Monday, October 26, 2015

A Man You Should Know - Athanasius: Defender of the Incarnation

Have you ever heard someone talk about the “Church Fathers” but have no idea who they meant? Are they referring to the Apostles or others? In general, this term is understood to refer to the great male writers, teachers, and bishops of the church during the three centuries after the apostolic era, as the church was in its theologically formative period. These men – along with many women who have not received the recognition they deserve – were instrumental in helping to define what is considered to be orthodox belief; that is, those doctrines which are held to be true by the Christian Church.

One of these men was Athanasius of Alexandria (Egypt) who lived at the beginning of the fourth century A.D. Nicknamed “the black dwarf” by his enemies because of his short stature and dark skin, “Athanasius was a theological giant,” says Justo Gonzalez in The Story of Christianity (p. 200). His great intellect, along with his love for the Lord and his church, had tremendous impact upon the Christian faith that continues today.

It is important to understand how the early doctrines of the faith developed. It was not the case that beliefs in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus were clearly spelled out from the beginning. Instead, the early church wrestled through how to understand their faith based on the Gospel witness to Jesus and the teachings of the Apostles. As they lived out their faith in the context of local churches, these groups would come to common understandings about various beliefs, such as who Jesus was in relation to the Father. Then these views would “bump up against” the views of other groups and together the community would work toward a consensus based upon the writings that were affirmed by the larger faith community as inspired by God (see my earlier post: How Did We Get the Bible?). But sometimes the differing views did more than just “bump up against” one another; sometimes they resulted in outright controversy and charges of heresy. Such was the case with a man named Arius, and Athanasius could not remain silent.

Today we take for granted the orthodox belief in the Incarnation – Jesus is fully human and fully God in one person – although I dare say we all still struggle to understand how this works. This is one of the issues the early church had to work through. The Apostles were pretty clear that Jesus was God (Jn 1:1; Col 1:15-16) but they were also pretty clear that he was human (Matt 1; Phil 2:5-8). This was a problem because Judaism, and therefore Christianity, is a monotheistic religion; that is, there is a commitment to belief in only ONE God. How, then, could the early church reconcile the belief that Jesus is God?

Various answers were suggested: Jesus was God the Father but in a different form (a belief called modalism); Jesus was a human whom God the Father “adopted” as the Son of God (adoptionism); and Arius’ suggestion that Jesus was created by God the Father prior to the creation of the world and that he was more than human but less than God (Arianism). There were other explanations, as well, but you can see that the early church struggled to understand and come to consensus about the nature of Jesus. And this was no small matter!

Before we get too hard on Arius for his heretical view, we need to understand that he was very passionate about defending the orthodox belief in one God. For him, to suggest that Jesus was equal to God the Father was blasphemy. Yet, Athanasius was equally passionate about Jesus being the very presence of God in human flesh. “By virtue of that visit from God in Jesus Christ, [Athanasius insisted that] we are free to be what God intends us to be – that is, beings capable of living in communion with the divine” (Gonzalez, p. 201). For him, the Incarnation was the very core of the Christian faith and he would defend it with all his energy.

The Arian controversy lasted for nearly seventy years, from Arius’ beginnings as a church leader around 313 A.D. until a church-wide statement in 381 that finally condemned Arianism as heretical. Athanasius, as the secretary to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, was involved in this controversy from the very start. During this period, a number of Ecumenical Councils were called. These councils were gatherings of the bishops of the Christian Church from every region where churches were established. They represented the consensus beliefs of the entire Church.

The First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea was called by Emperor Constantine in 325 in hopes of resolving this controversy which was disturbing the peace of his empire. Since Athanasius was not yet a bishop, he did not attend, though Bishop Alexander used much of his work to defeat Arianism. It was at this council that the bishops composed the Nicene Creed, which includes the phrase that Jesus is “of one substance” with the Father. Arius was declared a heretic and Athanasius and the other church leaders thought the matter was settled. But nothing is that easy.

Over the next fifty years, Arianism resurged with the support of the emperor, a number of other councils were called, and Athanasius was falsely accused of horrendous crimes and banished from Alexandria five different times. It was only after his death in 373 that the orthodoxy he had fought for in the doctrines of the Incarnation and the Trinity was reaffirmed for the final time and has now stood throughout the rest of church history.

So, the next time you are reciting the Nicene Creed or celebrating the Incarnation during Christmas, give thanks for the passion and determination of Athanasius, the man who would not give up his conviction that God had become present in the world in human flesh!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

How Did We Get the Bible?

The Bible. Most of us have multiple copies of it on our bookshelves. We have multiple translations to choose from. We read it at home on our own, with our loved ones, and hear it read and interpreted in church each week.

