What Star is This, With Beams so Bright?

colinnichollArticle by Colin Nicholl, (original source here) who taught at the University of Cambridge and was a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary before devoting himself to biblical research. He is author of From Hope to Despair in Thessalonica and The Great Christ Comet.

Who doesn’t feel awe upon gazing upwards on a starry night? Which of us isn’t curious to discover what Pluto looks like or what it’s like on the surface of a comet? Who hasn’t marveled at a beautiful meteor streaking across the sky? Is there anyone who doesn’t feel a thrill when glaring at a gloriously bright and large supermoon? Maybe you’ve downloaded a star app to your cell phone to work out which stars and constellations are present in the dome of sky above and around you. Many of us love to watch Louie Giglio’s inspirational introductions to the indescribably magnificent sights of the universe, TV documentaries on the wonders of the cosmos, and YouTube videos from the International Space Station about the oddity of watching Earth from a ‘tin can’ in space. Astronomy is the ‘wow’ science.

As fascinating as the latest missions by NASA and the European Space Agency are, to the average person nothing in astronomy is more captivating than the Star of Bethlehem. Quite simply, the whole world is engrossed by the Star. It is central to cherished Christmas traditions from Bethlehem on the West Bank to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, from Mexico to the Ukraine, and from Poland to the Philippines. Millions flock to planetariums for special presentations in the weeks before Christmas to reflect on the Star, the greatest astronomical mystery of all. The Star features prominently in our Christmas celebrations—we sing carols to and about it; we perch it atop our Christmas trees; and we send Christmas cards embossed with it.

However, when it comes our perceptions of the Star, it is as though we view it through a deep and dark mist. Our thinking, heavily shaped by movie representations, television documentaries, planetarium presentations, Christmas decorations, and Yuletide carols, is inconsistent and confused. Have a look at recent Nativity movies or religiously themed Christmas cards in your local card shop and you’ll appreciate the truth of what I’m saying.

One factor that vies to influence our thoughts about the Star is the beloved Christmas carols that we sing so gustily. But can we trust what they say? Was the Star a new celestial body, ‘a stranger midst the orbs of light?’, that prompted the Magi to ask ‘What star is this?’ Is it true that the Star shone in the eastern sky with ‘beams so bright’ and ‘to the earth…gave great light’? Were ‘all the stars above…paling, all their luster slowly fading’ because of the Star’s ‘royal beauty bright’? Did its ‘light’ guide the Magi ‘from country far, …to follow the star wherever it went’, even as it was ‘westward leading, still proceeding’? And when the travellers arrived in Bethlehem, did the Star ‘both stop and stay right over the place where Jesus lay’?

The sources

Our most important source about the Star of Bethlehem is Matthew’s Gospel. There, in his Nativity account, we discover that the Star was first observed by the Magi over a year before Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s infants. Many months after this first appearance, the Star had a ‘rising’ in the eastern sky that deeply impacted the Magi, revealing to them that someone special had been born, a king, indeed the Jewish Messiah, and commissioning them to travel hundreds of miles to honour him and present him with extravagant gifts. Then, within a couple of months of the Star’s rising (the duration of the Magi’s journey), the Star was in southern sky to usher the eastern astrologers to Bethlehem before standing over one particular house there, pinpointing it as the place where the Messiah was.

The early church father Ignatius, writing a few decades after Matthew, probably citing a first-century hymn, describes the Star: ‘A star shone in heaven with a brightness beyond all the stars; its light was indescribable, and its newness caused astonishment. And all the rest of the stars, together with the Sun and the Moon, formed a chorus to the star, yet its light far exceeded them all. And there was perplexity regarding from where this new entity came, so unlike anything else [in the heavens] was it.’

