Category Archives: Theology

John Owen’s Defense of Limited Atonement

John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is a thorough explanation of what has been called limited atonement. Or you might say Death of Death is a book-length refutation of universal atonement, the position that Jesus died for all people. One implication of universal atonement would be that Jesus died for many people who will never be saved, meaning that Jesus was ineffective in his purpose and his work.

Below is a collection of 31 passages that Owen gives in Book II, chapter 3 refuting such a position. Here’s his main thesis followed by proofs from three classes of Scripture: 1) the intention of God and Christ, 2) the actual accomplishment of Christ, and 3) the persons for whom Christ died. [Page numbers given below refer to The Works of John Owen, vol. 10.]

“Our thesis as before declared, whereof this is the sum: Jesus Christ, according to the counsel and will of his Father, did offer himself upon the cross, to the procurement of those things before recounted; and maketh continual intercession with this intent and purpose, that all the good things so procured by his death might be actually and infallibly bestowed on and applied to all and every one for whom he died, according to the will and counsel of God” (208). Let us now see what the Scripture saith…

I. The Intention of God and Christ

For the first, those which hold out the counsel, purpose, mind, intention, and will of God and our Saviour in this work.

  1. Matthew 18:11, “The Son of man is come to save that which was lost” (cf. Lk 19:10)
  2. Matthew 1:21, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”
  3. 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners,” –not to open a door…not to make a way passable…but actually to save them
  4. Hebrews 2:14-15, “…that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them who through fear of death…” Than which words nothing can more clearly set forth the entire end of that whole dispensation of the incarnation and offering of Jesus Christ
  5. Ephesians 5:25-27, “Christ loved the church and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word;” along with Titus 2:14, “He game himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify unto himself a peculiar people.” “I think nothing can be clearer than these two places” (98)
  6. John 17:19, “For their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth,” “not the whole world” (cf. vv. 6, 9)
  7. Galatians 1:4, “he gave himself for our sins that he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father”
  8. 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” “Now if the Lord did not purpose what is not fulfilled…then he made Christ sin for no more than do in the effect become actually righteousness in him” (211)

Argument Summary: From all which we draw this argument: That which the Father and the Son intended to accomplish in and towards all those for whom Christ died, by his death that is most certainly effected…. Christ died for all and only those in and towards whom all these things recounted are effected. (211)

II. The Accomplishment of Christ’s Sacrifice

The second rank contains those places which lay down the actual accomplishment and effect of this oblation.

  1. Hebrews 9:12, 14, “By his own blood he entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us…. The blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” “Two things are here ascribed to the blood of Christ;–one referring to God, ‘it obtains eternal redemption;’ the other respecting us, ‘purgeth our conscience from dead works.’”
  2. 1 Peter 2:4 (cf. Isaiah 53:5, 6, 10-12), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and life to righteousness”
  3. Colossians 1:21, 22, “And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled in the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight
  4. John 6:33, where our life is ascribed to the death of Christ, “He came down from heaven to give life to the world” (as also 2 Tim 1:10 and Romans 5:6-10).

Argument Summary: I shall take from the whole this general argument: –If the death and oblation of Jesus Christ doth sanctify all them for whom it was a sacrifice…. –then died he only for those that are in the event sanctified, pursed, redeemed, justified, etc.; But that all are not thus sanctified, freed, etc is most apparent: and therefore, they cannot be said to be the proper object of the death of Christ. (214)

III. The Persons for Whom Christ Died

Many places there are that point out the persons for whom Christ died (214)

