Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Are You a Heretic?

American Christians have a mixed relationship with creeds ranging from “Creeds are on equal standing with Scripture” to “No creed but Scripture.” Regardless of where one stands on this spectrum, there is an acknowledgment that creeds formed in the early centuries of the church are important. As heresy entered, statements were formed that documented what the Church believed, taught, and confessed. Because they correctly summarized Scripture, they are now considered standards upon which modern belief is built and, therefore, useful for study. However, too often the average Christian, whether pastor or layman, believes this knowledge is suitable only as an historical curio or point of academic discussion, but not useful for common life and practice. As a result, both pedagogue and pupil can mistakenly cling to heresy. To demonstrate the propensity to error, we will look at the Niceno-Constantinopolitan (or Nicene) Creed. Drafted at the First Council of Nicea (325) and later amended at the First Council of Constantinople (381), this creed has three major parts, coïnciding with the three Persons of the Trinity.
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only‐begotten Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spoke by the prophets. And I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.
As a centuries old statement of faith, this creed has stood the test of time. In my circles of Christian fellowship, someone would read through this and say, “Yes, that’s exactly what I believe,” without another thought. Probably you would as well. In fact, I would say that every person and organization identifying as an evangelical would affirm this creed while in actuality they do not believe it completely.

At this point you are probably reviewing the creed to see if something jumps out where you might be off base. God, the Father, created all things? Check. Jesus is of same essence as the Father? Check. Born of the Virgin Mary? Check. You get the picture—all well and good. Now move down to the third section.  Same essence glory as the Father and Son. Check. Source of Church unity through all ages. Check. Baptism remits sin. Wait. Baptism remits sin? Yes, the Nicene Creed affirms that baptism remits or cancels sin.

Conspiracy theorists will want to opine that the church was in such disarray that the council representatives did not know what they were doing, or possibly Rome had already corrupted the fourth-century church into accepting what every good Christian knows to be unbiblical doctrine. Church history tells us differently as demonstrated by two examples preceding the councils by 200 years.
Epistle of Barnabas XI
Let us further inquire whether the Lord took any care to foreshadow the water [of baptism] and the cross. Concerning the water, indeed, it is written, in reference to the Israelites, that they should not receive that baptism which leads to the remission of sins, but should procure another for themselves.… This means, that we indeed descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up, bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear [of God] and trust in Jesus in our spirit.

Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho XIV
By reason, therefore, of this laver of repentance and knowledge of God, which has been ordained on account of the transgression of God’s people, as Isaiah cries, we have believed, and testify that that very baptism which he announced is alone able to purify those who have repented; and this is the water of life. But the cisterns which you have dug for yourselves are broken and profitless to you. For what is the use of that baptism which cleanses the flesh and body alone? Baptize the soul from wrath and from covetousness, from envy, and from hatred; and, lo! the body is pure.
Should some assert that these are merely examples of doctrine gone awry, they will be faced with some insurmountable obstacles:
  1. The above quotes were written within 50–100 years of the martyrdoms of both Peter and Paul. Had these post-apostolic writings been aberrations, others would have arisen to correct them. We have no such correction.
  2. Scripture teaches that baptism saves us, being the physical instrument bringing us from death to new life through faith (Rom 6:3–6; Col 2:11–14).
Not until the sixteenth century was the place of baptism questioned. Why do we now insist that it must be no more than an outward symbol of an inward reality? While the symbolism is valid, such bare adherence strips the Word of God of its power and authority. A picture may paint a thousand words, but it has no eternal consequence.

So, the Original Question Remains
Are you a heretic? Perhaps the word heretic is too strong for someone who does not see baptism for what it is. Fine. I can soften the question: are you heterodox? Still too harsh? Let me ask this: are you simply ignorant of the facts? Whichever is accurate, you are left with a decision. Do you stand with theologians and teachers, whether popular or obscure, whose erudite scholarship is deemed of greater import than the “uninformed” patristic writers; or do you hold fast to the apostles and prophets who handed this doctrine to faithful confessors who likewise taught other faithful men and so on.

I say it is better to believe on Him Who is able to deliver what He has promised in the manner He promised.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Baptism Is an Act of God

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:4–6)

The rite of baptism, when it finally occurs, is not a mere seal set on the initiate as a sign of the successful performance of a series of penitential acts for purification, as Basil summarized the baptism of Moses, nor is it an external washing for forgiveness of sins as with John the Baptist, but it is rather a divine act involving Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.*

John the Baptist, than whom there is no greater among them that are born of woman [cf. Matt. 11:11], likewise bears witness in the words: He must increase, but I must decrease [John 3:30]; and again: I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance, but he baptizes you in the Holy Spirit and fire [Matt. 3:11], and so in many other places. The Holy Spirit is as far superior to water as he who baptizes in the Holy Spirit obviously is to him who baptizes in water. And this is true also of the baptism itself. [Basil, Concerning Baptism 1.2.4]

Baptism is an act of God the Holy Spirit in the believer.

Timothy P. McConnell, Illumination in Basil of Caesarea’s Doctrine of the Holy Spirit

* McConnell is trying to harmonize the biblical divine work being accomplished at baptism with personal belief displayed through Basil’s requirement of catechism and moral transformation prior to baptism.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Ro 10:9–10)

There is need of both, of faith true and firm, and of confession made with confidence so that the heart may be adorned with the certitude of faith, and the tongue made resplendent by fearless proclamation of the truth.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Romans

Paul in Berea
 How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written:
“How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace,
    Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Ro 10:14–15)
It is necessary first to believe, then to call. But it is impossible to believe if one does not have the benefit of the teaching, and this could not happen with no preachers, and ordination in turn is responsible for them. After citing these points in this manner by way of Jews’ defense, he uses them to add to the accusation against them; the last one, that relating to the sending of the preachers, he put first to show that it was forecast from the beginning. It was, in fact, logical to give it pride of place ahead of the others: the first need is for the preachers to be ordained,then the preaching, then the listening to the preachers, and at that point the coming of faith. Accordingly, he adduces the prophecy of Isaiah…; the Lord, remember, bade the apostles say on entering a house, “Peace be to this house” [Lk 10:5]: they indicated the divine reconciliation, and brought the good news of the enjoyment of good things.

Theodoret of Cyrus, Commentary on Romans

Friday, August 4, 2017

Patristic Wisdom: Looking to the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

You that thirst, go to the water,
    and all that have no money, go and buy;
and eat and drink wine and milk
    without money or price.
Why do you value at the price of money,
    and give your labor for that which will not satisfy?
Hearken to Me, and you shall eat of all that is good,
    and your soul shall feast itself on good things.
Listen with your ears, and follow My ways;
    obey Me, and your soul shall live in prosperity;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    the sure mercies of David.
Behold, I have made him a testimony among the Gentiles,
    a prince and commander to the Gentiles.
Nations which know you not shall call upon you,
    and peoples which are not acquainted with you shall flee to you for refuge,
for the sake of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel;
    for He has glorified you. (Is 55:1-5)

How can they purchase, yet receive gifts without paying? Well, because we accept the payment in faith from Christ, and we pay for none of these things with short-term or perishable goods. For it says, “I said to my Lord, ‘You are my Lord since you have no need of goods from me’”* By way of gifts and honor to Christ we offer to Christ the confession of faith in Him. So without money and payment comes this drink and bountiful gift of spiritual charisms. For what could we offer and what price could we pay for such a drink? For those drinking the living water are those enriched with grace through the Holy Spirit through participation in Him and purchasing this through faith, since they are sharers of the wine and suet, that is, of the holy body and the blood of Christ.

Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Isaiah

* Psalm 16:2