Archive for September, 2010

Weekend Extra – The Incarnation

In one of my favorite lines in the Old Testament, Solomon, as he is dedicating the newly finished temple to the Lord, asks in a prayer, “But will God really dwell on earth with men” (2 Chronicles 6:18)?  The answer to Solomon’s query, at least according to the ancient Greeks, was, “No.”

At its root, Greek philosophy was dualistic in nature.  That is, it held to a strict bifurcation between the material and immaterial, believing the material to be inherently evil while declaring the immaterial, or the spiritual, to be good.  An example of this kind of thinking comes in the work of Philo, a first century Jewish philosopher who sought to wed Judaism with Greek philosophy.  Philo talks at length about the creation of the world and the refrain which sounds throughout the creation story, “And it was good” (cf. Genesis 1:10,12,18,21,25).  The question that Philo seeks to answer is this:  If creation, as that which is material, is inherently evil according to Greek philosophy, how can God call it good?  Philo answers:

In reference to which it is said in the sacred Scriptures, “God saw all that He had made, and, behold, it was very good,” what God praised was not the materials which He had worked up into creation, destitute of life and melody, and easily dissolved, and moreover in their own intrinsic nature perishable, and out of all proportion and full of iniquity, but rather His own skillful work. (Philo, Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit §32)

In order to avoid calling anything material “good,” Philo says that creation’s refrain, “And it was good,” refers only to the skill of God and not that which God’s skill produced – a material creation!  Thus is the extent to which the Greek philosophers would go to maintain their allegiance to a sharp dualism.

It is because of this sharp dualism that Greek philosophy abhorred the idea that God could ever dwell on earth with man.  After all, the immaterial and perfect God would never deign to dwell among a material and evil world!  And yet, this is exactly what the doctrine of the incarnation proposes.  The incarnation teaches that the second person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, took on human flesh and “made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14).

Such a doctrine raised the rankles of many Jews and Greeks alike who spent much time trying to discredit Christianity on the basis of the incarnation.  Consider, for instance, these quotes from Celsus, a second century Greek philosopher and antagonist of Christianity:

God is good and beautiful and happy, and exists in the most beautiful state.  If then He comes down to men, He must undergo change, a change from good to bad, from beautiful to shameful, from happiness to misfortune, and from what is best to what is most wicked. (Origen, Contra Celsum 4.14)

Dear Jews and Christians, no God or child of God has either come down or would have come down from heaven! (Contra Celsum 5.2)

Clearly, the Greeks believed that the perfect God of the universe would never take on the frail flesh of humanity.  But this is precisely what the Christians believed.  And this is precisely what the Christians taught.

The doctrine of the incarnation is foundational and fundamental to the Christian faith.  Why?  First, the incarnation assures us that Jesus is like us.  The preacher of Hebrews reminds us that, thanks to the incarnation, Christ is a God who can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15).  This stands in sharp contradistinction to the ancient Greek conception of God which called God apathes (“not suffering”), from whence we get our English word “apathy.”  The God of Greek philosophy was anything but concerned with human suffering and pain.  Jesus, however, is.  Second, the incarnation also assures us that Jesus is not like us.  After all, Jesus is not just a mere man.  He is God who became a man.  This means that Jesus has the divine power and prerogative to help us.  As Ben Witherington III states, “Jesus was as we are, and therefore He will help; He was not like we are, and therefore He can help” (Ben Witherington III, The Indellible Image, vol. 1, 423).  Jesus’ divinity means that He has the power to save us.  And this, finally, is why He became incarnate.  The incarnation is not simply an amazing feat, or a mind stretching wonder, or a theological locus.  Rather, God became incarnate to rescue us from sin, death, and the devil.  And so we confess that Jesus “Came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Why did He do this?  “For us men and for our salvation.”

