptures. They aren’t apart from the Church – they are in the Church. Ultimately though, it’s not just the words which are what matter, but the Word matters.
When Jesus spoke of His mission on earth, He didn’t explain the Trinity or get into atonement theory. Rather, He spoke a prophetic word from Isaiah. This word also spoke of His actions going forward, which were grounded to both a spiritual and physical state we’re in. Jesus fulfilled this prophecy and would encounter those realities within our own humanity:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, To preach the acceptable year of the Lord. (Luke 4:18-19) KJV
Christianity is primarily an encounter with God -the God who made the heavens and the earth came to us to free us and to heal us from the cycle of sin and death that ensnared us. He encounters us in our weakness and shows the way back to communion with Himself. All the theology in the world can’t make someone encounter God. It can only explore the depths of that encounter in a world which is blind to God. Exploring it can add meaning to that encounter if it’s done with humility and grace.
What is most important to encountering God though? Prayer.
I find it funny that even when a non-believer is at his or her wit’s end, many will try prayer. Even if they’re 99% sure it won’t work, reaching for some sort of higher power becomes our gut reaction for survival. I think we do know somewhere deep down that there is a universal entity that might care about the crap in our lives, or even might be the cause of the pain. We either want to know someone is in control and steering the situation for our benefit, or we want someone to shake our fist at the sky to. In any case, prayer is where we reach out with something inside of ourselves to that entity.
It might be a symptom of the mindset of the modern world, but there is one group that tends to believe that intellect can either solve all of our problem and then there’s another group that sees intellect as the enemy to faith. However, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandments were, His first answer was to love the Lord with all your heart, soul and mind (Matt. 22:37). There was a clear connection between all three and there wasn’t necessarily a hierarchy, but because we were created with these three parts of us interconnected, they are engaged with God in an interconnected way. The mind is a piece which directs us into a deeper encounter with God, but we don’t only engage with the mind and we don’t abandon it either.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. (Prov. 3:5-6) NKJV
What I ultimately want to say is that a simple faith is not to be scoffed at. Does that excuse us from being tossed to and fro by any wave of doctrine that makes us feel good? Does it mean that those who can’t stop having doubts in their faith are wrong? No, but the one with simple faith knows that the truth they cleave to is only worth one red cent if it causes them to pray more and stretch their hands out for the hem of His robe. They are looking for someone to set them free and bind up their broken hearts, so they just reach out and are open to God somehow moving in their lives. They aren’t so concerned about the systematic paradigm of sovereignty or atonement theories. How can our belief have any power and truth? When it generates a heart in us that makes us take up our Cross and humble ourselves to Him. The world needs more Christians like that than it needs apologists (sorry, William Lane Craig).
I can only hope that I remember this fact every moment and every day of my own life. Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.
I’ve been thinking about what to write for awhile. My life is becoming much busier as spring approaches and the sun’s golden glow draws us pale and vitamin-D deficient nerds out from our holes.
My children are now busy digging holes and gathering sticks for absolutely no reason in the backyard.
My grass is becoming greener and ready to do battle with the mower soon.
People are having weddings like crazy.
And the day commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ is night. This Sunday, people will gather in churches across the world to give Jesus his due. Some will come to just give him a tip o’ the hat until next year. Others see this as the apex of a 40 day period of fasting, sacrifice and prayer.
Easter is ultimately a reminder of the way things were, they are and the will be. It is the eternal spring of every human’s dormant reality, bursting forth like a flower from the ground and soaking in the fullness of the Light. It is justice in it’s purest form. Justice that breaks the yoke of earthly powers, but more importantly the spiritual bondage that undergirds the earthly bondage.
For those with faith in Christ, the Cross and the Empty Tomb are two sides of the same coin. The Cross marked Christ’s entrance into the bowels of Hades and because it could not contain Him, like a mining tunnel collapsing in on itself, Death was overtaken. Christ’s substitute for us was not to fulfill just some sort of cosmic legal writ, but He was the stitch in time that unraveled the rope binding humanity to Death. He literally cheated Death by being the atomic bomb shoved down it’s gullet.
