John Alan Turner

Speaker, Author, Mentor, Coach, Facilitator

Filtering by Category: Church History

The Questions That Keep Us Awake

There is no such thing as a life without questions. No. Such. Thing. It begins as a child asking why the sky is blue and why the cat scratched me when I was only trying to pet it. It continues through adolescence asking why this girl doesn't like me or why I can't stay out as late as I want. We sometimes operate with the assumption that the questions stop at a certain age. They do not. If anything, they get more pressing and -- sometimes -- more depressing.

We all have our tricks to keep the questions at bay, but inevitably they sneak up on you. When you least expect it you find yourself lying awake at night contemplating the mysteries of the universe:

  • Where am I?
  • Who am I?
  • Why am I here?
  • What is wrong with me and this world?
  • What is the solution for this mess?

These are the fundamental, existential questions that beg to be answered by all, but how do we answer them? Where do we even begin looking for answers?

Some say the Bible. I grew up in a faith tradition that maintained we would only speak where the Bible speaks and would remain silent where the Bible is silent. We didn't actually stick to that principle; you can't -- it's impossible -- but we tried with terribly frustrating results.

The reason this was so frustrating is because the Bible doesn't plainly answer those questions. The explanations found in the Bible are long and meandering and disjointed and scattered across the pages of a gigantic book with tiny print and onionskin pages. Unless you've been to seminary, it can be difficult to know which parts of the Bible address these questions.

I wish we would have been honest and humble enough to add that we would look to the Bible for answers and we would also study church history and tradition to see what wisdom we could glean from the people who came before us. We need not be afraid of philosophers and theologians and psychologists who have lived with these questions and come to some kind of understanding through prayer and study and deep reflection. Rather, we would be wise to learn from them and examine the Scriptures alongside of their conclusions.

My hope is to spend the next few months exploring these big questions. Last night I began a class with a group of college students and young adults where we opened this can of worms. I will endeavor to use this blog to further my exploration. And I'm honored to have you come along with me.

So, let me know if you think I've missed any of the big questions that keep you awake. And let me know if you're interested in taking this journey with me.

Final Thoughts on Their Death and Our Life

Not everyone who was killed for their faith in the early church was a famous Christian. Foxe's Book of the Martyrs tells us the story of two women named Perpetua and Felicitas. They were killed in March of 205. Perpetua was married and had a child, an infant. Her father was angry at her new found faith and beat her severely. Still, she would not recant. He had her thrown in prison. Still she would not recant. She was commanded to make a sacrifice to idols. She refused. They took away her newborn baby. Her only response was, "God's will must be done."

They led the two women into an arena where a wild animal attacked them. An executioner ended their lives with a sword.

It's not my intention to simply tell you sad and morbid stories. But if I simply said, "Thousands of Christians were martyred in the earliest days of Christian history," it would be easy to dismiss them. The death of thousands is a statistic; one person's death is tragic.

These were not nameless, faceless historical figures. These people had families. They had children. They were people -- just like you and me. Their willingness to suffer -- and the way in which they suffered -- played a part in preserving the faith for us. We have the Christian faith today because there were people willing to endure torture and face death.

Christianity could well have ended before it began, but the fact that believers would not recant kept the fires burning brightly. And gradually people began to think about what they were doing and why. Christians believed that God had validated Jesus' identity by bringing him back to life. They were convinced that Jesus had defeated death and had promised eternal life to all those who would follow him. There is no other explanation for why so many ordinary men, women and children endured the beatings and the fires and the wild beasts as they did.

So the question I'm left to ponder is this: Do we still believe what they believed about Jesus? Do we really? Are we convinced that death has no sting and that eternal life is truly ours?

If we did I imagine we'd live a little differently than we do.

Their Death and Our Life -- Part 2

Yesterday I shared with you the story of Ignatius -- one of the earliest Christians to be martyred for his faith. I mentioned that, just before he was killed, Ignatius wrote a letter to his friend Polycarp encouraging Polycarp to remain steadfast regardless of how difficult the persecution may become. It became difficult indeed.

Polycarp was tortured to death when he was 86 years old. The historian Eusebius wrote a detailed account of how it happened. He was asked repeatedly to deny his faith, but he refused saying, "For eighty-six years...I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong; how can I blaspheme my King who saved me?"

He was threatened with wild beasts. He was told that if they didn't scare him enough to recant, perhaps the threat of fire might. He responded, "The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished; there is a fire you know nothing about -- the first of the judgment to come has an eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly...."

He was burned at the stake, and he reportedly died while praying a prayer of thanksgiving to God for being considered worthy of such a death.

People watched things like this happen. Certainly Christians knew about it, but others watched, too. They saw Ignatius and Polycarp face death with a kind of courage that defies understanding. And, as they watched, they must have begun to wonder: What if it's true? What if they are right about this Jesus and his kingdom?

I am very concerned about our current administration's failures to preserve what I consider to be some basic civil liberties in regards to freedom of religious expression. But more than I'm concerned about that, I'm concerned about the ability and willingness of Christians to suffer the outrageous insults this world may throw our way.

