Friday, February 29, 2008

The Beauty and Hope of the Holiness Message

As people are seated in Hughes Auditorium on the campus of Asbury College, their attention is directed immediately to the words above the organ, “Holiness unto the Lord.” This statement is rooted in Asbury’s Wesleyan Holiness tradition. While the meaning of “Holiness unto the Lord” is not immediately clear without a greater context in which to understand it, these words point to a beautiful possibility and hope in the present life. As such, let us take a moment to explore the reality to which it points.

To begin, we recognize the deepest longing of the human heart is to be fully God’s. Within each of us is the desire to love God without reservation, to live in faithful obedience to Him, and to give ourselves selflessly in love and service to other people, just as Christ did. This is the human yearning for holiness.

Every Christian knows this longing. It wells up inside of us at different times and in various ways. It comes to us in quiet moments of personal devotion or public worship when our souls experience God’s holy presence. It arises in moments of frustration when our best intentions to follow Christ falter and we fail God once again. It comes to us in moments of weariness from the unresolved conflict between our sinful impulses and the desire to follow God’s will. And it arises in moments when we serve others, but recognize our service is motivated by selfish ambitions. Time and again, as we go through life, our heart’s cry for holiness comes to the fore.

This longing should not come as any shock to us. In explaining the two greatest commandments and the summation of Old Testament law, Jesus taught that we are created by God to love God with all of our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Holiness is “nothing more and nothing less” than the fulfillment of Jesus’ teaching here. We are made to give ourselves to God and other people in love. Because we are made in the image and likeness of God, even though marred by sin, we are capable by God’s grace of reflecting divine love and walking in the righteousness of love. This longing is the way we are “wired” as human beings.

However, we recognize immediately the disparity between our internal motivations, outward actions and the holiest desires of our heart. While we may see love as our life’s purpose, we also know the apparent impossibility of fully walking in that love. Because of human sinfulness, the natural bent or proclivity of our heart is to love ourselves more than God and neighbor. While we may have a desire to love and serve God, our desire to please ourselves is stronger. As such, holy love does not come easily to us, but with great struggle. We naturally balk at the righteous requirements of love. Even when we want to serve God and to give ourselves selflessly to others, when “the rubber hits the road,” we falter all too often.

As Christians, therefore, we find ourselves in a frustrating predicament. One part of us longs to give ourselves completely to God and others in love, while another part, propelled by the natural inclination of our heart, seeks our own selfish ends. As such, we find that we do not have the internal power and resources to truly follow Christ. No amount of human will power can bring about the love for which we are made. We may desire to truly be a Christian, but not have the power to live the life to which we are called. We may desire to follow Christ in love, but not have the wherewithal to do so.

At this point a question must be asked. Is there something God can do in our present lives to liberate the holiest longings of our heart? Is there grace available through the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that can heal the distorted conditions of our lives?

Even if we don’t believe holy love is possible in our present lives, we must admit the idea is attractive. The prospect of a life defined by self-giving love of God and neighbor, which is the essence of holiness, is deeply beautiful. This is even more true for those who are confronted continually with their own depth of sin and grow exhausted with the ongoing internal war between “flesh” and “Spirit,” for those who yearn to be fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, yet lack the inner resources to be so, and for those who long for the full manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit in their lives. To resolve the conflict of a divided life seems admittedly like a glorious dream and a stunning answer to our heart’s prayer.

However, what if the holiest longings of our heart can be realized in our present life? What if God makes possible the exchange of our “bent toward sinning” with a propensity to love God and neighbor, empowering us to walk in the righteousness of love? Wouldn’t we want to take advantage of it? The good news of Jesus Christ is God can set us free to love. This declaration and confession is not a source of pride, but a humble witness to the power of God “to save to the uttermost,” and an exhortation to struggling Christians to believe God to bring about the deepest longing of the human heart. This has been and continues to be the reading and interpretation of the Holy Scriptures down through the centuries of the Church.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Role of the Church in the Call to Ministry


“Have you ever considered that God might be calling you into ministry?”

The question stopped me in my tracks. Until that moment in life, I had never thought of the possibility. I was a youth who had recently given my life to Jesus Christ and earnestly desired to serve Him, but figured I would be working for God as a lawyer, engineer, or teacher, options school and family had presented me.

One morning after Sunday school, a devout older woman in my home church challenged me with another possibility – ordained ministry. When she asked me the question, something deep inside me resonated with the suggestion. I knew immediately that God was calling me into “the” ministry, a call that would be confirmed later through education, the United Methodist ordination process, and pastoral experience.

However, I wonder what might have happened to my life if she had never asked that question, if the possibility of ordained ministry had not been presented to me through the local church. Surely God would have used more direct measures to awaken me to the call upon my life? Or would I have remained in ignorance, with my life headed in a different direction?

To begin to answer these questions, we must explore the call to ordained ministry in greater detail. In general, we recognize God calls people into ministry. How God specifically does this is where differences in understanding arise. While there have been numerous ways in which God calls people, two have been primary.

One Model of the Call to Ministry – A Direct Call by God

The first perspective or model focuses on God directly intervening in a person’s life to issue the call to ministry, with no other individual or group of people acting as a mediator for God. For instance, in the Old Testament when God wanted someone to lead the children of Israel out of Egypt, He called Moses through the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. During a bleak period in the time of the judges, when apostasy reigned among the Levitical priests, God came and spoke directly to young Samuel, calling him to be a prophetic voice to the nation. In the New Testament, Jesus personally called each of the apostles to preach the Gospel and gave them authority to lead the fledgling church. When God wanted to bring an end to Saul’s persecution of the Church and call him into apostolic ministry, Jesus confronted him on the Damascus road and spoke to him openly.

Each of these examples represents the classical model of how a person is directly called by God into ministry. God speaks openly to the person and leaves the individual certain of the divine will for their lives. There is no third party involved or a representative who issues the call on God’s behalf, thereby removing any possibility of mistaking God’s call with the wishes of other human beings, or for that matter, the personal desires of the one called.