Three days later, the son of God rose up out of the tomb into a glorified body, being the forerunner of the redemption of true humanity. The state we were created to be was templated by His very presence. Jesus Christ was the gift that gave all humans from the beginning of time to the end a way back into communion with God.
All the flowery language I can conceive doesn’t do justice to this reality, but the point is this – when Easter comes into view, then we can either see the Cross as a torture device (which is it’s old, unredeemed meaning) we are begrudgingly called to take up or we can see it as the place where we are reborn unto God. Our flesh dies but it’s then replaced with our true humanity. We are experiencing that reality inwards and then when we pass from this life to the next, we’ll be ready to take on a body fit for basking in the uncreated light of God.
The person who lives in love reaps the fruit of life from God, and while yet in this world, even now breathes the air of the resurrection. – St. Isaac the Syrian
Between here and eternity, I’m constantly seeing where I am. Every moment and every breathe is a re-centering of myself outside of my linear, narrow dimension and into the dimension where I am mystically united with Jesus Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.
How does Easter take us there? It’s not the day or the date on the calendar which carries the significance, but how our hearts align with the purpose of Easter. When Christ breathed His last on the cross and said “It is finished”, His mission on earth was over, but the end of ages also had began. He signalled that the cross was the point where when we look back on this place and this moment in time, we are at the same time looking at the finishing line. The linear moment in time is actually the end of everything. The end of injustice. The end of evil. The end of death. The end of mourning. The end of Satan. The beginning of hope.
All I hope is that wherever you are in life, you find hope in the cross. I myself am feeling rather defeated lately. I see that just as I grasp the light, the darkness taunts me and does everything it can to snuff it out. Christ is my sword and my shield. He is my hope in all things.
He is the God who spoke the universe into being and stooped down to rub mud in the eyes of a blind man. He’s the same God who led Israel out of slavery and freed a naked wildman from the clutches of a legion of demons.
To me, Easter is about Jesus as God just as much as it is about Jesus as human. He experienced human pain and He turned that pain into salvation for all of Creation.
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:11 KJV)
Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life! (The Pascal Troparion)
Sometimes I start something hoping to finish it right away.
This was not one of those endeavors.
But not to fear! I have some more to say on this subject, so I’ll get right down to it.
A (very) brief history of the scriptures
As I explained in part 1, I am still learning to balance my perspective of scripture against the backdrop of the Church. See, for a long period of time, there was only one Christian church. There were schismatic groups that started to form in the early centuries (like the Montanists), but these groups tended to fade after a while (yes, I know about the Nestorians, but I consider that a different animal). Then, in 1054 AD the bishop of Rome and the Sees, which were largely centered in Byzantium and the east, pulled away from one another. This has become known as the Great Schism. In the west, Roman Catholicism grew and flourished outwards towards the wilds of western Europe and in the east, the Byzantine Orthodox Church was growing towards Asia.
All this history is to show that there was a maintained church structure for 1,000 years and that the array of denominations we have today is a more recent anomaly. This means that the scriptures we have today are not detached from recent history. They are very much a product of the chasm of language and understanding that grew over time. In the early church, the holy scriptures were largely written on parchment scrolls and the copies were kept in the Christian schools. Books began to come about in the middle ages and it was expensive to purchase a Bible for personal use, being as they were hand-copied. So, the Church is where people went to hear scriptures and learn them inside and out. The Church delivered the scriptures from the beginning.
