Article 7: The Old Testament

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 7 states:

VII. Of the Old Testament                                                                                                   

The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting life is offered to Mankind by Christ, who is the only Mediator between God and Man, being both God and Man. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God by Moses, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Christian men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

What to make of the Old Testament has been a challenge for many Christians throughout history, and remains so today.  There are many issues that come up – how does the Law apply to us?  What does Israel have to do with the Church?  Aren’t Christians free from the Law?  Is it still the Word of God?

One of the earliest mistakes in dealing with the Old Testament is exemplified by the 2nd century heretic Marcion.  He came to the conclusion that “the god of the Old Testament” was a different and inferior god to the one revealed in Jesus Christ and his Father.  To him, the Old Testament was an account of the history of God’s people longing for salvation but not finding it in their jealous and angry god, Yahweh.  As Scripture, therefore, it was useless to Christians, who know the true God through Jesus in the New Testament alone.  The heresy of completely rejecting the Old Testament is named after him, Marcionism, and it pops up even today when people make the retort “you can’t teach doctrine from the Old Testament, that’s obsolete!”

Another mistake often made is called antinomianism.  It’s a Greek term meaning “against the Law.”  Like Marcionism, it rejects the authority of the Old Testament Law, but without tossing the Old Testament completely into the rubbish heap.  Antinomians over-emphasize the writings of Saint Paul that describe the Christian freedom from the Law (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:17, Galatians 2:4-5, 5:1-15, and Ephesians 2:14-16), and under-emphasize the continuing value of the Law (cf. Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:27).  As such, an Antinomian will argue that all Christian moral teachings have to come from the New Testament, such as (and especially) the Sermon on the Mount.  Even the Ten Commandments are not to be taught as Christian teaching, claims the Antinomian, unless their New Testament references can be supplied.  Like Marcionism, though, this view still ultimately denies the Scriptural authority of much of the content of the Old Testament.

The correct way to deal with the Old Testament, and particularly its central attention to the Law of Moses, is to take the Law on its own terms rather than according to our own agenda (be it Marcion’s view of an Old Testament versus New Testament god, or the Antinomian’s view of the Old Testament Law having finished its purpose).  This is where Article VII comes into the picture.

It begins by pointing out that the whole Bible attests to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and thus the Old and New Testaments work together in harmony; they don’t fight each other.  Next it points out that the “old Fathers,” that is, the holy men and women who lived in the Old Testament times, were not looking “only for transitory promises” – their concern was for salvation from sin just as ours is.  And thus their Bible, our Old Testament, speaks to spiritual issues just as the New Testament does. It’s not as if Israel is just about territory and the Church is about heavenly citizenship; both are about heavenly citizenship.  The Old Testament Scriptures were and are God’s Word, and their meaning is made clearest in light of the New Testament.  In other words, a Christian can understand the Old Testament better than a Jew.

This still leaves the question of what to do with the Law.  There have been different ways of conceptualizing this, but Article VII here takes the classic Reformers’ approach.  The commands of the Law of Moses fall into three categories: religious law, civil law, and moral law.

The “ceremonies and rites” of the Old Testament religious law are abolished: the priesthood of Aaron has given way to the Priesthood of Christ; the sacrifices in the Temple have given way to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross; all the commandments pertaining to the Old Covenant system of worship no longer bind us.  We can learn about worship and holiness from them, but their function is completed.

Similarly, the “civil precepts” for how the ancient kingdom of Israel was to be run are not required to become civil laws anywhere else.  The list of transgressions and punishments, certainly, give us insight into the justice of God, and can help Christians formulate “godly laws” in the present day, but there is no command or need to imitate the laws of ancient Israel to the letter.

However, Christians are not “free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.”  Where the Old Testament Law speaks of right and wrong in God’s eyes, we see eternal teachings that are eternally unchangeable.  How a country is run is changeable because countries come and go; how God’s people worship in the Old Covenant is changeable because the Old Covenant came to its completion; but sin is still sin.  Now, it is convenient (especially for the Antinomians) that much of the Old Testament moral law is repeated in the New Testament, but the Christian does not need the New Testament to “verify” Old Testament moral teaching.  Both are of the Word of God, and both are binding authorities over us and the whole the Church.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Article 6: the Scriptures

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 6 states:

VI. Of the Sufficiency of the holy Scriptures for salvation

Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation. In the name of the holy Scripture we do understand those Canonical Books of the Old and New Testament, of whose authority was never any doubt in the Church.

