Exploring The Uniqueness of the Bible [In Its Ancient Near Eastern Context]

bible-and-coffeeLetter TThe ancient world was one filled with myths and stories of all types, stories about gods and about prophets and oracles who spoke with those gods. In secular society the Bible is often seen as just another one of these ancient myths.

The Bible is not just another myth, but it is in the context of these myths that the Bible was written. They provide the background against which we are to interpret the text; it was often these sorts of myths which the Biblical narrative was responding to. Thus, it is important for Christians to analyze the Scriptures in light of their ancient Near Eastern literary and cultural contexts.

So just what are the similarities and differences were between the Scriptures and those other myths which seem to bear some resemblance to it? It is by answering this question that we may determine whether or not the Bible is indeed unique in its content.

Some areas in which the Christian might compare the Scriptures to similar texts in the Near East include (1) how they present their creation accounts, (2) their understandings of morality, and (3) their understandings of prophecy and revelation.


Given that creation myths begin in the beginning, comparing the creation myths is one of the better places to start. One such text that the Scriptures might be compared to is the Enuma Elish, and one of the most immediately striking differences is the manner in which the myths are told.

One of the disti
nctiveness about ancient Near Eastern creation accounts is that they are told in a distinctly mythic manner. In contrast, the creation account in Genesis gives its account in a highly historical, concise and matter-of-fact manner.

Thus we can see the Enuma Elish begin with:

When in the height heaven was not named,
And the earth beneath did not yet bear a name,
And the primeval Apsu, who begat them,
And chaos, Tiamut, the mother of them both
Their waters were mingled together,
And no field was formed, no marsh was to be seen;
When of the gods none had been called into being,
And none bore a name, and no destinies were ordained;
Then were created the gods in the midst of heaven,
Lahmu and Lahamu were called into being…
Ages increased,…
Then Ansar and Kisar were created, and over them….
Long were the days, then there came forth…..
Anu, their son,…
Ansar and Anu…
And the god Anu…
Nudimmud, whom his fathers, his begetters…..
Abounding in all wisdom,…’
He was exceeding strong…
He had no rival –
Thus were established and were… the great gods.enuma-elish

These primeval gods eventually start fighting one another, monsters, dragons, scorpion-men, fish-men, and all sorts join the mix. All sorts of shenanigans ensue, Marduk eventually arises and Tiamut is killed. Marduk then fashions the heavens and the earth out of her body:

Then [Marduk] rested, gazing upon [Tiamut’s] dead body,
While he divided the flesh of the … , and devised a cunning plan.
He split her up like a flat fish into two halves;
One half of her he stablished as a covering for heaven.
He fixed a bolt, he stationed a watchman,
And bade them not to let her waters come forth.
He passed through the heavens, he surveyed the regions thereof,
And over against the Deep he set the dwelling of Nudimmud.
And the lord measured the structure of the Deep,
And he founded E-sara, a mansion like unto it.
The mansion E-sara which he created as heaven,
He caused Anu, Bel, and Ea in their districts to inhabit.

In all this it takes about six chapters just to get to the creation of the world.

In contrast to this we have the creation of the world in Genesis: In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”

That’s it. God simply does it. No great battles, no wrangling of primordial forces, no monsters. God simply makes it happen. Along the same lines, there is nothing before God in Genesis. He doesn’t use pre-existing material, he does his work ex nihilo.

Genesis is simply concerned with the fact that creation came into being and that God is the one who did it.

Just as noteworthy as differences in the way creation comes into being is the difference in the way mankind comes into being. In the Enuma Elish we find Marduk create mankind:enumaelish

“My blood will I take and bone will I fashion
I will make man, that man may
I will create man who shall inhabit the earth,
That the service of the gods may be established, and that their shrines may be built.
But I will alter the ways of the gods, and I will change their paths;
Together shall they be oppressed and unto evil shall they….

Mankind is made – according to the Enuma Elish – in order to be slaves. They are made in order to build shrines and to be oppressed. They are made out of the substance of a god and yet they have no dignity.

Contrast this with Genesis:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

 And God blessed them. And God said to them,“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In ancient Near Eastern myth, man is created out of the substance of a god as a slave to be oppressed. In contrast, Genesis has man made in the image of God, and he is made with dignity. He is made to have dominion, to multiply and subdue the earth.

Thus the second contrast with see is that in Scripture, man is made with dignity for noble ends.

While the Bible may bare similarities to other texts these similarities prove to be mostly superficial due to being attempts at answering the same questions about the universe. While the religious literature of other groups in the region revolve around elaborate mythologies and religious sayings – or aphorisms – the literature of the bible is primarily revelational and historical, and indeed it is revelational through its history, for God has communicated himself in the history of a nation, namely that of the Hebrew peoples.

The historical aspect of Scripture reveals the way that God interacts with humanity in history.


Along with having differing creation accounts and differing views of revelation and prophecy, the Bible also differs in its morality. One of the premier examples of this can be seen in the relation between the Proverbs and the writings of Amenemope, whose ethical teachings closely parallel one another.

On the one hand one might be able to see this as an example of natural law working its way out in two unrelated individuals, on another one might be able to see it as a Biblical writer source-texting a non-Biblical writer.

Either way the Biblical text is not put in jeopardy, especially when one realizes that the underlying nature of Scripture is time and again vastly different than that of its counterparts. The chief reason for this is that Scripture presupposes the Christian God, which is something that no other myth or system of ethics can boast.

That is, the motives for writing these instructions are radically different.

Thus when we read the writings of Amenemope we find that he simply offers good guidance, his goal is for his reader to prosper, and so he begins:

Give your years and hear what is said,mask_of_amenemope
Give your mind over to their interpretation:
It is profitable to put them in your heart,
But woe to him that neglects them!
Let them rest in the shrine of your insides
That they may act as a lock in your heart;
Now when there comes a storm of words,
They will be a mooring post on your tongue.
If you spend a lifetime with these things in your heart,
You will find it good fortune;
You will discover my words to be a treasure house of life,
And your body will flourish upon earth.

You should listen to him because it is profitable and you will find good fortune. The goal is simply to give good advice that will help you along your way.

In contrast to this we have the Proverbs:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel:
To know wisdom and instruction,
to understand words of insight,
to receive instruction in wise dealing,
in righteousness, justice, and equity;
to give prudence to the simple,
knowledge and discretion to the youth—
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their griddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Or as he says later in chapter 22:

That your trust may be in the Lord,
    I have made them known to you today, even to you.

The goal of the Proverbs is not simply to provide good advice, its advice has a goal. This goal is not merely that you would prosper, but “That your trust may be in the Lord.”

The Lord under-girds the wisdom given in the Proverbs. The boundary stone is not moved because “their Redeemer is strong; he will plead their cause against you.”

It is not simply that you shouldn’t, but you shouldn’t do it because there is a transcendent God who is your standard and will hold you accountable.

Again one observes a vastly different foundation between the Bible and its contemporaries.

Prophecy and Revelation

With this in mind, another area in which one might compare the Bible to its contemporaries is in the realm of prophecy and revelation. While the Bible is not alone in putting forth prophecy, it is clear that the other sorts of prophecy which abounded in the ancient world are in no way like those of Scripture.

One of the chief differences is that the prophecy of Scripture alone has a moral imperative with a direct relation to God. In contrast to this, pagan prophecy is more akin to guessing an effect from a causal relationship, and is therefore much more mechanical than Biblical prophecy.

Furthermore, while most pagan prophets directed their prophecy to royal households, the Biblical prophets directed theirs towards the people as a whole, for it was the moral action of the people as a whole which determined how God would act towards them.

Finally, pagan ‘prophecy’ seems to have been written after the fact, which would seem to disqualify it from being any sort of real prophecy.

Just as the Biblical creation accounts differed from the pagan mythology through its centeredness on God, and just as the Proverbs and moral imperatives of the Bible also differed from their pagan counterparts through their centeredness on God, so the prophecy of the Bible differs in its centeredness on God – particularly how he interacts with his covenant people.

It is the prophecy of Scripture alone with confronts the idolatry, immorality, and injustice of the people of God, presenting them with a moral imperative and a road either to or away from God.

This is in contrast to pagan prophecy trying to guess causal relationship and necessary relations. Yet the greatest division between Biblical prophecy and that of the pagan nations comes in its reality, in its actual ability to foresee and foreshadow the future.

Whereas pagan ‘prophecy’ seems written after the fact, the Biblical prophecy foreshadows real events, whether this be Jeremiah speaking of Babylon devastating Judah, Haggai foretelling the return of the Davidic line or Zechariah foretelling that the Messiah will be killed, the Bible prophecy and the revelation of God rings true.

The Bible Unique

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned from the cultural and literary contexts is the God is unique in the way he does things, and that the Word of God is unique from anything else that man might develop, for doesn’t act in a way that might be anticipated.

He doesn’t tell the story of the creation like men would, hence the vast difference between Genesis and all other creation accounts; nor does he give a morality just for the sake of horizontal relations between people; nor does he give the gift of prophecy and the light of revelation purely for the good of pedigree of mankind.

Everything he presents is centered around himself, not around man, and yet man is dignified – all men, for they are made in his image.

The Bible is unique.



Knowing Who Christ Is, What He Has Promised, And Expecting This Of Him – The Person & Work of Christ

cross.pngLetter IIn his classic book All of Grace, C.H. Spurgeon makes the statement in regards to Christianity that “Faith is believing that Christ is what He is said to be, and that He will do what He has promised to do, and then to expect this of Him.” If this is accepted as an accurate description of what the Christian faith entails, then the we must analyze what these things are which are to be believed.

If faith is believing that Christ is what he is said to be, it must be determined what Christ is said to be. If faith is believing that Christ will do what He has promised to do, it must be determined what Christ has promised.

Only after this is done may we as Christians move on to the sphere of trusting in or expecting this of Christ; so, it must be determined who Christ was and what he did, does, or will do.

Before any of this may be done it is first necessary to construct some basic context from which we as Christians may view the person and work of Christ. Historic Christianity in such texts as the Athanasian Creed has asserted that Christ is both God and man.

In order to set the context it is necessary to analyze both God and man individually, before proceeding to the Christ who embodies both – or as John Calvin states in the first line of his tremendous Institutes of the Christian Religion, our wisdom “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”

Laying the Groundwork: God and Man

In speaking of God and of mankind, one thing which may be immediately noticed is that there is a gulf between God and man, a gulf which is twofold.

On the one hand, there is a gulf of class between God and man – we are not of the same type. God “is a Spirit,” is “eternal, immortal, invisible,” is sovereign and therefore “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will,” and that He has “made the world and all things therein” and is in need of nothing. Man, however, is created, and this is the most fundamental distinction that can be made, that between the Creator and the creature.

There is this gulf of class; yet God, as invisible creator, reveals himself.

After creating man in the garden he does not disappear from the scene, leaving man to wonder how he happened to come about, but rather communes with and speaks to him.

From this simple survey that has been made of Scripture regarding God and creation, two intertwined ideas emerge: one, that God is gracious, for not only does he create man who he does not need, but he communes with that man. In this communing with man he reveals himself to man, thus, he is revelatory in his grace; he does not disappear but rather communicates with his creation.

As is noted by Berkhof “Revelation is an act of grace…” He is revelatory in his grace, and he reveals his grace; thus, a chief theme to be had is the revealing of God’s grace to man, for God’s own glory in his eternal purpose.

God reveals his grace first, merely by creating and communing with man, and second, by covenanting with that man so that they might – as The Westminster Confession of Faith puts it – have “fruition of him as their blessedness and reward” achieved by “voluntary condescension on God’s part…”

The language of the divines further reinforces the gracious aspect of God’s covenant: God condescended to covenant with man.

This covenant serves as introduction to the second gulf which exists between God and man, the gulf of fellowship. God made this initial covenant – the covenant of works – with Adam, and in this covenant he fell from his good moral standing with God: man was “driven out of the garden,” “cursed,” subject to death having “transgressed the law,” have been made subject to Satan “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” and not only this, but all of creation fell with us.

Man stands out of fellowship with God, subject to death, and under the condemnation of the lawn the light of this context the Christian may then discuss the person and work of Christ, understanding the nature of God, the state of man, and the need for reconciliation; and not only in need of reconciliation, but unable to achieve this on his own, for “nothing good dwells in me” and “the carnal min dis enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be.”

The Person of Christ

As noted by Spurgeon above, a vital aspect of the Christian faith is who Christ is; and as is noted in the Westminster Confession of Faith, everything that is necessary for God’s glory or for man’s salvation, faith, and life, “is either expressly set down in Scripture,” or may be derived from them.

In looking at the doctrines of the person of Christ it is necessary to first look to Scripture, and in doing so two main things can be observed regarding Christ, the first that he is Son of God, and as such, is God, one of the three members of the Trinity; the second that he is the son of man – and as such, is a man. Thus, he is both human and divine.

The most clear indication of this truth may be found in The Great Commission as presented by Matthew, where Jesus is seen as calling the disciples to go and baptize “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” implying that he is on equal par with the Father and the Spirit.

While this is more of an implication that Christ is God, a more direct statement can be found in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, where John begins with the statement “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” and then continues “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth,” shortly thereafter clarifying that this Word is Christ Jesus (ie, the one who John bore witness about, and by noting that “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”).

Thus, John addressed well the first aspect of Christ’s natures, that he is God.

Perhaps the text which best deals with the humanity of Christ is Hebrews, where the author states that “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things…” A full and straightforward statement of the duality that manifests itself in Christ can be found in Philippians, where Paul states in regard to Jesus that “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

While this verse from Philippians alone might lead to the notion that Christ merely took on the appearance of a man, when one takes it in conjunction with the rest of Scripture – in this case the verse from Hebrews 2, or perhaps the birth narrative as given in Luke – it is clear that the second person of the Trinity indeed became fully man, in the flesh. Just from the brief survey of texts given above, it can be observed that Christ was both God and man.

Saint-Athanasius-of-Alexandria-icon-Sozopol-Bulgaria-17century.jpgThe historic church addressed this issue directly in the wake of the Arian heresy – which denied the deity of Christ – and the gnostic heresy – which split the fleshly aspect of Jesus from the divine aspect of Christ. Thus the Athanasian Creed may be seen stating that Christ is “God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world.” The Westminster Confession of Faith similarly addresses the issue with its statement that: The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof… So that two whole, perfect, distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person.