The quest for the historical Star

Wouldn’t it be amazing to know what the Star was? If we could identify the Star and discover what the Magi saw, it would enable us to get into their sandals, to feel their awe, and to think their thoughts after them. The discovery would surely fill us with joy, reinvigorate our worship, and transform our celebration of Christmas. Matthew would be vindicated against his critics. Jesus would be seen to have been authenticated as Messiah by God. The Bible’s claim that God created the heavens and is Lord over them would be even more compelling. It would have the potential to be an astonishing boost to Christian witness in this increasingly hostile, atheistic world. Can you imagine what moviemakers would be able to do with the revelation of the mystery of the Star of Bethlehem!? So exhilarating is this vision that you might have thought that Christian benefactors would be pouring their money into sponsorship of cutting-edge research to identify the Star decisively once and for all. Continue reading

Revivalism and the Ordinary Means of Grace

horton_michael_0Article: Do You Hear the Spirit? Revivalism and the Ordinary Means of Grace by Dr. Michael Horton

Duke historian Grant Wacker tells us that in the winter of 1887, a group calling itself the Evangelical Alliance for the United States met in Washington, DC. It was an appropriate site for a noble assemblage of scholars, pastors, college presidents, and other leaders who were intent on recapturing the moral, spiritual, and political clout which they had once garnered in American society. As Wacker explains,

The first session opened with the hymn, “Come Gracious Spirit, Heavenly Dove.” The participants then read the second chapter of the Book of Acts… At the end of the week, William E. Dodge, president of the Evangelical Alliance, asked the delegates to search their hearts to see if they too were open to the Spirit’s guidance. “Christ is waiting for us, he urged. “Are we ready?”1

This could have been a common event in contemporary evangelicalism, but it was, in fact, a significant contributing factor in the success of the Social Gospel movement at the turn-of-the-century. Higher critics with Americanized Hegelian bents (identifying God with progress) preached beside Wesleyan-Holiness revivalists and evangelical preachers. When doctrinal differences divide, such movements often turn to the Holy Spirit as the tie that binds. Invoking the “Spirit” hardly proves as controversial as appeals to the Father and the Incarnate Son do. As many modern feminist and radical theologians are also discovering, the “Spirit” rarely embarrasses. Even the Hopi tribe worships the Great Spirit.

But is this “Spirit,” the Holy Spirit, as in “the Lord and Giver of Life who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified, who spoke through the prophets”? That one? Is he the Spirit who is identified in Scripture as “the Spirit of Christ,” that is, the One whose person and work is essentially as well as instrumentally united to that of the Son of Man? Harry Emerson Fosdick, scion of liberalism and champion of modernism against the likes of J. Gresham Machen, wrote a book titled The Secret of the Victorious Christian Life, which was well received by the evangelical masses despite its moralistic optimism (perhaps because of it). And we all know how Norman Vincent Peale, a quite outspoken liberal, was so well received. Billy Graham even counted Peale among his closest allies. The World Council of Churches and similar groups arose out of missionary conferences in which doctrinal differences (i.e., the Word) were set aside in favor of common mission and experience, especially conversion and the New Birth (i.e., the Spirit).

In the past few decades, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), based in Wheaton, Illinois, has reflected the breadth of these older heirs of American Protestantism in a more conservative form. But denominations no longer steer the evangelical ship (or, more accurately, the evangelical regatta). Rather, it is the successive outbursts of revivalism which continually define and redefine the American religious landscape. It is not churches or schools, but movements, which shape American church life. Though Jesus founded a Church, an observer of American evangelicalism might surmise that the Holy Spirit started a revival as competition.

Of course, this state of affairs is tragic for a number of reasons. First, it is deeply dishonoring to God and his Word and Spirit. But second, it is a serious danger for those to whom we wish to bring the good news. In this article, I want to emphasize the important link between Word and Spirit and its consequence for our expectations about extraordinary works of God in our day.

