A Shroud of Mystery

One of the strangest things I had ever heard of in my early Christian life is the supposed burial shroud of Jesus Christ, popularly known as the Shroud of Turin. It didn’t take me long to dismiss it as just another Roman Catholic faux relic. From reading the Gospel of John I had the impression that Jesus had been wrapped in multiple cloths, with a separate cloth covering his face. This suggested to me that a single body-length cloth could not have been what Jesus was buried in. Finally, reports of a medieval carbon 14 dating in the late 1980’s seemed to put a nail in that particular coffin as far as I (not to mention most of the world) was concerned.

That is, until a friend of mine loaned me a book by Dr. Kenneth E. Stevenson, Image of the Risen Christ: Remarkable New Evidence About the Shroud (Toronto: Frontier Research Publications, 1999). The information in this post will be based on Stevenson’s book because he was one of the original study team sanctioned to examine the shroud. As the official spokesman for the team, he is in the best position to comment on the scientific findings.

It turns out that most of the actual science about the shroud was never directly released to the general public, but rather to several obscure technical and scientific journals designed for specialists in their fields. Because of this, the opinion of the general public is based on a limited amount of information, provided primarily by people with an interest in either disproving or doubting that it might be what its seems: the burial cloth of Jesus.

Where Did the Shroud of Turin Originate?

But where did it come from, and how did it come to be associated with Jesus? It turns out that there is a series of extra-biblical stories and legends that may connect the shroud to Jesus of Nazareth.

It was “discovered” in the 1300’s in France, but there is evidence in art history that it was known before. Based on study of Byzantine icons, the shroud image must have been known in the 500’s AD., when the image of Christ in the churches became more standardized. (p.32). The image that changed how Christ was represented is known as the “image of Edessa” or “the holy Mandylion,” a cloth found in 525 buried in a wall in Edessa (now Urfa), Turkey. In 944 it was taken to Constantinople, where it was rarely displayed, but revered as the true likeness of Christ.

In 1204 the Mandylion disappears in the sack of Constantinople by a marauding mob of crusaders from Western Europe. Historian Ian Wilson proposes that the Knights Templar hid the shroud. As King Philip tries to destroy the Templars, he burns to death, among others, leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffrey de Charnay, whose name is virtually identical to that of the man who mysteriously turns up with the shroud in the mid 1350’s. Perhaps the same family?

In legend it is said that Abgar V, first-century ruler of Edessa, was stricken with leprosy. He wrote to Jesus in Palestine, asking him to come and cure him. Jesus is said to have sent a letter declining to come, but promising to send a disciple instead. Jude Thaddeus arrives some time after Jesus’ death and resurrection, bearing a holy cloth imprinted with the image of the Saviour.

Abgar V really existed, and we know that his area was evangelized shortly after Jesus’ resurrection. There is a tradition that a holy image of the Lord was associated with this evangelization. Unfortunately his son Mannu reverts to paganism and persecutes the Christians, and the image disappears from history until the cloth is discovered in the wall of the city centuries later.

Now we have a historic link, however tenuous, with Jesus’ time and locale.

Scientific Study of the Shroud

A team of scientists and historians, invited by the Vatican, studied the cloth in 1970’s and 1980’s. Dr. Stevenson is among them from the outset. Among their discoveries that did not reach the public:

Pollen samples from the cloth indicate that it had spent time in Israel, Turkey and France before resting in Turin, which is backed up by a legends about where a remarkably similar cloth (by different names) was kept in ancient times.

Gilbert Raes, whose field is ancient textiles, concludes that the weave is consistent with the Middle East in the first century A.D. Microscopes show traces of cotton, which was not used in Europe, but was common in the Middle East. He concludes that the loom on which it was made was a first-century Middle Eastern loom and that the cloth is a genuine first century cloth.

Conclusion: A European forger would have had to go to a great deal of trouble to pick up cloth woven in the first century on a loom in the Middle East, and pick up pollen spores from non-European plants to rub into it. That would have been very unlikely unless the forger had been able to link the various legends together and then gather the proper materials to create the forgery.

Even if a particularly clever forger had access to all of the materials and information above, that would only account for the materials used, and not how the image was put into the cloth. This is where the real problem for the forgery theory begins.

The image itself has been applied in a way that resembles a photographic negative, in which the light areas and dark areas are the reverse of what one would expect of a painting. It seems highly unlikely that a medieval artist would have conceived of reversing the lights and darks until the advent of modern photography.

Even that isn’t the worst problem for the forger. How did he get the image there in the first place?

There is no dye, ink, stain, paint or acid residue on the cloth. The image is somehow imprinted on the surface of the fibres, but not the interior, defying explanation. Modern science has yet to be able to reproduce that kind of image by any known method. Any methods touted as successful by outside researchers have failed to reproduce the quality of the image and have failed to affect only the surface of the fibers. In addition, most have left residues or scorch marks that were not found on the original shroud.

The original shroud also contains what scientists call “three-dimensional data encoded in it.” This means it had to have been draped over (not wrapped around, like a mummy) a three-dimensional object to leave that kind of impression. Again, no process for leaving that kind of information is available to modern science. To imagine that a 14th century artisan could produce it staggers the imagination.

