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Reflections on the Reformation (Part 2) – The Issue of Baptism

Yesterday I began a brief little series on the issues raised in the Protestant Reformation, inspired in part by a thought provoking booked entitled Was the Reformation a Mistake?  In that work, Catholic scholar Matthew Levering and Protestant scholar Kenneth Vanhoozer exchange thoughts regarding the central issues that separate them. I’m chiming in with my own reflections, beginning with yesterday’s post on the issue of authority. In this post, I want to address another topic – baptism.

The Catholic View of Baptism

In his explanation of the seven sacraments of Catholicism, Levering refers to the following passages in his comments on baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (Galatians 3:26-27)

From these passages, Levering concludes:

Baptism unites us with Christ’s death, but in a way that involves not only the sacrament – water baptism – but also faith. (p. 101)

When Levering says that faith is also involved in the sacrament of baptism, he does not necessarily mean that the one being baptized has faith at that moment. Indeed, in Catholic teaching, infants should be baptized, and then later catechized as they develop personal faith:

…children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1250)

In Catholic teaching, the faith that is exercised at baptism is that of the entire community:

Baptism is the sacrament of faith. But faith needs the community of believers. It is only within the faith of the Church that each of the faithful can believe. The faith required for Baptism is not a perfect and mature faith, but a beginning that is called to develop. The catechumen or the godparent is asked: “What do you ask of God’s Church?” The response is: “Faith!” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1253)

So if I could summarize the Catholic view of baptism, I would say that it holds that salvation is by baptism but without the personal faith of the one being baptized.

The Protestant View of Baptism

What is the Protestant view of baptism? That’s a difficult question to answer since Protestantism doesn’t have a centralized source of authority to speak for all Protestants. Those in the Reformed tradition tend to see baptism as a “sign and seal” of God’s covenant with the elect, including infants. Those from a Baptist background see baptism as a public identification with Christ and the church reserved for adults who have already been saved by faith.

Vanhoozer combines these views in his critique of Levering’s position:

Nor is it the baptismal alone that unites us with Christ’s saving death, but the Holy Spirit through faith in the word (cf. Gal 2:20). Scripture presents baptism and the Lord’s Supper as signs and seals – not the effective (or even instrumental) causes – of salvation. That epithet is reserved for Christ’s death and resurrection alone. What is at stake in saying this, of course, is the gospel. (p. 218)

In contrast to the Catholic view of salvation by baptism without personal faith, Vanhoozer argues for salvation by personal faith without baptism. This is also the approach taken by popular Protestant blogger Tim Challies:

The Roman Catholic view of baptismal regeneration must be rejected outright. It teaches that God’s salvation and grace are conferred through baptism, so that “through Baptism we are free from sin and reborn as sons of God.” This is a rejection of the New Testament emphasis that, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9) and, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So which is it – salvation by baptism without personal faith, or salvation by faith without baptism?

Faith, Baptism, and Salvation

I believe this is a false choice. In Scripture, the basis of salvation is the death of Christ, the means of salvation is personal faith, and the time of salvation is baptism. Consider this text from Paul:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Colossians 2:11-12)

Here Paul describes baptism as a “circumcision made without hands,” the removal of sinfulness (“the body of the flesh”). And he says that this happens “in him” – in Christ – “by the circumcision of Christ.” So Christ’s death is the basis of our salvation.

But Paul also says that we receive this spiritual circumcision “having been buried with him in baptism.” In baptism, in other words, we are united with Christ, sharing in his death and resurrection. That is the time when we receive the saving effects of Jesus’ death.

This is not at all inconsistent with faith, however. In fact, Paul says that our resurrection to life in baptism takes place “through faith in the powerful working of God.” Faith is the means by which we grasp the promise of God to save us in baptism by Christ’s death.

If we confuse the basis, means, and time of salvation, the biblical data will never make any sense to us, since at different times Scripture ascribes salvation to the death of Christ (Romans 5:9), to faith (Ephesians 2:8), and to baptism (1 Peter 3:21). We don’t have to choose between these, though, if we recognize the role of each in redemption.

