Some Thoughts on Intra-Trinitarian Relationships in the Earliest Church Fathers

Back in 2004, I presented a very long (71-page) paper at the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church.” This paper was the result of research I conducted related to my PhD studies in patristics. In light of recent discussions among evangelicals regarding the issue of subordination and intra-trinitarian relationships, I thought I would make this paper available. It is an exhaustive (some might say, exhausting) analysis of every instance in which the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are even mentioned in the orthodox writings between Didache and Irenaeus. The full paper can be found here as a PDF. Because it was written in 2004, it is clearly not up-to-date in its secondary literature, but my hope is that interested readers will find the primary source data (all included in a lengthy appendix) to be helpful.

Below, I include the excerpt from the paper that summarizes my conclusions and implications based on the work of these early fathers. I would ask that readers first review the analysis of the entire paper before interacting with my conclusions.

Excerpt from Michael J. Svigel, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church,” a Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.

Conclusions

Based on the preceding analyses, we can make the following conclusions regarding the relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the writings of the earliest fathers.

No Clear Arian Ontological Subordination. There is no clear example of an Arian ontological subordinationism in which the Son is a created being or has an inferior divinity to the Father, though Tatian’s concept of the Logos may come close. When their language was clear, the early fathers’ concept of subordination was functional, not ontological. LaCugna rightly stated that “we should not regard this economic subordinationism as heretical or even as an inferior or incoherent Christian theology of God and Christ.”[1] Rather, just the opposite is true: where there was opportunity given by the context, Christ was called “God,” “eternal,” or the essential mediator of the Father’s will.

No Functional Egalitarianism. There is no discernible tradition whatsoever of what is today described as ontological and functional equality or a “communitarian” or “democratic” model of the Trinity. Nor is there clear evidence of a view which states that the persons of the Godhead could have agreed to take on different roles than what has unfolded in the economy of creation (e.g. that the Father could have become incarnate or the Son could have indwelled believers rather than the Holy Spirit).

Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. There is an overwhelming tradition of what is today described as ontological equality and functional subordination within the Trinity that emphasizes the monarchia of the Father. While the Son and Spirit are not creatures, the Father is their head, meaning that all activities conform to his will.

Possible Drift toward Ontological Subordinationism. While the later second century fathers began to speculate more on the specific nature of the generation of the Son,[2] we begin to discern language implying an eternal functional subordination while still maintaining essential (ontological) equality. However, with Tatian the language becomes fuzzy, and the stage appears to be set for greater deviation away from ontological equality toward Arian ontological subordinationism.

 

Implications

If, for the sake of argument, we were to regard the fathers of the first and second centuries as our canon of orthodoxy and the proper understanding of Scripture, then our judgments on various views of subordination and the Trinity become rather clear.     

Eternal Functional Equality and Ontological Equality. Modern day advocates of what I call “eternal functional equality” suggest that “there can be no separation between the being and the acts of God, between the one divine nature of the three persons and their functions.”[3] Therefore, orthodox ontological equality is said to demand functional equality as well, and distinctions in rank between the Father, Son, and Spirit are rejected. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are regarded as functioning in a co-equal fellowship, with one mind and will. Though each member of the Triune community performs distinct activities, these activities are not ordered in rank or hierarchy.[4] Instead of the Son and Spirit functioning in submission to the Father, the three persons are said to function in mutual submission to each other. In light of this study, the problem with such a view is that no extant Christian writings of the first and second centuries suggest anything remotely close to such a model, but rather consistently present the Father as the head and the Son and Spirit as functioning in submission to the Father.

Incarnational Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. Advocates of a temporary or voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father limit the submission of the Son to the time of his earthly ministry or commencing with the incarnation. Thus, the Son’s role of submission to God is a result of his taking on full human nature and living in obedience to the law. However, in light of the early fathers, limiting the functional subordination of the Son to the incarnation would be too narrow. In the first and second century writers, the Son and Spirit consistently submit to the Father’s will, even prior to the Son’s incarnation and Spirit’s sending into the world. Also, such a view of incarnational subordination does not explain why the Holy Spirit is presented by the fathers as functioning in submission to the will of the Father without having become incarnate.

