Wintery Knight

…integrating Christian faith and knowledge in the public square

How early are the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity?

Here’s a great post from Tough Questions Answered.

The post describes evidence for the Incarnation and the Trinity in the writings of Ignatius, who was the third Bishop of Antioch from 70 AD to 107 AD.

Here’s the raw quote from Ignatius’ “Epistle to the Ephesians”:

But our Physician is the only true God, the Father and Begetter of the only-begotten Son.  We have also as a Physician the Lord our God, Jesus the Christ, the only-begotten Son and Word, before time began, but who afterwards became also man, of Mary the virgin. For “the Word was made flesh.”  Being incorporeal, He was in a body; being impassible, He was in a passible body; being immortal, He was in a mortal body; being life, He became subject to corruption, that He might free our souls from death and corruption, and heal them, and might restore them to health, when they were diseased with ungodliness and wicked lusts.

And TQA discusses the passage:

There are several aspects of this passage which demonstrate that Saint Ignatius held beliefs consistent with the Doctrines of the Trinity and the Dual Nature of Christ.  First, he refers to two separate Persons, God the Father and Jesus Christ, yet he calls both of them God.

[...]Second, Ignatius refers to Jesus Christ as begotten “before time began”.  This is almost word for word identical to the Nicene Creed, which says, “I believe in. . . one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. . .”  Some today claim that the Early Church believed Christ’s being ”begotten” of the Father was in relation to His birth from Mary (specifically, this is an LDS claim).  However, Ignatius’ comment here demonstrates that the Early Church’s understanding of Christ’s nature as “only-begotten” was a relationship with the Father that was “before time began” and has nothing to do with His earthly incarnation.  It is interesting to note that the Greek word translated as “only-begotten” both here and in the New Testament is ”monogenes”.  Monogenes literally means “one of a kind,” and to the Church Fathers it connoted Christ being of the same nature as the Father. . . something that was entirely unique to Him.

In addition to calling Christ God and claiming Him to be the “only-begotten” of the Father “before time began”, Ignatius tells us that “afterwards” Christ “became man”.  Ignatius then goes on to point out some aspects that Christ’s becoming man added to His nature.  He says that although Christ was incorporeal, He was in a body; although He was impassible, He was in a passible body; although He was immortal, He was in a mortal body;  although He was life, He became subject to corruption.  These differing aspects of Christ’s nature, aspects that are polar opposites to one another, speak to Christ having two natures, one as God and one as man, and demonstrate that Saint Ignatius understood Christ in this manner.  As God, Christ was incorporeal, impassible, immortal, and life itself.   However, as man He was corporeal, passible, mortal, and subject to corruption.

Now I think you can pull the Incarnation and the Trinity right out the Bible, but it’s still nice to see such a prominent church father writing about it decades after the events.

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Six things you have to believe to be a Christian

Here is the article on the Stand to Reason web site, written by Greg Koukl.

Excerpt:

The six essential doctrines would be: the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ, the bodily resurrection, man’s fallenness and guilt, salvation by grace through faith by the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and belief that Jesus is the Messiah. And you have a seventh doctrine that strikes me as a functional necessity, that is the ultimate authority of Scripture without which none of the other truths can be affirmed or asserted with confidence.

By the way, it’s really important that people know these doctrines because many Christians are quite kind-hearted and they end up not being very careful about drawing distinctions between truth and falsity because they don’t want to disagree. I understand that. But if you were really kind-hearted then you would be honest and straight-forward with people about the demands of the gospel on their lives. The demand of the gospel is that you believe particular things to be true. It’s not just a matter of mere belief, as if these are just some incidental details of theology that you might happen to be mistaken about. And if you just happen to be mistaken, why should you go to hell because of that?

You don’t go to hell because you just happen to mistake a doctrine. You go to hell because you have broken God’s law. It is very critical to understand that. God only judges guilty people. People get judged by God not because they mess up on their theology but because they are guilty. People who are guilty get condemned. That’s it. There is a way to get around that but you’ve to know a couple of particular things that are true before you can take advantage of the forgiveness God offers. That’s where the essential doctrines come in.