The scientists determined that the image could not have been painted or etched with acid using either ancient or modern technology. The closest thing to a theory about it is that it may have somehow been “scorched” onto the fabric. Nobody has been able to figure out how to do it without burning the fabric or going deeper than the surface. Perhaps a “burst” of radiation of a nature unknown to us could have been the cause. Whatever it was could not have been present in the body while it was still alive, because it would have killed the man. (There are many signs that he died of wounds, not radiation. More on that later.)

Conclusion: How the image got there is still a mystery that science has not been able to solve. It is difficult to believe that a 14th century forger had figured out a method that can baffle modern science.

 

The Carbon 14 Dating Issue

Dr. Stevenson points out that the highly-touted Carbon 14 dating of the shroud had several problems:

  1. Samples were not sent in a way that was double-blind. Researchers knew which samples were the shroud and which were the control fabrics, allowing bias to enter the testing.
  2. The labs that created the less-destructive technique that was used were eliminated from testing, leaving less experienced labs to do the testing.
  3. The method itself does not test well with artifacts of known ages, often 400 years or more off due to the “de Vries effect” and “secular variance.”
  4. The labs did not account for “bioplastic” film on cloth, which would make it appear younger. For instance, Egyptian burial cloths test younger than the mummies inside them by 400-1000 years. Now researchers know why. The exterior cloth would be invaded by bioplastic-forming bacteria, but not the mummy itself.

 

For all of the reasons above, we cannot allow the Carbon 14 test to be the ultimate determinant of authenticity, especially when so much other data points to an earlier date and the impossibility of reproduction by known methods, ancient and modern.

 

Evidence of a Unique Crucifixion

 

Mentioned earlier is the unlikelihood of death by radiation. The reason? The image shows remarkable anatomical detail of a sort that we do not see until the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. Within that detail, the image itself shows clear signs of crucifixion.  Actually, they are signs of a very specific, historically-recorded crucifixion that was unique in several respects. Here are a few of the details.

 

  • We can see nail holes in wrists and feet. (Nothing unusual there in crucifixion.)
  • There are at least 120 gashes along his back and upper legs, complete with blood traces on the cloth. (Not always a feature of crucifixion, but definitely there in Jesus’ case.)
  • There is a wound that would have been between the 5th and 6th ribs on the right side, also with blood traces. (Very unusual for crucifixion, but definitely recorded for Jesus).
  • There are also signs of lacerations all over the top of the head of the person in the shroud, as if a “cap of thorns” had been placed on his head. (Only in Jesus’ case, so far as any records of crucifixion mention.)
  • The legs were not broken, but the knees had abrasions. (This suggests that the victim fell to his knees at some point while carrying something heavy, such as the cross. It also indirectly recalls that Jesus was so weak that Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry the cross-piece for Jesus, who had probably fallen and could carry it no further.

In spite of the evidence of cruel death imprinted in the cloth, there is no indication of decaying flesh contaminating the cloth. Whoever the victim was did not stay in the cloth long enough to decay within it, as any other corpse would. If it is a burial cloth, it is unique in this respect.

 

What about the “head piece” that had me so convinced of the impossibility of it being for Jesus?  Scholars assigned to the shroud studied first-century Jewish burial customs. It turns out that Jewish burials usually used multiple cloths. Hands and arms were bound across the pelvis, with feet bound together. Another strip of cloth was wrapped around the chin and over the top of the head to keep the mouth shut. It didn’t cover the face (pp. 96-102).

 

So the “head cloth” described in the Gospel was more than likely used as a chin strap to hold the mouth shut, without hiding the face. (Modern morticians sew the mouth shut nowadays, as I discovered when I briefly worked in a funeral home. I suppose that nobody wants to see a corpse that looks like it is ready to speak at any moment.)

 

The image fades in the places you would expect that type of chin strap to be located. Go figure.

If not Jesus, who is it?

 

The research into ancient burial cloths highlights one more, very important question. Why is it the only such cloth ever discovered in the world? Jesus was not the only person buried in such a cloth, so why have there never been other cloths discovered that had a person’s image impressed into it?

 

Could that be because Jesus’ experience of resurrection from the dead as the Son of God is unique, and therefore created a unique artifact?

 

I think I’ll definitely go with a “yes” on that one.

 

 

 

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“For in Six Days the Lord Made the Heavens and the Earth”

I have been a fan of science and the scientific method ever since I was a child. My Dad made sure his home library was stocked with a great selection of books about nature and science. I was the only kid in my grade 6 science class to do a project about why some stars vary in their brightness. (It had to do between the balance between the gravitational force of the mass of the star being to small to completely contain the massive energy output of the nuclear fusion reaction within… But that’s another story.)

Ok. I admit it. I’m a science geek. Not the kind that makes the great scientific discoveries – just the know-it-all kid who reads a lot about science and can usually explain some of its weird workings to work colleagues. That’s because I always took the hardest science classes in High School. In fact, science is the only subject I ever skipped a grade in in High School. I wasn’t so hot in physics, but biology and chemistry were as easy as breathing.