Let me close with an illustration. As a lot of you know, my wife is undergoing treatment for cancer. Every other week we have an appointment go to a clinic where she receives an infusion of chemo. So far, that treatment has held the cancer at bay. Now, would it make sense to say that Kristi is saved by the chemo but not the infusion? Or by the chemo but not the appointment? Of course not. The chemo is the basis of her treatment, the infusion is the means of her treatment, and the appointment is the time of her treatment.

In the same way, the basis of our salvation is the redemptive work of Christ on the cross. Just as Kristi adds nothing to her chemo, we can add nothing to the accomplishment of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. Faith is the way we grasp this work, just as the infusion is the means by which Kristi’s chemo is administered. And baptism is the time that God has designated that this happens, as the time when our faith in God’s powerful work has its effect (just as Kristi’s appointment is the time when the life-saving chemo is infused).

In my judgment, Catholic teaching is right on target in identifying the connection between baptism and salvation. Where it goes amiss in my view is in its understanding of whether the one being baptized must have personal faith. Protestants (again, broadly speaking) are right in seeing the need for personal faith as the means of salvation, but overreact to Catholic teaching in the devaluing of baptism. I think Martin Luther captured the harmony of biblical teaching very nicely:

Thus you see plainly that Baptism is not a work which we do but is a treasure which God gives us and faith grasps, just as the Lord Christ upon the cross is not a work but a treasure comprehended and offered to us in the Word and received by faith. (Luther’s Large Catechism 37)




Reflections on the Reformation (Part 1) – The Issue of Authority

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In conjunction with that anniversary, I read an interesting book called Was the Reformation a Mistake? by Matthew Levering and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Levering’s portion of the book consisted of a defense of the Catholic position on various issues raised by the Reformation, to which Vanhoozer offered a response. It was an interesting read, and prompted me to think more about some of these matters. Over the next three days I want to look at three issues which divide Catholics and Protestants. First on the list – the issue of authority. What is the final and infallible authority for Christian faith and practice?

My Catholic friends hold that this authority is found in three sources: sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the teaching authority of the Church, known as the Magisterium.

It is clear therefore that, in the supremely wise arrangement of God, sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church are so connected and associated that one of them cannot stand without the others. Working together, each in its own way, under the action of the one Holy Spirit, they all contribute effectively to the salvation of souls. (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 95)

We Protestants, on the other hand, contend that Scripture alone is the final and infallible arbiter of faith. This is not to say that we don’t use resources to help us grasp what Scripture teaches, or that there aren’t human authorities (like elders) in local churches. But it does mean that once we have discerned what Scripture actually teaches, that and that alone is the bottom line, the “norming norm” of faith and practice.

I appreciate the argument that my Catholic friends make to the effect that without the additional authority of the Magisterium, Protestants have no anchor, and that we are susceptible to a myriad of interpretations of and endless deviations from the apostolic teaching.A quick glance around the Protestant landscape seems to validate this criticism! This is why Catholicism places such emphasis on apostolic succession, the notion that the deposit of faith has been “entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome” (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 85).

However, I don’t find this argument ultimately persuasive, for a couple of reasons. First, there are competing claims to apostolic succession between Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some forms of high Anglicanism. In order to determine which view is valid, I have to analyze the claims of each and decide which one is correct. But the need for that sort of individual, independent evaluation of competing interpretations is precisely what apostolic succession is supposed to alleviate when it comes to competing interpretations of Scripture. So it doesn’t seem to me that apostolic succession really solves anything.

Second, on a practical level, I am unpersuaded that a consolidating authority like the Magisterium really helps keep Christians united. Right now the Catholic Church is embroiled in a tremendous controversy regarding doctrinal statements by Pope Francis regarding divorce. One Catholic author that I’ve benefited from, Thomas Weinandy, has criticized Pope Francis for fostering confusion, division, and uncertainty because of his various public statements on these matters. The way I look at it, we Protestants have enough confusion, division, and uncertainty of our own without adding more! So I don’t see a practical advantage to an institutional authority like the Magisterium.

Third, the absence of any sort of apostolic succession (as it is conceived of by Catholicism) in the Bible is glaring. There are many places in the New Testament where such an institutional concept of authority would have made sense to mention, such as Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesians elders in Acts 20:17-38, or John’s first letter regarding the “antichrists” who were denying the truth about Jesus. Yet in neither instance did the apostles mention a specific successor who would help the church navigate difficult circumstances. Both Paul and John pointed to the truth which was previously taught as the safeguard against doctrinal error (Acts 20:32; 1 John 2:24).