Whether we realize it or not, we often gravitate to this model, making it the dominant lens through which we view the call to ministry. Unfortunately, as a result, we assume too quickly that God doesn’t need any help in communicating His call and we leave solely to God the task of identifying and calling out potential candidates for ordained ministry. Likewise, we often think that if God doesn’t come and speak directly to us like He did to Moses in the burning bush, then we don’t have to worry about or consider the call to ministry.

A Second Model of the Call to Ministry – A Call by God through the Church

While recognizing the preceding model as a legitimate Christian understanding of the call to ministry, it is not the only way God works. And, while it is favored and elevated in our contemporary circles, perhaps, God doesn’t use it as much as we think. This brings us to the other model.

A second perspective on the call to ordained ministry sees God using a person or a group of people as mediators of the call. Primarily, this occurs in and through a believing community or a representative of the community. For instance, in the Old Testament when God wanted to appoint David as successor to King Saul, the prophet Samuel went and examined all the sons of Jesse before recognizing David as the Lord’s anointed. In the New Testament when deacons were needed to aide in the ministry of food distribution, the church recognized people in their midst who were “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” and commissioned them for service. In a prayer meeting in Antioch, the Holy Spirit led the church to set apart Barnabas and Paul for missionary service and sent them into the world after praying for them.

In each example we see God calling people into ministry through the leadership, wisdom and discernment of another person or group. God is involved in the process, just not as directly as the first model. God uses human beings as a means or channel of His call to ministry. In comparison to the first model, this is often not as glamorous or certain for the people communicating the call or for the individual being challenged with the call. Still, this is another valid way God works to bring people into ordained ministry.

While clergy throughout church history have testified to a direct call of God on their lives, many more have given testimony to God working through the church to issue their call to ministry. Their voices fill the pages of Christianity and represent some of its most distinguished figures, including the greatest Western theologian of the patristic period, Augustine, who was “drafted” into the priesthood by the church at Hippo, and the founder of Methodism, John Wesley, who made the decision to enter ordained ministry through the suggestion and counsel of his parents.

The Possibility of Missing the Call to Ministry

At this time, let us return to our initial question. Is it possible for a person, who has a call to ordained ministry, to never hear God’s call? That depends on the way God chooses to work. If God calls a person directly, then the call can’t be missed. However, if God uses the church or a representative of the church as a mediator of the call, as He often does, then a person is dependent on the church to carry out her responsibility. Without the church issuing the call, people remain in ignorance. While our natural inclination might lead us to believe that in these circumstances God automatically moves to the more direct approach, there are good reasons to be cautious of such optimism.

Why? Because God works principally in the world through certain means or channels. The chief of which is the church. Just as people are unable to hear and respond to the call of Holy Spirit to become followers of Christ unless the Gospel is shared with them, so an individual can’t hear and respond to the call to ordained ministry unless the church or a representative of the church communicates that call and helps the person explore its possibility for their lives. Without the church working in this manner, the ordinary means or channel through which God calls people into ministry are denied. As a result, if the church fails in her work of mediation, some people will be shut out from their call to ministry.

What the Church Can Do to Facilitate the Call to Ministry

What then can the church do to be responsible in her mediatory work and facilitate the call to ministry?

Beyond the obvious necessity of teaching about the call to ministry and offering opportunities to respond to a call in the normal venues of congregational life, pastors and laity need, first of all, to be observant. In a spirit of prayer, asking the Spirit to raise up ministers from their midst, as the local church works and worships, people need to be aware of what is happening and “keep their eyes out” for individuals who appear to have gifts and graces for ordained ministry.

Second, the local church must identify people who display these qualities. They may be elementary school children, youth, people established in careers, or even retired. As these people are identified pastors and laity must pray for the Spirit to begin to speak to these people’s hearts about the call to ministry.

Third, at some point, a pastor or layperson must speak to these people directly about the call to ministry. This conversation may begin with a simple acknowledgement of a person’s love of God and gifts in ministry, as well as an exhortation to seek the Lord’s direction in life. However, at some point, if evidence of a call continues to exist, then the person needs to be challenged more explicitly by asking the person to consider that God may be calling the individual into ordained ministry and to seek the Lord to confirm this call.

Fourth, pastors and laity need to be available to help in the discerning process through prayer and conversation. Sometimes people know immediately that they are called, while others take time to come to this discovery. Questions often arise and the church needs to be there to counsel.

Finally, the local church must be committed to supporting their members who have answered the call to ordained ministry. They will need spiritual, mental, emotional, and financial support as they begin to take steps into ordained ministry, as they move into the future God is creating for them.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Augustine’s Teaching on the Apostles’ Creed (Part Two)

(6)… suffered under Pontius Pilate…

A. The historicity of Christ’s Death

“He was in office as governor and was the judge, this same Pontius Pilate, what time as Christ suffered. In the name of the judge there is a mark of the times, when He suffered under Pontius Pilate:”

“Therefore do we believe in Him Who Under Pontius Pilate Was Crucified and Buried . For it was requisite that the name of the judge should be added, with a view to the cognizance of the times.”

(7) …was crucified, died, and was buried…”

A. Who was put to death? What was the means of execution? For Whom was he crucified?

“Who? what? for whom? Who? God's Only Son, our Lord. What? Crucified, dead, and buried. For whom? for ungodly and sinners. Great condescension, great grace!”

B. The cross serves as an example and encouragement to believers.

“Of His cross what shall I speak, what say? This extremest kind of death He chose, that not any kind of death might make His Martyrs afraid. The doctrine He showed in His life as Man, the example of patience He demonstrated in His Cross. There, you have the work, that He was crucified; example of the work, the Cross; reward of the work, Resurrection. He showed us in the Cross what we ought to endure, He showed in the Resurrection what we have to hope.”