Despite that such strong statements have been made by the historic church, the controversy has not completely abated with the years, and during the enlightenment and the following ‘modern’ age the question was once again raised – this time in the name of ‘reason’ and rationalism – whether Jesus was actually God or merely a man, with Protestant Liberalism taking the position that Jesus was merely a man. 

If our own human reason is our ultimate authority, then it may be reasonable to reject the more supernatural aspects of Christ. Yet, if we have a proper understanding of authority and upon what our reason rests, we will know – with Pascal – that “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.” Or with Van Til that “God makes the facts what they are to be”11 for contrary to the view that reason is autonomous, man’s mind “is surrounded by nothing but revelation.” 

In this can be seen the central theme once again of the revealing of God’s grace to man, specifically, the inherently revelational aspect of everything that we think and do.

Our mind’s are surrounded by nothing but revelation, and that revelation is revealing the grace of God, which can be seen most clearly in the work of Christ.

The Work of Christ

From the very creation of man, God condescended in his grace to reveal himself to man, and to covenant with man.

Man, having broken that covenant, broke the original fellowship with God.

The two natures of Christ as laid out above sets the stage for the work of Christ and perhaps this is best seen by analyzing why Christ was who he was; that is, why in the work of Christ he could not have been merely God, or merely man, or something else such as an angel. It has been seen that Christ is both God and man, and in looking at the work of Christ it will be seen that this is for a certain purpose.

As has been laid out, man was put at enmity with God through the original fall, and indeed all of creation was subjected to this fall. God, in the eternal purpose of his revelatory grace, sent his Son to bridge the gulf of fellowship created by man. The work of Christ in doing this is many faceted.

Alistair McGrath enunciates at least three ways in which Christ works: that he reveals God, that he is the bearer of salvation, and that he defines the shape of the redeemed life. Fairbairn discusses the death of Christ as the definition of love, and as the death of death. Or as Berkhof in section on the person and work of Christ stresses the threefold office of Christ, that in his work as mediator he acts a prophet, priest, and king, which is a reflection on the way The Westminster Confession of Faith discusses the issue, noting that Christ as the only Son of God was ordained by God: …to be the Mediator between God and man, the Prophet, Priest, and King, the Head and Savior of his church, the Heir of all things, and Judge of the world: unto whom he did from all eternity give a people, to be his seed, and to be by him in time redeemed, called, justified, sanctified,and glorified.

It can be noted especially here in the Confession that Christ came to act as a mediator between God and man, for as has been said, the exists a gulf between the two. Thus, Christ came to be a mediator regarding that gulf; as it says in 1 Timothy 2:5, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

So, this mediation is the primary focus of the work of Christ. The ‘why’ of this work can be seen – firstly – in the eternal degree of God “foreordained before the foundation of the world”; God ordained from eternity that he should bring a people to himself “having predestined us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace…”

Secondly, the ‘why’ of this work can be seen in the gracious and merciful aspect of God, which since creation has brought about fellowship with his creation, and thus in this grace he ordained to bridge that gulf.

Thirdly, the ‘why’ of this work can be seen in the justice of God, for as has been noted, man transgressed against the law of God, and in doing so brought death upon himself – hence Romans 6:23 states that the wages of sin is death, and man has sinned. Man warranted death; as God is a just God, this sin needed dealt with, and as God is a holy God, he could not allow this sin into presence.

Thus, God ordained Christ as mediator, to serve as a substitute for the satisfaction of penalty due for man’s sins; and not merely as a substitute to remove a penalty, but to rescue man from the sin, from the devil, to bring man back into full fellowship with God.

The Person of Christ in Relation to the Work of Christ

In doing this it was necessary that Christ be both God and man.

In regards to Christ as God, it is necessary that he be God because it is the grace of God which is being revealed, and this implies a condescension on God’s part. Man cannot bring himself up to the level of God, therefore God must come down to the level of man; thus, Christ must have been God such that God would be the one descending. This was also necessary because it is as God that Christ was able to take on the infinite value of sacrifice that needed to be rendered and thereby bear God’s full wrath.

It was necessary that Christ be God, merely because God ordained that Christ should be God – and this, in truth, is the ultimate justification for why anything should be the way it is.

If we had no further explanation as to why Christ came or to why anything regarding the relationship between God and man is the way that it is, we need look no further than that God has ordained it, and on this ground alone it is good and proper.

As C width=hapter 8 of The Westminster Confession begins “It pleased God, in his eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, his only begotten Son, to be the Mediator…” In regards to Christ as man, it is necessary that he be man – apart from the mere good pleasure of God – because it is man that is being redeemed.

It is man who has sinned, and it is man who is in need of punishment. Furthermore, it is man, who through his rebellion, has contaminated himself with a sinful nature.

In order to deal with sin he had to take on the nature of those who were in sin, as Berkhof states “Since man sinned, it was necessary that the penalty should be borne by man.”

Finally, Christ needed to be man in order to fulfill the role of federal headship; Christ needed to fill the same role for the human race that Adam did originally.

This can be seen in such verses as 1 Corinthians 15:22 “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive”, as well as verse 44 that “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Naturally, in order to serve as head of mankind, it was necessary for Christ to be man.

The Ends and Effects of Christ’s Work

It has been seen thus far that God in the eternal plan of his revelatory grace, deemed it proper to create man and to fellowship with him, to covenant with him, and when man broke that covenant, to reconcile man once again back into fellowship.

Given that man had sinned against God and that man could not bridge this gap on his own, it was necessary for God to condescend once again – this time in the form of Christ – in order to bring redemption and atonement to those which He had called to be His people. The ends and effects of this redemption are multi-faceted, as has already been noted once.

While there are many ways of approaching this, one of the most precise is that offered by John Owen in his masterpiece The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. The chief effects of the death of Christ – as laid out by Owen – include the entirety of man’s being brought back into the fellowship of God.

It includes first, reconciliation to God, by removing the enmity between us; second, justification, by taking the guilt of our sins, pardoning them, and freeing us from the power of them; third, sanctification, by removing from us the pollution of our sins and renewing in us the image of God; fourth, adoption, with all the privileges thereof; and lastly, these effects bring us into final glory with God in heaven.

Thus: “The death and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ hath wrought, and doth effectually procure, for all those that are concerned in it, eternal redemption, consisting in grace here and glory hereafter.”

Christ does not merely stop at the cross, once the legal penalty has been paid for our sins and he has taken our place, but rather continues through and through all aspects of the Christian life.

It is the death of Christ that provides the initial reconciliation and pardons our sin, and it is also that which frees us from our sin.

Yet merely pardoning us from our sin and freeing us from it would still leave us contaminated with the sinful nature we were wrought in, and such sin a holy God could still not allow into his presence, thus Christ also removes that contamination and sets our image anew.

The how of coming into God’s presence is similarly answered here, for it is through adoption, and this by joining with Christ as his body, who we have already established as the the federal head of mankind.

Christ does not merely pay the penalty for our sins, but Christ joins with us and gives us his righteousness, a righteousness not our own and therefore not of any of our own merit.

As John Bunyan puts it, with Christ as our head and we as his body we may look on Christ as the public person of which the elect are a part “that we fulfilled the law by him, died by him, rose from the dead by him, got the victory over sin, death, the devil, and hell by him; when he died, we died, and so of his resurrection.”

Bunyan here provides a more nuanced perspective than Owen, noting the exact way in which we are reckoned as one with Christ by God, by being reckoned as the body of Christ, whose righteousness we are given, and in whom we fulfill all aspects of the law which we cannot fulfill of ourselves. Bunyan here also echoes back to the more classic view of the early church fathers victory over Satan, which in turn can find a base in Hebrews, which states that “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.”

As is noted by Donald Fairbairn, this power of Satan was rooted in the fact that “we had alienated ourselves from God through our sinfulness.”

The death of Christ removed Satan’s power by removing that alienation. 

Christ both sacrificed himself for our sins and in the pardon and redemption that was wrought, brought victory over sin, and Satan, who try to hold us captive to that death.

In this we can bring the entirety of the death of Christ’s effects into a succinct whole; that of God incarnating himself as the federal head of man in Christ, and through the death of this Christ that God’s people might be united with him as his body, his righteousness as theirs and him bearing the punishment for their sins, the effect of which is the freedom from sin and removal of the gulf between God and man, which thereby provides victory over Satan, and sets man on the path of moral righteousness by removing the contamination of his sin.

In all of this can be seen the revelatory grace of God’s eternal purpose. The revelation and the grace are intimately intertwined, for it is the grace which is revealed and it is gracious that God is revealed.

It is revealed in that God became incarnate, and it is at the same time gracious in that in doing so God condescended once again to covenant with man. Through the death of Christ God reveals his grace by showing us that he will condescend to save those who are unworthy, and ungodly, and actually does so.

It is gracious, furthermore, in that God had not need of revealing himself or providing this grace, but rather it was merely of his own good pleasure and for his own glory, according to his own eternal will. This is not merely a historic fact which finds its home in the 1st Century AD, but it is a truth which has a continued effect all the way into the present and is still impacting God’s chosen people today.

Christ in the Contemporary and Personal Context

The person and work of Christ is still one which is able to cause debate in today’s world.

Protestant Liberalism is still alive in various forms, reducing Christ to a good role model or – in its more postmodern aspects – to nice narrative to inspire our lives, an existential starting point in how we define ourselves.

A proper view of the person and work of Christ removes the pluralism and relativism of postmodernism by stressing that God has definitely revealed himself, and that God’s revelation is truth, and if Christ is who he said he was and did what he said he did, then only Christianity can be true. Not only this, but the person and work of Christ also has a real effect on the practical world of ministry, church life, and personal devotion to Christ.

The person of Christ gives us a real grounding in history. As was said by J. Gresham Machen, all of the ideas of Christianity could be found another religion, but there would in no Christianity in that religion “For Christianity depends, not upon a complex of ideas, but upon the narration of an event.”

It is this event, the death resurrection and ascension of Christ, upon which Christianity hinges.

It has a practical effect, for it decides for us what sort of gospel it is that we will preach.

We do not preach a gospel that is merely a call to act like Christ or only to social action, therefore we don’t call people to rest on their own actions. We do not preach a gospel that merely puts Satan on equal par with God, and has God paying a ransom to Satan, and therefore we can trust that God alone is in control.

We instead preach a gospel that depends on the grace of God as revealed in the Scripture, that the Son of God who is God came as a man to take our sins upon himself and thereby save us both from the penalty of those sins and the sins themselves, while giving us his righteousness.

It produces a profound humbling of the people of God, and in light of their changed life drives them to good works. It changes the church life because we are concerned not merely about the body and about its health or wealth, but about the soul and its everlasting abode.

These truths change our personal devotion because it allows us to know that our sins have been taken and that we have been made anew. It condemns our old self and gives us a great hope and a great life of our new selves; we do not have to worry about our selves failing, for our as Bunyan notes our righteousness is in heaven, such that it is not ourselves that effect or affect it. The comfort of this is such that “Now did my chains fall off my legs; indeed I was loosed from my afflictions and irons; my temptations also fled away.”

Because Christ was God, we are assured that his actions had their intended effect; because Christ was man, we are assured that we are intended recipients of that effect.

As Spurgeon has already been quoted as saying, in knowing who Christ is, and what Christ has promised, when may then expect this of Him.

Martin Luther on Faith & Works

Martin Luther 1.pngLetter IIn his Preface to Romans, Martin Luther makes the statement that “If we do not choose goodness freely, we do not keep God’s law from the heart… Granted that, in appearance and conduct, you observe the law, owing to your fear of punishment or hope of reward, yet you do nothing from free choice and out of love for the law, but unwillingly and under compulsion; were there no law, you would rather do something else. The logical conclusion is that, in the depths of your heart, you hate the law.” 

In this passage Luther sums up what is one of the key points of Christ’s teachings, that is, that it is the heart that is of pivotal importance in matters of the law, not the outward actions; thus, it is faith, not works, for it is faith that brings about a love of the law.

This position as laid out stands in contradistinction to the approach of the Pharisees, who (because they focused merely on outward action) were seen as “whitewashed tombs”.

One of the key things that Luther wishes to explain is the relationship between faith and works (or the law), to show the true purpose of the law, and how it relates to faith.

In doing so, Luther makes the keeping of the law a matter of the heart. If you keep the law outwardly, doing the law under compulsion, then your heart is still bad; if you do the law under compulsion then in truth you despise the law.

In opposition to this, one who is truly changed will come to love the law, and thus when they do the works of the law it will be because they want to do those things, not because they are afraid of the fear of punishment or the hope of reward that may result.

This basis of the heart of faith being one that wants to do the works of the law feeds into Luther’s later discussion of just what part works play in the Christian life. Thus he ends up asserting: “It is impossible, indeed, to separate works from faith, just as it is impossible to separate heat and light from fire.”

This statement fits perfectly into Luther’s structure of faith/law. The heart of faith wants to do the works of the law; because the heart of faith wants to do the works of the law, it cannot help but do them.

The person with a true faith will perform the works of the law because the works of the law will be what they desire to do; the works are thus an outworking and a result of the faith, in the same way that heat is an outworking and a result of the fire.

One of the more interesting relevancies that Luther’s formulation has here for ethics is in refuting the ideas of those such as Immanuel Kant, who argued that it is when we do the works of the law unwillingly that we are truly being ethical – for, as Kant argued, not liking what you’re doing but doing it anyway shows a higher reverence of the law itself.

To this sort of idea Luther answers “no”, because the person who does the law under compulsion – while they may have some reverence for the law – are still in their hearts corrupt.

It is better to do the works of the law because you have a changed heart that desires to do them than it is to do them under compulsion.

John Calvin on Infant Baptism


Wherefore, there is no difference in the internal meaning, from which the whole power and peculiar nature of the sacrament is to be estimated. The only difference which remains is in the external ceremony, which is the least part of it, the chief part consisting in the promise and the thing signified. Hence we may conclude, that everything applicable to circumcision applies also to baptism, excepting always the difference in the visible ceremony…”Institutes, Bk4, Ch16

Letter IIn the fourth book of his Institutes, Calvin begins a discussion on the church. Calvin puts forth two marks of the church “the preaching of the word and the observance of the sacraments,” and included in the sacraments is the institution of baptism.

One of the objections which had been raised against Calvin’s was that paedobaptism is not found explicit in Scripture and is therefore not valid, that it is something devised by men rather than by God.

The above quote is the heart of Calvin’s rebuttal.

Calvin bases his defense on an appeal to circumcision in the Old Testament, stating that “prior to the institution of baptism, the people of God had circumcision in its stead.” He analyzes what the two sacraments are meant to represent, what it is that is at their essence. He concludes that they have the same internal meaning, namely, that it points to the forgiveness of sin and to the mortification of the flesh; that is, they both have their foundation in the promise of regeneration.