For these reasons, I do not find the Catholic understanding of authority to be compelling. But in the spirit of the Reformation, I think it is also important to reevaluate Protestantism as well. Many Protestants confuse sola scriptura with solo scriptura, the assumption that “all I need is the Bible.” I believe that all I need as the sole infallible source of authority is Scripture, but that’s a different proposition entirely from the notion that I don’t need to consider other resources in order to grasp what Scripture says.

In the first place, unless you read Hebrew and Greek, you need something more than the Bible to understand it – translations. And unless you are an expert in ancient cultures, you need resources like dictionaries and encyclopedias to understand the terminology of the Bible. Don’t misunderstand – these resources are helps to understanding Scripture, not replacements for or supplements to Scripture. And they are certainly not infallible. But they do provide crucial help in understanding what the sole infallible source of authority, Scripture, actually says.

Second, the easiest way to subvert the authority of Scripture is by ignoring its context and downloading your own definitions of terms onto the Scriptures. This is an insidious path to substituting your will for God’s. The antidote to this is using resources that are designed to aid your understanding of the context of the Bible – again, not in place of Scripture or as an authority comparable to Scripture, but as a means of knowing what the authoritative word of God says.

Third, the notion that “all I need is the Bible” ignores the value of listening to what others have to say. Years ago I heard of a preacher who claimed that he never read any commentaries. I appreciate the sentiment that places devotion to the Bible above all else, but what that sort of claim basically says is, “I don’t have anything to learn from anyone else.” God did not give us the Bible in a vacuum. He “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers to equip the saints” (Ephesians 4:11-12). Throughout my life I have benefited from many teachers, whether in classes or in commentaries, who have helped me see the Bible more clearly. Are they infallible? No. Are they invaluable? Yes.

The confession that “Jesus is Lord” is ultimately about authority, about living in submission to the Lord of Lords. I hope this post will spark greater interest in living out that confession. For my Catholic friends, I think the current climate under Pope Francis provides an occasion to reconsider the ramifications of papal authority and extra-biblical tradition. For my Protestant friends, I suggest that we remind ourselves that sola scriptura can easily become a rationalization for lazy or arrogant individualism.




The God of Reason and Scripture

Note: this is the conclusion of a series of posts on the existence of God. Here are the previous posts:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The First Cause

“This All Men Speak of As God”

“Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas over Averroes” by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–97)

Over the last few weeks I have presented a case for the existence of God that moved from the contingent (dependent) nature of reality to some necessary (independent) explanation of that reality. In the process, I deduced that this necessary being must be the personal, eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique sustaining source of all contingent existence. Well, I say, “I deduced.” Actually, what I did is simply summarize shamelessly parrot as concisely as I could the grand tradition of philosophical reasoning that is reflected in pagans like Aristotle, Jews like Maimonides, Christians like Aquinas, and Muslims like Ibn Sina. This is a rich legacy of thoughtful reflection on the rationality of faith, and sadly, a legacy concerning which many believers are unaware (including me until just a few years ago). If this series of posts has piqued your interest in learning more about this classical tradition, then I am a thrilled.

There is one other ancient thinker I should mention – the apostle Paul. What I have tried to do in these posts is really just follow his example of pointing to the natural order as a signpost to God’s existence and attributes. Whether speaking to pagans in Lystra (in Acts 14) or addressing philosophers in Athens (in Acts 17), this is precisely how Paul initiated the case for faith in the one true God. Later, in the letter to the church at Rome, Paul explained why this case is so powerful:

For what can be known about God is plain to them [pagans], because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. (Romans 1:19-20)

According to Paul, God’s eternal power and divine nature are perceptible – clearly perceptible – based on what we can discern from nature. And that is how the argument of the last few weeks unfolded, beginning with the concept of a necessary being, then building from that to deduce just what this being must be like.

