Posts Tagged ‘Christianity’

Is it Biblical?: CM’s 2nd Principle (Part 2 of 3)

Dear Reader,

This is part 2 of a 3 part series within a series. Read part 1 here.

A Bit of Review: CM’s own words and Defining the issues

In my previous post, I asked how Charlotte Mason herself explained her oft-discussed second principle. Here again is that principle:

“They are not born either good or bad, but with possibilities for good and for evil.” (“Charlotte Mason’s 20 Principles” from Ambleside Online)

Based on a section from her sixth volume, I concluded that:

  • “The possibilities for good and the corresponding possibilities for evil” are “present in all children.” These possibilities or tendencies are what we might call predispositions. Some people are more prone to certain errors than others but we all have areas of particular temptation or weakness, just as one person might be more prone to infection, allergies, or alcoholism.
  • The whole child is in view, “body and mind, heart and soul.”
  • Evil tendencies of the body include physical weakness or susceptibility to disease.
  • Tendencies of the mind include, on the positive side, an affinity for or facility at certain academic subjects and, on the negative, a tendency to laziness, for example, or even an over-attachment to certain subjects to the exclusion of others.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the “heart” or “feelings” she is really speaking of what we would call the virtues.  Foremost among these are love and justice but many others flow out of them such as generosity, kindness, and even gladness.
  • When Charlotte speaks of the soul, she addresses our ability and desire to have a relationship with our Creator.

It is these last two — the heart and soul — which we most need to address. Because most Christians recognize that human beings, since the Fall, have a propensity for evil, the real question is to what degree we still have a tendency to good.

My Object

My goal for this series has been to take each principle and ask “is it biblical?” and to confine myself to what the Bible says. But I find myself hard-pressed on this particular topic to say what the Bible says. The fact is that there is a range of belief in Christendom on the topic and all would claim that their view is biblical. We look at the same texts and come to different conclusions. I’d like to begin by looking at this range of views. My goal is for you, the reader, to come away with two things:

  • to see where Charlotte Mason herself fits in the range of beliefs
  • to find where you fit

Because there is such a range, we may not all come to the same conclusions, but if you can see where Charlotte fits and where you fit, then I think you can begin to decide for yourself whether you think her second principle is theologically sound or not.

An Overview of Christian Thought

Pelagianism

On one end of the spectrum of belief is Pelagianism. Pelagius, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries AD, is considered a heretic by all the big branches of Christianity — the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and historic Protestantism. Nonetheless, his position is worth considering as a foil against which to view others. Pelagius said that man is basically good and can choose to do good and to follow God without divine intervention:

“[He] taught that people had the ability to fulfill the commands of God by exercising the freedom of human will apart from the grace of God. In other words, a person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God and/or to do good or bad without the aid of Divine intervention. ” (“Pelagianism,” by Matt Slick from CARM.org)

Eastern Orthodox

The Eastern Orthodox have been accused of but deny being semi-Pelagian.  I think it is fair to put them towards this end of the spectrum, however. Their position rests on an alternate translation of Romans 5:12, translating “because all men sinned” instead of “in [Adam] all men sinned.” The significance of this difference is explained:

“If we accept the first translation, this means that each person is responsible for his own sins, and not for Adam’s transgression. Here, Adam is merely the prototype of all future sinners, each of whom, in repeating Adam’s sin, bears responsibility only for his own sins. Adam’s sin is not the cause of our sinfulness; we do not participate in his sin and his guilt cannot be passed onto us.” (“Orthodoxy’s ‘ancestral sin’ versus Calvinism’s total depravity,” from Christianity.stackexchange.com)

Instead of the term “original sin,” the Orthodox prefer “ancestral sin.” Though people are born with the consequences of sin, they are not born sinful, that is, they do not bear Adam’s sin or its guilt. These consequences are both physical (pain and death) and moral. Though they reject the idea of total depravity (see “Reformed Theology” below), Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware is able to say that man is often “morally paralysed: we sincerely desire to choose the good, but we find ourselves caught in a situation where all our choices result in evil” yet “[e]ven in a fallen world man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God and can enter by grace into communion with him” (“The Consequences of the Fall,” Bishop Kallistos Ware).

The Roman Catholic Church

Moving along the continuum, we find Roman Catholicism. Everybody besides the Orthodox understands Romans 5:12 as “in [Adam] all men sinned” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], 402).  Since we all fell in Adam, we are all born bearing his sin (CCC, 403). This is what the Catholic Church refers by “original sin.” For Catholics, this sin is removed through baptism (CCC, 405). Adam, who had original holiness, then transmitted to his descendants not just this one sin but a fallen nature which the Catechism defines as “a human nature deprived of original holiness and justice” (CCC, 404). Human nature has been deprived of something and men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted” (CCC, 405). The result is a conflict within man:

“By our first parents’ sin, the devil has acquired a certain domination over man, even though man remains free.” (CCC, 407)

The two key points here seem to be: a) that man remains free, that is free to choose good or evil and b) that human nature in the Fall has lost something, namely holiness, but has not been totally corrupted. A side note, since our initial subject is education, the Catechism goes on to say that we must understand this truth — of man’s evil inclination — in order form a right philosophy of education (CCC, 407).

The Church of England

Protestant belief varies from something pretty close to the Catholic view at one end to the Reformed (Calvinistic) view at the other. I will not touch on all the variations one might find but moving on, I do want to spend some time on the historic Anglican position. Charlotte Mason, you will remember, was a member of the Church of England (COE).

The foundational document for the COE is The Thirty-Nine Articles (1801) and the relevant sections are articled 9 and 10:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit . . .
X. Of Free-Will.
The condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith; and calling upon God. Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.” (The Thirty-Nine Articles, IX-X)

I found a wonderful, long article by Joseph Miller which goes to some length to explain not just the COE view but its place relative to other Christian positions. Miller was writing in 1885 (remember that Charlotte Mason lived from 1842-1923). Miller rejects the Catholic view, calling it semi-pelagian, saying that it allows for “the pura naturalia in fallen man after baptism, though weakened and deteriorated” (Joseph Miller, The Thirty-nine articles of the Church of England, a historical and speculative exposition, 1885, p. 22). In other words, the Catholic Church, according to Miller, does not view man as fallen enough. He does bear the guilt of Adam’s sin, but when that is removed by baptism, his moral capacity is not much diminished, relatively speaking. On the other side, Miller also rejects the Reformed view found in the Westminster Confession which speak of the “utter inability and opposition to all good in the natural man” (p. 24).

What then is the COE view which Miller propounds? He maintains that man retains a “formal freedom” though he has lost “real freedom.” Man is no longer able to execute “perfect obedience and conformity to God’s holy will” but he is still able to exhibit “those relative virtues or excellencies of character” which are seen even in non-Christians (pp. 18-19). Miller believes that such “formal freedom” is a prerequisite for redemption for without it man would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption” (p. 19).

In his own salvation, Miller believes, man must cooperate with God’s grace. He sees this view as being firmly founded in Scripture:

“Does not Holy Scripture throughout in its commands and admonitions proceed on the supposition that it is in the power of each to choose to hear the word of God and to yield oneself to its holy guidance, or on the contrary, to turn aside and resist the impulses of grace ? At least it is apparent, that man must refrain from wilful and obstinate resistance, if divine love is to work savingly. Take conversion, for example. Whilst it may be admitted to be mainly God’s act, a fruit of regeneration, must there not be in it a certain yieiding or movement on the part of the man himself ? Otherwise how is the necessity of irresistible grace in order to salvation and eternal life to be evaded ? Are not faith and repentance necessary conditions of regeneration in those of riper years ? And have the will and other natural powers no part in these acts ? Observe that the Article says, that ” man is very far gone from original righteousness,” not ” altogether.”” (pp. 25-26)

Reformed Theology

As the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin is better called ancestral sin, the Reformed take on it is more aptly described by the phrase “total depravity.” I have learned recently that the acronym TULIP as a mnemonic for remembering the main tenets of reformed theology (oft called the 5 points of Calvinism) is a uniquely American invention. But if you are familiar with the acronym, you will know that the “T” of TULIP stands for total depravity. It is the foundation from which the other points flow.

