The Gospel Truth


Just finished browsing the latest issue of the Journal of Theological Studies, and found much to be thankful for. Of particular interest to the readers of this blog will be more reminders that the most reliable sources for knowledge of what Jesus actually did and said remain Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. This has been generally admitted by academic scholarship for some time, but has yet to percolate into the press, most seminaries, and too many pulpits. I find myself having to challenge the idea that it’s been conclusively proved that the New Testament was all made up in order to repress true Christianity two or three times a year; if you don’t, you’re shirking your duties.

So it’s great to read, for instance, that the latest and most authoritative commentary on the Gospel of Thomas confirms that ‘any relevance to historical Jesus research is negligible’ (p 805), and that ‘agreement in substance between… scholars with distinct perspectives may be indicative of the emergence of a majority opinion that considers the use of apocryphal gospels in historical Jesus research to be problematic’ (p 765).

Which isn’t to say that the early church wasn’t almost as theologically diverse as some would like to think; but it does confirm that Christians have been right to use the canonical gospels in order to discover what Jesus actually taught rather than what He was believed to have taught. It’s also good to be reminded that even this real diversity was less threatening to orthodox contemporaries than the revisionists try to convince us. Even that hammer of heretics, Irenaeus, ‘spent considerable energy urging the church, especially in Rome, to preserve its toleration for diversity’ (p 817).

Finally, news of a new book on the relationship between Science and Christianity by a Professor of Physics at Oxford University asserting in the most vigorous terms, which the reviewer found quite persuasive, that ‘the pursuit of science is a natural and important aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus of Nazareth’ (p 898). The writer, Andrew Steane, not only believes in the resurrection, but considers that the other miracles can be believed ‘on the basis of reliable testimony’, and argues that miracles do not contradict the findings of even the most up to date science (ibid). The title is Faithful to Science, and I can’t wait to read it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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St George 1To him who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. He who conquers shall not be hurt by the second death. To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it. He who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, I will give him power over the nations, and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received power from my Father; and I will give him the morning star. He who conquers shall be clad thus in white garments, and I will not blot his name out of the book of life; I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels. He who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God; never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name. He who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches!!!!!!!

From time to time Anglicans make claims about the early church in support of one or other of the various churchmanships we ‘enjoy’. Even Peter Toon, an Evangelical from the C of E who taught for a while at Nashotah House (a short while, as you might expect), was fond of referring to ‘One God, two Testaments, three Creeds, four Councils, five centuries’ as providing the standard to which the church should be held accountable in its teaching and practice.

It won’t do, you know. ‘From the first of the fathers to the last of the popes, a succession of bishops, of saints, of martyrs, and of miracles, is continued without interruption; and the progress of superstition was so gradual, and almost imperceptible, that we know not in what particular link we should break the chain of tradition. Every age bears testimony to the wonderful events by which it was distinguished, and its testimony appears no less weighty and respectable than that of the preceding generation, till we are insensibly led on to accuse our own inconsistency, if in the eighth or in the twelfth century we deny to the venerable Bede, or to the holy Bernard, the same degree of confidence which, in the second century, we had so liberally granted to Justin or to Irenæus.’

Our Articles of Religion make it very clear that there is only one authority on which we can rely, and that is the authority of Scripture. If it can’t be found there, it can’t be necessary, no matter who said it, or when. Even things ordained by the first four Councils ‘have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.’ Even the creeds are only to be believed because ‘they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture’.

If we were to discover a new manuscript quoting Peter, or Paul’s missing letter, it would have no more authority for us—less, actually, in the light of Romans 13—than a pastoral letter from our own bishop (although it might in some cases be a lot more interesting). To quote William Chillingworth again (from here), ‘The BIBLE. The BIBLE, I say, The BIBLE only is the Religion of Protestants! Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain, irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it, well may they hold it as a matter of Opinion, but as matter of Faith and Religion, neither can they with coherence to their own grounds believe it themselves, nor require the belief of it of others.’

