20 Centuries in 20 Minutes

20 Centuries in 20 Minutes:

Catholics, Protestants, and why it all matters

Jim Denison

A Baptist pastor was inviting people in his neighborhood to visit his church. An elderly lady said, “No thank you, young man, I’m a Methodist.” “If you don’t mind telling me,” he asked, “why are you a Methodist?” “Well,” she replied, “you see, my parents were Methodist, my grandparents were Methodist, and my great-grandparents were Methodist.” The frustrated young pastor responded, “That’s no reason, just because all your relatives are Methodists. What would you do if all your relatives were idiots?” “In that case,” she smiled, “I’d probably be a member of your church.”

If you are a member of a particular church, do you know why? Perhaps you joined your church because your family attended its services, or due to the influence of friends, or because the church met your needs. Or perhaps you are a member because of theological conviction–the belief that your church comes closest to the biblical pattern of God for his people. I hope the latter is more true for you when this short essay is done.

Church history used to be the subject seminary students dreaded most, because it seemed the least relevant to practical ministry. That was before the denominational era ended and people began visiting and joining churches from completely different faith traditions. Now more than ever, understanding where we come from is crucial to knowing where we’re going together. Here’s the shortest way I know to tell the story.

Catholic history in four paragraphs

During the “apostolic” era (AD 30-100), the Christian movement was confronted by three significant religious powers. Roman religion insisted on the worship of the emperor, embraced an eclectic, polytheistic theology, and emphasized form and ceremony over moral standards. Greek religion separated the spiritual from the material, with a strong rationalism and an impoverished morality. Judaism had been scattered out of Palestine for generations and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, establishing synagogues as it spread. The expanding Church took advantage of these settlements and the universal peace, roads, language, and hunger for truth and morality which pervaded the Empire.

The “patristic” era (AD 100-451) witnessed severe persecution of the Church, as some three million believers lost their lives by AD 300. However, the faith grew rapidly despite these challenges, especially in urban centers; some seven million professed faith in Christ by AD 325. The “clergy” (meaning “called ones”) grew to dominate Christian leadership by the mid-third century, as the Church worked to protect and preserve biblical doctrine in the midst of its expansion into the Gentile world.

Constantine’s conversion in AD 312 led eventually to imperial protection for the Church. The emperor merged the Roman Empire with his new faith, believing that this action would unify and revive the state. His leadership at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) settled the theological language which would describe the divinity of Christ but also made him the de facto head of the church.

Over the first four centuries of Christian history, the Bishop of Rome rose to preeminence in the larger faith. Innocent I (AD 402-17) was the first to claim that he stood in succession from Peter (cf. Matthew 16:18-19); Leo I (AD 440-61) asserted scriptural authority for Innocent’s claim, and is often considered the first “pope” (meaning “father”) of the Church. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the Roman bishop was recognized as the leader of the Roman Catholic (meaning “universal”) Church. Innocent III (1215) affirmed the universal domination of the pope over the spiritual and secular worlds, and declared the pope to be the representative of Christ on earth.

The Reformation

Financial abuses arose within the papacy in the years following Innocent III. In the early 15th century, three popes claimed authority over the church. The Renaissance led to renewed interest in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, and awakened intellectual independence. Wycliffe and his followers began the work of translating the Bible into the common language of the people (ca. 1382). Secular leaders grew increasingly frustrated with papal authority.

And so the stage was set for Martin Luther, a young Catholic monk and biblical instructor, to question various abuses he documented within the Church. His “95 Theses,” nailed to the door of the town church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, were not initially intended to spark a withdrawal from the Catholic Church. But when his writings were circulated by printing presses across Germany, and the pope excommunicated Luther in 1521, his personal “protest” (cf. “Protestant”) became an organized and unstoppable movement. The Peace of Augsburg (1555) legalized the Lutheran religion within the German world, and made Protestants an enduring dimension of the Christian faith.

Theological comparison

To greatly oversimplify, theological differences between Catholics and Protestants can be summarized by two comparisons:

Authority. Luther argued for “sola scriptura,” claiming that the Bible is our only infallible authority, not subject to church tradition, pope, councils, or clergy. The Catholic tradition maintains that as God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so he uses the Church to interpret his word. Papal teachings, councils, and creeds are the means by which he means us to understand his revelation. And so Church and Scripture are the twin authorities of the Catholic Church.

Salvation. Luther argued for “sola fidei,” that salvation comes only through faith. The Catholic tradition maintains that God mediates salvation through the “sacraments”: baptism, confirmation, the Eucharist (the “Lord’s Supper” to Baptists), repentance, ordination, marriage, and healing of the sick. Some Protestants recognize some of these acts as “sacraments,” while others (such as Baptists) do not; but Protestants do not typically believe that these actions help convey salvation.

While obvious differences exist, great commonalities between Catholics and Protestants can be celebrated as well. Both believe that the Bible is the word of God, that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, and that his atoning sacrifice makes possible our eternal salvation. While Christian denominations disagree regarding some of the practical implications of our faith, we share a common commitment to the most historic of all Christian confessions: Jesus is Lord.


Are There Rewards In Heaven?

Are there rewards in heaven?

Dr. Jim Denison

The Academy Awards are presented each February. The winners each receive something called an “Oscar,” though no one knows why. One possible answer is that early on, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences librarian said the statuette represented her Uncle Oscar.

An Oscar weighs 8.5 pounds and stands 13.5 inches tall. It depicts a knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film. It takes twelve people twenty hours to make one of the 50 statuettes produced each year. The Oscars are then shipped in unmarked cardboard boxes for security reasons. Security isn’t always effective, however—a few years ago they were stolen and found nine days later next to a dumpster.