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. If we were to employ first and second century Christian teaching as a standard, the advocates of an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father would have little clear evidence to support their view. The descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit in the early fathers refer to activities of the Godhead in relation to the created order. Apart from actual activities in creation, the nature of the relationships is vague. This does not preclude the existence of an ordered relationship based on fatherhood, sonship, and spiration, but the actual evidence is minimal and unclear. In this sense, complaints against the language of “eternal functional subordination” seem to be valid, and evangelicals should probably cease using such terms.[5]

Economic Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality.[6] The view of the earliest post-apostolic fathers is best described as one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal with regard to deity and power, but in extra-Trinitarian actions the Father is the head, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the pervasive active presence of God. While we cannot logically project this economic functional subordination into an eternal state apart from creation, this taxis would be consistent with the interpersonal relationships implied by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.”

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Subordination. The fathers’ consistent subordination of the Son to the Father in their will and works has sometimes been mistaken for an ontological subordination relegating either the Son or the Spirit to the realm of finite creation rather than eternal deity. For example, in his polemic against Trinitarianism in favor of Unitarianism, Stannus, citing Polycarp’s prayer on the pyre as evidence of non-trinitarianism in the second century, writes, “The ante-Nicene fathers invariably spoke of Christ as subordinate to the Father.”[7] Although he is correct in this assertion, his conclusion that this necessarily implies an inequality of divinity is an unfounded exaggeration. His error is similar to that of modern assertions that subordination in function necessarily means inequality of eternal nature. Where the early fathers are not silent, they illustrate that one can hold simultaneously to both functional subordination and ontological equality of being. Therefore, attempts by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek sympathetic theology in the early fathers are misguided.[8]

 

Two Final Questions

Does Economic Functional Subordination Prescribe a Particular Social Order? The ordering of ecclesiastical leadership suggested in 1 Clement and stated explicitly and repeatedly in the Letters of Ignatius was not tied to an eternal role in the Godhead, but to the sending of the Son in the economy of salvation. This ordering is independent of questions regarding the eternal relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. In the context of contemporary egalitarian and complementarian debates—whether in the home, government, society, or church—the debate concerning eternal functional subordination is irrelevant as far as the early fathers are concerned. There appears to have been enough justification for ecclesiastical ordering in the simple fact that the Son was sent into the world. However, we must recognize that the fathers do not extend this divine ordering beyond that of ecclesiastical structures. Although 1 Clement addressed the issue of God’s establishment of human government on earth to which all men are to submit, he linked such authority to his divine decree, not to a Trinitarian model (1 Clem. 61:1). However, one could suggest that the ways in which God orders society in general should be consistent with his work. In short, functional subordination in the Trinity need not be eternal to serve as a basis for social structures, but this type of application of Trinitarian theology outside church order is not found in the early fathers.

Are the Early Fathers “Orthodox” or “Heretical”?[9] Based on an exhaustive analysis of the primary evidence summarized in this paper, the fathers’ teaching can be summed up in Athenagoras’s statement, “power in unity, diversity in rank.” For a moment, allow me a brief fit of rhetoric. Those who want to define historical orthodoxy as discerning no functional distinction in rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forced into one of three solutions with regard to the first and second century fathers. They must either a) anathematize the early fathers as heretics; b) twist their writings to conform to an egalitarian standard; or c) simply ignore them. It appears that most have chosen the final option. I reject this move. Instead, I believe we ought to embrace the early fathers as a solid, though developing, orthodox link in the chain of Trinitarian tradition handed down from the apostles in Scripture, subsequently taught by catechesis and liturgy, and guided in its growth and development by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, orthodoxy must not only grudgingly accept the concept of ontological equality and functional subordination as merely an acceptable option, but perhaps it should cheerfully embrace it as most accurately reflecting the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to “faithful men” who were “able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

Visual Summary of Evidence

TrinSum.

[1] LaCugna, God for Us, 26.