In grade 7 I stumbled across the story of an Austrian monk who was a contemporary of Charles Darwin. Gregor Johann Mendel was also a scientist. His science lab was the monastery garden, which he tended with loving care and a scientific mindset. In this garden he formulated a theory of inheritance that revolutionized science. In fact, he basically invented the science of genetics.

I learned from him that my parents did not adopt me. Yes, they both have brown eyes, and so does my one-and-only sibling. What they each have is two genes. Each has a gene for brown eyes and one for blue eyes. It turns out that I had a one-in-four chance of coming into this world with blue eyes. [OK, I admit that this is an oversimplification.] I beat the odds. (I even have Rh negative blood, also the only one in my family. Somehow I seem to be getting all the recessive traits.)

What I found really odd in school is how Mendel’s science came to be reconciled with Charles Darwin’s unscientific speculation about the origins of species and eventually the origins of life itself. Even to a grade 9 kid taking grade 11 biology it was easy to see how incompatible the two theories are. When I mentioned this to my biology teacher, she basically told me that the curriculum required that she teach biology from an evolutionary standpoint – she had no choice in the matter. I could believe what I wished, but had to pretend it was science in order to pass the exam – which I dutifully did.

While I was in Grade 10 I had a friend who introduced me to writings of the Worldwide Church of God. One thing that they did really, really well, however, is point out some weaknesses of the theory of evolution in a colorful and engaging way. One thing that they did not do, however, was deny that science might be correct about astronomy or the age of the earth. None of them had the science background to speak to issues like that.

Instead, they embraced a kind of “gap theory”. This idea allowed for a “gap” between the first and second verses of Genesis 1. It allowed for dinosaurs and a rebellion by Satan that destroyed the surface of the earth to the point that it became “formless and empty.” I thought that this was a valid reconciliation of science and the Bible. I could disbelieve in God-less evolution if God had created a humanity-free initial world and experimented with life-forms until he decided to create human beings in his own image.

That was until about three months ago. A friend loaned me a book called The Genesis Account by Jonathan D. Sarfati. In this book he points out many scientific, historical, theological and literary reasons to doubt the literal truth of a six-day creation of the earth and the universe. For a theological example, the Bible clearly states that death began at the fall of man in the story of the forbidden fruit in Genesis 3. This is corroborated by Romans 8:18-23.

Historically, the church and all of its early theologians considered the Genesis account to be an accurate narrative of the creation. Only in the late 1700’s did any significant numbers of Christian scholars begin to doubt the literal truth conveyed in the Genesis account.

Literarily, I once believed that the account featured enough poetic devices to be considered a poem, based on what I thought was good scholarship. It turns out to be a fringe idea. The account is a narrative with built-in stylistic features that make it memorable – but it is not a poem in its basic structure.

But the one that really stopped me in my tracks was when he referred to something that has been in the 10 Commandments all along. He points out a clear statement in the Sabbath command (Exodus 20:11). “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” The sabbath command is literally based on a literal six-day creation! And that’s when I finally got it!

Here’s the thing. If you look at verse 1 of Exodus 20 you see who is speaking the 10 Commandments. “And God spoke all these words.”

So who do we believe? God, or a well-meaning group of highly intelligent men and women who have been taught to automatically dismiss the documentary evidence of ancient times in favor of reason that is based on the assumption that only what is happening now is what has ever happened?

When I was taking the Saskatchewan Justice course to become a security guard, they took some time to teach us about how to bring evidence to court. I was surprised to discover that the primary form of evidence acceptable to court is that of eyewitnesses. Their evidence could be presented either in person or in the form of sworn affidavits.

As nearly as I can tell, God is the only eyewitness to the creation of heaven and earth who has ever told us about it. No scientist, living or dead, was around at the time of earth’s formation. A group numbering 600,000 men, plus their spouses and families were gathered to witness this statement, and swore to believe, remember and uphold the words spoken by God in a formal ceremony in chapter 24 of Exodus.

So the only eyewitness to the creation gave his testimony in front of at least 1.2 million people, who as good as signed in blood to agree. The document was written on the paper of the time as well as etched on two stone tablets that were stored in the most holy and protected place in the country. First, in the the Tabernacle, and eventually the Temple in Jerusalem.

That testimony is included in one of the most widely distributed documents in the world: the Bible.

But what about the science that “proves” that the earth is billions of years old?

Now we come to the kind of evidence normally described as circumstantial. Only if a large amount of circumstantial evidence can uniformly point in the same direction can we say that it makes the case ironclad.

One of the first “geologists” to propose a very old earth was Scottish physician James Hutton, who published his Theory of the Earth in the late 1700’s. His theory presupposed that the Bible account was not reliable – that there was no biblical flood, for instance. His work was repackaged and popularized by Charles Lyell, a lawyer and friend of Charles Darwin, in a book called Principles of Geology. The subtitle of the book indicates his philosophy: “Being an attempt to explain the former changes of the earth’s surface with reference to causes now in operation. In other words, if it isn’t happening now, it didn’t happen in the past. (No worldwide flood.) Thus the modern version of geology was born.

Notice three things. These are what modern geology is based on.