  1. In some places they are called many
    1. Matthew 26:28, “blood of the new testimony is shed for many
    2. Isaiah 53:11, “my righteous servant shall justify many
    3. Mark 10:45, “give his life a ransom for many
    4. Hebrews 2:10, “to bring many sons to glory”
  2. And though perhaps many itself be not sufficient to restrain the object of Christ’s death unto some, in opposition to all, because many is sometimes placed absolutely for all, as Rom 5:19, yet these many being described in other places to be such as it is most certain all are not, so it is a full and evident restriction of it.
    1. John 10:15, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own [sheep]”
    2. John 11:52, “the children of God who are scattered abroad”
    3. Hebrews 2:11, “the children that God gave him”
    4. John 17:2, 6, 9, 11, “those who were given unto Jesus by his Father”
    5. Hebrews 13:20, the sheep whereof he was the “Shepherd, through the blood of the everlasting covenant”
    6. Romans 8:33, “God’s elect”
    7. Matthew 1:21 “his people”
    8. Luke 1:68, “he has visited and redeemed his people”
    9. Romans 11:2, “his people whom he foreknew”
    10. Acts 18:10, “I have many in this city who are my people”
    11. Hebrews 13:12, “to sanctify the people through his own blood”
    12. Acts 20:28, “the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood”
    13. Ephesians 5:25, the church which Christ loved and gave himself up for
    14. Hebrews 9:28, “to bear the sins of many”
    15. Daniel 9:27, “he shall make a strong covenant with many”
  3. Those many being thus described, and set forth with such qualifications as by no means are common to all, but proper only to the elect, do most evidently appear to be all and only those that are chosen of God to obtain eternal life through the offering and blood-shedding of Jesus Christ. (214)

B. B. Warfield’s Avalanche of Inspiration

warfielddrawingI recently finished reading B. B. Warfield’s classic The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. My dad actually gave me the copy from his own library, which he purchased just after its sixth printing in 1970. I’ve often heard the book cited, but now it was time for me to read it. I usually do my reading between 5:00-8:00am, so Warfield was like a strong shot of caffeine for me each morning. Over breakfast I would tell my wife what I had read from Brain Blowing Warfield that morning. He blew my mind.

But one of the most memorable parts of the book for me (there were many) was his illustration of the quantity of textual evidence for the inerrancy of Scripture. The Bible speaks all over of it’s own inerrancy. In the words of Jesus, “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). To describe the ubiquity of textual evidence, Warfield uses the illustration of an avalanche. Here it is…enjoy:

But no grosser misconception could be conceived than that the Scriptures bear witness to their own plenary inspiration in these outstanding texts alone. These are but the culminating passages of a pervasive testimony to the divine character of Scripture, which fills the whole New Testament; and which includes not only such direct assertions of divinity and infallibility for Scripture as these, but, along with them, an endless variety of expressions of confidence in, and phenomena of use of, Scripture which are irresistible in their teaching when it is once fairly apprehended.

The induction must be broad enough to embrace, and give their full weight to, a great variety of such facts as these: the lofty titles which are given to Scripture, and by which it is cited, such as “Scripture,” “the Scriptures,” even that almost awful title, “the Oracles of God”; the significant formulæ by which it is quoted, “It is written,” “It is spoken,” “It says,” “God says”; such modes of adducing it as betray that to the writer “Scripture says” is equivalent to “God says,” and even its narrative parts are conceived as direct utterances of God; the attribution to Scripture, as such, of divine qualities and acts, as in such phrases as “the Scriptures foresaw”; the ascription of the Scriptures, in whole or in their several parts as occasionally adduced, to the Holy Spirit as their author, while the human writers are treated as merely his media of expression; the reverence and trust shown, and the significance and authority ascribed, to the very words of Scripture; and the general attitude of entire subjection to every declaration of Scripture of whatever kind, which characterizes every line of the New Testament.