We have learned the plan of our salvation from no one else other than from those through whom the gospel has come down to us. For they did at one time proclaim the gospel in public. And, at a later period, by the will of God, they handed the gospel down to us in the Scriptures-to be the ‘ground and pillar of our faith. – St. Irenaus, Against Heresies
One must also take into account that the Old Testament which Jesus and His apostles read from was a version called the Septuagint, which was a Greek translation originating in the 3rd century BC. It was the version Paul quoted out of. Jesus may have likely read from it as well. The Old Testament most people possess in these days is a translation by the Masoretes into Hebrew from the 7th and 10th century. The King James Version, for example, takes it’s Hebrew root from the same manuscripts Luther used for his translation, which is the Masoretic text. Now, this isn’t necessarily an awful thing, but the Septuagint and the Masoretic texts have some slight variances. The Septuagint also wasn’t widely circulated after awhile and was largely kept in eastern churches. The Roman Catholics mainly used Latin via the Vulgate. Considering the Reformers and the Catholics weren’t too fond of one another at the time, the Reformers weren’t too fond of using the Vulgate as their source for translation.
Now, there are variations between the Septuagint and the Masoretic text sources. Consider the differences in Isaiah 53 between this English translation of the Septuagint and the King James version:
1 O Lord, who has believed our report, and to whom was the arm of the Lord revealed?
2 We proclaimed His presence as a Child, as a Root in a thirsty land. He had no form or glory, and we saw Him; and He had no form or beauty.
3 But in comparison to all men, His form was lacking in honor. He was a man in suffering and knew how to bear sickness. His face was turned away, and He was dishonored and not esteemed.
4 He bears our sins and suffers for us, yet we considered Him to be in pain, suffering, and ill-treatment.
5 But He was wounded because of our lawlessness, and became sick because of our sins. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruise we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray. Man has gone astray in his way, and the Lord delivered Him over for our sins.
7 Although He was ill-treated, He opened not His mouth. He was led as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb is silent before his shearers, so He opens not His mouth.
8 In His humiliation His judgment was taken away, and who will declare His generation? For His life is taken from the earth, and because of the lawlessness of My people He was led to death.
9 I will appoint evil men for His burial and rich men for His death, because He committed no lawlessness, nor was deceit found in His mouth.
10 The Lord wishes to cleanse Him of His wound, and if You give an offering for sin, Your soul shall see a long-lived seed.
11 The Lord wishes to take away the pain of His soul, to show Him light, to form Him with understanding, and to pronounce righteous the Righteous One who serves many well; and He shall bear their sins.
12 Therefore He shall inherit many, and will divide the spoil with the strong, because His soul was delivered over to death. He was considered among the lawless, and He bore the sins of many, and was delivered over because of their sins.
Authorized King James
1 Who hath believed our report?
and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?
2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant,
and as a root out of a dry ground:
he hath no form nor comeliness;
and when we shall see him,
there is no beauty that we should desire him.
3 He is despised and rejected of men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief:
and we hid as it were our faces from him;
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he hath borne our griefs,
and carried our sorrows:
yet we did esteem him stricken,
smitten of God, and afflicted.
5 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities:
the chastisement of our peace was upon him;
and with his stripes we are healed.
6 All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth:
he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,
so he openeth not his mouth.
8 He was taken from prison and from judgment:
and who shall declare his generation?
for he was cut off out of the land of the living:
for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
9 And he made his grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death;
because he had done no violence,
neither was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him;
he hath put him to grief:
when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin,
he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days,
and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied:
by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many;
for he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he hath poured out his soul unto death:
and he was numbered with the transgressors;
and he bare the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
There are subtle differences between the text which have some profound impact towards Christian theology (maybe for some people more than others). We do know now that the Dead Sea scrolls have many places which favor the Masoretic text over the Septuagint in the Hebrew language, but these fragments still date after the time of Christ (about the 2nd century), so there’s still some speculation on the accuracy. A good read on which is more authentic can be found at the Mystagogy blog. It can depend on which way you choose to see the history, but the differences can matter.