We are far too easily discouraged and far less likely than our ancestors were to stand up and confess our faith in spite of the consequences.

When people saw the way they suffered, they began to believe.

When people see us complain, well....

Thinking About Their Death and Our Life

Before I took a hiatus on blogging I was talking about the early church and the lessons we can learn from them. I was thinking through how the early church launched and how it survived and concluded that one of the main reasons was its simplicity. But now I'm thinking there's one more factor we should consider. Martyrdom.

The earliest martyrs didn't want to die. They were regular people like us. They didn't seek out martyrdom, but, when it found them, they didn't shrink away from it.

One of the first to lose his life for the sake of his faith in Jesus was Ignatius. He was from Antioch (where believers were first called Christians). He had been a close friend of the Apostle John, and he believed in the "Catholic" church. By that he meant that The Church isn't an umbrella organization consisting of lots of individual churches scattered across the world; rather, The Church is one Church meeting in different places.

He was sentenced to death during the reign of the Roman Emperor Trajan. Ten soldiers arrested him and escorted him from one city to the next on his way to Rome. During that trip he wrote seven letters. Six of them were written to Christians in various cities (Ephesus, Magnesia, Philadelphia, Rome, Smyrna and Tralles). His final letter was written to his friend Polycarp.

In his letters, he thanked people for being so kind to him, and he encouraged them to remain faithful no matter how bad the persecution may become. He urged Polycarp to "stand firm like an anvil under the hammer." He wrote:

I would rather die for Christ than rule the whole earth. Leave me to the beasts that I may by them be a partaker of God...welcome nails and cross, welcome broken bones, bruised body, welcome all diabolical torture, if I may but obtain the Lord Jesus Christ.

He knew he would die, and he begged his friends not to do anything to delay it. He endured a torture that is difficult to imagine. He was beaten, and when I say "beaten" I mean in an unimaginably brutal sort of way. Then they poured fiery coals into his hands. Then they took sheets of paper, dipped them in oil, stuck them to his body and lit them on fire. Then they tore the flesh off his body with pliers. And then they allowed wild beasts to kill and eat him. He was 72 years old at the time.

I don't know that I could endure that -- especially if I knew that all I had to do was recant my faith. If I knew there was a way to avoid the horrible torture they put Ignatius through...I am not proud of it...but I'm honest enough to say I don't really know what I would do. I know what I hope I would do, but I also know that I often disappoint myself.

Ignatius endured, though. And, because he did, his letters to other Christians -- especially his letter to Polycarp -- had more weight. They read his words, and they saw the way he died. And it meant something to them about how they could live.

I wonder: Does Ignatius still matter? To us? Does his death impact the way we live?

Simple

The early church was persecuted mightily, and yet it grew so rapidly it practically took over the world within a few centuries of its birth. How did this happen? Why did this happen? Obviously, we can point to the sovereignty of God, and that is important to keep in view. But there is another reason why Christianity spread so rapidly: Christianity was (and is -- or at least should be) simple.

It was monotheistic, believing in only one God. This was attractive to those confused by the complex constellation of Greek and Roman gods. To think that there was only one Lord, one faith and one baptism -- that was appealing to them. There weren't hundreds of rules or dozens of rituals to keep straight. Love God. Love people. Trust Jesus. These are simple things.

They're not easy things, but they're simple. There is an elegant simplicity to the gospel, an elegant simplicity that gets buried and lost under a lot of man-made rules. Don't drink or swear or watch movies or dance or wear a two-piece bathing suit or smoke a cigar or listen to certain kinds of music. Only go to these kinds of churches where they read these kinds of Bibles and pray these kinds of prayers. Avoid those kinds of people who frequent those kinds of places.

We add to the gospel (which necessarily takes away from Jesus), and then we wonder why we're not growing the way the early church did! We've lost the simplicity. We've added too many layers of unnecessary things. We've elevated our traditions and customs and demoted the finished work of Christ to something that plays a part in our salvation when it is combined with our ability to keep the rules.

What must I do to be saved?

How did the early church answer that?

They said, "Stop going the way you're going. Turn around and go all in with Jesus. Trust him for everything, and let him teach you how to live."

Simple.

Irreligious, Unpatriotic and Bad for Families

Early Christians were persecuted terribly by the Roman government, but not many people understand why. Why were the Romans so threatened by Christianity? Why would they care that so many were converting to a new religion? The answers may surprise you.

To begin with, the Romans did not consider Christians religious enough to suit them. Believing in only one God set them at odds with their Roman counterparts. Not only did Christians refuse to acknowledge Caesar as God, they also refused to follow traditional religious decorum. They didn't claim the normal Roman gods and were considered intolerant of other religions.

Furthermore, their commitment to Christ alone caused some to think they were unpatriotic, anti-Roman. Emperors feared that these Christians might turn subversive because they only claimed allegiance to Jesus and seemed disinterested in national politics. In fact, they seemed to not care much at all about who was in charge of earthly institutions, because they knew that Jesus Christ was ultimately Lord of all.

Finally, Romans were convinced that Christianity was bad for families. The family was the basic unit in Roman culture, but when people came to faith in Jesus, they would sometimes become estranged from their families. "Blood is thicker than water" was a slogan that was used to convince new converts that one's family kinship should be more important than the pseudo-family into which you were baptized.