In this post, I want to compare the conclusions we drew about God from the natural revelation of creation to the testimony concerning God found in Scripture. Many of you who are reading these posts are believers, and you may have wondered how the philosophical portrait of God (as necessary, eternal, immutable, etc) matches up with the biblical portrait of God. But first, please remember an important caveat from the previous post. As the Creator, God is completely unlike anything in our immediate experience as creatures.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal,
and compare me, that we may be alike?…
for I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me (Isaiah 46:5, 9).

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9)

This means that when the Bible speaks of God as a “father,” for example, that it is conveying a truth about God that is something like our concept of fatherhood, only much greater. Keeping this important caveat in mind will help shield you from common misunderstandings of biblical descriptions of God.

With that disclaimer in mind, let’s look at what the Bible says about the God we have discovered through logical arguments.

God Is Necessary

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:14)

As the necessary being, God doesn’t rely on anything else to exist. He simply is existence itself, and that is what the divine name here in Exodus 3:14 means. Given the widespread acceptance of polytheism in the ancient world, this description of God in Exodus is remarkable. As one philosopher points out:

The author of the biblical text has managed to offer an expression of God that just happens to be in accord with some of the most profound metaphysical reasoning about the nature of God and His relation to the world in the history of Western Thought. (Gaven Kerr, Aquinas’s Way to God, p. 169).

God Is Eternal

Since God doesn’t depend on anything else to exist, he didn’t come to be and he cannot pass away. He is eternal.

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

God’s timeless existence is the basis for this challenge to the false gods of the nations. Since he is not confined by time, God can tell the future but idols cannot:

Set forth your case, says the LORD;
bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.
Let them bring them, and tell us
what is to happen.
Tell us the former things, what they are,
that we may consider them,
that we may know their outcome;
or declare to us the things to come.
Tell us what is to come hereafter,
that we may know that you are gods;
do good, or do harm,
that we may be dismayed and terrified. (Isaiah 41:21-23; cf. 44:6-7)

God Is Immaterial

I argued that God is not composed of parts, otherwise he would depend on those parts to exist, as well as on someone or something to assemble them. Another way to state the point is that God wasn’t made by anything or anyone else. The pagan shrine makers in Ephesus perceived the stark difference between their conception of god versus Paul’s:

And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. (Acts 19:26)

Since God is immaterial, this is why Scripture presents idolatry as such a grave mistake. To worship something from the created material order as if it could represent God is an outrage  (see Deuteronomy 4:11-19).

God Is Immutable

Because God is (as Aristotle described him) Pure Actuality, there isn’t anything that can be added to God to make him greater than he is, to change him. God is maximally perfect, and in that sense, immutable or unchanging.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. (James 1:17)

This is part of what Paul was getting at when he explained to the Athenians that all of their idols and temples were pointless. They contribute nothing to the nature of the true God:

The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. (Acts 17:24-25)

God Is Unique

We also explored the reasons why there can only be one such perfect being. The uniqueness of God was the foundational confession of ancient Israel:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” (Deuteronomy 6:4)

As that which is necessary, God’s status is truly exceptional:

“You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD,
“and my servant whom I have chosen,
that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)

God Is the Sustaining Cause of Existence

Another feature of God we discerned from the natural order is that God sustains it in existence moment by moment, like a musician making music. Alluding to a pagan description of God, Paul reminded the Athenians:

Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).

It is not entirely clear which ancient author Paul had mind, but as Ben Witherington observes, the point is clear:

The point is that God is the source of life and of power for activities, and so humans are radically dependent on this one God for their very being and all that they do. (The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary p. 529)

God Is Personal

While we recognize that to speak of God’s goodness, will, and intellect is to describe something vastly greater than human goodness, will, and intellect, the Bible is emphatic that God is personal.

The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6).

God is not merely a being who happens to love.

“God is love.” (1 John 4:8)

The portrait of God we’ve drawn from logical reasoning and the portrait of God found in Scripture have a great deal in common. But philosophical reflection can only take us so far. After all, Jews, Muslims, and even some pagans have drawn many of these same conclusions. Why should the specific claims of Christianity be accepted?

That is the subject of a new series for next year, Lord willing.

“Mary, Did You Know?” Yes, No, and Maybe

What did Mary know about Jesus, and when did she know it? That’s the question posed by the classic Mark Lowry song, Mary, Did You Know? I decided to dig a little more deeply into the biblical text and preach about it. Here’s what I came up with.