You may be thinking in your head of an imaginary conversation with me where you ask, “why does it matter to you?” It matters to me because it seems that it’s less suspect to trust the translation which Jesus and Paul and the apostles depended on rather than a translation made by a Hebrew community which did have a possible agenda in de-legitimizing Christianity after such passages like Isaiah 53 were often quoted from the Septuagint in order to prove Christ’s fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. Besides that though, I am trusting the church, which used this translation for centuries and continues to use it to this day. The Catholics do have a version much closer to the Septuagint than the King James. And the Orthodox Church still uses it’s Septuagint sources, but have carefully translated them from Greek into other languages.
For me, it’s not just about one version of the Bible being better than the other. I am seeing that the Church and the scriptures had a symbiotic relationship for a long time and that relationship devolved around the same time the Great Schism happened. They became even further wedged apart after the Reformation. (I do understand the Reformation had a good reason to happen, by the way.) Yes, there have been abuses as scripture was kept secret from being read by the people, but before Gutenberg’s printing press, there wasn’t some nefarious plot to keep people ignorant. Actually, many of the peasants and poorer classes just weren’t literate and the Church made it their job to educate people on Christian doctrine. (This is also partially why icons were very important as well, but that’s another post altogether.) A good education was often tied to Christian doctrinal education.
To an extent, we are all trusting the translators and the Church which cradled the scriptures for centuries. The question is, which track in history are we going to trust most?
I’ve had a lot of conversations recently about the inerrancy of scripture. Mostly because as I’ve been searching my own faith and finding a lot of peace in the Orthodox Christian way, many questions on authority have arisen from people I know, worried that I’ll become an apostate. People ask me if I no longer consider the Bible a spiritual authority or if I consider the Orthodox Church as being my authority now. My answer is that I’m not abandoning the Bible but things are still a lot different now.
Awhile ago, I fell into disbelief. I was evaluating a lot of the beliefs I had grown up with and I found some to be insufficient when compared to the entire foundation I had at the time. My foundation was built on seeing the Bible as the sole revelation and authority of God’s truth on earth. (I still believe the Bible is authoritative, inspired by God and a bedrock for our beliefs – it just doesn’t stand alone, just to be clear.) I also believed that part of the Holy Spirit’s job was to speak directly to me when I found the Bible difficult to understand, thus guiding me out of error. The problem with parts of this foundation is that it is not historically true and it’s not even in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that the Holy Spirit helps us interpret the Bible for ourselves, but it does say that the Holy Spirit guided the apostles and prophets to teach it (Eph. 3:5). Today there are thousands of denominations and at least a dozen or more of the core ones differ on vital scriptural interpretations. So the question becomes, how do we divide truth from error in interpreting the scripture? And how do we know that we aren’t following another person’s opinion subconsciously? I believe that we all follow a certain tradition and it’s really a matter of discerning which tradition is actually the correct one for interpretation.
If we look into history, during some key times where false teachings started to become popular, what made them become popular was through the use of scripture. For example, Arius (a priest in 4th century Alexandria) didn’t just pull out his heresy that Jesus was a created being from thin air. He read the scriptures and decided he discovered something in them after centuries of Christians believing that Jesus was God. His view became popular through using scriptures and song. Common folk could almost recite his view better than the true, Christian view. The council of Nicea was called and Arius’ view was found to be a heresy by the consensus of the bishops. To this day, the Nicene creed defends the Trinity because of it’s contention by the Arians.
So, the question is then how do we discern truth from falsehood in the Biblical interpretation? I believe that we do that by learning from the right people who were ordained by God to teach it from the beginning and from their predecessors. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit just as we are even though they were fallible men. I’m referring to the 12 apostles and to the men they taught to be bishops and leaders in the church. People like Irenaeus, Ignatius, Clement and Polycarp and their predecessors. When Christ says “the Holy Spirit will lead you into all truth”, we can say He already was doing that through his disciples. When we read 2 Timothy 3:16, I am just as convinced that scripture is God-breathed, but I also see it within the context of Paul’s second letter to Timothy (2 Timothy 3:14-17) when he says:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Timothy learned about the scriptures. Most likely the Old Testament scriptures, as the New Testament didn’t exist at the time. But he didn’t just read them and automatically know everything about Jesus. He had to be taught. We know Timothy’s family was instrumental in bringing him up in the faith. The Holy Spirit didn’t just download to His brain instant knowledge.