  1.  It is, in Lyell’s own words, “an attempt to explain.” It was not observational science, using all resources, including historical documents and observations. It was an interpretive framework that limited the investigation by dismissing historical observations that if finds inconvenient.
  2. It was devised by a physician, not a geo-scientist. That doesn’t automatically disqualify it, but it does make me wonder. There were geo-scientists around who did not agree.
  3. It was promoted by a lawyer who was a friend of the originator of the theory of evolution.

What scientists do not report to the general public is that there are problems with a “uniformitarian” approach. For instance, nowhere in the world do we see coal in the process of being formed. Why not, if the same forces are always at work? The same goes for oil.

Another problem is something called “polystrate fossils.” We have some in Nova Scotia, and others have been found in many other locations, such as Australia and New Zealand. We see fossilized trees upright through many layers of rock strata that theoretically should have taken millions of years to deposit. There is no way that a tree could survive intact long enough without rotting away under the conditions needed for sediments to deposit.

When it comes to scientific circumstantial evidence the true kicker for me in the case of radiometric dating. That should conclusively prove the age of rocks and fossils, shouldn’t it?

Creation ministries tried to see how accurate dating by radioactivity in the rocks is by sending samples of volcanic rock from the Mount St. Helen’s volcano in 1984 and several from Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand that erupted in 1949, 1954 and 1975. In a bit of a dirty trick, they sent the samples to an ordinary lab that routinely does dating for “real” scientists, but did not tell them the origin. None of the rocks had been formed before 1949.

The youngest age measured “scientifically” in the New Zealand samples was < 270,000 years, with other techniques yielding a range of up to 3.5 billion years. I suppose that < 270,000 years is technically correct, but it sure makes me wonder how accurate the technique is. The Mt. St. Helen’s rocks measured at between 340,000 years and 2.8 billion years, depending on the technique used.

The opposite problem occurs with carbon dating of coal. Using coal samples from the US Department of energy that were variously dated between 37 million and 318 million years old, scientists used a C14 test. The thing about C14 is that it decays very fast compared to Uranium and other radioactive substances. In theory you can’t detect any C14 after about 90,000 years. Surprisingly, they found enough C14 to date the coal to an average of 45-60,000 years. (Now there are other problems with C14 that I won’t go into here, but suffice it to say that the millions of years are impossible to sustain.)

The only hope for evolution, slender as it is, is if the world can be shown to be billions of years old. I can no longer believe that. The science that we have been taught makes a lot of pronouncements, but proves nothing of the sort.

For myself, I would rather rely on the eyewitness account of the God who actually did the creating.

The Apostle Peter prophecies about a time like ours, when he says,

3  Above all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires.   4  They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our ancestors died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”   5  But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.   6  By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed.   7  By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. [2 Peter 3:3-7 NIV]

Earlier in the same letter he notes that God not only judges, but also redeems.

2:5   if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others;   6  if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly;   7  and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless   8  (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)—   9  if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment.[2 Peter 2:5-9 NIV]

Make no mistake. Jesus is returning. When he does, there will be both judgment and redemption. The only way to experience redemption rather than judgment is to come to Jesus while there is still time.

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Pentecost – A Law Written on the Heart

A very long time ago, a man named Moses was called by God to lead His people, Israel,  out of slavery in Egypt. They left on the day of the Passover meal, and crossed the Red Sea three days later, just before God closed the sea over the Egyptian army.

That closure, at dawn on the third day (very likely the day of the week we now call Sunday), signaled the end of their captivity and a new life of freedom.

Seven weeks later (at least according to Jewish reckoning) God had gathered them at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In God’s own voice (amid frightening displays of thunder, lightning and fierce trumpet-like blasts) God called out his laws for the people of Israel to observe in the land He would give them. That set of laws is recorded in Exodus 20-23. They ratified their acceptance (as told in the next chapter) by a sacrifice involving the sprinkling of sacrificial blood, called “the blood of the covenant.”

Basically, if they honored and obeyed God and kept His laws, they would prosper and be blessed in the land He had given them. If they did not honor and obey them they would be exiled from their land and cursed even wherever they were scattered until they came back to God wholeheartedly. They would go from blessing to irreversible cursing.

He called Moses onto the mountain and etched that law onto two stone tablets – representing God’s copy and the people’s copy – and had Moses store them together in the Ark of the Covenant inside the Tabernacle made for God.

Centuries later, as the people of Israel and Judah moved further and further from following the God of their covenant, He sent prophets to tell them that God was going to send them into exile to far away lands as slaves to the non-Israelite nations around them. Afterwards, perhaps centuries later, He would gather them again from those nations and again enter into a covenant with them once again.

 But this time the rules would be different.

This time they would do something they had not done wholeheartedly before: actually obey and honor God.

Forever.

How would this happen? The prophet Ezekiel puts this way in Ezekiel 11:19

I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. 20 Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.

Somehow God would skip putting them onto stone tablets and would “write” His law on their “heart.” He would give them “a new spirit.” (We might translate that as a new “attitude.”)

The prophet Jeremiah, an older contemporary of Ezekiel, spoke of God entering into a “new” covenant with them (Jeremiah 31:31).

