Are Protestants Heretics? Are Catholics?


Are Protestants heretics? Edward T. Oakes, S.J., looks at that question from a Catholic point of view here. I wish a prominent Protestant theologian would ask and answer the reverse question–Are Catholics heretics?–with as much clarity and grace.

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The Life Appeared (1 John 1:1-3)


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According to 1 John 1:1-3, the foundation of the Christian faith is eyewitness testimony about Jesus Christ. But what did the eyewitnesses see: the mere facts of Jesus’ ministry or their spiritual significance?
 
Let’s read 1 John 1:1-3 again for an answer to this question.
 
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
 
It is very clear that John was an eyewitness of the facts of Jesus’ ministry. He heard what Jesus said, saw what Jesus did, and touched Jesus’ resurrected body. Such is the plain meaning of this text.
 
But it is also clear that John interpreted the facts of his experience. He attached spiritual significance to what he heard, saw, and touched. He believed that what he heard, saw, and touched warranted the conclusion that Jesus was the incarnate Son of God who entered the world to give us eternal life.
 
Notice how John describes Jesus in these verses. First, he is “from the beginning.” This timestamp is a deliberate echo of the opening verses of the Gospel according to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning” (1:1, 2). According to John, we misinterpret the facts of Jesus’ ministry if we date them only to the early first century. They begin in eternity.
 
Second, in John’s description, Jesus is “the Word.” This also is a deliberate echo of John 1:1, 2. In the Gospel, the Word is both “with God” and “God” himself. This introduces a distinction into the Godhead between “the Father” and “his Son,” which both the Gospel and the epistle recognize (John 1:14, 18; 1 John 1:1, 2).
 
Third, this eternal Son of God entered history as a human being. John repeats the verb “appeared” two times in verse 2. That Jesus’ appearance was not spiritual in nature is clear from the fact that John says he and other eyewitnesses “touched” Jesus. The eternal Son of God entered human history in material form. Or, as the Gospel puts it, “the Word became flesh” (1:14).
 
Fourth, the purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world was to give us “life.” In verses 1 and 2, John describes Jesus as “the Word of life,” “the life” and “the eternal life.” This indicates the close connection between Jesus’ person and work. As the Gospel puts it, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (1:4).
 
Have you received that life?

Heard, Seen, Looked at, and Touched (John 1:1-3)


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Is the Christian faith built upon eyewitness testimony, or is it a decades-later invention of people who never saw or heard Jesus?
 
Several years ago, Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, a novel whose climax is the revelation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene married and bore children. Despite the fact that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction, many readers took its claims about Jesus and Mary Magdalene literally. Such readers doubted that the whole truth about Jesus could be found in the New Testament Gospels or the creeds of the Christian church.
 
Not long after The Da Vinci Code topped the New York Times bestseller list, the National Geographic Society translated and published The Gospel of Judas, a fourth-century copy of a second-century Gnostic text. This so-called gospel presents Judas Iscariot in a radically different light than the New Testament Gospels present him. Rather than being Jesus’ betrayer, Judas Iscariot turns out to be Jesus’ best disciple.
 
The net effect of reading The Da Vinci Code and The Gospel of Judas is that some readers have become skeptical about the historical trustworthiness of the New Testament and, by extension, of the Christian faith itself. This skepticism is unwarranted for three basic reasons: (1) The Da Vinci Code is a novel whose historical claims are as fictional as its plot.[1] (2) The Gospel of Judas is a mid- to late-second-century text that has no connection to events in the first century.[2] And (3) the New Testament documents make a credible claim of being based on eyewitness testimony.[3]
 
Consider, in this regard, 1 John 1:1-3:
 
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
 
Notice John’s language: heard, seen, looked at, and touched. In these verses, John claims that the Christian faith which he proclaims is based upon eyewitness testimony, both his and others’. In Luke 1:2, Luke makes a similar claim about the contents of his Gospel, namely, that it is based on the testimony of “those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word.” And in 1 Corinthians 15:4-8, Paul claims that many people were eyewitnesses of the resurrected Jesus, including “Peter,” “the Twelve,” “more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time,” “James,” and Paul himself.
 
Either these claims are true, or they are false. If false, then we can know very little to nothing about the historical Jesus, for the New Testament documents are our best and oldest sources of information about him. But if true, then our very lives may depend on what these eyewitnesses heard, saw, looked at, and touched.


[1] The best expose of historical errors in The Da Vinci Code is Carl E. Olson and Sandra Miesel, The Da Vinci Hoax: Exposing the Errors in The Da Vinci Code (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
[2] Darrell L. Bock takes on The Gospel of Judas and other Gnostic gospels in The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities (Nashville: Nelson, 2006). See also J. Ed Komoszewski et al, Reinventing Jesus: What The Da Vinci Code and Other Novel Speculations Don’t Tell You (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006).
[3] For a good introduction to the historical reliability of the New Testament, see Paul Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove, IL; InterVarsity, 2005). For a scholarly defense of the eyewitness character of the Gospels, see Richard J. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006).