But did you ever stop to ask yourself where it came from? You may answer, “God, of course!” And that is true. But God did not send the completed book that we have now down to earth via a heavenly messenger and plop it in the lap of early Christians. It was a much more “earthy,” human process, inspired by God’s Spirit. And this is what we would expect, given that this is God’s usual mode of interacting in the world – through humanity – with the supreme example being Jesus, God in human flesh!

So, come along with me as we explore the “earthy” process of canonization – the fancy theological word describing which writings were to be received by the church as authoritative for its life and thought.

Why Bother?

Why was it important for the church to have a list of accepted writings? There are at least two compelling reasons. First, early followers of Jesus already had the canon of the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The books of the law (the Torah), the Prophets, and the Writings, were fully recognized by Jewish authorities as God’s revealed word, and Jesus often referred to and quoted them. God had given God’s people guidance, nourishment, and promises of a king to come through the written word across centuries and it was expected God would continue to communicate this way after Jesus announced the coming of his kingdom.
Second, from early in the second century certain groups formed and made claims that contradicted the commonly accepted apostolic teachings. One of these groups was started by a man named Marcion. Marcion rejected the Old Testament. He believed the God of the Old Testament was vindictive and punishing, clearly different from the loving Father of Jesus. He claimed that the only writings that were suitable for Christians were the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. This was the first time anyone had suggested a list of approved books. This caused the early church to begin examining more closely how they decided which writings were to be used by the church.

The Gospels and Acts

In the decades following Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension, those who had been with him and witnessed these things began writing them down. One of the “tests” that the early church used to discern which writings would be read in their public worship was that they had to be written by recognized apostles or witnesses, or someone associated with them. This is why the Gospels were the writings that gained the earliest acceptance by the church as inspired scripture. Acts, which was written by Luke as an extension to his Gospel, also received early recognition.
Justo Gonzalez, in his book, The Story of Christianity, points out that churches in various regions used particular Gospels associated with their tradition. “As contact among these churches developed, they began sharing their manuscripts and traditions, and thus the acceptance and use of a variety of Gospels came to be seen as a sign of the unity of the church” (p. 75). This was extremely important in the face of groups such as the Marcionites and Gnostics who claimed to have special revelation or who wanted to reject one or more of the recognized Gospels because it didn’t fit their theology. The convictions of the early church “were not based on the supposed witness of a single apostle or Gospel, but on the consensus of the entire apostolic tradition” (p. 76).

Paul’s Letters

The writings of Paul were also recognized very early in the life of the church as Spirit-inspired scripture. Paul wrote his letters to specific churches, usually to address questions they had about proper worship practices or to correct misunderstandings and even outright sin in the congregation. Copies of these letters were then circulated and read in surrounding churches. This practice met one of the other “tests” for canonicity: that of being widely accepted by the church and its leaders as inspired by God. The reason these letters made it into the Bible we have today is not because a few church leaders decided they contained the theology they wanted taught in the church. Instead, the theology of the church was formed by its use of these texts that had wide consensus among the people of God as being the standard for their life of faith.

The Other Letters and Revelation

By the end of the second century, within about 150 years of Jesus’ resurrection, the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters were firmly established as the core of the New Testament canon. The remaining books that we have in our New Testament today all had widespread usage throughout the church although there was no specific list agreed upon. In texts of the third and fourth centuries, leaders in the church wrote about and referred to the entire range of books we have now, though some had lists that left off one or two. It was in AD 367, that Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, wrote a letter that included the authoritative list of canonical books we have in our Bible today. There was little debate, however. Our New Testament came to us through the Spirit-inspired consensus and worship practice of the church at large, not through the decision of a select group of men.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Well Done, Good and Faithful Servant - July 3, 2014

Today was our final day in the field; I have mixed emotions. I feel like I am just barely starting to get a grasp on this country, its geography, and its people, and now it is time to go home. But my body will be glad for the rest. At the beginning of this course, our instructor told us we were going to feel this country in our legs and our lungs and he wasn’t kidding! Today was a feeling it in my legs kind of day. I’ve had plenty of feeling it in my lungs days, too!

We drove up in the bus to the cliffs of Arbel which gave us a fantastic look over the Sea of Galilee to the east and then we hiked down. It was exhilarating! At one point we had to go down a sheer cliff face using small metal bars anchored into the rock. I did it – I conquered! As I look back over the past three weeks, I can’t believe all that I have done that I never imagined I would (or could). Hiking up to the top of Masada in 100+ degree heat, exploring ruins over five thousand years old, and learning the significance of rock types for human existence. I am proud of myself for all that I have accomplished here.

As I sat at our last stop on this trip, Caeserea, one of the great achievements of Herod the Great, I was struck by how the world would look differently at his accomplishments and mine. Herod was known throughout the world for his great building projects, living the “good” life, and ruling with an iron fist – he had great power and wealth. Conversely, my great achievements here are making it up and down hills (mountains!) in intense heat without passing out or falling, learning to read the Bible in a richer way, and making new friends from all over the world. The achievements of the common Israelites who lived here were finding enough water and food to sustain their families, making it up and down the hills to trade with neighboring groups, and passing on their histories to future generations.