So why bother with anything else?

Dali cross 2A discussion of why Good Friday is a triumph on John Richardson‘s blog (The Ugley Vicar, see list on the right of this page) elicited this comment about Jesus’s words from the cross, ‘It is finished’:

Giles Fraser’s inaccurate caricature of evangelicals does nothing to detract from the thrill this evangelical gets from the one through whom all things were made saying such a thing.

As I read that, I experienced the same thrill: the Greek word reported by John is ‘tetelestai’, of which ‘it is finished’ is a somewhat feeble translation. ‘It is complete’ comes a bit closer, but ‘it’s reached its goal’, however ungainly, is perhaps the best way to render the idea in English. And that the one who made the heavens and the earth in the first place would recognise His own offering of Himself, once for all, for the sins of the whole world, as the culmination of everything, the moment when the Universe finally came together, and in something done for unredeemed sinners, just for the likes of me, in fact, is almost too much to bear.

Do you belong to the one true Church; to the Church outside of which there is no salvation? I do not ask where you go on Sunday; I only ask, ‘Do you belong to the one true Church?’

Where is this one true Church? What is this one true Church like? What are the marks by which this one true Church may be known? You may well ask such questions. Give me your attention, and I will provide you with some answers.

The one true Church is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God’s elect—of all converted men and women—of all true Christians. In whomsoever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true Church.

It is a Church of which all the members have the same marks. They are all born of the Spirit; they all possess “repentance towards God, faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ,” and holiness of life and conversation. They all hate sin, and they all love Christ. They worship differently and after various fashions; some worship with a form of prayer and some with none; some worship kneeling, and some standing; but they all worship with one heart. They are all led by one Spirit; they all build upon one foundation; they all draw their religion from one single Book—that is the Bible. They are all joined to one great center—that is Jesus Christ. They all even now can say with one heart, ‘Hallelujah’; and they can all respond with one heart and voice, ‘Amen and Amen.’

It is a Church which is dependent upon no ministers upon earth, however much it values those who preach the Gospel to its members. The life of its members does not hang upon church-membership, and baptism, and the Lord’s  Supper—although they highly value these things, when they are to be had. But it has only one great Head—one Shepherd, one chief Bishop—and that is Jesus Christ. He alone, by His Spirit, admits the members of this Church, though ministers may show the door. Till he opens the door no man on earth can open—neither bishops, nor presbyters, nor convocations, nor synods. Once let a man repent and believe the Gospel, and that moment he becomes a member of this Church. Like the penitent thief, he may have no opportunity of being baptized; but he has that which is far better than any water-baptism—the baptism of the spirit. He may not be able to receive the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper; but he eats Christ’s body and drinks Christ’s blood by faith every day he lives, and no minister on earth can prevent him. He may be excommunicated by ordained men, and cut off from the outward ordinances of the professing Church; but all the ordained men in the world cannot shut him out of the true Church.

It is a Church whose existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, cathedrals, churches, chapels, pulpits, fonts, vestments, organs, endowments, money, kings, governments, magistrates, or any act of favor whatsoever from the hand of man. It has often lived on and continued when all these things have been taken from it; it has often been driven into the wilderness or into dens and caves of the earth, by those who ought to have been its friends. Its existence depends on nothing but the presence of Christ and His Spirit; and they being ever with it, the Church cannot die.

This is the Church to which the Scriptural titles of present honor and privilege, and the promises of future glory, especially belong; this is the body of Christ; this is the flock of Christ; this is the household of faith and the family of God; this is God’s building, God’s foundation, and the temple of the Holy Ghost. This is the Church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven; this is the royal priesthood, the chosen generation, the peculiar people, the purchased possession, the habitation of God, the light of the world; the salt and the wheat of the earth; this is the ‘Holy Catholic Church’ of the Apostles’ Creed; this is the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic Church’ of the Nicene Creed; this is that Church to which the Lord Jesus promises, ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it,’ and to which He says, ‘I am with you always, even unto the end of the world’ (Matt. 16:18; 28:20).