Who won last year? Which movie? Which stars? The year before? How long will you remember this year’s winners and losers? Millennia after our culture has disappeared, eternity will only have begun. Jesus promised the thief on the cross, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). What was “paradise” like for that convicted felon? What will it be like for you and me? Why does it all matter today?

What is heaven like?

When Ronald Reagan was running for Governor of California, a woman confronted him by his car one day and berated him severely. Finally she said, “I wouldn’t vote for you if you were St. Peter.” He smiled and replied, “No problem. If I were St. Peter, you wouldn’t be living in my district.”

What do we know about “St. Peter’s district”? We’re all fascinated with the subject of heaven. Every one of us has loved ones there; I assume we all would like to spend eternity there ourselves. So let’s learn from God’s word about his home.

What is heaven?

What does our Father tell us about our eternal destiny? First, he tells us that heaven is real. It is certain—no figment of religious imagination, no superstition, no “opiate of the people” (Karl Marx). He revealed it to John: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1). According to God himself, heaven is real.

Second, heaven is a place (Revelation 21:1-2). John “saw” it. He didn’t feel it, or dream of it, or hear about it. He saw it, and we only see things which are. Heaven is a place. Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2; emphasis mine).

Third, heaven is where God is (Revelation 21:3). John reveals, “Now the dwelling of God is with men.” When we get to heaven, we get to God. Psalm 11:4 is clear: “The Lord is in his holy temple; the Lord is on his heavenly throne.” Jesus taught us to pray to “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Heaven is a real place, where God is. It’s being with God.

Fourth, heaven is a blessed place (Revelation 21:4). Because God is there, all that is perfect is there as well. There will be no death in heaven, thus no mourning or crying or pain. Our greatest enemy will trouble us no more. It’s a place of incredible joy: “You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16:11). It’s a place of reward: “Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:20). And this reward is eternal: “An inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4).

Such a glorious place is celebration, a party: “Blessed is the man who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15). We reign in heaven: “To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21). In heaven, we’re royalty. We’ll have perfect understanding there: “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).

To sum up, in heaven God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5). No more Fall, or sin, or death, or disease, or disaster; no more earthquakes or fears or tests or grades. Everything is new. No wonder Jesus called heaven “paradise” (Luke 23:43). It is a place of blessing beyond all description: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what the Lord has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf. Isaiah 64.4).

What will we be like?

First, let’s set aside a popular misconception: in heaven, people are not angels. God created angels before he created us, and we are completely different. When Jesus said that people in heaven are “like the angels” (Luke 20:36), he meant that we never die, as they do not. Not that we have “wings and a halo” (they don’t either, by the way). We are not angels. But we do receive heavenly bodies: “The perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (1 Corinthians 15:53).

Will we recognize each other? I think so, for these reasons. Jesus said that in heaven we will take our places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Matthew 8:11), so apparently we will recognize them. On the Mount of Transfiguration the disciples easily recognized Moses and Elijah (Matthew 17:3-4). Paul promised that in heaven we will “know as we are known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). I like what one preacher said: “We won’t really know each other until we get to heaven!”

Why does heaven matter?

I would imagine that the biblical truths we’ve rehearsed so far are good news. But let me ask: how often did you think about heaven this week? Did its existence change anything you did? Why should it? For this simple reason: when we lose heaven we lose the transcendent. We lose our sense that there is something more than this world, and we who live in it. And that is always a bad decision.


Church and State

Church and State:

Religion and Politics

By Dr. Jim Denison

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “Pulpit Initiative.” A group of ministers came together in Fall 2009 to challenge the IRS regulation prohibiting pastors from making political endorsements from the pulpit. More than 30 ministers took partisan messages to their congregations in flagrant violation of the IRS ruling, hoping to generate a legal battle.

What should be the relationship of church to state, religion to politics? Should I use a website essay to critique the candidates and even endorse one? Should my church? Should yours? How should faith and politics intersect?

On Thursday, April 30, 1789, General George Washington was presented to the United States as our first president. As the General walked to the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City, thousands of people jammed into the street below gave him a thunderous ovation.

Suddenly the crowd became quiet as General Washington turned toward Judge Robert R. Livingston and placed his left hand on an opened Bible sitting upon a table beside him. He raised his right hand, and swore to “faithfully execute the office of the President of the United States.”

There was a pause. Then the nation’s first president added his own words, unscripted and unexpected: “I swear, so help me God.” The president bent over and kissed the Bible. Then Justice Livingston turned to the crowd below and cried out, “Long live George Washington, President of the United States!” People cheered. Church bells pealed. Cannons at the nearby fort fired a salute.

From that day to this, every President of the United States has followed George Washington’s precedent, concluding the oath of office with the words, “So help me God.” But what do they mean by their confession of faith? How should Americans understand the relation of church and state, faith and politics?

This essay is only an introduction to an extremely involved and somewhat controversial subject. We’ll survey briefly the history of the debate, examine the question biblically, and seek relevant applications for our country and our lives today.

President Washington and the church/state relationship

George Washington became president of a nation still bitterly divided by its War for Independence. When the Revolutionary War started on April 19, 1775 with “the shot heard round the world,” at least a fourth of the colonists supported England. Patriots and Loyalists maintained tensions and bitterness for years after the conflict was ended.

One nation?

It is a surprise to many to learn that Washington became president of a nation which was still not sure it was a nation. In April, 1507, Martin Waldseemuller, professor of cosmography at the University of Saint-Die, produced the first map showing the Western Hemisphere. He called it “America,” after Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine merchant. But from the very beginning, it was a question much argued whether the country which emerged on these shores would be one nation or many.

The Declaration of Independence dropped the word “nation” from its text, with all references made to the separate states instead. Its final heading reads: “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America.” The resolution which adopted the declaration states, “That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States.” Many felt that independence did not create one nation, but thirteen.

