Blog Archives

What’s Your Favorite Heresy?

There’s something attractive about every heresy. Otherwise, no one would had bothered with it in the first place. People didn’t come up with the ideas that eventually came to be labeled as heresies because they were bored and wanted to rile the “powers that be.” No, heresy comes from an earnest attempt to answer life’s most difficult questions. Although the answers heresy offers were eventually found to be inadequate and/or unacceptable, that doesn’t change the fact that they were honest attempts at good theology – attempts that many people found compelling for some reason.

So every heresy has some attraction. For example, consider the following. (These are over-simplifications, but you get the point.)

  • Adoptionism: The belief that Jesus was born as a regular human, and was adopted into the divine life at some specific point (e.g. baptism, resurrection). With this one, we get an obviously human Jesus. He can empathize with our weaknesses, because he lived a frail human life just like ours, untainted by some divine nature lurking behind the scenes. And we also get the image of a relationship with God that can be achieved through faithful living. If Jesus did it, so can we.
  • Docetism: The belief that Christ’s physical body was an illusion and that he didn’t really die on the cross. In one fell swoop you eliminate all the difficult questions surrounding the incarnation (since it never happened) and how the divine nature can suffer (it didn’t). 
  • Marcionism: The belief that the god of the OT is a separate (and rather nasty) being from the loving God of the NT; so, Christians shouldn’t have anything to do with OT scriptures or those aspects of the NT that have been corrupted by OT influences. Forget about all those troubling OT passages about wrath and violence, and get rid of some difficult NT passages at the same time. And you get a God who is all about love and forgiveness. Sounds good to me.
  • Modalism: The belief that the Father, Son, and Spirit are simply three “aspects” of the one God (kind of like the idea that I am one person who is a father, a husband, and a teacher). The Trinity is confusing. So forget about notions of God somehow being both three and one. Let’s just go with oneness. That’s much easier to understand.
  • Arianism: The belief that the Son was the first of all the created beings and the one who serves as the intermediary between the infinitely transcendent Creator and the rest of creation. This one is particularly helpful because it does away with so many problems at once. The incarnation isn’t an issue because the Son is a created being to begin with. There are no trinitarian problems because there’s no real Trinity. And you get to keep your completely transcendent Creator without worrying about how he can be involved in the suffering of a fallen world (he’s not). 
  • Apollinarianism: The belief that in the incarnation the Son only assumed a physical, human body and not a truly human soul (i.e. the Son puts on a human body kind of like I might put on a costume). With this view, offers a more readily understandable view of the incarnation. It’s not that you really have a union of two natures (divine and human), but you have a divine person simply clothing himself in human form for a time. That’s a picture I can wrap my mind around.
  • Nestorianism: The belief that the incarnation involves the union of two complete persons: the eternal Logos and the human Jesus. This one is basically the inverse of Apollinarianism. Instead of solving the problems of the incarnation by basically denying that there’s a fully human person involved, Nestorianism solves the problem by making the “union” more of a partnership. You’ve got two full person who just work really closely together. I can get on board with that.
  • Pelagianism: The belief that God has already graced us with everything that we need to achieve salvation; we simply need to be disciplined and use these God-given gifts to walk the path laid out for us. This one is great because it so clearly teaches the goodness of God’s creation (especially humans), avoids the difficulties associated with the concepts of total depravity, original sin, and predestination (by denying or significantly redefining them), emphasizes the importance of discipline and godly living, and decries any form of “easy-believism.

I could go on: Adoptionism, Gnosticism, Montanism, Monarchianism, Donatism, and more. Every one of them offered something compelling: an approach that made difficult questions understandable. And they all thought they were defending Christianity against ideas that would ultimately undermine Christian faith, life, and ministry. Although they all went on to be condemned, that doesn’t change the fact that they each have their attraction.

What’s your favorite heresy? Which of these, or some other, do you find most compelling? 

I have to admit that I can see the attraction of several of these heresies. But, if I were to pick my favorite, it would have to be Adoptionism (though Pelagianism is a close second). I think I just grew up on so many stories of the human Jesus, and so much emphasis on how important it is that he was truly human. So, I don’t find myself gravitating toward heresies like Docetism or Gnosticism. Their Jesus is too transcendent and otherworldly to tempt me much. But the earthy, faithful Jesus of Adoptionism is someone I can get behind. And I suppose that Adoptionism and Pelagianism both tempt because they both play to my own achievement mentality. At its core, the Christian life is about disciplined faithfulness. Just follow Christ’s example: be disciplined, work hard, and live faithfully. That’s all it takes.