Mary had several sources of information about the baby she would bear. First, there was the announcement of the angelic messenger.

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:26-33)

Second, there was the report of the shepherds.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
    and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. (Luke 2:8-19)

Third, there was the blessing of Simeon at the presentation of Jesus in the temple.

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29 “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
    according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation
31     that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
    and for glory to your people Israel.”

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:25-35)

Fourth, there was the blessing of Anna.

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin,37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

In view of all of these reactions to the birth of Jesus, it clear that Mary knew that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was coming to redeem and deliver Israel and reign over the nations. Indeed, as the text emphasizes, Mary treasured and pondered these truths. This doesn’t mean that Mary understood everything about the nature of Jesus. Remember the occasion when Jesus was left behind in the temple as a child?

 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. 47 And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.”49 And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” 50 And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. 51 And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:46-51)

Did Mary grasp at this point that Jesus was more than the Messiah – that he was in fact God incarnate? No. But even as Mary was perplexed by some of Jesus’ actions, she was intrigued by them and “treasured up all these things in her heart.”

There is one more reaction to the birth of Jesus that we should consider before we start answering the questions raised by Mary, Did You Know? And that is the reaction of Mary. After Gabriel tells her that she is going to have a baby, Mary responds in a effusive song of praise and adoration that has come to be known as The Magnificat. It is a remarkable medley of quotations and allusions to the Old Testament, and reflects a heart filled with God and saturated by the Scriptures.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
    and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the lyrics of Mary, Did You Know? and give some answers.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?

Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Mary did you know, Mary did you know, Mary did you know
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

Based on what we have seen in the various passages we’ve looked at, the answer is YES to the following:

Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters? 

Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you’ve delivered, will soon deliver you
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day rule the nations?

After all, these are simply different ways to describe the work of the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament and testified to by Gabriel, the shepherds, Simeon, Anna, and Mary.

Some of the questions raised by the song can be answered with a definite MAYBE.

Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy will calm a storm with his hand?
The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the dead will live again
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb

Why do I say “maybe”? When the Old Testament pictured the coming of the Messiah, it sometimes portrayed the blessings of the new age in terms of these very sorts of miracles. Here’s an example:

Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who have an anxious heart,
    “Be strong; fear not!
Behold, your God
    will come with vengeance,
with the recompense of God.
    He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.
For waters break forth in the wilderness,
    and streams in the desert (Isaiah 35:3-6)

In fact, in his first public message in the synagogue at Nazareth, when Jesus wanted to explain who he was and why he came, he offered just these sorts of passages (see Luke 4:17-19).

So if the coming of the Messiah was to be marked by miracles, and if Mary believed that is who Jesus was, then at least implicitly she understood that Jesus could do such mighty works.

And finally, I believe we would have to say that the answer to some of these questions was NO.

Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?

And when you kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God
Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb?
This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am

I realize my Catholic friends have a different answer to these questions based on certain extrabiblical traditions regarding Mary. And sadly, many of us Protestants have overreacted about these disagreements to the point that we hardly think about Mary at all! But in my view, as the story about Jesus in the temple as a child illustrates, there was a lot about Jesus’ identity that Mary did not grasp for a very long time.

And yet, she stayed with him. How perplexed she must have been at so many points in his ministry. But she followed him and pondered him, even to the end, even when the apostles had abandoned him.

but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. (John 19:25)

I wonder what Mary thought at the foot of the cross. When she heard the crowd scream for the death of her son, did she think about the time Simeon and Anna praised his birth and wonder how it all went wrong? When the disciples deserted her son, did she think that God has deserted her? As the soldiers pierced his side with a spear and the sword of anguish pierced her soul (just like Simeon said), did she think that God’s promise had failed? And as Joseph of Arimathea wrapped Jesus in burial cloths like she and Joseph wrapped him in swaddling clothes, did she think this was the end of the story?

I don’t really know. What I do know is that sometimes that is how I feel. When I see loved ones suffer, and godly people die, and evil people thrive, I have questions like these.

But there is another set of questions we can think about because of the resurrection of Jesus.