Irreligious. Unpatriotic. Bad for families. These were reasons Rome used to justify the persecution of Christians.

My, how things have changed. But have those changes all been for the better?

What Persecution Really Looks Like

Before about 250 AD, there was persecution of Christians, but it was mostly local and pretty sporadic. However, a new emperor came to power in 251 named Decius, and he hated Christians. The next 10 years became known as the Decade of Horror as Decius established a systematic empirewide program for eliminating Christianity. But no matter how harsh Decius was, nothing could compare with Diocletian (284-305). By his era, Christianity had spread so powerfully that it was in his own house -- literally. Many of his slaves and servants -- even his own wife and daughters had become followers of Christ. It seemed that the more vigorously you opposed them, the more they spread!

In 303, Diocletian issued four edicts meant to stifle the growth of Christianity.

First, all church buildings were to be destroyed. These were a relatively new invention (the first being built in approximately 250).

Second, all Christian books would be destroyed.

Third, all Christians would be banned from serving in the government and the military.

Fourth, all Christian clergy were imprisoned.

The following year, Diocletian issued another order requiring all Christians to offer sacrifices to pagan deities.

Again, the purpose of all of this was to keep Christianity from spreading any further. And the irony is that here we sit more than 1,700 years later. Church buildings ubiquitously dot our landscape. I have a new Christian book being published. Christians proliferate our government and military institutions. And I, as a member of the Christian clergy, enjoy an unprecedented level of freedom.

Christianity now claims one-third of the planet, while the Roman Empire is ancient history.

In other words, it didn't work. The more we were persecuted, the quicker and farther we spread.

So, let's remember our history. And let's think about what real persecution looks like. I know there are spots in the world today where some of the things Diocletian tried are being enforced. I know there are Christians imprisoned and books being seized and burned. I read the reports of church buildings being burned down. I know all of that.

I also know that none of it is happening in the USA. Far from it.

Call me naive, but I also believe that if any of that stuff ever did happen here in America, it wouldn't stamp us out. It would only throw more fuel on the fire.

The Lapsi

Yesterday I read an article on CNN about how some Christians now are afraid to speak about their beliefs -- afraid of being branded bigots or hate-mongers for their views on things like homosexuality or same-sex marriage. They still hold these beliefs, they are just reluctant to state them out loud in public. You can read the article by clicking here. It got me thinking about a category of people in the early portions of Church History. They were known as "the lapsi" -- believers who, under the pressure of persecution, lapsed or recanted their faith in Jesus.

Now, when I say "persecution" here, I mean actual persecution. Christians were being rounded up and forced to kneel before the Roman Emperor. They were required to say, "Caesar is lord." If they did not, they might be beaten with rods or have stones hurled at them. They might even be torn to shreds by wild animals. They could be killed.

Some chose that fate. Some ran towards death and embraced it with a strange sort of joy. These were called the martyrs. Others bore up under the assaults and survived with the scars to prove themselves. These were called the confessors.

The Church had no problem with martyrs and confessors. They were heroes, and their stories were told over and over to give strength and encouragement to those who maintained their faith. The lapsi, however, posed a problem. How were you to treat one who renounced their faith? Should you welcome them back into your gatherings? They were unsure.

Dionysius of Alexandria wrote a letter to Fabius, Bishop of Antioch, about this in the middle of the third century:

Immediately, the news spread abroad. The rule that had been more kind to us was changing; now the fear of threatened punishment hung over us. What is more, the edict arrived; it was almost like that which the Lord predicted. It was most terrible so as to cause, if possible, even the elect to stumble. All cowered with fear. A number of the more eminent persons came forward immediately through fear. Others, because of their business and public positions, were compelled to come forward. Others were dragged forward by those around them. Each of those were called forward by name. They approached the impure and unholy sacrifices, some pale and trembling, as if they were themselves the sacrifices and victims to the idols. The large crowd that stood around heaped mockery upon them. It was evident that they were by nature cowards in everything -- cowards both to die and to sacrifice. Others, however, ran eagerly toward the altars, affirming by their forwardness that they had never been Christians. For these, the Lord truly predicted that they shall hardly be saved.

So, here's my question: does Dionysius sound too harsh? Should he have been more forgiving of those who recanted under threat of bodily harm? Or are we too soft? Should we expect more from people today when the worst thing that can happen is you might get made fun of or called a bigot?

The Cost

Salvation is free. It costs you nothing. Following Jesus, however, comes at a cost. Sometimes it costs you personal comfort. You may get made fun of. You may get passed over for a promotion. You may find yourself excluded from a social gathering. Here in America, the costs are relatively low.

For others -- in other places or times -- following Jesus cost their very lives.

By the end of the first century, the baby church had gotten up and started walking on its own. But it did so without the direction or leadership of the original friends of Jesus. All of the eyewitnesses were dead. Most of that band of disciples had been martyred. John, the last living of the 12 Jesus had called, wrote the Book of Revelation (probably between AD 90-95). Then he died.