Yet, what remains of Herod is crumbling. Earthquakes, storms, erosion, have all taken a toll on Caeserea. The magnificent harbor he created is gone; the remains of his palace mostly underwater. The great aqueducts no longer do what they were created to do – carry water – instead they draw tourists.

How will my accomplishments be remembered? I want to pass on to others what I have learned here. I want to take joy in the body God gave me which allowed me to do all of these things. I want to remember the simple life of the Hill Country Judahites, working hard, enjoying the fruit of their labors, and passing on their trust in Yahweh to future generations.  I want to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” knowing my accomplishments will not crumble but make a lasting impact on the lives of others.

The Gospel Triangle - July 2, 2014

The Sea of Galilee is a beautiful place. Today we explored the northern edge of it. This area – comprising the towns of Magdala, Capernaum, and Bethsaida – is called the “gospel triangle” because this region is where the gospels record Jesus doing most of his ministry. I had not paid much attention to the names of towns in scripture before, never taking time to look them up on a map. Even if I had, I likely would not have understood the significance of their locations. This trip has changed that.

At the time of Jesus, the area around the Sea of Galilee was divided into political districts: Galilee (100% Jewish), Decapolis (100% Gentile), and Gaulanitis (50/50% mix of Jew and Gentile). Jesus was from Nazareth, a fairly isolated town a good distance west of the Sea of Galilee. But, when he began his ministry, he based himself in Capernaum right on the coast within easy access to diverse peoples. If he had remained in Nazareth, or if he had made Jerusalem his base, he would have been much more isolated and limited, ministering to Jews only. But, he came to be the light of the world, not Israel alone.

While I knew that Jesus interacted with Gentiles in the Gospels and healed them, I thought that it was only because they sought him out, not because he made himself available to them. In Matthew 15, a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus begging for healing for her daughter. When his disciples urge him to send her away, he responds that he was sent only to the “lost sheep of Israel.” Yet, he had just left 100% Jewish Galilee and traveled to Tyre and Sidon, Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast filled with Gentiles. Why would he go there instead of remaining in Israel?

Luke records a story in chapter 8 of Jesus traveling by boat across the Sea of Galilee to the region of the Gerasenes in the Decapolis (100% Gentile). Here he encounters a demon-possessed man wandering in the hills. After sending the demons into a herd of pigs which rushes off and drowns in the Sea, the man begs Jesus to let him go with him back to Galilee but Jesus tells him no, to go back to his hometown and tell others what God has done for him.

As I noted in my journal a few days ago, Jesus is clearly opening the kingdom to people outside the nation of Israel. He is coming to fulfill the purpose which Israel failed to do. Yahweh chose Israel to be the ones who would tell others about the life available through him. Not only did they fail to tell others, they also failed to appropriate the full life God wanted to give them by giving themselves over to false gods.

Parts of the church today have a similar problem. We are so busy trying to decide who is “in” and who is “out” that we fail to make ourselves available to others as Jesus did, putting ourselves in places where we can minister to those who need the good news. We fight amongst ourselves about points of doctrine and fear looking like the “unbelievers” so much that we avoid being around them. Jesus was not afraid. He went where he was needed, to the lost sheep of the world.

The Cost of Discipleship - July 1, 2014

After seeking advice, the king [Jeroboam] made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other. Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. (1 Kings 12:28-32a, NIV)
Solomon has died and the once unified kingdom has split: ten tribes to the north (Israel) and two tribes to the south (Judah). The newly anointed king of Israel, Jeroboam, fears that if his people travel to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh that they will return their loyalty to King Rehoboam of Judah so he sets up two places of worship (Bethel and Dan) in the northern kingdom, violating the word that God spoke about Jerusalem being the place he has chosen to dwell.

As we learned last week at Shiloh – the place where the tabernacle was housed until the political and religious center of the nation was moved to Jerusalem – God desires people who will seek after him. Both Shiloh and Jerusalem are a bit off the main travel route, meaning that people need to be intentional about going there to worship God. While certainly Jeroboam fears losing the loyalty of his people if they travel to Jerusalem, I do think that may have been a piece of his decision that truly did want to make worship more accessible. As I have seen, travel to Jerusalem from the northern kingdom is difficult, traversing through difficult Hill Country of Judah. It may have been pragmatism which contributed to the decision.

I wonder how we, in our modern times, have gone the pragmatic route and made worship easier and more accessible in ways that do not please God? Have we made things so easy that many people sit in our worship services without hearts that are truly seeking after God? This is something I think about quite a bit and it has come back again to me over this past week. Jesus challenges those who want to follow him by saying that they need to count the cost of being his disciple: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple,” (Luke 14:26-27).