Interestingly, the word “nation” or “national” appears nowhere in the Constitution. In 1800, Thomas Jefferson warned soberly that “a single consolidated government would become the most corrupt government on earth.” New England threatened secession at the end of Jefferson’s first term over his economic and political stances. His response: “Whether we remain in our confederacy, or break into Atlantic and Mississippi confederacies, I do not believe very important to the happiness of either part.” And he added, “separate them if it be better.”

Under God?

Washington also became president during a time of enormous conflict regarding the role of the church in the state. Protestant ministers cried out against “foreign Catholics” and warned of the dangers of electing “papal loyalists” to public office. “No Popery” banners flew in parts of New England. Following the constitutional decision to avoid any state-supported church, many were concerned that the nation’s new leadership not endorse a particular denomination or faith tradition.

Despite such concerns, our first president made his personal faith commitment clear. He was a lifelong Episcopalian, worshipping regularly at Christ Episcopal Church in Alexandria, Virginia. He rode ten miles to church (two to three hours on horseback) whenever weather permitted, an example which both shames and encourages us today.

John Marshall (Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Washington’s biographer) described him as “a sincere believer in the Christian faith and a truly devout man.” He believed in God the creator, arguing that “it is impossible to account for the creation of the universe, without the agency of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to govern the universe, without the aid of a Supreme Being. It is impossible to reason without arriving at a Supreme Being. If there had been no God, mankind would have been obliged to imagine one.”

He trusted God as his helper. Washington encouraged his troops during the Revolutionary War: “The time is now near at hand which must probably determine whether Americans are to be freemen or slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own…The fate of unborn millions will now depend, under God, on the courage and conduct of this army…Let us therefore rely on the goodness of the cause and aid of the Supreme Being, in whose hands victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble actions.”

Immediately following his first inauguration, President Washington and other officials rode to St. Paul’s Chapel on Fulton Street and Broadway for a religious service. However, since most of the crowd could not fit into the sanctuary, the president suggested that they walk seven blocks to hear prayers offered by Episcopal Bishop Samuel Provoost, just named Chaplain of the Senate. This was the only time a religious service has been an official part of a presidential inauguration.


Euthanasia and the Word of God

Euthanasia and the Word of God

Dr. Jim Denison

It was the phone call from hell. I was on the back porch of our house, resting after a morning walk, when the father called. The doctors had just left his little girl’s hospital room. They told him it was time to turn off the machines, that there was nothing more they could do. But he and his wife didn’t have to do what they said. They could leave their baby on life support indefinitely while praying for a miracle.

If they removed the machines, were they playing God? Were they taking their girl’s life in their own hands? But short of divine intervention, why prolong the inevitable? Through his tears he asked me, What does God want us to do?

This wasn’t the first time a phone call stopped my world. Several years ago I was teeing off on the 10th hole of the local golf course when an assistant from the clubhouse drove a cart out to tell me I had an urgent message. He took me back to take the call. A college freshman in our church had put his father’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

It was the first time I preached the funeral message for a person who committed suicide. People kept asking me and I kept asking God why he didn’t stop the young man from destroying his life and his family with him. And we wanted to know what happened to him when he did.

Is the Bible still relevant in a world where our medical knowledge has outstripped our ethics? Does faith help when we deal with the most horrific decisions of our day–euthanasia, suicide, and abortion? If you haven’t needed to wrestle with these issues, be grateful. And keep reading, to prepare for the day you will.

Euthanasia and the will of God

You may remember Terri Schiavo and the national debate which surrounded her death. She had been living in a “persistent vegetative state” (PVS) since suffering a stroke in 1995. Now her husband wanted to turn off the machines, while her parents fought to keep her alive. The courts finally decided in the husband’s favor, and she died on March 31, 2005.

Most of us who watched the tragedy unfold wondered what to think. The legal issues involved in her medical care and death were enormous. When should society guarantee a person’s right to refuse life support? What kinds of statements and/or documents are necessary? Absent these, is the decision best left to the spouse or other immediate family? What role should health care providers play?

Nearly every person I spoke with on this subject said that he or she would not wish to be kept alive under such circumstances. Nearly every parent would want a role in making such a tragic decision. The legal and political issues raised by this tragedy are still being debated.

My interest in this issue is not legal but biblical. I’m writing to try to clarify my own mind on this difficult subject, and perhaps help others as they wrestle with this tragedy. Unfortunately, any of us could find ourselves where Mrs. Schiavo’s family was for 15 years.

Types of euthanasia

In trying to understand this issue, first I had to learn the language and history of the debate. Here’s a brief description of terms used by the media when they report on the subject.

“Euthanasia” is derived from the Greek word “eu” (well) and “thanatos” (death). It usually means a “good death” or “mercy killing,” and is understood to be the provision of an easy, painless death to one who suffers from an incurable or extremely painful affliction. Such an action is considered proper only when the suffering person wishes to die, or is no longer able to make such a decision.

A distinction is usually made between “active” and “passive” euthanasia. Active euthanasia occurs when someone acts to produce death. This is often called “assisted suicide,” as in the actions of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and others who have provided medical intervention leading directly to death. “Passive” euthanasia occurs when the patient is treated (or not treated) in a way which leads to death, but actions are not taken to cause death directly.

A third category has become common in recent years. “Letting die” refers to medical actions taken to enhance the patient’s well-being during the dying process. Unlike passive euthanasia, the doctor does not intend the patient to die as a result of this decision. Rather, the doctor withholds medical treatments which intensify suffering or merely postpone the moment of death for a short time.

For instance, it is not considered passive euthanasia to discontinue chemotherapy in cases of advanced cancer, especially if the drugs increase the suffering of the patient. The doctor does not intend this decision to cause death, even though death may result from his or her action.