He’s writing from a Calvinist perspective, which I don’t entirely agree with. But I don’t see anything wrong in that minimal list. Sometimes, it’s a good thing for us to focus on the essentials. There are lots of Christian denominations, and they disagree on many minor things, but on the major things, they are in agreement. And that’s a good thing, too.

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What is the meaning and significance of Christmas for Christians?

It’s the time of year when we explain what Christianity is about.

God exists

Basically, we know from a variety of scientific arguments that the universe was created and fine-tuned for life by an intelligent agent that existed causally prior to the beginning of the universe, because this agent brought the universe into being. Our purpose as humans is to enter into a two-way loving relationship with this Creator/Designer of the universe. This is the only way that we can ultimately be happy and fulfilled.

We avoid God

Now, when you look at human experience, none of us is interested in finding out about the character of this Creator/Designer, because we are afraid that if we find out too much about him then we will have our freedom to do as we please constrained by the demands of a relationship with an all-powerful, all-good being. Just knowing that such a person exists and has a character distinct from our own is enough to cause us to flee from him so that we can stay autonomous from the obligations of the moral law that he expects us to follow.

Christians believe that this universal desire to avoid an all-powerful, all-good God who will judge us is a result of bad behaviors inherited by us from the very first rebellion against God by our ancestors. Ever since that rebellion, the capability for relating to God has been lost, because we no longer have the ability to stop our rebellion against God. Christians call the first rebellion of our ancestors “The Fall of Man”.

What does this rebellion look like for us today? Well, we want to do whatever we want, in order to be happy, and to ignore God’s demands. We want to have happy feelings, including security, community and being morally good, all without a relationship with God. We want to acquire and rearrange matter for our selfish ends without acknowledging and honoring the Creator/Designer of that matter. And, of course, we would like other people to affirm, voluntarily or involuntarily, that our rebellion against God is really the height of moral goodness.

Additionally, some people imagine that God, if he exists at all, must desire our happiness. And of course when their needs are not met by this invented God, then they become even more bitter at God, and eventually decide that God could not really exist since their selfish needs are not being met by him. It never seems to occur to us humans that some pain and suffering may be permitted by God in order to turn our attention away from pleasure and security in this life, and back towards a relationship with him.

This is the mess we find ourselves in. This propensity for turning away from God and trying to pursue selfish happiness and security apart from a relationship with God is what the Bible calls “sin”. Every single one of us deserves severe punishment for refusing to pursue a genuine two-way love relationship with the God who is there. That is the mess we are in before Jesus appears to address this problem.

Jesus saves the day

I cannot say much about how Jesus solves the problem of rebellion against God, because that is really the story of Easter, and today we are dealing with the story of Christmas. But I can say that the solution to the problem requires that God step into history to communicate with his creatures and to perform actions in order to be reconciled with them. That is the message of Christmas: God is stepping into history to do something to end our rebellion. Easter is the story of what he does.

This is talked about in the Bible in John 1, for example.

John 1:1-5:

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2He was with God in the beginning.

3Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

4In him was life, and that life was the light of men.

5The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

You can substitute the word “Word” there for Logos, which really means logic or reason or wisdom. This is a person with a divine nature, identified with the eternal being of God, who exists causally prior to the creation of the universe, who is going to take on an additional human nature, including a human body. (Christians believe that there is one divine “what” being and three divine “who” persons). Software engineers, you can think of Jesus having two natures as multiple inheritance in C++.

And it continues in John 1:10-14:

10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.

11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

12Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—

13children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Here the word grace doesn’t mean like a graceful ballet dancer. It means an instance of mercy received from a superior. A person (a “who”) identified with the divine being (a “what”) has decided to make us a top-down offer of mercy.

The same message of God stepping into history is found in the Christmas carols that people sing at Christmas.