The effort to explain away the Bible’s witness to its plenary inspiration reminds one of a man standing safely in his laboratory and elaborately expounding—possibly by the aid of diagrams and mathematical formulæ—how every stone in an avalanche has a defined pathway and may easily be dodged by one of some presence of mind. We may fancy such an elaborate trifler’s triumph as he would analyze the avalanche into its constituent stones, and demonstrate of stone after stone that its pathway is definite, limited, and may easily be avoided. But avalanches, unfortunately, do not come upon us, stone by stone, one at a time, courteously leaving us opportunity to withdraw from the pathway of each in turn: but all at once, in a roaring mass of destruction. Just so we may explain away a text or two which teach plenary inspiration, to our own closet satisfaction, dealing with them each without reference to its relation to the others: but these texts of ours, again, unfortunately do not come upon us in this artificial isolation; neither are they few in number. There are scores, hundreds, of them: and they come bursting upon us in one solid mass. Explain them away? We should have to explain away the whole New Testament. What a pity it is that we cannot see and feel the avalanche of texts beneath which we may lie hopelessly buried, as clearly as we may see and feel an avalanche of stones!

Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, (Philadephia; Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co, 1948), Sixth Printing 1970, 119-120.

The Messiah in the Old Testament: Participant’s Guide

I’ve just finished teaching through a summer Bible study on the theme of the Messiah in the Old Testament. We studied the progressive development of the idea of messianic hope from it’s earliest form forward. Obviously in a ten week study we didn’t look at all the messianic passages in the Old Testament, but tried to select some of the most important based partly on how heavily the Jesus and New Testament rely on them. For instance, I included Isaiah 53 because by some counts it is alluded to over four hundred times in the New Testament.  Here’s the participant’s guide:

Messianic Hope – Participants Guide

I’m also happy to share my teaching manuscripts and weekly class handouts. If you’d like them just send me an email or leave a comment below.




The Messiah From Isaiah to Revelation

Isaiah has at least eighteen direct messianic references.[1] And by some counts, Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to over four hundred times in the New Testament. J. Alec Motyer says, “The Isaianic literature is built around three messianic portraits: the King (chapters 1-37), the Servant (chapters 38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (chapters 56-66).”[2]

One example from Isaiah’s portrait of Messiah as king is found in Isaiah 11:1-10.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Notice this figure is a king who judges with equity (vv. 3-4), destroys the wicked who oppose him (vv. 4-5), and will bring knowledge of Yhwh (v. 9). Then in verse 10, the idea of a shoot from the stump is repeated:

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

So Isaiah sees this messianic world-savior king as a root of Jesse; Jesse’s true offspring, the greater David. The tree of Israel has been chopped off in judgment so that only a stump remains. But from that stump a tender shoot comes forth. And what was Israel’s hope? “There shall come…”

“There sounds out from the oldest to the latest sources…the mighty ‘he comes’ (cf. Gen 49:10), ‘he appears’ (Num 24:17), ‘he cometh’ (Zech 9:9), ‘he is born’ (Is 7:14; 9:4), ‘he comes forth (11:1), ‘he comes forth (Mic 5:1), ‘he is raised up’ (Jer 23:5), ‘until he comes’ (Ez 21:32), ‘I will raise up’ (34:23), ‘I bring’ (Zech. 12:8), ‘I saw, there come’ (Dan. 7:13).” This continually recurring assurance that the Paradise-prince will come to destroy all enemies and judge even to the ends of the earth, forms the deepest core of the mystery—it is expressed by a single word in Hebrew, in English, “He comes.” It stamps the religion of the Old Testament as specifically a religion of hope.[3]

The ultimate answer to Isaiah 11 comes in Revelation 22:7, “Behold I am coming soon.” And 22:12, “Behold I am coming soon.” And again 22:20, “Surely I am coming soon.” And who is it that is coming? He identifies himself in 22:16,

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright and morning star.”

Christian have a messianic hope still today. Certainly we have an advantage in the fullness of Scripture. We have not only Isaiah but also Revelation. But we can certainly understand the psychology of hope/anticipation that existed in Israel. Our worldview is not so very different from theirs.

We are still looking forward to a future world in which a world-saving king will reign, and will right all the wrongs, and will reverse entropy, and will establish harmony. All the things Isaiah wanted as Israel was on the verge of exile are the same things that we want and foresee as we are in the midst of exile.

