Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Battle for Identity

A wise commentator said that the Christian life can be summed up in two major activities, wrestling and resting. In many ways we wrestle to rest in the finished work of Jesus.

The single greatest battle for any Christian is the chiefly concerned with identity. “Who am I as a Christian?”, and “Who is God?” form two fundamental questions for any believer. How we answer these questions sets the course of our lives ablaze, give us direction, purpose and mission. From the moment of conversion, we are faced with further questions to wrestle with. As a believer we can no longer remain neutral on issues of third world poverty, just or unjust wars, human suffering or the reality of the supernatural. The walk of faith is a life of conflict.

The story of the early Christian church and indeed the people of God has always been one of conflict. This was certainly the case in the years immediately following the death of the apostles.

Pressure was put on the church in three main ways ;

1. They faced a physical battle.
The early Christian church faced enormous oppression from those around them. Many Christians became martyrs for the faith under roman persecution. So widespread was the persecution that the same root word is used for both Witness and Martyr. When the Christian community was blamed for the great fire of Rome, persecution of Christians sunk to new depths. It is in dark days like these that the likes of Polycarp. On the way to his execution he was encouraging the brethren along the way saying; “Now I become a follower of Jesus, for he who suffers is close to Christ.”

2. They faced a spiritual battle.
The book’s of Galatians and Acts bears testimony to the influence of Judaisers within the early church who sought to mould the fledgling Christian church after the pattern and form of the Jewish faith. Significant pressure was placed on members of the church to conform to Jewish rituals. Individuals themselves faced battles to conform or not to conform to the status quo.

3. They faced a mental battle.
This battle is the primary focus of this essay. Pressure was bought on the church to water down and compromise on the truth, to bring in all manner of heresies into its teachings and form the church to the mold of the surrounding religions and cultural practices of the time. These pressures we will look at in more detail, particularly Arianism which got its name from its founder Arius.

While much of the writing of Arius and his followers the Arians has disappeared, we can gain an accurate picture of the sort of teachings that they were advocating, particularly from the writing of Athanasius. This extract from a letter from Arius to Eusebius, Bishop of Nicodemia c321 is one of the exceptions, and sheds some light on the issue the early church faced in the Arian heresy.

“…I thought it my duty to salute you to him, and at the same time to advise that naturally charitable disposition of yours, which you display to the brethren for the sake of God and his Christ, how grievously the bishop attacks and persecutes us, and comes full tilt against us, so that he drives us from the city as atheists because we do not concur with him when he publicly preaches, “God always, the Son always; at the same time the father, at the same time the Son,; the son co-exists with God, unbegotten, he is not born-by-begetting nor by thought nor by any moment of time does God precede the Son. God always, Son always, the Son exists from God himself.”

Athanasius, a young cleric opposed the teaching of Arius and his followers. His opposition led to the Council of Nicea where upwards of two hundred and fifty Bishops sat to formulate the church’s response to these concerns. Athanasius was actually too young to be granted admittance to the chamber. He faced a hostile crowd as the majority of the Nicene Council opposed his views. Arianism had spread mainly through the influential Universities of the Mediterranean where it had gained progressive popularity. The council would make a pronouncement, which was then conveyed to Athanasius outside, who could respond.

Typically Athanasius would use scripture to refute the strange ideas put forth by the Arians. So successful was his defense that in the end the council ended with only two votes against the Athanasius camp. This coined the phrase which came to represent a defiant stand, “Athanasius contra mundum” or Athanasius against the world.

The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology has this to say about Athanasius’ role and effectiveness;

“Bishop of Alexandria from 328 to 373, an uncompromising foe of Arianism, Athanasius was particularly instrumental in bringing about its condemnation at the Council of Nicea. He is regarded as the greatest theologian of his time.”

The debate formed primarily around two Greek words, “homoousios” and “homoiousios”.

While it may be argued that making such a fine distinction is seemingly unimportant, words and their meanings, however slight their differences represent ideas. Ideas are not static lifeless entities as some would have us believe. They are dynamic. People live and die by and frequently for ideas. Theologians such as Martin Luther argued forcefully for the veracity of asserting ideas as an essential part of the Christian conversion. In this early battle the church was called upon to stand up for the truths found in the doctrine of the trinity.

While the word Trinity does not appear anywhere in the Bible, its truth is evidenced across both testaments, and strikes a resounding chord at the heart of Biblical Christianity from Genesis to Revelation. Some of the truths which flow from the doctrine of the trinity in particular include:

 That God is always, and always has been in relationship, that He is a relational being, a personality.
 That God is not and never was lonely, that he was and always has been supremely satisfied within the relationship he had within the trinity .