I like that. Of course, that’s because deep down I really want the story of salvation to be about me and what I can achieve.

What about you? What’s your favorite heresy?

Carson and Keller on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and the Gospel.

Don Carson and Tim Keller posted an excellent piece today: Reflections on Confessionalism, Boundaries, and Discipline. The post wass written primarily to explain The Gospel Coalition position on disagreement and correction among board members. But, it’s really an excellent read for understanding how boundaries and confessions work in any movement.

You should go read the article, but I wanted to highlight a couple of things that I found particularly interesting.

First, they use the distinction between an “boundary-bounded set” and a “center-bounded set” to describe their movement. This language has been around for a while now, and it differentiates between groups that try to establish clear in/out boundaries (e.g. confessional churches), and those that build their commitments on some central agreement(s) but leave lots of fuzziness around the edges (e.g. evangelicalism as a whole). This distinction has been around for a while, so it’s not unique to Carson and Keller. Indeed, Roger Olson recently used the same distinction to argue that evangelicalism is a “centered set” movement. So, what’s interesting here is that although Olson has been rather critical of groups like the Gospel Coalition for having an overly narrow and closed-minded understanding of evangelicalism, it would seem that Carson and Keller actually view the movement in very similar ways.

I also appreciated the discussion toward the end on the relationship between the doctrine of the Trinity and the Gospel, in which they draw a distinction between whether the Trinity is essential to the Gospel and whether having an orthodox view of the Trinity is necessary for salvation. As they rightly point out, those are two different issues:

In some discussion or other, we might claim, rightly, that the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is irrefragably tied up with the gospel. Someone might object, “Surely not! Is an orthodox view of the Trinity necessary for salvation?” In reality, these are two differentiable issues. To say that the doctrine of the Trinity is tied up with the gospel is to make a claim about the structure of the gospel, about what the gospel is, about its content.

Ignoring for a second that they actually used the word “irrefragably,” this is a great point. Doctrines like the Trinity and the Incarnation provide an essential shape and structure to the Gospel. Without them, the Gospel is undermined in critical ways. But, that doesn’t mean that someone who rejects them necessarily rejects the Gospel. It just means that they’re operating with an understanding of the Gospel that has some real weak spots. But, fortunately for us all, the standard of salvation is not how well we understand orthodox theology, as important as that might be.

Flotsam and jetsam (1/20)

  • Peter Wallace comments on the future of preaching, as he observed it at the second annual National Festival of Young Preachers.

I have seen the future of preaching, and it’s a beautiful thing.

When Mark Noll declared that the scandal of the evangelical mind was that there was no mind, he meant to criticize the lack of cultural and theological engagement among evangelicals. I agree there is a scandal involving the evangelical mind, though I understand the problem in the exact opposite way. It is not that there is no mind, but rather that there is no evangelical.

The kingdom of God, then, is the good news that the right rule of God, and the right rule of man—a rule our ancestors Adam and Eve lost—have come together in the right rule of one right God-man: Jesus of Nazareth. In his sin-resisting life, his wisdom-saturated teaching, his demon-exorcising power, his substitutionary, conquering death, and his justifying, victorious resurrection, Christ is king.

As Wittgenstein demonstrated, we cannot live, even at the level of everyday life, without trusting. And yet trust is a theologically ambivalent starting point for a theory of knowledge because of the persistent untrustworthiness of human beings after the Fall. Not only have the noetic effects of sin crippled our perceptions, they have given us reason to doubt the motives of others.

From a grammatical point, it seems clear that this is the right interpretation of vs. 38 which simply says in the Greek “he said to them ‘Enough’!”  It does not read “Two swords are enough”. What we have here is an idiomatic expression used to close off a discussion.

My dissertation is online, but it’s not “appropriate”

Many thanks to Nick Norelli for pointing out that my dissertation is  available online through the University of St. Andrews research database. You’d think I would have known that already, but I didn’t realize the database was open to the public. So, if you’re looking for something to fill your spare moments, feel free to check it out.