U2-charist?


According this article, a Chuch of England parish is planning to use U2 songs in place of hymns at its service of Holy Communion. Additionally, there will be lights and video and–my favorite–space for the congregation "to dance and wave their hands." The purpose of this "U2-charist" is to draw attention to the Millennium Development Goals. Funny, I thought the Eucharist was supposed to draw attention to Christ. Of course, the first "U2-charist" was held somewhere in America. Oy!

Six Questions about 1 John


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Today begin a devotional study of 1 John. To introduce this New Testament book, I will answer six questions: Who wrote 1 John? What kind of book is it? When was it written? Where was it written to? Why was it written? And how does it apply to us today? [1]
 
First, who wrote 1 John? Formally speaking, 1 John is anonymous. But internal evidence indicates that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus Christ (1:1, 3; 4:14; 5:6-7). Additionally, the authoritative way he addresses his readers indicates that he was a leader of some standing within the church (e.g., 2:1-2, 8, 15, 17, 23, 28; 3:6, 9; 4:1, 8, 16: 5:21). The testimony of the early church is that the Apostle John wrote 1 John, and he certainly fits the bill of this internal evidence.
Second, what kind of book is it? Since the early church, 1 John has been referred to as a letter. However, it lacks a standard epistolary greeting and conclusion. Contrast it, in this regard, with 2 and 3 John, which have both. Nevertheless, it is a written communication of some sort. Notice how often John uses the verb “I write,” for example (2:1, 7, 8, 12-14, 21, 26). No doubt John’s readers received his communication through the mail, but it seems more like a sermon designed to read aloud than like a letter. Nevertheless, because of the long custom of the church, we will refer to 1 John as a letter.
 
Third, when was 1 John written? Just as the letter is formally anonymous, so it is also undated. However, various Christian documents from the late first and early second century allude to it, so it cannot have been written any later than then. Most commentators give 1 John a date sometime in the 90s. The Apostle John would have been an aged man by then. Perhaps this is why he refers to himself as “the elder” in 2 and 3 John.
 
Fourth, where was it written to? Again, nothing in 1 John itself indicates to whom John wrote this letter. However, just as early Christian documents enable us to specify an author and a date, so they help us specify a location. These documents consistently point to Ephesus and its environs as the location in which and to which 1 John was written.
 
Fifth, why was it written? According to 1 John 2:18-19, a group of false teachers had seceded from the church and was trying to convince other church members to do the same. Concerned about the spiritual danger of the situation, John wrote the church to warn it about “those who are trying to lead you astray” (verse 26). These false teachers made at least two errors: they denied the power of sin over their lives (1:6-10), and they denied that Jesus was the “Christ” who had come “in the flesh” (2:22 and 4:2 respectively). These are spiritually dangerous errors in the first and the twenty-first century.
 
And finally, how does it apply to us today? For an answer to that question, make sure to read tomorrow’s Daily Word!


[1] I am heavily dependent upon D. A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 669-687, for my answers to these questions.

Our Worst Ex-President?


Jimmy Carter was not our best president, but is he our worst ex-president? Joshua Muravchik marshalls the evidence for that conclusion in an essay in February’s Commentary magazine. Make sure to read the entire thing. What struck me in particular was Carter’s consistent anti-Israel-ism, for which Muravchik provides chapter and verse. Criticism of Israel is, of course, entirely within the bounds of acceptable political discourse, but according to Muravchik’s account, Carter’s criticism of Israel is both hypocritical (in that he does not voice similar criticisms of Arab abuses) and borderline anti-Semitic. And that, as Muravchik notes, is ironic: "It is sad that a President whose cardinal accomplishment was a peace accord between Israel and one of its neighbors should have devolved into such a seething enemy of Israel. It will be sadder still if this same man, whose other achievement was to elevate the cause of human rights, ends his career by helping to make anti-Semitism acceptable once again in American discourse."

American Fascists? Hardly!


AmericanFascists.jpgI am a denizen of bookstores. One of the first things I did when I moved to my new church was to figure out where Barnes & Noble and Borders were. I go there as often as possible, usually just to browse. (I like to look at the book in a store, then order it online, where it’s much cheaper.)

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a spike in books about the impending threat of theocracy in America. Many writers loathe–abominate, even–the influence of conservative Christians in American politics, especially the Republican party. I’ve skimmed a few of these books at the bookstore, and from what I’ve read in them, they’re not that convincing. I know many conservative Christians, including a few influential ones, but I don’t know a single one who advocates theocracy. Perhaps they’re out there somewhere, but they’re hardly an impending threat to the American way of life. In my opinion, there’s a greater chance of our government becoming a communist dictatorship than a theocracy, and there’s zero chance of the former happening, so you do the math on the latter.