(8) …The third day He arose again from the dead…”

A. Christ’s resurrection was different than Lazarus’ resurrection.

“What the prize? Resurrection without death. Why did I add, "without death?" Because "Lazarus rose, and died: Christ rose again, "dies no more, death will no longer have dominion over Him."

B. Christ’s resurrection is the first-fruit of the resurrection to come – our future resurrection.

“We believe also, that On the Third Day He Rose Again from The Dead, the first-begotten for brethren destined to come after Him, whom He has called into the adoption of the sons of God, whom [also] He has deemed it meet to make His own joint-partners and joint-heirs.”

(9)…He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,

A. This is the bodily assumption of Christ

“…that we should believe in the assumption of an earthly body into heaven.”

B. We do not know where or in what manner Christ’s body is in heaven.

“But the question as to where and in what manner the Lord's body is in heaven, is one which it would be altogether over-curious and superfluous to prosecute. Only we must believe that it is in heaven. For it pertains not to our frailty to investigate the secret things of heaven, but it does pertain to our faith to hold elevated and honorable sentiments on the subject of the dignity of the Lord's body.”

C. To be seated at the right hand of God is not to be understood literally – for God is not circumscribed.

“We believe also that He Sits at the Right Hand of the Father . This, however, is not to lead us to suppose that God the Father is, as it were, circumscribed by a human form, so that, when we think of Him, a right side or a left should suggest itself to the mind.”

D. To be seated at the right hand of God means to have a position of “supreme blessedness” and to exercise “judicial power.”

“This expression, "at the right hand," therefore, we must understand to signify a position in supremest blessedness, where righteousness and peace and joy are… And in accordance with this, when it is said that God "sits," the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but a judicial power, which that Majesty never fails to possess, as He is always awarding deserts as men deserve them (digna dignis tribuendo);”

(10)… whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

Christ is coming again – there will be a second advent. The reference to the living and the dead in the creed can have two meaning – the living are the righteous or those who are alive when Christ returns and the dead are the unrighteous or those who have already died when Christ returns.

“The quick, who shall be alive and remain; the dead, who shall have gone before. It may also be understood thus: The living, the just; the dead, the unjust. For He judges both, rendering unto each his own. To the just He will say in the judgment, "Come, you blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the beginning of the world." For this prepare yourselves, for these things hope, for this live, and so live, for this believe, for this be baptized, that it may be said to you, "Come ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." To them on the left hand, what? "Go into everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels." Thus will they be judged by Christ, the quick and the dead.”

(11) …I believe in the Holy Spirit, …

A. This creedal statement complete the belief in the Trinity

“It follows in the Creed, "And in the Holy Ghost." This Trinity, one God, one nature, one substance, one power; highest equality, no division, no diversity, perpetual dearness of love. Would ye know the Holy Ghost, that He is God? Be baptized, and you will be His temple.”

B. The Holy Spirit is equal to the Father and the Son and a different person than the Father and the Son.

“The divine generation, therefore, of our Lord, and his human dispensation, having both been thus systematically disposed and commended to faith, there is added to our Confession, with a view to the perfecting of the faith which we have regarding God, [the doctrine of] The Holy Spirit, who is not of a nature inferior to the Father and the Son, but, so to say, consubstantial and co-eternal: for this Trinity is one God, not to the effect that the Father is the same [Person] as the Son and the Holy Spirit, but to the effect that the Father is the Father, and the Son is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; and this Trinity is one God, according as it is written, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God."

C. The Holy Spirit is not a second Son or a Grandson of the Father.

“With respect to the Holy Spirit, however, there has not been as yet, on the part of learned and distinguished investigators of the Scriptures, a discussion of the subject full enough or careful enough to make it possible for us to obtain an intelligent conception of what also constitutes His special individuality (proprium): in virtue of which special individuality it comes to be the case that we cannot call Him either the Son or the Father, but only the Holy Spirit; excepting that they predicate Him to be the Gift of God, so that we may believe God not to give a gift inferior to Himself. At the same time they hold by this position, namely, to predicate the Holy Spirit neither as begotten, like the Son, of the Father; for Christ is the only one [so begotten]: nor as [begotten] of the Son, like a Grandson of the Supreme Father: while they do not affirm Him to owe that which He is to no one, but [admit Him to owe it] to the Father, of whom are all things; lest we should establish two Beginnings without beginning (ne duo constituamus principia isne principio), which would be an assertion at once most false and most absurd, and one proper not to the catholic faith, but to the error of certain heretics.”

(12) …the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,…

A. The Church is One and as long as she keeps her love the gates of Hell will not prevail against her.

"For the temple of God is holy," says the Apostle, "which (temple) are you." This same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can: be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they went all out of it, like as unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity. "The gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

B. Heretical congregations are not a part of the true Church because they do not have apostolic doctrine, while schismatic congregations, which have apostolic doctrine, are not a part of the true Church because they have broken the bonds of love.

“…we believe also in The Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic . For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe.”

(13) …the forgiveness of sins,…

A. A person can not receive forgiveness of sins without forgiving the sins of others.

“Neither ought we only to treat of the difference between sins, but we ought most thoroughly to believe that those things in which we sin are in no way forgiven us, if we show ourselves severely unyielding in the matter of forgiving the sins of others. Thus, then, we believe also in The Remission of Sins.”

B. Baptism brings the remission of all sins – no matter how great the sin.

"Forgiveness of sins." You have [this article of] the Creed perfectly in you when you receive Baptism. Let none say, "I have done this or that sin: perchance that is not forgiven me."

C. There will be venial sins after baptism, but they are forgiven through saying the Lord’s prayer. For mortal sins, which should not be in believers, there is penance.