Total depravity says that the effects of the Fall are profound. More than a mere loss of holiness, man in Adam had his entire nature corrupted so that no part of it is free from the effects of the Fall. In the words of the Westminster Confession, man became “wholly defiled in all the parts and faculties of soul and body” (Westminster Confession of Faith [WCF], VI, 2). R.C. Sproul explains the use of “total” in this context:

“So the idea of total in total depravity doesn’t mean that all human beings are as wicked as they can possibly be. It means that the fall was so serious that it affects the whole person. The fallenness that captures and grips our human nature affects our bodies; that’s why we become ill and die. It affects our minds and our thinking; we still have the capacity to think, but the Bible says the mind has become darkened and weakened. The will of man is no longer in its pristine state of moral power. The will, according to the New Testament, is now in bondage. We are enslaved to the evil impulses and desires of our hearts. The body, the mind, the will, the spirit—indeed, the whole person—have been infected by the power of sin.” (R.C. Sproul, “TULIP and Reformed Theology: Total Depravity,” from Ligonier Ministries)

The Confession goes on:

“From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil . . .” (WCF, VI, 4)

This is not, as it is often supposed, a rejection of man’s freedom to choose, but a statement about what he, by nature, is able to choose:

“Man is a free agent but he cannot originate the love of God in his heart. His will is free in the sense that it is not controlled by any force outside of himself.” (Loraine Boettner, Total Depravity, 2, from the-highway.com)

Boettner further explains:

“He possesses a fixed bias of the will against God, and instinctively and willingly turns to evil. He is an alien by birth, and a sinner by choice. The inability under which he labors is not an inability to exercise volitions, but an inability to be willing to exercise holy volitions. And it is this phase of it which led Luther to declare that “Free-will is an empty term, whose reality is lost. And a lost liberty, according to my grammar, is no liberty at all.” In matters pertaining to his salvation, the unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil, but only to choose between greater and lesser evil, which is not properly free will. The fact that fallen man still has ability to do certain acts morally good in themselves does not prove that he can do acts meriting salvation, for his motives may be wholly wrong.” (Ibid., 2)

Thus, “fallen man is so morally blind that he uniformly prefers and chooses evil instead of good” (Ibid., 2).

Regarding apparent good done by the unregenerate, the Confession says:

“This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated; and although it be, through Christ, pardoned, and mortified; yet both itself, and all the motions thereof, are truly and properly sin.” (WCF, VI, 5)

Such seemingly good acts are not truly good because a deed is good not in and of itself but is justified by its motives:

“The unregenerate man can, through common grace, love his family and he may be a good citizen. He may give a million dollars to build a hospital, but he cannot give even a cup of cold water to a disciple in the name of Jesus. If a drunkard, he may abstain from drink for utilitarian purposes, but he cannot do it out of love for God. All of his common virtues or good works have a fatal defect in that his motives which prompt them are not to glorify God,  . . .” (Boettner, 3)

Boettner, quoting Augustine, goes on to distinguish between those qualities which even the worldly may call virtues and true Christian virtues:

“Augustine did not deny the existence of natural virtues, such as moderation, honesty, generosity, which constitute a certain merit among men; but he drew a broad line of distinction between these and the specific Christian graces (faith, love and gratitude to God, etc.), which alone are good in the strict sense of the word, and which alone have value before God.” (Ibid., 3)

Conclusions

As you consider your own position, if you do not already know where you stand in this spectrum, some questions to ask yourself (and possibly your pastor) are:

  • What was the effect of the Fall on human nature? Do we bear Adam’s sin or only the consequences of his sin? What was lost in the Fall? How much of human nature was corrupted and how deeply has it been corrupted?
  • What is man able to do apart from God? Any good works? Is he able to evince any faith or virtues?
  • Is man free to choose to do good?

Here again are the major positions:

Pelagianism

  • Man is basically good.
  • “[A] person’s free will is totally capable of choosing God  . . .”

Eastern Orthodoxy

  • Ancestral sin: Men, since Adam, bear the consequences of Adam’s sin but not his sin or guilt.
  • Though man may often find himself “morally paralysed,” “man is still capable of generous self-sacrifice and loving compassion. Even in a fallen world man still retains some knowledge of God . . . “

Roman Catholicism

  • In the Fall, man lost his original holiness.
  • Man is born bearing Adam’s sin (original sin) but this is removed through baptism.
  • Men are thenceforth “inclined to sin” but “human nature has not been totally corrupted.”
  • Men have freedom to choose good or evil.

Church of England (place CM here)

  • Though he has lost “real freedom,” man retains “formal freedom” without which he would have “no recuperative energy whatever, no capacity for redemption.”
  • “Man is very far gone from original righteousness” but not “altogether” gone [emphasis added].

Reformed Theology

  • Total Depravity: The Fall affects all aspects of man’s nature — body, will, spirit, and mind. The “whole person” has “been infected by the power of sin.”
  • “[T]he unregenerate man is not at liberty to choose between good and evil.” Though he is a “free agent,” he is in his nature unable to choose good.
  • By common grace, unregenerate men may appear to do good, but they are incapable of pleasing God or of the “specific Christian graces.”

My goal with this post has been to give the lay of the land so that you can see where Charlotte Mason probably stood and think about where you stand. I have done my best to present each position accurately but there is necessarily going to be some over-simplification when trying to treat such a thorny subject briefly. If you have been reading here at all, you will no doubt know that I adhere to a Reformed position.  It is this view whose adherents suffer the most pains when it comes to reconciling Charlotte’s ideas with one’s own theology. So in my final post in this series, I will talk about how we can either reconcile these two views or whether we need to reject some of what Charlotte says.

Nebby

 

General Revelation and How We Live Our Lives

Dear Reader,

In my current series, I am looking at how Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy lines up with Special Revelation, that is, the Scriptures (see this post, this one, and this one). I am doing this to some extent because I can — because the Bible is a finite book and I can hold Miss Mason’s propositions up to it and ask if the two agree. But Charlotte does not claim to get her philosophy just from the Bible but also from God’s general revelation, His revealing of Himself through what she calls divine law and which we might call natural law or simply Creation.

In her first book, Home Education, Charlotte makes a strong case that we need to order our lives and our children’s lives around the principles God has revealed if we want to obtain the blessings He promises of health and wholeness:

“The reason why education effects so much less than it should effect is just this––that in nine cases out of ten, sensible good parents trust too much to their common sense and their good intentions, forgetting that common sense must be at the pains to instruct itself in the nature of the case, and that well-intended efforts come to little if they are not carried on in obedience to divine laws, to be read in many cases, not in the Bible, but in the facts of life.” (Charlotte Mason, Home Education, p. 38)

In other words, we must not trust to common sense or even entirely to the Bible but must discern God’s laws for how we should live our lives from “the facts of life.” If we as Christians are not thriving while our non-Christian neighbors are, she tells us, then it is because:

“all safety, progress, and success in life come out of obedience to law, to the laws of mental, moral or physical science, or of that spiritual science which the Bible unfolds; that it is possible to ascertain laws and keep laws without recognising the Lawgiver, and that those who do ascertain and keep any divine law inherit the blessing due to obedience, whatever be their attitude towards the Lawgiver.” (p. 39)

Notice that these laws are for the most part scientific laws in that we learn them through observation and experimentation. Things that were once new ideas which encountered much resistance — that fruit should be eaten to avoid scurvy, that doctors should wash their hands — now seem completely obvious to us, but there was a time when these basic principles had to be discovered. These are the sorts of laws which Charlotte has in mind; we ignore them at our own peril.