And so the Christian ends where Isaiah points and Revelation ends, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)



[1] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 155-156.

[2] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: Introduction and Commentary, 13.

[3] B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” here he is both quoting and distilling Ernst Sellin.

Celebrating Many-ness: Abraham Kuyper’s “Pluriformity”

Diversity is a beautiful byproduct but an impossible end goal. Diversity must be built upon unity. Aspiration needs foundation. Within the church we should embrace diversity aimed at enjoying God, but reject diversity for it’s own sake. Outside the church, we can affirm the goodness of diversity but must insist that it may only be found by shared vision of the good life, based on a standard of real truth.

One the greatest evangelical thinkers on culture and diversity was Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch pastor, theologian, and politician between 1860 and 1920. In 1869, Kuyper delivered a lecture in Amsterdam titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” in which he asserts that humanity strives for coherence and unity, though it is a counterfeit unity not oriented toward the Creator. Such was the unified rebellion demonstrated on the planes of Shinar where the tower of Babel was erected.

God’s Unity and “False Uniformity”

Kuyper begins the lecture by pointing to God’s creative work. “Unity is the ultimate goal of all the ways of God…one day by his will all dissonances will dissolve into harmony.”[1] The unity which is God’s ultimate goal is this: that all of his creation should acknowledge its Creator. Everything in the universe has its coherence in the Son of God. “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Kuyper then shows that human history reflects recurring counterfeit efforts to achieve unity apart from God. This he calls “false uniformity.”

But as with counterfeit currency, the similarity is only in name. In God’s plan vital unity develops by internal strength precisely from the diversity of nations and races; but sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death. The unity of God is written in the blueprint of the foundations; the unity of the world is merely painted on the walls. The Lord’s unity is like the organic strength which holds together the fibers of the oak tree; the world’s unity is like the spider web which upholds tenuous tissues in between. Organically one or an aggregate, a natural growth of a synthetic formation, become or made, nature or art—there, in a word, lies the profound difference distinguishing the spurious unity of the world from the life-unity designed by God.[2]

Kuyper’s point is that human aspirations toward unity in the midst of diversity, apart from reference to the divine, are counterfeits that are bound to fail. Kuyper spoke with prescience to millennials.

The cries for brotherhood and love of fellow-man are but a slogan. Not fraternity but a false uniformity is the goal toward which its glittering images drive us.[3]

When diversity becomes an end-goal, then it becomes uniformity. There must be a coherent meta-narrative around which diversity structures itself. Many truths descend into no truth, and finally those who claim real truth are silenced. Those who resist diversity as an end-goal are not allowed to be diverse. They are excluded. This is the “reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity.” Thus diversity becomes a human idol, the “ism” of multiculturalism, and it cannot sustain itself.

Pluriformity Rather Than Uniformity

What Kuper calls for is pluriformity. Pluriformity is diversity with a foundation. “The unity of the human family may only be looked for in its origin and destiny, never in the developmental phases it passes through on its way.”[4] Diversity needs a foundation for its fullest and freest expression. And the true foundation of diversity is unity toward God, life according to the design of the Creator. Or even if divine revelation is rejected, then the “theater of nature” itself implies the same reality.

The starlit heaven does not show us innumerable identical stars but endless groups of stars all different from each other. Precisely in this multiform distinction the beauty of the firmament shines. So it may not be assumed that God meant to have uniformity in his human world and that pluriformity arose as a result of sin…Moreover, the very fact that God created male and female proves conclusively that uniformity was not part of the creation plan.[5]

As the church seeks to affirm the cultural embrace of diversity, we must be cautious not to over-embrace. The church must never embrace diversity as the end goal. Rather, the end goal is to enjoy God and to worship him.