[2] This may have been the impetus for Irenaeus to assert that the generation of the Son is unknowable (A.H. 2.28.6).

[3] Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 93.

[4] Ibid., 92–96.

[5] In my current thinking on this matter, the second century fathers’ adamant insistence on the utter distinction of Creator and creature, with the latter a creation ex nihilo, makes the notion of eternal functional subordination a problematic description. Subordination or submission to the will of the Father implies some sort of activity or function. Without a creation in which and toward which such actions are aimed, can we really speak about “subordination?” Unless we argue for a subordination of essential nature, we cannot speak of subordination in a timeless, eternal state. My view, of course, assumes a notion of creation ex nihilo. However, if one advances a doctrine of God and time that includes God’s “own time” or some pre-creational activity, then the term “eternal functional subordination” could be a legitimate category. On historical and contemporary issues of God, time, and creation, see William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity—The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001).

[6] My use of the term “economic” here refers to any divine activity in the economy of creation. That is, in all extra-Trinitarian works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not apply to whatever inconceivable and unknowable relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit had in their existence apart from creation.

[7] Stannus, Doctrine of the Trinity, 28.

[8] Cf. for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu, 2000), 215.

[9] This assumes, of course, that we can meaningfully use these terms in their normal sense with reference to the early fathers who precede the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. While historians shy away from them, evangelicals may use these terms because of their belief in a transcendent standard of doctrinal truth against which teachings of every age can be measured.

“And Now for Something Completely Different”: Exploring Christian Theology

ECTnewSoon Bethany House (a division of Baker Publishing Group) will begin releasing a trilogy of mini-theologies entitled Exploring Christian Theology edited by Dr. Nathan Holsteen and me, with significant contributions by our colleagues in the theological studies department of Dallas Theological Seminary: Dr. Douglas Blount, Dr. Scott Horrell, Dr. Lanier Burns, and Dr. Glenn Kreider. We’re starting with what is actually the third volume in the series (The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times), then releasing volumes 1 and 2 in the next couple of years.

But wait a second . . . Why another “systematic theology” when the market is flooded with them? To answer this question, let me say that ECT is not another systematic theology. In fact, I can honestly say that this series is something completely different. 

Let me explain.

Like any good introduction to evangelical theology, the three volumes in ECT will present believers with much-needed introductions, overviews, and reviews of key tenets of orthodox protestant evangelical theology without getting bogged down in confusing details or distracted by mean, campy debates. These three simple and succinct books will provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes of evangelical Christian doctrine, reorienting believers to the essential truths of the classic faith while providing vital guidebooks for a theologically illiterate church.

But isn’t that what every entry-level theological intro promises? Yes, but let give you six reasons Exploring Christian Theology really is completely different.

First, we wrote Exploring Christian Theology for a genuinely inter-denominational evangelical audience. And when we say “inter-denominational,” we don’t mean that we’re trying to get conservative Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Anglicans, and Charismatics to read our theology in order to persuade them to leave their branch of evangelicalism and climb onto ours. Not at all! Instead, we’re descriptively presenting the whole tree of evangelical orthodoxy—as dispassionately and positively as possible. This means pastors, teachers, students, lay-leaders, new believers, and mature saints of every orthodox protestant evangelical church can use these volumes without feeling like they have to constantly counter our assertions with their own views on the matter. Simply put, we’re so interdenominational that if a reader doesn’t agree with our central assertions, they’re probably not orthodox, protestant, or evangelical.

Second, the style of this series will be genuinely popular, informal, and accessible. Sometimes extremely so. Think contractions . . . illustrations . . . alliteration. You’ll see generous bullet points, charts, and graphs instead of just walls of impenetrably dense text on every page. Brace yourself for the pace of a hockey game rather than a golf tournament (sorry, golfers, but . . . YAWN). We wrote this for people who don’t necessarily carry around a large arsenal of biblical, theological, and historical facts in a side holster.