Christmas carols

Here’s the best one, “O, Holy Night“, and it says:

O holy night! The stars are brightly shining.
It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining,
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.

When we were in rebellion, we had lost our most valuable capacity – the capacity of being in a direct relationship with God. And if the newborn baby Jesus can accomplish his mission (and he did), then we are going to regain that capacity for a direct relationship with God.

Now look at “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing“, which one of my favorites:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”

Basically, as I often say, there are only two kinds of people in the world. There are people who are willing to respond to the offer of a relationship with God, with all the little sacrifices and compromises that a relationship entails, and then there are people who are not willing to respond. For the people who are willing to respond, the appearance of Jesus is the best thing that could possibly happen, because now we are finally going to have a chance to deal directly with God, face-to-face, to find out what he is like, and change ourselves to be more like him, with his help.

And that is why people celebrate Christmas. It’s the anniversary of the birth of Jesus. It is the story of God stepping into history to be reconciled with his rebellious creatures. It’s the story of the divine Logos subjecting himself to the life of a creature in order to rescue us from our sinful, self-destructive rebellion. This love for undeserving creatures is above and beyond the call of duty. We didn’t love him, but instead he loved us first, and he loved us enough to come down here and suffer with us so that we could be reconciled with God.

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

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Kenosis and the doctrine of the Incarnation in Philippians 2:5-11

It’s almost Christmas, so it’s time to see what the Bible says about who Jesus was and what it tells us about the character of God.

Here are the relevant verses in Phil 2:5-11 [NASB]:

Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,

who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.

Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name,

10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

11 and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Here’s respected New Testament scholar Ben Witherington to help us make sense of it:

Incarnation refers to the choices and acts of a pre-existent divine being, namely the Son of God, that the Son took in order to become a human being. He took on flesh, and became fully, truly human without ceasing to be fully, truly divine. Divinity is not something Jesus acquired later in life, or even after his death and resurrection. According to the theology of Incarnation he had always been the divine Son of God, even before he became Jesus, a human being. Strictly speaking the name Jesus only applies to a human being. It is the name the Son of God acquired once he became a human being in the womb of Mary, a name which he maintains to this day as he continues to be a human being.

[...]When I try and explain the incarnation to my students I deliberately choose to use the phrase divine condescension. What do I mean by this? Put another way, if there is going to be a corporate merger between a divine being and a human nature, then the divine side of the equation must necessarily limit itself, take on certain limitations, in order to be truly and fully human. The next question is…. what does it mean to be fully human? It means to have limitations of time and space and knowledge and power, and of course being mortal. Jesus exhibited all these traits. He was even tempted like us in every respect, but he avoided sin. What we should deduce from this is sinning is not a necessary part of being truly human. Yes, it is a trait of all fallen humans, but no, it is not how God made us in the first place. It is not necessary to sin in order to be truly or fully human.

[...]While the hymn is clear that the Son was ‘in very nature God’ at the same time he chose before he became human not to take advantage of his divine prerogatives. What were those? I call them the omnis– omniscience, omnipotence, omnipresence.

[...]And here I think is what Paul is driving at when he says ‘have this mind in yourselves that was also in Christ Jesus’. It says that he ‘humbled himself’. Now contrary to what the world may think humility has nothing to do with feelings of low self-esteem. It has nothing to do with feelings of low self-worth. If Jesus is the model of true humility, it can’t have anything to do with those things, because Jesus surely was the one person who walked this earth who did not have such feelings, did not have an identity crisis, and so on. Humility is the posture of a strong person who steps down to serve others, as Jesus did.