Outside the church, we see in broader Western culture a top-down push toward multiculturalism. Diversity is nearly a new religion. While we can affirm the rightness of diversity, we must offer the warning that diversity must be enjoyed within common commitments. Otherwise it will lead to fragmentation.For instance, there are places that are no-go areas for police in London because Sharia law is operative in those areas. Other areas are particularly Hindu, and those customs dominate and rule. So rather than the next door neighbor being Muslim or Hindu, instead what has happened is increasing segmentation.

Kuyper suggests a practical policy for the church and for the state. For the church, Kuyper says that in regards to the tension between unity and diversity, “I know of no other solution than to accept—freely and candidly, without any reservations—a free multiformity.” (39) He was speaking in the context of an established state church. Instead he envisioned free and autonomous denominations. For the state, Kuyper suggested strong national identity as opposed to all nations being pressed into the mold of one global form (he would have voted in favor of Brexit).

Further Resources



[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 21

[2] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 23-24.

[3] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 24.

[4] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 35.

[5] Kuyper, “Common Grace in Science,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 445.

Sola Gratia: Where it came from and what it means

This past week I preached at Christ Church Rolesville as part of a series on the 5 solas. Below is a description of the history and meaning of sola gratis.

The idea that we are saved by “grace alone” has a long history in Christianity. If we were to trace the roots as far down as they’ll go, we find ourselves at a theological conflict between two men, one named Augustine and the other Pelagius.[1]

And it all started with a simple little prayer that Augustine had written around the year 400 AD. “Give me the grace to do as you command, and command me to do what you will!”[2] When Pelagius read these words, he understood correctly that Augustine was implying that humans are incapable of obeying God’s commands unless God first grants them the ability to do so. Pelagius strongly disagreed. He believed the very fact that God would command something implies that we must have the ability to obey it. We don’t need God’s grace to help us obey; we simply exercise free will and make the decision to do it or not. How does one obey God? This is where they disagreed.

But behind this disagreement, Augustine and Pelagius had another disagreement. They had different opinions about the nature of humanity. Augustine argued that ever since Adam ate the fruit in the garden, that humanity was locked in corruption. It’s not just Adam that fell; we all fell in Adam. So Augustine says, “The sin which they committed was so great that it impaired all human nature—in this sense, that the nature has been transmitted to posterity with a propensity to sin and a necessity to die.”[3] So according to Augustine, Adam doomed humanity. When Adam fell, we all fell.

On the other hand, Pelagius said that when Adam fell, only Adam fell. But after Adam he said we are all still free to make our own decisions, whether we will obey God or not. Augustine and Pelagius had a pamphlet battle. They wrote all sorts of pamphlets back and forth, arguing against the other. Eventually, very early in the fifth century several church councils were called and found Pelagius to be denying the clear teaching of Scripture.[4] But even though the teaching of Pelagius was officially condemned, it never actually disappeared. The church in every generation has suffered from some form of it. In fact, in the thousand years between Augustine and Martin Luther, the official theology of the church had drifted somewhat away from Augustine and toward Pelagius.

Martin Luther came on the scene around 1500, over one thousand years after the Pelagius’ teaching had been rejected. Luther’s theological discussion was with the Roman Catholic Church. The church argued that grace could be infused to people as they performed certain actions like going to mass and participating in the eucharist. In other words people could simply exercise free will to do good and thereby earn the grace of God. But Luther denied that humans are capable of freely choosing any works good enough to earn God’s grace.

So the will is like a beast standing between two riders. If God rides, it wills and goes where God wills….If Satan rides, it wills and goes where Satan wills; nor can it choose to run to either of the two riders or to seek him out, but the riders themselves contend for the possession and control of it.[5]

 Martin Luther insisted when it comes to salvation, we don’t make the first move. Our will doesn’t choose it’s own rider. Rather, God gives the gift of faith so that we might believe. If anyone does what God commands, it is beccuase his grace and his grace alone has enabled us to do it. So the debate between Augustine and Pelagius was resurrected between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. Other church Reformers agreed with Luther’s “grace alone” slogan, and John Calvin systematized these classic Reformation insights.[6]

From this history we draw two significant doctrinal truths.

