Four Domains of Christian Knowledge: Theology

While there are a number of areas of knowledge one can study that may be helpful to learning more about God and His creation, broadly speaking there are four major domains of knowledge we can identify, and that Christians must engage with, should they desire a deeper knowledge and love of God. Moreover, knowledge, both propositional and personal, increases our capacity to fulfill our mission of spreading the Gospel to every tribe, tongue, and nation. Without knowledge zeal alone is, as Paul says, catastrophic to saving grace:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:1-4

Thus, as we pursue becoming more well-rounded, deeper thinkers about God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s world, it is helpful to have some method of organizing this spiritual endeavor. The four primary knowledge domains we must entertain in order to achieve our goal of becoming disciplined followers of Christ are: Theology (Systematic and Biblical), Apologetics (Philosophical & Historical), Church History (pre-Reformation & Reformational), and Spiritual Formation (Spiritual Theology and Personal Formation).

Since these are very broad categories, it is right to point out that within each there is an abundance of knowledge subsets one could study. This part of discipleship is akin to wissenschaft in the German sense, knowledge that can become increasingly microcosmic and particular.

For example, one does not just study Biblical Theology by reading the Bible in English over and over. Rather one studies Pauline theology specifically, or Ancient Near Eastern languages like Ugaritic, or Greco-Roman history and philosophy, etc. All of these sub-disciplines become extremely relevant to becoming an expert in the larger domain of Biblical Theology. All of these subsets of knowledge lend to us knowing the Bible better, and knowing the Bible better clearly helps us know its Author better. But this kind of particular knowledge is good insofar as we continually submit our studies to the bigger whole, namely, the person and program of Jesus Christ.

For now however, let’s consider just these four broader domains in order to start focusing our efforts, in particular our personal reading, as we train our minds and hearts for the sake of the Gospel call. In this first of four blog posts we look at the first knowledge area, our primary discipline of Theology.

Augustine: The First Systematic Theologian

Systematic & Biblical Theology

Theology is our primary pursuit. The study of God is what we are essentially about as Christ followers. However, domain one encompasses two kinds of theology, both with their own distinctive approaches to the ultimate goal of knowledge of God. These are Systematic and Biblical theology.

Systematic Theology

Systematic Theology really takes off in the early Middle Ages, with the publication of Peter Lombard’s Four Books of Sentences, written sometime prior to 1160, and which dominated systematic theology until the Protestant Reformation. Before Lombard’s Sentences, St. Augustine was the most influential systematic theologian of the Western Church for its first 900 years, and his theology still impacts us today, and for good reason. After Augustine and Peter Lombard, Thomas Aquinas was the greatest pre-Reformation systematic theologian in Church History, writing his Summa Theologica in mid-13th century. The earliest systematic theological writings that were particularly Lutheran/Reformational were composed by Philip Melanchton, Luther’s close associate. So before the Reformation, the main systematic theologies that influenced the Church’s doctrine and practice were developed by Augustine, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas. Melanchton was the first Lutheran systematic theologian after Martin Luther’s “break” with the Roman version of the church.

John Calvin, however, was the first real, complete reformational systematic theologian (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559), and set the stage for some of the best theological writing in the church’s history by 17th century Puritan thinkers such as Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Stephen Charnock. In the 18th and 19th centuries the Protestant tradition of systematic theology was carried forward in the Americas by men like John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, W.T.G Shedd, Charles Hodge, and B.B. Warfield.

Finally in the 20th century, there are three German thinkers whose work dominates academic theology, greatly shaping contemporary, western, Protestant religion (for better or worse). These are Karl Barth, Wolfhart Pannenberg and Jürgen Moltmann. Other very influential, systematic theologians of the 20th century include:

Reformed Theology: Herman Bavinck, G.C. Berkouwer, Millard Erickson, Louis Berkhof, Abraham Kuyper

Lutheran Theology: Robert Jenson, George Lindbeck

Weslyean/Methodist Theology: Thomas Oden, William Abraham

Anglo-Theology (various denominations): T.F. Torrance, John Webster, Colin Gunton, Sarah Coakley

Roman Catholic: Hans Urs von Balthasaar, Henri du Lubac, Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), and Bernard Lonergan.