In these terms, Terri Schiavo’s death resulted from passive euthanasia, since physical sustenance was withdrawn for the purpose of ending her life. Unlike most chemotherapy, food and water did not heighten her suffering. They were removed for the purpose of causing her death.

Ways to choose euthanasia

The decision to enact passive euthanasia is termed “nonvoluntary” since patients like Mrs. Schiavo cannot express their wishes. However, her parents could call the decision “involuntary,” believing that it went against her wishes as she would have expressed them. Her death would have been “voluntary” if she had given “informed consent” while motivated by her own best interests (unlike a person suffering from mental or emotional illness who wishes to die).

If Mrs. Schiavo had executed a “durable power of attorney,” she would have signed over all responsibility for her medical decisions to another person, usually her spouse. Because she did not take this action, the court gave her husband responsibility to make medical decisions for her, a decision known as “substituted judgment.”

Medical issues

Maintaining Terri Schiavo’s life would have required “heroic” or “extraordinary measures.” Some patients wish only “ordinary means” which offer reasonable hope of benefit and are not excessively burdensome. A third means of support could be called “basic,” providing only nutrition and water.


Homosexuality

Homosexuality: A biblical overview

Dr. Jim Denison

Homosexuality is one of the most divisive issues in American culture. Should same-sex marriages be legalized? Should practicing homosexuals be ordained into Christian ministry? What does the Bible say on this controversial and emotional issue?

On such a controversial and emotional issue, we need to know whose word we are going to trust. We can find scholars who support any of the variety of positions which are advocated on the subject. It is not my intention to treat fully the multitude of interpretive comments which deal with the biblical texts on the subject. My goal is simply to review what the Bible says about homosexuality, as clearly, succinctly, and practically as possible.

Interpreting the Bible

And so I must begin with an interpretive word. When I taught principles of biblical interpretation at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, I often told my students, “The Bible can never mean what it never meant.” We must seek the intended meaning of the text as understood in its original context. I also said often, “The only word God is obligated to bless is his word.” What matters to us today is not my opinions or yours, but God’s.

Such a position is not held universally on this subject. For instance, Dr. Walter Wink states in his thoughtful booklet, Homosexuality and the Bible, “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct” (p. 12).

Dr. Wink then compares homosexuality to the issue of slavery: he argues that the Bible condones slavery, states that the Bible was wrong on that subject, and concludes that it is equally wrong on the issue before us (pp. 12-13).

I respect greatly Dr. Wink’s enormous contributions to New Testament studies, especially on the subjects of spiritual warfare and nonviolence. But I could not disagree more strongly with his assertion, “The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

Without digressing into an extended defense of biblical authority, I wish to state clearly that I believe every word of the Bible to be the word of God. I believe the Scriptures to possess the same authority for our lives today as they possessed for their first hearers and readers. For my purposes, the only question we’ll seek to answer is, What does the Bible intend to teach on this subject?

The sin of Sodom

The Supreme Court made history on June 27, 2003 when it struck down the “sodomy laws” of the state of Texas. In a 6-3 decision, the justices reversed course from a ruling 17 years ago that states could punish homosexuals for private consensual sex. Such activity is typically called “sodomy” because of the text we’ll study today.

In a survey of passages typically cited on the divisive issue of homosexuality, Genesis 19 and the sin of Sodom is usually listed first. Lot entertained two angels who came to the city to investigate its sins. These angels appeared as men; before they went to bed “all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them'” (vs. 4-5, NIV). For such sin, “the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah” (v. 24), destroying them.

Is this text a condemnation of homosexuality? Dr. Walter Wink believes not: “That was a case of ostensibly heterosexual males intent on humiliating strangers by treating them ‘like women,’ thus demasculinizing them” (p. 1). However, Dr. Wink offers no textual evidence that the men were “ostensibly heterosexual”; his view is only conjectural, and stands against the vast majority of interpretation across the centuries.

Dr. Peter Gomes, the minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in Harvard College, offers a different approach. He has written an extremely erudite introduction to the Bible and its message, The Good Book. Dr. Gomes, himself a homosexual (p. 164), treats this passage as an attempted homosexual rape, and argues that it does not condemn homosexuality per se (pp. 150-52).

A third approach is suggested by D. Sherwin Bailey, in his influential Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition. Dr. Bailey argues that the Hebrew word for “know,” translated “have sex” by the New International Version, relates not to sexual activity but hospitality. The word appears more than 943 times in the Old Testament, only 12 times in the context of sexual activity.

However, 10 of these 12 times are in the book of Genesis, the context for our text. Lot’s response to the crowd, offering his daughters so they can “do what you like with them,” makes clear that he interpreted their desires as sexual (v. 8). Everett Fox’s excellent translation of Genesis includes the note, “the meaning is unmistakably sexual” (p. 80). And Jude 7 settles the question as to whether sexual activity is meant by our text: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion.”

It is also the case that Jewish and later Christian interpretation of the passage has historically and commonly seen the sin in Sodom as homosexuality itself, not just attempted rape. While this fact does not settle the interpretative question, it is worth noting as we proceed.

The Leviticus prohibition

The next text typically cited on our subject is Leviticus 18:22, and it is far less ambiguous: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” The Hebrew is as clear as the English translation

The obvious sense of the command seems to be: homosexual sexual relations are forbidden by Scripture. This is the way the text has typically been understood by Jewish and Christian interpreters across the centuries. It is the way most read the text still today.

But those who advocate homosexuality as an acceptable biblical lifestyle have found ways to dissent. Dr. Walter Wink admits that this text “unequivocally condemn[s] same-sex sexual behavior.” But he theorizes that the ancient Hebrews saw any sexual activity which could not lead to the creation of life as a form of abortion or murder. He adds that the Jews would have seen homosexuality as “alien behavior, representing yet one more incursion of pagan civilization into Jewish life.”


How Do We Explain The Trinity?

