A Thanksgiving Proclamation

Today it’s commonly argued that our Constitution does not allow for any speak of God in our public life by the government or its officials; that God and government cannot and should not be mixed and that to do so is to violate our Constitution’s most sacred ideals (or not-so-sacred ideals).

For example, groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) suggest that our nation is fundamentally a “secular” one.  Speaking of the phrase “In God We Trust” on our nation’s currency, they argue:

“‘In God We Trust’ is a religious phrase. It does not belong on the legal tender of our secular nation, the first nation to separate church and state with a godless constitution.”

The FFRF believes that the establishment clause contained within the First amendment grants them a constitutional right to be free from religion.

Interestingly, the founders of our nation didn’t feel that way.  In fact, the prayers and speeches of many of our nation’s earliest leaders suggest to us that whatever the meaning of the establishment clause, it most certainly was not to cut God off from our public life or to free people from religion.

Take this proclamation made by George Washington in New York City on October 3rd, 1789, when he first proposed that our nation have a national day of Thanksgiving:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.” 1

Nearly 75 years later Abraham Lincoln would make Thanksgiving a Federal holiday.  I won’t post it here, but that proclamation as well makes it clear that despite the claims of so many today, the founders of our nation did not think that God and government were like oil and water.  The Federal holiday we know as Thanksgiving Day, a day that was set apart by our government itself, is a day for the offering up of praise, thanksgiving and prayer to our most beneficent Heavenly Father (in the words of Lincoln).  And this holiday stands as a monument to the fact that historically, our leaders have not interpreted our nation’s founding and governing documents in a godless fashion, but rather naturally saw it not only their prerogative to make religious proclamations while in office but also their duty and proper place to exhort the entire American populace to recognize the source of our many blessings in this once great nation as coming down as “gracious gifts from the Most HIgh God” (Lincoln’s words again).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Image “We the People” by Stephen Nichols, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

  1. The text from this proclamation can be found at http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/washingtons-thanksgiving-proclamation. Accessed on 11.26.15.

What is The Reformation?

At Red Door Church here in central Vermont we are celebrating the Protestant Reformation for the sixth year in a row (since 2014).  One way we’ve decided to do that these last few years is by putting on an event we call, “Reformation Day Celebration.”  We open our doors during our town’s annual Fall Festival and invite people in to play Reformation themed games, eat seasonal foods, and look at our displays and booths which tell the story of the Reformation.

It is not uncommon that as I’m telling someone in our community about the event they ask, “What is the Reformation?”

I’m going to try and answer that question now.

A Definition

Definitions only go so far, but let’s start there.  Alister McGrath, professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University, defines the Reformation as follows:

The term “Reformation” is used by historians and theologians to refer to the western European movement, centering upon individuals such as Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, and John Calvin, concerned with the moral, theological, and institutional reform of the Christian church in that region. 1

In terms of impact, the Reformation may be one of the most important events in Christian (and world) history.  Yet sadly many Christians are uninformed about this massive event that eventually spawned the Protestant church.

When Did the Reformation Start?

As hard as it is to suggest one particular starting point for the Reformation, if there was one act that set it fully in motion it was the swing of Martin Luther’s hammer on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31st, 1517.  The document he fixed there that day would make him forever famous.  In fact, more books have been written about Martin Luther than about any other historical figure, except Jesus Christ, largely in part because of his actions that day.

The document he posted on the door of the church has been called the 95 Theses because in it Luther raised 95 concerns with the teaching and practice of the Catholic Church at the time.  You can read an English translation of the 95 Theses here.

Factors that Fanned the Flame of Reformation

There were various catalysts for the Reformation.  Maybe one of the most significant was what later came to be know as The Renaissance.  The Renaissance was characterized by a fresh interest in the literature of antiquity.  The Reformation therefore was not something new.  In fact, it was a passionate plea to go back to the things of old.  “The Reformers were never innovators, as the papacy was so often to allege, but renovators.”  2 

One of the popular slogans around the time of the Reformation was ad fontes!, a Latin phrase meaning “to the fountains” or “[back] to the sources.”  A renewed interest in the study of original source documents and ancient literature had many looking to antiquity for inspiration.  The same was true of Christians.  Suddenly, many educated Christians (those who could read Greek and Latin) began to look to the Bible and to the church fathers instead of the Catholic Church and its traditions.3  What they began to see was that a great deal of accepted teaching and practice within the Catholic Church was out of sink with the Bible.

Another major factor was the invention of the printing press.  Just a few decades before Luther’s birth, around 1450 Johann Guttenberg invented the movable type printing process which allowed for the rapid printing and distribution of lengthy texts.  This would play a serious role in the dissemination of Luther’s writings including his 95 Theses, German Bibles and other literature, all of which were instrumental in educating the masses and allowing them to see the force of Luther’s arguments for themselves. 4

For more on the causes and various factors that played into the Reformation, read Russ Rohloff’s helpful entry “The Necessity of the Reformation” posted recently.

What Were Some of Luther’s Complaints?

(1) Indulgences.  One of Luther’s most serious complaints against the Catholic Church of the time was regarding what was called “indulgences.”  Below are numbers 27 and 28 in his Theses speaking of indulgences:

27. They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
28. It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.

Part of the money made from indulgences was used in the building fund for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  But here’s the way indulgences worked:

The Catholic Church had created the idea of the Treasury of Merit, sort of a “bank account” of merit deposited by Christ, Mary, the saints, and others as a result of their good works. When church members sinned, they could purchase an indulgence, which was akin to asking the Church to “transfer funds” from the Treasury of Merit to the sinner’s account. The indulgence basically excused the sinner from a certain amount of time in purgatory and/or temporal punishment for that sin. 5

(2) The issue of authority.  Sylvester Prierias, one of Luther’s staunch opponents in the Roman Church, wrote in response to Luther’s 95 Theses: 

He who does not accept the doctrine of the Church of Rome and pontiff of Rome as an infallible rule of faith, from with the Holy Scriptures, too, draw their strength and authority, is a heretic.

Official Catholic teaching saw the church as the highest authority, over even the very Word of God.  This was backwards to Luther, who believed that the Bible was the highest authority.

(3) Distortion of the Gospel Message. Back in 1510 before Luther posted his Theses, he had made a trip to Rome as a representative of his Augustinian Monastery.  Though the trip was for church business, Luther had hoped that it would help him personally.  Ever since he began church as a boy, Luther could not get over his intense fear that God was angry with him.  He once wrote “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”  And his progress in the church only made his guilt and anxiety about his standing with God worse.  He was ordained into the priesthood in 1507, received his Doctor’s degree in theology in 1512 and was given the chair in Biblical Theology at the University of Wittenberg (which Luther held the rest of his life).  But none of it helped.

Rome was to be for Luther a time to find healing and help.   But God had very different plans. Instead of finding answers to his questions and help for his troubles, Luther left Rome frustrated.

It was not until Luther began to read the Scriptures for himself that he found help.  It grieved Luther that the pure gospel message of salvation in Christ alone through faith alone was obscured and distorted through the teachings of the Church at the time.  Most people, in fact, could not read the Bible for themselves because common Bibles were written in Latin and were extremely expensive.  What is more, the Church taught that the Bible was difficult and hard to understand and therefore should not be entrusted to the interpretation of the common man, but only the Magisterium (or teaching office of the church) could accurately interpret them.  Luther himself saw that not only was the belief of the Church untrue, but it prevented people from having access to the very thing that gave freedom to those suffering under guilt and the oppression of sin. 6   He writes in his book Bondage of the Will:

But, if many things still remain abstruse to many, this does not arise from obscurity in the Scriptures, but from [our] own blindness or want [i.e. lack] of understanding, who do not go the way to see the all-perfect clearness of the truth… Let, therefore, wretched men cease to impute, with blasphemous perverseness, the darkness and obscurity of their own heart to the all-clear scriptures of God… If you speak of the internal clearness, no man sees one iota in the Scriptures, but he that hath the Spirit of God… If you speak of the external clearness, nothing whatever is left obscure or ambiguous; but all things that are in the Scriptures, are by the Word brought forth into the clearest light, and proclaimed to the whole world.

Protestantism Born Out of the Reformation

After Luther’s death in 1546 the Reformation continued to spread and evolve.  Out of it was born the Protestant churches, which make up one of the three major branches of Christianity in the world today.

  1. Taken from his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Blackwell Publishing: Malden, MA, 1998), 156.)
  2. Tim Dowley, ed., Introduction to The History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 370.
  3. If you are interested in the church fathers, who they were, some of what they wrote, click here.
  4. You can read more about the importance of the printing press in The Reformation here.
  5.  http://www.satisfactionthroughchrist.com/2014/10/what-is-reformation-day.html
  6. Luther would eventually translate a Bible in German to distribute to the common folk while living under the protection of Frederick of Saxony in the Wartburg Castle.  Luther’s Bible became the major German Bible of the time; all other later translations were dependent upon it.  He finished the New Testament in 1522 and the Old Testament over the course of the following ten years, from 1522 to 1532.  The first complete Luther Bible appeared in Wittenberg in 1534.  According to Dowley’s History of Christianity, “Luther’s Bible was a literary event of the first magnitude, for it is the first work of German prose.”

Why is the Door Red?

The door of our church is red, why?

Actually many, many churches have red doors.  If you Google “Red Door Church” and click “images” you will see a slew of them.

After doing a bit of research on this, there are actually a cluster of reasons why churches have red doors, though no one, clear, resounding answer can be found. 1 Here are some of the more common reasons I discovered:

1. Passover.  A church in Cincinnati, OH, has actually taken “Red Door Church” as their official name.  They have a neat three-minute video which explains the connection between the Red Door and the Passover. 2  In another place a Rev. Linda Strohmeier says:

Anybody read about Passover lately? You remember how the children of Israel were to mark “the lintel of the door” with blood, as a sign for the Angel of Death to pass over? Before modern chemistry and the variety of paint formulae, red paint was made with animal blood (really — I’m not making this up!). “Barn red,” that color so familiar, especially in New England barns, was made with a combination of buttermilk and animal blood — the blood for pigment/color, and the buttermilk as the binder/thickener. (You remember, of course, from art history, about renaissance painters making their paints using egg yolk as a binder…). Anyhow, that’s how they made red paint: blood and buttermilk. It’s a pretty short step from there to red doors, if you are deeply steeped in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and know about marking the lintel of the door with blood to signify that you are among the saved…’

2.  Blood.  It is through the shed blood of Jesus Christ that we enter into the gates of Heaven and eternal life.  A Red Door symbolically portrays this theological centerpiece of the Christian faith: In the words of Christ himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life, nobody comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6, NIV). More symbolism was added during the development of elaborate cathedral architecture in the Middle Ages:

The color red, signifying the Blood of Christ, was painted on the north, south and east doors of a church. Such symbolism represented making the sign of the cross — Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Thus the edifice was marked as a sanctuary, identified as a refuge and safety zone from physical or spiritual dangers. The red doors shut out evil. Supposedly an enemy could not pursue his victim across the sacred threshold. 3

Some see the blood of the martyrs which is the seed of the church.  (Originally said by the 2nd century church father Tertullian.) In some traditions blood is connected to baptism as well.  For instance, at an Orthodox baptism, the godparents present the candidate with red shoes as a symbol of walking the way of the cross.  

3.  Sanctuary. Many say that in the Middle Ages in England, a church with a red door represented a place of sanctuary.

In those days, if one who was being pursued by the local populace, shire reeve (sheriff) or gentry could reach the church door he/she would be safe. Nobody would dare to do violence on hallowed ground and, in any case, the Church was not subject to civil law. The red door was fair warning to pursuers that they could proceed no further. One who claimed sanctuary in this way would then be able to present his/her case before the priest and ask that justice be served.”  4

This seems to be just a step away from the theological idea of God’s name being a “strong tower” in which the righteous run in and are safe (see Prov. 18:10; Psalms 61:3).  And in the New Testament the idea of shelter and safety is found in the blood of Christ.

4.  Paid Mortgage.  In the Episcopalian tradition it is said that a red door is a bold declaration that the church mortgage has been paid off.  Maybe there is a connection here again to Christ’s work and his final declaration on the cross “It is finished!” (John 19:30)?

5.  Reformed Church.  One Ken Kruger of Florida proposes:

Doors of mainline Protestant churches, especially Lutheran churches, are red because the doors of Wittenburg Cathedral in Wittenburg, Germany, where Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses were red. The red doors simply symbolize that we are a church of the Reformation. 5

6.  Episcopalian church identification.  Some say the red door is simply a tradition of the Episcopalian church, nothing more.

I’m not sure of any record regarding our church here in South Royalton that mentions why exactly our church door is red.

Perhaps the lack of explanation in any of our historical records gives us permission to treat the door as a kind of tabula rasa (blank slate) and recreate the meaning for today’s church.  If that is the case I would personally like to suggest that #2 (above) would be a beautiful symbolic interpretation of the significance of our church’s red door.  I would like to think that every time one of our members walked through the doors of the church they were reminded of the love and grace of God which grants them access to Himself by the Son’s shed blood on the cross.

  1. One man, Louie Crew says, ‘I suspect that the red doors are much like academic gowns: since there is no authoritative source about what they symbolize, you can have fun finding your own meanings in them.’
  2. To see the video you need to click on “I’m New,” and then “Our Name.”
  3. Mary S. Holley of Rochester, N. Y. as quoted on the Episcopal Life Archives.
  4. Taken from “Why many church doors are red” at ameganfindsartinphilly.wordpress.com.
  5. Taken from the Episcopal Life Archives.

The Creed of Creeds: The Apostles’ Creed

blog-creed-of-creeds-2048px.jpg

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      Maker of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;
      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
      the holy catholic* church,
      the communion of saints,
      the forgiveness of sins,
      the resurrection of the body,
      and the life everlasting. Amen.

*that is, the true Christian church of all times and all places

A Concise Statement of Core Christian Truth

Philip Schaff in his magisterial work Creeds of Christendom calls the Apostles’ Creed, “The Creed of Creeds.” He writes:

“As the Lord’s Prayer is the Prayer of prayers, the Decalogue the Law of laws, so the Apostles’ Creed is the Creed of creeds.”

-Philip Schaff

The great reformer, Martin Luther, said of the Creed, “Christian truth could not possibly be put into a shorter and clearer statement.”

Augustine, one of the early church fathers, said that the Apostles’ Creed was a rule of faith–something worth reciting morning and evening.

Dr. William Shedd writes in his A History of Christian Doctrine, Volume II, that the Apostles’ Creed is:

“…the earliest attempt of the Christian mind to systematize the teachings of the Scripture, and is, consequently, the uninspired foundation upon which the whole after structure of symbolic literature rests.”

-William Shedd (as quoted in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom)

The apostles creed is not only the oldest creed produced by the Christian Church that was widely accepted by the Church as a whole but it is the basis for many other early creeds that followed, such as the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed, and the Athanasian Creed.

It is called the Apostles’ Creed not because it was written by the apostles but because it is an early summary of the core teachings of the apostles. It represents the foundational, most fundamental teachings and doctrines at the heart of Christian faith as taught by Jesus’ earliest followers.

Studying the Apostles’ Creed with the Children

Early on in the Church, the Apostles’ Creed was used as a baptismal confession of faith for believers. Yet, far from relegating the Creed to something only useful in antiquity, the Christian Church still embraces the Creed today as a solid, statement of core Christian truth.

This Fall we are happy to announce that the children of the church will be starting a study of the Creed in children’s church. The creed will run 13 weeks and will look at each of the 12 articles of the Creed.

If you are not familiar with the Apostles’ Creed, I encourage you to take some time reading it and thinking over each of the 12 major points (or articles) found in the Creed (quoted at the top of this brief article). It may help to re-focus on you on the foundational teachings of our faith.

Notes:

For more on the importance of creeds, please see J. Warner Wallace’s excellent article “The Importance (and Early Use) of Creeds.”

The Crucifixion of Jesus

Jesus nailed hand on cross on marble stone

One of the reasons people disbelieve in the resurrection of Jesus is because they don’t believe he really died. Sometimes when we’re defending the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, we have to give reasons that he died in the first place. In order to do this we must introduce the idea of multiple attestation. For those who do not know what that is, multiple attestation is used when you are trying to validate whether a historical event actually happened. The basic idea is this: the more independent sources you have of an historical event the more likely it actually happened.  In the case of the death of Jesus, we happen to have five independent sources (not including biblical or Christian writers) for his crucifixion/killing.

Josephus, first-century Jewish historian

When Pilate, upon hearing him accused by men of the highest standing amongst us, had condemned to be crucified… 1

Tacitus, first-century Roman historian

Nero fastened the guilt [the burning of Rome] and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators Pontius Pilate. 2

Lucian of Samosata, the Greek satirist

The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. 3

Mara Bar-Serapion, the prisoner

Or [what advantage came to] the Jews by the murder of their Wise King, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them. 4

The Talmud

“…on the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged.” 5

In response to this overwhelming evidence, the atheist New Testament scholar of the Jesus Seminar, John Dominic Crossan writes:

“That he was crucified is as sure as anything historical can ever be.” 6

There is a common objection thoughtlessly tossed around, however, despite the abundance of evidence to the contrary.  That objection questions whether Jesus died at all. Maybe he swooned or faked his death, they suggest. It’s not uncommon for someone to be declared dead, only to start breathing again a few hours later. If this could happen in our modern society why think that this could not have happened in ancient times? Perhaps Jesus’ death wasn’t really a death but he just fainted on the cross. After being taken down and placed in a cave-like tomb, the cool air revived him and he was able to escape the tomb.

There are three main reasons why this isn’t a viable objection. This is often called the Apparent Death Theory or Swoon Theory.

First, such an occurrence would be highly unlikely given our understanding of crucifixion, thanks to modern science. 7 The main problem with crucifixion is that it slowly kills the crucified through asphyxiation which means the victim will have a hard time trying to breathe. Once the victim is on the cross they would have to push down on their pierced feet in order to move their body up, releasing the pressure on their lungs, allowing them to get more air to breathe. After which they slide back down while breathing out. This is an exhausting process. While it’s been known for crucifixion victims to remain on the cross for days, Roman guards standing to the side can speed up the process by using a heavy club or mallet to break both legs. With both legs broken the crucified cannot push down on the legs for the purpose of taking in more air. The cause of death would be simple: the victim could not breathe.

Moreover, a spear wound that is described in John 19:34-35 would have done Jesus in. The Roman author Quintilian (35-95AD) reports of this procedure being performed on crucifixion victims. 8

Second, the critique by one liberal nonChristian German scholar D.F. Strauss puts another nail in the coffin of this swoon theory. 9  Strauss wrote that the whole situation is very implausible. Here we have Jesus, having been whipped and crucified, pushing the heavy stone away from the tomb with pierced hands and walked blocks or even miles on pierced feet. Oh and let’s not forget about the contingent of armed guards guarding the tomb that Jesus would have to fight through. Were the disciples to see him in this pathetic and mutilated state, would this really convince them that Jesus is the Prince of Life? Alive? Barely. Risen? No.

Upon seeing a swooned Jesus who was limping, bleeding, pale, and stooped over in pain, Peter would not have responded with, “Wow, I can’t wait to have a resurrection body just like that!” Rather the disciples would have said, “Let’s get you a doctor. You need help!” Could you imagine Jesus grimacing as Thomas touches him and responds, “Wait! That still hurts! Ouch!”

Seeing Jesus in that kind of state would not inspire these scared disciples to give their lives for the gospel.

Third, the Swoon Theory cannot account for Paul’s dramatic reversal of worldviews. Paul, who handed out death sentences to Jews who said Jesus was their Messiah, claimed that his conversion was the result of experiencing a glorified appearance of the risen Jesus. A blinding light that both he and his companions saw on the road to Damascus. A merely healed Jesus would not be able to give such a glorified appearance.

Therefore, the Swoon Theory is dead and has no hopes of a resurrection. We can confidently say that based on the historical evidence that Jesus was killed by crucifixion.

  1.  Josephus, Antiquities 18.64. Josephus in Ten Volumes, Vol. 9, Jewish Antiquities, Loeb Classical Library, Louis H. Feldman, trans. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981.
  2.  Tacitus, Annals 1544 (c. 115 AD)
  3.  Lucian of Samosata, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13 (c. mid-second century)
  4.  This document is currently at the British Museum, Syriac Manuscript, Additional 14,658 (c. late first-third century). The translation is from Logos Protestant Edition of the early church fathers, A. Roberts, J. Donaldson, and A.C. Coxe, eds. and trans., The Anti-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor, Ore.: Logos Research Systems, 1997).
  5.  Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a (c. late second century).
  6.  John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991), 145, see also 154, 196, 201.
  7.  William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer, “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 255.11 (21 March 1986): 1457, 1460, 1461, 1463.
  8.  Quintilian, Declarationes maiores 6:9
  9.  David Strauss, A New Life of Jesus, 2 vols. (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1879), 1:412.

What’s In a Name?

2 Peter 1:16 – For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty.

Skeptics will often charge that the gospels were not written by people with first-hand knowledge of the life and ministry of Jesus but were myths which were fabricated generations later by people who weren’t familiar with the area or time period they were describing. High-profile textual scholar Bart Ehrman, who has wrote many books trying to disprove the many beliefs in Christianity (see a list on Amazon.com here), believes that the authenticity of the Gospels are seriously in question and should not be trusted because they were written late, away from good sources, and derive mainly from legends that grew out of stories told in corruptible fashion around campfires for decades.

All of the gospel writers described a large number of people and described these individuals by their names. As it turns out, these names provide us with important clues to help us determine if the writers of the Gospels were actually familiar with first century Palestine.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded important fruit for the authentication of the New Testament. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important you ask?  Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible. It would be as if a person, who had never set foot out of Vermont, were attempting to write a story about people living in Sweden 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Swedish names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real history.

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and time frame of Jesus and his earliest followers.

Richard Bauckham, in his book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, examined all the names discovered by Ilan 1, and he found that the New Testament narratives reflect nearly the same percentages found in all the documents Ilan examined:

Popularity of Names Cited in Palestinian Literature of the Time

15.6% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

41.5% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

7.9% of the men had a name no one else had

28.6% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

49.7% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

9.6% of the women had a name no one else had

Popularity of Names Cited by the New Testament Authors

18.2% of the men had the name Simon or Joseph

40.3% of the men had one of the nine most popular names

3.9% of the men had a name no one else had

38.9% of the women had the name Mary or Salome

61.1% of the women had one of the nine most popular names

2.5% of the women had a name no one else had

If the gospel writers were simply guessing about the names they were using in their accounts, they happened to guess with remarkable accuracy. Many of the popular Jewish names in Palestine were different from the popular names in Egypt, Syria, or Rome. The use of these names by the gospel writers is consistent with their claim that they’re writing on the basis of true eyewitness testimony.

When names are very common, people find themselves having to make a distinction by adding an extra piece of information. When you see the addition of a descriptor, you can be sure that the name being amended is probably common to the region or time in history. We see this throughout the gospel accounts. The gospel writers introduce us to Simon “Peter,” Simon “the Zealot,” Simon “the Tanner,” Simon “the leper,” and Simon “of Cyrene.” The name Simon was so common to the area of Palestine in the first century that the gospel writers had to add descriptions to differentiate one Simon from another. This is something we would expect to see if the gospel writers were truly present in Palestine in the first century and familiar with the common names of the region (and the need to better describe those who possessed these popular names). The same could be said of Jesus and how others in the Gospel narratives identify him versus how the narrator identifies him.

The approach the gospel writers took when they referred to people (using the names and descriptors we would expect in first-century Palestine) corroborate their testimonies internally. The gospel accounts appear authentic from the “inside out.” The words of the Gospels themselves are consistent with what we could expect from eyewitnesses reporting historical events. 2

  1.  For more information, refer to Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002).
  2.  Another popular book that explores using names in the Gospels as eyewitness evidence, take a look at Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels by J. Warner Wallace.

Saddest Christmas Song Ever

Advent brings out an interesting mixture of emotions for me. On one hand, I remember the Decembers of my childhood and the anticipation of Christmas, presents, and an obscene number of cookies. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve been initiated into “grown-up Christmas.” Finances can pinch. Weather can threaten. But more than anything, Advent is a time when we remember what we’ve lost. We think about loved ones who won’t be attending the family Christmas party. Divorce, addiction, and death break the shiny image of our culture’s “perfect Christmas.” Loneliness is never more acute than when it seems everyone else isn’t suffering from it. The colder temperatures make it physically harder to bridge those emotional gaps. For large numbers of our neighbors—including our neighbors in the church—it really isn’t the most wonderful time of the year.

Thank God for the gift of music, which gives us a way to express the truth in a way that engages our hearts as well as our minds. I hope you don’t think it’s strange, then, that I’m so thankful for sad songs at Christmas. I need songs that help me express the sadness and longing that, to my surprise, sprout out of my heart during this season. Without them, I wouldn’t just feel cut off from the people around me—I’d feel cut off from God.

Perhaps the saddest song for this season is the medieval “Coventry Carol.” Set in a minor key to a haunting melody, the carol tells the saddest part of the Christmas story: Herod’s panicked order to kill every male child under the age of two in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-15). The song, presented from the perspective of the women of Bethlehem, laments the impending doom of “the holy innocents,” as church history has remembered them. Here are the lyrics, which have been updated very little over the centuries:

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for thee!
And ever morn and day
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.

Lully, lullay, thou little tiny child,
By, by, lully, lullay.

(You can listen to a beautiful choral arrangement on YouTube here. For those with more eccentric tastes, Sufjan Stevens’ version is just as beautiful. You can find it here.)

Why do I love this song so much? First, it’s a beautifully bittersweet song of loss and mourning. But secondly, I’m comforted at the deepest level of my heart to know that I am not the first person to feel sad around the holidays. Far from it! In fact, the very first years following Christ’s birth were marked by pain in the holy family itself: the pain of out-of-wedlock teenage pregnancy; the pain of staying committed to your betrothed despite the shaming whispers; the pain of fleeing from violent authorities and sojourning in a foreign country. In other words, the song encourages me to remember that Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer at the holidays.

As a Christian, I am part of a big, timeless family that has always shed tears, not in spite of following Jesus, but precisely because of him. Jesus’ own mother would have her soul pierced to see the humiliation and death of her beloved firstborn (Luke 2:35). Our brothers and sisters around the world who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake in prisons and in slums simultaneously remember the unspeakable joy and the unspeakable sorrow that is theirs only because of Jesus. Those of us who feel abandoned by our friends and families, who have made decisions with devastating consequences, who have to bear the scars of sin within and without—Advent and Christmas are for us. They always have been. And, because our suffering Savior is now our triumphant King, they point to a time when no more children will die, and the sufferings of this present time won’t compare to the glory we enjoy—provided we suffer with him (Romans 8:17-18).

Image credit: “Sorrow” by Alexander Boden via Flickr, license CC BY-SA 2.0. Original was cropped to fit slider.

The Historical Works of Mercy

I find that there is often a big difference between what we profess to be true concerning what we believe as followers of Jesus, and how we act on or demonstrate the reality of what we believe.  This is a common biblical theme; there is a difference between knowing what to do and doing it.

What prompted this thought in me was a recent statement someone made to me that the church that I attend was lukewarm.  You know where I am going with this; lukewarm = being spit out of the mouth of Jesus (not the end I had in mind, from Revelation 3:16).   You can understand why I was concerned.  So I asked myself how you could make the judgment that a group of followers of Jesus was lukewarm.  I mean, you need to have some sort of mental checklist  that you work your way down, and if more check marks are on one side than the other you can reach your conclusion, “Yep, lukewarm.”  But how do you develop that checklist?  I suppose that you can go to the bible and pull out the beatitudes of Jesus, the fruits of the spirit in Galatians, the chapter on love in I Corinthians, or maybe the ten commandments and sugar them down into check boxes, but you still have to know how to judge whether love, joy, peace, patience and so on meet the biblical standards, and then you further need to be able to tell that someone may not be ready to murder someone, but might instead harbor deep-seated anger in their hearts against their brother that is as good as murder.  And our judgment can’t just be based on agreement with doctrinal statements, because here too beliefs can be sorted broadly into opinions/preferences and convictions.  Only the latter category affects the way you live your life.  As James 2:18 states:

“someone will say, ‘You have faith; I have deeds.’  Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” 

Said another way, the proof of the evangelical pudding is in the way we live, not in what we profess to believe.

And this is not always easy to judge rightly.  As evangelicals we often appeal to the biblical text and definitions, but more often than not we end up making our judgments whether a person is a real Christian or not based on how often they are in church, whether they faithfully (and generously) give when the collection plate is passed, their willingness to volunteer for church activities and committees, whether they smoke, drink, dance or play cards, or any of a dozen other measuring sticks the church has used in its history.  In the end of the matter, however, we really have no idea of how the Father looks on the hearts of those we have put on the balance scales, and then there is always that nasty plank that seems to obscure our vision.

But let me return to my original question and let me offer a historical perspective on how we can judge whether our church, and specifically ourselves, are on the road to stagnant lukewarmness.  If it is true, as John says in I John 4:20“If you do not love your brother whom you can see, how can you love God whom you cannot see?” then we may have a starting point for measuring our walk as followers of Jesus.  The historic church developed two lists that defined our spiritual duty towards one another and all those outside our church doors, the first is drawn from the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, and the second from the various teachings of the bible.  List one is referred to as the corporal works of mercy, those things that we ought to do that contribute to the physical welfare of those we come in contact with.  The second list are the spiritual works of mercy, those things that we ought to do if we see a person as bearing the imprint of the Father and we desire their eternal good.  In them, I think, we find a handy measure for whether we are followers of Jesus, a congregation of those He has called, or merely going through the motions.

Without further comments, consider these.  The corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to welcome in the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.  The spiritual works of mercy are to instruct the ignorant, to counsel the doubtful, to admonish sinners, to bear wrongs patiently, to forgive offences willingly, to comfort those that are afflicted, and to pray for the living and the dead.  In these lists we find a guard against lukewarmness.  In these lists we find an answer to the question “What should I be doing as a follower of Jesus?”  In these lists we find a summary of what our church congregation and committees ought to be investing our time and money towards.  To borrow the words of the Apostle Peter in II Peter 1:10-11 (commenting on his own list of measuring standards):

for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;  for in this way the entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be abundantly supplied to you.”

Is the Book of Jonah Historical?

Saint Augustine in the 5th century remarked that the story of Jonah was the “laughing stock of the pagans.”  Skepticism towards the book and the Bible as a whole continues to this day in even greater intensity.

John R. Sampey comments on the views that most modern “critical” scholars hold regarding the book of Jonah (critical scholars generally hold a much more skeptical view towards the Bible than others): 1

Most…since Kleinert (1868) and Bloch (1875) have regarded the Book of Jonah as a work of the imagination.  Some prefer to call it an allegory, others a parable, others a prose poem, others a didactic story, others a midrash, others a symbolic book… Radical critics boldly set aside the teaching of Jesus as erroneous. 2

Even some more conservative scholars like L. C. Allen today suggest that the book should not be read in a straightforward historical fashion but as a parable.  They argue that there are elements in the book that signal to us that the author intended the book to be read in some other way.

Tremper Longman and Raymond Dillard note that there is a level of vagueness in the world found in the story.  For example, Jonah is the only character in the text with an actual name.  Even the important “King of Nineveh” is left nameless; that alone is somewhat unusual given the fact that Nineveh was not a kingdom itself but only the capital city of the Assyrian empire. 3

Some of the book’s literary features too seem to imply a kind of fiction, the most famous being the “repentance of the animals” in chapter 3:7-8.  Some commentators also see the lack of oracles or prophesies like in other prophetic books as being evidence for this view.

The Historical View

Advocates of a historical view, however, find these elements not only possible, but reasonable when one assumes that God exists and takes the whole text seriously.  For example, the repentance of the animals can be explained by the fact that the Ninevites declared a fast and did not allow “man, beast, herd or flock taste a thing.”  The text says they even covered the animals in “sackcloth” (see verses 3:7-8) the traditional ancient symbol of repentance and mourning.  So the animals really did participate in the rituals of repentance.  And if you deny an animal water and food for a time the animals will wail and show signs of mourning just like a human.

Against the parabolic view, historicists will say that parables are usually short, simple and accompanied by an explanation.  Jonah is too lengthy to be a parable, has complexity at points, and lacks any explanation.

Other apologists will point out that this is not the only recorded incident of fish/whales swallowing humans.  Even John Calvin some 500 years ago mentions accounts of men being discovered in the stomachs of great fish with their whole suits of armor on 4.  See this article written by Probe Ministries for an interesting discussion on the possibilities.

But maybe the most powerful argument to a historical reading of the text is the fact that Jesus referred to Jonah, Nineveh, and the event of the fish in a historical way (see Matt. 12:39-40).  We know that Jonah was a historical figure who lived during the time of King Jeroboam II (see 2 Kings 14:23-27) and the language that Jesus uses in Matthew 12 seems to imply such as well (“this generation” vs. the generation of Jonah’s day).  It seems a bit of a stretch to say that one biblical context was historical and the other parabolic.

Conclusion

With Dillard and Longman I agree that it is hard to be dogmatic either way about the historicity of Jonah 5.  There are solid arguments on both sides of the debate.  Those who reject the historicity of Jonah out of hand simply because of the fish incident however need to provide ample reason for why they presuppose the impossibility of miracles, which also requires the proof that either there is no Creator God or that he has no interaction with the world he made.

But I do feel that it is a slippery slope for Christians to imply that it is not a historical book.  To do so seems to open the door to all sorts of debatable interpretations to other books of the Bible which provide essential theological pieces to the Christian worldview (specifically I’m thinking of Genesis 1 through 3).

 

  1. James Orr says this of critical scholars in the 1976 version of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “Criticism is more than a description of phenomena; it implies a process of sifting, testing, proving, sometimes with the result of establishing, often with that of modifying or reversing, traditional opinions.  Criticism goes wrong when used recklessly, or under the influence of some dominant theory or prepossession.  A chief cause of error in its application to the record of a supernatural revelation is the assumption that nothing supernatural can happen.  This is the vitiating element in much of the newer criticism both of the OT and of the NT” (p. 749)
  2. “The Book of Jonah,” in ISBE, 3:1729.
  3. Found in their An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 444.
  4. See Calvin’s Commentaries on Jonah chapter II.
  5. An Introduction, 445.