Of the Names and Number of the Canonical Books

Genesis; Exodus; Leviticus; Numbers; Deuteronomy; Joshua; Judges; Ruth; The First Book of Samuel; The Second Book of Samuel; The First Book of Kings; The Second Book of Kings; The First Book of Chronicles; The Second Book of Chronicles; The First Book of Esdras; The Second Book of Esdras; The Book of Esther; The Book of Job; The Psalms; The Proverbs; Ecclesiastes or Preacher; Cantica, or Songs of Solomon; Four Prophets the greater; Twelve Prophets the less

And the other Books (as Jerome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine; such are these following:

The Third Book of Esdras; The Fourth Book of Esdras; The Book of Tobias; The Book of Judith; The rest of the Book of Esther; The Book of Wisdom; Jesus the Son of Sirach; Baruch the Prophet; The Song of the Three Children; The Story of Susanna; Of Bel and the Dragon; The Prayer of Manasses; The First Book of Maccabees; The Second Book of Maccabees

All the Books of the New Testament, as they are commonly received, we do receive, and account them Canonical.

This is the Anglican version of the classic Reformation doctrine sola scriptura – that Scripture alone has infallible authority over and in the Church.  Today, the concept of sola scriptura is often misunderstood and stretched in a direction contrary to its original intent, often to uphold “the Bible” against “tradition” in a false dichotomy.  In light of such problems today, it is helpful for us to have our doctrine of Scripture spelled out so succinctly here in Article 6.

Without going into detailed arguments about buzzwords such as “infallibility” and “inerrancy,” our belief described here is simply that all dogma – everything that must be believed by a Christian in order to be a real Christian – is to be found directly in the Bible or can be proved from the study of the Bible.  If a teaching cannot be found in or proven by Scripture, then it cannot be required for a person to believe, and is relegated to the category of pious opinion.  Furthermore, as will be pointed out in another Article, if a teaching is contradicted by Scripture, then that teaching is false and to be discarded.

The books of the Old Testament are then listed, which is an interesting exercise for the modern reader as the familiar names differ slightly between when this Article was written and the present day.  Ezra and Nehemiah were known as 1 and 2 Esdras, the four greater (or major) prophets are what we call Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, plus the book of Lamentations is here considered part of Jeremiah where we often speak of it separately.

The books of the New Testament are not listed because there was no significant controversy over what those books are.

What’s particular to Anglicanism here in Article 6 is the listing of “the other Books.”  Protestants call them the Apocrypha, Roman Catholics call them the Deuterocanon, Anglicans historically used neither term.  For apocrypha is a derogatory term emphasizing a negative view of those books, and deuterocanon is an honorific term that places those books on equal footing with the rest of the Old Testament.  Instead, the Anglican position regarding “the other Books” is to note their distinction from the Old Testament without completely throwing them away.  As Article 6 describes, they are to be read in the church (thus they appear in our liturgies and lectionaries) for teaching about Christian life and manners (or morality) but not for establishing dogma or doctrine.

Thus the Anglican tradition remains faithful to the witness and practice of the Early Church, wherein many great teachers of the faith made frequent use of “the other Books” (such as Saint Augustine of Hippo) while others were critical of the nature of their authority (such as Saint Jerome, chief translator of the influential Latin Vulgate Bible).

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Article 5: the Holy Spirit

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 5 states:

V. Of the Holy Ghost

The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory, with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

The full divinity of the Holy Spirit, and thus his personhood as a member of the Trinity, was one of the many theological conundrums that the Early Church slowly, carefully, and painfully worked out.  But by the time these Articles were written, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit as the third person of the Trinity had been settled for nearly a thousand years, so as with the previous four Articles, there is nothing “new” or particularly controversial to be said here.  We read here that the Spirit is consubstantial (“of one substance”) with the Father and the Son, repeating language from Articles 1 & 2, equal in divinity with the Father and the Son, and is thus also the true and eternal God.

The one term in this Article that merits particular attention is the word “proceeding.”  In John 15:26, Jesus taught that the Spirit “proceeds from the Father.”  Given the doctrine of the Trinity – one God in three persons – theologians have latched on to this phrase to describe the relationship between the Father and the Spirit to distinguish it from the relationship of the Father and the Son.  The Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father; the Spirit “eternally proceeds” from the Father.  Although what these terms substantially mean in practical terms are shrouded in mystery (God is beyond our understanding after all), they are useful words we are given in the Bible to grasp some of the basics of how to understand this three-in-one God.