As I read what Charlotte wrote more than one hundred years ago, I wonder if we as Christians still believe this? Do we believe that there are discernable divine laws which govern life?

Too often it seems that Christians have forgotten that there is a general revelation and that we can know anything from creation alone. If you’ll allow me, I’ll pick once again on the Trim Healthy Mama diet (THM). My main problem with this eating plan (see my review here) is not that it is illogical or doesn’t work, but that it claims to be based on the Bible but has little solid Scriptural basis. For my purposes today, the question is not is THM Bible-based but why does it think it needs to be? Why is there a bread on the market based on the grains in the book of Ezekiel? Why do some wear only fibers mentioned in the Bible?

The problem, it seems to me, is that we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater; in an effort to reject certain scientific theories, we have turned our backs on a whole arm of God’s revelation to us. Without general revelation, we are left trying to find biblical justifications for all we do, a process which leads to bad exegesis and ultimately undermines biblical authority as well as texts are stretched to speak to subjects they were never intended to address.

If today’s Christians are skeptical of science, they are not alone. Miss Mason speaks from a time of great scientific progress. Her view of man’s ability to discern God’s unwritten laws is an optimistic one. I think in many ways that is not true today. In the context of her book, the issues Charlotte addresses are very practical ones — What types of foods should we eat? How much fresh air do we need? She lived in an age when science was expected to give the answers to these questions. We live in a time when low fat diets have gotten us fatter and low carb is the answer — or, wait, is it? Maybe it’s paleo, maybe it’s gluten-free, maybe the pesticides which increased our food stores and can cure hunger are secretly killing us.

We live in a time of too many voices saying too many competing things and we have lost faith in our ability to discern God’s laws. I am somewhat comforted by the idea that we still seek truth. The many competing theories out there — whether it is about what we eat or how we raise our children — at least show that we still believe there is a truth; we just can’t find it.

I really don’t know where to end with this. Charlotte disparaged common sense but I am not sure that it is not one of our best and most helpful guides. Its is no longer a matter of just obtaining scientific knowledge; we need to decide which science to believe.

Any thoughts?

Nebby

Man as the Image of God — Or Not?

Dear Reader,

This is a follow-up to my recent post on Charlotte Mason’s first principle — “Children are born persons.” In that post I asked what Miss Mason (a late 19th-early 20th century educator) meant by this principle and if it is biblical. One thing I expected her to say was that being “born persons” means being made in the image of God. Now Charlotte was a member of the Church of England and does say elsewhere in her writings that man is made in the image of God, but she does not use this phase explicitly when explaining this principle.

I did a bit of reading on the image of God as I worked on that post though I did not end up including the discussion of it. I have been thinking more about the idea, however, so I thought I would take the time to share those thoughts.

I have written myself about how Miss Mason’s philosophy is biblical because it balances man being made in God’s image with his sinful, fallen nature.  I was surprised to find that she did not go immediately to this phrase to explain her first principle. But I was also surprised to find that something I had assumed — that man since the Fall is still made in the image of God — is not held by all Christians.

I’d like to approach this issue by first just listing the biblical verses which address it, then reviewing the various Christian positions on it, and finally looking more closely at the biblical evidence to see which position it seems to support. The main question I am seeking to answer is: Is man, since the fall, in the image of God?

The Image of God in the Bible

Genesis 1 tells us that both the male and female, Adam and Eve, were in the image of God:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

(Gen. 1:26-27; all biblical quotes are from the ESV unless otherwise noted)

Genesis 5 gives us the added information that Seth was in the image of Adam:

“This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. When Adam had lived 130 years, he fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image, and named him Seth.” (Gen. 5:1-3)

Genesis 9 refers to the image once more:

“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” (Gen. 9:6)

These three verses are the entire contribution of the Old Testament to the issue. Other verses uses the words “image” and “likeness” but not in the same context; by and large they refer to idols.

In the New Testament we find that Christ is the image of God:

“In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Cor. 4:4; cf. Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3)

There are a handful of verses which refer to man as being transformed into or conformed to the image of God:

“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” (Rom. 8:29)

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (2 Cor. 3:18; cf. Col. 3:10)

I Corinthians 11, in a notoriously tricky passage, makes a distinction between men and women:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

Lastly, there are two NT verses whose use of the word “likeness” is worth noting:

“By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin . . .” (Rom. 8:3)

“But emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:7)

Christian Understandings of “the Image of God”

Irenaeus, writing in the 2nd century AD, gives some of the earliest and deepest Christian thought on what it means to be made in the image of God. “As human beings we possess the foundational elements of being in the image and likeness of God—a free will, an intellect, a body” (Thomas G.Weinandy, “St.Irenaeus and the Imago Dei,” 24). To be made in the divine image, according to Irenaeus, is also inherently bound up in relationship with God: “Not to live in union with God is not to live in his likeness” (Weinandy, p. 20).

Augustine, who lived from 354-430AD, adds to the discussion. He sees what we do as a reflection  of what God himself does, emphasizing will and reason but also love:

“Augustine teaches that the Trinity and the image of man are based off of the mind, knowledge, and love of God. These three being the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The mind, love, and knowledge in man are imperfect where with God, they are perfect and equal.” (James Richardson, “Quotes from the Early Church Fathers: Man in God’s image and the Trinity,” from Apostles-creed.org, 2005)

The image of God that is seen is us derives from the relationships within the Trinity and is demonstrated in our very creation:

“In other words, God Loves (desires or wills), then He reasons from His mind (Thinks about what He desires), and then speaks His Word (communicates His knowledge.) In this way God created man and woman in His image. That, we desire, think, and speak; All of which is unique to man.” (Ibid.)

Though Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) follows Augustine, he seems to place a greater emphasis on the intellect as that which best reflects the image of God:

“Such an image of God, even as imperfect, only exists in rational creatures. Thomas quotes Augustine from Gen. ad lit. vi. 12: “Man’s excellence consists in the fact that God made him to His own image by giving him an intellectual soul which raises him above the beasts of the field.” In article 6, Thomas asks whether the image of God is in man as regards the mind only, and he answers affirmatively. All creatures possess some likeness to God, which Thomas calls a trace, for all things come from God; but only the human being is said to represent God by way of image. Therefore, it must be that what makes us in the image of God is what we have that the other animals do not have—a mind.” (Montague Brown, “Imago Dei in Thomas Aquinas,” The Saint Anselm Journal 10.1 (Fall 2014), p. 2)

Whereas Irenaeus, who has Gnostics to argue with, was quite insistent that the image of God includes body, soul and spirit, Aquinas places greatest emphasis on the soul as that which reflects the divine nature.

The Roman Catholic view is derived largely from these three; it equates the image of God in man with man’s “natural gifts” including his “personality, intellect, will, etc.” (Angus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” at Covenant Protestant Reformed Church).  [The Eastern Orthodox position is similar; as I am less versed on it and as I suspect I have fewer Orthodox readers, I will not take the time to go into any details here.]

The Catholic Church distinguishes between the image and likeness of God. This distinction is how it deals with a seeming paradox: how can man be at once made in the image of God and sinful? The Catholic answer is to divide man’s “natural” qualities of reason, will, etc. from his spiritual gifts, righteousness and holiness. These latter are what constitute the likeness. The image is common to all men; the likeness is something into which men may, or may not, grow.