31  “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah.   32  It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them, ” declares the LORD.   33  “This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.   34  No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

Jeremiah adds the element of God’s forgiveness of all their sins. He also mentions that this “law written in their minds” will give them knowledge of who God is and what God is like. This “law” will also make them God’s people and enable Him to truly be their God.

Ezekiel notes, in his famous “valley of dry bones” prophecy (Ezekiel 37:1-14) )that God intends something truly radical:

 11  Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’   12  Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.   13  Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.   14  I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ ”

What a radical thing to say! God intends to put His own Spirit (!) into His people. If we take this passage literally, God gives His Spirit so that they can truly know that God has both spoken and done what He promised, including bringing people back to life!

(God had given Moses a small foretaste of what that may have been like in Numbers 11:4-35. Moses was complaining to God that the burden of leading Israel was too great for him to carry, so God tells him to gather 70 elders to the Tent of Meeting. He would put some of the Spirit that he gave Moses to the elders so that they would help Moses in his task. As God’s Spirit enters them, they begin to “prophesy,” an indicator of divine inspiration. The Spirit also chooses two elders who were not invited to the meeting. Moses is happy to include them in the group when he finds out. Moses even expresses the wish that all of the people of God might have access to the Spirit.)

Joel, another prophet, looks forward to the same culmination when he says (Joel 2:28-32):

28  “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions.   29  Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.   30  I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke.   31  The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD.   32  And everyone who calls on the name of the LORD will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the LORD has said, even among the survivors whom the LORD calls.

 At some point in the future (from Joel’s perspective) God would put His Spirit on all people. Not just Israel. (If only Moses knew!)

The New Testament book of Acts records the reception of the Spirit of God, first on Jews (Acts 2), then on non-Jews (Acts 10). Why should God bother putting his Spirit in people who aren’t even part of the people of Israel?

God had promised Abraham that his “seed” (descendant) would bless all nations. And now the promise would be fulfilled when everyone who calls on “the name of the Lord” will be saved.

 After Jesus died on Passover, and was resurrected that first day of the week (three days later at dawn, just like at the Red Sea crossing), the New Covenant “law written on the heart” was inaugurated at Pentecost.

 Jeremiah had promised that those who have the Spirit will all know the Lord.

John 16: 7  Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you.   8  And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:   9  of sin, because they do not believe in Me;   10  of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more;   11  of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.   12  I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.   13  However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.   14  He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you.   15  All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.

 Knowing the Lord and having sin forgiven certainly implies a knowledge of how to live life properly before God.

 Rom. 214  for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves,   15  who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)   16  in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.

 2 Tim. 1:7  For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.

 Rom. 8:14  For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.   15  For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.”   16  The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,   17  and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together.

(So why do we listen to teachers? Because Spirit-filled teachers impart to believers what the Spirit teaches them so that all may be blessed. Teaching is one of the many spiritual gifts given to believers by the Holy Spirit as He chooses. [1 Corinthians 12 and 14]).

 We know that “Jesus” is the “name of the Lord” from the witness of the early disciples of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament.

The Spirit of God (a.k.a. “Holy Spirit”) is poured out on people of all nations, blessing them as promised to Abraham.

 He teaches us about who God is, what God has done through Jesus, what Jesus continues to do in His church through the Spirit, and what Jesus will do at His return.

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What Easter Represents Is Important

This post reflects our Wascana Fellowship meeting on Easter weekend. As a little bit of background, our fellowship traditionally celebrates the events associated with Easter at the time of the Jewish Passover, (sometimes called the “quartodeciman” dating) which happens a month later this year than usual. (This is due to the unusually early Easter this year.)

We acknowledge that the vast majority of Christians prefer to celebrate according to the Julian or Gregorian calendar dates as fixed by the Roman and Orthodox church traditions, and find no fault with their preference. What is represented by that tradition transcends the date assigned to it. For this reason we explored its importance in that session on Easter weekend.

As we were in the midst of studies in the first letter of the Apostle Peter, I thought it appropriate to start in that letter to outline the importance that the early disciples placed on Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The letter begins with Peter calling them an “elect” people who have been called into a completely new life because of a world-changing event.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade.           [1 Peter 1:3-4a | NIV]

Jesus gives a “new birth” that leads to an eternal inheritance. What makes it all possible, however, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Without that, there is no new hope, no new birth and no eternal inheritance. For Peter, it is inconceivable to be a Christian without believing that Jesus lived, died, and was brought back to life.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. 19 After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— 20 to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, 21 and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. [1 Peter 3:18c-22 | NIV]

(Note: The unravelling of when and to whom Jesus “made proclamation” will have to wait for another post.)

Not only is it inconceivable in Peter’s mind to be a Christian without that understanding, but Peter uses that fact to motivate the believers in Asia Minor (to whom the letter is addressed) to do two specific things. First, he asks them to live morally pure and blameless lives that will eventually bring honour to God. He then  asks them to cheerfully endure unjust suffering because of Jesus’ example of suffering and dying unjustly for the sins of everyone else.