Mary, did you know that the way he would save your life is by giving his?
Mary, did you know that when it looked like the King was defeated that he was winning the victory?
Mary, did you know that when it seemed like God’s promise had failed that it was being fulfilled?
Mary, did you know that when it may have seemed like God had abandoned us that he was with us more profoundly than we could imagine?

After the first day of the week, she knew the answers to those questions.

And so do we.

“This All Men Speak of as God”

Note: this is the seventh post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The First Cause

If you have followed along thus far, you know that we have looked at reasons to believe that there is a necessary being that is the eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique creator and sustainer of all contingent reality. But there is one more attribute we need in order to demonstrate that this necessary being is God. Is the necessary being personal? After all, based on what I have argued up until this point, the necessary being could be The Force from Star Wars! So why should we believe that the necessary being is not just an impersonal field of energy? Why believe in a personal God?

Just Like vs Sort of Like

Before I explain why that which is necessary is personal, there is a very important disclaimer I need to make. It goes without saying that if there is a necessary being (one that doesn’t exist in time, that doesn’t consist of parts, that doesn’t change, and that is unique), then this necessary being is vastly different from anything in my immediate experience. I exist in time (I just turned 50). I consist of parts (which are breaking down – I just turned 50). I change (see previous parenthesis!). And as the sort of being I am (human), I am not unique – there are eight billion others on the planet at this moment. As a contingent being, living in a world of contingent reality, I recognize there is a great gulf fixed between what I am and what this necessary being is.

Since that is the case, it would be a huge mistake for me to think that this necessary being is just like me, only bigger/older/stronger/smarter. That may be a good way to think of various pagan conceptions of gods like Thor or Athena, but it would be an egregious category mistake to confuse those concepts of “god” with the concept of a necessary being. It is simply impossible by definition for me (or anything else in the contingent order) to be just like the necessary being; at the very most I can only be sort of like the necessary being.

I’ve said all of that to offer this disclaimer about whether the necessary being is personal. I am going to offer some reasons why we can use that word to describe this ultimate ground of all reality, but we must always bear in mind that what “personal” means for you and me as contingent creatures is not exactly what it will mean for the necessary being. An old illustration explains it like this. If I say, “I see the tree,” and “I see your point,” I am using the same word – see – to express concepts that are sort of like each other, although one is vastly greater than the other. To see a tree is a physical act of the senses. To see your point is an intellectual act of the mind. “See” conveys both concepts, but one kind of “seeing” is much greater than the other. And so it is with the word “personal.” I am a personal being, and that which is necessary is a personal being – but in a vastly greater sense.

With that caveat in place, let’s now discuss why this necessary being is personal.

Getting Personal

To think more deeply about what it means to say that the necessary being is personal, consider how you feel when you receive an email from a friend as opposed to a piece of spam. Spam is automated. No one chose to send such an email to you in particular, and whatever algorithm spat out your name on its mailing list, it certainly didn’t do so because it knows you individually. Since it lacks knowledge and will, spam is impersonal. On the other hand, if a friend sends you an email, it is because he chose to do so, and also because he knows you. That kind of email is personal.

This helps to clarify what we mean when we say that something is personal rather than impersonal. It involves qualities like intellect and free will. “The Force” in Star Wars doesn’t really have the properties of mind or will; Sith lords and Jedi knights tap into its impersonal power based on their choices and knowledge. But why should we think that the necessary being possesses such personal attributes?

Let’s begin with the quality of will. We have talked a lot in this series about the difference between what is necessary versus what is contingent. As you recall, that which is necessary doesn’t rely on anything else to exist – it simply is. That which is contingent, on the other hand, does rely on something else to exist. Its existence is not necessary. But why did that which is necessary enable that which is contingent to exist in the first place? It could only be because that which is necessary made a choice to bring contingent things into existence. Since to make a choice is to exercise free will, we can deduce that the necessary being has the personal quality of will.

What about intellect? Consider this illustration. Quite often I have two cups on my desk, a mug for coffee and a tumbler for water. The mug is made of ceramic and the tumbler is made of plastic. Even though they are made from different materials, they are both “cups.” Why? Because in addition to the stuff out of which they are made, the mug and the tumbler each consist of a configuration or pattern – one in the pattern of a tumbler and the other in the pattern of a mug. And both of those patterns share features that identify the mug and tumbler as belonging to the same category – cup. This feature that I have called a “configuration” or “pattern” or “category” is what ancient philosophers called a form. If I wanted to go into the cup-making business, the form/configuration/pattern of “cupness” would have to exist in my mind before I could fashion the ceramic or plastic into an actual cup. Since the necessary being is ultimately responsible for bringing all contingent reality into existence, that means that all of the forms of contingent reality must exist in its intellect, just as the form of “cup” exists in the intellect of the cup maker.