Church history -- as an academic study -- picks up where the Bible leaves off. It is a glorious story but not an easy one to tell. For the next several months I am going to attempt to tell it to you, but I should make some disclaimers here at the beginning.

First, this will not be very scholarly. I won't include a ton of footnotes or technical language. I want regular people to understand this grand, epic story. Also, I will not be completely balanced. I will give more attention to certain eras and people than to others. I cannot be exhaustive. I will not spend a lot of time on the Eastern Orthodox Church. Their story is a valid part of this whole story, but I just don't have time or space to tell the whole thing exhaustively!

Because I will have to summarize some events and people, there is a high probability that at least one person or event will come out looking more like a caricature than a real sketch. I'm going to do my best to summarize 2,000 years of history. Caricatures are inevitable.

Oh, and I should just go ahead and admit that I am biased. I am American. I am male. I am Protestant. I am Evangelical. I was raised and educated mostly within the American Restoration Movement. All of these perspectives contain certain imbedded biases -- both good and bad. I will try to affirm all theological heritages that are within the framework of historical, orthodox Christianity. I obviously have some differences with the Roman Catholic Church, but I will attempt to affirm them in what follows.

I believe we have a shared history -- particularly before the Reformation. Growing up in an Arminian tradition, the name Calvin was frequently used negatively. As an adult theologian I still have some problems with some of John Calvin's fundamental assumptions, but I believe he is one of the most influential theologians of history -- and I mean that positively. I may have differences with Alexander Campbell, too, but I try to assume the best about his motives and his legacy.

We all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us. Augustine. Irenaeus. Polycarp. Aquinas. Luther. Calvin. Zwingli. Spurgeon. Campbell. Stone. Moody. Rice. These are all great men (and there are some great women as well), and we are in their debt. We should not cast them aside completely without carefully examining why they believed what they believed the way they believed. Everyone comes from somewhere.

But to return to my original thought in this post, there is a cost to following Jesus. All of the people I have mentioned thus far paid a steep price -- not for their salvation -- but for their faith. Their trust and obedience had a pricetag attached, and so does yours.

In the early centuries of the Church, many Roman Emperors, whose names probably mean little to you, caused the deaths of thousands of believers who would not conform to the laws of the emperor cult. Every year, the government demanded every citizen to pledge allegiance by burning incense and saying, "Caesar is lord."

Obviously, Christians could not say this. Ironically, by not saying it, Christians were accused of not being religious enough -- of even being atheistic. All irony aside, this created a big problem for Christians, as they were routinely rounded up and put to death in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable. Those who were not put to death were tortured -- again in some of the most gruesome ways imaginable.

I know it sometimes feels like the tide is turning against us Christians here in America. I have read most of the same news stories you have read. I know it may feel like we're being persecuted, but let's please calm down. What we face is nothing compared to our ancestors. Let us not insult their memory by comparing our lot to theirs.

Don't Know Much About [Church] History

The sad truth is very few of us know very much at all about the history of God's great creation, The Church. I would venture to guess that more people who sit in churches across America each Sunday know more about the founding fathers than they do about the church fathers. We know more local and national history than we know about church history. Some have even questioned why church history is important. I would like to offer a few reasons why I think this study is important, and I'd like to begin with what should be the most obvious reason of all. We will never understand where we are unless we look back to see how we get here. Odds are there are things about the way churches do things that you really like or really hate. Have you ever stopped to wonder why we do these things in these ways? Why do some churches insist on Sunday evening services? What about adult Sunday School? Why does communion contain a tiny thimble full of grape juice? Why is a fish symbol connected to Christianity?

All of those questions have answers in the study of our history. There were probably perfectly good reasons. Some of those reasons were certainly embedded in a particular time and place and should probably be done away with. But it behooves us to investigate the reasons of those who came before us.

Speaking of that, the study of church history will introduce you to people you really should know. There are tons of celebrities in the contemporary Christian megachurch conference speaker world today. Andy Stanley. Max Lucado. Francis Chan. I see your Facebook feeds, and I hear all the man-crushes going on.

But you really should know about Augustine and St. John of the Cross and Irenaeus. You should be familiar with Martin Luther and John Wesley. Yes, Scot McKnight is great, but what about Anselm or Kierkegaard or Karl Barth? Study church history, and you might develop a man-crush on someone who has been dead for several centuries! No one is truly dead as long as someone keeps telling their story. Through a good study of church history, the dead continue to speak.

It's been said that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat past mistakes. Studying the roots of our movement should allow us to learn from the past -- to discover how to adapt traditions when necessary -- to see how to constructively discern between tradition and truth.

The Hope of the World

The world has no hope -- none whatsoever -- unless there is a God. Only God can preserve a person, a family, a group of people, a nation or any part of civilization, Without God, no one, no nation, no family, no group of people, no nation, no civilization could survive. Left to itself, culture always self-destructs. That's the bad news.

The good news is that God loves the world and keeps it from killing itself. Through the overwhelming gift of his Son, Jesus, God extends his love. And before Jesus left planet Earth, he launched one of God's best ideas: The Church.