You may then ask “Why do you think fallible men will have any better insight than if you just read it yourself?” Good question. We are all fallible, but there’s a difference between one individual following his own interpretation based on his own thoughts and feelings dictated by an invisible spiritual force (which is what often leads people into devising their own interpretation, by the way) completely separate from accepting the consensus of wise men chosen by God to deliver the correct interpretation to people. Christ established His Church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it. (Matt. 16:18) What is a church but not a group of people? The Church is composed of people, so I don’t just trust a person, but I trust the Church, which is also the Body of Christ, the living God.
I now read the Bible as God’s divine revelation to mankind and to me, because it is the revelation of Jesus Christ to all of us. I humbly submit my reading of the texts to the Church which brought forth those texts. I also understand that there may be things that look like they’re not in the Bible but are mere inventions of the Church. However, I’ve found that not to be true for a majority of practices when I read the early Church writers. If you think about it, the New Testament itself is an invention of the Church because there’s no indication in the Gospels that Jesus commanded all He said to be written down.
I don’t just listen to what one man says and believe that’s what I should believe, rather I go back to the beginning as much as possible and ask the Spirit for guidance. I look at the Church Fathers (founders of the church) and explore their ways of reading the text. Many were in agreement, especially in matters of practicing the faith. I think it’s dangerous just to rely on one source for interpreting scripture. I would rather follow St. Vincent of Lerin’s (5th century) advice:
Moreover, in the Catholic [universal] Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.
There’s also Jude 1:3:
Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints.
and 2 Thess. 2:15:
Therefore, brethren, stand fast and hold the traditions which you were taught, whether by word or our epistle.
So, I now see more cohesiveness to the Biblical text (even the hard parts) which I didn’t see before. And although I’ve been prooftexting the heck out of my articles, I’d encourage you to read all of the scriptures I quoted in their respective contexts, not just as standalone verses. Read them while also looking at what early Christians had to say. As I’ve done that, I’ve seen a clearer line to ancient Christian interpretations of the text and I’ve seen in an even greater sense how it all applies to my own life.
You might say, “But Zach! You just said there are hundreds of denominations with different interpretations. How can you know which ones are right?!” That, will be covered in another blog post where I hope to flesh out what makes an interpretation worth possibly adopting or not. Stay tuned.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen someone post on a Christian Internet forum and ask “Ugh…Paul…why do we care what he says?” It seems that the latest trend in revisionism within Christianity is to snipe Paul out of the picture. A couple decades ago, people aimed to take Jesus’ divinity and miracles out, but now many have set the scope on a lower target.
All this may stem from Paul’s influence in scripture. Paul’s epistles take up a significant amount of the New Testament canon. He writes a great deal about cultural issues, some which are too unambiguous to sidestep. Also, in an age where our culture is very liberal towards sexual issues, Paul is the immovable annoyance that keeps God from condoning any sexual relationships outside of a heterosexual union. I know this is a very tough issue and I’m not going to focus on Paul’s sexual mandates in scripture, but rather, I’d like to turn attention to the supposed validity of arguments against Paul’s placement in Christian dogma.
There are a few main common gripes on Paul that come up repeatedly, so I’d like to take a look at each one and raise questions about how each objection holds up. Here we go…
Argument #1. Paul is not Christ and we should put a lot more weight on Christ’s words in scripture rather than Paul’s
This seems legitimate on it’s face. I mean, Christ is the absolute authority and cornerstone of our faith. The Gospels are testimonies to the work Christ did for us. It is true and right to say that Christ’s words are more important and dear to us than Paul’s. Paul is really just kind of grabbing the coattails of this growing Galilean movement by the time he shows up, so maybe we’re correct to be suspicious. And yet…there are some things which don’t add up with this theory.