But what about the supreme personal feature, love? Is there any reason to think the necessary being is capable of love? Yes – in fact, we can go a step further. We can say that the necessary being is goodness itself, the very source of love. Why do I say that? Think about the following sentences:

“That is a good tomato” (maybe some of you think there’s no such thing!).

“She’s a good basketball player.”

“I have a bad knee.”

In each case, whether something is good or bad is a question of the extent to which it fulfills the potential of the sort of thing it is. A good tomato exemplifies the redness, sweetness, and juiciness of what a tomato is supposed to be. A good basketball player displays the skills and abilities of basketball to a high degree. A bad knee, by contrast, falls short in the extent to which it functions as a knee should. This is just another way of saying that something is good to the extent that its potentials have been actualized (as Aristotle would put it). If this is the case, then something that is pure actuality (as we’ve previously described the necessary being) is good to the ultimate degree. It is pure goodness, goodness itself. And since to love someone is to determine to do what is good for them, that means that – as goodness itself – the necessary being is the ultimate source of all love.

Will, intellect, and goodness. Such features of the necessary being lead us to add one more attribute to its nature – it is personal. Just bear in mind that when I use the term “personal” with regard to the necessary being, I mean something analogous to but not identical with what I mean when I describe myself as a person. Yes, the necessary being can do things like choose, think, and love, but it does so to a degree far beyond comparison to anything in the experience of contingent reality.

Let’s summarize everything we have pieced together in this argument over the last several weeks. The contingent order points to a necessary being. This necessary being is the unique, personal, eternal, immaterial, and immutable sustaining source of all contingent reality. What would you call this sort of being? I agree with Thomas Aquinas’s conclusion at the end of a similar sort of argument: “This all men speak of as God.”

Now, someone may object that these arguments haven’t proven that Christianity is true. And that is correct – of course, these arguments weren’t designed to do so. All I have been seeking to show thus far is that God exists. Whether God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth is a different question, one I plan to address in a future series. But next week I want to bring this series to a conclusion by comparing the portrait of God found in Scripture with the one we have deduced over the last few weeks.

Speaking Up for Tamar

Just this morning yet another celebrity has been fired for inappropriate sexual behavior. The Today show’s host, Matt Lauer, was terminated after the investigation of a detailed complaint against him by a co-worker.  Undoubtedly more details will emerge over the next few days.

On one level, the recent flood of stories like this is not surprising. We live in a sex-obsessed culture that prizes individual autonomy above all. Given the pervasive corruption characteristic of Hollywood and Washington DC in general, it is predictable that the worlds of entertainment and politics would be filled with gross misconduct – particularly for those (like Matt Lauer) who operate in the nexus of those worlds.

But what has surprised me is the way some Christians have responded to stories of sexual harassment or abuse, particularly when those stories involve political figures whose ideology they share.

Continue reading

The First Cause

Note: this is the sixth post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

Proving God Exists

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

Before I get started with this post, I want to thank those of you who have been patiently following this series. As I have said several times already, most of us who believe in God do so for very instinctive reasons. We don’t need a lot of complex argumentation for faith to make sense. Indeed, faith is what enables us to make sense of the world. But there are many people who do not share this same intuitive grasp of faith, and the purpose of these posts is to offer an intellectually rigorous argument for the existence of God.

Further, many of the terms I have introduced in this series are probably new to most of you, like contingent vs necessary being, or actuality vs potentiality, or essence vs existence. While the concepts conveyed by these terms are not that complicated, sometimes this sort of technical sounding jargon can create the appearance of needless complexity. I have worked very hard to explain these concepts in a way that is easy to grasp, and I hope you have come to see how rich these concepts actually are. And, for what it’s worth, even though I have a graduate degree in theology and have taught on the college level, there are many aspects of the approach I am taking in this series that are fairly new to me as well. So I’m learning new stuff, too!