As we address those points we can remember that Peter himself was an eyewitness to Jesus’ death and resurrection. On the day of Pentecost, the next Jewish holy day after the resurrection of Jesus, Peter had this to say to his pilgrim audience in Jerusalem,

“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. [Acts 2:36-41 | NIV]

For Peter, Jesus’ resurrection proves that Jesus is the Messiah promised to the people of Israel. It also makes him Lord over all peoples in the world. When pressed about what to do about Peter’s proclamation, Peter tells them to “repent” and “be baptized,” which are biblical code words for changing your life for the better and entering into a covenant (one that includes obedience) with Jesus, who is the God of Israel.

In addressing his request to cheerfully endure unjust suffering, Peter notes that Jesus suffered unjustly to bring people to God, and therefore, to a lesser extent, our non-retaliatory endurance of evil against us may bring others around, too. He goes on to apply this specifically to wives and slaves as examples of following Jesus even if treated unjustly. The idea is that those who partake in Jesus’ suffering and disgrace also partake in his resurrection and glorification when he returns.

For Peter, the events commemorated on Good Friday and Easter Sunday are the very turning point of world history. Nothing else even compares.

The Apostle Paul, Peter’s counterpart in the non-Jewish Christian church, was of one mind with Peter about the importance of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascention to heaven. Writing to the church in Ephesus, he prays,

that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. [Ephesians 1:18-23 | NIV] (emphasis is mine)

Karen H. Jobes, writing in the Baker Evangelical Commentary on the New Testament: 1 Peter put it this way,

The gospel of Jesus Christ is not a new religion or something separate from the redemptive work of Israel’s Yahweh. Rather; Jesus Christ is foundational to God’s redemptive work because the Father’s foreknowledge and the Spirit’s sanctifying work terminate in the covenant between God and people that was established by Christ’s blood (1:2). The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit does not draw one into some generic spirituality but into the covenant with God in Jesus Christ that stands as the culmination of God’s work and revelation throughout all history. By raising Christ form the dead, God created the eternal new life into which he gives people new birth (1:3). To believe in the resurrected Christ is therefore to have faith and hope in God (1:21).

Jesus Christ is the only human being who has completely cheated death – which is something only God could do. He is still alive. He is with God and he is God, ruling all of creation at his Father’s “right hand.” All he asks is that we trust him with our lives.

Posted in Faith, gospel, Religion, Wascana | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Does Science Have Limits?

This post is the summary of a two-part Wascana Fellowship session from late last year, when I was too busy to post.

 

Part One: Limitations?

While doing research for the post about “understanding the times” I stumbled across a thought-provoking two-part essay by Roger Martin titled “The Limits of the Scientific Method in Economics and the World.” I think it is very worth reading. My summary and reflections will probably not do it the justice it deserves, but I will do my best.

He begins with a memory of a dinner presentation by a prominent economist in the wake of the stock market crash of 2009. Says Martin, “I was struck by how scientific he was, spewing myriad statistics, employing technical terms by the boatload, and praising his econometric model. It was ‘very sophisticated.” His “steady as she goes” forecast prior to the crash had been very wrong, as had those of every credible economist at the time.

Martin asked him after the dinner if he had changed his model after the crash. Amazingly, he had not even thought of it. For Martin, this illustrates “a fundamental blind spot in modern science.” According to Martin, “It has ventured far afield of its natural limits and is both creating problems and inhibiting progress.

The problem begins with Aristotle, who laid out the first formal conception of cause and effect. While science has made much progress since 400 B.C., his assumptions still underlie almost everything science does today. For the most part science works exceedingly well. When it comes to understanding natural laws and using them as a basis for technological advance, nothing works better than the scientific method. The ability to reproduce experimental results is a hallmark of the scientific method, as it should be.

The reliability of predictive models of any kind is based on the assumption that the field of study lends itself to a direct cause-and-effect relationship. Is that really the case with economics? Is it the case with any of the so-called “soft sciences” such as sociology or political science?

It turns out that even Aristotle was scientist enough to establish boundary conditions for his brand of scientific inquiry. Aristotle only applied his science to “things that cannot be other than they are.” This means physical objects with their physical properties. For those things that “can be other than they are” the scientific method is wholly inappropriate. This field of inquiry generally consists of “people – of relationships, of interactions, of exchanges.”

I would put it this way: people are unpredictable. People can be reliable or unreliable, power-hungry or altruistic, manipulative or caring, in powerful positions or dependent on others – the list goes on. All permutations are possible. People can also change, which complicates things even more.

For those things that can be other than they are Aristotle recommends using “rhetoric: dialogue between parties that builds understanding that actually shapes and alters this part of the world.” Rather than applying the scientific method for things that it is I’ll-equipped for, Martin would rather see us applying novel new approaches that reflect the reality of things that can be other than they are.

In the next instalment he searches for a method that will be better suited to understanding people, relationships, and exchanges.

 

Part Two: A Better Way

As an alternative to using the strictly Aristotelian scientific method for the study of economics and business, Roger Martin looks to the work of Charles Sanders Pierce, a contemporary of William James and James Dewey In the early 20th Century. Sanders is generally referred to as a “pragmatist philosopher” whose work was actually admired by the much-better-known William James.

