Friday, May 13, 2016

"On the Incarnation" by Athanasius

Interesting, informative, helpful, fresh, original. In his time, setting, and culture Athanasius wrote an incredible book explaining and defending (no, going on the offensive!) the meaning, purpose, and truth of Christ's incarnation in history.

This is not simply a book on the incarnation, i.e. the joining of the human and divine nature. It is substantially a book on the death of Christ. For Athanasius, the incarnation (rightly) is principally about the death of Christ, for the divine Son put on flesh and blood so that He could lovingly sacrifice Himself on our behalf and so deliver us from the condemnation of death. Thus, Athanasius's "On the Incarnation" is one of the earliest Christian theologies on the Atonement ever penned.

The pace of the book is fast, and the content remains on subject and stays interesting. Athanasius was a brilliant author who knew how to keep to his subject. His sensitivity to this is shown in the beginning of chapter four: "You are wondering, perhaps, for what possible reason, having proposed to speak of the Incarnation of the Word, we are at present treating of the origin of mankind. But this, too, properly belongs to the aim of our treatise. For in speaking of the appearance of the Saviour among us, we must needs speak also of the origin of men, that you may know that the reason of His coming down was because of us, and that our transgression called forth the loving-kindness of the Word, that the Lord should both make haste to help us and appear among men."

Athanasius is completely on point in locating the chief necessity for the incarnation and death of Christ in God Himself. God created human beings as His special creation, with an exalted position and destiny. However, through the devil's deceit and the wickedness of man, humans fell from their position and incurred the condemnation of death. God had given them commandment, and the penalty for breaking His commandment was death. The punishment of death is therefore an inflexible law that cannot be broken.

Yet on the other hand, it would not be proper for God to allow His special creation to be lost, to not fulfill the purpose for which He had made them. Furthermore, God, being a loving and good God, had pity upon humanity and desired their salvation.

But this desire for their salvation and for the fulfillment of their destiny, coupled with the inflexible law of God regarding the punishment of death for sin, produces a dilemma. How can humanity be saved? How can God restore humanity without compromising His own law, and therefore His own integrity? Athanasius is keenly sensitive to the problem: God must be consistent with Himself, to both His law and His love. What then can God do?

The solution, according to Athanasius, is the incarnation and death of Christ. The Son of God would come into the world, being born of a virgin, putting on human flesh Himself, for the purpose of taking upon Himself the penalty of death on behalf of all of humanity. Thus Athanasius firmly plants his feet in the doctrine of penal-substitution, and even uses language such as "substitution" and dying "in the stead of" human beings. By Christ's sacrifice, the perfect One offering Himself to God on behalf of the condemned, He "fulfilled in death that which was required." (9) "For if He came Himself to bear the curse which lay upon us, how else could He have 'become a curse' (Gal. 3:13) if He had not accepted the death occasioned by the curse?" (24) There simply was "no other way." (9) Now, because of the death of Christ, humanity is able to be free from the condemnation of death; believers need no longer fear death, for they have been forgiven and will rise from the dead incorruptible on the last day.

Athanasius also discusses how the incarnation had a didactic, or teaching, purpose. By God coming to man in the form of a man, God was able to instruct humanity and reveal to them the truth about reality--the reality of God the Father, of themselves, of creation, of demons, of salvation, etc. I don't think Athanasius connects well enough the didactic purpose of the incarnation and the sacrificial purpose of the incarnation as he should have (they are inseparable), but his point that the incarnation had a didactic purpose is true, and it was right for him to include it.

Not only does Athanasius explain the meaning and purpose of the incarnation, in the middle of the book he also answers common objections to the doctrine (even--brilliantly--thinking up some of his own), and the last part of the book is a forceful apologetic (or perhaps "offensive" is a better word) against unbelievers (Jews and Greeks). Against the Jews, Athanasius marshals Scripture after Scripture showing that the life and death of Christ was clearly predicted in their own sacred texts. Thus Athanasius continues the important tradition of arguing for the truthfulness of Christianity by appealing to prophecy. Against the Greeks, he handles some philosophical objections, but then powerfully turns the guns on his opponents, pointing to the powerful proofs of the divinity of Jesus Christ seen in the lives of Christians, as well as the moral and spiritual transformation of the ancient world since the incarnation of Christ. Even today people would do well to consider his evidences.