On top of this, we don’t live in a time that is conducive to serious and sustained contemplation of –  well, anything. So for those of you who have stayed with me step by step over this series, thank you! And to give you a bit of a preview, after this post I have two more planned to round out the case for the existence of God. In the meantime, your feedback is so helpful. If there is anything unclear or confusing, please let me know so I can take another stab at it.

Okay, onto the post at hand!

The case for God’s existence is a journey of two (very big) steps. Step One is to show that the only way to rationally explain contingent reality is by some necessary reality or being. Step Two is to identify just precisely what this necessary being is. And if you have stayed on course with me, you know that we have concluded that this necessary being must be eternal, immaterial, immutable, and unique. In today’s post, I want to add one more concept to the mix: the necessary being is the First Cause.

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A Future Book: Thinking Through Faith

One of the reasons I began this blog was to follow the advice of several authors who have said that the best way to improve your writing is to write. Another purpose for the blog is to think out loud while I write, creating initial drafts of potential future books. One of those projects is a book introducing Christians to the classical case for the existence of God, the sort of thinking about God that has its roots in such figures as Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas (and, as it happens, the view of God found in the Bible!). That picture, combined with a careful defense of the credibility of the testimony of the gospels, provides what I believe is the most potent case for Christianity that can be made.

Down below you can see various posts I’ve done so far that are first drafts of potential chapters (or parts of chapters) in the book. If you’ve missed some of these posts, please check them out. Your feedback will make the book better!

And while you are at it, take a moment to subscribe to the blog so you can keep up to date with future posts.

Blind Faith or Reasoned Faith?

The “Atheist’s Guide to Reality” (or, Colorless Crayons)

Nazis, Morality, and Atheism

Proving God Exists

Richard Dawkins and His Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Argument 

The Necessary Being

What Is the Necessary Being?

Pure Actuality (or Why the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” Isn’t God)

One and Only One

The Problem of Evil for Atheism

The Problem of Evil


One and Only One

(Note: this is the fifth post in a series on  the existence of God. Since it builds on the previous posts, please carefully read them before you read this one:

I have been making the case for God’s existence in two major moves. The first move was to show that the only way to ultimately account for contingent realities (those things that rely on something else to exist) is by the existence of some necessary reality (something that does not rely on anything else to exist). That was part one – and in my opinion, it’s the easy part!

The second major move is to identify what this necessary being or reality is. And this isn’t really difficult to do; it just takes some patient and careful reflection. So far, we have deduced the following:

  • It must be eternal, since – as a necessary being rather than a contingent being – it doesn’t rely on anything else to come into existence or to remain in existence. It just is.
  • It must be immaterial, since anything that is made up of parts is contingent (it depends on those parts to exist, and it depends on something to assemble the parts). It isn’t anything physical, in other words.
  • It must be immutable, since – as a necessary being – it does not rely on something else to “actualize” its potentials (a fancy word for “change it”). It is purely or fully actual.

Obviously, whatever this necessary being is, it is much different than us or anything else we encounter in the reality of time, space, and matter. Then again, we would expect that the ultimate foundation of all reality would be pretty special! And that leads me to one more attribute of this necessary being… Continue reading

A Second Look at Mike Pence’s “Rule”

Back in March the Washington Post ran a profile of Mike Pence’s wife which mentioned his longstanding practice of not socializing alone with women other than his family. News of this practice was met with scorn, outrage, and derision by many critics. In their view, this was an affront to the equality of women in the workplace – or worse (this is the rape culture at work!).

At the time, I pointed out that while Pence’s scruples may seem highly unusual to some, this was a widely accepted safe-guard among those of us who are labeled “evangelicals” (it even has a name – the “Billy Graham Rule”). For those of us who believe that marriage is truly a sacred commitment before God, maintaining clear boundaries around marriage is just common sense. I recognized then (and now) that not everyone shares the same religious convictions about (what used to be commonly referred to as) “holy matrimony,” and that even among those who do, not everyone follows this cautious principle. But I argued that surely even those who disagree with how Pence and his wife approach this matter of judgment could at least see why they do so, and maybe even feel a certain sense of grudging admiration for such conviction. Continue reading