Now, because we don’t have a clear concept of the difference between “proceeding” and “begotten,” some theologians sought another way to explain the difference between the Spirit’s and the Son’s respective relationships with the Father.  Taking the first part of John 15:26 into account, where Jesus adds that he will send the Spirit who proceeds from the Father, the idea arose to specify that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son.  Unfortunately, the Nicene Creed had already been written and signed off at two Ecumenical (worldwide) Councils, so when the Latin-speaking West added “and the Son” (or filioque in Latin) to that Creed, the Greek-speaking East got very upset over such unilateral action, and this was a major contributor to the final split of Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism in 1054.

There are considerable theological minutiae that can be explored here as the ramifications of these technical-but-significant terms are worked out, but such would be too lengthy for a study of this caliber.  Suffice it to say here that the Anglican (and indeed all the Reformation) tradition has maintained the language of the Spirit proceeding from the Father and the Son, though in the past couple decades a movement towards accepting the original language of the Creed (omitting “and the Son”) has gained traction in the Anglican Communion.  As long as we keep our eyes on the words of Christ in John 15:26 and similar passages, we can’t stray too far off course regarding the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

“The People’s Work” by Frank Senn

I just finished reading an excellent book called The People’s Work – A Social History of the Liturgy, by the Rev. Dr. Frank C. Senn.  As you look at that subtitle, two words (history and liturgy) probably immediately tell you that I’m being a nerd, and this book is actually really boring.  But bear with me; this is an interesting and readable book, and worth hearing about.

This book outlines the story of how Christian worship developed since the days of the New Testament.  As a “social history,” this book pays particular attention to the way worship practices (liturgy) were influenced by the culture of the world around, or were a rejection or other sort of interaction with said culture.  It does present some theological background and explanation for some aspects of liturgy, but that is not its main purpose.  You don’t need to be a seminary student to understand this book.

What’s in this book?

To summarize the contents of the book, I’ll list the chapter titles and my brief summary of the content of each.

Chapter 1 – Socially speaking, what kind of group was the Christian assembly?  Pre-existing models for forming a local church include a Jewish Sect, a Household, a Club or Cultic Association, and a School.  But ecclesia (church) as a “Shadow Empire” really brings it all together: the local churches understood themselves as part of a larger universal body or whole.

Chapter 2 – Sacraments and Cult.  The “cultus” of Christianity, especially the Sacraments, have many Jewish and Greco-Roman counterparts to inform their development.

Chapter 3 – Apocalypse and Christian liturgy.  The book of Revelation is a reflection of the liturgy, and the apocalyptic culture of Early Christian worship continued into monasticism.

Chapter 4 – Times, Occasions, and the Communion of Saints. The Calendar and Hours arose for theological and practical reasons; never merely aping or replacing Pagan holidays.

Chapter 5 – Sacred places and Liturgical art in Late Antique Culture.  Sacred space developed in the sharp contrast to Pagan preference, and sacred art developed in sharp contrast to Jewish preference.

Chapter 6 – People and places for different liturgies.  The development of the Orders of Ministry and the standardization of liturgical rites and church architecture were all mutually influencing.

Chapter 7 – Church music through the Carolingian Renaissance.  Music and singing developed in such ways as to combat Paganism and heretics, expand beyond Jewish origins, as well as to beautify worship yet seeking new ways to include the lay people.

Chapter 8 – Vernacular elements in the Medieval Latin Mass.  Worship in local languages was frequently rediscovered through new hymns or carols or other resources.  Protestants only continued that practice; they didn’t invent it.

Chapter 9 – The Medieval liturgical calendar.  The liturgical calendar was developed with few pre-Christian influences remaining.

Chapter 10 – The Eucharistic Body and the Social Body in the Middle Ages.  Beliefs and practices surrounding Holy Communion impacted the social bonds of Medieval European society.

Chapter 11 – The dissolution of the Social Body in the Reformation Communion. The Eucharist lost its place of social centrality during the Reformation, especially to the State.

Chapter 12 – Death here and life hereafter in the Middle Ages and Reformation.  Medieval and Reformation doctrines and liturgies concerning death and burial were among the most radical changes of their day.

Chapter 13 – The ecclesiastical captivity of marriage.  Marriage long held a mixed secular and sacred position, and in the Reformation the Church and State were emphasized by different traditions.

Chapter 14 – Liturgy and confessional identity.  Liturgy, as the performance of theology through worship, was a critical tool for establishing the Reformation or Counter-Reformation.

Chapter 15 – Popular devotions, Pious communities, and Holy Communion.  Popular (or “paraliturgical”) devotions, hymn singing, Pietist meeting groups, and attitudes toward receiving Communion in the 17th-18th centuries revealed a growing sense of emotionalism and individualism.