If economists were being Peircian… They would have taken all of our disparate knowledge and mingled it together creatively to ask: what on earth could be going on here? Rather than forgetting entirely that their theories were demonstrated o be totally lacking, and then going on to analyze some more and predict more based on those theories, they would have created a new hypothesis to explain what just happened. This would be what Peirce evocatively call ‘a logical leap of the mind’ and ‘an inference to the best explanation.’

All science can do in people-related fields is work with already existing historical data. In a wonderful turn of phrase, Martin puts it this way, “If you torture the data enough, it will provide an answer, if only to make the pain go away.” If the existing rule is dis-confirmed (such as in 2009), you haven’t learned much regarding the future, except that the rule is not operative.

When something new and unexpected happens what is needed is an inductive leap to a new theory that can be tested going forward (rather than backward). This resembles science at first glance, but is different in that you probably cannot prove the theory analytically with the data you now have. Instead, inquiring minds would need to discuss how to test the idea going forward.

In other words, the intent is not to establish scientific principles that can be used to predict the future. Rather, the intent is to use tools of both deductive and inductive logic to improve understanding of human nature and relationships. Innovative theories may lead to innovative ways of dealing with future problems that have not even arisen yet.

Aristotle might have argued that Peirce’s ” logical leap is a product of rhetoric: the dialogue between inquiring minds that attempts to create a future that does not now exist, rather than mindlessly crunching the numbers that do exist.”

Martin’s point is not to denigrate actual science (which works very well), but rather to rein it in to within its natural limits. He would like us to use what Peirce calls “abductive logic” (a combination of deduction and induction via discussion and observation). Nor is he arguing that abductive logic is never used in real science. Or even that novel hypotheses are never used in either natural or social science. (You need only read about Einstein’s novel notion that acceleration and gravity are equivalent to see that a great deal of science is based on inspired imagination.)

 

Part Three: My Reflections

I enjoyed Roger Martin’s essay because it speaks to some misgivings I have had for years about the realms in which the modern version of science is applied. My own misgivings naturally apply more to the realm of religion than economics, as noted in some of my previous posts about the theory of evolution’s grip on science as well as science’s claims about the when and the how of the origins of the universe.

I am glad that he has noticed that certain fields of endeavour do not lend themselves to scientific number-crunching. It is refreshing to see that not everything is reducible to numbers.

I suspect that the problem goes deeper than just whether scientific numerology is appropriate for some fields and not for others. Even within its own proper fields, science has often fallen prey to the kind of dogmatism that is usually attributed to religion. For instance, the real conflict between Copernicus and the church was between an Aristotelian view of the universe (a pagan scientific one that had been adopted by the church) and the Copernican mathematical view. The church had adopted as dogma the science of the day. Let it not make that mistake again!

That is not my only misgiving. Something that Martin does not mention is that relationships, interactions and exchanges intersect with not only the sociological and psychological spheres, but also the spiritual/religious sphere of life. To be clear: I doubt there will ever be a clear scientific basis for morality as Christians know it. Rationalisation of self-serving behaviour is too basic to human trait to be amenable to controlling our own behaviour by means of a code derived entirely by logic and without imposition by a higher power.

Another area I have concerns with involves the study of religion. In a conversation I had a few years ago with a University of Regina professor of Religious Studies I discovered that my Master’s classes in Religious Education would not transfer well into their program, because Religious studies is actually about “the phenomenology of religion.”

I do not believe that you can really “get” faith using scientific methodology. In my personal library I have three books about the history of Christianity in three different countries. Two of them are specifically about Evangelicalism. While it was helpful to see writers viewing Christians as posited contributors to democratic societies, it was glaringly obvious that none of the writers really understood the Christians they were portraying so positively.

They simply were not Christians themselves. They were studying a “phenomenon” from the outside. Other-worldly motivations or “spiritual gifts” such as “tongues” or “prophecy” will always seem like utter madness to the non-religious mind. It will seem especially so to the mind trained to recognize only mathematically or logically explicable phenomena.

The only “logical” explanation for faith is insanity.

That is why officially atheist nations tend to outlaw religion. Other nations will naturally prefer religions that can be controlled by the state.

The kind of faith that Jesus brought, taught and sought is not the kind that can be either controlled or explained. If you have ever wondered why Christianity is increasingly being blamed for all the ills – ancient and modern – in the world, just do the math.

Posted in Faith, Religion | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Understanding the Times

About one month ago I presented this message in Wascana Fellowship, but did not have the time to post it (as with so many lately). I will try to post a few others from previous months as I have time and I find the notes.

A pastor I knew once referred to a particularly wise group of people mentioned in the Bible as an example for those of us who wish to reach the world with the good news about Jesus Christ. These were people who knew it was time for the entire nation of Israel to appoint David as their king in place of the line of King Saul. [2 Samuel 23-32]

These are the numbers of the men armed for battle who came to David at Hebron to turn Saul’s kingdom over to him, as the LORD had said:… men of Issachar, who understood the times and knew what Israel should do–200 chiefs, with all their relatives under their command;

The pastor went on to encourage us to understand the society around us in order to figure out ways to coherently teach about salvation in Jesus Christ. In theory, once we understand the world around us, we will know what to do.