Charles Colson, in his book “the faith” points to the nature of the Trinitarian doctrine as a reason for it being frequently overlooked. He also argues for its importance in the broader Christian life when he writes;

“The Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God in three persons—is often considered to be mysterious at best, self-contradicting at worst. Everyone would acknowledge that the idea of a triune God—three in one—is the most difficult of all Christian doctrines, which is why so many neglect it or even write it off.

But this is tragic. As Saint Caesarius of Arles said in the sixth century, "The faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity." While the Trinity transcends the bounds of human understanding, this doctrine is at the heart of Christian spirituality, and in the life of faith we experience its truth at every turn.”

At the center of many of these controversies was the person of Jesus Christ. That this is so is should not take Christians by surprise, for Christ was nothing if not a radical. He was a man who brought about change. His words brought division, yet healing. His miracles brought wonder and praise to God from ordinary men, women and children, and discomfort and irritation to the religious.

Perhaps this is to be expected as Jesus Christ is at the heart of Biblical Christianity. Josh McDowell writes,

“Christianity does not stand or fall on the way Christians have acted throughout history or are acting today. Christianity stands or falls on the person of Jesus, and Jesus was not a hypocrite. He lived consistently with what He taught, and at the end of His life He challenged those who had lived with Him night and day, for over three years, to point out any hypocrisy in Him.”

Broughton Knox in the first volume of his collected works entitled The Doctrine of God points to the character and nature of God in the person of Jesus Christ when he states;

“The character of God is other-person-centered, and thus Jesus in his own earthly ministry was not given to drawing attention to himself. He did not bear witness of himself, and therefore his affirmation of his deity was not direct so much as indirect. It was very clear, nevertheless, and his followers came to a firm and clear conviction, based on our Lords actions and teaching, that Jesus was divine, their Lord and their God.”
Jesus as God – the Testimony of Scripture

In many places in the Bible, the divinity of Christ and the Sons distinctive part in the trinity is attested to, perhaps nowhere more than John’s Gospel. From its outset the John confers equal status on God and on Jesus.

Jn 1:1 “ In the beginning was the Word, a and the Word was with God, b and the Word was God. c
He was with God in the beginning. d
Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. e
In him was life, f and that life was the light g of men”.

And again in John 5 and verse 21 it states;

Jn 5:21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, m even so the Son gives life n to whom he is pleased to give it.

Many of the statements from Jesus’ own mouth attested to his divinity. In many ways they are the most confronting statements when placed beside the historical account of Jesus’ actions and the testimony of the miracles he performed.

Here is one example again from the book of John;

"But he continued,'You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am [the one I claim to be], you will indeed die in your sins.'"John 8:23–24

And again,

"But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father." John 10:38

Here we see Jesus himself appeal to the miracles he performed as proof of His divine identity. His desire to be recognised for who he was did not come from some vainglorious desire, but that his concern was for the people, that they would believe, and in so doing repent and find salvation.

Much of the Book of Hebrews in the New Testament is concerned with the revelation of the Christ of the Old Testament in the person of the Christ of the New Testament.

A compelling argument for Jesus Christ as God can also be made by looking at the Old Testament and see how Christ was foreshadowed in the lives and events of his people. As much as eighty percent of the New Testament is Old Testament reworked and interpreted or explained. Much of this explanation concerns itself with Jesus as the originator, author and finisher of the faith Christians espouse.

The scriptures call for a Saviour who is both now and pre-existing… a very foreign concept even in Micah’s day.

Mic 5:2 “But you, Bethlehem i Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. ”

The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth and life are well documented in the Gospels. His fulfillment of the prophecies concerning himself in the Old Testament alone stands as a testimony to his divinity. With perhaps the town of his birth being a prime example, many of these fulfillments could not have been orchestrated by him. Another example would be the massacre of the children in Jeremiah 31 and the events of Matthew 2:16-18.

Modern-day Arianism
Practically all heresy in some way does one of two things, it either elevates man or it denigrates God. When we examine the Gnostic gospels for example we see a far more ethereal Christ than the Christ of the Gospels. The Gnostics did so to push the agenda that things spiritual were good and things physical were bad. Scripturally we know that the physical body is not in and of its own evil, otherwise Christ could not have been our perfect sacrifice. As Christians however we are encouraged to engage and discipline body, mind and spirit in God’s service.