“When you have been baptized, hold fast a good life in the commandments of God, that you may guard your Baptism even unto the end. I do not tell you that you will live here without sin; but they are venial, without which this life is not. For the sake of all sins was Baptism provided; for the sake of light sins, without which we cannot be, was prayer provided. What has the Prayer? "Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors." Once for all we have washing in Baptism, every day we have washing in prayer. Only, do not commit those things for which you must needs be separated from Christ's body: which be far from you! For those whom you have seen doing penance, have committed heinous things, either adulteries or some enormous crimes: for these they do penance. Because if theirs had been light sins, to blot out these daily prayer would suffice.”

D. Baptism, the Lord’s prayer and penance are the ways Church remits sins. However, this remittance can only come to the baptized.

“In three ways then are sins remitted in the Church; by Baptism, by prayer, by the greater humility of penance; yet God does not remit sins but to the baptized.”

(14) …the resurrection of the body, …

A. This resurrection is like Christ’s and not like Lazarus.

“We believe also "the resurrection of the flesh," which went before in Christ: that the body too may have hope of that which went before in its Head. The Head of the Church, Christ: the Church, the body of Christ. Our Head is risen, ascended into heaven: where the Head, there also the members. In what way the resurrection of the flesh? Lest any should chance to think it like as Lazarus's resurrection, that you may know it to be not so, it is added, "Into life everlasting."

B. This is a Resurrection of Body and Soul.

“Resurrection of the Flesh, to wit, not merely that that soul, which at present by reason of carnal affections is called the flesh, is restored; but that it shall be so likewise with this visible flesh, which is the flesh according to nature, the name of which has been received by the soul, not in virtue of nature, but in reference to carnal affections: this visible flesh, then, I say, which is the flesh properly so called, must without doubt be believed to be destined to rise again.”

(15) …and life everlasting."

“God regenerate you! God preserve and keep you! God bring you safe unto Himself, Who is the Life Everlasting. Amen.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Augustine’s Teaching on the Apostles’ Creed (Part One)


Augustine provides one of the best expositions on the Apostles’ Creed in the early Church. The following comments on the Creed are taken from Augustine’s “On Faith and the Creed” and “A Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed.” While Augustine’s “Enchiridion” is also an excellent exposition of the Creed, it also contains many of Augustine’s controversial and disputed points of belief – predestination, the elect are the exact number needed to replenish the angels who fell with Lucifer, etc. As such, comments from the Enchiridion are not included here.

(1) The Apostles’ Creed

A. The Apostles’ Creed is a concise summary of biblical teaching.

“We have, however, the catholic faith in the Creed, known to the faithful and committed to memory, contained in a form of expression as concise as has been rendered admissible by the circumstances of the case; the purpose of which [compilation] was, that individuals who are but beginners and sucklings among those who have been born again in Christ, and who have not yet been strengthened by most diligent and spiritual handling and understanding of the divine Scriptures, should be furnished with a summary, expressed in few words…”

B. The Apostle’s Creed enables every believer to state what they believe.

“For this is the Creed which you are to rehearse and to repeat in answer. These words which you have heard are in the Divine Scriptures scattered up and down: but thence gathered and reduced into one, that the memory of slow persons might not be distressed; that every person may be able to say, able to hold, what he believes.”

(2) I believe in God, the Father Almighty,

A. What God omnipotent can’t do.

“God is Almighty, and yet, though Almighty, He cannot die, cannot be deceived, cannot lie; and, as the Apostle says, "cannot deny Himself." How many things that He cannot do, and yet is Almighty! yea therefore is Almighty, because He cannot do these things. For if He could die, He were not Almighty; if to lie, if to be deceived, if to do unjustly, were possible for Him, He were not Almighty: because if this were in Him, He should not be worthy to be Almighty. To our Almighty Father, it is quite impossible to sin.

B. What God omnipotent can do.

“He does whatsoever He will: that is Omnipotence. He does whatsoever He rightly will, whatsoever He justly will: but whatsoever is evil to do, He wills not.”

(3) …the Creator of heaven and earth, …

A. God is the creator of all that exists.

“For, granting that He is almighty, there cannot exist anything of which He should not be the Creator. For although He made something out of something, as man out of clay, nevertheless He certainly did not make any object out of anything which He Himself had not made; for the earth from which the clay comes He had made out of nothing.”

B. Of all things visible and invisible.

“It was He Who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, invisible and visible. Invisible such as are in heaven, thrones, dominions, principalities, powers, archangels, angels: all, if we shall live aright, our fellow-citizens. He made in heaven the things visible; the sun, the moon, the stars. With its terrestrial animals He adorned the earth, filled the air with things that fly, the land with them that walk and creep, the sea with them that swim: all He filled with their own proper creatures.”

C. God’s goodness is the basis of creation.

“…by whose goodness it is that everything exists,—not only every object which is already formed, but also every object which is formable.”

D. Creation Ex Nihilo

“He Himself is One, who communicates to everything its possibilities, not only that it be beautiful actually, but also that it be capable of being beautiful. For which reason we do most right to believe that God made all things of nothing.”

(4) …and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord:

A. Jesus Christ as the Son of God is of the same nature as the Father. As such, Jesus Christ is God.

“When you hear of the Only Son of God, acknowledge Him God. For it could not be that God's Only Son should not be God. What He is, the same did He beget, though He is not that Person Whom He begot. If He be truly Son, He is that which the Father is; if He be not that which the Father is, He is not truly Son.”

B. However, Jesus Christ is not the same Person as the Father.

“Wherefore The Only-Begotten Son of God was neither made by the Father; for, according to the word of an evangelist, "all things were made by Him:" nor begotten instantaneously; since God, who is eternally wise, has with Himself His eternal Wisdom: nor unequal with the Father, that is to say, in anything less than He; for an apostle also speaks in this wise, "Who, although He was constituted in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God." By this catholic faith, therefore, those are excluded, on the one hand, who affirm that the Son is the same [Person] as the Father; for [it is clear that] this Word could not possibly be with God, were it not with God the Father, and [it is just as evident that] He who is alone is equal to no one. And, on the other hand, those are equally excluded who affirm that the Son is a creature, although not such an one as the rest of the creatures are. For however great they declare the creature to be, if it is a creature, it has been fashioned and made.”