Third, you’ll find this series to be worth every penny you spend on it and, more importantly, every minute you spend reading it. Let’s face it, some mini-theologies with a broad appeal are just fancy-wrapped junk food with very little spiritually nutritional value. Yes, these volumes are intended to be “stepping stools” to the bottom shelf—brief, succinct summaries of specific areas of doctrine that can each be read quickly, consulted easily, and grasped by anybody. But at the same time you’ll find them to be comprehensive, thorough, careful, and—if you bother to explore the endnotes—well-researched and documented.

Fourth, this is a community-authored theology. Rather than presenting the perspectives and opinions of an individual teacher, tradition, or denomination, Exploring Christian Theology is planned, written, and edited by several theologians who are experts in their various fields. We hold each other accountable to avoid personal hobby horses, pet peeves, and doctrinal idiosyncrasies. In other words, you’ll never get one man’s opinion about this or that doctrine. Instead, you’ll get a clear explanation of the classic orthodox, protestant, evangelical consensus and a dispassionate presentation of points of allowable disagreement and diversity within evangelicalism. As such, these handbooks can be confidently used for discipleship, catechesis, membership training, preview or review of doctrine, or personal quick reference by any orthodox, protestant, evangelical church or Christian.

Fifth, these volumes will serve as a foyer into a broader and deeper study of the Christian tradition. We didn’t design Exploring Christian Theology to compete with other systematic theologies in the marketplace. There are a lot of great ones out there—some reflecting the views of certain confessions or traditions, others the perspectives of specific teachers or preachers. Our volumes are designed to supplement (not supplant) more detailed systematic theologies . . . to complement (not compete with) intermediate and advanced works. We promise that after thumbing through ECT, you’ll be much better prepared to read more advanced systematic theologies with informed discernment and a firm grasp on  central tenets as well as an understanding of ancillary discussions.

Finally, there are unique features in Exploring Christian Theology you’ll have a hard time finding all together anywhere else. Right up front we present a high altitude survey of the doctrine in order to set forth the unity of the faith among numerous diverse evangelical traditions. Then you’ll find no-nonsense discussions of key Scripture passages related to that volume’s specific areas of theology. You’ll also find a very helpful narrative of the history of the doctrine throughout the patristic, medieval, reformation, and modern eras. We also provide a glossary of important terms related to the doctrines as well as a feature called “Shelf Space” with recommended resources for probing deeper. By the end of each part of the volume dedicated to a particular area of doctrine, you’ll be warned about the most prominent false teachings related to the doctrine and encouraged with practical application points flowing from a right understanding of the doctrine. Besides all this and more, I’ve been told that the generous first-hand quotations from church fathers, theologians, scholars, reformers, pastors, and teachers from the whole span of church history is worth the entire volume.

In short, Exploring Christian Theology is not my theology, but our theology—the theology of the orthodox, protestant, evangelical tradition. It’s presented in a winsome (and sometimes whimsical) way. It balances biblical, theological, historical, and practical perspectives. And it’s written with the whole evangelical tradition in view.

You can pre-order Exploring Christian Theology today from these sellers:

Dallas Seminary bookstore

Amazon.com

Barnes & Noble

 

 

 

Twelve Myths of Church History Unraveled

YarnAs a theologian and church historian who teaches courses on all of church history and electives on the early and medieval church, I constantly encounter a number of falsehoods, fabrications, and exaggerations floating around in popular [Christian] culture. They’re preached from the pulpit, taught in classrooms, shared in Bible studies, and printed in books. (I’ve even heard them parroted by colleagues who should know better.) Each of the following twelve myths could be expanded into full-length essays and even books, but for the purposes in this essay, a quick, brief introduction and correction is all that’s necessary.           

1. The Substitutionary Atonement

Myth: Penal substitutionary atonement was first articulated either in the medieval period by Anselm of Canterbury or during the Reformation. The early church fathers held to the Christus Victor theory or some other non-penal substitutionary theory of the atonement.