Chapter 16 – Worship Awakening.  Revivalism in the USA, largely driven by culture, codified the emotional and individualist notion of worship and made it consumerist (what I get out of it, rather than what we put into it).

Chapter 17 – Liturgical Restoration.  The Enlightenment beginning in the mid-1700’s made the liturgy rationalistic and asserted more state control over the church.  Liturgical restoration has been slowly ongoing ever since.

Chapter 18 – Liturgical Renewal.  Liturgical renewal is a movement that has focused on the congregation’s participation in worship… often controversial but ecumenically successful.

Good points about the book

Whether you’re a Roman Catholic well-established in the Mass and the Hours and the Rosary, a Pentecostal who can’t imagine a legitimate worship service without speaking in tongues and prophetic utterances, or anywhere in between, there is a tendency to take one’s worship tradition for granted.  It’s not just about “why” we worship the way we do, there’s also the question of “how” our tradition ended up the way it did.  The Prayer Book I use wasn’t around in the 13th century.  The way your church baptizes people isn’t identical to how the Early Church baptized people.  This book traces the development of many aspects of worship – sacraments, ministry, music, calendar and seasons, and others – through the course of history.

This book’s 18 chapters are also organized by topic and arranged chronologically, so if there’s something in particular you want to read about, it’s pretty easy to dive in to the chapter(s) you need, and skip the rest.

Frank Senn wrote this book in an informal manner.  He doesn’t use more technical terms than he has to.  And when he does use them (especially Latin words like gradual or sanctus) he explains them right away.

Bad points about the book

However, once a technical term has been defined, Senn feels free to use that term without re-explanation through the rest of the book.  If you’re reading each chapter all the way through, this won’t be a problem, but if you come to this book aiming to study the Protestant and Revivalist worship culture of America, you may run up against a few references to material in earlier chapters without explanation or footnote.  Not that that’s a terrible thing, it just makes it harder for someone new to the subject to cherry-pick their way through this book.

My only disappointment with The People’s Work is the Epilogue.  There he briefly introduces the “emergent church” movement and offers a brief definition of the “liturgical retrieval” that they tend to practice.  And then, without much explanation or argumentation, he asserts his opinion that the future of Christianity in the Global South is going to be characterized by emergent liturgical retrieval.  It’s an oddly incongruous conclusion to draw after spending most of 18 chapters tracing a continuous development of worship practices for nearly 2,000 years.

Overall Thoughts

If you’ve never thought much about worship practices before, this is a good first book to pick up on the subject.  If you think you know a lot about worship, but haven’t read many (or any) books on the subject, this is still a good first book to delve into.  The author is an attentive scholar, careful to keep his opinions out of the way (until the epilogue), giving a fair hearing to Roman Catholics, Revivalists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, and Pentecostals alike.

If you really want to dig into the subject of liturgy and worship, this is an excellent resource for giving you the scope of Christian worship without getting bogged down in too many technical details.  Pair this with a book that explores liturgy from a theological/spiritual perspective, such as Liturgical Theology by Simon Chan, and you’ll have yourself a fantastic start into understanding the basics of why worship takes place the way it does.

Posted in Book Review | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Article 4: the Resurrection of Christ

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 4 states:

  1. Of the Resurrection of Christ

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones, and all things appertaining to the perfection of Man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into Heaven, and there sitteth, until he return to judge all Men at the last day.

It is universally professed among all true Christians without hesitation that Christ rose again from death, and after forty days ascended into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father, from where he will return to judge the world on the Last Day.  What often is not appreciated as clearly are the details this Article describes.

It first must be pointed out that the resurrection of Jesus was a bodily resurrection.  Either unintentionally or purposefully, the idea creeps into the minds of some people that Christ’s resurrection was “spiritual” but not “bodily.”  Part of this faulty mindset is related to a non-christian philosophy that proclaims spiritual matter as good and physical matter as evil, thus claiming that Christ’s resurrection gave him a perfected spiritual (and non-physical) body.  But the Scriptures contain many clear corrections to this idea: Jesus showed Thomas his crucifixion wounds, Jesus ate fish on a beach with some other disciples, Paul and others wrote of his bodily resurrection and ascension.

It next must be understood that his resurrected body was a perfected human nature.  When this article says that Christ rose with “all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature,” it’s affirming that the perfect human begin has a body.  In the resurrected Christ, we see not a super-human, not a demi-god, but a perfect human.  As he is in his resurrected state, so are we to become in our resurrected state.  We will still have a body, we will still eat and drink, and walk and talk; and we will be filled with God’s divine glory as he perfectly dwells in us and we in him.

