Results tagged “Historical Theology” from Reformation21 Blog

Know When to Hold'em


As any poker player knows (and I am not a poker player--I tend to steer clear of competitions where the victor takes home a bracelet), the hand is over when all the cards have been dealt, all the bets have been called, the players' cards are turned over and they reveal who has won the pot.

The image of that poker moment came to mind in a discussion I once had with some church members about the role and value of ecclesial creeds for the Christian life, especially when it comes to meaningful theological exchange between two professing believers. I remembered a friend who resides in a church tradition that rejects any notion of creeds. He saw creeds as man's conscious or unconscious attempts to bend Scripture to suit his own desires. Indulging another metaphor, I assured my friend that, although the historic creeds of the church are not infallible, they provide a deep theological stream of carefully articulated doctrines that have contributed through the years to unity, health and honesty in the church. I told him he was in the current of that stream whenever he claims that God is triune, that Christ is divine, that justification is by grace alone through faith alone, or when he claims any other orthodox tenet of belief.  And I warned him that to claim "No creed but the Bible" would, itself, be creedal, but, by comparison to the historical creedal stream of the church, his would be but a shallow and muddy ditch. It would be to show only some of his cards.  It would identify the basis for what he believes, but it would not reveal what his beliefs are.

Creeds help us lay our theological cards on the table for all to see. They differentiate our hand from the hands of others around the theological table. They tell all who would look at our cards not only that our beliefs are grounded in the Bible, but that "these are the truths revealed in the Scriptures as the Word of God." They tether our confession of Scripture to the content of Scripture. They do not leave anyone wondering what we mean when we claim the Bible is God's very Word. Indeed, many through the ages, and even today, who call for creedal revisions deploy words like "inspiration" and "atonement" only to inject those words with unorthodox content. Poker, then, has an advantage over some of the theological hands being played today. In poker what the cards are and what they mean cannot be subverted.

At least two lessons are ready for the taking: First, holding to the enduring creeds that present the truths of Holy Scripture is akin to holding a royal flush. Second, should anyone entice us to abandon the historic creeds of the church, we should remember The Gambler's adage, "You've got to know when to hold'em...and when to walk away."

Rev. Dr. R. Carlton Wynne is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics. He has served as a pastor in the Presbyterian Church in America, and has co-edited with Derek Thomas Zeal for Godliness: Devotional Meditations on Calvin's Institutes.

*This post is a slightly adapted version of a post originally published at Reformation21 on October 2, 2010. 

Ressourcement: retrieving our past for present faithfulness, part 2
Love and Its cost in The Letter to Diognetus

The Apostle Paul's descriptions of the social fabric of the pagan world of his day are not pleasant. "Living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another" (Titus 3:3) is the way that Paul depicts life in the first-century world, for example, in his letter to Titus. No wonder that Christian communities stood out like brilliant lights in a dark firmament (Philippians 2:14). 

"O the sweet exchange"

The pagan Diognetus, to whom an anonymous Christian author wrote in the late second century, is another powerful witness to the fact that life in the Church was qualitatively different from the pagan world, for he asked this author--thus in part prompting the letter that we began to look at last month--"What is the warm fraternal affection they [i.e. believers] all feel for one another?"[1] The author's answer to this question is tied to his argument for the antiquity of Christianity. The author has argued that God revealed his plan of salvation to none in the past but his "beloved Son"--a weak argument as it fails to take account of the place of the Old Testament in salvation history as was noted last month. The author continued: when human beings realized their utter and complete inability to gain heaven by their own strength and were conscious of their sin and impending judgment, God, 
did not hate or reject us or bear us ill-will. Rather, he was long-suffering, bore with us, and in mercy he took our sins upon himself. He himself gave his own Son as a ransom for us--the Holy One for the godless, the Innocent One for the wicked, the Righteous One for the unrighteous, the Incorruptible for the corruptible, the Immortal for the mortal. For what else was able to cover our sins except his righteousness? In whom could we, who were lawless and godless, have been justified, but in the Son of God alone? O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!--that the wickedness of many should be hidden in the one Righteous Man, and the righteousness of the One should justify the many wicked![2]
The use of the term "ransom" at the head of this passage recalls the statement of Jesus in Mark 10:45 about the ultimate purpose of his coming into the world, his substitutionary death on behalf of sinners: "the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." 