Once it is established that the two sacraments symbolize the same inner truths, Calvin notes that the only thing then differing is the external ceremony – that is, how those truths are applied in each case. In light of this Calvin concludes that everything which pertains to circumcision should therefore also apply to baptism.

In regards to the debate concerning paedobaptism this forms the backbone of the argument for the baptism of infants. The key point is that throughout the Old Testament circumcision was used by the people of God as a sign of their first entrance into the church, professing their allegiance to God, and most importantly that the people applied this sign to not only themselves, but also to all of their children (to include infants). Hence Genesis 17:10, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”

If it is objected that baptism is a sign of penitence and faith, Calvin points out that the same was true of circumcision.

Calvin’s argument goes, then, that since circumcision and baptism convey the same notions – and perform the same office – concerning the individual’s relationship with God, what applies to one applies to the other. Since circumcision applied to infants in the Old Testament, baptism must therefore include infants in the New Testament; “since the Lord, immediately after the covenant was made with Abraham, ordered it to be sealed in infants by an outward sacrament, how can it be said that Christians are not to attest it in the present day, and seal it in their children?”

Although infant baptism is not explicitly illustrated in the New Testament Calvin points out that it is implied when the Biblical writers speak of families being baptized (Acts 16:15, for instance).

This, of course, does not rule out the baptism of those who convert to the faith, for just as those who were brought into the nation of Israel in the Old Testament were circumcised upon entry, so those who enter into the new covenant of Christ are baptized upon entry (what would be popularly termed the ‘believer’s baptism‘).

He thus concludes: “Wherefore, if we would not maliciously obscure the kindness of God, let us present to him our infants, to whom he has assigned a place among his friends and family, that is, the members of the Church.”


Gothic Cathedrals & Medieval Symbolism

Notre Dame.pngLetter IIn the realm of thought the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were a time of scholasticism, in the realm of politics a time of guilds and the roots of nationalism, in the realm of religion a time of monastic reform, and in the realm of expression it was a time of the Gothic, in painting, sculpture, and primarily in architecture.

Gothic architecture – most apprehensible in the form of the medieval cathedral – is perhaps the most defining and comprehensive representation of these various trends. As it is stated by Henri Daniel-Rops in his book Cathedral and Crusade, “If nothing of medieval Christianity had survived excepting the cathedrals, they alone would tell us all, or nearly all, that matters about the period in question.” 

In the Gothic cathedral the scholarship, politics, arts, and religion of the period can be seen coming together under the umbrella of Christian ideology.

While it was practical and originally expressive – a feat of both engineering and symbolic innovation – the most notable aspect of the Gothic cathedral is in how it embodies the culmination of the Christian energy of the medieval period, an energy exceeding that any other age, both in the clergy and in the laity.

This vigor of the lay people is particularly noteworthy, both as it stands in opposition to what came before it and in its significance and how it ties into the overall significance of the Gothic cathedral. 

Origins of the Gothic 

The Gothic cathedral originated around 1137 and saw its high point during the thirteenth century. The cathedral came about both to satisfy practical concerns as well as concerns of expression.

Practically there were a number of reasons for the development of the Gothic away from the Romanesque architecture which preceded it. One practical concern regarded the lack of aesthetic appeal and the propensity for the low roofs of the earlier Romanesque churches to catch fire due to the fact that they had to be made out of wood. A greater practical concern was simply for space. One the one hand space needed to be limited due to nature of the city; the surface area of cities needed to be as small as possible due to the need of building walls and moats. On the other hand space needed to be maximized in order to make room for people inside the churches.

Abbot Suger of France is generally attributed with being the hub of the innovation that is Gothic architecture. In his work On Consecration he wrote concerning this matter of space, stating that due to the smallness of the early basilica of St. Denis it was often “completely filled, disgorged through all of its doors the excess of the crowds,” such that “the outward pressure of the foremost ones not only prevented those attempting to enter from entering but also expelled those who had already entered.”Talmot france romanesque.png

While this might be an exaggeration it still makes clear that the thick and heavy walls of the earlier Romanesque style did not allow for ample space in which to move. It was this basilica of St. Denis that Abbot Suger would resolve to reconstruct.

The style instigated by Suger would employ vaulted ceilings and pillars reinforced by flying buttresses which would allow the architects to do away with the need for the thick walls so typical of the earlier Romanesque style. This need for only minimal walls not only allowed for a much more economic use of space but also allowed Suger the use of windows as had never been seen before. The strength of the columns and reinforced vaults furthermore allowed for an almost purely vertical manner of building which brought with it impossibly high ceilings made of stone, which not only served to give the building an airy and open feeling but also removed the previous vulnerability to fire seen in the lower wooden roofs of the Romanesque style.

milan-cathedralThese facts serve to give an ever so slight glimpse into the period surrounding the building of the cathedral, of what sort of issues it faced, and where it was at technologically.

It was not only practical concerns which motivated Abbot Suger to reconstruct the basilica of St. Denis. There were also philosophical concerns in which one can see the first of the primary aspects of the period coming together under the umbrella of Gothic architecture, that of scholarship.

Philosophy of the Gothic 

One of Suger’s greatest sources of inspiration were the Neo-Platonic writings of the Pseudo-Dionysus, a sixth-century Christian mystic from Syria. For instance in Pseudo-Dionysus it may be found that “Light comes from the Good, and light is an image of this archetypal Good… it gives them all a share of sacred light.”

It is from such passages as this that Suger finds not only justification for the great windows of his cathedral but also a symbolic aspect to the light which those windows allowed.  Yet it is not only the symbolism of light which Suger finds in the Pseudo-Dionysus, but also a justification for the aesthetic endeavor as a whole.

dionysiusThe earlier Romanesque churches not only had few windows but were also scarcely decorated; yet from Pseudo-Dionysus came the view that “The Beautiful is therefore the same as the Good, for everything looks to the Beautiful and the Good as the cause of being.” Here is found solid justification for the great beauty which Suger attempted to instill into Gothic architecture.

This is not merely an identification of the beautiful with the good, it is also an attempt at transcendence in the scale of being; in keeping with the Neo-Platonic view it was thought that through this light and beauty one may ascend the scale of being, the physical world being a reflection of the heavenly one. Thus Suger may be seen writing that:

“When – out of my delight in the beauty of the house of God – the loveliness of the many-colored stones has called me away from external cares, and worthy meditation has induced me to reflect, transferring that which is material to that which is immaterial… and that, by the grace of God, I can be transported from this inferior to that higher world in an anagogical manner.”

Here the Neo-Platonism of the period can be most clearly seen, this hope of climbing the scale of being, with the Pseudo-Dionysus calling for “the return upwards by those of lower status.” This is one aspect of the intellectual and scholarly pursuits of the period. Another loose glimpse can be seen in the aforementioned architectural ingenuity, which in turn required a great logical ingenuity.

saint-isaacs-cathedralThis logical ingenuity combined with the philosophical principles which laid behind the architecture have prompted some to refer to the Gothic cathedral as “a Summa Theologica in stone and glass.”


The logical ingenuity was not the only thing that factored into the cathedral being deemed such; the goal of the architects in conveying the basics of Christianity also contributed greatly. As Pope Gregory the Great had said quite some time earlier “what writing presents to readers, this a picture presents to the unlearned who behold, since in it even the ignorant see what they ought to follow; in it the illiterate read.”

Gregory is addressing images on a smaller scale, though in the cathedral this idea can be seen stretched to its maximum potential, the walls, ceilings and stained-glass windows filled to the brim with biblical scenes, depictions of the saints, moral allegories and images of agriculture and the sciences alike, leading the thirteenth century writer William Durandus to note that the cathedrals – and specifically the windows therein – were “Holy Scriptures, which expel the wind and the rain, that is all things hurtful, but transmit the light of the True Sun, that is, God, into the hearts of the Faithful.”stainedglass-sainte-chapelle

This points both to the cathedral as an “encyclopedia of human knowledge”
where “the first aim of their art was not to please, but to teach.”

A final implication for the academics of the period seen in the cathedral is the movement of education from being primarily the realm of the monasteries to a larger role of the cathedral school. With the increasing urbanization of the period towns began to be the center of social life and also now played a part in the intellectual sphere. Education became no longer limited to the clergy and the scholarly hub of the monasteries could be seen moving into the laity, who often attended the cathedral schools.

Gothic Architecture & Politics

The Gothic cathedral not only exemplifies the philosophical and scholarly mood of the period (or at least an aspect thereof), but also the political state.

A symbolic reading can give a rough glimpse of the medieval political-religious state.

The earlier Romanesque churches with their thick stone walls and minimal decorations or windows were reminiscent of the castles of the period, pointing to the role of the church militant; as E.H. Gombrich puts it the symbolism here points out that “here on earth it is the task of the Church to fight the powers of darkness till the hour of triumph dawns on doomsday.”

Yet the church was moving from a period of being the church militant to being the church triumphant.

The crusades were less active, the Vikings were becoming either quelled or settled, the Hanseatic League was making the seas safer, guilds were developing and the Muslims were being pushed back so as to only be a menace on the frontiers. Yet not only was it a triumph of the church or the state, the clergy or the laity alone, but of both.ausbreitung_der_hanse_um_das_jahr_1400-droysens_28

While Gregory VII had worked to assert the Church’s authority over the civil rulers, Abbot Suger sought more of an alliance between the two, the monarchy as seen in Louis VI and the bishops of France.

This was not merely a domination of the civic rulers by the church, but a cooperation – just as educational thrust began to move to the cities and thereby blurred the scholarly lines between the clergy and the laity, so did the architecture of the Gothic cathedral symbolize this move. This is most readily witnessed in the ‘triumphal’ arch, a type of arch originally used in Roman times under which victorious emperors marched, and which in the cathedral was moved from the nave of the church (where only the clergy would be admitted under to) to the entrance, where everybody would pass beneath.

There was also another dynamic to the politics of building cathedrals which is particularly noted by the thirteenth century bishop of Auxerre, William Seignelay, who determined to rebuild his church “so that it might not be inferior to these others in form and treatment.”

Thus the fact that the clergy were involved in politics is of great significance where the building of cathedrals can be seen a way of increasing political sway; furthermore, the building of magnificent churches helped increase the status of not only the bishop of the cathedral but of the city as a whole. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this striving for status is that it demonstrates the seeds of nationalism within the medieval period.

Through the building of the cathedrals the laity and the upper classes sought not only to glorify God, but also to show their own civic pride.

Art and the Gothic

The Gothic started out as architecture, and is best seen in the architecture, but it also eventually moved into the mediums of sculpture and of painting, especially given that these two types were often employed in the cathedrals themselves.

dentelle-de-pierre-cathedralThis was not the first time in history that sculpture and painting had been used to adorn buildings, especially religious buildings. The Greeks and Romans quite some time before had done similarly, though there was a key difference between the motives of the Greeks and Romans and that of the medieval Christians.

Whereas the Greeks and Romans sought to build up the human form and bring out the beauty of the body in their art, for the medieval Christians the sculpture and painting was more a means to an end. As has already been mentioned the pursuit of beauty played into the philosophical leanings of the period, and furthermore served as a means of conveying the story of Christ and the saints for the illiterate.

Also in contrast to the earlier Greeks and Romans, the artists of the Christian period came from the laity, which once again emphasizes the new increased significance of the laity in the church. In this facet of the arts can also perhaps be seen the first seeds of the return the golden ages of Romans which became the central theme of the Renaissance.

This focus on the artistic and the beautiful would also serve as part of the downfall of the style as it began to be seen has having “passed from its purity to undue elaboration.”

Religion and the Gothic

The religion of the period is naturally exemplified in the religious buildings of each age, yet more-so than any other church structures the Gothic cathedrals give a clear image of the religion contained therein.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect seen in the cathedrals is the great zeal of religion which was seen in the Christianity of the period.

As has been noted already with the scholarship and with the politics, Gothic architecture was not only a signifier of the clergy, but of the laity as well, and it is no less so here. The twelfth century Abbot Haimon as quoted by Daniel E. Bornstein gives an account of men and women both rich and poor volunteering their efforts in the constructing of the cathedrals, dragging wagons “with their loads of wine, corn, oil, lime, stones, beams, and other things necessary to sustain life or to build churches.”

Everybody wished to show their devotion to the faith by helping in the construction of the cathedrals – or as is said again by the William Seignelay in the thirteenth century, “the construction of new churches everywhere heightened people’s zeal.”

Dunblane Cathedral interior.pngThe zeal was such to bring the free donations of the sculptors, painters and architects along with the patronage of the wealthy. In short, there was an underlying unity in a common system, that of Christianity. It is this extraordinary thrust of energy from the laity that is perhaps most distinctive glimpse given by the Gothic cathedral.

Yet another way in which the religious mood of the period – as well as its theological leanings – can be seen the Gothic cathedral is once again through the sheer beauty which the builders attempted to instill into it.

For the Christians of the period the chief purpose of the church service was the celebration of the sacrament of communion, or the Eucharist. The doctrine of transubstantiation taught that the literal body of Christ became manifest during the celebration of this ceremony, and thus in combining with the Neo-Platonic justifications for the great beauty of the Gothic cathedral is the justification found in wanting the cathedral to be acceptable for the earthly appearance of Christ.

The cathedral needed to be a fitting setting of the miracle of the transformation of the wine and bread into the blood and body of Christ in the Eucharist therefore extra care was given to make it as much as possible a true reflection of the heavenly Jerusalem as taught by the Pseudo-Dionysus.

Finally there was a strong focus on the religion as being public, it was meant to draw in the public and to keep religion public.

This was not simply in contrast to the household god type religion of the pagans, but also served practical purposes within the church. For one it helped to keep the populace away from heresy, as religions which were kept private were likely to draw suspicion of being heretical, all the more-so with the twelfth century being one of the periods of inquisition.

Private worship was seen all the worse because as has been noted, the primary purpose of the service was the celebration of the Eucharist. Only a priest was seen as qualified to perform this act, and only the cathedral seen as a worthy place of its being performed. The cathedral can thereby be seen as upholding not only a distinctly public aspect to the Christianity of the period, but also one in which the priests are the sole bearers of the Eucharist, the chief means of grace.aquinas

It is thus that the cathedral can be seen as exemplifying nearly every major aspect of medieval life. On the mundane plane it shows the level of technical advancement, a level of logical ingenuity comparable to that of the Summa Theologica of the same period.

