Archives For Timothy George

Today we celebrate Luther’s historic nailing of the 95 Theses on the main door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) in Wittenberg, Germany, October 31, 1517.

Luther was primarily concerned with indulgences and their abuses in the church. However, all of his responses were grounded in his sense of God and framed by the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In thesis one Luther begins, “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

In thesis sixty-two Luther writes, “The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.”

Timothy George recounts some of the history in his post, Reformation Day. Though there might be some question about the specifics of the actual time of day the Theses were posted on the 31st, there is no question regarding the tsunami-like waves of reformation created in its wake. George notes,

Copies of Luther’s theses were soon distributed by humanist scholars all over Europe. Within just a few weeks, an obscure Augustinian monk in a backwater university town had become a household name and was the subject of chatter from Lisbon to Lithuania.

From the beginning, Luther did not desire to divide. He wrote as a member of the church, desiring to remain a member in that church. But he also desired reform, and he thought his concerns would gain a hearing with the appropriate people in authority. As we know from history, it did not. In fact, it turned those in authority against him. George writes,

It was not Luther’s intention to divide the Church, much less to start a brand new church. To the end of his life, he considered himself to be a faithful and obedient servant of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Though Luther renounced his monastic vows and married a former nun, Katarina von Bora, he never forgot that he had received a doctorate in Holy Scripture. His vocation was to teach the written Word of God and to point men and women to the Lord of Scripture, Jesus Christ.

In good George fashion, he reminds us that although Luther was a reluctant leader of a movement that eventually bore his name, he also belongs to Protestants more broadly. This, states George, is also true for Thomas Aquinas, who is a theologian and churchman for all faithful believers, not just Dominicans and Roman Catholics.

As rightly noted by even a Roman Catholic Bishop, the gravitas of Luther was rooted in “just how radically Luther puts God at the center.” With God at the center, it also meant Jesus Christ was preeminent and the gospel was paramount. Luther was convinced by Scripture that every person at every moment lived life coram deo, before the face of God. This affected everything about everyone.

But even though Luther and his teaching is for the larger body of Christ, one does not do justice to the Scriptures, to Luther, to the various denominations or to broader Christian religions (RCC, Protestantism, Orthodoxy) by overlooking the differences. George writes,

On these [justification] and many other issues related to authority and ecclesiology, the way forward is not to smudge over deep differences that remain between the two traditions but rather to acknowledge them openly and to continue to struggle over them together in prayer and in fresh engagement with the Scriptures. The way forward is an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation.

Finally, George concludes with a word about Luther’s theology and Luther the man.

The triumph of grace in the theology of Luther was, and still is, in the service of the whole Body of Christ. Luther was certainly not without his warts, and we do no justice either to history or to his legacy by glossing over his faults and failures. (Remember: simul iustus et peccator!)

To the notion of differences that remain and must not be overlooked, Kevin DeYoung asks the question, “Is the Reformation Over?.” (This is the title of a book written by Mark Noll a few years ago. I confess, Noll is much more optimistic than I am about the degree to which rapprochement has taken place.) Though one can acknowledge that ground has been gained since the divide in the 16th century, and that in our present-day moral demise we share many moral virtues as co-belligerents in the culture clash – e.g. sanctity of life, of marriage, of truth – differences that divide still remain.

DeYoung includes a number of differences. I simply include the list of major doctrinal divides, not including the explanations. These would be some of the major issues to study if you desire to understand these important differences that still divide..

The Church
Lord’s Supper

For any are  interested in studying this further, here is a list compiled by CT of the “Top 10 Books on the Protestant Reformation,” though one will have to spend more time reading than this day alone to get through a few on this list. Here are the titles, excluding the explanation and the person making the recommendation.