I am dealing with some emotional turmoil, however. I tried to access my dissertation a few minutes ago, but I was blocked by the seminary’s web filter because the material “is considered inappropriate”! I’m not sure what to make of that. It’s one thing to have a reviewer or professor tell you that your dissertation isn’t any good. But, when some mindless software starts taking potshots at your research, that’s pretty annoying. I bet it hasn’t even read my dissertation. Stupid software.

I did give my dissertation a pretty snappy title, though, so more people would want to read it:

Embodied Souls, Ensouled Bodies:  An Exercise in Christological Anthropology and Its Significance for the Mind-Body Debate with Special Reference to Karl Barth’s ‘Church Dogmatics’ III.2

Seriously, who could possibly stay away from a book like that? In my family, we gather around the fire and read our favorite parts to each other while eating ice cream. You should try it.

Kathryn Tanner and Gregory of Nyssa on the mystery of the human person

Whatever the knowable dimensions of human nature, its apophatic ones are what count here for imaging of God. An apophatically-focused anthropology forms the natural consequences of an apophatic theology. If humans are the image of God they must be, as Gregory of Nyssa affirms, an incomprehensible image of the incomprehensible: ‘If, while the archetype transcends comprehension, the nature of the image were comprehended, the contrary character of the attributes…would prove the defect of th eimage….Since the nature of our mind…evades our knowledge, it has an accurate resemblance to the superior nature, figuring by its unkowableness the incomprehensible nature.”

Kathryn Tanner, Christ the Key (Cambridge, 2010), pp. 53-54

Flotsam and jetsam (12/8)

I’ve been busy wrapping up the fall semester for the last couple of days, but here some interesting links you might want to check out.

  • Brian LePort is wrestling with his Christmas Conundrums. (I vote “no” on lying to your kids about Santa, “yes” on Christmas trees, and “sort of” on buying gifts).

Flotsam and jetsam (11/24)

There are various things that you could say that are sufficient to give some moral status after a few months, maybe six months or something like that, and you get perhaps to full moral status, really, only after two years.

Let it be clear:  The earliest Jewish Christian believers did not see themselves as departing from full loyalty to their ancestral deity.  They saw their devotion to Jesus as mandatory, in response to God’s exaltation of Jesus as recipient of this devotion.

  • David Fitch explains why he thinks that Youth Groups Destroy Children’s Lives. He concludes by saying how important that well-done youth ministry is for the church, but here’s his critique in a nutshell.

I think youth groups often do things that work against the formation of our youth into life with Christ and His Mission. They also soak up huge time and resources in ways that are a detriment to the community life of the church.

it seems fairly obvious that if a squad of terrorists did try to infiltrate Manhattan or any other urban area, they would not dress in camouflage to do it, and would not be sprinting.

Key characteristics of evangelical trinitarian theology

One of the papers that I attended at ETS today offered a helpful summary of Evangelical Trinitarian theology as it stands today. The last several decades have seen a significant resurgence of interest in Trinitarian theology among evangelicals. And, according to Jason Sexton, this resurgence is marked by a number of important characteristics.

  1. Patristic Attunement: Evangelicals have taken more interest in understanding the patristic sources. And, Sexton argues that this is somewhat unique in evangelical theology, since we are not currently demonstrating as much interest in other aspects of patristic thought.
  2. Residual Social Trinitarianism: Sexton notes that many prominent evangelical theologians have argued for a social model of the Trinity. But, he also points out that many have been sharply critical of this approach, and at least one, Stanley Grenz, began to move toward different models later in his life. So, he concludes that evangelical trinitarianism is still marked by social trinitarianism, but not to the same extent that it once was.
  3. Subordination Moratorium?: This was the part of his paper that seemed the least clear. I couldn’t tell if he was saying that there should be a moratorium on arguments regarding whether there is an eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, or whether he thought that things had actually begun to move in that direction. Either way, he clearly argued that this would be a good development.
  4. Philosophical Interdisciplinarity: There has been more interest recently in philosophy, particularly analytic philosophy, as providing useful resources for developing and understanding the Trinity.
  5. Trinitarian biblical theology: Although evangelicals remain divided on whether the whole Bible should be read trinitarianly, there is growing support for the importance of developing a doctrine of the Trinity through biblical theology, and allowing our biblical theology to be guided by our understanding of the Trinity.
  6. Trinitarian theological interpretation of Scripture: I’m not entirely clear on how he was differentiating this one from the previous (partly because most people use the label “theological interpretation” ambiguously).
  7. Ecclesial Trinitarianism: Unfortunately he had to skip this part, but here is where he wanted to point out the importance of the Trinity for worship (including the sacraments), pastoral theology, and the mission of the church.
  8. Christ-centeredness: Evangelicals generally affirm that our understanding of the Trinity should be Christocentric, as long as this is not understood to be Christomonistic (i.e. everything reduced to Christology), and as long as our christocentrism is seen as serving rather than detracting from a robust appreciation of the Father and the Spirit as well.