The Church and the Gothic

Beyond this, the Gothic cathedral is the exemplary example of the union between the clergy and the laity and the overall mindset of the period.

The cathedral allowed for status to be gained both by the bishop as well as the city as a whole. Furthermore the development of the cathedral signals a period when the religious zeal was such that the laity could rise up – even if under the direction of a bishop – and create such great wonders of both architectural and aesthetic triumph.

In the Gothic is seen the first distinctly Christian architecture, an architecture which was closely tied to the civilization of the city.

Apart from simply being a symbol of nearly every aspect of medieval civilization, one must also ask whether the Gothic offers any lasting lesson or applicability to the contemporary scene. On the one hand it might be concluded that this sort of movement could not be instituted from the top down, given that it was the zeal of the laity which was perhaps the driving force behind the endeavors – a zeal not only for the things of Christianity buts also the seeds of a nationalistic zeal for their regions, where through the construction of such wondrous buildings status could be raised and pride could be demonstrated.

europe_12thcentury_1884-300x216Yet all of this was possible mainly due to the monolithic mindset of Christianity which was instilled into the period, a mindset which brought together the civic and the religious and presupposed most of the dogmas of Christianity.

In the world today the same sort of mindset cannot even begin to be said to be present, rather what is seen is a splintered mindset in which no one narrative may rise to the forefront.

Furthermore the religious is not merely separated from the civic and political aspects of life, but any alliance between the two is seen as a distinctly negative thing. In terms of the benefits that the cathedral gave to the medieval period, it seems that most of them ended shortly after the era of the cathedrals. It is thus that the cathedrals were uniquely suited to their time.

The benefits of the cathedral through the role of acting as Scripture to the illiterate would have certainly been beneficial in any time prior, yet that method of communicating these various philosophical notions faded quickly with the advent of the Reformation, where with the return to the sources and the rise in literacy removed much of the need for the images of the cathedral.

The philosophical basis and religious zeal also uniquely suited the cathedral to its time. No longer would many Christians argue that light or beauty helps raise the worshiper closer to God and most would no doubt view the construction of such buildings as a waste of money which could be used elsewhere. Giving glory to God through the arts is a method which is seen as being less legitimate.

In spite of all of this there is still a great lesson to learn from the cathedrals, to include that the faithful can achieve great things when they are sufficiently inspired and perhaps raises the question of what sort of effort Christians should be putting into making their sanctuaries beautiful.

The Gothic brings forth the question of how contemporary Christians might bring their own philosophical notions and religious symbolism into the development of their churches. Gothic cathedrals have served to inspire a certain majesty for many hundreds of years, and their legacy is worth noting.

Pascal: Faith & Reason


Letter TThe question of the relationship between faith and reason is one of the perennial questions within Christian philosophy.

Nearly every major Christian thinker down through the ages has said something on the topic of faith and reason, especially those with some sort of apologetic in mind. The greats of these ranks include those such as Tertullian, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas in the ancient and medieval church, and those such as Kierkegaard, Van Til, and Bavinck in the more modern world.

Coming closer towards the beginning of the modern period stands Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and philosopher of the 17th-Century perhaps best known for his famous assertion that “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.” In the preface to his commentary on Pascal’s Pensées, Peter Kreeft asserts that “God in his infinite mercy struck Pascal dead at the tender age of thirty-nine, before he could complete the greatest book of Christian apologetics ever written.”

Being a work of apologetics the Pensées naturally discusses the relationship between human reason and the Christian faith, indeed epistemology is the topic of the very first chapter and Pascal spends the bulk of the book elaborating on the topic.

His first paragraph begins with a discussion of the difference between the strictly rational and the intuitive minds, and it is this distinction which serves to undergird the majority of his arguments throughout the text. In making the distinctions that he does Pascal is often approached with some hesitation by those within Christianity for seemingly removing the sphere of faith from that of reason.

These critics label Pascal at best as a fideist, or at least as having fideistic tendencies, at worst as a mystic. There thus arises the question of what the relationship between faith and reason is for Pascal and in what category this view places him in.

His aforementioned assertion regarding the reasons of the heart as well as the statement in his wager that neither the proposition “God is” nor the one that “He is not” can be defended according to reason certainly seem to demonstrate a clear hostility to the things of reason. Yet Pascal asserts that there are actually two excesses: “to exclude reason, to admit nothing but reason.”

Pascal as an apologist was not hostile to reason, rather, he saw the proper place for reason in its relation to the things of faith; Pascal recognized the limits of reason, and rather than assert that faith is contrary to the ideal of reason he asserted that it is beyond and above reason, specifically reason as it is in fallen man.

pascal.jpegIn examining this position it will be helpful to examine his view of epistemology, specifically his distinction between the rational mind and the intuitive mind, to examine his view of apologetical proofs, and finally to take a look at some of the arguments that Pascal does actually provide for the Christian faith.

Pascal and Epistemology

In discussing the relationship between faith and reason it is only natural to begin with a discussion of epistemology.

As has already been mentioned Pascal begins his Pensées by discussing the difference between the ‘mathematical’ or ‘geometric’ mind – that is, the mind of pure reason – and the intuitive mind, which is roughly the realm of ‘feeling’ or of the heart. The former is the aspect of thought “which uses principles and demonstrations”; it is that part of the mind which uses premises to arrive at conclusions, and thus by ‘reason’ Pascal here means discursive or logical reasoning. The latter is the aspect of thought through which “we know first principles,” it is that aspect which discerns the premises. This includes both logical principles like the law of non-contradiction as well as ethic principles like doing good and avoiding evil.

A good summation of this division comes in Pascal’s statement that “Principles are felt [intuited], propositions proved, and both with certainty though by different means.”

This statement is also of importance because in it one can observe that Pascal once again does not wholly dismiss the validity of reason, he notes that propositions can indeed be proven with certainty. Where Pascal separates himself from the great thinkers of his day – the rationalists – is in maintaining that there is something which can create certainty apart from the reason.

It is this rebellion against the Cartesian method that is the initial thrust of Pascal’s apologetic, to assert that discursive reasoning is not the sole authority for arriving at knowledge and understanding.

The tendency of Pascal’s contemporaries who also rebelled against rationalism was to side with other great thinkers of the day – the empiricists – yet Pascal was careful to avoid this as well.

Thus while both the reason and the senses do convey knowledge, there is something else which also conveys knowledge, that is, the intuition of the heart – thus the heart may have ‘reasons’ which are not arrived at (known) by the reason. This intuition of the heart is not strictly opposed to reason or to the senses, rather it is above them, beyond them (and given that it provides the first principles on which reason functions, it is ‘before’ them): “Reason’s last step is the recognition that there are an infinite number of things which are beyond it.”

This realm of the heart which is above and beyond reason is for Pascal also the realm of faith, hence “It is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. That is what faith is: God perceived by the heart, not by the reason.”

For those who would define fideism pejoratively as a faith which is against reason this would seem to clear Pascal of the charge. Yet for those who define fideism as any epistemology which sets its foundation outside of reason, Pascal still stands firmly within that realm. It is also of great importance here to note another division, or clarification – though one which is more implied by Pascal than it is stated outright – that is the division between the ideal of reason and the fallen reality of reason.

If by reason one refers to the latter then Pascal indeed states that faith is opposed to this sort of reason.

Thus Pascal states that “There no doubt exist natural laws, but once this fine reason of ours was corrupted, it corrupted everything” so that “nothing, according to reason alone, is just in itself.” On the one hand this is a simple observation along the same lines of the one C.S. Lewis makes in his book The Abolition of Man, where he states that “If nothing is self-evident, nothing can be proved.”

On the other it is an acknowledgement of the noetic effects of sin. The division is between the ideal of reason and the reality of reason, where the former may be perfectly in line with – even if above – faith and the latter may be against it.

The implication of this division can be seen again in such statements asAll mathematicians would then be intuitive if they had clear eyesight” and “One of the ways in which the damned will be confounded is that they will see themselves condemned by their own reason, by which they claimed to condemn the Christian religion,” which implies that in the final days when all eyes have clear eyesight then the reasonableness of the Christian faith will be clearly seen.

To say that the fallen reason is opposed to faith in this sense is not to say that it is merely opposed to faith, but that it is opposed to the intuitions of the heart in general, which in this context means to be opposed to first principles.

Therefore Pascal says “It is through the [heart] that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them.” It is because of this that “If we submit everything to reason our religion will be left with nothing mysterious or supernatural.” Yet submitting everything to reason will not only leave the faith with nothing supernatural, but trying to found everything to reason will also leave morals defunct so that “whoever carries it back to its first principles destroys it.”

It may therefore be observed that there are two chief divisions in Pascal’s epistemology: the first is between the intuitive mind (the heart) which discerns first principles directly, and the rational mind which uses principles in order to arrive at conclusions; the second is between the rational mind as it would function ideally and the rational mind as it functions in fallen humanity.

As regards the first division, faith stands as a work of the intuitive mind, a work of the heart and of clear eyes, above reason. As regards the second division, faith stands in accord with reason as it would operate ideally (although it is not a product of this reason), yet in opposition to reason as it operates in the fallen human mind.

Thus faith must be instilled into man from above by God through a reorientation of the heart and a clearing of the eyes.

For Pascal this reorientation may or may not be accompanied by proper reasoning, therefore he states that Christians should “not be surprised to see simple men believe without reasoning” although generally religion is put “into the mind by reasons, and into the heart by grace.” It may thereby be observed that Pascal would maintain that in some cases the reason may be bypassed.

A final restatement may need made at this point for clarification. That is, while Pascal may imply that Christianity is in accord with the ideal reason, this is not to say that salvation is simply a matter of fixing the reason that it may recognize the truth of Christianity.

As Pascal states many times in multiple ways, it is the heart which perceives God and not the reason. Unless the heart perceives and the eyes are directed at Christ, then even the ideal reason would work in vain. Afterall, the reason works from premises and principles, and these principles must be discerned by the heart and the eyes.

If the principles are not discerned, then even perfect reason cannot come to a correct conclusion; thus, the need of the nonbeliever goes far beyond simply the correcting of a cognitive defect, their heart must be turned by the cross.

Pascal and Apologetics: Proofs

This division between the ideal reason and the fallen reason leads well into the discussion of Pascal’s approach to the use of rational arguments in general and proofs from nature and reason specifically.

While Pascal sees the insufficiency of rational arguments to produce faith he still notes that the apologist must nonetheless make use of them, saying “to those who do not have it we can only give such faith through reasoning, until God gives it by moving their heart, without which faith is only human and useless for salvation.” The reasoning which Pascal believes to be proper will be explored in the following section, though here it is of note that while Pascal believed that apologist must make use of reasons, he was not in favor of the traditional proofs; one of Pascal’s most direct statements on this topic is that “It is a remarkable fact that no canonical [Biblical] author has ever used nature to prove God.”

Thus not only does Pascal use Scripture as his precedent for not employing proofs but he also views them as generally ineffective: “The metaphysical proofs for the existence of God are so remote from human reasoning and so involved that they make little impact,” going on to state that even if they do help some people it will only be for the moment that the demonstration is in front of them.

Pascal acknowledges that such proofs are not only removed from the grasp of the general populace, but also that he did not believe they would convince a hardened atheist, especially because “such knowledge, without Christ, is useless and sterile.” It is important to note here that as Peter Kreeft points out “Pascal does not say that the traditional philosophical proofs of the existence of God are logically weak,” but merely that they are not permanently convincing or able to convert the heart from pride to humility.

Pascal and Apologetics: Reasons

Despite Pascal’s lack of confidence in proofs and his acknowledgement that reason is insufficient for producing faith (given that faith is a gift from God, beyond reason), he still maintained – as was mentioned above – that the Christian must still provide reasons until God moves in the unbelievers heart.

Yet the reasons that Pascal provides are not general reasons which may lead to a deistic god just as easily as to the Christian God, for Pascal views deism as being just as opposed to Christianity as is atheism.

He – like Cornelius Van Til – is not content to prove the god of mathematical truths, but only the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

Thus the reasons which Pascal provides for the faith are reasons which derive from Scripture; therefore he argues from miracles, from prophecies, from the uniqueness of Christianity in these ways as well as in how it is the only religion to “propose to men to hate themselves.” Following from this aspect of its uniqueness, Christianity is also the only religion which can “please those who hate themselves, and who seek a Being truly lovable.” Thus for Pascal it is in Christianity that men find true happiness. Pascal again argues from the improbability of the apostles plotting to say that Christ had risen and then dying for conspiracy.

It can be seen in this that Pascal uses a wide variety of reasons for defending the Christian faith, yet his reasons are founded on and unique to Christianity – they are not proofs which could be used to prove any general deity, thus Pascal’s quarrel is “not with those who seek to make a rational case for faith, but with those who seek to know God as a philosophical abstraction or theoretical entity.”

Classifying Pascal

It has been observed thus far that Pascal sets the intuition of the heart as a thing which is beyond reason. Faith is a work of the heart for Pascal, and thus without a work in the heart by God faith will not be accomplished, regardless of whatever reasons may be provided to the rational mind.

While for Pascal it may be possible to have faith without reasoning, on the whole he posits that God changes the heart and the mind upon salvation, thus it is possible for Christianity to make sense within its own system (according to the ideal of reason rather than its fallen state).

For the rationalist, this removes faith their sphere.

From the outside the Christian faith is seen as having a gap which cannot be passed by reason alone, hence Pascal notes that the faith appears foolish since even though there are apparent reasons “it is not all this which makes people belong to it.”

It is this gap which motivates Pascal to posit such arguments as that in his wager, stating that since [discursive] reasoning is neither for or against Christianity that one should simply wager. Kierkegaard later on makes a similar sort of assertion with his leap, which is to “accept in faith that which indeed cannot be thought.”

Some would term this sort of stance as fideism while others such as Peter Kreeft would tselliot.jpgobject, although he offers no alternative classification. Some even bring up the charge of mysticism, though as T.S. Elliot points out in his introduction to the Pensées “Pascal was not a mystic… but what can only be called mystical experience happens to many men who do not become mystics.”

Elliot’s idea accounts both for the fact that a mystical (supra-rational) experience occurs, and yet the system itself is not mystical, yet Elliot also provides no category. Perhaps the best category which might be provided is that provided by C. Stephen Evans, positing that “Perhaps we should call fideism that can be rationally defended responsible fideism.