This is the only Church which possesses true unity. Its members are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion, for they are all taught by one Spirit. About God, and Christ, and the Spirit, and sin, and their own hearts, and faith, and repentance, and necessity of holiness, and the value of the Bible, and the importance of prayer, and the resurrection, and judgment to come—about all these points they are of one mind. Take three or four of them, strangers to one another, from the remotest corners of the earth; examine them separately on these points; you will find them all of one judgment.

This is the only Church which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy. They are not merely holy by profession, holy in name, and holy in the judgment of charity; they are all holy in act, and deed, and reality, and life, and truth. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No unholy man belongs to this Church.

This is the only Church which is truly catholic. It is not the Church of any one nation or people; its members are to be found in every part of the world where the Gospel is received and believed. It is not confined within the limits or any one country, or pent up within the pale of any particular forms or outward government. In it there is no difference between Jew and Greek, black man and white, Episcopalian and Presbyterian—but faith in Christ is all. Its members will be gathered from north, and south, and east, and west, in the last day, and will be of every name and tongue—but all one in Jesus Christ.

This is the only Church which is truly apostolic. It is built on the foundation laid by the Apostles, and hold the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim are apostolic faith and apostolic practice; and they consider the man who talks of following the apostles without possessing these two things to be no better than sounding brass and tinkling cymbal.

This is the only Church which is certain to endure unto the end. Nothing can altogether overthrow and destroy it. Its members may be persecuted, oppressed, imprisoned, beaten, beheaded, burned; but the true Church is never altogether extinguished; it rises again from its afflictions; it lives on through fire and water. The Pharaohs, the Herods, the Neros, the bloody Marys, have labored in vain to put down this Church; they slay their thousands, and then pass away and go to their own place. The true Church outlives them all and sees them buried each in his turn. It is an anvil that has broken many a hammer in this world, and will break many a hammer still; it is a bush which, often burning, yet is not consumed.

This is the Church which does the work of Christ upon earth. Its members are a little flock, and few in number, compared with the children of the world; one or two here, and two or three there. But these are they who shake the universe; these are they who change the fortunes of kingdoms by their prayers; these are they who are the active workers for spreading the knowledge of pure religion and undefiled; these are the life-blood of a country, the shield, the defence, the stay and the support of any nation to which they belong.

This is the Church which shall be truly glorious at the end. When all earthly glory is passed away then shall this Church be presented without spot before God the Father’s throne. Thrones, principalities, and powers upon earth shall come to nothing; but the Church of the first-born shall shine as the stars at the last, and be presented with joy before the Father’s throne, in the day of Christ’s appearing. When the Lord’s jewels are made up, and the manifestation of the sons of God takes place, one Church only will be named, and that is the Church of the elect.

Reader, this is the true Church to which a man must belong, if he would be saved. Till you belong to this, you are nothing better than a lost soul. You may have countless outward privileges; you may enjoy great light, and knowledge—but if you do not belong to the body of Christ, your light, and knowledge, and privileges, will not save your soul. Men fancy that if they join this church or that church, and become communicants, and go through certain forms, that all must be right with their souls. All were not Israel who were called Israel, and all are not members of Christ’s body who profess themselves Christians. Take notice, you may be a staunch Episcopalian, or Presbyterian, or Independent, or Baptist, or Wesleyan, or Plymouth Brother—and yet not belong to the true Church. and if you do not, it will be better at last if you had never been born.