It is on the Protestant side that we find the dissenting opinion. The seeming discrepancy which the Catholic Church tried to mend by dividing the image from the likeness also posed a problem for Protestant thinkers, but they tried to solve the problem in different ways. Martin Luther is among those who say the image of God has been lost through the Fall:

“Reformer Martin Luther believed that the ‘image of God’ was an original righteousness that was lost completely. He thus proclaimed: ‘I am afraid that since the loss of this image through sin we cannot understand it to any extent.'” (Eric Lyons, “Was the ‘Image of God’ Destroyed by Sin?Apologetic Press, 2001)

John Calvin agrees with Luther that the image has been lost. He connects this image not just with man’s original righteousness but also with his wisdom and indeed all his faculties. Thus in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin says:

“‘That he made this image to consist in righteousness and true holiness, is by the figure synecdoche; for though this is the chief part, it is not the whole of God’s image. Therefore by this word the perfection of our whole nature is designated, as it appeared when Adam was endued with a right judgment, had affections in harmony with reason, had all his senses sound and well-regulated, and truly excelled in everything good. Thus the chief seat of the Divine image was in his mind and heart, where it was eminent: yet was there no part of him in which some scintillations of it did not shine forth.'” (“John Calvin on the Image of God,” from Siris, July 7, 2005)

This image of God in us is regained through the regeneration and sanctification of the believer. Yet, acknowledging Genesis 9:6, there is some aspect in which the image is always on man:

“‘Men are indeed unworthy of God’s care, if respect be had only to themselves. but since they bear the image of God engraven on them, He deems himself violated in their person . . . Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation.'” (“John Calvin on the Image of God“)

The Dutch Reformed came to speak of the image in broader and narrower views:

“The imago dei in the narrower sense, consisting of knowledge, righteousness and true holiness, was wholly lost at the fall, but the imago dei in the wider sense, which includes man’s ‘intellectual power, natural affections and moral freedom,’ was retained.” (Agnus Stewart, “The Image of God in Man: A Reformed Reassessment,” from Covenant Protestant Reformed Church)

Assessing the Biblical Evidence

Let’s begin with what all Christians hold in common: Adam and Eve were created in the image of God and Christ is the image of God. It’s what happens in between that causes problems. Specifically, what is the effect of the Fall?

I’d like to approach the biblical evidence more or less in order, beginning with Genesis and then turning to the New Testament.

The foundational verses are Genesis 1:26-27. Here they are once again:

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them.

It is striking that in these two verses we are told three times that God made man in His image. The Hebrew word is tselem. It is used here in Genesis 1 as well as in Genesis 5 and 9. It is used elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as we might use the word image to refer to an idol, i.e. an image of a false god, or model, as to the golden tumors made to remove a plague, and it is used twice in Psalms to refer to fleeting thing — a dream or a vanity. [This last may be an extension of its use to refer to idols or false gods — they are things with no real substance in which a man should not trust.] All of which is to say the Hebrew Bible gives us little added information as to the meaning of the word “image” in this context. It is used as we would use the word; it can refer to the “image of God” but also to other images or representations.

Genesis 1:26 includes the phrase “after our likeness” (as the ESV translates it) which is not repeated in verse 27. The relationship between these two prepositional phrases is worth considering. I have written many times on parallelism, a Hebrew literary device which we often, mistakenly, take as mere repetition of ideas (see this post or this one). This is not what I think we have in this verse, however. It is not the more poetic account in verse 27 which employs this term nor do we have any other sets of parallel terms in verse 26. In Hebrew each of these words (and they are just one word each in Hebrew), are not connected in any way (as by a conjunction) nor do they seem to be used in the same way. The prepositions are different; man is made “in” the image of God but only “according to” or “like” His likeness. In other words, these are not two ways in which man is made nor are they two words expressing a unit as we might say in English “down and out” or “meat and potatoes.” I think that the most plausible relationship between these two words is that “according to our likeness” is added information to clarify what “in our image” means. If I were doing textual criticism, I would say that the second word was added by a later editor or scribe to explain the first. Now this may or may not be true, but as believers what we have before us is a text with both words in it so, however it came to be, I have to believe that they are both part of the Word of God.

If “likeness” explains “image,” the next logical question is how this word, Hebrew dmut, is used in the Old Testament. The answer is that “likeness” means just what we think it would. The base root dmh means “to be like.” The nominal form dmut is found in Isaiah:

“To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18)

And Ezekiel:

“And from the midst of it came the likeness of four living creatures. And this was their appearance: they had a human likeness . . .” (Ezek. 1:5)

When, in the verse form Ezekiel quoted above, the prophet sees four creatures in “human likeness,” we understand this to be a physical description; they are not human but to some extent they look like humans. Dmut may also be used as tselem can to refer to idols. What can we conclude from all this? To be created “in the image” of God is to be “according to His likeness” which is in some way to be like Him, as an image is like the thing it represents.

Interestingly, Genesis 5 reverses the order. It says first that God created man “in the likeness (dmut) of God” (v.1) and then that Adam bore a son, Seth, “in his likeness (dmut) according to his image (tselem)” (v.3). Verse 1 seems to show that the words can be used interchangeably. Though the switch in verse 5 is intriguing, it is hard to know what to make of it.

Genesis is as significant for what it does not say as for what it does. Seth is not said to be in the image or likeness of God but only in that of his father Adam. Nor is this statement made of others — neither Cain nor Abel is said to be “in the image.”

Nonetheless, Genesis 9 reiterates that “in the image (tselem) of God He made Man” (Gen. 9:6). Those who deny that all men since the Fall bear the image of God understand this to mean that man was created in the image of God; that is, that he was made in God’s image at Creation and that this is the reason God will call murderers to account, but that it does not say that men are still in the image of God. The verb in Genesis 9:6 does not add to their argument — it says “made” and not “created” — but neither does it exclude this interpretation.

The New Testament makes clear that Christ is the image of God. Note that he is not “in the image of God” but “is.” Second Corinthians links the image with glory (2 Cor. 4:4).  Colossians and Hebrews both make the connection to Creation, taking pains to show that Christ was present at Creation and was not Himself created. Hebrews again makes the link to glory:

“He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.” (Heb. 1:3)

None of these verses, however, does much to define what the image actually is though the language of Hebrews — “the exact imprint of his nature” — suggests that the image has much to do with reflecting or expressing the nature of God.

While Christ is the image of God, He is in the likeness of men (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). This refers to His physical form which He adopts at His incarnation. The New Testament, thus discerns between the likeness and the image. In the case of Christ, one expresses each part of His dual nature, divine and human.

The majority of the New Testament verses which address the image of God in man speak of it as something into which believers must grow. Romans tells is that those whom God has chosen will be  “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:29). Second Corinthians again makes the connection to glory and says that we are being “transformed” into “the same image” (2 Cor. 3:18). Colossians says believers have a “new self which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10). The connection to knowledge is an interesting one and suggests another definition for the image, that it is our rationality which reflects our Creator.

First Corinthians strengthens the argument that the image is not currently in every man but that it is something believers will resume, having lost it at the Fall:

“Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.” (1 Cor. 15:49)

This would seem to argue that while Adam bore the image in Genesis 1, his descendants, as Seth in Genesis 5, inherited not the divine image but only Adam’s fleshly post-Fall image. The word “also” is this verse is huge; when believers take on the image of “the man of heaven,” i.e. Christ, the second Adam, they do not lose the image of Adam in them but the two images dwell in them side-by-side just as Christ also embodies the image of God in the likeness of man.

Lastly, though we may like to, we cannot ignore First Corinthians 11:

“For a man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” (1 Cor. 11:7)

The connection between image and glory is seen again. Note that the man is the image and glory of God but the woman is said only to be the glory of man. Genesis makes quite clear that both male and female were in the image of God. It is hard to know what to make of this verse in the context of the “image of God” discussion. This is the only place I can find where man is said to be “the image of God” rather than “in the image of God.” To say man is “the glory of God” is also problematic and raises questions beyond the scope of this post.