Finally, the doctrine of Christ’s ascension and session (being seated at God’s right hand) also frequently falls short of popular Christian attention.  It is a matter of some mystery that he has ascended, in his human body, to the right hand of God the Father in heaven.  Must there be an actual location where Jesus is right now, or is it in another dimension, or outside of time and space as we know it?  There is much we can only speculate.  What we do know is that Jesus, in his full perfected humanity as well as his divinity, is face to face with the invisible true and living God.  And if one human being can sit next to God, so can the rest of us.  Indeed, in Ephesians 2:6, Paul writes that we are already seated with Christ in heaven, by virtue of the fact that we are one body with Him.

So just as the death, burial, and descent of Christ into hell are sources of hope and encouragement for us as we contemplate our own deaths, so too are the resurrection of Christ and the ascension of Christ into heaven sources of hope and encouragement for us as we contemplate the promise of eternal life.  And even though we “aren’t there yet,” we do know that Christ is King, already on the throne, at the right hand of God.  All glory and honor and power is his, and for that we can (and must!) give thanks.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Arrogance of Man’s Wisdom

As we heard about Jesus gathering some of his first disciples in the Gospel reading today, we also heard Paul gathering his initial salvo of arguments for his audience in Corinth.  The 1st letter to the Corinthians is an interesting book in that it is a snapshot of ordinary Christian life facing the challenges of the world.  The church in Corinth is made up of new believers – most of them probably 3 years old in Christ or less – and their relationships among themselves and with their founding Apostle, Paul, have become strained.  The whole book that we know as 1 Corinthians is Saint Paul’s major effort to correct their abuses, their mistakes, and their false beliefs.  The very opening to this letter, which we heard last week, is a standard polite greeting with a prayer of thanksgiving, common to nearly all of Paul’s letters, but the paragraph we heard today is where he begins to deal with the situation at hand.

Welcome to Corinth

Before we get into those specifics, I want to introduce you to the Corinthian city and church a bit first.  Corinth was an ancient Greek city located in a strategic plateau.  A couple miles to the East was the sea separating Greece and Turkey, and a couple miles to the West was the sea separating Greece and Italy.  This made Corinth a strategic city both in terms of protecting the rest of Greece to the South from invasion by land, and especially in terms of trade – rather than ships having to navigate the treacherous coastline around Greece they could unload their goods in Corinth and have them carried the few miles to the other coast.  In fact, small enough ships could be taken out of the water and dragged to the neighboring sea!  So Corinth was a very rich town in terms of money and culture as a result of this strategic location.  Of course, where there is lots of money and lots of culture, there tends to be lots of trouble.  One Bible commentator suggested we could think of Corinth as being a combination of today’s New York City, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas – a lot of cool things and a lot of shady things were going on.

If you know anything about Corinth from ancient Greek history, you can forget about it.  The old Corinth was destroyed, and after a century rebuilt by the Romans.  So the Corinth in the time of the New Testament was more of Roman colony than a bastion of Greek heritage, though the city did take on many characteristics of its previous incarnation.  As a new city, there were many people who had moved there for the express purpose of “making it big.”  Where there is opportunity, greed is quick to follow.  And so all the moral vices you might expect were being imported there pretty quickly.  It wasn’t quite the most “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” but it was a noteworthy problem city a far as morals are concerned.


Wikipedia’s nice picture of the fortifications of Acrocorinth

As for the culture and mentality of the people of Corinth, its Greco-Roman identity was a cosmopolitan outlook.  Religions and philosophies from all over the Roman Empire were brought in, as people traveled there in the hopes of finding patronage from the nouveau riche.  As such, itinerant teachers and philosophers were commonplace in Corinth, and that accounts in part for how Paul got such a quick audience when he first arrived there to preach the Gospel.  He was so successful there, according to Acts 18, that he remained there for a year and a half!  Clearly Paul was a popular traveling teacher, but how well did the Corinthians understand that the Gospel is a call to faith exclusive of all other faiths?  We’ll find out in a minute.

First let’s get this timeline sorted out.  Paul was in Corinth around the year 52AD.  After he left, another traveling teacher named Apollos spent time there, continuing the work Paul had begun.  It’s also likely that Peter visited Corinth with his wife shortly thereafter, in the early 50’s.  For a couple years the church in Corinth flourished under the guidance of these three great teachers, and the local leaders they raised up.  The exact sequence of events that followed is difficult to reconstruct, but at some point Paul sent a letter to the Corinthians to correct some issues, probably sexual misconduct that he’d heard about (1 Cor. 5:9).  The Corinthians, then, sent him a reply letter which indicated that they were not particularly penitent about the matter, and furthermore, they seemed to be questioning Paul’s authority to judge them.  Between this and a third-party report Paul received about the situation in Corinth, Paul was prompted to write a second, longer and more detailed, letter to them around the year 55AD.  That is what we have in the Bible called 1 Corinthians.  Although the precise sequence of events is not clear to us today, we do see that Paul clearly cites his sources, particularly that his third-party information came through “Chloe’s people” (1:11).  Even though we don’t know exactly who Chloe’s people are (if they’re family members, business associates, or something else), the Corinthians probably did, so Paul is establishing that he is not reacting to hearsay and gossip, but to a direct report of their situation.