For reasons only he could know, God has chosen to accomplish his purposes through the Church. Bill Hybels has said, "The local church is the hope of the world." You might think that's an overstatement, but there's at least some truth to it. For 2,000 years now, the Church has preserved and passed on the gospel, praying that people would open their hearts to receive it and their minds to contemplate the implications of it.

It seems vogue now and again to tear down the Church. Now seems to be one such time. More and more people are identifying as "spiritual but not religious" -- the now-infamous category of "nones" (those who check the box labeled "none" under "religious affiliation" on surveys) is growing rapidly. People distrust organized religion. Christians in America seem to be undergoing a kind of identity crisis, seeking to understand anew what constitutes a church and how so many of these bodies have gotten off-track from pursuing the mission of God in our world.

It is an indisputable fact that the Church is far from perfect -- so far one might be tempted to say it is the opposite of perfect. The Church is weak and dirty and cantankerous. In many parts of the world it may appear to be no more than a country club, a place to gather with like-minded people to have your beliefs affirmed on a consistent basis. Rather than welcoming those marginalized by society, churches often exacerbate the problem by relegating certain categories of people to a sort of permanent Junior Varsity status.

The Church might be a lot like New York City, which has been famously described as a catastrophe -- but a magnificent catastrophe. Yes, we get into squabbles over the color of the carpet. Yes, we tend to shoot our own wounded. Still, with all of its problems (and they are legion), the Church is still at work, still helping build orphanages and drill wells so people can have fresh water to drink, still teaching people to read, still rescuing people from slavery. We are a catastrophe, but we are a magnificent catastrophe.

This magnificent catastrophe has a magnificent story, but, sadly, few of us know it. It's equal parts comedy and drama, and I am going to write about it here in the coming weeks and months. Hopefully, as we are informed of the past, we will gain courage for the future.

For now, a question: Why do you think it's become so popular for Christians to speak negatively about the Church?

So...What Happened?

If our heritage is one of cultural engagement, what happened to the evangelical movement? What happened to the legacy left behind by men and women like William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Fry? Well, I've written before about an argument that erupted in Christian churches about a hundred years ago. I've talked about how one group of scholars got together and decided that Jesus was merely a wise and moral teacher. He went around doing a lot of good, but he never actually performed any miracles. I mean, miracles don't really happen, do they? Of course not. So, let's dispense with all the nonsense about virgin birth and walking on water and healing sick people and all that. Let's especially do away with the silly notion of a bodily resurrection. Jesus was just a wise and moral teacher, and we would do well to learn from him. Let's not say he was God in a body.

But the other side of the theological spectrum maintained their belief in Jesus as God -- Jesus as second member of the Trinity -- Jesus as sinless, supernatural and divine.

There was actually a deeper argument that led the two camps to these two positions. It had to do with the way we read the Bible. Theological liberals said we shouldn't take the Bible literally when it talks about things like sin and miracles and people being unable to save themselves. They believed that the Bible is really just trying to teach us how to be better people. So, we take the moral and ethical teachings to heart. We leave the rest behind, chalking it up to primitive people trying to understand the unknowable God of the universe.

Theological conservatives fought against liberalism tooth and nail, publishing a series of 12 short books called The Fundamentals (that's where we get the term "Christian fundamentalist" from).

Sadly, the conservative group thought it was so important to defend their doctrinal purity that they felt justified in ignoring social concerns. In fact, bringing up social concerns like feeding the hungry and caring for marginalized people came under some suspicion from conservatives. They began to think that if you talked about human rights, you were probably a liberal.

Liberals seized on this moral high ground and began to criticize capitalism, advocating something akin to a Christian socialism, believing it might be possible to bring about a truly Christian society through political and social action.

Conservatives chose to focus on evangelism. Liberals chose to focus on social and political concerns.

Now, you tell me: Did the conservatives have a point? What about the liberals? Did they also have a point?

Is it possible to bring the two concerns back together, and -- if so -- how?

Our Evangelical Heritage

The idea of Christians being involved in social concerns is hardly new. In fact, we have a long history of working for social and economic justice. One historian (J. Wesley Bready) notes how prior to the Evangelical Revival in the 19th Century, England was sliding headlong towards chaos and anarchy. Life-expectancy was low. Alcoholism was high. Gambling was prevalent. Abuses against women and children were atrocious. Bear-bating. Bribery. Corruption. He writes, "Such manifestations suggest that the British people were then perhaps as deeply degraded and debauched as any people in Christendom."

But then something happened. Things began to change. Slavery was abolished. The prison system was reformed. Working conditions improved. Education became available for poor kids. Bready continues:

Whence, then, this pronounced humanity? -- this passion for social justice, and sensitivity to human wrongs? there is but one answer commensurate with stubborn historical truth. It derived from a new social conscience. And if that social conscience, admittedly, was the offspring of more than one progenitor, it nonetheless was mothered and nurtured by the Evangelical Revival of vital, practical Christianity -- a revival which illumined the central postulates of the New Testament ethic, which made real the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of men, which pointed the priority of personality over property, and which directed heart, soul and mind, towards the establishment of the Kingdom of Righteousness on earth (J. Wesley Bready, England Before and After Wesley: The Evangelical Revival and Social Reform).