The Historical Problem
As early as the Book of Acts, we see characters like Simon Magus who sought to market their own brand of Christianity by circumventing the Church. It was St. Paul especially who was vexed with these “super-apostles” as he called them: itinerant, self-appointed Christian leaders who made up their theology as they went because they considered themselves “apostles” who received divine revelation of deeper mysteries than those revealed by the ordinary apostles in Jerusalem. They thought that their “ministries” could evangelize, disciple, and perform similar functions to those entrusted to the visible Church. Facing this “sect-spirit” directly in 1 Corinthians, Paul warns, “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (3:10-11). On that day of God’s judgment, the work of so-called “ministries,” which tried to lay another foundation, says Paul, will be burned as hay, wood, and straw (v. 12-15). Continue reading

“Make Your Calling and Election Sure” Predestination and Assurance In Reformation Theology

hortonArticle by Dr. Michael Horton

According to the most lengthy of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion:

The godly consideration of Predestination and our Election in Christ is full of sweet, pleasant, and unspeakable comfort to godly persons, and such as feel in themselves the working of the Spirit of Christ, mortifying the works of the flesh in their earthly members, and drawing up their mind to high and heavenly things, as well because it doth establish and confirm their faith of eternal Salvation to be enjoyed through Christ, as because it doth fervently kindle their love towards God. And yet, the study of the subject has most dangerous effects on the “carnal professor.”1

Speaking of the doctrine of election as “a comforting article when it is correctly treated,” the Formula of Concord (Lutheran) offers a similar caution:

Accordingly we believe and maintain that if anybody teaches the doctrine of the gracious election of God to eternal life in such a way that disconsolate Christians can find no comfort in this doctrine but are driven to doubt and despair, or in such a way that the impenitent are strengthened in their self-will, he is not teaching the doctrine according to the Word and will of God…2

During the magisterial Reformation, the doctrine of election was regarded as a corollary to justification, the nail in the coffin of synergism (justification and regeneration by human cooperation with grace). Pastorally, election was used to drive away despair and anxiety over one’s salvation. John Bradford, an Edwardian divine who was martyred under “bloody Mary,” wrote that this doctrine was a “most principal” tenet since it places our salvation entirely in God’s hands. “This, I say, let us do, and not be too busybodies in searching the majesty and glory of God, or in nourishing doubting of salvation: whereto we all are ready enough.”3 As we will see, all of this is carefully expounded by Calvin as well.

Did Calvin Invent Predestination?
More than anything else, Calvin and Calvinism are known for this doctrine. In one sense, that is quite surprising. First, the doctrine held by Calvin–namely, predestination to both salvation (election) and damnation (reprobation)–was insisted upon by many of the church fathers. Augustine took it for granted as the catholic teaching, in opposition especially to Pelagius. Aquinas wrote,

From all eternity some are preordained and directed to heaven; they are called the predestined ones: “Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children according to the good pleasure of his will” [Eph. 1:5]. From all eternity, too, it has been settled that others will not be given grace, and these are called the reprobate or rejected ones: “I loved Jacob, and I hated Esau” [Mal. 1:2-3]. Divine choice is the reason for the distinction: “…according as he has chosen us in him before the foundation of the world.”… God predestines because he loves… The choice is not dictated by any goodness to be discovered in those who are chosen; there is no antecedent prompting of God’s love [Rom. 9:11-13].4

Lodging the cause of election in the foreknowledge of human decision and action, says Aquinas, is the fountainhead of Pelagianism.5 Thomas Bradwardine, the fourteenth-century Archbishop of Canterbury, recalled his discovery of this great truth:

Idle and a fool in God’s wisdom, I was misled by an unorthodox error at a time when I was still pursuing philosophical studies. Sometimes I went to listen to the theologians discussing this matter [of grace and free will], and the school of Pelagius seemed to me nearest the truth… In this philosophical faculty I seldom heard a reference to grace, except for some ambiguous remarks. What I heard day in and day out was that we are masters of our own free acts, that ours is the choice to act well or badly, to have virtues or sins, and much more along this line… But every time I listened to the Epistle reading in church and heard how Paul magnified grace and belittled free will–as in the case in Romans 9, “It is obviously not a question of human will and effort, but of divine mercy,” and its many parallels–grace displeased me, ungrateful as I was… However, even before I transferred to the faculty of theology, the text mentioned came to me as a beam of grace and, captured by a vision of the truth, it seemed I saw from afar how the grace of God precedes all good works… That is why I express my gratitude to Him who has given me this grace as a gift.6 Continue reading