Systematic Theology in principle tries to answer broad, categorical questions related to all aspects of God, His creation, and His revelation. These aspects are often called theological loci, and the traditional loci of a given theological system are usually as follows (and often found in this order):

1) Prolegomena

2) Doctrine of Revelation (General, i.e. Natural Theology, and Special Revelation, i.e. Bibliology)

3) Doctrine of God (Trinity, God’s Attributes, also called Theology Proper)

4) Doctrine of Creation (Nature & Anthropology, Angelology & Demonology)

5) Doctrine of Sin (Hamartiology)

6) Doctrine of Christ (Christology)

7) Doctrine of Salvation (Soteriology)

8) Doctrine of the Church (Ecclesiology)

9) Doctrine of Angels & Demons (Angelology)

10) Doctrine of Last Things (Eschatology)

Obviously the order of these categories can shift according to the intention and logic of the theologian. Karl Barth, for example, famously began his 12-volume Church Dogmatics with the Doctrine of “The Word of God.” That itself should raise an important question in the reader’s mind, namely, why?

In sum, however, systematic theology is the attempt to give an orderly account about God and His creation using Scripture, Reason (philosophy and science) and human experience to answer the greatest number of fundamental questions about the Christian faith. This is a very different endeavor however from its theological counterpart: Biblical Theology.

Biblical Theology: What Does The Text Actually Say?

Biblical Theology

Unlike Systematic Theology, Biblical Theology focuses all its efforts on the study of the Bible, or what systematic theologians call Special Revelation. It looks at the Bible, how it was formed (e.g. the canon of Scripture and the composition of individual books or corpuses); how its parts work together (Old and New testaments); how individual books should be studied, scrutinized, and analyzed for their own sake; and how this all should be done without necessarily regarding how a passage, part of a book, or book of the Bible might fit into some broader system or paradigm.

Biblical Theology tries to understand any given part of the Bible, especially particular books, passages of books, or even phrases and individual words in their own immediate context. Thus, biblical theologians focus on very specific things like “Paul’s theology of ministry in the pastoral epistles” or even “the authorship of the pastoral epistles.” Typical biblical theological pursuits are:

  • Lexicography (the study of semantics, grammar, and syntax of the biblical languages)
  • Form criticism & Redaction criticism (controversial areas of Higher Biblical Criticism that are concerned with the origins of biblical books and passages)
  • Textual criticism (i.e. manuscript studies, also called “Lower Criticism”)
  • Critical and expository work of particular books or authors (e.g. commentaries, Pauline studies, Johannine theology, etc.)
  • Comparative historical/literary studies (e.g. Ancient Near Eastern culture, Greco-Roman biography)
  • Hermeneutics (the art and science of interpretation, which is a foundational philosophical undertaking that relates to all other biblical studies)

Biblical Theology is often said to have begun with J.P Gabler’s 1787 inaugural address at the German university of Altdorf (see Andreas Köstenberger’s article), where biblical theology was delineated from systematic theology, to include its evolution into Old Testament and New Testament studies.

As Biblical Theology grew into its own discipline, it tended to become increasingly separated from the more abstract work of at least some systematic theologians. To the point that today there is often a call in the Evangelical and Roman Catholic worlds to reconnect the two disciplines. The proper balance of Systematic (also known as Dogmatic) and Biblical Theology safeguards against Christian thought that is too atomistic or fragmented (too biblical), or theology that is too broad and not grounded in the very words of the Bible (too systematic).

John Webster lays out this dilemma:

We may be led to say something like this: Scripture is not simply one of a set of immanently-conceived communicative practices, a “historical” or “natural” entity of which a sufficient description can be given by identifying the natural properties of texts and their agents (whether authorial or interpretative). Nor is Scripture a historical or natural entity upon which we superimpose “religious” evaluations that encourage “spiritual use” or “theological interpretation.” Rather, without in any way denying the natural properties of scriptural texts, we may say that Scripture’s place in the divine economy of redemption and revelation is determinative of its nature. This nature, in turn, directs its reception.

“Biblical Reasoning”, ATR/90:4, pp. 739-740

In spite of this dilemma of balancing these two modes of theological approach, both however are necessary. And, because of advances in linguistic and historical studies (e.g. the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, etc.) Biblical Theology has become incredibly specialized, and the difficulty of one individual being both an expert exegete, and a top-notch systematician, with all the necessary philosophical training, makes it rare to find a scholar today who can do both equally well.