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September 27, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

ABC Extra – On The Multiverse

This past weekend in worship and ABC, we continued our series ”Credo!” with a look at the doctrine of creation.  As part of our study, talked about how the how the modern, broad consensus among scientists concerning the universe’s origins is often antagonistic and dismissive toward the biblical account of creation.  Thus, many scientists and theologians alike have sought to reconcile these two seemingly conflicting accounts using different theories, two of which I briefly mentioned in ABC:  the “Day-Age Theory” and the “Theistic Evolution Theory.”

In order for the theory of evolution to be correct, two things are needed:  lots and lots of time and lots and lots of death.  You need lots and lots of time because one species does not evolve into another overnight.  Rather, billions of years are needed for one species to adapt in such a way that it actually becomes another species.  You needs lots and lots of death because the mechanism by which evolution functions is natural selection, a.k.a., the survival of the fittest.   In other words, for evolution to happen, species with less desirable traits must die out and give rise to species with more desirable traits.  The “Day-Age Theory” of creation, which asserts that each of the days in Genesis 1 are equal to thousands, and probably millions, of years, accounts for the lots and lots of time that evolution requires, while the theory of Theistic Evolution, which states that God got the ball rolling on creation, but then it pretty much evolved the way scientists say it did, accounts for the lots and lots of death demanded by natural selection.

And yet, there is something else needed.  Scientists have long noted that the earth and, indeed, even our solar system and universe, seems “fine-tuned” to support our life.  In other words, there is a constellation of factors, each of which, if they were even the slightest bit different, would not have allowed evolution to happen at all because the environment would not have supported any life at all, no matter how strong or desirable an organism’s traits might have been!  Scientists describe this as the “anthropic principle.”  In a recent article for the Wall Street Journal, Stephen Hawking, professor at the University of Cambridge, explains:

The emergence of the complex structures capable of supporting intelligent observers seems to be very fragile. The laws of nature form a system that is extremely fine-tuned. What can we make of these coincidences? Luck in the precise form and nature of fundamental physical law is a different kind of luck from the luck we find in environmental factors. It raises the natural question of why it is that way. (Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, “Why God Did Not Create the Universe,” Wall Street Journal, 9/3/10)

It is Hawking’s final question, posed as a statement, “It raises the natural question of why it is that way,” that he spends the balance of his article seeking to address.  And he seeks to address it apart from God:

Our universe seems to be one of many, each with different laws…Each universe has many possible histories and many possible states. Only a very few would allow creatures like us to exist.

Stephen Hawking adds another need to the arsenal of requirements for our existence.  Not only does our existence require lots and lots of time and lots and lots of death according to the theory of evolution, it also needs lots and lots of space according to the theory of the origins of the universe.  For evolution, as it stands, can account only for the existence of life on this planet, not the existence of this planet itself.  Something else must account for that.  If this something else is not accounted for, then evolution becomes somewhat of a “red herring” theory, for how can evolution account for one form of life giving rise to another form of life, and even a form of non-life giving rise to the first form of life, if it cannot account for that non-life material itself?  Enter Stephen Hawking’s theory.  Hawking postulates that there are an infinite number of universes, each with their own laws, which have spontaneously arisen out of nothing.  Thus, if there are “multiverses” which, taken in toto, exhaust every possible combination of astrophysical laws, it is not surprising at all that our universe and our solar system and our planet with our life should exist.  It is merely the inevitable consequence of a countless number of universes doing a countless number of different things.

How does Hawking know these multiple universes exist?  Has he observed them?  Has he tested them?  No!  Instead, the multiverse theory “is a consequence predicted by many theories in modern cosmology.”  In other words, it is a theory predicated on other theories.  Is it just me, or does that sound a little speculative for science?  Thus, according to Hawking, “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.”  It is here that we find Hawking’s real motive for postulating the multiverse:  it makes the need for God’s creative hand even more obsolete than does evolution.  It puts God out of business, so to speak.