Fact: Substitution—and even penal substitution—is one of several explanations of the atonement that go all the way back to the earliest centuries of the church. These various explanations were not mutually exclusive, but often held simultaneously with other explications by the same people. Numerous fathers and theologians of the early church and medieval period refer to Christ’s death as a sacrificial substitute, taking the penalty in place of sinners. The Reformation did emphasize and centralize the penal substitutionary explanation, but they did not invent it.

2. The Selection of the New Testament Canon

Myth: The early church fathers and ecumenical councils of the church selected the books of the New Testament canon based on strict criteria of antiquity (Is it old?), apostolicity (Is it written by an apostle?), orthodoxy (Does it teach the truth?), or other reasonable standards to determine whether each book belonged in the canon.

Fact: Though various local regional councils published lists of Old and New Testament books, no ecumenical council ever voted on the New Testament canon, and there is no record of church fathers or councils sorting through books to form a canon. The criteria such as antiquity, apostolicity, and orthodoxy were sometimes used to explain why certain books had always been received as canonical and why others were not, but they were never used as tests to determine canonicity.

3. Constantine’s Reinvented Christianity

Myth: Constantine’s Council of Nicaea in 325 forced the Church to decree that Jesus is fully God, after which this orthodox Trinitarian theology was enforced throughout the Empire as law. Before that the church had a vague view of Jesus or tolerated diverse views of who Jesus was.

Fact: Christians had consistently confessed Jesus as both God and Man since the first century. The Arians who taught that the Son was a created being were out of step with what the church had believed from the beginning. Constantine’s influence over the Council of Nicaea was relatively minimal and related to what technical language to use to best explain what the church meant by its confession of Jesus as God. Furthermore, the imperial powers after the Council of Nicaea (325) and before the Council of Constantinople (381) were often in official support of Arianism and against orthodoxy! In fact, for several decades the Emperors persecuted orthodox Trinitarians rather than supported them.

4. Salvation by Grace through Faith

Myth: Martin Luther was the first person to articulate the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith. Prior to that the church had long believed salvation was by faith and good works.

Fact: The doctrine of salvation by grace through faith has always been the view of orthodox Christians. The issue is whether the grace of salvation also produces works with faith . . . and whether the works produced by grace and faith result in salvation or are the result of salvation. Luther’s emphasis on salvation by grace through faith alone was centralized and emphasized more than any of his predecessors, but even prior to Luther other late medieval theologians expressed similar views.

5. The Early Church’s Self-Identity

Myth: The church of the first few centuries had a vague, undefined understanding of the difference between orthodoxy and heresy, and most church fathers would not be regarded as orthodox by today’s standards.

Fact: Christianity has always clearly and unambiguously held to certain central and foundational tenets summed up in early writings, hymns, confessions, and creeds. Though the earlier Christians tended to tolerate (or even celebrate) more diversity over non-central issues than the later medieval church, they had a clear and uncompromising view of the boundary between orthodoxy and heresy—much clearer, in fact, than many modern Christians.

6. The Inerrancy of Scripture

Myth: The doctrine of the complete inerrancy of Scripture is a recent development birthed in the Fundamentalist reaction against modernist liberal extremes in the nineteenth century. Prior to that, most church fathers and even Reformers allowed for a more dynamic view of Scripture’s truthfulness that allowed for errors by the human authors.

Fact: Though many had a dynamic understanding of the interpretation of Scripture that allowed for allegorical and symbolic meanings intended by the divine Author, no church father, medieval theologian, or mainline reformer ever corrected the assertions of Scripture in any matter. They believed in the complete inerrancy of Scripture and its absolute doctrinal and practical authority.

7. The Dark Gap of History

Myth: There is a dark historical gap between the writing of the New Testament in the first century and the rise of the Catholic Church, during which we know hardly anything about what early Christians believed and practiced.

Fact: There is no historical gap between the New Testament and the rest of church history. We have documentary and archaeological evidence from every generation from the first century forwards, leaving us with a good picture of what Christians believed and practiced. We always wish we had more information, of course, but there is no gap.

8. From the Sabbath to Sunday

Myth: The earliest Jewish Christians worshipped on the Sabbath (Saturday), but the Gentile Church changed the day of worship to Sunday.