In Athanasius's day this book must have been a welcomed answer to skeptics and unbelievers. Considering his culture and context, Athanasius's work was truly groundbreaking, providing a needed check to those who mocked the idea and rationale of the incarnation.

I have a lot of praise to heap on this book. I also have some criticisms.

Athanasius's mind is profoundly Greek (as opposed to Hebrew), and so his emphases tend more toward philosophical questions, such as the categories of being and non-being, rather than toward moral categories such as guilt and reconciliation. The Bible undoubtedly speaks of the corruption of God's creation and death--the taking away of life--as central to the drama, yet these concepts are wedded inseparably to the concepts of sin, guilt, wrath, judgment, and forgiveness. Of these latter ideas Athanasius talks little (not because he does not believe in them, of course, but because his mind's orientation is not as interested in them, or did not see the need to emphasize them). The Greek is primarily interested in philosophy; the Hebrew in relationship with God the Person. Granted, if Athanasius is writing to a Greek audience, the Greek concerns would naturally loom prominently, but I believe the work suffers because of it, and would have been better and more Biblical if Athanasius had spend more time discussing the moral world and moral connections. He could, and should, have challenged his contemporaries to think more Biblically, and hence more really. God's inflexible law, requiring the sentence of death upon sinners, was not arbitrarily made, and it did not simply pose a legal problem for God ("Darn, why did I give that command... now I must abide by it to be consistent with Myself"). Rather, it demonstrates the moral nature of God, who judges sin, who hates sin, who reacts to sin with righteous wrath, and is rightly dissatisfied with iniquity, and who satisfies Himself with good and just vengeance wisely distributed. Here Anselm and the Reformed tradition contributes much.

It is true, according to the Bible, that Jesus came into the world to "heal" us, to restore us from our fallen condition (state of being). Yet to simply say this is not sufficient. We are in such a fallen condition not merely because of our sin (departing from the good path), but because of God's righteous sentence of judgment against us on account of our sin. Thus, in order to be healed and restored, not only must our sin be dealt with, but also God's wrath. We don't need to ask: "Did Jesus come into the world to heal the wounded, or to deliver sinners from retribution?" The answer is: yes. On account of God's retribution, justly punishing humanity for its sins, humanity is mortally wounded and needs to be healed. And how are we healed (restored to health and soundness)? Through Christ dying for our sins, paying our penalty, satisfying the law, propitiating the wrath of God, putting away our sins forever, and therefore enabling us to receive God's healing and restorative blessing. The two concepts go hand-in-hand, and we should never think they are antagonistic to one other.

I don't believe Athanasius would deny this, or that he does deny it in his book. He just doesn't talk much about, nor emphasizes, the moral. He errs, not in what he says, but in what he doesn't say.

Also, Athanasius almost completely omits any discussion of how the benefits of the sacrifice of Christ are received by a person. While he certainly mentions "faith" here and there, there is really no discussion of how a person partakes in Christ's salvation, though it is implied that only Christians partake, while non-Christians will tragically find their end in "eternal fire". (56) The book, though admittedly focused on the meaning of the incarnation, would have been better with even a short explanation.

To be fair to Athanasius, however, he does write at the end of the book: "Let this, then, Christ-loving man, be our offering to you, just for a rudimentary sketch and outline, in a short compass, of the faith of Christ and of His Divine appearing to usward. But you, taking occasion by this, if you light upon the text of the Scriptures, by genuinely applying your mind to them, will learn from them more completely and clearly the exact detail of what we have said." (56) In other words, his book is only a preliminary sketch, an skeletal introduction to the great doctrine, and one can find a fuller description and explanation in the pages of Scriptures. This is an important detail to note: Athanasius's work should not be seen as a fully developed theology of the incarnation and death of Christ, and future theologians can build upon the foundation that Athanasius has laid.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed "On the Incarnation". Athanasius was clearly a brilliant theologian, and his life's labors (which God ordained for him to walk in) were a true blessing to the Church and to the world. I highly recommend this classic.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

D.A. Carson on the Universe, Science and Miracles

Here is a valuable reflection from D.A. Carson on the wonderful works of God.