The Letter to Diognetus has five dialectical ways of expressing this act of substitution, one of which--"the Righteous One for the unrighteous"--almost exactly reproduces a phrase from 1 Peter 3:18. What is highlighted in this dialectic are the twin soteriological themes of the Son's utter sinlessness and humanity's radical depravity. This is a truly marvelous text, as the author, overwhelmed by what took place at the cross, is lost in rapture, awe, and praise. Here, as so often happens in the writings of Paul, theology gives way to doxology: "O the sweet exchange! O the inscrutable work of God! O blessings beyond all expectation!" 

Imitating God

The author is now ready to answer Diognetus' question about the love of Christians for one another. Christians love one another because God first loved them when they were sinners and showed that love through the awesome substitutionary sacrifice of his own beloved Son on their behalf. Embracing the Son's death for one's sins by faith alone--earlier the author had stated that God "has only revealed himself to faith, by which alone are we permitted to know God"[3] --leads to a desire to imitate God, the great Lover of mankind.
God loved the race of men. It was for their sakes that he made the world; it was to them that he gave dominion over everything in it. On them he bestowed reason and understanding, and they alone received permission to lift their eyes to him. He formed them in his own image; he sent his only-begotten Son to them; he promised them the kingdom of heaven, and to those who have loved him he will surely give it. Once you have grasped these truths, think how your joy will overflow, and what love you will feel for him who loved you so.[4]
And it is in this mutual love of believers for one another and for their neighbors that evidence is seen that "God lives in heaven" (10.7). Christian love is thus a key evidence for the truth of the Christian worldview.

Pagan hatred & Christian martyrdom

However, like many other peoples in history, those of the Roman Empire responded to Christian love with fear and hatred, ostracism and persecution. This hatred and the Christian response to it are mentioned a number of times in the letter. For example, in chapter 5 of the Letter to Diognetus we read this about these early Christians:
They show love to all men--and all men persecute them. They are misunderstood, and condemned; yet by suffering death they are quickened into life. They are poor, yet making many rich; lacking all things, yet having all things in abundance. They are dishonoured, yet made glorious in their very dishonour; slandered, yet vindicated. They repay calumny with blessings, and abuse with courtesy. For the good they do, they suffer stripes as evildoers; and under the strokes they rejoice like men given new life. Jews assail them as heretics, and Greeks harass them with persecutions; and yet of all their ill-wishers there is not one who can produce good grounds for his hostility [5]
As this passage lays bare, Christians were verbally abused by their fellow Greeks and Romans, despoiled, put on trial as evil-doers, and condemned to death. Notice, though, how they reacted: with love: "they show love to all men."

The Roman mode of executing enemies of the state and criminals varied, for Roman punishment was tailored to the social status of the criminal rather than the crime. Thus, beheading was the major form of execution for citizens of the Empire who committed a capital offence. Non-citizens and slaves could be exposed to a whole range of horrific means of execution, including burning and being mauled to death by ferocious beasts. Both of the latter are mentioned in this letter. In 10.8 we read of believers who "endure for righteousness' sake a transient flame."[6] And at the close of chapter 7 the author mentions death by wild beasts: 
[Have you not seen Christians] flung to the wild beasts to make them deny their Lord, and yet remaining undefeated? Do you not see how the more of them suffer such punishments, the larger grows the number of the rest? These things do not look like the work of man; they are the power of God, and the evident tokens of his presence.[7]
The way in which the author views the martyrdoms of believers is noteworthy. They are, first of all, a means by which the church grows. As the North African theologian Tertullian (fl.190-215) once put it: "the blood of Christians is seed."[8] Second, the author of the Letter to Diognetus sees in the steadfastness of the martyrs nothing less than a proof for the truth of the martyrs' testimony. Apologetics in the Ancient Church took place not only by means of reasoning through the spoken word and such tracts as this letter, but also in the midst of horrific martyrdoms. 