The first of these two truths is called original sin.[7] The doctrine of original sin says the sin of Adam and Eve touched every future member of the human race. Simply put, we are all infected, corrupted and guilty.[8] Sin is a precondition of human life. We’re born this way, with the whole cluster of psychological, relational and spiritual sicknesses that result from the original infection. Original sin means, among other things, that we are spiritually sick: that no one is looking to submit their life to God. You may know people who do a sort of scavenger hunt through world religions, but interpreting that kind of thing through the lens of original sin, we might conclude that even those searchings are aimed at self-improvement rather than self-abandonment to God. No one is seeking to submit to God. Humans are corrupted from conception. That’s original sin.

The second doctrinal truth is called monergism. The word comes from monos- meaning one or alone (as in monogamy) and –ergon, meaning ability or work, somewhat like energy. The meaning of monergism is that God alone initiates with people, he works unilaterally in the hearts of people who aren’t seeking him, and causes them to seek him. Paul reminds the church in Rome that “no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:11). If that’s true, if no one seeks for God, then how is it that some people end up finding him? Only by accidentally bumping into him on a dark path? No. Paul says, for anyone who knows God, the way they came to know him is that God turned the lights on. They were sitting in a dark room and happy to be in the dark, not looking for a light switch. Not seeking God. But God completely of his own initiative turned the lights on. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And that is monergism—God alone working.

So this idea of “grace alone” says something about God and something about us. About us: that we are dead in sin. About God: that he is full of grace.


[1] For more on this see Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 173-181.

[2] Augustine, Confessions 10, 29 (Penguin Classics), 233. Could be translated, “Give what you command; command what you will” (Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180). According to Latourette, it was these words that sparked the reaction from Pelagius, though no source is cited for this assertion.

[3] Augustine, City of God (New York: Image Books, 1958), 279. “No one was to be born of them who was less a sinner than they were. Such was the greatness of the guilt that the punishment so impaired human nature that what was originally a penal condition [punishment] for the first parents who sinned became a natural consequence in all of their descendants,” 252.

[4] The Councils of Carthage, 412 and 418 AD, Latourette, History of Christianity, vol. 1, 180.

[5] Martin Luther, Bondage of the Will. Cited in Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 76.

[6] Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, 74, 120, 166.

[7] In a portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe, David McCullough says that she “discarded the doctrine of original sin” as part of a move away from her “harsh Calvinist heritage.” She came to believe that “neither man nor nature was necessarily corrupt. Hers was a faith of love and Christian charity” (Brave Companions, 49). This characterization of original sin as a “harsh” doctrine is typical.

[8] Corruption and guilt are the two aspects of original sin. “Corruption and guilt present the problems that the gifts of sanctification and justification graciously address,” Cornelius Platinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, 29. Augustine’s phrase “propensity to sin and necessity to die” corresponds to these two aspects of original sin.

How God Uses Heresy

heresyHeresy: A History of Defending the Truth by Alister McGrath, challenges the ascendent notion that heresy is the orthodoxy of history’s losers. That thesis, put forward by Walter Bauer and popularized by Bart Ehrman, reflects the postmodern preferences for a destabilized view of truth and opposition to authoritarian structures.

“It seems to have become axiomatic in recent years that heresy is morally and intellectually liberating, to the extent that orthodoxy is stifling. This tells us a lot about the cultural mood of postmodernity, and the agendas of some of those who find heresy to be attractive” (191).

At an even more popular level than Bart Ehrman, this appreciation for heresy as the underdog was seen by the massive appeal of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2009),

What is Heresy?

McGrath defines heresy as “a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of the Christian faith.”

How Does God Use Heresy?