C. Jesus Christ is equal to the Father.

“Do not imagine an Almighty Father and a not Almighty Son …Almighty is the Father, Almighty the Son. If Almighty begat not Almighty, He begat not very Son. For what say we, brethren, if the Father being greater begat a Son less than He? What said I, begat? Man engenders, being greater, a son being less: it is true: but that is because the one grows old, the other grows up, and by very growing attains to the form of his father. The Son of God, if He grows not because neither can God wax old, was begotten perfect. And being begotten perfect, if He grows not, and remained not less, He is equal.”

“The Son is Almighty, in doing all things that He wills to do.”

“Hath the Father anything that the Son has not?”

(5) …Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary…

A. The eternal Son of God assumed human nature in order to save us.

“But this Only Son of God, the Father Almighty, let us see what He did for us, what He suffered for us. "Born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary." He, so great God, equal with the Father, born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, born lowly, that thereby He might heal the proud. Man exalted himself and fell; God humbled Himself and raised him up. Christ's lowliness, what is it? God has stretched out an hand to man laid low. We fell, He descended: we lay low, He stooped. Let us lay hold and rise, that we fall not into punishment. So then His stooping to us is this, "Born of the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary." His very Nativity too as man, it is lowly, and it is lofty. Whence lowly? That as man He was born of men. Whence lofty? That He was born of a virgin. A virgin conceived, a virgin bore, and after the birth was a virgin still.”

“But whereas, in a temporal dispensation, as I have said, with a view to our salvation and restoration, and with the goodness of God acting therein, our changeable nature has been assumed by that unchangeable Wisdom of God, we add the faith in temporal things which have been done with salutary effect on our behalf, believing in that Son of God Who Was Born Through the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. For by the gift of God, that is, by the Holy Spirit, there was granted to us so great humility on the part of so great a God, that He deemed it worthy of Him to assume the entire nature of man (totum hominem) in the womb of the Virgin, inhabiting the material body so that it sustained no detriment (integrum), and leaving it without detriment.”

B. The entire nature of humanity was assumed by Christ – body, soul, and spirit. He assumed our full nature in order to heal our full nature. “The unassumed is unhealed.”

“But if any one shall have grasped the catholic faith, so as to believe that the entire nature of man was assumed by the Word of God, that is to say, body, soul, and spirit, he has sufficient defense against those parties. For surely, since that assumption was effected in behalf of our salvation, one must be on his guard lest, as he believes that there is something belonging to our nature which sustains no relation to that assumption, this something may fail also to sustain any relation to the salvation.”

C. Both human sexes are honored in the incarnation – woman, because a woman bore Christ Jesus; man, because Jesus was male.

“…our Lord Jesus Christ had in Mary a mother upon earth; while that dispensation has honored both sexes, at once the male and the female, and has made it plain that not only that sex which He assumed pertains to God's care, but also that sex by which He did assume this other, in that He bore [the nature of] the man (virum gerendo), [and] in that He was born of the woman.”

D. The eternal Son of God not defiled by assuming human nature.

“Those, therefore, who entertain this opinion ought to ponder the fact that the rays of this sun, which indeed they do not praise as a creature of God, but adore as God, are diffused all the world over, through the noisomenesses of sewers and every kind of horrible thing, and that they operate in these according to their nature, and yet never become debased by any defilement thence contracted, albeit that the visible light is by nature in closer conjunction with visible pollutions. How much less, therefore, could the Word of God, who is neither corporeal nor visible, sustain defilement from the female body, wherein He assumed human flesh together with soul and spirit, through the incoming of which the majesty of the Word dwells in a less immediate conjunction with the frailty of a human body! Hence it is manifest that the Word of God could in no way have been defiled by a human body, by which even the human soul is not defiled. For not when it rules the body and quickens it, but only when it lusts after the mortal good things thereof, is the soul defiled by the body.”

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The New Testament and The Priority of Preaching in the Church (Part Two)


The priority of proclamation in Jesus’ ministry is transferred to his disciples as well. Luke in his Gospel states that during Christ’s public ministry, Jesus appointed seventy-two people to go two by two into the surrounding villages to proclaim the “Kingdom of God is near” (Lk. 10:9). He promised them that when they would preach to the crowds, he would speak through their words (Lk. 10:16). In a similar event in Matthew Jesus’ commissions the twelve apostles to go and preach the message that the “Kingdom of heaven is near” (10:7). While Jesus gave his disciples authority to heal sicknesses and cast out demons, this was within the larger context of preaching his message (10:1-8), a message not intended for a select few, but one meant for the entire world (10:26-27).

This priority did not change after Christ’s death and resurrection. Before his assumption into heaven, Jesus commanded his followers to go into all the world and make disciples (Mt. 28:19). After the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost, they were empowered to preach in Jerusalem and the church was formed. The Gospel was then proclaimed in Judea and Samaria where it was received with “great joy’ (Acts 8:8). The Gospel message was then preached in Antioch to the Gentiles and the “Lord’s power was with them” (11:19). In Antioch, Paul and Barnabas were commissioned to go and proclaim the Gospel in the Roman world, preaching first to the Jews and then the Gentiles (13:2-3). The Book of Acts concludes with Paul arriving in Rome, with the declaration that Paul “proclaimed the Kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ – with all boldness and without hindrance,” and with the anticipation that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would be proclaimed to the uttermost parts of the earth (28:31). While there were threats to the priority of preaching, as in the dispute of the daily distribution of food to the widows (6:1-3) and the controversy surrounding the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church (10:9-48; 15:1-29), the apostles were able to maintain their focus and continued their proclamation of the “word of God” (6:3; 15:35).