Justin Martyr (c.100-c.165), who himself was martyred, was brought to Christ by watching the way that believers died in the arena. "When I myself revelled in the teachings of Plato," he tells us, "and heard the Christians misrepresented and watched them stand fearless in the face of death and every other thing that was considered fearful, I realized the impossibility of their living in sinful pleasure."[9]  Similarly, Tertullian spoke of the apologetic power of those who shed their blood for their love of Christ: "whoever beholds such noble endurance will first, as though struck by some kind of uneasiness, be driven to enquire what is the matter in question, and, then, when he knows the truth, immediately follow the same way."[10]

Learning from the past

In any defence of the Christian Faith, God's revelation of himself in his Son, Jesus Christ, and Christ's death for sinners must play the central role. It is the death of the Son that frees men and women from sin and shame and bondage to idolatry, and thus enables them to genuinely participate in God's love, both as recipients and as agents of love to others. 

Another important element in witness is the love of Christian believers for one another, their life together, and even their dying for their faith. To pick up on this final point of dying for one's faith: this treatise is a marvellous witness to the fact that the Ancient Church knew there are some things more important than life itself. In the words of Justin Martyr: "the lover of truth must choose, in every way possible, to do and say what is right, even when threatened with death, rather than save his own life."[11]

Michael A.G. Haykin is the Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He has written widely on the Ancient Church and eighteenth-century Dissent


[1] Letter to Diognetus 1.1.

[2] Diognetus 9.2-5, trans. Michael A.G. Haykin.

[3] Letter to Diognetus 8.6, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, Early Christian Writings (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books Ltd., 1968), 147, altered.

[4] Letter to Diognetus 10.2-3, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 148, altered.
[5] Letter to Diognetus 5.11-17, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 145.
[6] Letter to Diognetus 10.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 149, altered.

[7] Letter to Diognetus 7.8, trans. Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 146. At the beginning of this verse there is a gap in the manuscript, and the material enclosed in square brackets is supplied to make sense of what follows.

[8] Apology 50.13, trans. Emily Joseph Daly in her, Rudolph Arbesmann and Edwin A. Quain, trans. Tertullian: Apologetical Works and Minucius Felix: Octavius (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 125.

[9] Second Apology 12, trans. Thomas B. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr (New York: Christian Heritage Inc., 1948), 132.

[10] To Scapula 5, trans. Rudolph Arbesmann in his, Daly, and Quain, Tertullian: Apologetical Works, 161.

[11] First Apology 2.1, trans. Falls, Saint Justin Martyr, 34.

Review: "Pillars of Grace"

A Long Line of Godly Men (Volume 2, AD100 - 1564): Pillars of Grace
Steven J. Lawson
Reformation Trust, 2011, 543pp., hardback, $28.00
ISBN 978-1-56769-211-2

Volume One (Foundations) in this series concentrated on the doctrines of sovereign grace as displayed through the entirety of the Bible. This volume (Pillars) picks up the threads in the days of the (post-)apostolic church and traces it forward into the sixteenth century. The aim and approach are simple: to demonstrate the continuity of the teaching of the doctrines of grace through the history of the church. To this end, our author is deliberately selective, identifying a series of figures who - despite some particular aberrations at certain points - nevertheless upheld gospel truth in some form and to some degree. Different figures receive differing degrees of concentration and emphasis, and their weaknesses and errors are not overlooked, but the point is to show the light shining, and shining increasingly brightly as we march toward the Reformation. Each figure is put in context, then we are given a brief biography, an outline of key writings, a review of theology, a concluding assessment, and a page of study questions. In reading, it stands out that the theme of double predestination (specifically, reprobation) receives sufficient attention (given that it is not often addressed in works of this kind) as to almost feel like an emphasis. Taking into account how easy it is to mishandle the issue, this is worth noting. Written with warmth and pastoral insight, all-in-all this is a fascinating volume dealing with a profitable theme in stimulating fashion: here Ignatius, Irenaeus, Athanasius, Ambrose, Isidore, Gottschalk, Bradwardine, Hus, Tyndale and Calvin - with others - rub shoulders, each more or less preaching the wonders of redeeming grace. In considering that theme through the ages of the church, this is a grand resource.

"It takes no courage to sign up as a Protestant. To live by the truths of historic Protestantism, however, is an entirely different matter. That takes courage in today's context."

Why? Wells answers:

"The truths of historic Protestantism are sometimes no more welcome in evangelicalism than they are in the outside culture."

from The Courage to Be Protestant: Truth-lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World (Eerdmans, 2008).