Belief in the essential core of the Christian faith must constantly be reaffirmed in new settings. This often means that in order to be understood correctly, the Christian faith must be expressed in new ways.

“Orthodoxy is thus, in a certain sense, unfinished, in that it represents the mind of the church as to the best manner of formulation of its living faith at any given time.” (221) Orthodoxy is constantly developing, not away from Scripture, but toward it in sharper and clearer articulation. Old truths, retaining original integrity, receiving fresh clarity.

N. T. Wright points out an example of the unintentional benefit of heresy in Jesus and the Victory of God. He explains the history of the quest for the historical Jesus. Those familiar with this “quest” will remember that it began in 1878 with Hermann S. Reimarus (2 years after 1776, at the height of deism, a child of the Enlightenment). Reimarus intended to discount the claims of Christianity on the basis of history. “His aim seems to have been to destroy Christianity (as he knew it) at its root, by showing that it rested on historical distortion or fantasy….The thesis is devastatingly simple. History leads away from theology” (16-17).

But Wright goes on to point out the irony, “Reimarus, or somebody like him, must be seen, not just as a protester against Christianity, but, despite his intentions, as a true reformer of it. This is not to side with Reimarus and other Enlightenment thinkers against Christian orthodoxy; it is to acknowledge that the challenge of the Enlightenment might, despite itself, benefit Christianity as well as threatening it” (17).

“Reimarus pulled back the curtain, thinking to expose the poverty of Christian origins. But the invitation to look more closely, once issued, could not be withdrawn; and within the unpromising historical specificity of the story of Jesus we can now, I believe, discern after all the buried treasure of the gospel” (18).

The benefit of the quest for the historical Jesus? Reimarus dug a deep ditch between the faith of Christianity on the one side and the historical evidence on the other. But the digging of this ditch only forced thoughtful Christians to examine the evidence further and develop clearer articulations about the truth of Jesus and the gospel, thus filling the ditch back in, closing the gap between history and theology.

Many other historical examples could be given like this of heresies that have sharpened the thinking of the church. Heresy forces orthodoxy to develop greater clarity in its articulation of Scripture. In this way God has employed orthodoxy toward his own larger ends. Perhaps what Joseph said of his brothers’ scheme could also be said of heretics through the centuries: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen. 50:20).

Pointing Forward

Back to McGrath and Heresy. He concludes with this challenge to the faithful (a challenge being fulfilled perhaps by N. T. Wright in his trilogy, Christian Origins and the Question of God):

If Christianity is to regain the imaginative ascendency, it must rediscover what G. K. Chesterton (1874-1936) termed “the romance of orthodoxy.” It is not sufficient to show that orthodoxy represents the most intellectually and spiritually authentic from of the Christian faith or that it has been tried and tested against its intellectual alternatives. The problem lies deeper, at the level of the imagination and feelings. If Christ is indeed the “Lord of the Imagination,” the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy ought to have significant imaginative implications. The real challenge is for the churches to demonstrate that orthodoxy is imaginatively compelling, emotionally engaging, aesthetically enhancing, and personally liberating. We await this development with eager anticipation. (234)

Resurrection: 7 Christian Distinctives


Titian; Polyptych of the Resurrection – Santi Nazaro e Celso, Brescia

N.T. Wright has thankfully distilled his monumental work The Resurrection of the Son of God into a briefer volume (295 pages instead of 738), including additional concerns. He speaks not only about the resurrection, but also about “the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it” (xi). Surprised by Hope defends the heritage of Easter and unfolds the hope of Easter for the present and future life.

In looking forward to celebrating Easter in less than a month, I’ve been encouraged reading Wright’s work. Though I couldn’t endorse his views on justification, I have appreciated his careful study of resurrection in its historical and biblical settings.

Chapter 3 of Surprised by Hope presents the historical setting of the early Christian hope, beginning with views of resurrection held by ancient paganism and Judaism.