Fact: Even the earliest Jewish disciples of Jesus during the apostolic period in the first century commemorated Christ’s resurrection every Sunday. Though most Jewish Christians also continued to observe the Sabbath, the first day of the week (Sunday) was the normal day of gathering for corporate worship because that was the day on which the Lord was raised.

9. From Simple Christ-followers to Dogmatic Christendom

Myth: The earliest church was simple, spontaneous, informal, and without liturgy and fixed leadership structures . . . but as the church grew it became more complex, rigid, formal, liturgical, and hierarchical.

Fact: From the first century onwards, local churches followed liturgies, recited doctrinal confessions, and submitted to ordained pastors and teachers. Worship was formal and solemn. Though the early church could not be accurately described as “informal,” compared to later centuries it was certainly “less formal.” And although the church was never without authoritative leaders, its hierarchy did become more and more complex. However, the earliest centuries enjoyed both fixed elements and flexible forms of worship from place to place.

10. Christianity without a Canon

Myth: There was a period of fifty to 150 years after the New Testament was written during which there was no functional New Testament canon; the church had to rely on oral tradition, confessional summaries, and church leaders for doctrinal authority until the New Testament took its authoritative place next to the Old Testament.

Fact: From the moment letter or book was written by a first century apostle (e.g., Paul) or prophet (e.g., Silvanus), it functioned as “canonical” within the Christian communities. There was never a time after the apostles during which the various churches were left without written authoritative New Testament writings. It is true, however, that there was a period of time during which many churches didn’t have a full New Testament canon with all twenty-seven books. Rather, they had between one and two dozens books functioning as the doctrinal and practical standard. By the year 150, however, most churches had a collection of perhaps two dozen New Testament books functioning with apostolic and prophetic authority.

11. The Apostasy of the Church

Myth: Shortly after the apostles, the church experienced a sudden departure or apostasy away from the pure faith of the New Testament. It took the Reformation to rediscover and retrieve the purity of the early church.

Fact: Though Christianity developed and changed over the centuries, the process was slow and gradual. There are actually ups and downs in the history of the church with regard to doctrinal fidelity, spiritual vitality, and moral integrity. Though different parts of the church apostatized, and different ages saw greater corruption and doctrinal infidelity, there have always been pockets of light and a remnant of faith and obedience throughout the history of the church.

12. The One True [Underground] Church

Myth: The true church founded by the apostles had to go “underground” shortly after the first century and especially during the Dark Ages in order to preserve the truth. They appear occasionally on the radar of history as “heretics” persecuted by the official Roman Catholic Church and mainline Protestant denominations.

Fact: There is just as much historical evidence that the one true church flew to Mars as there is evidence for a true church existing secretly throughout the centuries. When confronted with this lack of historical evidence, advocates of this myth say that the persecutors destroyed the evidence. Though a great plot for historical fiction writers, the idea of an unbroken line of independent churches outside either the Western and Eastern organized catholic churches is simply not true.

“Don’t Walk on Those Graves!”: The Christian View of Resurrection

GraveOne day when my kids and I were visiting a historic family cemetery in Mesquite, Texas, my boys, Lucas and Nathan, were running to and fro over century-old graves. I called them to me and passed on to them the instruction that had been given to me as a little boy: “Don’t walk on those graves.”

Lucas looked puzzled. “Why not?”

Good question. In fact, I had never thought about it myself. “Because . . . er . . .” I fumbled for a reasonable answer. I couldn’t come up with one. Chances are I was just relaying some relic of superstition that my mother herself had received. But somehow I just couldn’t break the chain and say, Oh go ahead, then, walk all over those graves. Trample on them. It doesn’t matter. They’re deader than dead anyway.

Instead, I threw together the best ad hoc explanation I could come up with at such short notice: “Because,” I explained, “if the resurrection were to happen you’d get knocked over!”

It was true. At some point the graves themselves will burst open. Whatever remains of the dead that are still lying in the ground will be transformed and restored in a glorious new body that shares the characteristics of Jesus’ own glorious body. Nothing of the old will remain in the grave. All things would be made new. Yes, that decomposed matter lying under the ground has a future in God’s plan of redemption.