In a similar way, just as Jesus proclamation of the Kingdom of God was a means through which the Kingdom broke into human existence, the preaching of the Gospel by the disciples became a means by which the salvific effects of Christ’s life, death and resurrection were experienced by the New Testament Church, a means by which the Kingdom of God broke into human existence. The purpose of proclamation by the disciples was made clear by Christ. In the same way Christ’s life, death and resurrection was necessary in order to bring about the redemption of humanity, so the proclamation of the Gospel is also necessary to bring about God’s saving plan for humanity. After his resurrection Jesus told his disciples that this plan was a fulfillment of Scriptures, “This is what is written: the messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations…” (Lk. 24:46-47). It is not enough that Christ lived, died, and was raised from the dead. These facts must be proclaimed in order that they may become a saving reality for individuals. Hence, the Apostle Paul spoke not only about the cross of Christ, but also about the message of the cross as the power of God to save (I Cor. 1:18); he spoke not only about people being reconciled to God through Christ, but about the power of the “words of reconciliation” to bring about reconciliation to God (II Cor. 5:19). Again, the work of Jesus and the proclamation of that work by the disciples makes possible the work of salvation and the experience of the Kingdom of God.

Perhaps, this is made most clear by Paul in Romans. Paul teaches that everyone that “believes” in Jesus Christ (10:9) and calls upon his name “will be saved” (10:13). Paul then asks the question, “How, then can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (10:14-15). He goes on to clarify that “faith” that brings about salvation is a gift from God that comes from “hearing the word of God” (10:17). Preaching the word of God is the means by which God works in humanity to bring faith in Jesus Christ. Without the preaching of the Gospel, what Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection can not be brought about in human hearts and lives. The Kingdom as proclaimed and inaugurated by Christ can not be realized apart from the proclamation of the Gospel, apart from the preaching of the “word of God.”

In summary, the priority given to preaching in Jesus’ public ministry is transferred to his disciples. This is seen in the disciples’ work of proclamation before and after the resurrection of Christ. While the life, death and resurrection of Christ accomplished the objective work of salvation, the preaching of the Gospel is what God uses to subjectively make it possible in people lives. This is the purpose of Christian proclamation. Through preaching of the “word of God” Christ works through the disciples’ proclamation to establish the kingdom of God here on earth and prepare humanity for the consummation of that Kingdom in the age to come. Just as there is no kingdom apart from Jesus Christ, there is no kingdom without the proclamation of the Gospel. Proclamation makes possible Christian faith in Christ and actualizes the salvific work of Christ in the present experience of humanity. Hence, Christ commissions the apostles to preach, with proclamation as the clearly stated priority in the New Testament Church.


In regard to the present state of Protestant Churches, three related points can be made. First, in the mission and ministry of Protestant denominations, proclamation of the Gospel must remain central, as demonstrated in the ministry of Jesus, the early New Testament Church, and encapsulated in Protestantism’s historic articles of religion and confessions of faith. The Kingdom of God is experienced and advanced through the proclamation of the Gospel. Where the message of Jesus is preached, where the word of God is proclaimed, the Kingdom in its life transforming reign becomes possible. God’s reign as established through Jesus does not happen apart from Christian proclamation. If the Church wants to transform human societies and cultures, then the Church must not forsake or minimize the priority of preaching “the pure word of God.”

Proclamation of the “pure word of God” has this power because it is one of the primary means or channels of God’s grace in the world. In any discussion of God’s grace, which may be defined simply as the “unmerited” work of God for humanity, in humanity, and through humanity, the question must be asked “How does God communicate His grace to people? How does God work in people?” The Scriptures reveal that God communicates His grace through appointed “channels” or “means.” While recognizing other means of grace, other channels through which God works, the New Testament makes clear that divine grace is communicated first and foremost through the preaching of the Word of God.

Second, and intimately related to the first point. The content of the proclamation must center on the life, death, resurrection and exaltation of Christ. Jesus Christ must be the Word of God proclaimed. He is the key to the present experience of the reign of God in human life and the future as well. As such Church’s social witness must be marked by an unapologetic and vocal witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. He must be the primary content of the Gospel proclaimed. Proclamation without focus on Christ’s salvific life is rendered powerless to bring about true life transforming change in human lives. Where Jesus Christ is not preached, then there can be no experience of the power of salvation. While For example, The United Methodist Church has an admirable history of teachings on social justice, advocacy for disenfranchised groups through governmental legislation, and empathetic identification with the least and the last of human society, however, these actions are weakened and incomplete apart from proclamation centering on the salvific life of Christ.

Finally, as has already been intimated in what is stated, the “word of God,” the Gospel of Jesus Christ is meant for the entire world. Jesus intended the Gospel to go to every nation and every culture, to the whole world and not just a part. Unfortunately, some Protestant denominations have been timid and reluctant to preach the Gospel in other cultures where Christianity is not already present. There has been a tendency to see other world religions as equally valid, as another “word of God,” on par with the Gospel. However, to refuse or neglect taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ into every culture is to deny them access to grace that can bring true personal and social transformation. Historic Protestant Churches must recommit to world evangelism in obedience to the command of Christ and in true love for those who have not had access to the transforming power of Christ’s life, death, resurrection and exaltation, made available through proclamation.