How do we explain the Trinity?

Dr. Jim Denison

Every parent dreads the question: “What is the Trinity?” How do we explain the fact that our God is three and yet one? The concept violates logic. This issue is especially relevant in these days of interaction with the Muslim world. Islamic faith is insistent on the unity and singularity of God. The central affirmation of Islam is this statement: there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. To this way of thinking, Christians are tri-theists and thus idolaters.

How can we explain our trinitarian theology to Muslims, or even to ourselves? And why does it all matter to our lives today?

What is the “Trinity”?

It has been said that if the mind were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it. Likewise, if God were simple enough for my finite, fallen mind to understand him, he would not be God. How does a mother explain marriage to her five year old daughter? How does a mathematician explain calculus to his third grade son?

Yet we try. We sing as though we understood the words, “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty…God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.” I speak the same words over new believers which were recited over me in the baptismal waters, and over other Christians for twenty centuries: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” Why? What is the Trinity? And why is understanding it so essential?

A brief history of God

The first biblical reference to God starts the mystery: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). The Hebrew term here translated “God” is Elohim. The “im” is how the Hebrew language makes a word plural, like putting “s” on the end of a word in English. Thus one could translate the word “Gods” (though some Hebrew scholars believe that the plurality points more to God’s majesty than his number).

However, the following Hebrew verb “created” requires a singular noun, indicating that its subject is one rather than many. In English we would say “they create” but “he creates”; the latter is the idea of Genesis 1:1. So, in “God created” we have our start into the mystery that is the nature of God.

From earliest times, the Jewish tradition has affirmed that “the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4, the “Shema” which is recited in daily Jewish spirituality). Such monotheism was a radical departure from the polytheism of ancient cultures. But the experience of the first Christians made simple monotheism problematic, for they knew Jesus Christ to be Lord and God (cf. John 1:1; 20:28; Romans 9:5; Titus 2:13). They also experienced the Holy Spirit as divine (Gen. 1:2; cf. Acts 5:2-4; 2 Corinthians 3:17-18). But these three were independent (at Jesus’ baptism the Father spoke and the Spirit descended; Matthew 3:16-17).

There is no indication that apostolic Christians struggled with the logic of their experience of God. Paul could pray for the Corinthians, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). They knew God to be one, but they experienced him as three persons. This logical contradiction did not trouble them, for they were more pragmatic than speculative. They needed no words such as “Trinity” or theological formulations to explain their faith. But matters would quickly change.

The problem of God

As Christianity spread beyond its Jewish roots, it encountered a world view steeped in logic and rationalism. Aristotle had taught the Western world that non-contradiction is the test for all truth. Something cannot be one and three at the same time. So how can the Christian doctrine of God be reasonable?

The earliest answers to the question resolved the logical tension, but created problems greater than the one they “solved.” Some made the Son and the Spirit less divine than the Father, an approach known as subordinationism.” By this formulation, Jesus is not Lord and the Holy Spirit who makes us Christians (cf. Romans 8:9) is not fully God. Others taught that God shifts from being Father (Old Testament) to Son (Gospels) to Spirit (Acts to Revelation), an approach known as “modalism.” This strategy cannot explain the baptism of Jesus, the work of the Son (John 1:3-4) and the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) in creation, or the presence of the Spirit throughout the Old Testament (cf. Psalm 51:11). “Dynamic monarchians” taught that divine power descended upon Jesus, so that he was not himself divine.

At the Councils of Nicaea (AD 325) and Constantinople (AD 381), the orthodox Church declared all such formulations to be heretical, and affirmed that the Son and Spirit are of the same “essence” as the Father. “God in three Persons” catches the sense of their approach.

From then to now, believers have sought to understand better this paradox. Some suggest that God is like water, capable of being solid ice, liquid, or steam (but not at the same time). Perhaps he is like a three-sided pyramid seen from above (but the three sides do not work independently as did the Trinity at Jesus’ baptism). Maybe he is like an egg: yoke, sac, shell (but the three do not retain the same essence). Perhaps he is like a woman who is mother to her children, wife to her husband, and daughter to her parents (but she cannot act in three independent ways at the same time). All analogies eventually break down, as they should. As we noted earlier, if we can understand fully the essence of God, he would not be God.

Commitment to a God whose essence transcends our logical comprehension is a problem for some in our rationalistic culture. We like our faith to make sense. We may not understand why a ship floats or an airplane stays in the air, but we know that someone does. We’d have a hard time taking medicine no one understands, expecting effects no one can explain.


Radical Islam

Radical Islam:

The Greatest Threat to the Western World

Dr. Jim Denison

In November 2008, an Arab newspaper in London reported that Osama bin Laden is planning an attack against the United States that will “outdo by far” September 11. The warning was printed on the front page of Al-Quds Al-Arabi and was widely reported in major Italian papers. The paper is edited by Abdel al-Bari Atwan, said to be the last journalist to interview bin Laden in 1996. According to the report, bin Laden is personally following preparations for an attack against the U.S. which will “change the face of world politics and economics.”

Why? Why did bin Laden’s organization attack America on 9-11? Why do they continue their war against the U.S. and the West?

Islam is now front-page news every day. 1.2 billion people, 19% of the world’s population, are followers of the Muslim faith. There are more Muslims in America than Episcopalians or Presbyterians. In a few years, Muslims will outnumber Jews to become the second-largest religion in our country. There are more than 1,100 mosques around the country.

What do Muslims believe? What differentiates “radical Islam” from the rest of the Muslim world? What does it all mean for us?

A brief history

Let’s begin at the beginning. Islam was founded by Muhammad (A.D. 570-632), in the midst of religious pluralism, idolatry, and division among his Arab people in Mecca and the Arabian peninsula.