The Reformation, Diarmaid MacCulloch (Penguin)

Reformers in the Wings, David Steinmetz (Oxford)

The Unquenchable Flame, Michael Reeves (B&H)

Getting the Reformation Wrong, James R. Payton, Jr. (InterVarsity Press)

Here I Stand, Roland Bainton (Abingdon)

John Calvin: A Biography, T. H. L. Parker (Westminster John Knox)

The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century, Hans J. Hillerbrand (Westminster John Knox)

Also recommended: 

Theology of the Reformers, Timothy George (B&H)

The European Reformations, Carter Lindberg (Wiley-Blackwell)

Reformation Christianity, Peter Matheson (Fortress Press)

I am grateful to God to be a person in the stream of the theology of the Reformation and in a denomination that traces its roots in the gospel through the Reformation.

Religious Freedom

Greg Strand – July 17, 2014 4 Comments

This is the time of year we think of the freedoms we have in our country (recently celebrating the 4th of July). We are grateful that we live in a country with freedoms. We acknowledge that as Christians we are citizens of two kingdoms, the heavenly and earthly, and though the heavenly trumps the earthly, we also live in the world even though we are not of the world. God has ordained government for the present time which is the context in which we live out our Christian lives faithfully on our way to the celestial city.

The Manhattan Declaration, a statement drafted by many representing numerous denominations and religious affiliations, identified three crucial moral issues in our day for which there ought to be a strong convictional stand: the sanctity of life, the integrity of marriage (biblically and traditionally defined as between a man and a woman) and religious freedom.

Timothy George, one of the drafters of the Manhattan Declaration, recently wrote about why religious freedom is one of the most pertinent issues for Christians today: “Let Religious Freedom Ring: Why It’s One of the Most Pressing Issues Today.” He writes,

Religious freedom is not merely political; it is pre-political. As a fundamental, “unalienable” right, it existed before the state. Religious freedom did not begin in modern times; it began when God brought humanity into existence. Rooted in the biblical understanding of human dignity and freedom, religious freedom is a part of what it means to be created in the image of God.

A just government is called to recognize and protect the religious freedoms that have been built into human nature by God. Christians know—even if secular theorists deny it—that religious liberty is grounded in the very character of God as revealed in the Bible, and in the life and teachings of Jesus Christ himself. But we do not claim religious freedom for ourselves only. It applies to all persons everywhere. That is why we affirm, on the authority of the Bible, religious freedom for all, even as we are prepared to defend such freedom in public life through arguments drawn from reason as well as revelation.

What do you think? Do you agree? Is this one of the more pressing issues for Christians today? How ought Christians address it?

Baptists and Baptisms

Greg Strand – June 3, 2014 12 Comments

In its more recent history, SBC baptisms plateaued in the 1950s, peaked in the 1970s and have staying pretty consistent since that time. However, the last six years have revealed a downward trend in baptisms and membership. Statistics alone do not give the whole story. Concurrent with the decrease in baptisms and memberships is the increase of people in North America.

A Pastors’ Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact & Declining Baptisms was established “to assess and respond to stark patterns of decline in Southern Baptist evangelism and baptisms.” The goals of this Task Force were to “seek ways to help Southern Baptists own the problem and offer suggestions on how to start addressing the problem.” I appreciate the forthrightness of this report and the honesty and humility with which the Task Force asks SBC churches to admit and own the problem and then to be a part of the solution.

In commenting on this, Timothy George, Troubled Waters, connects this shift with broader Evangelicalism and the larger American story. What the SBC is facing parallels similar things in other denominations with the rise of nones, those who want Jesus but not the church, etc. However, George highlights two important issues not addressed in the report.

First, the task force did not speak to sociological and cultural trends. They focused on their own household, which is right. But there are issues outside that have affected this phenomenon as well.

Second, they said nothing about the act of baptism itself, its meaning and theology. George wonders if this statistic conceal a more basic problem, the downgrading of baptism itself? George thinks it does, and points to two items in the report. The first is that baptism has lost its place as a central act of Christian worship. The second is that the only age in which baptisms are growing is 5 and under. And  this, notes George, is relatively new in Baptist circles. He concludes that while seeking to figure out how to stop the decline of baptisms, even more importantly, “Baptists today would do well to recover the rich theological meaning of baptism itself as set forth by those who were first called Baptists.”