True disciples are those who are willing to pay the price of following Jesus to the point of losing their own lives. Losing one’s life does not always mean physical death, but it can mean losing everything you thought life was meant to be. The people of Israel were intended to travel to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, not to find an easier way. Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to give up his life. Are you willing to travel to Jerusalem?

Blessing to the Nations - July 30, 2014

Today we headed north to the Jezreel Valley, including stops at Beth-Shean, Megiddo, Mount Carmel, and Nazareth. This area of the country is very important as there are many routes that come through here, bringing people from east, west, north, and south, allowing for trade or conquest. In the ancient world (as in the present), controlling transportation routes and the cities alongside them was key to the survival of people groups. It is said about Megiddo: “Whoever controls Megiddo controls a thousand cities!”

Beth-Shean was also a notable city for nations and empires through the millennia as evidenced by the layers found there from as far back as 5,500 years ago. The last settlement there seems to have been Scythopolis, a large Greco-Roman city, which was abandoned after an earthquake in 749 AD which destroyed many of the structures. It was eerie to see large columns which had held up the roofs of temples and other buildings lying in rows on the ground.

It is significant that Jesus grew up in this area of the country. Because of the travel routes going through here, the culture was very cosmopolitan, having access to the people and ideas of many surrounding countries. Nazareth is in the middle of this area but cut off from the main travel routes by large hills and cliffs. In a sense, those living in Nazareth could watch the wealth of the world go by but were unable to participate. The particular bedrock and soil where it is located is not good for growing crops and lacks easy access to water. So, the people here likely felt hopeless for a better life and resented those they could see living the “good life.”

It is into this context that Jesus speaks words which, no doubt, were offensive to his hometown neighbors. In Luke 4, Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue, repeating verses they have likely heard many times about the anointed one who would come to bring freedom and healing. He tells the people, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing,” (Luke 4:21, NIV). They were pleased at this, until he went on to talk about how their prophets, Elijah and Elisha, were sent to people outside the nation of Israel. How could he say something like that, when it was obvious they were the suffering and oppressed ones?! The messiah was supposed to come and rescue Israel, wasn’t he? But Israel had forgotten that Yahweh had called them to be a blessing to the nations, not only to be the recipients of God’s blessing.

It is very easy for Christians today, including myself, to forget that same message. We give thanks to God for the comfort and blessings he gives us but resent when we ourselves suffer and those who don’t follow Jesus seem to do well. But even if they are making lots of money, seemingly living the “good life,” they need the message of new life in Jesus, just as the Romans and others did. Many of us need to change our understanding of what constitutes the “good life.” Is it what the world says is good: health, wealth, and comfort? Or, is it what Jesus came to bring: a renewed relationship with the Creator of our world and the promise of a full restoration of the truly good life he originally intended for us?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Better is One Day in Your Courts - June 27, 2014

Today we journeyed into the area north of Jerusalem, the southern reaches of the kingdom of Israel, into the land given to the tribe of Ephraim. So far, this has been my favorite day, despite the disappointment of not being able to visit Samaria because of current tensions in the country.

We began the day at Shiloh, the place where the tabernacle was initially placed after the Israelites came into the land. It was at Shiloh that Hannah came to pray before the Lord and ask him to bless her with a son. It was at Shiloh that Hannah gave back that son, Samuel, in service to the Lord. It was at Shiloh that Samuel heard the voice of the Lord calling to him and instructing him.

“Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked,” Psalm 84:10, NIV). Shiloh was the location of the house of Yahweh. As I sat and looked out over the green fields on the hills surrounding this place, I could only think of the privilege it must have been to serve the Lord here; difficult, yes, but a tremendous privilege. What must it have been like as Samuel “was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was,” (1 Samuel 3:3)? What must he have thought as he realized Yahweh was speaking with him and giving him a prophetic message in “those days [when] the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions,” (1 Samuel 3:1)?

And now here I am, standing in the place where the Lord’s presence dwelt, where he listened to the heart cries of a barren woman, where he spoke to and through his prophet. Am I crying out to my Father from the depths of my heart? Am I listening for his voice? Am I aware of his presence throughout my day, wherever I happen to be?

Then I heard God speak as our instructor read from John 15 as we stood on the terraced hills of Judah at Sataf surrounded by vines spilling over a stone wall. “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener … every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful,” (John 15:1-2).  “I delight in you and the fruit you produce,” he said to me, “and you respond to my pruning even though it is so painful. I desire for you to produce even greater fruit so I am doing this work in you. In you I am well pleased.”

Yahweh, may I have the privilege of being a doorkeeper in your house. May I have the privilege of hearing your voice. May I continue to submit to the pruning work you want to do. May I be aware of your presence with me at all times, in all places. May you be well pleased with your servant. Amen.