Some Historical Voices on Christian Voting

ForkThe Bible-believing Christian today faces the seemingly impossible (though, as we are rightly reminded, false) choice between casting his or her vote for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. As we stand at this multi-pronged fork in the road, it appears to many of us that the road to the left leads to devastation; the road to the right leads to destruction; the smaller paths in the middle seem to go nowhere. At this puzzling juncture, I’m hearing and reading all manner of opinions, perspectives, arguments, and assessments. The simple, God-fearing Christian who just wants to do what’s right feels paralyzed with indecision.

Do I vote for “the party” but not “the person”? Do I vote for Trump simply because he’s not Clinton? Do I vote for Clinton and hope this balance of power thing still works? Or do I vote for neither? But then what? Leave the presidential boxes blank and just vote for offices on the rest of the ballot? Write in a candidate? Support a third party? Build a bunker? Flee to Canada?

At times like these, I sometimes find it comforting to remember that we’re not the first generation of Christians to face this kind of issue. Though Christians in the ancient, medieval, and reformation periods didn’t have the right to vote for their government leaders, there are still forgotten voices from the past who have left their thoughts for us. They may not have faced such a perplexing problem as the Clinton or Trump decision, but their insights might help each us of think through the issues with more depth of perspective.

So, as we face the fork in the road, let’s pause, turn around, and look backward down the path for some wisdom from the past. When we do, we realize that others who have faced similar crises can lend us a little insight. In the following quotations, I have included a variety of theological traditions (and even one by Finney). These excerpts all bear the marks of their very specific historical, social, political, and theological contexts, but they touch on some important points to consider. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I still think their voices deserve to be heard.


Charles G. Finney, Second Great Awakening Revivalist Preacher, 1835.

It is perfectly in the power of the church to regulate the commerce of the world, if they will only themselves maintain perfect integrity.

And if Christians will do the same in politics, they will sway the destinies of nations, without involving themselves at all in the base and corrupting strife of parties. Only let Christians generally determine to vote for no man for any office, that is not an honest man and a man of pure morals, and let it be known that Christians are united in this, whatever may be their difference in political sentiments, and no man would be put up who is not such a character. In three years it would be talked about in taverns and published in newspapers, when any man is set up as a candidate for office, “What a good man he is, how moral, how pious,” and the like. And any political party would no more set up a known Sabbath breaker, or a gambler, or a profane swearer, or a whoremonger, or a rum-seller, as their candidate for office, than they would set up the devil himself for president. The carnal policy of many professors, who undertake to correct politics by such means as wicked men employ, and who are determined to vote with a party, let the candidate be ever so profligate, is all wrong, wrong in principle, contrary to philosophy and common sense, and ruinous to the best interests of mankind. The dishonesty of the church is cursing the world.

(Charles G. Finney, Lectures on Revivals of Religion, 2d ed. [New York: Leavitt, Lord, & Co., 1835], 138).


From John A. James, English Congregational Preacher and Writer, 1840.  

A question is sometimes asked, whether a professing christian, in exercising his elective franchise, ought to give his vote for an ungodly man; or whether, in the case of a contested election, he ought not to uphold the interests of piety, rather than those of a party, by endeavouring to promote the return of a christian, though he may take a side in politics opposed to his own? This resolves itself into another question, “What is the end of civil government?” If this be the promotion of religion, there can be no question but the christian man ought to be supported by all Christians: but if, on the other hand, the end of civil government be the protection of life, liberty, and property, with all that can conduce to the complete enjoyment of these, piety, however desirable as a qualification, is not indispensable. He who best understands the purposes of civil government, and has the best views of the means of promoting them, is the fittest person for such a situation. Piety is desirable for persons in all situations. Who would not wish to have a pious lawyer, or physician; but does any one reject an eminently skilful one, because he is not a pious man, and choose one of less skill, on the ground of his religion? A man may be a very holy professor, and yet a very bad statesman: and indeed the holier he is as a man, the more mischievous he may be as a senator, if he has wrong political sentiments, as his virtues may produce a toleration even for his errors. No false measures are likely to do half the harm, which is done by those of good men. Many of the most distinguished statesmen, in whom all parties have placed, according to their political creed, the greatest confidence, have been far enough off from personal religion. If none but good men are to be chosen, we must go without a legislature, or have a very incompetent one. True it is, there are some men so utterly bad, so notoriously vicious, and immoral, that it is an insult to virtue, and an outrage upon decency to elect them. But, with such exceptions as these, it is not possible to make piety a sort of senatorial eligibility. Converted men may make very bad laws, and unconverted ones, very good laws. Still it is a consummation devoutly to be wished, that our “officers should be peace, and our exactors righteousness.”