For starters, the gospels are considered by almost all scholars to have been written after Paul’s epistles. The epistles can be dated sometime between 51 and 58 AD. The gospels have been dated sometime between 68 and 100 AD. Luke is regarded to have been written by Luke, who was a student of Paul’s.
Taking all this into consideration, it seems more plausible that Paul was a higher influence on the text of the gospels than the gospels were standalone works themselves. I don’t actually believe Paul manipulated the gospel texts in any way, but if he did, you’d think he would have shored up his own apostleship more. The Christians back in the day already had a lot to suspect against Paul, so it wouldn’t have worked out well for him to start messing with the stories the disciples of Christ were already circulating.
Argument #2. Paul’s words shouldn’t be taken as seriously as the were only addressed to a certain group of people in a certain context.
There is a grain of truth to this argument, but I think we need to be careful about making such a sweeping assertion, considering Paul’s works were considered vital enough to remain in the Biblical canon. Paul did write to specific congregations and was addressing issues that needed an authoritative hand to straighten out. However, the epistles that made it into the New Testament canon were included specifically because they held some value to the universal church. Why were the the epistles of Peter or Clement and other epistles left out of the canon over time? Well, it’s because these epistles were either highly abused by heretical groups at the time or they contained a lot of localized mandates for the churches they were addressed to. A Christian could still read these letters and gain much value for his/her walk with God, but they were still not considered useful for the instruction of the entire body.
It’s important to remember that the canonization process has really never ended. It’s just that certain councils came together and confirmed or denied what popular as beneficial to the church at the time (before Guttenberg, mind you). Certain ones, stuck around and were universally accepted. Pretty much all of Paul’s epistles passed the test through numerous councils.
Argument #3. Paul’s conversion was a fake and as Jew he was trying to sabotage Christianity from within.
Now, this is just pure speculation. But let’s suppose it’s true for a second. If Paul was truly trying to twist Christianity as a Jew, he really did a piss-poor job. I’m sure vehemently defending Christian freedom to the Gentiles against the Judaizers won him a lot of friends in Jerusalem. Paul even went toe-to-toe with Peter regarding Peter’s sympathies with the Judaizing crowd. (Gal. 2:11) Thanks in large part to Paul and a vision to Peter while he was crashing at Simon the Tanner’s house, us Gentiles don’t have to be circumcised (yay!).
Paul also had a separate conversion from the rest of the Apostles. He was a Pharisee through and through until he met Jesus. (Phil. 3:5) So, this often gives people hesitancy and makes them think he might have been a double-agent. However, if we’re to believe that one well-known Pharisee who persecuted the church could’ve put the blinders on Peter and the rest of the disciples, we’re pretty much “up a creek without a paddle”. One man would have utterly destroyed the Church before it even began and Jesus’ promise to Peter that “the gates of hell” would not prevail against it would have come true. Even if one could make a case that there’s always been some sort of “true sect”, then that also means that the disciples failed to keep the teachings of Christ throughout the world where they were sent.
Here’s how I see, Paul: He was an emissary to the growing Christian world in a time where things were drastically changing. The 12 disciples were also Christ’s emissaries, but they had a bit of a different mission, to plant the Gospel. Paul’s job was to water it. That is why we have more writings. Also, let’s face it…he was also much more educated and had the capacity to face-off against the philosophies of the age with wit and vigor. If you think Christianity would be less pagan without Paul, then you should probably read more Greek philosophy. Paul, Clement, Irenaeus and many more during the first few centuries of Christianity defended the Christian faith against the rising tied of pagan thought by tackling the most popular philosophies of the day.
Don’t diss Paul. He isn’t the outlier many make him out to be, neither is he more important than Christ.
Scandalized, but not by the cross.