----------

“The modern, frequently unvoiced view of God is that he is in charge of the big things, the major turning points; it is less clear that he is in charge of anything beyond that. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount argues just the reverse (Matt. 6). Jesus assumes his heavenly Father sovereignly watches over each sparrow and each flower, and argues from the lesser to the greater: if God cares for even these things—surely of relatively little account on the eternal and cosmic scales of things!—should we not trust him to provide men and women, made in his own image, with all that we need? The sad truth is that science has taught many of us to adopt some version of the ‘God-of-the-gaps theory.’ In this view, God sets everything in motion and allows it to chug along in line with the laws that he himself sets in place. But every once in a while God intervenes. He actually does something. We call that a miracle. Biblically speaking, of course, this is nonsense. I would never deny that God has created an ordered universe. But the biblical view of God’s sovereignty is that even now, at every second, he sustains that universe. Indeed, he now mediates every scrap of the infinite reaches of his sovereignty through the Son (1 Cor. 15:25), who even now is ‘sustaining all things by his powerful word’ (Heb. 1:3). A miracle is not an instance of God doing something for a change; it is an instance of God doing something out of the ordinary. That God normally operates the universe consistently makes science possible; that he does not always do so ought to keep science humble. Above all, this view of God’s sovereignty means that we should draw comfort and faith even by observing the world around us—as Jesus did.” – D.A. Carson

Monday, February 29, 2016

Ye Shall Know Them By Their Fruits

To all my Mormon friends:

Matthew 7:15-20 does NOT mean that you will know a teaching or a teacher is true or false based upon the good or bad RESULTS of the teaching (i.e. good works, good feelings, fruit of the Spirit, etc).

Jesus explicitly explained what He meant in Matthew 12:33-37,

"Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit.
O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.
A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things.
But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.
For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned."

And also in the parallel passage in Luke 6:43-45,

"For a good tree bringeth not forth corrupt fruit; neither doth a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.
A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is evil: for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh."

In other words, Jesus meant that we will know a teaching or a teacher is true or false based upon the TEACHING, not based upon the results of the teaching. The question is: "what do they teach?" Not, "what is the result of what they teach?"

This is in keeping with the Old Testament test of a false prophet,

"If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder,
And the sign or the wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them;
Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams: for the LORD your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.
Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him.
And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee." (Deuteronomy 13:1-5)

"To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them. (Isaiah 8:20)

It is high time for you to start listening to Jesus and to test a prophet by the content of his teaching rather than by the results of his teaching.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Mormonism is Not Just Not Christian, It is the Opposite of Christianity


Debate has raged about whether Mormonism is Christian or not. Mormons--who are baffled by the debate--claim that they are Christians, appealing to the fact that they believe in "Jesus", while traditional Christians--long accustomed to dealing with heretical counterfeits--hold that Mormons are not Christian, despite their oft-repeated appeal. The reader is encouraged to reflect upon 2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Matthew 24:24, and the entire book of Galatians. In light of what Biblical Christianity is all about, it is plain to me (and to anyone else who wishes to look) that Mormonism is not Christian at all.

However, I would like draw attention to something even more interesting: not only is Mormonism not Christian, it is in fact the opposite of Christianity. Let no one here object by appealing to the superficial similarity of terminology used between Mormons and Christians. Such agreement is only surface deep; underneath is a world of difference. In reality, Mormonism and Christianity are theological opposites.

Christianity is all about the story of the one and only God, who created all things visible and invisible for the glory of His Name. Consequently human beings are His creatures who exist--like all of God's creatures--to praise and glorify the Creator. Christianity is all about how human beings traitorously sinned against God, incurring the wages of sin: death. Christianity is all about how God gloriously redeemed His helpless and ill-deserving enemies through His amazing grace; how He came to earth, He died for our sins, He was buried, and He rose again on the third day in order to provide salvation for everyone who will simply believe in Him. Christianity is all about how the redeemed will spend eternity celebrating the beauty and victory of God, for the great things He has done, to whom alone belongs all the glory for ever and ever. The beginning, middle and end of Christianity is the one true God. Christianity is all about the abasement of humanity and the glorification of God.