Sadly, far too many Christians believe their bodies are mere shells that contain the real “me,” as if God never intended for us to have a physical presence, a bodily existence, a permanent means of interacting with the creation He fashioned for us. However, the promise of bodily resurrection completely contradicts this notion. The belief in the redemption of our physical bodies has always been a central hope of the Christian faith (Rom. 8:23). When Christ returns, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body” (Phil. 3:21), no longer subject to mortality and death. Note, though, that this is a transformation of our present body, not a recreation of an entirely different body. Jesus did not leave his old body in the grave when He rose—instead, that old body was raised and transformed into the glorious body of His resurrection. Our transformation will follow the same pattern.

This has been the unbroken, unchanged teaching of the Christian faith since the beginning. In the second and third centuries Church Fathers like Irenaeus or Lyons, Athenagoras of Athens, and Tertullian of Carthage argued vigorously for a literal resurrection of the body against Greek scoffers on the one hand and “Christian” Gnostics on the others. The only people challenging the doctrine of the resurrection of our physical bodies as an essential truth were unbelievers and heretics!

Throughout the history of the church, the teaching of the future resurrection of our fleshly bodies continued to be articulated and defended. Consider the following quotations spanning the centuries:

Boethius, On the Catholic Faith (6th century): “This is a firm principle of our religion, to believe not only that men’s souls do not perish, but that their very bodies, which the coming of death had destroyed, recover their first state.”

John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 4.27 (8th century): “We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption.”

Anselm of Canterbury, Why God Became Man (Cur Deus Homo), 2.3 (11th century): “If he had not sinned, man was to have been transformed into incorruptibility with the very body that he possessed. When he is restored, then, he must be restored with his own body in which he lives in this life.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (16th century): “We must hold, as has already been observed, that the body in which we shall rise will be the same as at present in respect of substance, but that the quality will be different.” (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1 vol. ed., trans. Henry Beveridge [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989], 2:271)

Jonathan Edwards The Final Judgment 4.2 (18th century): “However the parts of the bodies of many are divided and scattered; however many have been burnt, and their bodies have been turned to ashes and smoke, and driven to the four winds; however many have been eaten of wild beasts, of the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea; however many have consumed away upon the face of the earth, and great part of their bodies have ascended in exhalations; yet the all-wise and all-powerful God can immediately bring every part to his part again.” (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, rev. ed., vol. 2 [Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974], 194)

In direct opposition to both the clear teaching of Scripture and the consistent teaching of every branch of the Church—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—I too often hear people speak of “dying and going to heaven.” Or they speak of departed loved ones as “finally healed” from their maladies. Or they belittle the body as a mere shell, or a prison, or a burden. Or they believe God will simply discard their present fleshly bodies and replace them with a quasi-physical body either in heaven or at the return of Christ. In short, they essentially exchange the biblical, Christian doctrine of the resurrection of their flesh for the Greek Platonic or Gnostic belief that the physical body has no part in salvation and eternal life. But to reject the resurrection of the body is not simply to reject the unchanged teaching of the Christian church. Rejection of the bodily resurrection is a rejection of Christianity itself!

But why? Why would God bother restoring what has been laid to rest? Can’t He just create a completely new body out of nothing? Of course! However, by opening the graves and tombs and transforming our dead and decomposed bodies into glorious, incorruptible bodies, God declares once and for all: “O death, where is your victory” (1 Cor. 15:55). As Paul explained, “When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory’” (1 Cor. 15:54). By snatching our mortal dust and ashes from the grave and transforming them into something eternal and glorious, God will demonstrate that Satan’s attempt at destroying humanity failed. Humans, who had been created with body and spirit in the image of God, will be not only rescued from death and restored to life, they will be crowned with glory and honor (Ps. 8:5).

So, next time you find yourself walking on somebody’s grave, watch out! You could end up getting knocked over if the resurrection happens!