Historically though Biblical Theology has been dominated by German-language scholarship. Names like Bauer (F.C., Bruno, and Walter), Strauss, Wrede, Schweitzer, Wellhausen, Bultmann, von Rad, Noth, and many, many more are synonymous with the biblical interpretive paradigms they helped to create. Paradigms that often go under the title “Higher Biblical Crticism” or HBC. However, many of these great thinkers also tended to bring unwarranted philosophical presuppositions to their discipline, presuppositions that degraded the Bible from a divinely inspired revelation of a transcendent God, to a bible that is merely a production of human intellect and culture (see Webster’s pithy response to this above).

The difference maker for us as theological apologists, especially as we relate to the issue of the reliability and authority of scripture, will often be in discerning what parts of HBC we can accept and put into use for a proper defense of the Gospel, and which ones we must reject based on our necessary metaphysical commitments to a historical, and proclamatory Gospel message.

To know the difference between useful HBC and corrosive HBC, and to accept one side over the other, can result in being either in the scholarly camp of someone like a Bart Ehrman, who has popularized much of the older German HBC in his own works, or someone like a Craig Keener, who knows the same scholarship as Ehrman, but rejects the philosophical conclusions of corrosive HBC that degrades the transcendent nature of the Word of God.

While we should always engage with liberal or skeptical views, some excellent contemporary biblical scholars that we should definitely read are:

Old Testament: John Walton, Daniel I. Block, Tremper Longmann III, Gordon Wenham, Bruce Waltke, Derrick Kindner, Edwin Yamauchi, Nahum Sarna (Jewish), Jacob Milgrom (Jewish), Jeffrey Tigay (Jewish), Brevard Childs, Gerhard von Rad (a bit liberal, but a huge name in 20th century OT studies), Umberto Cassuto, John Goldingay, and, more recently, Michael Heiser.

New Testament: N.T. Wright, Richard Hays, Richard Bauckham, Craig Keener, Karl Rahner (Catholic), Michael Kruger, Andreas Köstenberger, Michael Bird, Peter O’Brien, D.A. Carson, Michael Licona, I. Howard Marshall, Darrell Bock, Ben Witherington III, Jocahim Jeremias, E.P. Sander, James Dunn, Moises Silva, Robert Jewett, and Ramsey Michaels.

Because OT and NT studies are so specialized there are simply too many people in the field to give an adequate list. But the above names are all highly regarded 20-21st century Evangelical scholars (unless otherwise indicated in parentheses). For additional Biblical Theological resources these surveys edited by Tremper Longman III, and D.A. Carson are indispensable for anyone looking to go deeper into the Biblical texts: Old Testament Commentary Survey, and New Testament Commentary Survey. These surveys will also save pastors a great amount of time when looking for commentaries to prepare for their sermons.

Conclusion: In conclusion, the goal of any born-again Christian will be to think theologically about the Bible, understanding it always as God’s Divine Word to man, while also thinking biblically about Theology, making sure that when we teach church doctrines they can be grounded in the text of Scripture. Without thinking theologically, we can get a academic study of the Bible that leaves no room for its divine Author, and without the other we can get a view of god that is very far removed from the God of the Bible, Who was, and Who is, and Who is to come.

I hope this breakdown of theological studies helps in guiding us forward as we look to guide others.

Did Jesus Make Historical Errors?

A recent Facebook post asked the intriguing question of whether or not believers in Jesus (i.e. in Jesus’ full deity) would be comfortable if it were the case that Jesus referenced Old Testament events that themselves were not factually historically, but as if they were factually true. That is, could Jesus as God incarnate genuinely reference Old Testament narratives as historical events that contemporary commentators take to be allegorical, mythical, or just plain false? In short, did Jesus make historical errors?

This is a really good question, especially for all those who hold to a high Christology, whereby Jesus, possessing all of the properties of the Godhead, would be incapable of error. After all, could it really be the case that God might flunk a simple exam on Ancient Near Eastern history? Likely not, if He is indeed the greatest conceivable Being.

I see two possible solutions to this problem: one, that Jesus concealed knowledge from His audience for some greater good, or two, that Jesus, like his contemporaries, didn’t actually know the facts of the matter. Neither of these conclusions, however, should diminish our faith in the God-man, nor the reliability of the Scriptures.