It is important to note that Hawking’s theory is nothing new.  He, along with other scientists, have promoted the multiverse theory before.  And there are many who are scrambling to explain why God is still needed even if there are indeed many universes.  But we need not join them in their scramble.  For rather than adopting a “God-in-the-gaps” strategy, where we seek to shoehorn God into the spots that science cannot answer by means of its speculative, naturalistic mechanisms, I would suggest that it’s better to take the creation account as it stands, believing in the best intentions of its human author and the divine inspiration of its giver.  For the doctrine of creation does not exist merely to explain how God set into motion all the stuff for which science cannot account.  Rather, it assures that we have a God who not only created the heavens and the earth a long time ago, but also:

Has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them…He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me…This is most certainly true! (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, First Article of the Creed)

And this is most certainly the proper doctrine of creation!

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September 20, 2010 at 5:15 am 1 comment

ABC Extra – Credo! The History and Value of the Creeds

This past weekend, we kicked off a new series at Concordia titled, “Credo! Trusting in the Truth.”  In this series, we are examining some of the foundational doctrines of biblical Christianity using the contours of the Apostles’ Creed.  Because we are using to the Apostles’ Creed to guide us through our doctrinal foray, I thought it might be helpful to offer a little bit of background on the origin and formulation of this creed.

The Apostles’ Creed finds its birth between AD 100 and 120 when it was used as a baptismal liturgy to guide new converts in the true faith.  A legend from the fifth or sixth century conjectures that the Creed was written by the twelve apostles themselves, each contributing a line to it. According to the legend, Peter opened the Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” with Andrew then adding, “And in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,” while James the elder continued, “Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”  Although this legend may seem pious, it is also certainly apocryphal.

In reality, the Apostles’ Creed was formalized, though not completely standardized, among Christians by the second century.  Writings from the early church fathers echo creedal language.  Consider, for instance, these two passages:

Be deaf, therefore, whenever anyone speaks to you apart from Jesus Christ, who is of the stock of David, who is of Mary, who was truly born, ate and drank, was truly persecuted under Pontius Pilate, was truly crucified and died in the sight of beings of heaven, of earth and the underworld, who was also truly raised from the dead. (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Trallians 9:1-2, c. AD 107)

We also know in truth one God, we know Christ we know the Son, suffering as He suffered, dying as He died, and risen on the third day, and abiding at the right hand of the Father, and coming to judge the living and the dead.  And in saying this we say what has been handed down to us.  (Hippolytus, Profession of the Presbyters of Smyrna, c. AD 180)

In both of these statements from Ignatius and Hippolytus, we find creedal language.  Thus, the great doctrines of Christianity as confessed in the creeds are as old as Christianity itself.

Whenever I speak on or write about the creeds, an inevitable objection, often stated as a question, arises: “But why do we need the creeds?  We already have the Bible!  Shouldn’t we have no other creed than the Bible?”  The Bible, as God’s inspired, inerrant, infallible Word most definitely gets the first – and for that matter, the last – word.  The creeds, however, are nevertheless invaluable to the Church and ought to be retained by the Church for three reasons.

The Bible itself contains creeds. The idea for Christian creeds comes directly from the Bible itself!  Creeds contained in the Bible include, “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3), “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, He was buried, and He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:2-3), and, of course, the beautiful and poetic confession of Christ as God in Philippians 2:5-11.  And these are just a few examples of creeds contained in the Scriptures.  Christians have always wanted to be able to confess their faith and creeds afford opportunities to do this.  So it is only natural that Christians would have creeds.

The creeds hit the high points. There is a reason the children’s song “Jesus Loves Me” has stood the test of time.  It simply and whimsically expresses the foundational truths of the gospel in a compact and comprehendible way.  So it is with the creeds.  If you want to know Christian doctrine in a nutshell, then turn the creeds!  Indeed, in my ABC, I cited this insight from Cyril of Jerusalem:

For since all cannot read the Scriptures, some being hindered as to the knowledge of them by want of learning, and others by a want of leisure, in order that the soul may not perish from ignorance, we comprise the whole doctrine of the faith in a few lines…So for the present listen while I simply say the Creed, and commit it to memory…For the articles of the faith were not composed as seemed good to men; but the most important points collected out of all the Scripture make up one complete teaching of the Faith. (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, V:12, AD 347)

Even in the fourth century, not every Christian was as familiar with his faith as he should have been.  Thus, Cyril employs the Apostles’ Creed as a tool to teach the cardinal canons of the Christian faith.  The creeds can do the same for us.