What’s Wrong

So, what actually was the problem that prompted Paul to write 1 Corinthians?  Well, there were several problems in Corinth.  I find it best to group them into three categories.

First, the Corinthians had reverted to a Greco-Roman obsession with “wisdom” as “true spirituality.”  They were used to traveling teachers, and it was commonplace to receive the best of each philosophy these teachers taught and piece them together to form a robust and sophisticated spirituality.  Paul, Apollos, and others, had given them the Christian Gospel which they esteemed to be the highest divine wisdom, but they continued to treat it as human wisdom.  They focused on Paul’s superior insight into the divine and Apollos’ superior eloquence in preaching, and perhaps Peter’s force of personality, and began to lose track of the actual content and substance of what they taught.  They pursued wisdom and insight as merely intellectual matters, with little respect for the true focus of the Gospel, let alone its ramifications for Christian living.

Second, the Corinthian church was experiencing what we might call some class divides.  It seems there were a couple wealthy families vying for influence and power, accompanied with competing philosophical arguments about the Christian message.  This resulted particularly in some gross misconduct in their celebration of Holy Communion, to the point where Paul actually went so far as to say that their sacrament was invalid!  “When you meet together, it is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (11:20).  Money and the desire for control had sabotaged their worship, and Paul had to tell them to go eat at home, completely separating the Sacrament of our Lord’s Body and Blood from the fellowship meal that might have accompanied it.

The third problem the Corinthian Christians had was the classic Greek belief we call dualism.  Dualism is the belief that physical matter and existence is bad, and spiritual existence is good.  Salvation, or enlightenment, involves escaping from the shell of this body and ascending to the spiritual realms of true unfettered intelligence, knowledge, and being.  According to this view, there are two approaches to treating the body during this life: one is to violently subdue the body and constantly punish it because it is so evil – fasting, abstaining from wine and sex and other pleasures; the other is to go crazy and indulge all the desires of the flesh.  In either extreme, the underlying attitude is that the body doesn’t matter.  It’s temporary, it’s not the real you, and in due time you’ll be free of it forever.  Some parts of the Christian message sometimes sound a little like this dualist philosophy, and so every now and then it pops up in Christian thought – both in the Early Church as well as in our own day and age.  For the Corinthians, this manifested in two big ways: rampant sexual immorality (which Paul addresses in chapter 5), and a denial of the bodily resurrection of Christ and all people (which Paul addresses in chapter 15).

What we read from 1 Corinthians today is where Paul begins to deal with the first of these issues: the Greco-Roman obsession with “wisdom.”  As you know, and as Paul also knew full well, there is a lot in the Old Testament about wisdom.  Wisdom is so important in a couple books, in fact, that it’s personified as a woman, Sophia in Greek, and occasionally treated as an equal to God Almighty!  Christians have since come to understand this Lady Wisdom, or Sophia, to be an Old Testament picture of Jesus Christ.  But the Corinthians were not on board with any of this yet.  When they heard wisdom, they thought of worldly wisdom.  And so when Paul is condemning wisdom here in verse 17, it is specifically their worldly wisdom that he is condemning.  Paul will continue his attack on earthly wisdom in the next paragraph that we’ll hear next Sunday, so try to keep this in mind next week too!

More specifically, the problem with their version of earthly wisdom is that it runs away from the Gospel.  Paul’s specific words here, that it empties the Cross of its power, is the key indicator of what’s wrong here.  If the focus of your spirituality is to gain wisdom, then wisdom is the center of the Gospel, instead of the Cross.  And Paul is adamant, here and in all of his writings, that the Cross – the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus – is the heart of the Gospel, and without it, there is no Gospel at all.  So when Paul says he preached the Gospel “not with eloquent wisdom,” he is emphasizing that the power of the Gospel of Christ is not found in the effectiveness of the preacher, but in what the message points to – the power of the Cross!