In this view as in Pascal faith is “beyond reason rather than against reason, since there is no necessary conflict with reason, but only a conflict with reason that has suffered damage but refuses to recognize this” resulting in a scenario of ‘faith seeking understanding’ similar to that of Anselm, where “To understand is to know the truth in the way it should be known.”

This responsible fideism would therefore be to acknowledge the actual state of the Christian faith as being something that although reasonable within its own system (according to the rectified reason rather than the fallen reason), yet also as something which cannot be reached through reason. It acknowledges that the problem is one of the heart rather than one of the mind.

This does operate at the risk of taking on the baggage of the term fideism, but if the Christian is to be intellectually honest this may be a necessary risk – there is a certain mystical or existential element to the Christian faith which cannot be denied, a moment of decision where “the individual needs divine assistance.”

Modern Relevance

As it was observed in the beginning the question of faith and reason is one of the perennial questions in Christianity, and this is just as true today as it was in Tertullian’s, in Anselm’s, in Pascal’s or in the modern day. On the one hand the Enlightenment desire for rationalism still pervades areas of thought today and many refuse to believe if concrete logical reasons cannot be provided to them. For these individuals Pascal reminds them of the logical reality that reason cannot produce its own principles and presuppositions, it reminds them that reason standing alone can only tear down principles, not establish them.

On the other hand there is also the great distrust logic which has reacted against the Enlightenment ideals and has gravitated towards emotion. For these individuals Pascal provides reasons as to how the Christian faith renders individuals “intelligible to ourselves and offers us a way to attain the self-completion that our hearts naturally and most deeply desire.”

For the Christian apologist who is faced with confronting these two groups as well as others, Pascal reminds them that the work of salvation is not in human hands, but rather that it is a work of God in the heart: “we cannot procure it for them by reasoning” but in the final call must wait “till God himself impress it on their hearts.”

Pascal centers his apologetic entirely on the need for the work of Christ, and therefore although he spends little time on the gospel as such he still provides an apologetic which takes the need for the gospel as its primary foundation. In the debate of which apologetic to use it is good to remember that the arguments of man are not the final producer of faith, that the work of God through Christ is ever the vital element.

As Pascal says, “What makes them believe is the cross.”



Tertullian and Philosophy – Rationalist, Fideist, Apologist?


letter-fFrom antiquity through the postmodern age Christian thinkers have been faced with the confrontation between Christianity and culture, and even more specifically the confrontation between Christianity and secular (or pagan) philosophy, which is one of the chief areas in which Christianity fights against the thought patterns of any given generation.

One of the earliest Christian thinkers to wrestle with the question of how Christianity is to relate to philosophy is the Second to Third Century writer by the name of Tertullian, a North African thinker perhaps best known introducing a number of the key terms for discussing Trinitarian and Christological dogma, as well as for the question “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” and the misquotation “I believe because it is absurd.”

Tertullian is acknowledged as one of the first Christian apologists and is often credited as the forerunner of both fideism and of the Reformed approach to apologetics, the former being a designation which writers use not only to put Tertullian in opposition to philosophy and the secular world – such as is done by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture – but also to place Tertullian in opposition to the use of reason altogether and designate him an irrationalist.

The question thus arises as to what all Tertullian’s criticism of philosophy entails.

While Tertullian demonstrated a large amount of hostility towards the philosophies and the worldviews of his day, he was not an irrationalist; rather, he maintains an approach which places philosophy and Christianity in their proper spheres.

This approach is just as relevant today as it was eight-hundred years ago.

In order to discern Tertullian’s approach it is necessary to analyze various aspects of his thought, to include his general apologetic, his approach to philosophy, and his approach to the relation of faith and reason directly.

Tertullian, along with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, is seen as one of the founders of Christian apologetics. Tertullian’s main apologetical writing is the aptly named Apology, and this first text offers great insight into the way in which he interacted with the world outside Christianity.

One of Tertullian’s chief assertions made in this text is the notion that most of the hostility towards Christianity is derived from an ignorance of it and that those who become acquainted with it soon find themselves converting, thus he asserts: “By simply getting acquainted with it, they begin now to hate what they had formerly been, and to profess what they had formerly hated.” Much of Tertullian’s Apology is directed at arguing against the more moral – as opposed to intellectual – criticisms that were being railed against Christianity. Thus he defends Christianity against accusations of such things as treason and child sacrifice, and points out the inconsistencies which surround the trials and persecutions of Christians.

After defending the morality of Christianity and addressing unjust persecutions, Tertullian goes on to a more rational defense of Christianity and does so in some creative ways (though many of these are no longer forceful in the modern context). One of these ways is through a proof from the pagan gods.

Tertullian argues that since the pagan gods were once men, they must have been made gods by somebody higher than themselves, thus: “you must concede the existence of one higher God – a certain wholesale dealer in divinity” because “if they could have deified themselves, with a higher state at their command, they would have never been men.”

He argues again from pagan gods to a true God by arguing that since the ‘gods’ show favor to both those that worship them and those that do not, there must be some higher “dispenser of kingdoms, who is Lord at once of the world which is ruled.” Another set of arguments employed by Tertullian are arguments from the antiquity and the majesty of Scripture, that antiquity claims authority and the majesty of Scripture proves that it is divine. Tied in with this is an argument from the demonstration and truth of prophecy presented in Scripture which “is the demonstration of its being from above.” 

It can be observed from the arguments presented by Tertullian here that he is willing to offer counterarguments to criticisms of Christianity as well as a certain sort of argument for Christianity. This is perhaps at least one reason why Tertullian’s approach is seen as a forerunner of the Reformed approach to apologetics, in which “the focus will tend to be on the negative or defensive” side.

Another of Tertullian’s apologetical writings is The Soul’s Testimony. The argument here differs from that presented in the Apology, although it is alluded to in the Apology with the question “Would you have the proof from the works of His hands, so numerous and so great, which both contain you and sustain you… or the testimony of the soul itself?”

Rather than argue from pagan philosophy he aims to “prove the existence of God from the testimony that any man’s soul, whether Christian or not Christian, will give.”  Thus Tertullian asserts that “There is no a soul of man that does not, from the light that is in itself, proclaim the very things we are not permitted to speak above our breath” and “Thou proclaimedst God, O soul, but thou didst not seek to know Him.”

This sort of approach is much different from Tertullian’s other arguments. Rather than defending against attacks or offering an argument from the culture of the pagan, Tertullian here gives a somewhat more existential or psychological argument, appealing to the soul’s desire to worship and render service to something above itself and to “name the name of God” as proof of there being something above itself. While this form of argumentation may take Tertullian closer to the accusation of fideism than does that presented in the Apology, his argument is not based on nothing more than the indwelling of the Spirit and thus he is still arguing from experience rather than asserting the need for a leap of faith.

Again, Tertullian’s apologetic doesn’t seem to be in sharp contrast to reason as such. lewis-1

Another sort of apologetic which is often attributed to Tertullian is argument from absurdity, or to put it another way, the argument that the foolishness of the Christian position proves that it could not have been created by human beings and that therefore it must have been divinely constructed and inspired. This is an apologetical method which is not dead in contemporary apologetics; C.S. Lewis makes the same argument in his classic text Mere Christianity, arguing that “It is a religion you could not have guessed… it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up.”

While this is an argument that is still alive today it is less certain whether Tertullian actually meant this by the statement “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” Tertullian does not seem to use this argument to argue directly that it could not have been created by man and is therefore divine, but is rather arguing that the ways of God are beyond man, and therefore the things he does may seem foolish to man.

The former may be inferred from the latter, but it does not seem to be directly entailed in it – nor does Tertullian state the former outright – and even when he is discussing the foolishness of the incarnation he does so by explaining how Christianity wouldn’t make sense if not for the foolishness, which is in itself a paradoxical acknowledgement of Christianity’s reasonableness.

If Christ was not flesh he could not have died (and must also therefore have been born), yet he is also God: “Thus the nature of the two substances displayed Him as man and God.” His proof also seems primarily set in the authority of Scripture which asserts that “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise,” arguing that it is therefore believable for God to act in ways that seem foolish to man.

While this argument comes in the context of a dispute against Marcion over the incarnation of Christ, and while it seems to rely highly on Scripture as a proof (unless the modern revamping of the argument is seen as being intended), the argument still gives some insight into Tertullian’s view of philosophy via his apologetic. As is noted by Timothy Barnes, one of Tertullian’s main issues with Marcion was that he was rejecting the incarnation in order to satisfy the conventional standards of his day; thus, Tertullian is in actuality “contrasting the assumptions of Christianity with those of pagan society.”

In a discussion of Tertullian’s apologetic it is also of note that he alludes in various places to a sort of potential natural theology, but argues that such knowledge is taken by philosophy and “inflated with straining after that facility of language which is practiced in the building up and pulling down of everything.”

This contrasting of the assumptions of Christianity with those of pagan society and Tertullian’s critique of what philosophy does with what might be called ‘common grace’ leads well into the discussion of Tertullian’s overall attitude towards philosophy.

There is no shortage of criticism for philosophy in the writings of Tertullian. One of Tertullian’s divisions between Christianity and philosophy comes in his Apology where he points out that when Christians depart from the faith morally, they are no longer considered Christians, whereas “philosophers who do such things retain still the name and honour of wisdom” which leads him to ask “So, then, where is there any likeness between the Christian and the philosopher?”

This division isn’t one between reason and faith, but between a system which is built upon a morality and one that is not.

In this same text Tertullian attacks the philosophers for having perverted both the old Scriptures and the newer revelation, corrupting them “into a system of philosophic doctrines.” Tertullian makes this same sort of attack again in Ad Nationes, making the point that the philosophers take the truth of Scripture and “degenerated [it] into uncertainty.” Here he adds that “For after they had simply found God, they did not expound Him as they found Him, but rather disputed about His quality, and His nature, and even about His abode”

A final repetition of this outcry can be found following the oft-quoted “What indeed hath Athens to do with Jerusalem” in Tertullian’s On Prescription Against Heresies. Here he calls philosophy that which “pretends to know the truth, whilst it only corrupts it” and cries “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!”

In this Tertullian is not so much railing against reason as such, but against philosophers who combine their philosophies with Christianity, against individuals who attempt to force Christianity to adhere to some preconceived system, and who distract themselves from the truth of God by quarrelling about various aspects of God apart from what is presented in Scripture and who debate the same questions over and over such as “why is evil permitted” in the course of tearing down the doctrines.

It may thus be said that Tertullian’s arguments against philosophy were not against rationality per se or of considering philosophic issues “but of the pagan philosophies that took their point of departure in human speculations.”

If Tertullian’s apologetic employed various sorts of proofs and defenses and if his critique of philosophy was chiefly built around keeping philosophers from modifying Christianity to suite their systems, it must still be inquired as to Tertullian’s direct view of the relationship between faith and reason.

From his apologetic it can already be seen that he posits various arguments which aim to make Christianity reasonable, and from his treatment of philosophy it can be observed that he did not critique them simply for their use of reason.

Still, Tertullian does distinguish the knowledge of revelation and faith from that of reason and human wisdom.

In looking back at Tertullian’s apologetic it can be seen that after he defends Christianity against the accusations of the pagans he goes on to spell out just what Christianity is. This in itself is part of his apologetic, as can be inferred by his earlier statements that the main barrier between pagans and Christianity is ignorance of it.

Once Tertullian begins explaining what Christianity is he notes that God is incomprehensible “though in grace He is manifested” and again that “He is beyond our utmost thought, though our human faculties conceive of Him. He is therefore equally real and great.”

tertullianIt seems from such statements as this that Tertullian at the very least sees Christianity as being a reasonable faith.

Despite this, it may also be observed that Tertullian does not view it as a faith which can be reached by reason alone. As has already been observed he had very little confidence in what philosophy did with the things of natural revelation. Tertullian perhaps best surmises his view in A Treatise on the Soul, where he states that:

“For by whom has truth ever been discovered without God? By whom has God ever been found without Christ? By whom has Christ ever been explored without the Holy Spirit? By whom has the Holy Spirit ever been attained without the mysterious gift of faith? From God you may learn about that which you hold of God; but from none else will you get this knowledge, if you get it not from God.”

Thus faith is an absolutely integral factor for in regards to knowledge for Tertullian, for without it God cannot be discovered, much less by the common man.

Indeed, God can be discovered and known without the strain of philosophy or the acrobatics of reason, thus “there is not a Christian workman but finds out God, and manifests Him, and hence assigns to Him all those attributes which go to constitute a divine being” even though God is difficult to find out and difficult to make known.

Rather than viewing Christianity as something opposed to reason or “a faith that is as isolated from reason as possible” as Boa and Bowman suggest, Tertullian seems to view Christianity as something that is reasonable but must be initiated by faith.

It is important to note here, however, that when Tertullian speaks of faith he does not simply mean to put faith in the Scriptures. Rather, he appeals to a rule of faith, which is the successive teachings passed down from the apostles. While this ‘rule of faith’ is derived from Scripture, it does put tradition on a very high pedestal, so much that he recommends using tradition to argue against heretics rather than Scripture or philosophy.

In the contemporary context the question of how to approach secular philosophies and worldviews is just as critical as it was in Tertullian’s day.

If taken outright Tertullian’s position may be seen as a countercultural movement of Christianity against the culture around it, as is pronounced by Neibhur or Alister McGrath when he asserts that Tertullian’s position is one which “refused to allow itself to be contaminated in any way by the mental or moral environment in which it took root.”

Yet Tertullian himself writes with much knowledge of the Platonic and Socratic philosophies, asserts that the truth which the pagans have is derived from Christian writings, and was “deeply imbued with traditional rhetoric.”

At the very least Tertullian gives a sharp warning against syncretism, although it may be going to far to set him distinctly in a Christ against culture camp.

While some of Tertullian’s specific arguments – such as arguing from pagan gods to the true God – may no longer bear any force, his general method is still quite pertinent. Many who reject Christianity still do so while having little idea of what Christianity actually teaches, and Tertullian also offers various arguments which are still around today (even if in modified form). The question of the relationships between Christianity and philosophy or between faith and reason are also just as alive today as they were in Tertullian’s, perhaps even more-so.

Tertullian does well to point out the ways in which Christianity may be perverted by modifying it to fit some preconceived philosophic system, a problem which was present first with classic liberalism and is present still with postmodernism, which seek to cut off the bits of Christianity which do not adhere to their system or what they believe to have truth value.

The current theological and philosophic climate also presents much hostility to the relationship between faith and reason, different groups seeking to place them at different levels of authority. As Etienne Gilson puts it in a more contemporary context, the reason why the universe seems confounded to scientists is that they mistake existential and metaphysical questions for scientific ones, “then they are puzzled, and they say that the universe is mysterious.”