In conclusion, it is not by accident that Protestantism has emphasized the priority of Gospel proclamation in historic doctrinal standards. This emphasis is grounded in the public ministry of Jesus, the commission given by Christ to his disciples, and in the practice of the early Church. Proclamation is the primary means by which the Kingdom of God is advanced in the world. Christ works through the Church’s proclamation to create in people’s lives the reality described in it. Protestant Churches in their mission and ministry, in the recovery of their social witness must once again commit themselves to the task of preaching the “Word of God,” of proclaiming the Gospel. While proclamation is not the only means by which God’s redeeming and transforming grace is made available in the world, it is central. True social change, true inculcation of the Kingdom of God can not happen apart from sharing the Gospel. In this regard the Church must recovery what is clearly stated and indicated in her doctrine of the Church, summarized in her doctrinal standards.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The New Testament and The Priority of Preaching in the Church (Part One)

In historic Protestant articles of religion, confessions of faith and catechetical questions on the Church, the “preaching of the pure Word of God” is identified as the first mark of the Church. While other marks are inevitably mentioned, such as the “due administration of the sacraments” and the “community rightly ordered,” priority is given to proclamation. The purpose is not to minimize the importance of sacraments or church discipline, both of which are necessary for the Church to be the Church, but to recognize the Church as the community distinguished principally by the preaching of the Gospel. From a Protestant perspective, preaching is the primary channel through which the Holy Spirit works to bring the Church into being and through which her existence is sustained.

The priority of proclamation is one of the fundamental differences Protestantism has with other forms of Christianity. While the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church also recognize preaching, sacraments and order as distinguishing marks of the Church, they order them differently in their respective understandings. The Roman Catholic Church, on one hand, emphasizes the “community rightly ordered.” The Church is primarily distinguished by its appointed bishop, who is in an ordered relationship with the papacy in Rome. Without a bishop connecting a local congregation to the Pope, without a local church being properly related to the larger Church in Rome, the status of the local church as a part of the true Church is called into question. The Eastern Orthodox Church, on the other hand, focuses on the sacraments, particularly the celebration of the Eucharist, as the defining mark. The sacraments are the primary means of God’s grace, calling the Church into being and sustaining her existence. Without the sacraments there is no Church of Jesus Christ.

Specifically, the Wesleyan tradition as seen in The United Methodist Church’s Article of Religion and Confession of Faith on the Church places “preaching the pure Word of God” as the first mark of the true Church. The Article of Religion, which comes directly from the Anglican tradition states, “The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached …” and the Confession of Faith, which comes from the Evangelical United Brethren denomination, declares the church to be “the redemptive fellowship in which the Word of God is preached…” While each recognizes the importance of sacrament and ecclesial discipline, priority is given to proclamation.
This primacy of proclamation found in Protestantism, and more particularly in the Wesleyan tradition as seen in The United Methodist Church’s doctrinal standards, is grounded in the clear teaching of the New Testament. There is no Church of Jesus Christ and there is no mission of the Church apart from the preaching of the “pure word of God.” Proclamation can not be divorced from the Church’s nature and mission. The Word of God brings the Church into existence, sustains the Church, and forms the primary mission of the Church in the world. In order to see this more clearly, we will examine the New Testament teaching on proclamation. To begin, we will see the priority and place of preaching in the ministry of Jesus; then, we will examine the purpose of proclamation in the New Testament Church and conclude with application to our contemporary context in the Wesleyan tradition.


As described in the Gospel texts the earthly ministry of Jesus is defined by activity. Christ healed, drove out demons, performed miracles, confronted injustice, appointed disciples, forgave sins, exercised authority over the law, and showed compassion on the needy. However, Jesus described proclamation of the Kingdom of God as his primary task. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus declared, “Let us go somewhere else – to the nearby villages – so I can preach there also. That is why I have come” (Mark 1:38). In his home synagogue in Nazareth Jesus appropriated the words of Isaiah to define his ministry as a call to “proclaim good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for prisoners…and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). This is corroborated by Matthew who begins his description of Jesus’ public ministry with the declaration, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near’” (Mt. 4:17). As such, Jesus’ miracles are portrayed in the Gospels as powerful signs of the Kingdom he proclaimed. His healings and exorcisms are recognized as works of compassion, the first fruits of the presence of the Kingdom of God he proclaimed in the world. The Gospel writers place the whole body of Jesus’ public ministry within the larger context of and in relationship to Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God.

While the Gospels portray Jesus’ primary mission in public ministry as proclamation, they make clear that Jesus himself is the key to the Kingdom. There is no Kingdom of God apart from Jesus Christ. Through his presence, his ministry and particularly his preaching, Christ initiates and mediates the Kingdom of God (Mt. 12:28, Luke 11:20; 17:20-21). The intimate relationship between Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed is manifested in multiple ways throughout the Gospels. Implicitly, this is seen in the authority exercised by Jesus in the establishment of the Kingdom. In every account of the Kingdom of God breaking into the present order, in healings, exorcisms and the declaration of the forgiveness of sins, Jesus worked by his own authority, in his own name, not in the name of another (Mt. 8:28-34; Mk 2:1-12; Luke 7:47-49; 15:1-2). In his preaching on the Kingdom, Jesus declared, “I say to you,” and did not appeal to the more traditional prophetic utterance “thus says the Lord” (Mt. 5:21-44). Furthermore, he exercised authority over the written law by setting aside its stipulations on such matters as retribution, divorce, food, and the Sabbath (Mt. 5:21-48; Mk. 2:23-28; 3:1-5; 7:15, 19). Most glaringly, he preached a new relationship with God that would be brought about through his own life, a new relationship that would put aside the Temple in Jerusalem, the central place of Jewish religious life (Mk. 11:15-17, 27-33). Explicitly, the relationship between Christ and the Kingdom he proclaimed is seen in his definitive declarations, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), and “I am the bread of life. No one who comes to me will ever go hungry. And no one who believes in me will ever be thirsty (John 6:35). Jesus testimony of Himself was an essential part of his proclamation of the Kingdom.

Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as already “here” through his presence, his ministry, and his preaching, as well as to come in the future. His proclamation of the Kingdom had a “now” and “not yet” aspect to it (Mt. 4:17; 6:10; Mk. 1:15; 9:1; Lk. 11:2). In the present, he saw his ministry and proclamation as the climax of God’s present purposes for Israel and the means through which the reign of God in the world was initiated. In the future, he saw himself as being the central authority in bringing others into the final consummation of the kingdom at the end of time. He taught that a person’s place in the future kingdom was directly related to that individual’s relationship and standing with himself in the present life (Mt. 10:32-33; 12:32; Lk. 12:8-9).