James Emery White, Why Baptists Aren’t Baptizing, notes some similar issues to George. Though he affirms these five issues are true/real and addressing them would make a difference in any local church, what is missing is the “how.” White acknowledges this question may go beyond the purpose of the task force, but it is vital if they are to think through appropriate next steps to address the problem.

White identifies three reasons why the how question is vital. First, he writes that “many churches are pursuing an Acts 2 strategy in an Acts 17 world.” For many, the church is viewed through a lens of a Christian day, not a post-Christian day. With this change in culture, strategies must also change. I agree with this. As I often say, our approach to people living today is not Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13) in which the Bible and its story are known, but rather Athens (Acts 17) in which the Bible is not known at all.

A second reason is that “many leaders are caught between a very unique rock and a hard place.” Though leaders may desire to reach the young and unchurched, they also know the reality is that many older and well-established in the church like it the way it is. If you move towards the young and unchurched, you alienate or lose the older, faithful people. If the status quo is maintained, there will be a slow and progressive atrophy. Often people pray the church will grow, but then when it does, they are not sure they like the answer to their prayers. This requires humble, gracious, convictional leadership.

“A final impediment to all things ‘how,’ noted by White, “is majority rule.” He concludes that congregationalism, or “raw democracy of majority rule,” is rooted in American democracy and leads to immature people making decisions. Decisions ought to be made by the “most spiritually mature.” Being a congregationalist, I take issue with White’s final point in that he incorrectly defines it and uses a worst case scenario to validate his point. Furthermore, since this is a Baptist report, one of the foundational marks of a Baptist church is congregationalism. In essence, if this is the problem, then the solution is to no longer be Baptist (or Free Church, in my case).

Christianity Today also included the summary from this report: Five Reasons Why Most Southern Baptist Churches Baptize Almost No Millennials

Since the EFCA shares much with Baptists and the SBC,

  • How do you read and summarize this report?
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?
  • How would the EFCA fare with this same assessment (knowing that there are differences, which explains why we are two different denominations)?
  • What are some of the key issues in the EFCA that must be confessed and addressed?
  • More specifically, because we are congregational, what are the key issues in your local church that must be confessed and addressed?

Evangelicals and Mary, Theotokos

Greg Strand – December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

At this time of year, we are often taken with Mary, the role God had for her in the bearing of the God-man, Jesus Christ, and the humility with which she undertook this task.

Often Evangelicals have avoided recognizing and acknowledging the graces evident in her life over a concern that it sounds too much like Roman Catholicism, or at least gives a head-nod to the Roman Catholic position of Mary. This is known as Mariology, that is Marian dogma and Marian devotion, or as Evangelicals would refer to this, Mariolatry.

There are many important things to learn from Mary. Here are two major statements in church history, one positive, the other negative.

The positive: theotokos (from theos, God, and tikto, to bear or bring forth), not christotokos (from christos, Christ, and tikto, to bear or bring forth). Theotokos, the term and truth championed by Cyril of Alexandria, affirmed the full deity of the incarnate Son of God from His conception in the womb of Mary. Its use became controversial when Nestorius rejected it in favor of christotokos, who believed the term undermined the full humanity of Christ, so it was his attempt to give more attention to Christ’s humanity. The truth of Mary being the mother of God, theotokos, was affirmed by both the Council of Ephesus (431) and the Council of Chalcedon (451).

The reminder – often heresy arose due to the perception that an important truth was being overemphasized such that another aspect of that truth was being forgotten or underemphasized or denied. In this case, Nestorius was concerned that the full deity of Christ was being affirmed, theotokos, at the expense of His full humanity. In response Christ’s humanity, christotokos, was emphasized. But often, as in this instance, it was emphasized so significantly that it undermined or denied the other aspect of the truth of Jesus’ full deity. The lesson – when we respond to what we perceive to be overstatements or understatements of biblical truth – and there are many today, which has been the case throughout church history – respond to that but as you do make sure you affirm the whole truth.