This IVP commentary on Bible Gateway talks more about what this “divine condescension” means to us, using that passage from Philippians:

Christ’s selflessness for the sake of others expressed itself in his emptying himself by taking the “form” of a slave. Historically, far too much has been made of the verb “emptied himself,” as though in becoming incarnate he literally “emptied himself” of something. However, just asharpagmos requires no object for Christ to “seize” but rather points to what is the opposite of God’s character, so Christ did not empty himself of anything; he simply “emptied himself,” poured himself out, as it were. In keeping with Paul’s ordinary usage, this is metaphor, pure and simple. What modifies it is expressed in the phrase that follows; he “poured himself out by taking on the ‘form’ of a slave.”

Elsewhere this verb regularly means to become powerless or to be emptied of significance (hence the NIV’s made himself nothing; cf. KJV, “made himself of no reputation”). Here it stands in direct antithesis to the “empty glory” of verse 3 and functions in the same way as the metaphorical “he became poor” in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Thus, as in the “not” side of this clause (v. 6b), we are still dealing with the character of God as revealed in the mindset and resulting activity of the Son of God. The concern is with divine selflessness: God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others.

I think it’s important to be clear that Jesus didn’t give up anything of his divine attributes by becoming a man. Rather, he added a human nature to his divine nature. The humility is because he came to serve  others.

I think that it is important for us to emphasize the doctrine of the Incarnation at Christmas, in order to correct the grasping and seizing that is so widespread. The really interesting thing about Christmas is the Incarnation, and what it tells us about God and us. It tells us that we have value, because Jesus loved us. But it also says that following Jesus means being humble and being a servant to others. It means pouring yourself out to others in order to serve them. And these obligations are not metaphorical – they are rooted in the historical facts. This is the way the world is as a matter of fact, although certainly we have freedom to rebel against it.

For those looking for defenses to the doctrine of the Incarnation, you can find a chapter on it by Paul Copan in the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics“. That’s for intermediate readers. For advanced readers you can look for a chapter in “The Cambridge Companion to Christian Philosophical Theology“, edited by Charles Taliaferro and Chad Meister, and published by Cambridge University Press. I just bought that latter book for one of the graduate students I sponsor. I know that Thomas V. Morris also has a couple of books out there on the Incarnation – one for intermediate readers and one for advanced readers. The latter book is published by Cornell University Press.

Filed under: Polemics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

William Lane Craig talks about the book “Contending With Christianity’s Critics”

A series of three interviews from the “Reasonable Faith” podcast about the essay collection “Contending with Christianity’s Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors”.

Here is the first MP3 file.

Topics:

  • About the editor Paul Copan, (the nicest Christian apologist)
  • 1: Responding to Dawkins’ argument “Who designed the designer?”
  • 2: Responding to the multiverse counter to the fine-tuning argument
  • 3: The argument that rationality and consciouness require theism
  • 4: The evidence for humans being hard-wired for belief in God
  • 5: Responding to naturalism’s claim to rationally ground morality
  • 6: Responding to Dawkins’ idea that the universe looks undesigned

Here is the second MP3 file.

Topics:

  • 7: The criteria that historians use to establish historical reliability
  • 8: Did Jesus think that he was the Son of Man in Daniel
  • 9: A time line for the resurrection of Jesus from the early sources
  • 10: Responding to scholarly distortions of the historical Jesus
  • 11: Responding to Bart Ehrman’s claim that the NT text is corrupted
  • 12: The evidence for Jesus divine self-understanding

Here is the third MP3 file.

Topics:

  • 13: The logical coherence of the concept of God
  • 14: The logical coherence of the doctrine of the Trinity
  • 15: The logical coherence of the doctrine of the Incarnation
  • 16: The logical coherence of the doctrine of the Atonement
  • 17: The logical coherence of the doctrine of the Hell
  • 18: Responding to objections to God’s knowledge of the future

I have this book, and I highly recommend this book and “Passionate Conviction: Contemporary Discourses on Christian Apologetics”, along with Lee Strobel’s “Case for…” books, as the basic building blocks of an amateur apologists’s arsenal.

You may also be interested in a new book offering a detailed response to the New Atheists, called “God Is Great, God Is Good: Why Believing in God Is Reasonable & Responsible”.

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