Christology & Communication of Attributes

First, it is necessary to do some Christological work. For clearly what we are discussing here is the nature of the divine attributes, in particular the attribute of omniscience, and how those attributes are shared, or communicated, between Jesus’ divine nature and His human nature. Historically, scholastic theologians distinguished between the communication of divine attributes in the abstract (communicatio idiomatum in abstracto) and the communication of attributes in the concrete (communicatio idiomatum in concreto). The former meant that the divine attributes were shared with Jesus’ human nature at the level of essences, while the later held that the divine and human attributes were shared concretely in the particular person of Jesus of Nazareth (contra Nestorius, who thought that God could not suffer, or thirst, and most certainly not die).

If the sharing of divine attributes (let’s stick with omniscience as an example) were shared at the level of essences, that is between the divine essence and human essence, then, for example, it would be the case that baby Jesus, had he so desired, was entirely capable of formulating Einstein’s theory of relativity without any normal process of human learning, right there in the manager. Since God knows all truths about the universe (to include Einstein’s theory), then the Christ child not only knew this theory, but could articulate it as well since he would also possess divine omnipotence at the level of His human nature and, therefore, would not be limited by underdeveloped vocal cords, or cognition.

However, this seems highly unlikely, especially in light of verses like Luke 2:52, a verse almost all biblical scholars take at face value. But, if Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, then he likely also learned things, like any other 1st century Palestinian boy. That would mean that Jesus’ attributes, both divine and human, were shared in the concrete, in His very person, the individual being who just is both the second person of the Trinity and the man Jesus (the theanthropos). That means that the God-man can have divine attributes correctly applied to Him (see 1 Cor 2:8) and also human attributes correctly predicated of Him (Rom 1:3), even though He is only one man. But is also means that Jesus would have had to grow and develop as a human before certain capacities could be exercised.

However, if this communication of attributes in the concrete is assumed, it seems clear that there are times when Jesus’ divine attributes are non-operative (Matt 24:36-37). Now, if one believes that the communication of attributes does occur at the level of essences, or natures, then one might be able to say that in passages like these Jesus simply hides the fact that He knows such truths. He knows them, but conceals them from His followers, the same way He conceals the fact He can do S5 modal logic from Mary during their flight to Egypt.

But, if Jesus is not concealing His divine omniscience at times like this, then the only other option is that Jesus, being human, is actually unaware of certain truths; e.g. like the timing of the end times. We will look at this shortly. Another option would be to say that within the Trinity itself there are things the Father knows, which the Son does not. But, while this might be true in one sense (e.g. the Father knows the proposition “I am the Father” to be true, while the Son does not), in other areas of knowledge, like the timing of the end times, this is highly problematic.

One possibility that might answer the question of legitimate ignorance of historical facts by Jesus is sometimes referred to as kenotic Christology. Kenosis Christology suggests that Jesus empties Himself of some of His divine attributes (see Phil 2:5-11), but in doing so did not necessarily lose His divinity. Loss of divine attributes, or their fullness, does not mean lack of or deficiency in divine status. Here, Jesus relinquishes the “omni” of His divine attributes, but maintains the “supra” of those same attributes. So, while Jesus may be ignorant of the timing of the end times, He still can still exercise super-knowledge, or super-power, for example, in His knowledge of the thoughts of human person (Matt 12:25) and in His power to cast out demons, or walk on water.

So, how does this all play out with regard to the original question? How do these two, perhaps three, models of the communication of attributes apply to the idea that Jesus might have referenced OT narratives as genuinely historical events, when, in fact, they were either mythical constructs, or mistaken reports, or perhaps something in between, like mythicized history.

Let’s take the last two models first. On the kenotic model, Jesus simply does not know whether these events were factual, and that is because He has emptied himself of some of his divine attributes. He probably takes them as literal, because that is the way the contemporaries of his day took them. Thus, it would not be in any way wrong, again considering His setting aside of omni-science, for Him to assume what the scribes, pharisees, and laypeople of His time also assumed about these stories; they were, after all, Israel’s history. In this sense Jesus has accommodated His whole self to the human context, and, therefore, there is no inconsistency or problem with us understanding Jesus as still fully divine, yet without this kind of knowledge.