In other words, what kept England from devolving into a bloody revolution like France? The social conscience provided by orthodox Christianity. What activated activists like William Wilberforce and Elizabeth Fry? They were not simply content to engage in evangelism, leaving those evangelized to sort things out on their own. They worked tirelessly to overturn corrupt systems and promote social justice and political and economic reform.

Why?

They didn't do these things in spite of their Christianity. They did these things precisely because of their Christianity.

If John Wesley was the leading figure of such revival in England, similar things came in the wake of the American revivals led by Charles Finney. Though he was known as a fiery evangelist, Finney's background was as a lawyer and his concern was as much for reform as it was for revival. In fact, he believed that the lack of cultural engagement on the part of Christians grieved the Holy Spirit and kept revival from coming in many places.

It's no wonder that a small army of abolitionists and missionaries arose out of those tents where Finney preached. They took medicine and education to the remotest corners of the world -- not as evangelistic tools but as expressions of their newfound love and compassion for all people.

Today is the 40th Anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. Is there a better example in the 20th Century of a man whose Christian beliefs led him to engage the culture around him? He was not content to simply preach the gospel; he was compelled to live the gospel -- even if such a life would lead to his ultimate death.

Christian revival has always led to social and cultural engagement. That's a matter of historical record in both America and England.

Now the question is: Where are the Wesleys and Finneys of today? Are there any Wilberforces or Frys and Kings out there?

Another question: Have you ever felt your Christian beliefs pushing you to get involved in something outside of the four walls of your local church?

C.S. Lewis on the Gospels as Myth

"All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that's my job. And I'm prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legends or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I've read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff."

C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, Walter Hooper, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), p. 209

Scholarship Is Hard

I went to school. I attended classes here, here and here (though that last one probably won't claim me anymore). Eventually I started working my way toward a Doctorate in Philosophy here (and I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for my wife telling me she was pregnant with our third daughter -- something about having to choose between food on the table or initials after my name). In each of those institutions of higher learning there were multiple scholars who had specialized in studying Christianity -- devoted huge chunks of their lives to learning the history, languages, etc. that make Christianity what it is.

And these are not the only places of such scholarship. There are literally hundreds of colleges, universities and seminaries across the globe where rigorous and careful study of the Christian religion takes place. And it has been this way for nearly 2,000 years.

This is not the case for the Mithraic religion.

In fact, from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s there was really just one guy who could claim any level of scholarship and expertise in the field of Mithraic studies. That guy's name: Franz-Valery-Marie Cumont.

He was a brilliant man -- especially learned in the fields of history and archeology -- and his scholarship is invaluable to many -- particularly those who study comparative religion.

But he was just one guy. There was no community of scholarship with which to compare and contrast his theories. And, several decades after his death, most of his theories were denounced.

It doesn't make him a bad guy. It just makes him a bad source to cite when you're trying to disprove Christianity.

And that's where most of the people who claim that Christianity actually stole the majority of its ideas about Jesus from Mithras go wrong.

Cumont had this idea that the Mithras cult as it existed in 2nd Century Rome was the same as the Mithras cult as it existed in 4th Century BC Iran and India. No credible historian believes this anymore. The only people who mention it are people who don't do their homework.

Scholarship is hard, but it's sometimes necessary. The historicity of Jesus' Resurrection is too important to take shortcuts. So, let's check our sources carefully. And, more importantly, let's check our motives.

Again, I want to end with a couple of questions:

Why would someone want to disprove Jesus' Resurrection? What might they gain from believing it to be a myth?

The Myth of Mithraic Influence

Last night, Susan Fulford left this comment:

You do realise of course that the resurrection story was quite a common theme in the mystery religions at least 400 years before the supposed death of Jesus. In fact if you check your classsical history and check the cult of "Mythras" , you will find that Mythras was around (according to the Persians), around 400BC. His birth date was 25 December and he had 12 helpers or "disciples" who preached his doctrine. Also he was put to death but rose again. The Mythras cult was not the only one which expounded the resurrection story. there were several, all of which existed 100's of years before Jesus lived. I suggest you read up on these mystery cults so that you can get a more informed and wider view of the historical background. That is, look at all the facts!

Ordinarily I would just delete this. I doubt she is really interested in any kind of dialog and probably meant to just be a pain in my side. But this business about Jesus' Resurrection is important. If it is true, it is the most important business in human history. So, I'm going to take on the idea that Christianity borrowed from the cult of Mythras.

I fear this may bore some of you. I'll do my best to make this concise and interesting. Again, this is one of those statements that gets made from time to time as an attempt to shut the mouths of Christians who insist on speaking of the bodily Resurrection of Jesus as if it actually happened. It would be wise to have some kind of response at the ready.

Okay -- to set the stage: There was a time when Mithraism actually competed with Christianity for people's loyalty. Today, Islam is on the rise. Celebrities join the Church of Scientology regularly. You might have a friend who recently announced that they have become a Buddhist.

You never hear of someone joining Mithraism anymore. It is essentially a dead religion.