J.C.Ryle

“By the Religion of Protestants, I do not understand the Doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melanchthon; nor the Confession of Augusta, or Geneva, nor the Catechisme of Heidelberg, nor the Articles of the Church of England, no, nor the Harmony of Protestant Confessions; but that wherein they all agree, and which they all subscribe with a greater Harmony, as a perfect rule of their Faith and Actions, that is, The BIBLE. The BIBLE, I say, The BIBLE only is the Religion of Protestants! Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain, irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it, well may they hold it as a matter of Opinion, but as matter of Faith and Religion, neither can they with coherence to their own grounds believe it themselves, nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most Schismatical presumption. I for my part after a long (and as I verily believe & hope,) impartial search of the true way to eternal happiness, do profess plainly that I cannot find any rest for the sole of my foot, but upon this Rock only. I see plainly and with mine own eyes, that there are Popes against Popes, Councils against Councils, some Fathers against others, the same Fathers against themselves, a Consent of Fathers of one age against a Consent of Fathers of another age, the Church of one age against the Church of another age. Traditive interpretations of Scripture are pretended, but there are few or none to be found: No Tradition but only of Scripture, can derive itself from the fountain, but may be plainly proved, either to have been brought in, in such an age after Christ; or that in such an age it was not in. In a word, there is no sufficient certainty but of Scripture only, for any considering man to build upon. This therefore, and this only I have reason to believe: This I will profess, according to this I will live, and for this, if there be occasion, I will not only willingly, but even gladly lose my life, though I should be sorry that Christians should take it from me. Propose me anything out of this book, and require whether I believe it or no, and seem it never so incomprehensible to human reason, I will subscribe it with hand and heart, as knowing no demonstration can be stronger then this, God hath said so, therefore it is true. In other things I will take no mans liberty of judgement from him; neither shall any man take mine from me. I will think no man the worse man, nor the worse Christian: I will love no man the less, for differing in opinion from me. And what measure I mete to others I expect from them again. I am fully assured that God does not, and therefore that men ought not to require any more of any man then this, To believe the Scripture to be Gods word, to endeavour to find the true sense of it, and to live according to it.”—William Chillingworth, The Religion of Protestants: A Safe Way to Salvation (1638)

Me too.

Rodin's "The Thinker"Today, I noticed on TV an ad for a new dating site called ChristianMingle.com.  In their ad, they displayed something that insinuated that once God puts his divinely ordained means of of pursuing his will in front of you (i.e. their website), the ball was in your court to follow through and discover the “will of God” in regards to your relationships (i.e. by using their website).  A fairly sneaky guilt trip/marketing campaign, if you ask me.

There has long been a kind of mystical fatalism in the American evangelical world about trying to unravel God’s will for a person’s life.  Especially in the realm of relationships.  We’ve all been set on a quest for the “The One” (all Matrix and Keanu Reeves jokes aside), or as Christian Mingle’s trademark blasts: Find God’s Match for You.  Now, there are indeed well-deserved considerations about divine sovereignty and human responsibility worthy of thought.  But the modest metaphysical pay grade of most Christians allows us a freedom that we too often neglect when it comes to making choices in life.

Burning bush experiences and definitive “still small voices” are the exception, not the rule, in Christian experience.  The leading of the Holy Spirit is usually about the basics of loving God and neighbor, obeying the clear teachings of the Bible, and making decisions based on biblical principles culled by studious, redeemed Christian reason.  Too often, instead, we are looking for justifications with as much emotional power as the way our current feelings happen to be inclined (emotions which are often clearly contrary to the will of God as revealed in Scripture).

What we really need is wisdom!  And wisdom is about thought and obedience, not signs and wonders.  In life, we have freedom as Christians to make choices.  Not every decision we make is vital to the big picture of God’s will (“Should I wash the dishes now or at half past, Lord?”).  Love is our motivation, the teaching of the Bible is our command, wisdom is our confidante, and the community of God’s faithful is always available to help us discern.  And if we are clearly going down the wrong path, the Holy Spirit is capable enough to get our attention to stop us, and strong enough to handle our mistakes if we ignore him.

So don’t let smooth marketing guilt trip you.  God loves you too much than to leave his will veiled in the wishy-washiness of feelings and sporadic supernatural phenomena.  His will is found clearly in Christ and the scriptural testimony that points to him, and your part is to trust the gifts God has already put at your fingertips and make decisions in an manner that glorifies him.

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