Alternatively, on the communication of attributes in the concrete model, we can only make basic remarks that accord with Orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology, yet which leave us a bit unsatisfied as to an actual explanation of how Jesus can be called both fully divine and fully human. At certain times Jesus displays only divine properties, and at other times, seemingly, only human properties. Thus, we say simply that when Jesus enacts a miracle, he acts miraculously according to his divine nature, and when he fails to know a bit about the future, his failure to know is according to his human nature. Beyond that, we cannot say much more. The “how” of this unity of contradictory attributes is simply not for us to understand. Again here there is no problem or inconsistency with saying that if Jesus did not know some truth about history, He did not know it according to His human nature. This should be unproblematic, unless we think that not knowing a fact about history is a sin; which I doubt anyone does.

Applying One Model to Understand Jesus’ OT References

On the first model, however, the communication of attributes in the abstract, we might say that Jesus knows the facticity of all historical events, to include those narrated in the OT (and knows them exhaustively), but chooses to conceal that knowledge from his original audience, and consequently from us. Why might He do this though? Why not tell them all of the facts of the story?

Well, on this view, that of Jesus as having attributes communicated at the level of natures, one solution to the problem of OT references presents itself.

With regard to OT narratives that Jesus seemingly references as historical, let’s say the story of Jonah, it is possible that on this model of Jesus’ attributes, a) Jesus was incapable of making factual mistakes due to the sharing of divine attributes in the abstract, and b) that not every story in the Old Testament, to include those Jesus referenced, was a one-to-one accurate account of a historical event that occurred in the same spacetime universe we inhabit right now. 

Thus, Jesus knows the facticity of any given historical event, yet also knows that some of these OT narratives that His audience takes as factual are indeed, to some degree, non-factual. But, Jesus conceals this knowledge from them, accommodating his communication to His audience for the sake of getting them to understand something more significant than just historical facts, something like a necessary theological truth; on this example of Jonah and the fish, it might be the analogy of “the sign of Jonah” with Jesus’ immanent resurrection from the grave. He conceals His omniscience from His listeners, resisting telling them every detail of the Jonah event, so that some greater good might obtain; some greater good for them.

Therefore, Jesus may have referenced stories in the OT that used hyperbole, metaphor, or other literary devices, subsequently refraining from correcting them for facticity, and that for the sake of making sure that the same theological content taught through those OT narratives, and that was understood as such by his contemporary audience, is the same content that He is commenting on, and adapting, for his hearers.

Moreover, Jesus might further refrain from giving this one-to-one, detailed account of a historical event because to do so could have some detrimental or opposite affect on human agents already depraved by sin. Or, if not a detrimental affect, an insufficient affect (i.e. something that does not effect in the agent that which they would need in order to come to know God). From a secular standpoint it is often thought that more propositional knowledge is always a good for us as human beings; however, if the chief end of man is to come into an eternal loving relationship with God, it is not obvious that merely more factual data will actually aid in that goal. In fact, it could hinder it.

Finally, this concealment of knowledge is already implied in the NT when Jesus tells parables so that some who hear them may, in fact, not understand their meaning. Thus, we should conclude that if God does hide certain facts from us, He does so for our benefit, and not to our detriment.

Of course, there is one other option that I am more than willing to entertain, namely, that these OT stories are presented as history, because they actually were historical. That said, Jesus refers to events in the OT as historical true simply because they were so.

Early Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part III – Line 1 of the Nicene Creed

Continuing in this examination of the early Christian creeds, specifically the Nicene Creed, I open this post with a few comments by J.N.D. Kelly. Then, I will reproduce the first line of the Nicene Creed, and examine it with regard to how to think about its claims from the stance of Christian apologetics.

First Kelly on the Nicene Creed:

Creeds, it would appear, even creeds properly designed for use at baptism, were coming to be employed in detachment from the baptismal services as a means of demonstrating that the man who professed them was above reproach theologically…In the new type of creed the motive of testing orthodoxy was primary: the creeds were deliberately framed with this object in view. The common opinion is that at all events this new and drastic step was first taken at the council of Nicaea. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 207 [emphasis added].)

Moreover, speaking to Nicaea’s universality Kelly adds:

The creed of Nicaea was the first formula to be published by an ecumenical synod: consequently it was the first which could claim universal authority in a legal sense. (Kelly, 207 [emphasis added]).