But it's still a factor in this one arena: It is where skeptics (usually -- as we shall see -- skeptics who haven't done a lot of homework) are most likely to point and claim that Christianity is a copycat religion.

This theory comes from some strange books that have been released in recent years (The Christ Conspiracy and Suns of God: Krishna, Buddha and Christ Unveiled by Acharya S and The Jesus Puzzle by Earl Doherty are among the most popular). These books make the claim that what we believe about Jesus is mostly stuff the ancient Persians believed about Mithras first. Only later did people take those beliefs and apply them to Jesus. In fact, the theory is now being bandied about that Jesus never actually existed but was created (a theory no historian in his or her right mind actually believes).

Among the things allegedly borrowed from Mithraism:

  • Mithra was born of a virgin on December 25 in a cave
  • Mithra was an itinerant teacher with 12 disciples
  • Mithra performed many miracles and promised his followers eternal life
  • Mithra sacrificed himself for world peace
  • Mithra was buried in a tomb and rose from the dead after three days
  • Mithra's followers continued to spread his teaching and celebrated his resurrection annually -- on the day that has now become Easter
  • Mithra's followers referred to him as the Good Shepherd, the Lion, the Lamb, the Way, the Truth and the Light, Logos, Redeemer, Savior and Messiah
  • Mithras wanted his followers to gather on the first day of the week to celebrate a "Lord's Supper"
  • These gatherings would be overseen by "Fathers" and the Father of all the Fathers (kind of like a Pope) lived in Rome

Okay, I'm going to spend some time delving into all this in the coming days. I'll need to do a little background first -- to talk about Mithraic studies in general over the past few decades.

For today, I'd like to hear from you.

Does any of this matter? Why should we care whether or not Christianity has incorporated ideas and concepts from other religions -- even myths?

The Point of Education -- Christian or Otherwise

Christians have always been pioneers in the fields of education and learning. For various reasons (some good and some bad), Christians have always started schools, teaching people not only Christian doctrine but to read and write well, to appreciate and understand science, medicine and mathematics. This has been true since the days of Justin Martyr and Clement of Alexandria (both of whom differed from other educators in that they admitted male and female students). Contrary to what some would have us believe, real Christians have always championed the cause of education -- from the middle of the second century to this day.

But why? Why has education always been so important to Christians?

Plantinga sums up the real reason why education and learning are so important for Christians (or at least why they should be):

The point of all this learning is to prepare to add one's own contribution to the supreme reformation project, which is God's restoration of all things that have been corrupted by evil (Engaging God's World, xii).

How is this different or similar to the ways in which you see Christian institutions approach education and learning?

Post Tenebras Lux

The guys who started the Protestant Reformation were great with words and slogans. Sola Scriptura

Sola Fides

Sola Christo

Sola Deo Gloria

In making a doctrinal statement, they carefully chose words with a certain precision. Scripture alone (and not the traditions of men) was their guiding force. Faith alone (and not works) was the pathway to justification. Christ alone (and not a Church official) was their Mediator. God alone (and not the church) would receive the glory.

But there was another phrase that they used -- perhaps more powerful than any of the others -- at least in terms of its world-changing impact.

Post Tenebras Lux

After darkness, light.

They were stating their belief that the Roman Catholic Church had held Christians captive, chained in darkness. What they believed God was doing through the Reformation was bringing his light to bear on this despicable darkness.

"Dark" and "light" are loaded terms -- easily as fraught with ambiguities as "truth" and "falsehood". No one comes out opposed to truth and in favor of falsehood. Instead, they try to depict their viewpoint as being real truth -- a different kind of truth perhaps. Likewise, no one stands up and makes a case for remaining in the dark. Everyone prefers light to darkness, right?

Well...not according to the Bible. But we'll talk about that later (I know I keep saying that, but I want to do this a little bit at a time to make sure I'm thinking correctly and everyone's keeping up).

The early Reformers did exactly what the Religious Right did -- rhetorically speaking. The Religious Right said that they were "Pro-Family" -- as if the Secular Left was "Anti-Family". The Reformers said that they were in favor of light -- as if the Roman Catholic Church preferred darkness.

And it worked for a while.

The problem is that neither the Reformed side nor the Roman Catholic side realized that there was another side in the debate. There were folks who weren't interested in Roman Catholicism or Reformation theology. And they decided to launch an attack in the 18th Century -- a time not just of reformation but of revolution.

This was a time when lots of philosophers saw an opportunity to eliminate not just church tradition but the Bible itself as a viable source of knowlege and guidance. They believed that it wasn't just Roman Catholicism but religion itself that blinded people and kept them in the dark. Now that people were coming of age, they could be trusted to figure out the world by human reason alone.

Thus was born "The Enlightenment".

And one of their most important slogans was borrowed from the Reformation 200 years earlier: Post Tenebras Lux.

Everyone loves light, right? Who wouldn't want to be enlightened? Would you rather stay in the dark with the cavemen? Light is always better, isn't it?

Do you suppose there was some downside to "The Enlightenment"?

How Do You Know?