Conclusions

Taking all the biblical evidence together, here is what I see:

  • Man, both male and female, were created “in the image of God.”
  • Christ is the image of God.
  • The best evidence that the image continues in men in from Genesis 9 but this passage may be understood otherwise as arguing only that man was created in the image, not that he is still in the image.
  • The OT does not seem to treat the image and likeness as two distinct things. The one may explain the other or the two may be used interchangeably.
  • The NT plays around with the image/likeness pairing saying that Christ is the image of God but at His incarnation became in the likeness of man. (I do not think, however, that we can read this distinction back into the OT passages.)
  • A number of NT verses speak of the image as something believers must be conformed to, not something they inherently possess.
  • An argument from absence: There is no indication from the NT that non-believers in any way possess or are in the image of God.
  • The NT verse which does most to support the idea that we still bear the image of God is I Cor. 11:7. This verse also causes problems, however, as it only says man and not woman is the image. Note that this verse occurs 4 chapters before I Corinthians 15 . . .
  • First Corinthians 15 presents the best NT argument that man, apart from the saving work of Christ, is in the image of Adam (the man of dust) but that, through Christ, he can also bear the divine image.

I am struck in all this by how the language used for the image of God in the Bible reflects the gospel message. We could get the whole gospel just from studying this phrase. Man was created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1-2). Whatever happens, he still retains value because of this creation (Gen. 9:6). After the Fall, man bears the image of his earthly father (Gen. 5:3). In the course of time, Christ, God the Son, takes on the likeness of man (Rom. 8:3; Phil. 2:7). He is not created, but was present at Creation. He is not made “in the image of God” but is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3). To His divine nature He adds human likeness. He adds Adam’s fleshly image to His divine one so that believers may do the opposite — we  are born in the likeness of Adam (Gen. 5:3 again) but through Christ receive again the image of God which the original Adam lost. The one does not replace the other but both dwell in believers (1 Cor. 15:49) as Christ also maintains his human and divine natures. This is salvation. There is a sense, however, in which we must be conformed or transformed into Christ’s image (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10)  — as our salvation comes through Christ, we may now speak of the image of God and the image of Christ interchangeably. This is sanctification.

Nebby

 

 

Three Resources for Church History Reviewed

Dear Reader,

We have tried a few different things for studying church history. Here’s my take on each:

Sketches from Church History by S.M. Houghton — I had my then 9th and 10th graders use this book and the additional workbook last year. We abandoned the workbook fairly early on. I thought it would make like simpler to use a workbook for once. I was wrong. It was the sort of thing that asked them to fill in blanks or answer questions about very specific points in the reading and they couldn’t do it. When I asked them to narrate what they had read, on the other hand, they did just fine and clearly could grasp the material. The book itself seems decent. It is not written as one riveting story but, as its title suggests, is a series of brief sketches on the key points. It could probably be used for middle school on up through adults who want a overview of the topic.

History Lives: Chronicles of the Church by Brandon and Mindy Withrow — This is a five volume set with titles like “Perils and Peace” and “Hearts and Hands.” Each chapter covers a different figure with occasion blurbs giving more of an overview of the time. It’s been a while since we did these books. Amazon calls them 2-4th grade level which I have  a hard time believing. They would be great for read-alouds at those ages but I think for reading on one’s own I’d go upper elementary-lower middle school. My kids really enjoyed these books and looked forward to them. That says a lot.

Heroes of the Early Church by Richard Newton – I first ran across Newton through Simply Charlotte Mason’s Spelling Wisdom. They use many of his quotes for their dictation exercises. I liked them enough to look the man up and to buy a couple of his books. The one we have worked through so far is Heroes of the Early Church. He also has Heroes of the Reformation as well as many other books on the Bible and other Christian topics. Newton was known as “the prince of children’s preachers,” and his style is more preachy than the History Lives series. In many ways, the two are similar. They both focus on individual stories as they move through Christian history chronologically. History Lives adds some small intermediate chapters to provide a little more historical context. Newton is very deliberate in drawing lessons from the lives of his subjects. He will say things along the lines of “Chrysostom is an example to us of the importance of piety.” In fact, I found him a bit too preachy and obvious. This was easily remedied in read-alouds, however, by just skipping over the first and last sentences of a section which tended to be where the lessons were made too obvious. If your goal is to learn the history of the church, then this is not the best book. If your goal is to learn about the lives of Christians who have come before and particularly to learn from their virtues, then this book could be a decent choice. The reading level is similar to History Lives – read-aloud to elementary, read alone for upper elementary-middle school.

Nebby

Education and Sanctification

Dear Reader,

I touched on this recently but thought it deserved a post of its own. To cut right to the chase, my big idea is this: Education is a part of Sanctification.

I want to be very clear first on what I am not saying: I am not saying that education in any way saves us. I am not saying that if we just teach people the right things or in the right ways they will be saved.

Sanctification is for people who are already saved. First comes justification, then sanctification by which those who have been saved are made more and more righteous. To be sanctified is to be made holy and to be holy is to be set apart for God. So when the Holy Spirit — and it is His work — sanctifies us, He makes us more and more as God wants us to be, indeed more and more as God is.

Education is also the work of the Holy Spirit. This is an idea I have gotten from Charlotte Mason. In her philosophy of education, the Holy Spirit is the Great Educator; it is He who gives all knowledge and wisdom and who is the source of all truth.

If both these works, then, are of the Holy Spirit, it is not too large a leap to say that the one is a subset of the other. And that is what my point in this post is — Education is a part of Sanctification. Both are the work of the Holy Spirit and the one is subsumed under the other.

Some Bible verses which I think add to my point:

 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2; ESV)

“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1:5)

“For the Lord gives wisdom;
    from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” (Proverbs 2:6)

“Daniel answered and said:

“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
    to whom belong wisdom and might.” (Daniel 2:20)

This idea is a very Puritan one. Though Charlotte Mason was a member of the Church of England, she and the Puritans seem to have had some overlap in their understanding of the role of education. Education was so important to the Puritans that they demanded and educated clergy and early on established Harvard College. The Covenanters (to which my own denomination traces its roots) in the young United States were willing to break laws to teach slaves to read; they could not conceive of growth in Christianity without literacy (Joseph S. Moore, Founding Sins, p.??).

But I do not think the place of education is only to allow us to read our Bibles. That is certainly part of it but education is not merely the servant of our sanctification. It goes beyond that.

Both Charlotte Mason and John Calvin said that all truth is God’s truth. It is not merely our religious or Bible knowledge which comes from God, but all knowledge and wisdom, though it may at times comes through worldly or non-Christian sources. As God used the Persian king Cyrus to restore His people and His temple, so He can and does use non-believers to bring truth to mankind.

When man in Adam fell, his whole nature was corrupted. So in Christ our whole nature is, gradually in this life, restored. Part of this is our intellect. Of course many non-Christians are quite intelligent and highly educated (I am related to quite a few of these). Nonetheless, I maintain that education, rightly done, should add to our sanctification. When we learn about God’s creation, including human beings, we bring glory to Him. And as we grow in wisdom, we become more like Him, which is after all what sanctification is all about.

Nebby

How Should Christians Decide Who to Vote for?

Dear Reader,

Have you had any political arguments this year? Have you had someone tell you you are not a true Christian because of who you may or may not vote for? I am not going to tell you if you should vote or for whom you should vote. What I want to talk about today is how we decide.

For too long Christians have been able to muddle along without too much thought on this issue. We have compromised our values. We have learned to separate a candidate’s personal life and character from his public office. We have voted on issues without carefully considering the people for whom we are voting. This election cycle it all seems to be coming to a head. Because we have not considered the principles behind how we vote, we find ourselves faced with choices that appall us and we, as a community, don’t know how to navigate these waters.