In stark opposition to this, Mormonism is the story of everybody; in fact, it is precisely the idea that God is not at all unique. Our particular God is one of us, and is one of many. Mormonism is all about realizing your human--or I should say divine--potential. It is about recognizing that you are not all that helpless or wicked, and that with the help of God you can personally overcome sin and achieve perfection. Jesus, our literal brother, came to earth to bring about a set of conditions through which we can--if we work hard enough--work our way into a new and exalted state of being. Mormonism is all about self-reliance, self-effort, and personal glory. The goal of Mormonism is to be a God yourself, just like our particular God and the many others who have succeeded before us. Consequently the center of Mormonism is not the one and only God (for there is no such God), but oneself. The God of this earth exists for you and not you for him.

Thus Christianity and Mormonism are opposites. To Christians, Mormonism is blasphemous. To Mormons, Christianity is boring. Yet it is Christianity, not Mormonism, that is Biblical. As Anglican theologian Harry Blamires put it: "God is not the bolsterer of our human wisdom, the buttress of our self-sufficiency. He is the despoiler of our human self-reliance. His Name does not head the list of contributors to the fund for extending our empire of mastery; rather his Signature seals the death-warrant of our egotism."

Friday, September 04, 2015

The Protestant Principle of Sola Scriptura

A response to the accusation that the Reformer's gospel was newfangled doctrine, due to failure to abide by church tradition.

Our goal is indeed to believe what the apostles believed, and---lo and behold!--they left us some writings of their very own, their very own thoughts recorded on pages intended for us to read. If we desire to believe what the apostles believed, then our sources are the apostolic writings themselves (obviously), not a handful of contemporaries who can at best provide us with second-hand information that may or may not be accurate. Ad fontes. In the Scriptures is where the minds of the apostles are found. The Scriptures are given to us for our learning (therefore they are sufficiently perspicuous), and whatever does not agree with the Scriptures is error. This is the common sense wisdom of Sola Scriptura.

This is especially important to grasp in light of the fact (a fact you admitted) that many contemporaries of the apostles were heretics and/or greatly confused. Proximity is no guarantee of truthfulness. The New Testament itself attests to that.

Martin Luther was faithful to the tradition of the Catholic church, by which faithfulness he never obtained peace nor the true knowledge of Christ and God. It was only when he studied the Scriptures for himself and allowed them to speak to him that he was enlightened and set free.

If you examine the heart of Protestant theology and compare it to the Bible, you will see that what Protestants hold dearest is no 16th century novelty but the very heart of the Christian Gospel as found in the Scriptures: salvation by grace through faith alone in Jesus Christ. This doctrine is plainly taught in the Bible. "But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is manifested... the righteousness of God which is by faith in Jesus Christ unto all and upon all who believe." (Romans 3:21-22). "For by grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9). "Knowing that a man is not justified by the deeds of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ." (Galatians 2:16). There are too many to cite in this comment. There is no anachronism. Your charge is unjustified and unjustifiable. But if you want to prove your charge of anachronism true, you must (interestingly) end up doing biblical exegesis, the very thing Protestants insists we do, and have been tenaciously doing for the last 500 years.

To me, the irony of the accusation of anachronism against Protestants is that those who aggrandize church tradition and then proceed to read that tradition back into Scripture are the ones who are guilty of anachronism. Anachronism doesn't take much time to happen, and fidelity to Scripture can happen after a long time has passed. I can personally see nothing but anachronism in how non-evangelicals handle the Bible (ex. Chrysostom says, therefore the Bible says). Evangelicals don't say "Luther or Calvin says, therefore the Bible says", but rather, "Luther or Calvin says, therefore let's go to the Bible to see if this is true." Which method best safeguards us against anachronism? I believe a child can answer this question.

May God make this plain to you,
Sincerely,
-Eli