 

[Adapted from the forthcoming Exploring Christian Theology: The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times, ed. Nathan D. Holsteen and Michael J. Svigel (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2014).]

 

 

10 Reasons to Learn Church History (Part 10 of 10)

WhyRC10“Why would twenty-first century Christians—who can read the Bible for themselves and attend Bible-believing churches—need to study Church History?”

10. Learning church history will correct our doctrinal and practical errors.

The history of the church is not only a tale of positive growth and development of doctrinal knowledge and practical wisdom. It’s also a dramatic account of the conflict between orthodoxy and heresy . . . facts and fiction . . . truth and error . . . righteousness and sin. You’ve probably heard it said, “Those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it.” This is true in politics, in war, in economics, and in personal life decisions. It’s also true with regard to doctrinal and practical error.

We don’t have to read too far into church history before we realize that not everything that happened between A.D. 100 and 2000 was praiseworthy. Sadly, the earthly body of Christ has been marked with a number of permanent tattoos—shameful memorials of its not-so-pretty past, self-inflicted blemishes that remind Christians today to never do, say, or believe those stupid or shameful things again. Of course, we need eyes to see the errors of the past and ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church today through His chastisement of the church of previous generations. Four categories of errors can be easily identified and eventually corrected by studying church history: doctrinal errors of accretion or deletion and practical errors of omission and commission.

Errors of accretion occur when churches add their own idiosyncratic doctrines to the unchanging core of essential Christian truths as if they, too, must be believed to be saved. Today these might include a particular Protestant theological system (dispensational or covenant), a certain form of church government (episcopal, presbyterian, or congregational), a dogmatic view of the atonement (demanding that people not only believe that Christ’s death and resurrection save us, but being able to explain exactly how it saves us), or a certain hermeneutic (historical-grammatical, theological, canonical, or Christocentric). By looking back, we can be constantly reminded that the core doctrines of the faith that mark us as true Christians—things like the Trinity, the person and work of Christ, salvation by grace, the authority of Scripture—cannot be added to without obscuring the Christian faith. Distinctive doctrines can be held by different denominations within the bounds of orthodoxy, but those distinctions and different emphases should never be held up as marks of orthodoxy.

Finally, errors of deletion are the results of excising original and enduring doctrines of the Christian faith that have been core essential truths from the beginning. Some have rejected the virgin conception of Christ as an unnecessary doctrine, others have relegated the doctrine of the Trinity to an appendix, and still others have jettisoned the church’s historic high view of Scripture. By looking back, we can plainly see the sine qua non of the Christian faith—the doctrinal beliefs “without which it is not” Christian. This kind of knowledge will help us protect those things that are essential for Christian identity from those who would happily delete them from their confessions of faith.

Errors of omission include practices of the church that were both original and enduring, but had fallen out of observance through either intentional deformation (often disguised as “reformation”) or unintentional neglect. Today these might include things like the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper; the purely benevolent outreach to the poor, hungry, homeless, and oppressed; the rigorous evangelism of certain neglected people groups; the intentional discipleship of new converts toward maturity; and the practice of church discipline. By looking back, we can see what practices have been lost as sea while our sleek, modern vessel continues to cruise through unknown waters.

Errors of commission involve practices of the church that would never have been tolerated in either the original churches established by the apostles or by any of the subsequent generations. Or, when they did appear in church history, the Spirit eventually weeded them out. These might include the over-indulgence of the American church in wealth and luxury; the blind tolerance of sexual immorality disguised as “grace” and “mercy”; an unbridled nationalism that reeks of a new Constantinianism, which blurs the lines between church and state and turns the people of the Prince of Peace into veritable warmongers; or the intrusion of our entertainment-oriented and consumer-driven culture into our worship forms and ministry models. By looking back, we can see how God has dealt with these kinds of unwelcome corruptions of authentic Christian attitudes and actions.

In short, studying church history will correct our errors. History will tap us on the shoulder and pointing us away from our own narrow opinions and personal preferences. And it will equip us to focus our attention on those things that have been believed and practiced everywhere, always, and by all.