Muhammad’s father died before he was born; his mother died when he was six years of age. He was born in the city of Mecca and raised by his grandfather and then his uncle, Abu Bekr. At the age of 40, he had become a successful businessman when he began receiving a series of visions or “revelations” which became the Qur’an.

At the time, his people worshiped the seven planets, the moon, and the stars. Many venerated family household gods and various angels. Others were involved in fire worship contributed by the Magians from Persia. There was also a corrupt form of Judaism and heretical Christianity present.

Gabriel and Muhammad

According to Islam, Muhammad was visited by the angel Gabriel in the year 610 and told that God’s previous revelations to the Jews and the Christians had been corrupted. As a result, God was revealing his word and will a third time through Muhammad.

Of the pantheon of gods worshiped in the day, Muhammad was “led” to choose the one known as “Allah” (Arabic for “the god”) as the only true God. He began preaching in Mecca, inviting the people to join him in his new faith, but most rejected his message.

In the year 622, Muhammad and his small band of followers migrated to a city called Yathrib, now renamed “Medina” (“city of the prophet”). There they established the first Islamic state. The Muslim calendar begins from the day of this migration (the hijira or “flight”).

Muhammad’s hatred of idols led him to place an immense emphasis on the unity and transcendence of God. At first he believed that Jews and Christians would accept his message, and had his followers kneel toward Jerusalem to pray. When they did not, he taught them to turn their backs on Jerusalem by bowing toward Mecca; this is their practice today.

Muhammad’s culture was characterized by tribal warfare, brutality, and promiscuity. He emphasized divine control, and opposed religious liberty and separation of church and state. Since Allah is Lord, he must be Lord of all. Thus Muhammad created a civilization, not merely a religion—a way of life for all people, governing personal autonomy and all morality. Islam attempts to provide the answers to every conceivable detail of belief and daily life.

Muhammad left no designated heirs. The “caliphs” (Arabic for “successors”) continued his movement, led first by Abu Bekr. Soon, however, divisions began to emerge. Most Muslims followed the caliphs and their successors; these are known as Sunnis today. But some believed that only the fourth caliph (Muhammad’s son-in-law) was the true successor Muhammad, and have supported his successors; they are the Shiites (“party of Ali”). 90% of Muslims are Sunnis; 10% are Shiites, living primarily in Iran.

The spread of Islam

Islam’s growth worldwide has been the fastest of any religion in history. Within a single decade, A.D. 622-632, Muhammad united the nomadic tribes of the Arabian peninsula into a single cohesive nation, gave them a monotheistic religion in place of their polytheistic, tribal faiths, organized a powerful society and state, and launched his world-wide movement.

Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by Abu Bekr. Under his reign and afterward Islam continued to spread, promoted by extensive military campaigns. Within a century after the death of Muhammad, the Islamic empire stretched from Arabia west through North Africa, to Southern France and Spain; also north of Arabia through the Middle East and east throughout Central Asia, to the borders of China. In the process, Islamic expansion took in much of the oldest and strongest Christian territory.

The spread of Islam in western Europe was finally checked by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours (in France) in A.D. 732, exactly a century after the death of Muhammad. Spain was later reclaimed for Christianity, but a wide belt of territory from Morocco to Pakistan and Indonesia remained Muslim, and has so to this day.

In the meantime a series of Crusades were conducted from A.D. 1095 to 1291, making the Christian mission to Muslims immeasurably more difficult. Islam has dominated the Middle East for the last 12 centuries, threatening Europe during much of that time. Today it extends from the Atlantic to the Philippines. In Africa it is currently making tremendous advances.

Islam in America

There are between 1.8 million (David Barrett’s estimate) and 4.6 million (Islamic Society of North America’s estimate) Muslims in this country. Most put the figure at between 3 and 4 million. This is a “denomination” larger than either the Assemblies of God or the Episcopal Church in the United States. In the next thirty years Muslims will outnumber Jews to become the second-largest religion in our country.


Should Women Serve As Deacons? Seeking the Word and Will of God

Should Women Serve As Deacons?

Seeking the Word and Will of God

Dr. Jim Denison

The issue of women serving as deacons is either a very easy or a very difficult question. Some think that the Bible categorically forbids this recognition, while others argue for equal leadership rights for both genders regardless of what the Bible might teach on the subject. But many of us struggle with this issue and want to know what the Bible says. This essay is intended to provide an overview of this complex subject, including succinct statements of my interpretive positions on these passages.

Note that we are seeking not our will but God’s. Our opinions are not at the heart of the discussion, but God’s revealed word on the subject. So, what do the Scriptures teach on this issue? How should we apply their teaching to our churches and our lives?

Six biblical passages are considered by interpreters to relate directly to our discussion. The last five have been the subjects of very extensive scholarly interest, doctoral dissertations, and intense academic debate. It is not our purpose to discuss such scholarship in detail. Rather, we will study each passage briefly, consider the larger question of women in biblical leadership, review a very succinct history of this issue from the biblical era to the present, then draw conclusions for our churches and ministries.

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”

Our first text speaks to the general question of God’s view of the genders. In Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, addressing Gentiles who came to Christ through his first missionary journey, the apostle includes the following good news:

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29).

Paul’s statement abolishes the inequality of women common to the first century. In a day when women were the property of their fathers or husbands, with no civil or personal rights or identity, the apostle makes clear that we are “all” the children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Every barrier—Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female—must fall before the universal love of God.

As a result, our present discussion regarding women as deacons in no way calls into question the value of women to our faith or our churches. Whatever a person believes about the question before us, we must all agree that women are as loved by God as men, and equally important to our churches and our faith.

In addition, this passage is considered by some to relate directly to the question of women in leadership. It can be interpreted to mean that all Christians are equally free and called to ministry leadership, whatever their racial, ethnic, or gender distinctions. Or it can be read to support the equal standing of all people in God’s love but not God’s call to ministry. In other words, in this view women are as loved by God as men, but they are not given the same responsibilities in ministry leadership.