A lot of what I am going to say comes from a book I have been reading, Messiah the Prince: The Mediatorial Dominion of Jesus Christ by William Symington. This book was originally published in 1879. There is a more modern and easier to read follow-up, Messiah the Prince Revisited by J.K. Wall. I have both. Wall does a good job of boiling down what Symington has to say, but if you really want to understand the arguments I think you need to read Symington. If you find his language inaccessible, read Wall first but then go back to Symington for the fleshed-out version. Symginton’s books discusses Christ’s kingship over the church and over the nations and the relationship between them. For our purposes today, we are just interested in chapter 7, “The Mediatorial Dominion over the Nations.”

In his letter to the Colossians, the Apostle Paul tells us, “ And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col. 3:17; ESV). We are not Christians only on Sundays. We are not Christians only at church. We are to act and speak in a way that brings glory to God every day of the week; at home and at work; with family, and friends, and neighbors. If every part of our lives if subject to Christ, then when we enter the ballot box we must also consider what Christ would have us do. Honestly, I think most of us still get this. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t beat each other up for doing the “un-Christian” thing. Here is how Symington puts it:

“But the choice od representative, it should be borne in mind, is a civil right, the exercise of which involves, to a great extent, the welfare of the nation. It is not the individual himself alone that suffers from an improper use of this privilege, but the community at large. It is, consequently, of immense moment, that he exercise it, not from passion, fancy, or prejudice, but under the guidance of sound Christian principle . . . Never can the circumstance occur which will warrant him to say, Now I mat drop the Christian and act the civilian or the man. It is not in matters of an ecclesiastical nature merely that he is to act as a Christian. He must conduct himself as a Christian at all times . . .” (Messiah the Prince, pp. 167-68)

The Bible actually has quite a lot to say on what makes a good ruler. These instructions, both the explicit and the implicit, are for both the rulers and for their people. “God,” Symington says, “has given [the people] in his Word a supreme rule of direction, in which the character of civil rules is described, and only such as seem to them to be possessed of this character are they at liberty to appoint” (Messiah the Prince, p. 164). In other words, if God says “appoint wise rulers” (see, for instance, Exod. 18:21; Deut. 1:13), we are disobeying Him when we appoint unwise ones.  Indeed to have a foolish ruler is a curse upon a nation (Eccl. 10:16).

What then are the qualifications for a ruler? Symington puts them in three categories: natural, moral, and religious (pp. 164-65). We seem to have jettisoned them in reverse order. First we said it doesn’t matter if a candidate is Christian. Then we overlooked his personal moral failings, and perhaps even his public ones. Now some even disregard natural qualifications (or the lack thereof).

Does a candidate need to be a Christian in order for us to vote for him? Symington would say yes, that is the first but not the only qualification. This election cycle has me wanting to agree with him. Perhaps it is an overreaction to want to push the line back that far. But my point here is that we have let the line slip. We have said that it doesn’t matter if a man cheats on his wife; that is personal and doesn’t affect his political role. Then what if he cheats on his personal income taxes? What if he is deceitful in his public role? Even this we as a society seem ready to overlook.

King David was one of the best Israel ever had. He was a man after God’s own heart. But his personal sin (adultery with Bathsheba) became a professional sin (sending his own general, Uriah, to his death) and ultimately led to a plague upon his people.

Nebby

Scripture and Tradition — Sorting through all the Issues

Dear Reader,

I would like to once again revisit the relationship between Scripture and Tradition. I gave my own thoughts on this topic previously when I discussed sources of authority in the church (see here and here). Since then I have read and reviewed (here)  Keith A. Mathison’s book, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Reading Mathison’s book both clarified and muddied my own thoughts. My purpose now is to try to do some sorting of all that is buzzing around in my head.

As Mathison states in his conclusion, the real question is not if we refer to tradition but what tradition(s) we make use of. Even those who claim to rely upon Scripture alone (what Mathison calls the Tradition 0 or solo scriptura position) come to the text with preconceived ideas which they have gotten from other sources, whether their own imaginations, their parents, their teachers or their favorite rock anthem (the possibilities are endless). I am not going to spend a lot of time critiquing the so-called solo scriptura position. It has one fatal flaw which I think is pretty obvious which is that it leads to utter subjectivity and no way to discern right from wrong or orthodoxy from heresy.

Instead, I’d like to turn to the three other positions which Mathison defines (though I am not overly enamored of his categories). He calls them Traditions 1, 2 and 3. You can find a little more detail on them in my review of his book. I’ll begin with a brief review of these positions and then discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Positions

Tradition 3, as Mathison defines it, places a person or group of people above both Scripture and Sacred Tradition. This is the view of today’s Roman Catholic Church. For a more in-depth look at the Catholic position, with quotes, you can look back out those previous posts. The condensed version is that the Catholic Church holds that Scripture and Tradition are two branches of the teaching passed down from Christ to the Apostles. They are complementary but not identical. Christ also gave authority to his disciples, and especially to Peter, which was also handed down through the ages (this is known as the Apostolic Succession). These men, the leadership or Magisterium of the church, are given the authority to tell us what is contained in Sacred Tradition and also to rightly interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Ordinary believers, even local priests, are not able to do this. In this way, the Church (big “C”) is evelated over Scripture and Tradition both as it is the only one with the authority to tell us what they are and what they mean.

By Mathison’s definition, “Tradition 2” is that in which Tradition interprets Scripture. That is, Tradition tells us what Scripture means. I find this position somewhat of a straw man. Because Tradition in the church (whatever church you are speaking of) is oral tradition, it must necessarily be passed down by someone. And if there is a someone telling us what Tradition is, then there is a someone telling us what that Tradition means and therefore also what Scripture means.

The Eastern Orthodox church makes Scripture subject to Tradition. It believes that Christ gave one body of knowledge, Sacred Tradition, to His apostles. The most important parts of this were written down and became the New Testament. Scripture then stands as a part of Tradition. However, the Eastern Orthodox still believe in Apostolic Succession, saying that the bishops as a group show apostolic authority when they agree with one another.  Thus, they recognize the authority of the church councils. This is not really then Mathison’s Tradition 2 since there is still a body of people who are charged with preserving Sacred Tradition and interpreting it.

Tradition 1 is the position Mathison himself adheres to and which he says was that of the early Protestant Reformers (like Calvin). It is what they meant by sola scriptura, that Scripture is the only infallible rule but that it must be interpreted by the church (not the individual) in the context in which it was intended. This context is really a very narrow version of tradition (which Mathison himself would acknowledge). He speaks of the regula fidei or Rule of Faith as the guide by which we must interpret Scripture. He makes clear in his book that this rule is found on the creeds of the church, paryicularly the Apostles’, Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds. As I tried to make clear in my review of his book, I feel that Mathison is selecting just one possible rule (actually a few, since he doesn’t pick just one creed) and that though he makes a lot of good points in his book, he fails to explain this particular choice, defend it, or show that it is the rule that the Reformers would have used.

The main difference I see between Mathison’s position and that of either the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches is that his tradition is tangible and finite. he can point to it and say “here it is” and we can know the whole content of it. Having defined it, he can’t come along later and add to it or detract from it. Though to be honest, since he doesn’t pick one creed, or even one set of creeds, it is not as tangible and finite a position as I would like it to be.