The negative: immaculate conception, not miraculous conception. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church that states “from the moment of her conception the Blessed Virgin Mary was, by the singular grace and privilege of Almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Saviour of mankind, kept free from all stain of original sin” (Bull “Ineffabilis Deus” of Pius IX 8 December 1854).

So how are we to understand Mary? What can we as Evangelicals learn from her and about her in the Scriptures? In the past couple of years there were three brief articles by Evangelicals (Timothy George and Scot McKnight) to which I link below. I will include the lessons/principles to learn, but I would encourage you to read them. If you already have, it would be a good refresher to speed-read through them again. And as you do, allow her response to the God-man be reflective of our response to the Messiah, the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ.

Timothy George, “Evangelicals and the Mother of God,” First Things (February 2007), writes the following:

So why should evangelicals participate in and celebrate the Marian moment that seems to be upon us? The answer is: Precisely because they are evangelicals, that is, gospel people and Bible people. Mary has a pivotal and irreducible place in the Bible, and evangelicals must reclaim this aspect of biblical teaching if we are to be faithful to the whole counsel of God. When it comes to the gospel, Mary cannot be shunted aside or relegated to the affectionate obscurity of the annual Christmas pageant. In the New Testament, she is not only the mother of the redeemer but also the first one to whom the gospel was proclaimed and, in turn, the first one to proclaim it to others. Mary is named a “herald” of God’s good news. We cannot ignore the messenger, because the message she tells is about the salvation of the world.

Evangelical retrieval of a proper biblical theology of Mary will give attention to five explicit aspects of her calling and ministry: Mary as the daughter of Israel, as the virgin mother of Jesus, as Theotokos, as the handmaiden of the Word, and as the mother of the Church.

After delineating these five different aspects of Mary’s calling, George concludes the following:

Perhaps we should ask what Catholics, without ceasing to be Catholics, can learn from evangelicals about Mary. Certainly we should ask what evangelicals, without ceasing to be evangelicals, can learn from Catholics about Mary. If Catholics need to be called away from the excesses of Marian devotion to a stricter fidelity to the biblical witness, evangelicals should reexamine their negative attitudes toward Mary, many of which derive from anti-Catholic bias rather than sound biblical theology. They need to ask themselves, as the Groupe des Dombes suggested, “whether their too frequent silences about Mary are not prejudicial to their relationship with Jesus Christ.”

Can there be a proper place for Mary in the prayer and devotional life of evangelicals? The early Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century thought so. Evangelicals do not pray to Mary, but we can learn to pray like Mary and with Mary-with Mary and all the saints. Evangelicals can join with all Christians in a prayer like this: “And now we give you thanks, Heavenly Father, because in choosing the Blessed Virgin Mary to be the mother of your Son, you exalted the little ones and the lowly. Your angel greeted her as highly favored; and with all generations we call her blessed and with her we rejoice and we magnify your holy name.

In another piece George notes “it is time for Evangelicals to recover a fully biblical appreciation of Mary and her role in the history of redemption. It is time to “bring Mary in from the cold.” George summarizes,

This is why we cannot understand Mary apart from the long prophetic prologue of the Old Testament which flows into her standing in the temple with Anna and Simeon and all those who were “looking for the consolation of Israel.” The virginal conception of Jesus foreseen by the prophet Isaiah (7:14) is a part of this tapestry, as is the declaration of Mary as Theotokos, the “one who gave birth to the one who was God,” as Jaroslav Pelikan translated this Marian title from the Council of Ephesus.