But, this formula, put together by 318 bishops from around the Roman Empire, to include far-off enclaves like Britain, was not novel in its origin:

It was long ago observed that N [the Nicaea formula] bore a striking resemblance at certain points to creeds of the Syro-Palestinian type. H. Lietzmann followed up this hint, and argued [on Kelly’s view successfully] that the creed underlying N…must have been one belonging to the Jerusalem family. The creeds to which its kinship is most marked are the first of the two quoted by St. Epiphanius, and the one used by St. Cyril of Jerusalem [313-386 AD]. (Kelly, 227 [emphasis added]).

In sum, the basis for the AD 325 Nicene creed is likely very ancient; itself going back to the city of Jerusalem, the epicenter of the original, apostolic proclamation about Jesus. This provides strong evidence that this Creed stood very much in line conceptually and factually with what the Apostles themselves had preached and what was textualized in the pages of Scripture.

That said, let’s look at the first line of this creed:

We believe in one God, the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible;

What truth claims can we identify in this line that would need to be defended? I will put them in propositional form (i.e. We believe that “x”)

  1. We believe that one God exists
  2. We believe that God has revealed Himself as Father
  3. We believe that God is all-powerful
  4. We believe that God made all things that would be considered “heavenly” or “earthly”
  5. We believe that God made all things that are visible, physical, or empirically measurable, and all things that are not visible, non-physical, or not empirically measurable (i.e. God created the universe and everything in it, or any other thing that may have existed prior to the space-time continuum in which we now exist).

So, what are some arguments that we would need in order to defend each of these claims?

1. Here we need arguments for God’s existence: the Kalam Cosmological Argument, the Fine-Tuning argument, the Moral argument, etc. In short, the deliverances of natural theology.

2. Here we need to defend how the Bible actually speak about God. We can make distinctions that while God is spirit, and in that sense genderless, God nevertheless has chosen to be revealed as Father. A more fine-grained analysis may have to argue that the term “Father” is more than a mere metaphor, rather an analogy that holds deep theological significance.

Moreover, even if “Father” is a metaphor, and therefore culturally constructed to some extent, one still has to answer the question of why God choses to be revealed as such in that time and that culture. Even if God is not literally gendered, and taking for granted God could have revealed God’s nature in a 21st century Scandinavian context as opposed to a 1st century Greco-Jewish one, we should then consider seriously God’s choice of the latter over the former.

3. Here we need to clarify what we mean by “power.” Can “power” do “all things” or are there limits, logical ones especially, on what we mean when we talk of God’s power? Of course the main contention surrounding God’s power will arise when we tackle the problem of suffering (natural evil). The question of whether God is able to stop natural evil is one horn of perhaps the most difficult dilemma for Christian theism.

4 & 5. Here we would probably want to defend the idea that God is the only uncreated being; God is a se, while all other things are created. Another way of putting this is that God is necessary, while all other things are contingent or derivative. There are in-house debates about this, however, and they can get pretty technical.

All this considered, what non-Christian or non-orthodox views do these claims necessarily preclude:

  1. Atheism, polytheism, atheistic religions (Buddhism), pantheism, possibly panentheism
  2. Christianities that refer to God as “Mother” or use some gendered or familial term other than “Father,” when that term is specifically in view (obviously there is nothing wrong with referring to God as the “fount of all Being” or “the Rock of Ages” if appropriate to the context). The attempt to change the particular reference of God as Father, however, is not only anachronistic, but refuses to take the doctrines of Revelation & Inspiration as serious metaphysical doctrines.
  3. God can do anything that power can do. To claim that God cannot do something that power could do, would be false. This is often an important claim to defend when the Problem of Evil and Suffering is brought up. In the 1950’s and 1960’s there was a movement called Process Theology which discarded the idea that God is actually all-powerful. It is more detailed than that, but on that low view of God’s causal efficacy alone we would argue against Process Theology.4-5. God is not created like other things, so again Naturalism and Pantheism are incompatible with this claim, because God is neither part of nature, nor was God created by something else, otherwise what we are referencing would not be God.

Finally, what sources might we need to draw from to defend these claims;

  • Philosophy of Religion, with regards to defending God’s existence
  • Biblical Studies (NT & OT studies), with regards to understanding God as “Father”
  • Metaphysics, with regard to the question about the kinds of created things that do exist, and how we should think about causality and causal “power.”