Critiquing the Positions

Christianity is a diverse enterprise these days. Mathison tries to define four positions, but though his categories are helpful in framing the discussion, they don’t truly reflect the range of beliefs out there.  As I see it, there are really two extremes. On one side we have the Tradition 0, solo scriptura, crowd which, though few would acknowledge it openly, says that whatever Scripture means for you is what it means.  There is no outside standard, whether traditions or people, by which to judge an interpretation’s correctness. On the other side, we have something like the modern Roman Catholic Church which acknowledges that the authority to rightly interpret lies ultimately in one person (though even the Roman Catholic Church does not really go quite so far as this or as it could). Really the question seems to be: How many people can interpret Scripture? Another way of asking this might be: How many truths are there? Solo scriptura says that we have as many interpretations as we have people. Unfortunately, this leads to a world in which we cannot judge what is The Truth. On the other hand, if we have one person telling us what is true then we can have One Truth. Of course this is only  valuable insofar as that truth is, well, true. And in between we have an almost limitless number of permeations of those two positions.

I’ve gone back and forth on how to write this section. I want to say something about the problems with each major position, but I don’t want to be petty, I don’t want to get bogged down in the details or side-tracked on smaller issues, and I don’t want to repeat myself. And, honestly, what I find when I think about it is that the criticisms that apply to one position tend to apply to most if not all of the others.

So let me say it this way — Here is the problem: While we would all love for the Bible to be 100% clear and unarguable, it is clear from the present situation that those claiming its authority can still believe vastly different things and all back up their positions (to varying degrees perhaps) with biblical arguments. Even Satan uses biblical proof texts (Matt. 4:6) so it should come as no surprise to us that almost anyone can use the Bible to support their position.

Given this circumstance, we must then have some means of discerning between true and false interpretations of Scripture.  We might come up with principles (“Scripture interprets Scripture”), outside information (Sacred Tradition) or people (bishops, the Magisterium, the “Church”), but somewhere, somehow we need to refer to something else. The alternative is to say that there is no absolute truth, that the Bible can mean one thing to you and another to me (in which case Satan’s take is just as good as Jesus’). I’ll concede a slight variant to this — we could say that there is absolute truth but that we just can’t know it in this life. But then really what is the point of Scripture if it is not God telling us what He wants is to know? If we can’t know what it means, He might as well have not communicated at all.

As Mathison points out, everyone, everyone comes to the Word with some preconceptions. Even if we acknowledge no outside standard, we have a whole host of influences in our past which inform our own thinking. No one can truly hold to the solo scriptura approach. The question we all have to answer is: Why do you believe whatever or whomever you believe? The Roman Catholics, for example, would say that Protestants are subjective because they have no one standard of interpretation. But if we were to ask them why they believe the Scriptures mean one thing or another ultimately the answer is “because the pope says so” (there may be layers in between which involve words like “Tradition” and “Magisterium,” but ultimately this is what it comes down to). So then we may ask, Why do you believe the pope? One answer which is given is “Well, Jesus gave Peter special authority in the Bible and that has been passed down through the generations to his successors.” But Protestants and Eastern Orthodox and really everybody else look at the same texts and do not see the primacy of Peter. So how do we know that this is what the Bible means? Again, we are back to the same question. Another response might be that it is the tradition of the early church or that the church fathers tell us about the primacy of Peter and of the successive bishops of Rome. But here we are just really pushing off the problem again because there is no less debate over what the church fathers say than over what the Bible says. If anything, because there is even more material available and because it is a less well-defined body of material, it is even harder to say what the early fathers said (and that is if we even care, which many Protestants don’t).

In the end, almost everybody uses circular reasoning at some point and everybody hits that wall where they have to say “I believe it because I believe it.” In other words, we are all subjective. Today more than ever we are all “cafeteria Christians.” We have a wide array of choices before us and even if we never abandon the tradition we were raised in, we are to some extent choosing what to believe and what church to be affiliated with.

Evaluating the Options

If we all to some extent pick our church, we must before we do so have some criteria by which to choose. The catch-22 here is that our church tells us by what criteria to judge but we must first pick a church so we need some criteria before we officially subscribe to one set of criteria.

How we initially judge will be informed by a number of things. We are reasoning creatures, and while I personally believe that our sense of reason was corrupted in the fall, it does still remain. We also have consciences, inborn senses of right and wrong, which may steer us one way or anther. We have feelings (also created good but fallen) which may tend to sway us, and we have past experiences which may tend to make us gravitate toward one choice or away from another.

The questions we have to ask and which any scheme of biblical interpretation has to answer are:

  • Who can rightly interpret the Bible? — and a follow-up question: Where does their authority come from?
  • What outside sources are used?
  • What principles are used?

I am going to concentrate on the first two of these because it is in them that all the major differences between the branches of the church on this issue seem to lie.

Catholicism

As to the who, the Roman Catholic Church says the Pope (with the Magisterium, but if you read the specifics the Magisterium cannot disagree with the Pope) interprets the Bible. It should be remembered that (at least while all is going well) there is only one legitimate pope at a time, there are multiple popes over the course of history and the past ones have as much authority as the present one and so in some sense there is a body, albeit a small one, of people who interpret. Their authority is due to their apostolic succession. It comes ultimately from Christ who appointed apostles who appointed successors and so on.

The main advantage of the Catholic position is that it claims a clear line of authority and has one living ultimate authority to which to appeal. Its main drawback is that it has to maintain and defend its consistency. If a pope contradicts himself or a previous pope, it undercuts the Catholic claims. If a pope behaves poorly or says something which is later contradicted, a shadow is cast upon his legitimacy. And without this legitimacy, the Catholic position has little ground upon which to stand. I would add, with Mathison, that having one authority is only valuable insofar as that authority is correct. The consequences if that authority is wrong are dire indeed if no dissent is allowed.

Sacred Tradition, though it is relied upon by the Catholic Church, does, as Mathison says, become subservient to the human hierarchy because it is they who tell us both what the traditions are and what they mean. The fact is that almost 2000 years after Christ’s ascension, there is no definitive statement of what Sacred Tradition contains and therefore we rely upon those to whom it was entrusted.

Eastern Orthodoxy

In the Eastern Orthodox churches, there is a group of people, the bishops, who, as long as they agree with each other, provide right interpretation. Their authority is due, as in Catholicism, to their apostolic succession but also to a right adherence in matters of faith and morals since apostolic authority can be lost in Eastern Orthodoxy.

The Eastern Orthodox get around some of the problems the Catholics face by not concentrating authority in one person (who could then let one down by going astray) and also by allowing that apostolic authority can be abrogated. The problem for them is that whenever there is a disagreement among bishops there must be some way to determine who is orthodox and who is the heretic. Since the general test is agreement with one’s fellow bishops, one would assume that if one bishop disagrees that he is the rebel. But what if there is a larger split? I honestly don’t know anything about the history of orthodoxy since 1054, but we can look back at the early church councils which were called to deal with heresies. Though in retrospect we are able to say that Arianism, to take one example, was an error and has since been suppressed, at the time it would have been very hard to say who was right and who was wrong.

Though they have different understandings of the nature and status of Sacred Tradition, the Orthodox are open to the same charge the Catholics are — that a purely oral tradition necessarily becomes subservient to those who maintain it. Both of these branches, then, really depend in their views upon the legitimacy of their claims of apostolic succession. If we are not convinced that Christ established a continuing line of authority through the apostles (and in the Catholic case the primacy of Peter as well) or if we believe that such a line was at any time broken, then there is no legitimacy for the authority of either of these branches of Christianity. Both branches acknowledge that the line continues in the other though the Orhtodox believe that the bishops of Rome (that is, the popes) long ago abrogated their authority so that that branch is effetivley wiped out. The Catholics believe that apostolic authority continues in the Eastern Orthodox bishops but that they are outside of the proper church since they don’t submit to the pope as the successor of Peter. How then do we know that apostolic succession and the primacy fo Peter are real? Well,the Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic churches tell us so; they tell us that the right interpretation of Scripture shows these things. Protestants, of course, would disagree and say that the Bible  and the history of the early church show no such thing and that apostolic authority ended with the first generation of apostles.