For ancient pagans, death was all-powerful. No one could escape its clutches let alone return from it. When ancient pagans spoke of resurrection (to deny it), they did not simply mean “life after death.” Rather, resurrection in the pagan frame was used to denote “new bodily life after whatever sort of life after death there might be.”

For the ancient Jewish world there are two general categories of understanding resurrection. Some agreed with the pagans in denial of any kind of future life. The Saducees are famous for this position. Others believed in an eventual resurrection. On the last day, all the people of God would be given new bodies all at once. When Martha was coming to grips with the death of Lazarus, she said to Jesus, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (Jn 11:24). This was the Jewish conception of resurrection.

The teaching that emerged in early Christian congregations reflected this Jewish background, yet offered distinctive “mutations” as Wright calls them. “The Early Christian belief in hope beyond death belongs demonstrably on the Jewish, not the pagan, map…but in seven significant ways this Jewish hope underwent remarkable modifications.” Wright gives seven distinctively Christian modifications.

  1. Unanimity of Belief: Despite diverse Jewish and pagan backgrounds, Christians did not hold a spectrum of belief about life beyond death. Not until the late second century did the Gnostic idea emerge, namely, the idea of a spiritual experience in the present leading to a disembodied hope in the future. But at first, there was unanimity. “For almost all of the first two centuries, resurrection in the traditional sense holds not just center stage, but the whole stage.”
  2. Circumference to Center: In Second-Temple Judaism, resurrection is important but not that important. But in early Christianity resurrection moved from the circumference to the center. “Take away the stories of Jesus’s birth, and you lose only two chapters of Matthew and two of Luke. Take away the resurrection, and you lose the entire New Testament.”
  3. Resurrection Bodies: In Judaism it is almost always left quite vague as to what sort of body the resurrected will possess. But from the start, early Christians believed that the new body will be a transformed body, a body whose material, created from the old material, will have new properties (based on 1 Corinthians 15, the “newness” is primarily that whereas the old body is corruptible, the new body will be incorruptible).
  4. The Resurrection Split Into Two: For first-century Jews, the idea of resurrection was that it would be a large scale event happening to all God’s people as part of the sudden event in which God’s kingdom would finally come on earth as in heaven. But what becomes the central feature of Christianity is the belief that the “mode of this inauguration” consisted in the resurrection itself happening to one person in the middle of history in advance of it’s great final occurrence, anticipating and guaranteeing the final resurrection of God’s people at the end of history. An initial resurrection as a guarantee of a second and final resurrection.
  5. Collaborative Eschatology: Because resurrection was inaugurated with Jesus but not completed until the end, Christians believed that God called them to work with him in the power of the Spirit to implement the achievement of Jesus in anticipation of the final resurrection, in personal and political life, in mission and holiness. “If Jesus was God’s-future-arrived-in-the-present, then those who belonged to Jesus were charged with transforming the present in the light of that future.”
  6. Metaphorical Use of Resurrection: When resurrection is used metaphorically in Judaism, it refers to the restoration of Israel. But Christianity replaces this with a new metaphorical meaning: resurrection as referring to baptism (e.g. Romans 6:1-5), and resurrection as referring to the new life of strenuous ethical obedience enabled by the Holy Spirit (e.g Romans 6:6-14).
  7. Resurrection and Messiahship: Nobody in Judaism expected the Messiah to die, and therefore nobody imagined him rising from the dead. Judaism understood the Messiah to be the one who would overthrow pagan government and restore God’s justice. Thus, for Judaism, the crucifixion confirmed the impossibility of Jesus being the Messiah. Yet Christians came to affirm that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, precisely because of his resurrection.

Wright notes that these mutations from Jewish to Christian understanding of resurrection demand a historical explanation. Why did these modifications occur? And he goes on to present an historical account of that first Easter Day.

But these seven points deserve contemplation as they represent the development of the Christian understanding of resurrection, which is the epicenter of our faith as Paul reminds the Corinthians.

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)