So, these are just a few reflections on this first line of the Nicene Creed. I look forward to engendering some healthy discussion in this approach to defending a historical mere Christianity.

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part II – The Nicene Creed

Continuing in this examination of the early creeds and their usefulness for apologetics, I turn now to the Nicene Creed. About this particular creedal formulae J.N.D. Kelly states:

Prior to the beginning of the fourth century all creeds and summaries of faith were local in character. It was taken for granted, of course, that they enshrined the universally accepted Catholic faith, handed down from the Apostles. But they owed their immediate authority, no less than their individual stamp, to the liturgy of the local church in which they had emerged. Moreover, while creed-like formularies were to be found in the Eucharist, in the rite of exorcism and elsewhere, those in the main line of development were confined to baptism and the catechetical preparation leading up to it. A great revolution now takes place with the introduction of synodal or conciliar creeds. The custom becomes established, beginning with the council of Nicea, for ecclesiastics meeting in solemn conclave to frame formularies giving utterance to their agreement on matters of faith.

He goes on to say:

The new creeds were intended, of course, to have a far more than local authority. Sometimes including anathemas, they were put forth not merely as epitomes of the beliefs of their promulgators, but as tests of the orthodoxy of Christians in general…It was devised [the Nicene Creed] as the touchstone by which the doctrines of Church teachers and leaders might be certified as correct. (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, 205.)

As I mentioned in the first part of this series, the earliest creedal formulas, formulas that point to a core deposit of Apostolic teaching about Christ, are found in the very lines of the New Testament itself (see 1 Cor 15:3-8, Phil 2:5-11). Here, Kelly points out, however, that as the Church grew in size and influence, it became necessary to take the core truths about faith in Christ that had been inscripturated by the NT writers, and consolidate them into simple formulas to ensure that local churches would be roughly on the same page in regards to what they were teaching about Jesus Christ. This included pointing out false teachings.

To use an analogy, my family owns several pizzerias in Chicago. They are all the same company though, just different locations. We want to ensure that every one of our pizza restaurants produces the same kind of pizza as all the others. We want the pizza produced to be as similar as possible regardless of which location one goes to for dinner. So, how can this continuity in texture and taste of each pizza be maintained across various local restaurants?

Well, the first thing you need is a recipe, and then you need some detailed instructions about how to put the pizza together. Then, you need to get that recipe and those instructions into the hands of the local managers, who then need to get it down to their workers, who subsequently need to know what the recipe says and practice what the instructions tell them to do.

However, no recipe for a pizza, or any food item really, needs to contain all the information about a pizza in order to make a pizza, and make it well. For example, you don’t necessarily need to know the percentage of flour to yeast in the dough, or what brand of yeast is used, or how many ounces of salt is in the pepperoni, or how much fennel is in each ounce of sausage, or what exactly the spice mix in the sauce consists of. It’s not bad to know all that detail, but to start you only need to know the rough outline or the more general characteristics of the pizza in order to actually make it. You just need to know you need a certain amount of dough, sauce, cheese, sausage, etc. and how they all fit together.

A creedal statement could act as a sort of general recipe for how to make a church an Apostolic one, and it could tell you how your Christian life should (in a minimal way) look, and what a biblically-centered church should (again minimally) believe. Obviously there is more to the restaurant than just the pizzas (there are the servers, the drinks, the salads, the cleanliness, etc.), but if you get the pizza wrong, you probably aren’t going to be a very good pizzeria. And, as I said above, there will always be more one can learn about how the pizza is made and what goes into it. Same in the church, it is more than just the core beliefs, but if you get them wrong, you aren’t going to produce very good Christians (that sounds a bit mechanistic, but you get my drift). Also, you don’t want to stop at the basic outline of the recipe, a good manager (i.e. pastor) will know the product better than the new believer. He, the manager, will know what the ratio of salt to sugar in the dough is, and why that matters.

In conclusion, the early creeds themselves, and specifically Nicaea, were essentially apologetical. They were designed to clarify truth claims, and refute false claims. They were defenses of the core truths found in the Scriptures themselves, without being exhaustive about the truth that is found in Scripture. So, to know these claims and defend them seems to be a task that still applies to us today as inheritors of an apostolic and historical Christian faith. This does not mean the creeds are equal to Scripture, but that they are like general recipes for belief that keep us all on the same page.