My position: I certainly recognize the fact that our text does not specifically assign leadership function to men or women, Jew or Greek, slave or free. At the same time, I would suggest that the “promise” (v. 29) to which men and women are heirs includes both salvation and service. Abraham’s covenant with God related not only to his eternal life but also to his work in sharing that grace with others. He was a conduit through whom God’s saving purpose would be extended to the world (Romans 4:18). In the same way, both men and women, Jews and Greeks, slave and free are called to share and lead in Kingdom ministry.

“Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea”

Now we come to one of two key passages related specifically to the question of women as deacons. Paul closes Romans 16 with a list of people worthy of commendation, and begins with a woman named Phoebe:

“I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me” (Romans 16:1-2).

Most interpreters believe that Paul was living in Corinth or Cenchrea (a coastal town just to the east) when he wrote the letter to the Romans, and that Phoebe helped carry Paul’s letter to its destination. And so the apostle recommends Phoebe to his letter’s recipients with wonderful praise: “she has been a great help to many people, including me” (v. 2).

Germaine to our discussion is his first description of Phoebe: “a servant of the church in Cenchrea.” “Servant” translates the Greek word diakonon, the same word translated in 1 Timothy 3:8, 10, 12, 13 and Philippians 1:1 as “deacon.” So, was Phoebe a “deacon” of the church at Cenchrea? If she was, does her position there bear relevance to our discussion now?

Arguments for Phoebe as a “deacon”

Many interpreters are convinced that diakonon in Romans 16:1 should indeed be translated and understood as “deacon,” not “servant.” James Dunn calls Phoebe “the first recorded ‘deacon’ in the history of Christianity.” He maintains that if Paul meant to identify her only as a “servant” he would have used diakoneo (cf. Ro. 15:25) or diakonia (cf. 1 Cor. 16:15). He believes that the phrase “of the church” points to a “more recognized ministry” or “position of responsibility within the congregation.”

A. T. Robertson, one of Baptists’ greatest Greek scholars, agrees: “In favor of the technical sense of ‘deacon’ or ‘deaconess’ is the addition of ‘of the church.’ In some sense Phoebe was a servant or minister of the church in Cenchreae.”


Suicide, Scripture, and the Grace of God

Suicide, Scripture,

and the Grace of God

Dr. Jim Denison

More people die from suicide than from homicide in America. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for those aged 15-24, and is most common among those aged 65 years and older. Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed. In the last half-century, the suicide rate among adolescents and young adults has nearly tripled.

These are some of the facts regarding the tragedy of suicide. However, you are likely reading this essay because this subject is more personal than objective for you. I hope the following conversation can help.

I am writing as a pastor and theologian, not a counselor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. I will offer a brief overview of our subject from a biblical and theological perspective, with some practical suggestions at the conclusion of our conversation. But if suicide is a very real issue for you, I urge you to seek professional help immediately. Our pastoral care staff can support you in finding the assistance you need, today.

Much confusion abounds in our society regarding the theological and spiritual dimensions of suicide. Is this the “unpardonable sin”? Can those who take their lives still be in heaven? Why does God permit such a tragedy? How can faith sustain us in this hardest of all times?

The history of suicide

The term “suicide” is traced in the Oxford English Dictionary to 1651; its first occurrence is apparently in Sir Thomas Browne’s Religion Medici, written in 1635 and published in 1642. Before it became a common term, expressions such as “self-murder” and “self-killing” were used to describe the act of taking one’s own life.

In Greek and Roman antiquity, suicide was accepted and even seen by some as an honorable means of death and the attainment of immediate salvation. Stoics and others influenced by them saw suicide as the triumph of an individual over fate. Socrates’ decision to take his own life rather than violate the state’s sentence of execution influenced many to see the act as noble. However, he also made clear that we belong to the gods and cannot end our lives unless they wish it so (Plato, Phaedo 62bc).

Many of the early Christians knew they would likely die for their faith, but chose to follow Christ at any cost. These deaths are not usually considered “suicide,” since they were not initiated by the person but accepted as a consequence of his or her commitment to Jesus.

Augustine (A.D. 354-430) was the strongest opponent of any form of self-murder (cf. City of God 1:4-26). He appealed to the Sixth Commandment and its prohibition against murder. And he agreed with Socrates that our lives belong to God, so that we have no right to end them ourselves. Over time, many in the Church would see self-murder as an unpardonable sin (see the discussion of the Catholic Church’s position below).

In the nineteenth century, social scientists began to view suicide as a social issue, and as a symptom of larger dysfunction in the community and/or home. Medical doctors began to identify depression and other disorders behind the act. Suicide became decriminalized, so that the individual could be buried, his family not disinherited, and a survivor not prosecuted.

Many are confused about this difficult subject, as our society and its churches have adopted such a wide variety of positions on it. So let’s discuss biblical teachings on the issue, the Catholic position, a Baptist response, and practical help for those dealing with this tragic issue.

The Bible and suicide

God’s word does not use the word “suicide,” but it has much to say on our subject.

Biblical occurrences

The Old Testament records five clear suicides:

When Abimelech was mortally wounded by a woman who dropped a millstone on his head, he cried to his armor-bearer to kill him so his death would not be credited to the woman (Judges 9:54).

The mortally wounded King Saul fell upon his own sword lest the Philistines abuse him further (1 Samuel 31:4).

Saul’s armor-bearer then took his own life as well (1 Samuel 31:5).

Ahithophel hanged himself after his advice was no longer followed by King David’s son Absalom (2 Samuel 17:23).

Zimri set himself afire after his rebellion failed (1 Kings 16:18).