The creeds guard against error. The Apostles’ Creed was, in ancient parlance, referred to as “the rule of faith.”  That is, it served as a guideline by which to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy.  Indeed, part of the problem with those who say, “I have no other creed than the Bible” is that many sects pervert the Scriptures to suit their own twisted teachings, even as the apostle Peter warns:  “Ignorant and unstable people distort…the Scriptures to their own destruction” (2 Peter 3:16).  For example, the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim only to use the Bible to arrive at their doctrines, yet they deny the doctrine of the Trinity.  The creeds, especially the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, will let you do no such thing.  I had a professor in seminary who would tell his classes, “You need the creeds because they keep you from getting weird.”  This precisely right.  The creeds guide us along the course of true faith.

It is with this in mind that we hope you’ll join us these next several weeks at Concordia as we revisit the basics of Christian doctrine to which we can joyfully proclaim, “Credo!” – I believe!

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September 13, 2010 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Weekend Extra – The Gift of the Gospel

In the book of Esther, the good queen Esther foils a plot by the evil Haman to exterminate the Jews after Haman becomes enraged when one Jew in particular, Mordecai, refuses to bow down and pay him homage.  Being an egomaniac, Mordecai’s insult infuriates Haman so much that “he scorned the idea of killing only Mordecai. Instead Haman looked for a way to destroy all Mordecai’s people, the Jews, throughout the whole kingdom of Xerxes” (Esther 3:6).  When Mordecai learns of Haman’s nefarious intentions, he calls Esther, a relative of his and also a Jewess, and pleads with her to go entreat the king for the lives of the Jews.  But Esther knows that such a request cannot be made without peril:

All the king’s officials and the people of the royal provinces know that for any man or woman who approaches the king in the inner court without being summoned the king has but one law: that he be put to death. The only exception to this is for the king to extend the gold scepter to him and spare his life. (Esther 4:11)

To approach the king, Esther’s will have to put her life on the line.  But with great courage, Esther approaches the king uninvited:

Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall. The king was sitting on his royal throne in the hall, facing the entrance. When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.” (Esther 5:1-3)

With the king’s words, Esther can take comfort in the fact that her life is no longer in danger.  For the king has spared her life and has even offered to grant her request, whatever it may be.  “It will be given you,” the king says.  The story finds its happy ending when Esther requests a banquet with Haman and the king only to foil Haman’s plot against the Jews.  Providentially, the king was willing to give Esther her banquet which she leveraged to save her people.

“It will be given you.”  These are not only the words of a king.  These are also the words of the gospel.  For the gospel is a gift.  Jesus promises:  “Ask and it will be given to you” (Matthew 7:7).  And the greatest gift that Jesus has given to humanity, of course, is His own death and resurrection.  For this gift brings our salvation.

In our reading from this past weekend from Revelation 19, we catch a breathtaking glimpse of the end of time when Satan is finally conquered the Church is wed to Christ once and for all.  The song of praise at this wedding is beautiful:

Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. (Revelation 19:6-8)

A Church once stained by the sin and depravity of her people is now arrayed in “fine linen, bright and clean.”  How does she obtain such linen?  It is “given her to wear.”  Even at the end of time, God’s gospel goes on.  The church does not earn her linens, nor does she merit them; rather, they are given to her.

Just as the bride of the king was given life by an extended gold scepter, the bride of Christ is given life by His arms, extended on a cross.  And when Jesus extends His arms on a cross, He does so with a promise on His lips:  “It will be given you!  Forgiveness will be given you!  Life will be given you!  Salvation will be given you!  Fine linen of holiness, unsoiled by sin will be given you!  It will be given you!”  This is why, on the Last Day, when the wedding of the Lamb of God to His Church finally arrives, we will be stained no more by sin.  For Christ will have given us all we need – even perfection into eternity.  It will be given you. What a gift!

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September 6, 2010 at 5:15 am 1 comment

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