Sexton concluded the paper by offering a couple of ways forward for evangelical theology:

  1. We must do a better job recognizing that understanding the doctrine of the Trinity is not an end in itself, but should serve the life and mission of the Church.
  2. Correspondingly, Trinitarian theology needs to be connected more clearly to pastoral theology. Sexton expressed concern in several places that we stop trying to move directly from the doctrine of the Trinity to specific issues in the human realm (e.g., women in ministry), but he does think that the Trinity can and must be intelligently and intentionally connected to such pastoral issues. “In short, the church needs a Trinitarian theology that moves toward being a public theology.”
  3. We need to be much more careful with the “heresy” label.

Flotsam and jetsam (10/28)

The date is important for Christianity because Constantine went on to end imperial persecution of Christians (with the Edict of Milan in 313). He also converted to Christianity personally, and empowered and enriched the church in countless ways, from copying Bible texts, to gathering the first ecumenical council, to beginning Christian architecture. What’s not to love?

… when He became incarnate, and was made man, He recapitulated in himself the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam–namely, to be according to the image and likeness of God–that we might recover in Christ Jesus. (Against Heresies III.18.1)

Samuel, this seven pound two ounce wonder, represents, no less than other children, what Jürgen Moltmann once named ‘metaphors of God’s hope for us’, that with every child, a new life – original, unique, incomparable – begins. And that while we typically ask, who does this or that child look like…, we also encounter the entirely different, the entirely dissimilar and unique in each child. It is, Moltmann suggests, precisely these differences that we need to respect if we want to love life and allow an open future. Moltmann also recalls that with every beginning of a new life, the hope for the reign of peace and justice is given a new chance….Every new life is also a new beginning of hope for a homeland in this unredeemed world. If it were not, we would have no reason to expect anything new from a beginning.

Be suspicious of statistics, especially those that seem too good or too bad or too surprising to be true.

You’re two years into your administration and the question that arises in my mind is, Are we the people that we were waiting for? Or, are those people are still out there and we don’t have their number?

Flotsam and jetsam (10/26)

Is Buddha really any worse than Aristotle? Why shouldn’t a theologian from Korea or Taiwan seek to use Buddha or Confucius where the language is suitable and doesn’t contradict the gospel?  In this case Moore’s criticism may be spot on. I don’t know. But I do know that we need to realize our own hybridity is as much a concern as someone else’s.

And, much if not most of the New Testament, develops its theology of Jesus within a framework of low Christology. Low versus high Christology is one of the points of genuine theological diversity in the New Testament, with the Synoptic Gospels in particular (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) telling stories of Jesus as a specially empowered man whom they do not simultaneously depict as God incarnate.

The monsters of the undead embody our fears of death. In agrarian eras we confronted death more directly. Nowadays we have to wait for the dead to come to our door once a year at Halloween. Or we can go to zombie movies. Either way, we feel a need to use monsters to confront our bodies, their gooshy vulnerabilities, and their ultimate demise. Monsters are existential.

  • On a similar note, John Byron points out an important new scholarly work for understanding the Matthean tradition – a webcomic called Zombie Jesus. How is it that no one has written on this vital subject before?

The comic will tell the story of the 48 hours following the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in which a horde of zombies attack Jerusalem in search of the messiah’s body.

Predestination, as normally taught by all the venerable reformed divines, both past and present, is unstable and unhelpful. In the past, I and everybody else that I have read got around this by employing the very useful term ‘mystery’ to cover the internal contradictions that rip the doctrine apart.

The church, or I should say, church people, must quit adding the word “but” to the end of our sentences about grace. Grace plus is no longer grace. Grace minus is no longer grace. We are afraid people will abuse grace if presented in its purest form. We need not fear that, we should assume that. Religious people crucified grace personified. Of course grace will be abused. But grace is a powerful dynamic. Grace wins out in the end. It is not our responsibility to qualify it. It is our responsibility to proclaim it and model it.