Tertullian does well to point out that it is only through faith that God can be reached, rather than through some rationalistic striving of mankind.

Once that faith is reached, it  may be asserted that the faith is reasonable within its own system, for even when Tertullian calls the doctrines of Christianity foolish he does so in order to paradoxically point out their reasonableness and the way in which both must be accepted in order for the Christian faith and its doctrines to have congruity.

Through analysis of his apologetical method, his thoughts on the relationship between pagan philosophy and Christianity, and his thoughts on the relationship between faith and reason, one may conclude that the one of the key elements of Tertullian’s thought was that “Men are not to determine in advance of meeting Christ what his nature must be” and that knowledge of truth and of God may only ultimately come through the faith which is given by God himself.

The knowledge of God is further augmented by the revelation given to mankind in Scripture; yet Protestants must be wary of the baggage that Tertullian adds onto Scripture, namely, the force of interpretation based on apostolic succession.

He is not merely a fideist, but offers both rebuttals and arguments for the Christian faith – arguments based on the context of the people he is speaking to, based upon experience, and based upon psychology.

Despite writing some eight-hundred years ago, Tertullian’s thoughts still have just as much weight now as they did during his own time, even if the specific arguments and worldviews which are to be defended against have changed.

The essential conflict is still the same, secular philosophies still attempt to pervert the truths of Christianity, though perhaps with Tertullian it might be said “With our faith, we desire no further belief.”

Rereading the Faith for Today – Gnostic Tendencies and Defending Against Them


Princeton.pngLetter IIn his book The Everlasting Man G.K. Chesterton asserts that “the whole world once very nearly died of broadmindedness and the brotherhood of all religions.”

Chesterton is here referencing the way the early church had to deal with their contemporary culture attempting to bring all religions into one accord; the solution as Chesterton presents it was to formulate a creed, to define the Christian faith against those who pushed for mere assimilation.

One of the groups which Chesterton has in mind here are the early Gnostics. Although early Christianity was able to overcome the threat of Gnosticism in its day there is a perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith, a perpetual tendency for sinful man to read the faith in a way congenial to his own culture. The failure of one attempt, such as the rationalistic Christianity of the Enlightenment, is followed by another, the Gnosticizing relativism of our present day.

When the the stars of cultural tendencies in which people re-read the faith align -as they have done today – the result in something akin to ancient Gnosticism.

This perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith thus gives the appearance of an ongoing gnostic tendency plaguing the church throughout its history. As Nicholas Perrin puts it “The battle between orthodoxy and Gnosticism isn’t over yet and probably won’t be any time soon.”

Gnosticism in its Origins

In his systematic theology The Christian Faith Michael Horton provides a definition of Gnosticism in which he states that the primary underpinning was dualism, such as a contrast between the God of the Old Testament and that New Testament or the contrast between matter as evil and spirit as good.

They sought salvation from the evil material world, and believed this could be accomplished by gaining a secret knowledge. The cause of this as laid out by Horton is that this group of Jews and Christians “tried to reinterpret the biblical narrative in a basically Greek philosophical framework.”

When we read Tertullian’s writing against the Gnostic heretic Valentinus one realizes that Horton’s definition is only a rough generalization of the Gnostic position. Gnosticism as it expressed itself during the period of the early church had a very elaborate metaphysic consisting of varied and convoluted emanations from the central deity which comprise the various spirits of the world, a complex creation account which places the god of the Old Testament at fault, and has the creation of mankind (and the material world as a whole) being an error.

Although the original expression of Gnosticism is quite complex it is not necessary to go into the exact details of the system. Part of the reason for this is because Gnosticism was expressed in a wide variety of ways during the period of the early church, and because it had such a strong focus on subjective experience and interpretation it is difficult – if not impossible – to give any explicit statement of exactly what Gnosticism entailed.

Another reason for this is because Gnosticism is to a large degree merely a borrowing of philosophic trends popular of any given period; in the instance of the early church this borrowing was done primarily from Platonism.

The result was a group which focused on “a subjective, immediate experience” and “concerned themselves above all with the internal significance of events.” It regarded “all doctrines, speculations, and myths – their own as well as others’ – only as approaches to truth.”

Because the focus here is on the subjective “knowledge of the self as divine is the essential pillar of Gnosticism.” It is with these attributes in mind that one may analyze how Gnosticism is affecting contemporary Christianity.

General Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Ideas reminiscent of Gnosticism entered the contemporary era in a variety of ways, and it might be said that it was these tendencies which brought about the revival of interest in Gnosticism proper present in contemporary academia.

While one of the more recent expressions of gnostic-esque ideals was the New Age movement of the 1980’s and 90’s, the principle characteristic responsible for the gnostic presence in contemporary Christianity is the aforementioned way in which the Gnostics attempted to reinterpret the faith in the light of their culture’s philosophy.

In H. Richard Niebuhr’s analysis of the different ways in which Christianity interacts with the world around it – Christ and Culture he labels this sort of approach towards society as ‘The Christ of Culture’. As described by Niebuhr this is the approach which interprets Christ “wholly in cultural terms and tends to eliminate all sense of tension between him and social belief or custom” and seeks to “reconcile the gospel with the science and philosophy of their time.”

In not-to-distant history this can be seen in the way Enlightenment and modernist worldviews attempted – in step with their gnostic forebears – to interpret Christianity in light of the science and philosophy of that time period.

The result of this attempt was a rationalistic Christianity which put forth the idea “that truth must be a risk-free venture, leaving us with only two options: absolute certainty or thoroughgoing skepticism.” One of the results of this was an adherence to “the notion that we believe the Bible to be God’s Word on certain proofs” and a standard which required an “interpretation-free history.”

It is rather ironic then that in an attempt to find an interpretation-free history, the liberals of the day merely managed to “reinterpret the faith by the pagan philosophy of the day.”

When this ideal of absolute certainty inevitably failed and skepticism took center stage the door was opened for writers such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels – and prior to them Walter Bauer – to try and legitimate the original writings of Gnosticism.

Through the perpetual tendency to re-interpret Christianity via the lens of the popular philosophy, ancient Gnosticism itself was once again able to gain a hearing in the public square.

Yet the rise of Gnosticism is not merely a result of the Enlightenment and modernist thinkers attempting to rationalize Christianity. Other philosophic developments have occurred since then – some of them good and some of them bad – which have also served in one way or another to promote this revival of Gnosticism. Perhaps one of the most relevant philosophic developments in this regard are those of Jacques Derrida, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Michel Foucault.

The first of these philosophic influences which has opened the door for Gnosticism – while at the same time itself owing its existence to the influx of gnostic tendencies –  is that of Derrida’s idea that there is ‘nothing outside the text.’ The idea presented is that reality is always being interpreted through the lens of language, so much so that reality itself is a sort of text requiring interpretation.

When interpreted through a more liberal schema, this is seen as showing that since everything is merely interpretation that the truth cannot be truly arrived at objectively, and therefore all interpretations are valid.

It is with cognitive dissonance that writers such as Ehrman and Pagels on the one hand insist on the modernist standards of an interpretation-free history, and on the other push the idea that all interpretations are valid.

Another of the primary philosophic influences forging the way for the Gnostic revival is the idea of Lyotard that has a disdain for meganarratives and an ‘incredulity toward metanarratives.’

The meganarratives are those which attempt to tell a grand story arching over human history, while metanarratives are those which attempt to legitimate themselves through appeal to some sort of universal reason.

The major result of this view was that the overarching narrative of the triumph of orthodoxy over the innumerable heresies began to be questioned, with a secondary result being an attack on the legitimacy of that orthodoxy’s appeal to something outside itself.

The last of these philosophic influences which was both brought about by gnostic tendencies in the faith and in turn enabled a newfound focus on ancient Gnosticism is Foucault’s idea that ‘power is knowledge’.

The idea behind this notion is that those in power have the ability to influence what is considered true ‘knowledge’, they are able to define what is the ‘correct’ interpretation of a given set of data.

For the resurgence of Gnostic thought-patterns, this meant that contemporary interpreters focused their attacks to a large degree on the way in which – according  to their view – the success of orthodoxy was merely the result of the dominant party powering their way to the front and rewriting the narrative surrounding their history.

Specific Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Even before there was an explicit focus on Gnosticism as a system, gnostic-esque ideas were working their way into the overall worldviews surrounding the church.

The primary of these aspects is the aforementioned tendency to re-interpret the faith through the lens of the popular philosophy.

During the early church period this played itself out in such a way that a variety of Platonism was brought into the church; during the modern period it played itself out in such a way that rationalism was brought into the church; in the contemporary period it is playing itself out in such a way that subjectivism and relativism have become major aspects of many churches.

The most aspect most reminiscent of Gnosticism in the contemporary church is the present focus upon individual experience, where truth is ultimately personal.

As has been already stated, the gnostics concerned themselves primarily with the internal significance of events, which in turn causes them to focus on the internal significance of whatever is perceived as conveying truth.

One way in which this presents itself in the church is a tendency in many Bible studies to focus on ‘what the passage means to me.’

Often, rather than attempting to try and discover what the intended meaning of a certain Biblical passage is, such groups focus on whatever personal feeling or message the reader thinks the passage is trying to tell them, and each person’s interpretation is just as valid as the next person’s. This individual interpretation and experience is elevated above adherence to any particular doctrine.

Indeed, the doctrines of the church are seen as things to be stretched and molded to suite one’s own personal understanding of truth.

A common phrase on the lips of those who take this line of thought is that ‘I have a relationship, not a religion.’ Here a false dichotomy is set up, for what they have is both a relationship and a religion, with the proper term for this being the church.

One chief effect of this focus on individual experience and interpretation is that it produces a class of Christians who are generally ignorant regarding what they believe or why they ultimately believe anything.

When faced with skeptics these individuals often find their faith shaken; when faced with those such as Bart Ehrman who tell them that there are other legitimate versions of their faith or that their faith is founded upon a lie, they have no idea how to respond (and may thus even end up embracing Gnosticism itself as a system, as opposed to merely being influenced by some of its aspects).

Those such as Rob Bell call them to question the doctrines of the faith, but fail to give any advise on actually arriving at an answer to those questions or on what standard these doctrines are supposed to be held to.

This is because the standard being looked to is not external, but internal.

The Christian faith turns to focus on “contemporary ideals of self-discovery, self-awareness, self-actualization, and self-salvation” coupled with a “dislike of any kind of authority” such as that represented in many doctrinal statements.

When the goal becomes this sort of self-discovery not only is the result a group of poorly informed individuals, but also a group that has little real cause for evangelism; since personal experience cannot be conveyed from one person to the next an attitude of ‘if it works for you, do it, if not then try something else’ is adopted.

Not only is simply difficult to be evangelical with a message of subjectivism, but such individuals must also worry about whether they are forcing their own beliefs on others – this fear of being imposing is perhaps the thing that kills evangelism the fastest.

Responding to Gnostic Aspects in Contemporary Christianity

Figuring out how best to respond to these trends is one of the challenges of thoughtful Christians.

tertullian (1)One good way to figure out how to respond is to look back to those who responded to these issues the first time they came about, such as Tertullian. In Tertullian’s writings at least three approaches may be found, to include: making others aware of what is influencing them, pointing out the shortcomings in their belief system along with the strength of the orthodox position, and appealing to the truth of Scripture.

The first way of response which can be picked up by Tertullian is simply to point out what it is that the other side is doing. That is, to bring it to their attention the way in which popular philosophy is influencing their beliefs.

This sort of approach is seen in Tertullian when he asks “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?” and goes on to exclaim “Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition.”

His goal here is to bring it to the attention of his opponents – and more importantly to those who might be influenced by his opponents – where the true origins of their beliefs lie. The previous sections detailing the general and specific aspects of Gnosticism present in the contemporary world (including how they came to be there) are themselves an attempt at this approach, and thus while they served to be primarily informational, that information is an apologetic in and of itself.

Tertullian’s approach may be emulated in the contemporary world by pointing out the way that the church was originally influenced by modernistic values, which then led to its influence by postmodern values. Before the problem can be properly addressed those who fall prey to it must be made aware of it.

Another way of response which can be found in Tertullian is the need to point out the failings of the opposing position.

This sort of tactic can be seen throughout Tertullian’s writings, such as in his writings against Marcion, where he systematically goes through the different implications of Marcion’s views to show how they are inconsistent with themselves. One example of this is where he shows that Marcion’s god is weak and unjust, for “how is it possible that he should issue commands, if he does not mean to execute them; or forbid sin, if he intends not to punish them” because “it would have been far more right, if he had not forbidden what he meant not to punish.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which subjectivism and relativism really keep the individual from saying anything meaningful, and that merely adhering to the popular philosophy is simply to trade one master for another – except whereas one master is constant and able to speak to people consistently over thousands of years, the other is fickle and ever changing with every new fad of thought.

Yet not only does Tertullian demonstrate the shortcomings of the opposing view, he also demonstrates the consistency of the orthodox view.

An example of this is Tertullian’s classic line that “the Son of God died, it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.”

His point is not that the Christian faith doesn’t make sense, but that for it to make sense one must accept it as a whole.

In this case that entails accepting that Christ was a man of flesh, and that in turn “Christ could not be described as being man without flesh… just as He is not God without the Spirit of God.”

In the contemporary world this may be accomplished by pointing out the ways in which Christianity, or the world at large, only makes sense when taken from an orthodox point of view. Furthermore, because the Gospel message is true, it is the only thing that will be able to fully account for their feelings and experiences, and to then offer hope.

A final way that Tertullian gives a good example of how to approach contemporary Gnostic influences in the world is through appeal to the Scriptures.

As he states, “We want no curious disputation after enjoying the gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief.” Thus Tertullian can be seen appealing again and again to truth as presented in the Scriptures, such as detailing the authority of Christ from Luke, or proving the nativity through Matthew.

In the contemporary world Christians must appeal to the truth of Scripture, because ultimately it is the only avenue to any sort of salvific truth. If individuals are convinced to follow Christianity because of something other than the truth of Scripture, then more than likely they are merely adhering a different philosophy than they were before, but have found no true conversion.


The perpetual tendency to re-interpret the faith has resulted in the resurgence of gnostic-style influences being alive and well in the world today, and through these influences a newfound focus on Gnosticism itself has arisen.

The primary of these influences is the tendency to interpret the faith in the light of the popular philosophy of the day, which in turn leads to a relativising and a watering-down of the truth.