Anyway, while in the bookstore the other day, I came across Chris Hedges’ new book, ridiculously titled, American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. I almost bought the book, but when I started reading it, I found its first chapter so arrogant in tone and overwrought in sentiment, that I put it down and walked away. Anthony Dick read the whole thing, however, and posted a review online here. Here are the concluding paragraphs:

But of course, this is nothing new. All this dire talk about the ascendancy of theocracy and fascism in America is not Hedges’s invention. It’s an echoing old banality that has grown dull and tired with age, but has nonetheless been getting louder lately. Surely there is some explanation for this odd feature of the Left, so mindless and angry and eager to smear religious conservatives as aspirant theocrats.

Part of the obsession can be understood in terms of intellectual reassurance. Either because they legitimately can’t understand how any clear-headed person could disagree with them, or because they hunger to feel more secure about their own political beliefs, many on the left are anxious to dismiss their ideological opponents as irrational fanatics who have been seduced by superstition and power-lust. It has long been standard practice for liberals to say that their politics merely reflect objective rationality, so that only an ideologue could disagree with them.

This is evident in Hedges’s book when, in his typically measured tone, he says that traditional evangelicals are fighting “to crush and silence the reality-based world.” As it turns out, of course, “the reality-based world” is exactly that which conforms to the progressive social and political arrangements that Hedges favors. Because fundamentalist Christians focus so much on the afterlife, he says, their worldly politics are hopelessly irresponsible: “These believers can ignore their own social responsibility for inadequate inner-city schools, for the 18 percent of American children who don’t get enough to eat each day, for the homeless, for the mentally ill. They accept the curtailing of federal assistance programs and turn inward, assisting only within their exclusive Christian community and damning the world outside.”

In the first place, this claim about “damning the world outside” is flatly false. In fact, conservative Christians are among the most generous people in America today: Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks just released a book reporting that conservatives give 30 percent more than liberals to charity, and religious believers are 57 percent more likely than secularists to help the homeless.

Putting that inaccuracy aside, it is revealing that Hedges here characterizes opposition to “federal assistance programs” as being motivated primarily by fundamentalist religious impulses. Indeed, throughout his book, he consistently caricatures conservative ideas as the loopy offshoots of a fanatical religious movement, and thus avoids engaging them seriously. He utterly ignores the fact that there are compelling secular arguments for conservative positions on practically every major political issue today — gay marriage, stem-cell research, abortion, foreign policy, education, Social Security, etc. Rather than deal with these arguments, he chooses to stamp his foot and yell “Fascists!”

Perhaps this is why Hedges misses the obvious truth that no significant part of the conservative movement, much less the Republican party, has any active political interest in establishing a fascist state that would overturn American democracy or curtail basic individual freedoms. Maybe he, like so many other liberals, just does not want to confront the prospect that some people could be intelligent, well-intentioned, rational, and even non-religious, and still fundamentally disagree with progressive political views. The problem of conservatism becomes much less tractable for liberals if they admit that it is not a type of crypto-Nazism, or a disease resulting from some intellectual or emotional deficiency. And so we have these absurd little books being published that tell vicious lies about entire swaths of the American public, and, in the process, make fools of their authors.

Yep.

What Is the Church For? (Jonah 4:11)


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Today, I’d like to conclude our little study of the book of Jonah by asking a question: What is the church for?
 
As I read the book of Jonah, I see three answers to this question, two of which are wrong. The church is for the condemnation of outsiders, the comfort of insiders, or a deep and abiding concern for the lost. Let’s quickly take a look at each answer.
 
The first wrong answer is that the church is for the condemnation of outsiders. Having read Jonah, you might actually think this is the right answer. After all, according to Jonah 1:2, when God first called Jonah, he commissioned him to “preach against [Nineveh], because its wickedness has come up before me.” And according to Jonah 3:4, when Jonah finally arrived in Nineveh, the content of his message was wholly negative: “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” Jonah’s God-given mission seems to have been a message of judgment and condemnation.
 
Many Christians seem to think that condemnation is the church’s mission to the world. They believe the church should loudly denounce the world’s sins. But what they fail to take into account is Jonah’s initial response to God’s call. He ran from God not because he feared God would condemn the Ninevites but because he feared God would give them grace. According to Jonah 4:2, Jonah said to God, “That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” The message of judgment was simply a prelude to the good news, the divine No! that precedes the even louder divine Yes!
 
The second wrong answer is that the church is for the comfort of insiders. There is only one time in the book when Jonah is described as being “very happy.” It wasn’t when the great fish burped Jonah onto the shores of Israel. And it wasn’t when the Ninevites repented. According to Jonah 4:6, it was only when God provided a plant as a cover over Jonah, protecting him from the scorching sun. Jonah was “very happy” only when his personal comfort was at stake. He was okay with God raining down judgment on the heads of the Ninevites. He only cared about the sun shining down on his own head. Unfortunately, many churches are like that. They are only very happy when they derive some benefit from the ministries of the church. They could care less about the fate of unbelievers outside the church.
 
The right answer is that a deep and abiding concern for the lost is what the church is for. God himself provides the model for this answer. According to Jonah 4:11, God says to Jonah, “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left…. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” God cares about the fate of the spiritually ignorant, of people who don’t yet know God. Any church worth its salt will feel like God feels and be concerned about for the lost.

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