One final observation before we turn to the Protestants — though both claim to hold the Tradition passed down from Christ, there doesn’t seem to be any consensus between them as to what that Tradition is. As I said, though neither defines it well, they seem to view it quite differently which would lead to the conclusion that one or the other (at least) must not have the actual Sacred Tradition.

Protestantism

Protestant churches vary. Many give at least greater authority to interpret the Bible and determine right doctrine to either the leaders of the church or the church as a whole. A few, like the Anglicans, will claim apostolic succession, but most do not and therefore have to answer the question of where authority in the church comes from. Though it is my own branch, I think this is a weak point in the Protestant position. There is usually some sort of passing down of authority, as when hands are laid on at an ordination. Sometimes leaders are chosen by other leaders; sometimes they are chosen by the congregation or by some combination of these two. Usually there is some recognition that one is fit for leadership because he (or she) has gifts or qualities given by God which are then recognized by the leaders or the people. One might say that authority in Protestant churches (for the most part; it is hard to generalize with Protestants) comes from right adherence in matters of faith and morals combined with some sort of recognition by others of this reality.

With no clear line of authority to be traced beyond a certain point, Protestants are faced with a problem of origins — that is, where did the authority of the first Protestant ministers come from? And if their authority is based upon having right doctrine then we must first know what that doctrine is. But it is the leaders of the church (often) who tell us what that right doctrine is. So as we trace a line back we will ultimately reach a point where we must ask who first determined what was right and how did they determine it?

Without apostolic authority to fall back on, having the right beliefs becomes even more important in Protestantism. So then having standards by which to judge what is right also becomes more important. Most Protestant denominations do not claim to have Sacred Tradition. While some do take the extreme position of saying “the Bible only” (what Mathison calls solo scriptura), many others pick a certain standard or set of standards on which to base their doctrine. Mathison himself picks the early church creeds (though not specifying which). My own denomination relies upon the Westminster confession combined with its own Testimony which responds to the confession. Perhaps because they have no clear line of human authority to maintain traditions, Protestants tend to choose written standards on which to base their theologies. The advantage of this position is that there is something anyone can refer to and which is not inherently dependent upon people. The disadvantage is that any such standard is arbitrary (why this creed or that confession?) and likely open to interpretation itself.

Conclusions?

What conclusions can we come to then? I agree with Mathison that it is impossible to come to the text without presuppositions and biases. There is no solo scriptura and to try to hold such a position leads to a multiplicity of interpretations and ultimately to a state in which whatever anyone believes is right and therefore nothing is truly right or wrong.

On the other hand, all the major branches of Christianity at some point use circular reasoning. There is always a point beyond which we cannot get or at which we must say “it is this way because I say it is.”

One option at this point is to abandon the whole thing. One could easily conclude that because there is no unanimity in Christianity that it cannot be true. I don’t think we need to go there, however. Looked at from another angle, one can actually be amazed how many different churches and denominations agree on some pretty central truths — that there is a God who created everything we know, that man sinned, that God sent His Son in the person of Jesus to die on a cross, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven and thus in some way to redeem us from our sins and restore us to our Creator and that there is a resurrection of the dead and that there will be eternal life for those whom Christ redeems. Though we may disagree on some other issues which may seem important as well — like how salvation happens and what is necessary for salvation and even how the two natures of Christ interact (which was the dispute at the Chalcedon and separates the Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Church of the East from their brethren) yet there is still agreement on the basics that I have listed above. Is this enough agreement? It really depends on your perspective. It is reminiscent of Paul’s description of a Christian confession in Romans:

“If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom. 10:9; cf. I John 4:2)

While I personally hold a fairly low standard for what is essential, both for salvation for an individual and for a church to be considered a “true church,” I also think that ideas matter very much. So while on one hand I would say that I am impressed by how much agreement there is on these essentials even 2000 years later, on the other I do not think that this means that it doesn’t matter which church we choose. The specifics of what we believe about who God is, who we are, and how we are saved are going to play out in other ways. In other words, while I may believe there are a large number of “true churches,” I also believe that some are better, that is closer to the truth, than others.

A church near me had a sign out front recently which amounted to “whatever you believe is okay here” (I can’t recall the exact words). The extreme position is out there. But for the rest of us, I think we are making some assumptions which are so basic we don’t even think about them. One is that there is a Truth, that there are right and wrong interpretations of Scripture. This, I think, is essential to our understanding of what Scripture is. If it is the Word of God, if it is how He chose to communicate with us, then we must believe that it is understandable by humans (which humans is another question). If God’s communication to us is of any value, we must be able to comprehend it.  Likewise, if it has no specific meaning, I would argue that it is worthless. One could argue (and the church near might well do so) that God might want to communicate one thing to you and another to me and to a certain extent this is true, but ultimately God must be one thing or another. Either Jesus is God or He isn’t. Either Moses parted the Red Sea or he didn’t.

A second assumption we are all making is that uniformity is to be expected, that if Christianity is true then we should all be believing basically the same things. This comes out in our criticism that the solo scriptura position leads to too much diversity in opinion. I happen to agree that it does, but does this mean that our message is always undercut if we can’t present a unified front? Scripture does lead us to believe that Christians will have unity (Phil. 1:27, 2:2; I Peter 3:8) though it also tells us that there are matters on which we may disagree (Rom.14:5). Determining which matters it is necessary to agree on again gets us back to the subject of discernment and how we can judge what it true and what isn’t.

What then are the answers? I think that is something we each must decide. And I think that even those who choose the Catholic Church with its claim that only the Magisterium can interpret Scriptures are themselves first making judgments about what is true. They may choose to submit themselves to another’s authority (as most Christians do to some degree) but they are choosing which means they are making determinations and judgments of their own. I can’t tell anyone, even my children, what they should believe and who they should submit themselves to. But I can suggest some questions we should all consider:

  • Where does authority in the church come from? What makes it legitimate?
  • Can that authority be lost and if so, in what circumstances?
  • Do I believe in apostolic succession? The primacy of Peter?
  • Do I believe that there is a body of knowledge known as Sacred Tradition which has been passed down from Christ to the apostles and their successors?
  • Whether I accept Sacred Tradition or not, what other standards do I use and why choose them over other options?
  • What principles should be used to interpret Scripture?
  • Who am I submitting myself to and why?
  • To what degree I am submitting myself? Am I free to leave this body if I choose to? Or are there certain circumstances which make it alright to leave? Do I want to be able to leave?

The Role of the Holy Spirit

Why after 2000 years is there any Christian church? Why do we still adhere to some fundamental truths, though there may be much we disagree on? Christ promised that He would preserve His church.

When I make criticisms like that placing the authority for interpretation in the hands of one man seems like a bad idea, I understand that the Catholics themselves would not see it this way. For them the pope is the successor of Peter to whom it was said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).  If a pope is infallible, in the Catholic view, then it is not because he is a sinless or wise or perfect individual but because God preserves him from error (at least when he speaks ex cathedra in matters of faith and morals).

Similarly, Protestants will say that they don’t need apostolic succession because God raises up leaders. When a congregation votes to call a pastor, it is not just the individual opinions of how ever many separate people, it is the Holy Spirit working in hearts and minds and providing unity.

The problem is, of course, that one cannot really judge another’s claims regarding the work of the Holy Spirit. We all put Him in the process somewhere but it is a very easy thing to claim “God told me so” and a very hard thing to prove to another’s satisfaction.

So I suppose I could add to my list of questions above, Does this seem like the work of God to me? Is He at work here? Of course to know what the work of God looks like, I must read and rightly interpret His Word which brings us back full-circle to our initial problem. In the end, I don’t think any one of us is going to be able to fully defend his or her choice, but we do have to make one.

Nebby

 

 

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