The danger that this presents to the church is not something seen only by those defenders of the faith such as Chesterton. Quite the contrary, those promoting such gnostic views realize exactly what the danger is; as Elaine Pagels puts it, “Had Christianity remained multiform, it might well have disappeared from history, along with dozens of rival religious cults of antiquity.”

The difference lies in the fact that those such as Pagels view having dozens of rival religious cults as a better thing than having only one, because in the opinion of herself and those like her all of the rivaling cults are merely diverse approaches to truth and God. Because such individuals places no real truth-value on orthodox Christianity it is not a true problem for them if it fades into obscurity beneath a newfound diversity – indeed, that would be a good thing from their perspective.

Yet with a proper understanding of Scripture and of the theological and philosophic issues surrounding it, the Christian is aware of just how dangerous these trends can be.

Gnosticism is far from dead; as put by Alister McGrath, “Its echo is heard today in those who interpret Christianity as a religion of self-discovery, not redemption.” 

The Christian knows that grace and redemption is what is needed by the world, and it is with this in mind that they are called to fight against the influences which would try and make the faith palatable by making it relative.




Two or Three Uses? – The Law in Luther & Calvin

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Letter WWithin the realm of Christian theology there are many fiercely debated topics. One such topic is the question of the how the Law is to be understood in the Christian faith, especially in the light of the gospel and in the life of the Christian.

Taking on this task, Reformation thinkers Martin Luther and John Calvin both put forth ideas of how the Law is to be understood within Christianity.

When given a cursory reading, it will be noticed that Luther put forth two different uses of the Law, whereas Calvin put forth three, a distinction which has caused a fair amount of dispute between Lutheran and Reformed theologians to this day.

In order to gain a better understanding of this doctrine is helpful to compare and contrast these two great thinkers’ views on the topic, paying careful attention to how and why they draw the distinctions that they do. For John Calvin, it will be necessary to analyze his Institutes of the Christian Religion, where he lays out what he sees to be the three uses of the Law. For Martin Luther, it will be necessary to first look at his Commentary on Galatians, where he lays out what he sees to be the two primary uses of the Law; with this done, it will also be necessary to look at various other of Luther’s writings to discern whether or not he indeed limits the use of the Law to those two areas.

Because Calvin is more systematic in his approach to the topic of the uses of the Law, it will be helpful to discuss him first, and thereby gain a solid understanding of the field to be analyzed; with this done we can consider how Luther compares in his writings, both explicitly and implicitly.

John Calvin’s Three Uses of the Law

What the Law Refers To

In discussing Calvin’s uses of the Law, it is first necessary to discern what it is that Calvin refers to when he refers to the Law.

For this one may turn to the seventh chapter of the second book of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, where Calvin begins his in-depth discussion of the Law. Here Calvin states explicitly that ‘the Law’ he understands to refer to “not only the Ten Commandments, which contain a complete rule of life, but the whole system of religion delivered by the hand of Moses.”

This definition of the Law is given in the context of pointing out that the Law is not something that exists merely as a negative, detracting from the hope of Israel for Christ. Rather, Calvin argues that this was given through Moses for the sake of ‘renewing’ the Abrahamic promises, to be seen as “types and shadows of corresponding truth.” Thus Calvin begins his discussion of the Law by pointing out that the Law is not a bad thing. Indeed, Calvin goes so far as to say in reference to the religious aspect of the Law that “the fullness of grace, of which the Jews had a foretaste in under the Law, is exhibited in Christ,” in reference to the priestly offices that they would come to inhabit.

After this ceremonial and religious aspect of the Law, Calvin goes on to discuss the more explicitly moral aspect of the Law, which serves to point out the fact that eternal life awaits perfect obedience of the Law. By this the Law serves to show that the people fall under the curse, the result of which is “despondency, confusion, and despair.” Regardless, Calvin notes, the fact that perfect obedience to the Law is nowhere to be found does not mean that the Law has therefore been given in vain, for through justification by faith the people learn to embrace the goodness offered in the gospels.

The ‘office’ of this moral law, Calvin continues, itself consists of three parts, which is where one enters fully into Calvin’s understanding of the three uses of the Law.

Three Uses of the Law: Serving as a Mirror

In beginning his discussion on the three parts of the moral law, Calvin first points to the use of the law as it exhibits “the righteousness of God – in other words, the righteousness which alone is acceptable to God.”

Pointing out what righteousness is acceptable to God in turn convicts and condemns the people of their pride and serves as “a kind of mirror” in which “we discover any stains upon our face” such that the people will observe their own impotence, iniquity, and the curse and consequence of those. This aspect of the Law is that aspect experienced by those who are “sinners not yet regenerated.”

In continuing his defense of the Law, Calvin points out that the fact that the Law serves to only condemn does not detract from the excellence of the law, since the reason the Law is insufficient for salvation is because of our lack of obedience, and thereby not any fault in the Law itself. The Law if further not marred because God has declared that his end goal is not to “allow all to perish” but to that he might take mercy upon them by turning them to the mercy offered in Christ.

Thus, the first use of the law is that it serves as a mirror, showing mankind their iniquity and convicting them of their subsequent condemnation, and through this driving them to take refuge in the mercy of God in Christ.

Three Uses of the Law: Serving as a Curb

The second use of the Law, Calvin argues, is that through the fear of punishment that it might “curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.” These individuals have their behavior curbed, Calvin argues, not because their hearts are changed or they are “inwardly moved and affected”, nor do they change their behavior in order to better please God. Rather, they are restrained through the force of “terror and shame”, terror of the punishment which will come to them if they act against the Law, and the shame which will be attached to their actions. 

This outward restraint does not lead to an inward change of heart; just the opposite, due to having to restrain themselves Calvin argues that they become even more hostile to God – the Lawgiver – more inflamed, such that they “rage and boil”, ready to break out whenever the fear of the law is gone.

In spite of the fact that this aspect of the Law doesn’t avail in changing the hearts of those who are under it, Calvin argues that it too is still a good thing. This goodness comes not from the impact of the Law upon those whom it inflames, but on the overall good of society. This is so because through restraining these individuals society’s peace is “secured by a provision but for which all things would be thrown into tumult and confusion.”

Furthermore, even though the unregenerate might not be driven to holiness by this aspect of the Law, Calvin argues that it does train those who will eventually be converted in how to “bear the yoke of righteousness.”

That is, it gives them a sort of head start in what it is like to live as a Christian. Lastly, this use of the law for these individuals keeps them from “giving full scope to their passions, and thereby utterly losing all desire after righteousness.” Calvin here argues that the law keeps the yet-to-be-regenerated individual from giving in fully to their passions and thereby retaining in them at least some desire for righteousness. This is such that should God not immediately bring an individual to salvation, he may prepare them for salvation by cultivating that rightful fear which a child ought to have of their Father.

Thus, in its second use, the law serves both the good of society in restraining individuals from wicked behavior as well as cultivating in some of those individuals the discipline and fear that they should rightfully have when they eventually become children of God.

Three Uses of the Law: As a Rule of Life

In his commentary Calvin notes that there is a tendency for theologians to relegate the entire use of the law to the increase of transgressions as presented in Galatians 3:19. He goes on to note that Paul speaks of the law as profitable for doctrine and notes that “the definition here given of the use of the law is not complete, and those who refuse to make any other acknowledgment in favor of the law do wrong.”

Following his discussion of the uses of the law as a tool for turning people toward reliance on God and as a tool for curbing behavior which would be harmful to society, Calvin turns toward what he refers to as the ‘principal use’ of the Law, and what is known in theology at large as simply ‘the third use of the Law’.

This use of the Law differs from the previous two uses in that while the first two uses of the Law apply – in Calvin’s system – primarily to the unregenerate, this third use is the Law as it is applied to the regenerate, to believers who are already following God.

In speaking of this use of the Law, Calvin begins by pointing out that believers already have the Law written on their hearts along with a desire to obey God. In light of this state of believers Calvin says that there are still two different ways that the Law can be useful for them. The first of these ways is that the Law is still the “best instruction for enabling them daily to learn… what that will of the Lord is which they aspire to follow.”

That is to say, study of the Law increases the wisdom of the believer in regards to what the will of God for them is. The second of these ways is that through meditating on the Law, Calvin asserts that the believer will be further motivated toward obedience and further drawn away from the temptation of sin; this can perhaps be best summed up in Calvin’s statement that “If it cannot be denied that [the Law] contains a perfect pattern of righteousness, then, unless we ought not to have any proper rule of life, it must be impious to discard it.”

In this the Law no longer serves to condemn the believer – even though they still cannot live up to it – but it points believers toward the goal to which we strive and exhorts them in this task, exhorts them in the task of working towards perfection as a rule of life.

From what has been observed it can be seen that Calvin allotted three uses to the Law. Firstly, it serves as a mirror to show us our unrighteousness and drive us toward dependence on God. Secondly, it serves as a curb to keep those who wish to do evil in check through fear of the punishments associated with the Law. Thirdly, it serves as a rule of life for believers to follow, instructing them in the will of God which they seek to follow.

One of the areas of note here is that in Calvin’s approach to understanding the different ways in which the Law operates, he places a great emphasis on the the Law as it applies to the unregenerate versus the Law as it applies to the regenerate. Thus, the first use applies to the nonbeliever, to drive them toward God. Similarly the second use applies to the nonbeliever, to curb their wicked desires. The third, contrary to these, applies to the believer, giving them a guide to Christian living.

Martin Luther’s Two Uses of the Law

While Calvin is very systematic in his approach to the Law, Luther is somewhat more sporadic and – indeed – pastoral and periodic, addressing his concerns more in response to a given issue rather than developing out each of his ideas in strict logical fashion.

For this reason it is necessary to look at a variety of Luther’s works, centering around his Commentary on Galatians, in which he presents his case for the two different uses of the Law.

Law and Gospel; Active and Passive Righteousness; Sinner and Saint

In looking at Martin Luther’s use of the Law, it is helpful to see how it is that he relates the one notion of the Law to the other of the Gospel, what he calls the active righteousness of the one to the passive righteousness of the other.

Luther begins his Commentary on Galatians with a discussion of the various types of righteousness. After a brief mention of the civil righteousness of abiding by the laws of the state and the ceremonial righteousness of the manners taught by parents, Luther enters into a discussion of the righteousness of the Law – as exemplified in the Ten Commandments – and the righteousness of faith.

These latter two types of righteousness differ from one another in that the righteousness of the Law is what Luther refers to as an active righteousness, a righteousness which actively seeks to fulfill God’s Law. Luther notes this active righteousness as being in vain, through which “sin is made exceedingly sinful.”

In realizing the vainness of this active righteousness, the person then turns to embrace the passive righteousness of Christ. Thus, the unbeliever is to oppressed with the Law until they are “thirsting for comfort”, at which time the Law is removed and the Gospel is placed before them. In turn, Luther argues, both Law and Gospel are necessary, but “both must be kept within their bounds” where the righteousness of the Law applies to the ‘old man’ and the righteousness of faith to the ‘new man’.

This notion is imperative to properly understanding Luther’s understanding of the Law, for the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ does not merely refer to the unregenerate and the regenerate.

Rather, the ‘old man’ and the ‘new man’ exist both within the believer, hence Luther states that “a Christian man is both righteous and sinner, holy and profane, an enemy of God and yet a child of God.” In the same way he asserts: “both these continue whilst we here live. The flesh is accused… bruised by the active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigneth, rejoiced and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness.”

Further on in his commentary he builds upon this notion, asserting that though he commits sins, these do not plague his conscience since he knows he is in Christ; instead he directs the chastisement of his sins towards his body, making the point that the Law cannot touch the conscience, though it may be directed towards the flesh.

It is only with this dual nature of man in mind that one may move on to understand the way that Luther appropriates the Law.

Two Uses of the Law: The Civil Use

When it comes time for Luther to discuss the nature of the Law in a more systematic manner, he states that there is a double use of the law. This first use, he argues, is the civil use. The civil use, simply put, is that the law is given in order to restrain sin. This restraint of sin does not lead to righteousness; rather, the very fact that there are sin to be restrained is signal that the individual is unrighteous, for it is only person who is prone to sin who needs to be threatened against sinning. Thus, this first use of the Law is “to bridle the wicked.” For this purpose there have been created governments and civil ordinances, ready to bind the person who acts against the law. While this use of the law does not produce salvation, it does provide for the public peace and “the preservation of all things.”

Two Uses of the Law: The Spiritual Use

Following his discussion of the civil use of the law in his Commentary on Galatians, Luther then turns to discuss what he calls the ‘theological’ or ‘spiritual’ use of the Law.

This use of the Law, as Luther argues, is that it is used in order to reveal to man his sin and his contempt of God, and in turn reveal the judgment and wrath which the man deserves from God. This use, Luther argues, is “the proper and the principal use of the law.”

The purpose of the law is thereby to terrify, to “rend in pieces that beast which is called the opinion of righteousness.” That is, the purpose of the law is to defeat the pride of the individual, to reveal sin, and to make the individual feel the burden of the law so that they might despair.

This use of the law Luther connects with God’s work at Mount Sinai, the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments, which “brought that holy people into such a knowledge of their own misery, that they were thrown down even to death…” On top of this use of acting as a mirror, one finds in Luther’s other writings that he is willing to connect the law driving the individual “to despair of himself” with the result that it causes them “to seek the help which he does not find in himself elsewhere.”

Other Uses of the Law in Luther

It is noteworthy that in his Commentary on Galatians, Luther only points to two uses of the Law. Yet, if one looks to his other writings, a larger picture begins to appear. Thus, in  Against the Heavenly Prophetsone may find Luther writing of the five different articles of the Christian faith. The first is the law of God, the second the gospel. The third article is what Luther calls ‘judgment’, which is “the work of putting to death the old man”, and it is followed by the fourth article of “love toward the neighbor”, and a fifth article to “ proclaim the law and its works” to the “crude masses” such that they will “know what works of the law they are to do and what works ought to be left undone”; yet these works are not put before the Christian “as if one through them were upright or a sinner.”

Luther does not answer directly here the question of how one is to put to death the old man, or where one might look to discern what it is to love one’s neighbor, yet in his Instructions for the Visitors of Parish Pastors he gets closer to doing so, stating that the “third element” of Christian life is “the doing of good works”; works which include “to be chaste, to love and help the neighbor, to refrain from lying, from deceit, from stealing, from murder… [etc].” Here Luther lays out at least four of the ten commandments as the ‘doing of good works’ which is an element of Christian life.

One may also turn to the most practical area of Luther’s writings, his catechisms.