Over the past year, the evangelical Christian world has seen more than a few scandals crop up among the mega-church leadership titans. Mark Driscoll has been allegedly plagiarizing content for books (although Tyndale publishing did an in-house investigation which they claimed came back clean) and also using church tithe to artificially boost his “Real Marriage” book on the New York Times bestseller ratings. Then, you have Steven Furtick who besides being lambasted for purchasing a multi-million dollar home, he has been allegedly manipulating people to baptisms.
There comes a point where one has to ask, is it worth the headache for the evangelical world to have multi-million dollar industries built around specific personalities? And is it worth defaming the name of Jesus Christ to tolerate unethical practices for the spread of the gospel? My hope is that most people would realize these are rhetorical questions which shouldn’t take more than a millisecond of thought and then answer with a resounding “No”.
Do the ends justify the means?
Somewhere in the last century, the evangelical Christian culture in the west decided that when Christ said “Go ye therefore and teach all nations” (Matt. 28:19), He concluded it with “by any means necessary” and then He lit a cigar, put on some Ray-Bans and ascended to the sky.
The methodology of evangelism in the United States went from street corner preaching (which we can all admit is a little bit annoying) to covertly disguising the Christian message into the cultural milieu in hopes of driving people into the doors of our churches. The latter has it’s own ill-advised effects. This model is called the “seeker-driven” model of doing church and it’s become astronomically popular. But how does this relate to Furtick and Driscoll? Well, the idea that is behind these churches stems from a “marketing” methodology in regards to evangelism. The steps are usually as follows:
- Plant a church.
- Get a snazzy website, maybe a billboard and a lot of trendy, hip people on board.
- Cultivate the church’s image.
- The church grows and the lead pastor’s influence grows.
- The lead pastor must now keep the money and influence coming for the church to continue to grow and thrive.
- The marketing methods increase, and the church’s continue to grow with newcomers (who are willing to tithe of course.)
This growth plan is becoming common, not because all church planters are seeking the limelight (although some may indeed be doing so), but it’s because they know no other way to evangelize without offending culture. Indeed, there are many groups who evangelize by offending culture repeatedly and they wear it like a badge of honor. But when the church becomes a sort of industry, finely-tuned to win souls, it will eventually run into some ethical dilemmas. Christ doesn’t call us to just make sure we stay away from sin in our moral behavior, but He calls us to pursue virtue and honor in our behavior. His ethics are much higher than the world’s.
For example, they may choose to expand to a second or third campus site for the church, but that may also raise the question of whether or not the money would be better spent in serving the poor and the needy. Or, they may want to continue to increase the lead pastor’s salary as he takes on about as much as a Fortune 500 CEO would. They may soon see no problem in buying a jet plane for the pastor or a multi-million dollar home. Are these things immoral or illegal? No. But that’s not really the point, is it?
Walk the walk.
So, what can a Christian today do? Well first, you can speak up. If you’re at a church which may be a well-meaning place which is trying to preach the Gospel truthfully but the church has become more like a company and the pastors like executives, so they start to address issues from a business paradigm. Maybe they start believing that “better marketing” is the answer for spreading the gospel, not…you know preaching the good news in word and deed so much.
Second, stop using the excuse “Well, everybody else is doing it”. The Church should be above reproach. Paul exhorts the Philippian church after instructing them on their behavior:
That ye may be blameless and harmless, the sons of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom ye shine as lights in the world; (Phil. 2:15, KJV)
and to the Thessalonians:
Abstain from all appearance of evil. (1 Thess. 5:22, KJV)
Notice, there’s no caveat by Paul of “…unless it wins more souls to the Kingdom!” Paul also usually caps these exhortation segments of his letters of with a word on the sanctification of the body because he wants the believers he’s addressing to know that this work is important for conforming them to Christ. Any reproach Christ got from the world was because He was stating the truth of repentance and how to offer one’s self to God wholly and completely.
I have one more word from 2 Clement, a letter so circulated it was almost universally considered canon on par with Paul (and honestly, the Roman Catholic church still considers it as such). The author is not considered to actually be Clement any more, but the words still echo the truth of our time: