Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Spoonful of Pelagius Makes the Heresy Go Down

I arrived at lunch with a well-known Christian leader who was traveling through Montrose and was seated at the table just in time to find myself in the middle of the Augustine-Pelagius debate revisited.

"ARRRRGGHHH!"  I thought to myself, "I have been through this debate so many #$%^ times I can't stand it!"

Our well-known Christian guest had nothing good to say about Augustine.  He went on to say, "if what some people think about salvation is true, only about 5% of the people who have ever lived will be saved."  "But," he said, "when you stop to think about all those who have died before the age of accountability--those who have died in childbirth, or as young children, or through abortion or infanticide—it could be a lot more than that, perhaps as much as 70% of the 40 billion or so who have ever lived.  And that gives me hope!"

At this point outwardly I am smiling and trying to be gracious (since I also was a guest at this luncheon), while inwardly I am hitting my head against an imaginary wall so hard I can see stars.  Here is a Christian leader who derives hope from the fact that infant mortality, abortion, and infanticide will account for most of the population of heaven!  (I don't mean to disparage the great work this man has done or the numerous books he has written, but that is the inescapable conclusion of his statements on this subject.)

Still smiling and trying hard to remember that I am a guest, I raise the concern, "It seems to me that if we really believe in the awful reality of eternal torment in hell and eternal separation from God, then it seems from what you are saying, that it would be preferable for people to die before they reach the age of accountability."

Not to be deterred by this negative consideration, this fellow went on, "Some people say there is no biblical justification for an age of accountability, but I see it right there in Paul;" and he proceeded to quote 1 Corinthians 15:22, "For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive."  He then said, "You see, to die you have to first be alive.  So that means that all of us when we are born are alive, and it is at the age of accountability that we die when we knowingly sin."

So I proceeded to assert the orthodox understanding of that verse:  "No, what that means is that you and I and every human who ever lived were positionally in Adam and died when he died, i.e., when he sinned."  (The theological term for this is "federal headship;" and, while the term is used most often in Reformed or Calvinistic theology, it is the same concept of original sin that was articulated through St. Augustine and finds its expression in Catholic theology as well.  The representative headship of Adam is virtually the universal understanding of the the Church, both East and West.)

Later, I was talking with another participant in the luncheon who I could see was also troubled by the conversation.  I couldn't help but make the observation that, if you want to belong to a religion that believes that Christ's Atonement eliminates original sin, that we are born in innocence, and that makes an "age of accountability" officially a part of their theology, there is a religion you can join: They are called the Mormons.  As Mormon theologian Sterling M. McMurrin has stated, “the theology of Mormonism is completely Pelagian.”  (Sterling M. McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of the Mormon Religion.  University of Utah Press, 1965.)

To be clear about what we mean when we use the term Pelagianism:  Pelagianism is a heresy taught by Pelagius, a British monk who lived in the 5th century A.D. and was a teacher in Rome.  Pelagius denied original sin, the doctrine that we have inherited a sinful nature from Adam.  He taught that Adam only hurt himself when he fell, and not the entire human race.  Pelagius taught that, therefore, a person is born with the same innocence and moral abilities as Adam was when he was first made by God.  He taught that people can choose God by the exercise of their free will and reason.  God's grace is merely an aid to help individuals come to him.

Semi-Pelagianism is a weaker form of Pelagianism that does not entirely deny original sin and its effects upon the human soul and will; but, it teaches that God and man cooperate to achieve man's salvation. This cooperation is based on the ability of a person to make a free will choice.  Semi-Pelagianism teaches that man can make the first move toward God by seeking God out of his own free will, and that man can cooperate with God's grace even to the keeping of his faith through human effort.  This would mean that God responds to the initial effort of a person, and that God's grace is not absolutely necessary to have faith. 

In contrast, the theology that comes from Augustine through the Reformed but also through the Catholic tradition to a large extent is that: (1) humankind has been affected by sin in all of our faculties to the extent that we are incapable of choosing the good, apart from God's grace (Romans 3:10-12).  (2) God's grace is extended to us by virtue of his sovereign love and mercy and not because of any good that is inherently in us (Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5).  (3) Christ's atoning death is the sole basis for our being reckoned righteous before God and saved (1 Peter 3:18, Hebrews 9:26-28).  The application of Christ's Atonement is efficacious for those who are referred to in Scripture as God's elect (Matthew 24:31; Romans 8:33-34; Romans 9:11; Romans 11:7; 2 Timothy 2:10; Titus 1:1).  (4) The grace of God is manifest to us, once the Holy Spirit opens our eyes through regeneration, in a way that is effectually compelling.  ("Unless one is born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God" John 3:3, 1 Corinthians 2:14).  (5) Those whom God has truly saved by his grace are saved everlastingly (John 10:28).

You could categorize these two schools as the "God's choice" vs "my choice" schools or the "sovereign grace" vs. "free will" schools.  But it is important to note that every time the "my choice" school has gone up against the "God's choice" school before a Church council or synod, or the issue has been dealt with in a Church canon, confession, or article of belief—in either the early Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the churches proceeding from the Reformation—the "my choice" folks have lost:
  • Councils of Carthage (412, 416, and 418)
  • Council of Ephesus (431)
  • The Council of Orange (529)
  • Council of Trent (1546) Roman Catholic
  • 2nd Helvetic Confession (1561-66) 8-9. (Swiss-German Reformed)
  • Augsburg Confession (1530) Art. 9, 18 (Lutheran)
  • Gallican Confession (1559) Art. 10 (French Reformed)
  • Belgic Confession (1561) Art. 15 (Lowlands, French/Dutch/German Reformed)
  • The Articles of Religion (1571), Art. 9. (Anglican)
  • Canons of Dort (1618-19), 3/4.2 (Dutch/German/French Reformed). 

Not to be deterred, those who persist in exalting human choice and who have a weak view of the necessity of grace still walk among us, even wearing the mantle of Christian leaders.  What can we do?  Pray.  Persuade.  Persevere.

A Note about the Eastern Orthodox and the Doctrine of Justification

The Eastern Orthodox churches never thought through the issues of  justification in the way that the juridical Roman mindset of Augustine's time was prone to do.  Nor did the East experience the medieval accretions to Roman Catholic theology that gave us the Treasury of Merit, the "Romish Doctrine" of Purgatory, Indulgences, and other unfortunate errors that were countered in the Reformation.  In 1629, Cyril Lucaris, who later became Patriarch of Constantinople, but who had studied in Calvin's Geneva, published a short treatise known as his Confession.  Cyril's exposure to Roman Catholicism in the West and the theology of the Reformation led him to express opposition to the errors of the Roman Church and to attempt to show how Calvinism could be compatible with Orthodoxy.  Since the Orthodox Church had not lived through the developments and errors of the West and had no saint in their history who had done work on the doctrine of man or of sin in the same manner as Augustine, the faith Cyril proclaimed seemed like an innovation and heresy to those in the East and was condemned by a Eastern Orthodox Synod, in Jerusalem, in 1672.  (There are some Orthodox authorities today who dispute Cyril's authorship of his Confession, but most sources, including Orthodox sources, continue to attribute the authorship to him.)

This rejection of Calvinism (and the continued failure of the East to appreciate Augustine) is the basis for Metropolitan Jonah's denunciation of Calvinism in his address to the Anglican Church in North America's Inaugural Assembly in 2009.  The resolution of this thorny theological problem will only come when representatives of the Orthodox and Western churches can engage in a thorough study of the doctrine of justification.  This is immensely important; in fact, it is essential if unity on this question is ever to be achieved.  The Anglican Church in North America's dialogue with the Orthodox Church in America presents a wonderful place where this study could begin.  I pray it will happen in my lifetime.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Yes, in Montrose

It has been a remarkable week.  Following a glorious Holy Week and Easter at All Saints Anglican Church, I went across the line into Utah for a couple of days of sightseeing in Monument Valley and Arches National Park and returned home in time to get ready for another remarkable weekend.

On Friday evening, Chris and I were guests of the Gideons International for one of their conventions or, in Gideon parlance, an "encampment."  Most people know the Gideons for the Bibles they place in hotel rooms or the pocket New Testaments they give to students around the US.  But the Gideons are truly international, currently publishing the Bible in 94 languages (with more translations in progress) and distributing them in 197 countries.  Last year they gave away more than 84 million Bibles.  (That is more than two Bibles given away every second.)  Do you ever wonder if those Bibles placed in hotel rooms and given to students actually have an impact in leading people to Christ?  Yes they do; and the Gideons have plenty of testimonies of changed lives to prove it.

We were blessed to hear a banquet address by the International President of the Gideons, Dr. William Thomas, a physician and surgeon from Sheffield, UK.  In his address, Dr. Thomas mentioned his friendship with Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi of Jos, Nigeria, and the fact that Abp. Kwashi's conversion to Christianity came from an encounter with a Gideon Bible.  I was one of Ben Kwashi's examiners when he completed his DMin degree at Trinity School for Ministry.  Later, after I was Dean and President at Nashotah House, we conferred an honorary D.D. degree on Ben--a great man of God and a dynamic witness to the Gospel in an area of Nigeria where martyrdom is an almost daily possibility.  As the only Anglican clergyman in the banquet hall of 1000 people, I couldn't help but reflect on how amazing it was to be here in Western Colorado, listening to a speaker from the UK tell about his friend from Nigeria who I had known since my days on a seminary faculty in Pennsylvania.  But that is the sort of thing that seems to happen regularly since I moved to Montrose.

This spring I am taking the course Perspectives on the World Christian Movement.  Although I have a doctoral minor in Missiology and have taught Missions at the seminary level, I have never had the opportunity to take the Perspectives course.  Montrose, population 18,000, hosts the Perspectives course every 18 to 24 months.  No other town this size in the United States (that isn't a suburb in a larger metropolitan area) even manages to host the Perspectives course, much less to host it so frequently.

Several churches in the Montrose area (Colorado's "Western Slope" of the Rockies) got together and decided to underwrite the entire cost of a Bible translation for the Mepha'a tribe--an unreached people group in southern Mexico.  It is called the Western Slope Bible Translation Project, and is a groundbreaking approach to funding new translations by the Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I am blessed to serve a remarkable congregation.  Among the members are three other Anglican priests (one ACNA, one PEAR-USA, and one REC) and their wives.  Professors from Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia and Trinity, Ambridge, PA own houses here and are a part of our congregation during sabbaticals and vacations.  Another local professor who is a permanent resident of Montrose, who also teaches for TSM and San Francisco Theological Seminary, and his wife make our congregation their home and bless us with their gifts in teaching, spiritual direction, and music. 

We have five teams of musicians, including a wind ensemble, who provide our worship music on weekends.  A higher percentage of our congregation is involved in music ministry than any other congregation I know.  Through a program known as Community Options, our musicians provide a program of music therapy for developmentally challenged adults in Montrose.  They perform together in a group known as Joyful Sounds.  One of the things that impressed me most when I interviewed here (in addition to the generally high level of volunteerism) was this group of musicians, several of them with advanced degrees, devoting their time to helping developmentally challenged adults make music--and having fun doing it!  That kind of humility and selflessness speaks volumes.

This morning my colleague, who is a postulant for the vocational diaconate, preached at our 8am and 10am services.  She has taken her course in Introduction to the Old Testament and is now enrolled in the New Testament course in the Diocese of Quincy's St. Benedict School for Ministry, which I have had a part in founding.  Having spent more than 30 years in seminary education, I can attest that most of the three-year MDiv graduates I have known couldn't have preached a sermon that handled the Scriptures as clearly and as well.  I am blessed and gratified to have her as a colleague in ministry.

Montrose probably has more non-profit organizations per capita than any other city in North America.  Members of All Saints Anglican Church have been involved in founding Haven House, Christ's Kitchen and other ministries.  Habitat for Humanity's Montrose operation dwarfs that of many larger cities.  The congregation's latest initiative is a community garden on acreage behind our church, designed to be an outreach to lower-income individuals in our community. 

This afternoon, Chris and I attended the closing service of Kairos Prison Ministry weekend at the Delta Correctional Center.  Men from All Saints and other Montrose churches selflessly devote their time to providing Christian discipleship among the prison population.  One of the first events to which Chris and I were invited after arriving in Montrose was a concert at the Montrose Pavilion by alumni of the Kairos program--men whose lives had been transformed returning to say thanks and give testimonies about the ministry that had introduced them to the Savior who had changed their lives.

Tomorrow, a local Christian businessman and philanthropist has invited me to have lunch with missiologist and author Don Richardson, author of such books as Peace Child, and Eternity in Their Hearts.  Richardson, who is in demand as a speaker all over the world, is spending this week preaching in churches and teaching in Montrose.  Yes, in Montrose.

Next Saturday, Christians from all over Montrose will take part in ShareFest.  This annual initiative mobilizes churches in local communities in an effort to show the love of Jesus Christ in in tangible ways, undertaking jobs of maintenance and repairs in schools and parks, and performing other tasks for folks unable to do for themselves.  Once the smallest community in the United States to begin a ShareFest, Montrose now attracts one of the largest number of volunteers proportionate to its population.  And so it goes.

People have asked why, after 30 years in theological education and involvement in the larger church, I came to Montrose.  To be honest, I can't say I have always known the answer to that question.  But God did.   

"And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good" (Gen. 1:31a). 

Saturday, April 26, 2014

China on course to become 'world's most Christian nation' within 15 years

The number of Christians in Communist China is growing so steadily that it by 2030 it could have more churchgoers than America 

(From the London Daily Telegraph where there is more:)

It is said to be China's biggest church and on Easter Sunday thousands of worshippers will flock to this Asian mega-temple to pledge their allegiance – not to the Communist Party, but to the Cross.

The 5,000-capacity Liushi church, which boasts more than twice as many seats as Westminster Abbey and a 206ft crucifix that can be seen for miles around, opened last year with one theologian declaring it a "miracle that such a small town was able to build such a grand church".

The £8 million building is also one of the most visible symbols of Communist China's breakneck conversion as it evolves into one of the largest Christian congregations on earth.

"It is a wonderful thing to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  It gives us great confidence," beamed Jin Hongxin, a 40-year-old visitor who was admiring the golden cross above Liushi's altar in the lead up to Holy Week.

"If everyone in China believed in Jesus then we would have no more need for police stations.  There would be no more bad people and therefore no more crime," she added.

Officially, the People's Republic of China is an atheist country but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied.

Christian congregations in particular have skyrocketed since churches began reopening when Chairman Mao's death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution.

Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world's number one economy but also its most numerous Christian nation.

"By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon," said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule.

"It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change."

China's Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared to 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre's Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Prof Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025.  That would likely put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

Read the rest of the article.

[A tip of the hat to Midwest Conservative Journal for sharing this article.]

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Colorado Deaths Stoke Worries About Pot Edibles

From ABC News, where there is more:
A college student eats more than the recommended dose of a marijuana-laced cookie and jumps to his death from a hotel balcony.  A husband with no history of violence is accused of shooting his wife in the head, possibly after eating pot-infused candy.

The two recent deaths have stoked concerns about Colorado's recreational marijuana industry and the effects of the drug, especially since cookies, candy and other pot edibles can be exponentially more potent than a joint.

Twenty-six people have reported poisonings from marijuana edibles this year, when the center started tracking such exposures.  Six were children who swallowed innocent-looking edibles, most of which were in plain sight.
A Colorado law enforcement official had this to say:
"Sadly, we're going to start to understand over time all of the damage and all of the problems associated with marijuana," said Thornton police Sgt. Jim Gerhardt, speaking in his capacity as a board member of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association.  "It's going to dispel the myth that there's no downside, that there's no side effect, to this drug.   It's sad that people are going to have to be convinced with the blood of Coloradans."
Read it all.

A clergy friend of mine with contacts in the local high school says that the number of times the police have been summoned to the high school to deal with intoxicated students has more than doubled in the three months since recreational marijuana became legal in Colorado.  Although students are too young to purchase marijuana legally, the increased use of illegal marijuana by students seems to be the result of the signal being sent by the state's legalization of the drug, which is that this is just another adult pleasure to try if you can.

What we are seeing is a tragedy in the making.  Please pray for Colorado. 

(If there is any upside from this whole situation, it is that other states may think twice about legalizing marijuana after looking at what has happened in Colorado.)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Lord is risen indeed!

Matthew 28:1-10

The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the greatest event in the history of the world—except, perhaps, for one other event, the one that happened three days earlier—namely, his death.

This is what I conclude as I ponder the two claims of Matthewm, chapter 28:  (1) that Jesus was crucified; and (2) that Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive and will be with us to the end.   There would have been no need for the resurrection if Jesus had not died; and there would be no saving significance to His death if He did not rise.  Both are utterly crucial.

I. Jesus Has Been Crucified  –  The time is early Sunday morning.   Mary Magdalene and the other women have come to the tomb of Jesus.  They see an angel whose appearance is like lightning (Matthew 28:3).  Then, according to Matthew 28:5-6, “The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified.’”  This is the first important fact in this text: “Jesus has been crucified.”

Jesus said to His disciples several times that this was His destiny.  For instance, in Matthew 17:22-23: “Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men; and they will kill Him, and He will be raised on the third day.’”  In Acts 4:27-28, the disciples prayed these words to God: “Truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan predestined to take place.”  The death of Jesus was not an accident or merely the result of a great injustice.  It was the plan of God.

This is the teaching that runs throughout the New Testament: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son . . .” (John 3:16).  “[God did] not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32).   Jesus was crucified by design, not by accident.

II. He Is Risen  –  But the Cross of Christ can’t be precious to us if Jesus is still dead.  So the resurrection of Jesus is just as crucial as his crucifixion.  And so we see the second important claim of this Gospel passage: “The angel said to Mary and the others, ‘He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come; see the place where He was lying.’”

The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates His triumph over death and His authority over all things.  From there He works out His saving purposes in the world—with authority over all nations and industry and business and science and education and entertainment and weather and stars and light and energy and life and death. He is Lord over all; and His purposes and His promises cannot fail.  And, as we are in Him and living for Him, He is with us—in all His majesty and power and authority—to the end of the age.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Wisconsin Governor Refuses Atheist Demands to Remove Scripture from Social Media Pages

From here:
The governor of Wisconsin is refusing the demands of a prominent atheist activist organization to remove a Scripture citation from his Twitter and Facebook pages.

As previously reported, the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent a letter to Walker this past week after becoming aware that he had simply posted 'Philippians 4:13' as his status on his social media accounts last Sunday. The Scripture reads, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me."

"This braggadocio verse coming from a public official is rather disturbing," FFRF wrote in the letter. "To say, 'I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me,' seems more like a threat, or the utterance of a theocratic dictator, than of a duly elected civil servant."

It demanded that the governor delete the post, contending that it is unlawful for Walker to endorse religion on his official social media pages.

"On behalf of our membership, we ask you to immediately delete this religious message from your official gubernatorial Facebook and Twitter," the letter stated. "May we hear from you at your earliest convenience?"

However, Laurel Patrick, the press secretary for Walker, told reporters this week that the governor will not bow to atheist demands.

"Governor Walker will not remove the post on his social media," she wrote in an emailed statement. "The verse was part of a devotional he read that morning, which inspired him, and he chose to share it."
Read it all.