In summary, Jesus primarily saw the task of his public ministry as proclamation of the Kingdom of God. All his other work was to illustrate and mediate the Kingdom he proclaimed. This was the purpose of his preaching. His proclamation was the primary means by which the Kingdom was inaugurated in the world, the means through which the reign of God broke into human existence and people experienced signs of the kingdom. However, Jesus was not simply a messenger, but was himself the key to the kingdom of God in the present life and in the future age to come. The Gospels make clear that there is no experience of the Kingdom apart from Jesus’ work of proclamation and the authority Jesus himself exercised in God’s reign.

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Trinity and God Language



In The United Methodist Church, as well as in main-line denominations, there have been deliberate attempts to ignore and change traditional masculine language regarding God. Primarily, these actions have been justified by arguments that patriarchal terms to describe God are inadequate, sexist, and no longer necessary. These advocates reason that the New Testament authors used masculine names for God because of their patriarchal bias. Their language choice was culturally conditioned and cannot be applied universally. The result: denominational literature that refuses to use personal (male) pronouns in reference to God, official seminary policies that forbid masculine references to God, bishops who ordain clergy in the name of the Father and Mother, and a push to exchange traditional Trinitarian language with the names Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.

There are very specific reasons, from my perspective, to be careful in the language we use to describe God. While all language is inadequate in describing God, this does not mean that all God language is equal in describing God. Some God language is better than others. Here are some of my reasons why I believe traditional God language is the best we have in describing God. I am not asking that you agree with me, but if this is an issue for you (a desire to retain and use traditional Trinitarian language) you need to think through your reasons for it. Here are some of my initial responses.

I. The Theological Importance of the Names: Immanent vs. Economic Trinity

Historic Christianity teaches that there is one God in three co-equal persons – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Father is God, the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. However, the Father is distinguishable from the Son, and the Son is distinguishable from the Spirit. The Son is sent by the Father and the Holy Spirit fulfills and consummates the mission of the Son Each divine person has all that properly belongs to the divine nature: eternality, omnipotence, wisdom, goodness, holiness, and love. The persons of the Trinity can be distinguished, but not separated. Their distinction is not in nature, for they share one divine nature without separation into parts; rather, their distinction is in relationship with one another: the Father begets the Son and the Father with the Son (West) or the Father through the Son (East) breathes the Holy Spirit.

The Trinitarian name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, has specific meaning unique to God. It is language about God that is most suitable for God’s revelation as Trinity. To see this more clearly we must make a differentiation between the “immanent” and “economic” Trinity. The immanent Trinity refers to God's inner relationships, apart from creation, as God is in the inner Trinitarian relationship: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Immanent Trinitarian language is prominent in the Gospel of John. The economic Trinity refers to God in relationship to creation. God relates to the created order as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer/Sanctifier.

The problem or limitations with the functional Trinitarian language (the language with which many wish to replace the traditional name), although it is Biblical and rich in imagery, it cannot describe God as God is apart from the created order. It can not tell us anything of God as God really is. It is functional language, not ontological. It tells us what God does in the created order, but it says nothing about God’s being. It cannot tell us anything about God before the act of creation. Also, economic language can be used to describe any one member of the Trinity, and it is not exclusive to any one Person; They all create, They all redeem, and They all sustain/sanctify. In contrast, the traditional essential name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, better describes the richness of God; the love of God existed before creation as an essential part of the Trinity; God the Father loves the Son and Spirit; The Son loves the Spirit and the Father; the Spirit loves the Father and the Son. And out of this love and as an expression of this love, God creates.

II. The Theological Importance of the Names: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

The use of Biblical masculine language for the first two Persons of the Trinity communicates clearly the relationships among the Godhead and distinguishes them in a community of love with the Holy Spirit. They do not imply that God is a man, for God transcends gender. Even the language Father and Son has limitations in what it conveys about God, but it is the best language we have.

The first Person of the Trinity is called “Father,” because He is Father of the Son. According to Gregory of Nyssa, “Father” denotes three important facts: The Father alone is unbegotten, He is one who exists in a relationship with another, and He is the One who is the initiator of generation. This means the Father begets life rather than conceives life. Biologically, the egg (mother) is a receiver; the sperm is the actor. Likewise, the Father initiates or begets the Son. Again this does not mean that God is male, but that He possesses this initiatory measure, most closely akin to the human father characteristic.

As a result, you cannot change God language without paying the ontological price.
Traditional Biblical language for the Trinity reveals something of God’s being. To change this language would be to distort God’s revelation as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

III. The Theological Importance of Pronouns in Reference to God.

In order to avoid masculine (or feminine) references to God, many main-line denominations, including The United Methodist Church, encourage or demand gender-neutral language for God. As a part of this agenda, there has been the systematic elimination of personal pronouns (He, His, Him) in talking about God. In many Boards of Ordained Ministry, candidates are chastised, rejected, or called to explain their use of personal masculine pronouns for God. There are problems with this on at least two levels.

First, as Christians, we believe in the personal nature of God. God has created each of us for a personal relationship with Him. In the English language, the best way we can express God’s personhood is through the use of personal pronouns. To avoid the use of personal pronouns, is to undermine the personal nature of God. God becomes a distant, objective, sterile Entity in the English language without their use.

Second, masculine pronouns and language has been a means of protecting key ideas of God’s self-revelation. When there have been attempts to use feminine language for anything more than similes (God is like a mother hen), the Christian faith has fallen into pantheistic or panentheistic problems. We cannot change the language about God without paying the ontological price – making God something God is not!

While this discussion is hardly exhaustive, this begins to address some of my concerns in dismissing traditional God language.