It's been a while since I posted something about Aquinas, but his arguments for God's existence still occupy my thoughts. These days, the debate over whether or not God exists has shifted. We don't hold a medieval worldview anymore. Aquinas believed his proofs were as much scientific as they were theological, but now there is an ever-widening gap between scientific language and theological language (not necessarily science and theology -- just the language the two camps tend to employ) which many people have a difficult time bridging. Many contemporary thinkers think it's unlikely that a scientific demonstration of God's existence can be given. They point to Aquinas' prior faith in God as the basis for the proofs he offers. In other words, Aquinas believed in God and reasoned from that belief to a pre-determined conclusion. Of course, the same can be said of Hume and others on the other side of the debate. People tend to believe what they believe and reason outward from the belief.

Some have even come to question what terms like "God" and "exists" actually mean. If God exists, how does God exist? The traditional notion of God as a personal, loving Father and all-powerful Creator who is actively involved in our world, who desires community with humans is now seen as naive or superstitious.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965) was one of the most important and influential theologians of the last century. He suggested a new definition of faith: "Ultimate Concern". Tillich was an existentialist and claimed that God doesn't exist in the same way everything else exists. But he followed that up by saying that if God doesn't exist in the same way everything else exists, then maybe God doesn't really exist at all.

Tillich came to believe that the representation of God in the Bible is really a picture of ultimate human experience. He rejected the belief in a personal God and said that God was really just "the ground of our being."

If that language sounds a little inaccessible, it is. It took a man named John A.T. Robinson to translate these ideas into popular language. In 1963, Robinson published Honest to God. In it, Robinson suggested that the life of Christ contains an example for all to follow and insights for all to share. Rather than viewing Jesus Christ through the lens of deity, he said, we should view him through the lens of human potential. The truly good life became actualized in Jesus and was now possible for the rest of us. That, he said along with Tillich, is the real truth and strength of Christianity.

The language and nature of the debate over God's existence has shifted substantially, but the fact of the debate has not. People exist. The world exists. But does God exist? And if so, how does God exist? And how do you know?

When I was a kid, we used to sing a song called "He Lives!" The chorus went like this:

He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today!

He walks with me and talks with me along life's narrow way.

He lives! He lives! Salvation to impart.

You ask me how I know he lives?

He lives within my heart.

This is what is known as "The Argument from Religious Experience". I know it because I've experienced it. But is that a good enough reason? Would that kind of argument ever convince someone else?

Aquinas' Five Ways

Thomas Aquinas set out five ways or "proofs" of God's existence. IN WAY ONE, Aquinas offered the evidence of change in the world. He wrote, "Now anything in process of change is being changed by something else." Using Aristotle's idea of an Unmoved Mover, Aquinas reasoned, "If the hand does not move the stick, the stick will not move anything else. Hence one is bound to arrive at some first cause or change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by 'God'."

IN WAY TWO, Aquinas focused on cause and effect in the world. "Now if you eliminate a cause you also eliminate its effects, so that you cannot have a last cause, nor an intermediate one, unless you have a first." Aquinas did not believe in an infinite chain of causes and effects reaching back into eternity. "One is therefore forced to suppose some first cause, to which everyone gives the name 'God'."

IN WAY THREE, he takes up the idea of being and non-being in the world. The fact is that things exist, but they don't really need to exist. On top of that, there was a time when they did not exist, and there will be a time when they no longer exist. "Now everything cannot be like this, for a thing that need not be, once was not, and if everything need not be, once upon a time there was nothing...." Aquinas asserted that if nothing in the world needed to exist, there must have been a time when nothing existed. Logic told him that nothing can come from nothing. "One is forced therefore to suppose something which must be, and owes this to no other thing than itself; indeed it itself is the cause that other things must be." In this, Aquinas actually sounds a lot like Anselm. Both believed that objects in the world have contingent existance (they can exist, but they don't have to exist), but only God has necessary existence (God must exist to be God). If God did not exist then nothing could exist, because creation is dependent upon God's necessary existence to exist at all.

IN WAY FOUR, Aquinas concentrated on degrees of goodness and perfection in the world. "For example, things are hotter and hotter the nearer they approach what is hottest. Something therefore is the truest and best and most noble of things, and hence the most fully in being; for Aristotle says that the truest things are the things most fully in being." Aquinas went on to write, "There is something therefore which causes in all other things their being, their goodness and whatever other perfections they have. And this we call 'God'."

IN WAY FIVE, Aquinas pointed to goals and order in nature. "For their behavior hardly ever varies, and will practically always turn out well; which shows that they truly tend to a goal, and do not merely hit it by accident. Nothing that lacks awareness tends to a goal, except under the direction of someone with awareness and understanding; the arrow, for example, requires an archer. Everything in nature, therefore, is directed to its goal by someone with understanding, and this we call 'God'."

There you have the five ways or "proofs" of God's existence offered up by perhaps the most brilliant mind of medieval theology and philosphy. His ideas have been debated and criticized, but they're still around. Like most people with an "NT" temperament (I'm an INTJ for those of you interested in such things) I find that Thomistic Spirituality really resonates with me.

Now, let me ask you a question: Do you think any of these Five Ways might be helpful if you were talking to someone who didn't believe in God or wasn't sure? Which one(s) and why?