Pelagianism: The Religion of Natural Man

horton_michael_0Article by Dr. Michael Horton, a graduate of Biola University (B.A.), Westminster Theological Seminary in California (M.A.R.) and Wycliffe Hall, Oxford (Ph.D.). Some of the books he has written or edited include Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, Beyond Culture Wars, Power Religion, In the Face of God, and most recently, We Believe.

We possess neither the ability, free will, power, nor the righteousness to repair ourselves and escape the wrath of God. It must all be God’s work, Christ’s work, or there is no salvation.

Cicero observed of his own civilization that people thank the gods for their material prosperity, but never for their virtue, for this is their own doing. Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield considered Pelagianism “the rehabilitation of that heathen view of the world,” and concluded with characteristic clarity, “There are fundamentally only two doctrines of salvation: that salvation is from God, and that salvation is from ourselves. The former is the doctrine of common Christianity; the latter is the doctrine of universal heathenism.”1

But Warfield’s sharp criticisms are consistent with the witness of the church ever since Pelagius and his disciples championed the heresy. St. Jerome, the fourth century Latin father, called it “the heresy of Pythagoras and Zeno,” as in general paganism rested on the fundamental conviction that human beings have it within their power to save themselves. What, then, was Pelagianism and how did it get started?

First, this heresy originated with the first human couple, as we shall see soon. It was actually defined and labeled in the fifth century, when a British monk came to Rome. Immediately, Pelagius was deeply impressed with the immorality of this center of Christendom, and he set out to reform the morals of clergy and laity alike. This moral campaign required a great deal of energy and Pelagius found many supporters and admirers for his cause. The only thing that seemed to stand in his way was the emphasis that emanated particularly from the influential African bishop, Augustine. Augustine taught that human beings, because they are born in original sin, are incapable of saving themselves. Apart from God’s grace, it is impossible for a person to obey or even to seek God. Representing the entire race, Adam sinned against God. This resulted in the total corruption of every human being since, so that our very wills are in bondage to our sinful condition. Only God’s grace, which he bestows freely as he pleases upon his elect, is credited with the salvation of human beings.

In sharp contrast, Pelagius was driven by moral concerns and his theology was calculated to provide the most fuel for moral and social improvement. Augustine’s emphasis on human helplessness and divine grace would surely paralyze the pursuit of moral improvement, since people could sin with impunity, fatalistically concluding, “I couldn’t help it; I’m a sinner.” So Pelagius countered by rejecting original sin. According to Pelagius, Adam was merely a bad example, not the father of our sinful condition-we are sinners because we sin-rather than vice versa. Consequently, of course, the Second Adam, Jesus Christ, was a good example. Salvation is a matter chiefly of following Christ instead of Adam, rather than being transferred from the condemnation and corruption of Adam’s race and placed “in Christ,” clothed in his righteousness and made alive by his gracious gift. What men and women need is moral direction, not a new birth; therefore, Pelagius saw salvation in purely naturalistic terms-the progress of human nature from sinful behavior to holy behavior, by following the example of Christ. Continue reading

Two Planks of Sola Scriptura

hortonThis excerpt is taken from Michael Horton’s contribution in The Legacy of Luther.

There was no controversy between Martin Luther and Rome concerning the inspiration of Scripture. In fact, much of today’s mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic biblical and theological scholarship would have been regarded by the medieval church as apostate with regard to its view of Scripture. The Scriptures, both sides held, are inerrant. The Council of Trent (condemning the Reformation positions) went so far as to say that the Spirit “dictated” the very words to the Apostles.