And so, one obvious consequence of the Corinthians’ pursuit of worldly wisdom at the expense of the true Gospel is schism.  Paul repeats their petty slogans “I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Peter, I am of Christ.”  Contrary to what you might imagine, these are not four distinct ‘parties’ in the church just yet.  Notice that they say I am of so-and-so, not we.  But these claims of allegiance, or these uses of others’ names, are indications that the congregation is beginning to pull apart.  If Paul doesn’t nip this in bud now, disaster will be inevitable.

Addressing Worldly Wisdom

You can tell that these goings-on in Corinth upset Paul, because he resorts to a little bit of sarcasm in verse 13.  “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?”  Obviously the answer to each of these questions is no; Paul knows that, the Corinthians know that; he’s asking these questions to highlight just how absurd the Corinthians sound.  Of course Christ can’t be divided, or apportioned out as if he’s one teacher among many.  Of course Paul wasn’t crucified for the sins of the world, nor was any other Apostle.  Of course they weren’t baptized to be in union with Paul as their saving mediator.  In fact, just to hit this point home even harder, Paul expresses his thankfulness that he baptized so very few of the members of their church.  If he had been the one to do so, then perhaps they’d have some sort of weird excuse to form a “pro-Paul party,” but he didn’t baptize many of them, so they can’t.

Now, Paul isn’t putting down Baptism here.  In other places, he has a phenomenally high opinion of Holy Baptism.  His point in this moment is that it’s the preaching of the Gospel that is the key to true wisdom and spirituality.  He originally went to Corinth to preach the Gospel and make disciples.  Anyone can administer Holy Baptism; he had assistants with him from the start who probably handled much of that.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having fond memories of the Pastor who baptized you or your children or your close friend; that measure of sentimentality is perfectly innocent.  What cannot stand is to imagine that the one who performed the Baptism somehow has a spiritual power over the baptized.  I’ve never heard of this being a problem in today’s world, but Paul seemed to want to make sure that the Corinthians didn’t wander in that false direction themselves.

So it’s the preaching of the Gospel that is of utmost importance.  It doesn’t matter who does the baptizing, it doesn’t matter how eloquent the preacher is; these are merely earthly factors that have no bearing on our eternal souls.  It’s all about the message of the Cross of Christ – do you believe it and do you trust that it has the power to change lives?

This is just the beginning of Paul’s treatment of the subject, though.  Next week we’ll read the rest of chapter 1, where Paul writes about the “foolishness of the Cross” in the eyes of worldly wisdom.  The week after we’ll read chapter 2, where Paul exalts the true wisdom of the Gospel.  And the week after that we’ll finish his primary argument in the beginning of chapter 3, where he corrects the Corinthians’ understanding of what it means to be a preacher of the Gospel.

Correcting Them and Us

Suffice it to say today that the power of the preaching of the Cross is superior to any alternative we might dream up.  The Corinthians, as we have seen, were particularly obsessed with wisdom and philosophy – they wanted to sound smart and wise and show off with eloquent and poetic sermons that impressed their hearers, regardless of actual Gospel content.  This interest in eloquence and form is certainly something that we see today.  Preachers of heretical things like the “Prosperity Gospel” make millions of dollars fleecing people telling them they can have their best life now and that God just wants them to be healthy, wealthy, and wise.  If they have a nice white smile, and the right clothes, and the right personality, people flock to them even though they’re feeding them poison sweetened with sugar.  On a less dramatic scale, but still a serious matter, is the popular obsession with Christian devotional books today.  There’s certainly a mixed bag of them out there ranging from excellent to useless, but the way the Christian book market seems to turn on them reveals that too many Christians are going to every length possible to read everything “Christian” they can besides the Bible itself.  The best Christian devotionals point us not just to Bible quotes, but point us to read the Bible itself.  Eloquence is attractive, but it’s the substance that we actually need.

Another exhortation Paul makes in this fight against chasing after popular wisdom is that the Corinthians be unified.  Some people today might read verse 10 and feel a little uncomfortable: if we’re all supposed to have the “same mind and same judgment,” what happens to our individuality?  It gets worse if you take a more literal translation of this verse, and you find that “all of you agree” actually says in Greek “say the same thing”!  This may sound like we’re to be parrots or robots, speaking the liturgy in perfect unison, brainwashed to be just part of the herd.  Of course, this is not quite accurate.  To “say the same thing” and to “agree” and to have the “same mind and same judgment” is to be united in the truth of Christ.  It’s not a picture of identical robots; it’s a picture of a community at peace.  After all, the Christian goal is to be like Christ.  That includes more than just your moral lifestyle, but also your understanding and knowledge of God.  The better people know God, the more they agree about God.  When we unite in worship to read the same hymns and psalms and creeds and prayers together, it’s kind of like a practice run or a training ground for being united in Christ.  If we instead continue to emphasize our own private revelations and insights – the Corinthians’ worldly wisdom – then we will never unite, but rather ultimately divide from one another.