In the next post I will look at line 1 of the Nicene Creed and break it down into basic claims.

Early Christian Creeds and Their Importance for Apologetics: Part I

In reflecting a lot recently about the importance of the early Christian, ecumenical creeds. In light of the multifarious challenges facing Christians today, everything ranging from: post-modernism, progressive Christianity, liberation and process theologies, the ever-increasing proliferation of cults (e.g. Scientology), heresies (e.g. oneness Pentacostalism), or otherwise non-orthodox portrayals of Jesus, or just the seemingly endless battles of biblical interpretation, it seems relevant and critical to retrieve a clear understanding of what the early church held to be the most basic, most fundamental, and most central beliefs of the Christian Church- the church founded by the Apostles and eyewitnesses to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thus, regaining a familiarity with these core beliefs, handed down by the first witnesses, and later consolidated by Christ-followers into formal and definitional statements, can provide a second mooring for understanding what we believe, why we believe it, and why we need to defend it. This task, therefore, can help us to better discern, as the theologian Thomas Oden put it, what is “Classical Christianity” over and against other, non-classical christianities.

Further, knowing the creeds can also help us to better appreciate the rich, intellectual history of our faith; something we probably would want to do as loyal defenders of Christ’s church, but are often times unaware of. So, to know the deposit of faith left for us by our spiritual forefathers, can be not only apologetically useful for defending certain indispensable truth claims, but also spiritually formative in putting us in touch with our own past- a past often disparaged not only by those outside the Christian faith, but also those within it.

Before we continue with this project, let me state up front: I am not claiming that creeds are on the same authoritative level as the revealed Scriptures themselves. The content of revelation is in the Bible. Creeds, if anything, are nothing more than an extraction and summarization of those parts of the inspired Scriptures that are most clear to us, and most weighty for the life of the follower of Jesus. The earliest creeds were baptismal formulas developed in house churches, designed to help neophytes (new believers) express their newfound faith in Christ and enter into His community of faith.

In this series of posts, therefore, I would like to invite everyone into a conversation that, hopefully, will be an ongoing exploration of one of the earliest, and possibly first truly universal, creeds of the apostolic Church, namely the Nicene Creed (325 AD). I will take each line of the Nicene Creed and discuss it in detail. In doing so, this will raise all kinds of good questions about what are, in our contemporary contexts, the kinds of claims we need to defend in order to remain faithful to a Christianity that is rooted in a historical proclamation, not just in theological musings unanchored from historical events and metaphysical realities.

Moreover, we might also see where we do have some disagreements within the church catholic (Eastern, Orthodox Protestant, and Roman), perhaps not about the creedal claims themselves, but about how more precisely to understand each claim. This endeavor should lead to fruitful theological discussion (something the early church Fathers never shied away from), a discussion that has already begun in many scholarly circles. Finally, as we go through this I will be studying and completing our discussion using J.N.D Kelly’s classic work on the topic, shown here:

In going forward, then, what I hope to accomplish is to think about the kinds of apologetical issues that arise as we explore each statement of belief found in the Nicene Creed. So, for example, if the first line of the creed states: “We believe in one God, the Father almighty,” what claims can we draw out of this that apologists would need to defend?

For example, in examining the first line, I see the need to defend the truth claim “that there is one God” not 8, or 12, or zero. Moreover, I should probably also defend the claim that God is called “Father” and not “mother” or “brother.” In first thinking about the kinds of things we would need to defend in order for a core belief to be true, only then can we consider what sources (philosophical, historical, scientific) we should access to get the data we need to defend that claim. Thus, line 1 of the Nicene Creed about belief in “one God” could be defended from Scripture alone (Gen 1:1, Jas 2:19), but, it would seem that natural theology is necessary to make a cogent case for its truthfulness. And then, we might further ask, which disciplines fuel natural theological arguments and who has presented most articulately or powerfully certain natural theological claims.

Finally, it is worth thinking about what audiences we need to defend this claim against (e.g. some theologians might reject the notion that God should be called “Father.” Should we agree with them, or stick with what is clearly stated in both Bible and creed?). Obviously, atheists, and even some who identify as “Christian” believe that there is no God to speak of; that god is just a concept. And so on, and so forth.

In the next post I will look more specifically at the Nicene Creed and its origins. Then, I will begin to extract from each line the propositional content requiring argumentative defense.