Mary was all of this, but she was also more. She was the one who heard the Word of God and who responded to it in faith. Thus she was a model of fides ex auditu—faith that comes from what is heard—namely, the promise and proclamation of Christ (cf. Rom. 10:17). For this reason, Mary’s overshadowing by the Holy Spirit has been often depicted in Christian art as something which came to her through her ear, which complements the other Marian motif of the handmaiden of the Word who sits in contemplation with her Bible opened. As Augustine and many others after him would say, Mary was a disciple before she was a mother, for had she not believed, she would not have conceived.

But there was no passivity in Mary’s faith. The Word which she heard and believed and in turn declared to others was filled with prophetic verve. We see this most dramatically in Mary’s Magnificat, which might be called the Battle Hymn of the Kingdom of God. This great anthem can still make tyrants totter and demons tremble (Luke 1:46-55).

Scot McKnight, “The Mary We Never Knew,” Christianity Today 50/12 (December 2006), introduces his article in this way:

Instead of asking what the real Mary was like, we tend to debate what she was not: whether she and Joseph refrained from sexual relations and whether she had a sin nature. A cursory reading of Jaroslav Pelikan’s brilliant Mary Through the Centuries will acquaint any reader with the fulsomeness of such debates. Because Protestants have spent their time debating about Mary, they have rarely attempted to claim her as their own. Consequently, she has become little more than a delicate piece in a Christmas crèche, whom we bring out without comment at Christmas and then wrap up gently until we see her again next Advent.

McKnight focuses on the Magnificat (Lk. 1:46-55) and concludes this reveals that Mary was both subversive (this is a word about subverting unjust leaders) and dangerous (both to the powers and anyone else connected with her). He concludes:

Mary was a subversive and she was dangerous, first, because she knew the identity of her son and, second, because she began to tell his story. Remember, Gabriel told Mary her son would be “Jesus” (Savior) and “Son of the Most High God” and that he would sit as a Davidic king on the eternal throne. At the bottom of the entire history of Christology are the titles and categories given to Mary to pass on to others. God first tells her the true identity of Jesus. Thus, we first learn to see who Jesus was and is through her witness. Mary was the only person in the world who could have told the stories that now appear in our Gospels. She alone heard the potent words of Gabriel; she alone was with Elizabeth; perhaps she is the one who told Luke about Zechariah’s song; only she and Joseph knew about the shepherds and the magi.

The Gospels come from many voices, and one of those was Mary’s. Her voice tells us what God would do through her son to subvert the injustices of Herod and the pretentiousness of Augustus. Her voice tells us that somehow, some way, someday, God would establish a kingdom of peace for the whole world. The real Mary, in the story rarely told, changed the world by surrendering to the angel Gabriel with three words: “May it be.” And God used her to set loose the power of God, the gospel of the kingdom. This is the real Mary, and we need to reclaim her voice as our own.


Theology Scarier Than Halloween

Greg Strand – November 2, 2013 Leave a comment

In keeping with the Halloween theme for another day, an article written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite provided a contrasting perspective to that provided by Timothy George. Thistlethwaite served as the immediately past president of Chicago Theological Seminary and presently serves at the Seminary as Professor of Theology. In her article, she address “Five Christian theologies scarier than Halloween.”

Halloween is not something of which to be frightened, she notes, but these five “Christian theological themes” are quite scary. Here are the five she lists with brief excerpts from her longer explanation.

1. Christian Dominionism

Christian dominionism is the idea that our nation should be governed by Christians according to a conservative understanding of biblical law, and was, I believe, the theology behind the recent government shutdown. This is the “scariest” Christian theology to me because . . . it is fueled by “sanctified” rage.

2. Hell and Damnation

Scary images of Hell and damnation have been part of religions for millennia . . . But while these scary images abound, a theology of hell is something different than images of demons and fire. Images of hell as judgment have been used over Christian history to construct a punitive, punishing idea of God that is used like a club to manipulate people, producing true horrors instead of faith journeys.