Additionally, some consider Jonah to have attempted suicide (Jonah 1:11-15). And Samson destroyed the Philistine temple, killing himself and all those with him (Judges 16:29-30). But many do not see this as a suicide as much an act of military bravery.

The death of Judas is the only clear example of suicide in the New Testament (Matthew 27:3-10). Paul later prevented the suicide of the Philippian jailer and won him to Christ (Acts 16:27-28).

Some consider Jesus’ death to have been a kind of suicide, since he made clear: “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10:18; all references are from the New International Version). However, as the divine Son of God, he could only have been killed, by any means, with his permission.

Biblical principles

God’s word makes clear the sanctity of life:

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

“This day I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19).

“The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21).

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

“No one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church” (Ephesians 5:29).

There are times when believers may have to give their lives in the service of Christ and his Kingdom (cf. Mark 8:34-36; John 13:37; Philippians 1:21-22). But voluntary martyrdom is not usually considered “suicide.”


Tsunamis, Tragedy, and God

Tsunamis, tragedy, and God:

Where is our Father when his children hurt?

Dr. Jim Denison

Why does a good God allow bad things to happen to good people? The tragedy of tsunamis, earthquakes, landslides, and hurricanes are only the most recent events to call into question God’s love, his power, or both. September 11, 2001, and the Holocaust of the previous generation, are equally problematic for those who believe God is all-powerful and all-loving. And each of us bears our own burdens, faces our own suffering and pain. A college professor said to me, “Son, be kind to everyone, because everyone’s having a hard time.”

What is the question?

In theological language, we are dealing with the issue of “theodicy” (from Greek words for God–theos, and justice–duke). “Theodicy” was coined by the philosopher Wilhelm Leibniz in 1710. He defined his term, “The question of the compatibility of metaphysical, physical, and moral evil in the present world order with the justice and absolute power of God” (Leibniz, Theodicee, my translation).

The Bible is willing to ask Leibniz’s question of its Author. Habakkuk complained to the God who allowed the devastation of his people at the hands of the Babylonians: “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong. Why then do you tolerate the treacherous? Why are you silent while the wicked swallow up those more righteous than themselves?” (Habakkuk 1:3). Jesus cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).

The medieval theologian Boethius provided the classic expression of our problem: “If God exists, from whence comes evil?” The pessimistic philosopher Schopenhauer spoke for many: “The shortness of life, so often lamented, may perhaps be the very best thing about it.”

Christians are especially susceptible to this issue, because we believe three apparently contradictory facts to be equally true:

God is all-loving.

God is all-powerful.

Evil exists.

As the Stoic philosopher Epicurus observed, the “solutions” to this dilemma are four:

God wants to remove evil but is unable.

God is able but unwilling.

God is both able and willing; why doesn’t he?

God is neither able nor willing.

Can we defend the third approach with intellectual honesty? If so, how?

Popular but wrong approaches

The easiest way to “solve” the problem of evil and suffering is to deny or minimize one of its three conditions. Regarding the love of God, we can agree with the ancient Stoics that everything is fated by God. They claimed that we are all dogs tied to carts. We can trot alongside the cart, or be dragged by it, but we’re going with the cart.

The ancient Greeks saw their gods as capricious and immoral, Zeus throwing lightning bolts at those who displeased him. A common secular viewpoint today is that life is random coincidence, that if there is a “God” he has little interest in us. He is a clockmaker, watching his creation wind down.

We can also deny or minimize the power of God. Dualism argues that evil is coequal with good. From ancient Zoroastrianism to today, it has been popular to see God and Satan, good and evil locked in a battle for supremacy. J. S. Mill asserted that God is limited in his power; he loves us, but cannot do everything he would wish to help us. Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his kind and sympathetic bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, agrees that even God is not able to do everything he wants to do.

A third wrong approach is to minimize the nature or existence of evil. The Hindu tradition views evil as maya, illusion. The ancient Greeks saw evil as the product of the material world, to be escaped through ascetic discipline and philosophical reflection. The Buddhist worldview treats evil as the product of wrong desires. Hinduism likewise believes that suffering results from wrong choices, as the karma we deserve.

One other wrong “solution” is to deny the existence of God altogether. David Hume, the 18th century “father of skepticism,” proposed this syllogism:

If God exists, he must be loving and powerful and thus eradicate evil.

Evil exists.

Therefore God does not exist.

While atheism says there is no God, “agnosticism” (from the Greek gnosis, knowledge, and a, no) asserts that we cannot know if he exists or not. Alternately, the “soft” agnostic admits that he or she does not (or cannot) know, without claiming that such knowledge is impossible for us all.

The existence of evil and suffering has perhaps motivated more people to question or reject the existence of God than any other factor.

Historical approaches

Since theodicy is a problem as old as the Garden of Eden and the flood of Noah, Christian theologians have wrestled with it all through the history of our faith. Five basic approaches have been proposed most often.

The spiritual warfare model

Satan is very real. He murders and lies (John 8:44). He accuses the people of God (Job 1:9-11), resists the godly (Zechariah 3:1; Matthew 13:38-39), and tempts us to sin (1 Chronicles 21:1; Matthew 4:1). He has power over unbelievers (Acts 26:18; 2 Corinthians 4:3-4). He is a “roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

As a result, much of the evil and suffering in the world is attributable to his malignant work. Paul was clear: “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

However, not all suffering is the direct result of Satan’s work. We live in a fallen world, in which natural disasters and disease are inevitable. People misuse their free will (see the second approach below). God permits some suffering for our greater good (see the third approach). Satan would like us to attribute all evil to him, giving him too much power; or blame nothing on him, pretending he doesn’t exist. The right approach is to ask the Lord if there is a Satanic component to our suffering, and trust that he will guide us to the truth. If we are under attack, we can claim the power of God over our enemy and find victory in his Spirit and strength.


  • 1
  • 2