While the Arian heresy is considered by many to be a thing of the distant past, it occasionally creeps into the teaching of mainline churches in subtle ways. It is most noticeable in the teaching of some of the major cults. We see vestiges of it in modern attacks on the Trinitarian doctrine amongst the likes of Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness’ and Christian Science.

While the Mormons believe that Jesus pre-existed in Heaven before He became a man, they also believe that all people pre-existed in heaven before becoming humans. He is also believed to be the result of a physical union between God and a mortal woman.

One of the principle arguments used by the advocates for these cults is the theory that the meaning of the scriptures has been so drastically altered as to be unrecognisable from the original, that fundamental information regarding mans relationship with God has been left out. This puts the scriptures, in their view at least as a lesser authority than the pronouncements of their prophets, their own holy books, and at worst is unreliable.

The reverse is actually true; with each faithful revision of scripture, more scholarship, wider research and more manuscript sources (mss) (as well as older manuscripts) has resulted in more accurate translations of the Bible. In most Bibles the introductory notes are devoted to an examination of the pervading method and intention of the translators, giving a picture and indication as to their guiding principles.

John Dickson in his benchmark history, the Christ files argues that the claims of the New Testament should be taken seriously as the most accurate record of the life of Jesus.
In the opening lines of his book he writes:

“Readers may be surprised to learn that scholarly books and articles on the ‘historical Jesus’ number in the tens of thousands. A vast industry has emerged in the last thirty years dedicated to uncovering the real Jesus - as opposed, it is thought, to the Christ presented by the Church.”

In the same vein, Lee Strobel, an award winning Author whose book “The Case for the Creator” was a New York Times bestseller, devotes his latest book, “The Case for the Real Jesus” to confront these errors. He argues persuasively for the reliability of the Biblical record.

Strobel’s own conversion is a testimony to how God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. His wife was a committed agnostic, who had a remarkable change of heart and became a born again Christian. Not only had her faith changed, but she had a remarkable change in the quality of her being. Strobel with his characteristic journalistic cynicism decided to use his legal and investigative journalism skills to explore Christianity in order to disprove the claims of Christianity. The result of these explorations astonished even Strobel himself. Much like Paul, he became an apologist for the gospel, writing books defending the faith he once sought to destroy.

In an interview for the film version of his book, the Christ files, John Dickson intimates that Christians should not be surprised that skeptics are attacking the biblical record. The great truths of Christianity fix themselves within a historical context. Those seeking the God of the Bible and those seeking to discredit it will have to grapple with the historical record.

Yesterday, Today, Forever…

If we can trust the historical record of the Bible as an accurate reflection of God’s salvitic plan, we can trust the picture it paints of Jesus, his words, actions and life.

The New Testament historian F. F. Bruce reflects on this when he writes:

“That Christianity has its roots in history is emphasized in the church’s earliest creeds, which fix the supreme revelation of God at a particular point in time, when “Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord... suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
This historical “once-for-all-ness” of Christianity, which distinguishes it from those religious and philosophical systems which are not specially related to any particular time, makes the reliability of the writings which purport to record this revelation a question of first-rate importance.

If God is the God of yesterday and the God of today, we can trust that He will remain the God of our tomorrow. The consistent evidence from Jesus’ life and miracles points to his enduring power as the saviour of the world, the promised messiah. His supernatural resurrection from the dead is perhaps one of the most verifiable events in history. As all the evidence points toward the Christ, we can make a reasonable claim that he is faithful. Given the reward which faith in Him brings, it is worth any sacrifice, discouragement or ridicule we may face for it.

“I, even I, am the LORD, and apart from me there is no savior.” Isaiah 43:11

1 comment:

Curtis W. said...

I won't claim to be as good an intellectual as you and many of whom you’ve quoted. As a Christian Scientist, of whose faith you question, I simply aim to follow Christ. Consequently, I quote Christ and not intellectuals, and I leave myself to be judged by him and not by intellectuals. “He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father,” (John 14.) What I see of his works is judge of how well I behold my Saviour. I trust what I read in Revelation: “they were judged every man according to their works.” Now, it is true that Christian Scientists are like St. Paul in that they follow Jesus Christ as the Son of God and not as the Father. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” (I Tim.) And this relates to why we don’t just preach him but follow him in the way. So I will "Judge not," (Matt. 7.) Instead, I will bid farewell to my brother Christian with this council from Paul: "let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works."
Curtis J. Wahlberg