Theologies of hell and damnation that are used to make human lives a misery are truly scary to me because they help to create and sustain ‘hell on earth’ for many. They contradict God’s love and mercy.

3. Women Should “Submit”

Theologies that emphasize a hierarchy in creation, i.e. that women were created second, and Eve is to blame for the sin that got Adam and Eve kicked out of the Garden of Eden, are scary to me because they are literally responsible for a lot of violence against women. . . . “Submission” is a scary theology that justifies abuse in the name of Christian obedience by women.

4. God versus Evolution

One of the scariest places I have ever been was the Creation Science Museum in Kentucky. . . . “Creation science” is a theology, not a science since it does not use scientific method. It is a scary theology because it is used to deny the real science of evolution and undercut the genuine urgency to stop polluting human activities that are causing violent and abrupt climate change.

5. God Doesn’t Love You If You’re Gay

Homophobic Christian theologies that condemn people who are lesbian, gay, bi-sexual or transgender are scary dangerous, and they need to be continuously countered.

Because there is so much that is scary in the world, Halloween, Thistlethwaite claims, should no longer be one of them. She explains that she has made it fun for her children and now her grandchildren. Let the kids have fun. In contrast, the five Christian theologies are truly the things of which to be frightened. She concludes,

What really scares me, not only this week but all year through, are the Christian theologies that prey on our legitimate fears of human finitude, physical suffering, economic uncertainty, environmental destruction, and the threat of war in order to accelerate anger and alienation. There’s no treat in that, only being tricked.

Not surprisingly, there is no reference to the Bible and no clear statement about how she moves from the Bible to theology. In essence, theology has become her attempt to state her own beliefs. This is not just scary, it is wrong, especially as a teacher of theology. Though the Bible and theology are not one and the same, one’s theology must be rooted in the Bible and shown to be rooted in the Bible or it is not Christian theology.

And regarding her conclusion on the doctrine of hell, it is moves beyond wrong to being damnable in the sense that if one does not believe and receive the Lord Jesus Christ, one will experience eternal conscious punishment (cf. EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 10, Response and Eternal Destiny). Satan denied this truth in his deceptive lies spoken to Eve that led to her rebellion against God. He claimed, “You will not die” (Gen 3:4b), a direct contradiction to God’s word.

A Postscript

Free Church Historical Connections to the Chicago Theological Seminary

Unknown to many, our Free Church history is rooted in and indebted to the Chicago Theological Seminary. Many of our Free Church Norwegian-Danish pastors were trained at the school. Beginning in 1884, the Norwegian-Danish department was established, with Reverend T. C. Trandberg appointed as the head, and the next year, the Swedish department began with Fridolf Risberg serving as head. In 1895 P. C. Jernberg, a graduate of Yale and the Chicago Theological Seminary, replaced Trandberg as head of the Norwegian-Danish department

Jernberg claimed that the Chicago Theological Seminary was the “pioneer in the work of the Norwegian-Danish Free Churches.” During these days, Jernberg himself trained many of these pastors of Free Churches.

However, as often happens in academic institutions, in order to keep up there was a merger. The leaders of the Chicago Theological Seminary looked to align with the University of Chicago as its graduate school of divinity. Free Church people were concerned with biblical and theological drift at the Seminary. This resulted in the Norwegian-Danish Free Church opening its own school in Rushford, MN in 1910. This is one of the two schools (the Swedish the other) that became Trinity International University/Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Concluding Thoughts

I am thankful for the role the Chicago Theological Seminary played in the preparation of our Free Church pastors. I am also thankful that our Free Church pastors were committed to the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. And in practice, I am thankful these pastors were wise and aware to discern the times such that it led to their departure from the school and that they began a new school for training pastors that reflected these important truths.

May we remember we stand on shoulders of giants and be grateful. May we remain committed to preserve and pass on the same foundational truths to the next generation(s), the truths once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3), and remain humbly dependent on God, His Word and His grace.