The real question had to do with the relation of inspired Scripture to tradition. In other words, is Scripture alone God’s inspired and inerrant Word, the source and norm for faith and practice? Could the pope say truly that his words are equal to those of Peter and Paul as we find them in Scripture? Are councils infallible in the same way as Scripture? The Council of Trent argued that Scripture and tradition are two streams that form the one river of God’s Word. This Word consists not only of “the written books” but also of “the unwritten traditions” that, of course, the Roman pontiff has the privilege of determining. Thus, both Scripture and these traditions the church “receives and venerates with an equal affection of piety and reverence,” as both have been “preserved in the Catholic Church by a continuous succession.”

Therefore, whatever the pope teaches or commands ex cathedra (from the chair)—even if it is not based on Scripture—is to be believed by all Christians everywhere as necessary for salvation. Ironically, Luther’s defense of sola Scriptura was condemned as schismatic, but the ancient fathers, both in the East and the West, would have regarded the pretensions of the Roman bishop as an act of separation (schism) from the Apostolic faith. Long before the Reformation, highly esteemed theologians argued that Scripture alone is normative and that councils simply interpret Scripture, and these interpretations (which may be wrong and amended by further reflection) are to be submitted to by the pope himself. Until the Council of Trent’s condemnations of the Reformation teaching, this was an open question. Luther was not the first to argue for Scripture’s unique authority even over the pope. After Trent, though, the door was slammed shut on sola Scriptura within the Roman Catholic faith.

Luther’s problem with the papal church was its corruptions of scriptural faith by the addition of myriad doctrines, practices, rituals, sacraments, and ceremonies. Medieval popes increasingly held that they alone were endowed with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to be preserved from error in their judgments. Of course, this idea was not found in Scripture or in the teaching of the ancient fathers. It was an innovation that opened the floodgate to a torrent of novelties, Luther argued:

“When the teaching of the pope is distinguished from that of the Holy Scriptures, or is compared with them, it becomes apparent that, at its best, the teaching of the pope has been taken from the imperial, pagan laws and is a teaching concerning secular transactions and judgments, as the papal decretals show. In keeping with such teaching, instructions are given concerning the ceremonies of the churches, vestments, food, personnel, and countless other puerilities, fantasies, and follies without so much as a mention of Christ, faith, and God’s commandments.”

How do you adjudicate between truth and error? What if a pope errs, as some medieval councils had in fact declared? Indeed, the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries saw the schism between two and eventually three rival popes, each claiming St. Peter’s throne and excommunicating the others along with their followers. The Council of Constance ended this tragicomedy by electing a fourth pope to replace the other three. Philip Melanchthon’s Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope built on Luther’s views by drawing together a battery of refutations from Scripture and also from church history to demonstrate the foundation of sand on which the papacy is built.

For Luther, the first plank of sola Scriptura is Scripture’s nature. As the Holy Spirit’s direct revelation through prophets and Apostles, Scripture is in a class by itself. The character of God is at stake in the character of Scripture. Why is Scripture inerrant? “Because we know that God does not lie. My neighbor and I—in short, all men—may err and deceive, but God’s Word cannot err.” We respect the church fathers and ancient councils as guides, but only God can establish articles of faith: “It will not do to make articles of faith out of the holy Fathers’ words or works. Otherwise what they ate, how they dressed, and what kind of houses they lived in would have to become articles of faith—as has happened in the case of relics. This means that the Word of God shall establish articles of faith and no one else, not even an angel.” Continue reading

You Can’t Walk Like That!

Ephesians 4:17-19

The Apostle Paul, assuming that the Christian converts in Ephesus were properly schooled in Christ, insists that they abandon their former worldly lifestyle.

Pictures of our Union with Christ

mike-reeves (original source here)

So why is it so important for Christians to understand and embrace the precious truth about union with Christ? What is lost if we don’t understand it?