(John Angell James, The Christian Professor Address, in a Series of Counsels and Cautions, 3d ed. [London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co., 1840], 148–149).   


Reverend E. N. Bartlett, Congregationalist Pastor, 1846.

No matter how flagitious the characters of the candidates may be, though they be “devils incarnate,” if by the management of parties, a “crises” has been brought about, and one or the other of the rival candidates must be elected, the Christian, it is urged, is bound to vote for the less obnoxious of the two. On this point Dr. [Nathaniel] Taylor [of Yale] is explicit, and his illustration is the legitimate carrying out of his principles. “Suppose,” he says, “there is no reasonable doubt that one of two devils, one of which is less a devil than the other, will be actually elected, let the Christian vote as he may, and that his vote will therefore be utterly lost if he does not vote for one of them. I think that an enlightened Christian would vote for the least devil of the two!” And this invocation of help from the devil in time of trouble, is justified by an appeal to the “circumstances of the case” and the “necessity” Christians are under of “choosing the least of two evils.” And upon those who refuse to sacrifice to devils under such circumstances, is charged the responsibility of “neglecting to prevent” and therefore of “producing the greater of two evils.” Against such principles and such a charging over of responsibility, I protest. What! shall a Christian people strike hands with the wicked, and say to Belial, “rule thou over us”? Shall they lend their influence and efforts deliberately to install a devil in the chair of state? Shall they let their minds be blinded by the fallacious resort to extreme suppositions? Such extreme cases will never occur, if Christians will do their duty. “Good men are the fountain of character,” even with respect to rulers. Let the professedly Christian portion of our nation stand fast by the principles inculcated in the scriptures, and proclaim their position to the world as unalterable, and they never need be caught again in the dilemma. They can dictate to the nation if they will. The question for American Christians to ask is not, What would be duty in a barbarous nation where no good men could be found! nor, Can we elect a good candidate if we try! but, are the candidates whom we are called upon to support, men whom God will approve? If so, support them; if not, refrain: and let the “potsherds strive with the potsherds of the earth.” Or, if votes must be cast, let them be cast for honest men, irrespective of party nominations. Is it objected that this would be throwing away votes, and that it is better to save a little than lose the whole! I answer, that what can’t be saved by right means is not worth saving. The good that can be purchased only by doing evil, costs too much.

(E. N. Bartlett, “Address before the Alumni of the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, Delivered at Commencement, Aug. 25, 1846, in Oberlin Evangelist, vol. 8, no. 19 [September 16, 1846], 149).


From The Covenanter, of the Presbyterian Reformed Church, 1859.

The plea is sometimes put forward that by taking part in electioneering politics, Christians may prevent much evil, and do good. It is assumed that the franchise, being a solemn trust, will always be exercised by Christian men, in the churches, for the placing of worthy persons in civil offices, and for the promotion of the best moral and religious public measures. It might be a sufficient answer to such an allegation, that we are never to do evil that good may come; and if the elector cannot tender his vote for a candidate for the Legislature, without virtually binding himself by oath to uphold what is unscriptural, Antichristian, and infidel, then his plain duty is to abstain from voting, rather than belie his Christian profession, and defile his conscience. The plea of doing good by taking part in ungodly politics, is utterly fallacious. Those who are most ready to advance it, among professed Christians in the churches, only, in fact, do evil in this case, and their conduct is followed by no other result than evil. In political elections, it is party and class interests that are generally consulted, and not the moral and religious character of the aspirants to legislative office. In the United States, it is notorious that those who are termed New Light Covenanters, frequently vote for the worst man to fill national and State offices—for the advocates of slavery—and for such as have no claim to the possession either of Scriptural qualifications or of a proper moral character.

(“Evils in the Churches—Ungodly Politics of the Day,” in The Covenanter [March, 1859], 196)


From The Epworth Herald, a publication of the Methodist Epworth League, 1907

No righteous vote is ever thrown away, even though it is in such a hopeless minority that the judges do not count it.

No nation is safe until its citizens care more about its safety than about their own.

A nation is safe so long as it prefers godliness before gain, and truth before trade.

It is good to pray for righteous rulers, and one of the best accompaniments of such prayer is a righteous vote. Unrighteous voting is nullification, and makes the prayer a blasphemy.

A nation dedicated to liberty should serve Him whose service is perfect freedom.

The politics of this world will never be purified by the ungodly.

(“The Mixing of Religion and Politics,” The Epworth Herald, vol. 18 [June 15, 1907], 87)



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.


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.



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


[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

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).]