And finally, we learn from Paul here that Jesus and his Apostles (and indeed all Christian leaders) are not commodities to be handled as our own possession.  We are called to possess Christ as our own Lord and Savior, but that’s an indication of a relationship in which we accept his loving Lordship.  The problem is when we take that type of ownership into the realm of control.  Some of the Corinthians had begun to identify themselves as followers of Paul, or Apollos, or Peter, or Christ.  In case it wasn’t clear from the start, none of those claimants were genuinely following any of those four men.  Paul made it expressly clear that following him in that sense was absurd, and we can be confident that the others would feel exactly the same as he.

What’s tricky about that situation is that some people started to one-up their neighbors, saying “You follow Paul, well I follow Christ!”  At the surface level this sounds like the right thing to do.  We are to follow Christ, not play favorites with one of his Apostles.  But we are not to seize the name of Christ as a commodity.  Those Corinthians were using the Name of Christ to justify their own party spirit and puff up their own boastfulness.  You can see this happening today: “Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Catholics, Baptists… whatever, I just follow Jesus.”  It’s all well and good to say you follow Jesus, but if that actually means that you reject the church you grew up in and are founding your own, then it begs the question if there’s more schismatic party spirit involved than actual faithful obedience to Christ himself.  Just look at the names of denominations formed in the past century: Assemblies of God, United Church of Christ, the Church of God, the Church of God in Christ… see the trend?  The good intention to return to the basics and unite in the name of Christ is easily used as a cloak to hide schismatic and divisive intentions and desires.

Instead we have to learn that neither Jesus nor anyone else is a commodity we can buy and control.  To do so is to succumb to the Corinthian error of vaunting our own wisdom and superior spirituality over others, including those who taught us the Gospel in the first place.  The call of the Christian is marked by obedience, faithfulness, and humility. We aren’t mindless robots awaiting reprograming from our conniving clergy, but we are sheep who are constantly threatened by well-disguised wolves.  If we are to be spiritually safe, to graze happily in green pastures, and to grow and thrive as the people of God, then we must stick together, we must not separate, and most of all we must trust the power of the Gospel of the Cross of Jesus Christ that called us together in the first place.  The Cross is where we were first drawn to Christ, and the Cross will lead us home.

Posted in Biblical, Devotional | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Article 3: Christ in Hell

This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion.  Article 3 states:

III. Of the going down of Christ into Hell

As Christ died for us, and was buried, so also is it to be believed, that he went down into Hell.

Although this is a basic part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it is often misunderstood today – to the point where an increasing number of Christians believe this article of faith to be false.  There are two primary sources of confusion resulting in such error: one is a faulty understanding of Hell, and the other is that this moment in Jesus’ existence is not very clearly explained in the Bible.

When we think of Hell, we usually think of the fiery place of judgment where the souls of the damned burn eternally.  But as far as the teaching of the Bible is concerned, that image is the “lake of fire,” which is one of the pictures of eternal judgment upon the wicked used in the book of John’s Revelation (20:15).  Hell (or its Hebrew term sheol), rather, is a generic place where the dead go, usually the wicked (Matthew 5:29-30) and occasionally the righteous (Psalm 16:10).  And it’s worth noting that Hell itself gets thrown into the lake of fire at the end of the Final Judgment (Rev. 20:14)!

It is in this sense, as “the place of the dead,” that we understand our Lord to have descended into Hell.  After all, if we take seriously the teaching that Jesus is fully human and truly died, then we must conclude that, in his human spirit or soul, the Son of God went where all dead men go.  Indeed, his entrance into death and subsequent resurrection lays the foundation for our own hope of resurrection from death.  What Jesus did in Hell is a matter of some disagreement between different Christian traditions, and it is noteworthy that Article 3 does not venture to speculate or take sides in the matter.

The other reason Christ’s descent into Hell is often overlooked is because its explanation in the Bible is not neatly spelled out for us.  Our most clear picture is found in 1 Peter 3:18-20 which says:

Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through water.

As one might imagine, the precise interpretation of his “preaching to the spirits in prison” and their connection to the souls of those who were drowned in the Flood is a matter of controversy among Christian teachers.  Nevertheless, even if the precise activity of Christ in Hell is debatable, his descent there in death is a certain fact, and thus a certain comfort.

Posted in Theological | Tagged , , | Leave a comment