Dr. Michael Reeves:What is important about union with Christ for the Christian life? Well, union with Christ, is the Christian life. So it is not some small particular blessing that might go along side the key blessings of the gospel. Union with Christ IS the Christian life.

Now I think there are a couple of pictures. Let’s try to understand what this is we are talking about. There are two main pictures that Scripture gives us.

The first comes up in Romans five and in 1 Corinthians 15. Let’s look at the 1 Corinthians 15 example. Paul writes this. He says that as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be mind alive, each in his own order. Christ the first fruits and then at his coming those who belong to him. So what he has got in mind is that everyone is in either Adam or Christ. No one is a self-determining individual. There is no such thing. You find your identity in either Adam or Christ. And the picture he uses in 1 Corinthians 15 to explain that, this in Adam, in Christ language is that of the first fruits. He sees Adam and Christ as the first fruits of two different sorts of humanity, the old humanity and the new. And I think what has been picked up there is Genesis language where the first fruits of creation on day three of Genesis, Genesis one, you see the fruits there have seed within them. And so just as a seed is found within the fruit, so the way you take the fruit and what you do with it happens to the seed. The seed goes wherever the fruit goes. So it is with Adam and Christ. If you are in Christ you find your identity and status in him. You are like seed in the fruit. You need to be taken out of Adam and re-grafted, born again in Christ. And that means that if that is the case, if we find our identity as Christians in Christ, I found this to be a revolution in my own Christian life that when I came to understand union with Christ I saw so then I do not stand naked before a holy God based on my own pathetic performance. I stand clothed in Christ, clothed in him. That is language that gets picked up a few times in Scripture.

There is another very, very important one, which is marriage. And this is really Ephesians five territory. So where Paul writes: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one. And then Paul says: This is a profound mystery, but I am talking about Christians and the Church. He is saying that the relationship that the Church has with Christ is a marital union. And actually Martin Luther used this image as the first way in which he articulated his reformation discovery in 1520. He used marriage to explain the gospel to the world for the very first time properly. It is in a little work called The Freedom of the Christian. And he said what happens is this. It is rather like the story of a great king marrying a harlot. And what happens is this harlot can’t make herself the great king’s wife by anything she does or her performance, but by his wedding vow she becomes his. And he says to her: All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you. And so gives to her the status of royalty and all that is his. And she turns to him and says: All that I am I give to you. All that I have I share with you. And so the poor sinner shares with King Jesus all her sin, all her death, all her damnation. And when Luther had articulated this he said: Therefore, the sinner can consider her sins in the face of death and hell and say: If I have sinned, yet my Christ who is mine has not sinned. And all his is mine and all mine, my sins, my death, my damnation, is his.

So union with Christ gives that beautiful, life-changing assurance that I can know the Father as my Abba, call with the son’s own cry to him. But it also changes the very nature of the Christian life. I have not just been given this package of blessing called heaven. I have been brought to know Christ. And that makes real sense of the Christian life and of holiness. I have not been given some package of heaven to wait for later. It is I have been brought to know Christ, meaning when a brother or sister sins I can say: Why are you walking away from the salvation to which you have been called? Knowing Jesus is the only life and liberty for which we have been freely saved.

A Peculiar Glory

British scholar Michael Reeves interviewed John Piper to ask about the book ‘A Peculiar Glory.’ Watch the full 58-minute interview here:

Scripture, Apologetics and Islam

Stanmore Baptist Church 2016 Apologetics Conference with Pastor Jeff Durbin (Apologia Church) and Dr. James White (Alpha and Omega Ministries).

Session #1 of 6 teaching sessions presented on 1 November 2016.

Pastor Jeff Durbin: Why Apologetics?

Session #2 of 6 teaching sessions presented on 1 November 2016.

Session #2 of 6 teaching sessions presented on 1 November 2016.