Here Luther’s addresses the Ten Commandments in the life of the Christian, instructing his readers that they should not act contrary to the Commandments, that God promises blessings to those who keep the Commandments, and that Christians should “gladly do according to His commandments.”

In his Larger Catechism he then states that the one who knows perfectly the Ten Commandments will be able to “counsel, help, comfort, judge, and make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters.” He later follows this statement up with the assertion that the Ten Commandments are “the true channel through which all good works must flow,” that doing these works will result in God’s blessing, and that “everyone is to make them his daily habit in all circumstances.”

Yet in contrast to this there is also the idea present in Luther’s Concerning the Letter and the Spirit that since the Christian “lives in the Spirit as the law demands; indeed, he no longer needs any law to teach him, for he knows it now by heart… there no teaching or law is needed; everything happens as it should happen.”

In figuring out how these apparent works of the law can be present in the Christian life of good works, it is necessary to see a further distinction Luther makes in his writings. In his Lectures on Romans, Luther makes the point that ‘the works of the Law’ are those that take place at the urging of the law, while the works of faith are those done “solely for the love of God.”

Thus, it could be argued that for Luther the same act could be either a work of the law or a work of faith, depending on the motivation for the act; “thus we gain a genuine desire for the law, and then everything is done with willing hearts, and not in fear.”

In light of this it is not incongruent for Luther to utter statements such as the one that the Christian should call upon God “according to the second commandment.”

Similarly, when Luther adamantly asserts that there is not teaching of the law and no need for the law, it seems that this should be read firstly to mean that there is no teaching of the law-as-condemning-force.

Luther’s practical use of the Law seems to demonstrate that when Luther talks of the Christian not needing the Law to teach him due to him knowing it by heart, he seems to be speaking more idealistically, of the ideal Christian.

In all of these other writings of Luther it may be observed then: (1)  adhering to the law works nothing for justification; (2) yet there are good works to be done by the Christian, and that these ‘good works’ include acts synonymous with certain commandments of the Law, for indeed, the heart has been changed to naturally act out the Law; (3) that the Christian should abide by the Ten Commandments, which will result in his being blessed by God; (4) that it is the motivation behind these acts that distinguish them from being ‘works of the law’, such that when done for the glory of God it is no longer law but faith.

In summing up his view on the two different uses of the law Luther states that “the law is good and profitable, but in his own proper use; which is, first to bridle civil transgressions, and then to reveal and to increase spiritual transgressions.”

The Law, for Luther, is primarily a light, but one that shows only sin and death. The Gospel, on the other hand, is a light which shows the mercy of God in Christ.

There are various noteworthy aspects to understanding Luther’s understanding of the Law. One of these aspects is the way in which Luther’s second use of the law is already contained in his first use of the law. As he said, the first use is to bridle the wicked, and the very fact that they need a bridle demonstrates that they are wicked, at least in a general way. The second use, then, narrows down this general demonstration of wickedness to terrify and convict the individual. This restriction and conviction is the extent of the Law for Luther.

Rather than go any further than this, where the Law ends for Luther, the Gospel may begin. The Law makes the individual despair so that the Gospel may come and give hope, the active righteousness of trying to live up to the law is replaced with the passive righteousness of Christ.

Most noteworthy in Luther’s understanding of the Law is that his primary focus is upon the old man verses the new man.

This is important because both the old man and the new man exist in the person of the believer. Thus, when the old man causes the individual to sin, the Law points to that sin in the life of the believer, but it doesn’t convict, for then the righteousness of Christ – the Gospel – is there to cover the sin. Yet in this it can be noted that the Law does still exist in the life of the believer for Luther, as he says: “among Christians we must use the law spiritually, as is said above, to reveal sin.”

In the writings of Luther as a whole it was observed that Luther does – in practice – use the law for more than merely keeping the wicked in check and revealing sin. He also seemed to promote good works as a Christian – works of faith – which were synonymous in content with the works of the Law, with the difference that they were done not out of the fear of the condemnation of the Law, but out of love for God and the desire to be blessed. In desiring to do these good works Luther advises the believer to meditate on the Ten Commandments, the same Ten Commandments he also equated with the righteousness of the Law.

Thus it might be observed that while in some instances Luther seems to clearly reject out of hand the use of the law in the life of the Christian, it seems that this may be in large a semantic error of Luther simply refusing to refer to this use of the law as a guide as a use of the ‘law’, for he desired to equate this with faith rather than Law.

In contrast to this it might be contended that “love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved” and that because the new man does not need the Law as an instruction, for the Law is written on his heart and he will act this out naturally and spontaneously; yet, Luther’s practical use of the Law seems to assume that the Christian can get instruction in good works from the law, and it is simply that fact that when discussing this facet Luther refrains from referring to it as the law.

Comparing & Contrasting Luther and Calvin

In comparing and contrasting Luther and Calvin there are many things which can be discussed. Perhaps the best place to start with this is to figure out where the two thinkers agree.

The first use of the Law that Luther put forward was what he called the civic use, which was noted as serving the purpose of bridling sin for the good of the society through the fear of the law. In the same way Calvin’s second use of the Law was that it served the purpose of curbing sin for the good of society through the fear of the law. In this use of the law Luther and Calvin seem to be in full agreement; there is only the relatively minor difference in how Luther points out that this use indicates the wickedness of man, whereas Calvin points out that this use serves the dual purpose of further inflaming the wickedness of man and training those who do not yet believe.

The second use of the Law put forth by Luther was what he called the spiritual use. In this way the law was used to terrify and convict people of their sin, to reveal their sin to them as in a mirror. Furthermore, whereas in his Commentary on Galatians he left the second use at that, in his Freedom of the Christian Luther alluded to the fact that this despair drives the individual somewhere besides themselves. In like manner, Calvin’s first use of the law was that of a mirror. This mirror shows people their unrighteousness and convicts them of their impending condemnation, and through this drives them to take refuge in the mercy of God in Christ.

While this second set of uses for the law by Luther and Calvin, both serving as mirrors, seem to be identical, there is an important distinction to note. This distinction is that – for Calvin – this mirror’s purpose rests in convicting the unbeliever, the unregenerate. Calvin’s mirror seems to only be for the unregenerate man prior to his conversion. In contrast to this, Luther’s mirror is ever present.

This is because rather than focusing on the regenerate/unregenerate distinction, Luther focuses on the old/new man distinction, and this is a distinction which stays with the believer even after regeneration.

Therefore, while Calvin’s mirror is used by the individual prior to conversion, Luther’s mirror is used by the individual both before and after conversion, a fact which will be important when analyzing the different ways the two thinkers apply the law in the believer’s life.

With this in mind, one may then turn to the third use of the Law as presented by Calvin.

It was noted that for Calvin, this use was the one in which the law served to instruct and guide the believer after conversion, increases the believer’s wisdom in regards to the will of God. With regeneration, the individual is able to make the move from using the Law as a mirror to using it as a guide.

Luther would have been unable to follow Calvin here for a variety of reasons.

Firstly – as has been noted – Luther’s focus was not on the regenerate/unregenerate distinction. Because for Luther the old man is always there with the new man – and because the mirror applies to the old man – the individual is never fully able to put the mirror down.

Thus, for Luther, when the Law comes up it necessarily comes up as that mirror.

Because the old man is always present in the life of the individual, the Law must always serve the purpose of driving that old man to despair, that he might find relief in the Gospel.

This sharp Law/Gospel distinction is important for understanding Luther in that whereas Calvin was comfortable placing a close connection between the Law revealing sin and in turn driving the individual toward Christ (and thereby having the Gospel implicit in the Law), Luther drew a much sharper distinction between Law and Gospel; thus for Luther the most the Law could do in revealing sin was drive the individual away from themselves, he doesn’t take the next step with Calvin in asserting that it drives them to Christ.

Rather that asserting that the Law drives the unbeliever to Christ, Luther prefers to speak of the move in terms of the Law driving them solely to despair and then the Gospel coming in as a balm and a comfort.

Thus, not only does Luther have an old/new man focus over against Calvin’s regenerate/unregenerate distinction, but Luther also has a much sharper separation of the law from the gospel than Calvin.

Yet, Luther also has a stronger connection between them in another sense, for in Luther both the law and the gospel are ever present and presented together.

The old man is always present, and therefore the law must always be there to terrify, and at the same time the gospel always be there to comfort. When talking of the Christian as a whole, Luther still has a place for the law, which is, for condemning the works of the old man in the body of the believer. He does not expel the law from the life of the believer, but he takes care when referring to ‘the law’ to refer to it in exclusive reference to the old man.

While asserting that Luther cannot follow Calvin into Calvin’s formulation of the third use of the Law due to the differing angles at which each thinker is approaching the Christian system, Luther does have his own variety of this.

Whereas Calvin’s third use is the Law applied to the regenerate man, Luther’s ‘third use’ might be said to be the Law applied the ‘new man’ (though as noted above Luther would not use that language).

While this sort of use was not discussed systematically by Luther, it is implied in various of his writings. In this it was observed Luther suggesting that knowledge of the Ten Commandments made one able to make decisions in both spiritual and temporal matters, that good works flowed from them, good works which would cause God to bless the individual.

Yet, while a position such as Calvin’s this might seem to roughly fit the criteria of his third use of the law, the distinction for Luther was that – at least semantically – these are not uses of the law. A use of the law for Luther would have been something that was necessarily done under compulsion, and therefore incompatible with good works or the faith of the Christian. Rather, these same works are works of faith – not works of law – even when they are centered around the same principles as the ‘law’.


In light of this analysis, it might be stated that while Calvin and Luther do have some genuine differences in their approaches to way the Law is to be used, much of this difference can be attributed to viewing the same truths from different angles and with different foci; this is to be expected, for these men existed within space and time and were reacting against their own given environments.

Though a detail of biographies was outside the scope of this study, it might be noted – for instance – that Luther was much more closely tied to his reaction against the abuses of Rome, and this reaction shaped how he focuses his theology.

On top of this difference of foci, Luther and Calvin are also separated by what it is often the hardest bridge to cross in theology, the bridge of semantics.

To a large extent the approaches taken by Luther and Calvin to the Law have the same result and are getting at the same points, but using different categories and different terminology which makes the similarities difficult to see.

Thus, Calvin uses the Law as a guide for believers, whereas Luther also in practice uses that same Law as a guide, but is careful not to refer to it in that manner due to way that he has defined ‘Law’ in his understanding; it is simply incongruent for Luther to imagine applying the term ‘Law’ to something utilized by the new man, for the Law to him can only apply to the old man.

Yet, there are still differences here, and these differences do affect the way Christians go about their lives. The way in which Luther keeps the mirror of the Law at hand, and in turn the comfort of the Gospel, has the practical result of constantly driving the individual back to the Cross for their comfort.

This can be a helpful attitude to take when dealing with sin; and yet it can also be helpful to have a guide to aid one in avoiding sin and for instructing one in how to live a life pleasing to God. Calvin’s focus is more helpful in addressing this aspect of the Law.

Thus, it can be asserted that neither John Calvin nor Martin Luther is necessarily ‘correct’ in this matter.

When they discuss the uses of the Law they are seemingly discussing the same matter, but they are discussing it in very different manners for different reasons, with different foci and different terminology. Neither has the perfect system, and neither has a defunct system; rather, each has a system which is helpful and unhelpful in turn, true and false in differing ways.

In looking back over these various uses, it can be found that they all have some legitimacy. The civic use of the law found in both Luther and Calvin is viable in either context. Calvin’s first use of the law is helpful for bringing the unbeliever to faith, and yet as it is used in Luther, it also serves a use in the life of the believer, continuing to drive them to Christ and the rest that He provides, as well as subdue the flesh; Calvin can be corrected by Luther here, in that the mirror may still have a use after conversion. Finally, with Christ as the goal, Luther may be corrected by Calvin in noting that it can be helpful for the Christian to gain wisdom of God’s will through the study of the law.

On Apologetics – Purpose, Why You Should Take An Interest


apologetics3.pngLetter Not too long ago I had a conversation with a man who has been a pastor for quite some time, and who was at the time taking a course in apologetics. He was clearly frustrated with the course, and as he spoke he attempted to explain why he disliked it so much. His main criticism? That it was pointless.hylian_shield_vector_by_reptiletc-d49y46o

As I listened further I discovered something interesting, his reason for the belief that apologetics was pointless. He said to me “I have no need for this class. I already know why I believe what I believe, and I believe the Bible. The Bible is the only reason I need.”

This statement was interesting, because it betrayed a twofold misunderstanding of the nature of apologetics.

First, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of how to approach belief in the Bible. If one is to believe the Bible one must have beliefs, it will not do to simply say “I believe the Bible” – you must follow that up with what you believe the Bible says and why, and how that squares with your experience of the world. This misunderstanding was addressed in our article Beliefs and Believing the Bible, so it needn’t be addressed any farther here.

Second, the pastor’s statement betrayed a misunderstanding of just what it is that apologetics – more specifically a course in apologetics – is trying to do for the believer.

Somehow he had come upon the misconception that this course in apologetics was meant to give him reasons why he should believe in the truth of Christianity. In case there is some misunderstanding, or in case this view is somehow more prevalent than I realize – that is not the point of apologetics. The goal of learning apologetics is not to convince yourself of the faith; the goal is to give you 1) An understanding of other groups and other perspectives so that you will know how to approach those who come at the world from a different viewpoint, and 2) An understanding of logic and reason as it relates to philosophy and theology as a whole, so that you may know how to explain the truthfulness of your beliefs to others, so that you may give a defense of your faith. Not to give you a reason to believe, but so that you may explain to others how there are reasons to believe. The goal of apologetics is a defense of the faith; to give an answer to those who bring objections against it, and to give reasons for it.

So if you are studying apologetics and feel that you are wasting your time, remember, you’re not learning it for your sake, you’re learning it for the sake of your neighbor, so that you may answer their questions in love and provide not just a testimony of how Christ has changed your life, but also a rational explanation of how He is true.

Because many people have genuine questions about the faith, hard questions, and we as Christians need to be able to address those questions; we need to be able to explain what and why we believe.

There are answers to the hard questions, and learning the school of apologetics will help train you in giving those answers.

If you’re not already a believer, then you should know that it is right and proper for you to have questions and misgivings about the faith, but you should also know that there are answers to your questions. We as Christians have often done a poor job of educating ourselves on those answers, of not being able to explain why we believe what we believe, and we need to amend that; but that is a mistake of individual Christians, not of Christianity as a faith.