I’m not necessarily convinced that knowing the world or society around us will automatically lead to solving an unwillingness to hear about Jesus and salvation. Nor am I convinced that reaching out in “culturally relevant” ways, as practiced by the North American church, will bring people to a firm faith in Jesus.

The lack of success of the church led by the pastor above in keeping people attending, let alone persuading new people to become active long-term members, suggests either a lack of understanding of society or a flaw in the theory.

For example, as much as the Apostle Paul’s message to the Athenian council is looked upon as an example to follow, Paul’s disgusted flight from the city and lack of success (very few conversions) speak volumes about the strategy. His original strategy of seeking Jewish proselytes worked much better.

This is not to say that “understanding the times” is unhelpful or useless to Christians. There are patterns in the life of a nation, for instance, that may provide clues as to whether a massive revival of Christian churches is likely in Canada.

I doubt that the present moment is one of times. That could change, however. There are forces that are passing under the radar of most of us that are beginning to change our social structure. These changes may eventually lead to times ripe for a return to hope in Jesus Christ, though not in a way we might expect.

First, I’ll talk about the present. My sense is that the current mood of our society is a hedonism that is unwilling to take the time or make the effort to think through the consequences of our current consumptive obsessiveness. There is nothing new about this assessment. Many have made it before me. Churches are responding to this hedonism. Some responses even seem to be working…for now.

Making the church appealing to consumers, as many currently “successful” churches are doing, simply reinforces the problem. Stress and burnout will follow the leadership of these churches as they seek to stay at the crest of the cultural wave. The soil of our culture is full of rocks that stunt growth and thorns that will choke out all but the most devoted followers of Jesus.

There are far too many distractions in our society to allow for measured thought about the meaning of life and whether there is anything beyond. Our ever-so-scientific outlook on life drowns out notions of the mystery of life or of spiritual matters. These trends are also well-known – especially by parents who are dismayed at the forces arrayed against installing Christian values in their children.

Our society is quickly losing any awareness of a need for God.

Not surprisingly, God is aware of this aspect of human nature.Even as far back as when he was leading his people Israel into the Promised Land, he warned them,

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. (Deut. 8:10-14)

He is not surprised when a nation that once considered itself “Christian” begins to turn its back on him in the wake of prosperity. The pattern goes all the way back to God’s chosen people, the Hebrews (of whom we only recognize the Jewish people today). It happened many times in Israel’s history, as chronicled in the books of Judges, Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the Bible.

There are actually three more parts to the pattern of turning away from, then (possibly) returning to God.It is the next part of the pattern that is of interest at this point in our country, and perhaps even the rest of Western civilization.

The next part of the pattern is an increasing oppression of the population, beginning with the poor and disadvantaged.

This stage begins with an internal rot in the morals of the leaders of society, who begin to prey upon those less able to defend themselves. This establishes a downward spiral that, left unchecked, leads to the destruction of a society.

Later symptoms include a selling-out of local and national interests in the pursuit of personal wealth by a power elite. This often leads to increasing foreign ownership of national treasures and wealth-generating enterprises. It also leads to increasing economic and military vulnerability of the society in question.

One thing I have noticed in studying the Bible is that God often waits for a specific kind of response from a nation that has once honoured him. A prototype to that kind of response can be found in the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. God explains to Moses why he is moving to their assistance at this particular time. Then God says,

“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God. The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey–the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:6-10)

While this is not necessarily a case of a people moving away from worship of God, notice that God intervenes at a certain point when the oppression becomes so great that the oppressed cry out to God about their suffering. It seems that when a certain level of suffering from oppression is reached, God intervenes on behalf of the oppressed.

I hope to review some of the results of God’s intervention in Biblical history in a later post, but one need only read the book of Judges to get an idea of the ups and downs of Israel’s relationship with God and the kinds of intervention possible.

While our current culture’s massive hedonism does not lend itself to a felt need for God, there may be forces at work behind the scenes that will change our perception of self-sufficiency. There are trends in our society that lead me to believe that large scale oppression will become the norm in the near future.

How Oppression Begins

There are many ways to create ideal conditions for oppressing large populations (though not an exhaustive list):

  • Lure people into cities with promise of high-paying jobs
  • Make it impossible to go back to the rural way of life
  • Keep changing technology for constant costly upgrading
  • Make living conditions in cities increasingly unaffordable
  • Discourage self-sustaining small-scale agriculture and gardening (such as by selling only patented seed)
  • Allow the rich to control vital resources such as water for extortionate gain
  • Increase credit limits to unsustainable levels
  • Devalue currencies with inflation to prevent savings from meaningfully accumulating Enforce servitude as condition of paying off debt
  • Keep people dependent on government support through tax incentives or welfare
  • Control wages by keeping unemployment high, ensuring a mobile (rootless) workforce
  • Decrease job security, forcing workers to accept poor working conditions and wages
  • Increase generalized fear of enemy nations or terrorist organizations, allowing governments to increase reduce freedoms
  • Keep increasing taxes while reducing social safety net programs

Canada is not Israel, so I am not predicting that Canadians will be forced out of the country because we have forgotten God.

What I am saying is that forgetting God will allow Canadians to sink into increasingly short-sighted behaviours that will result in various forms of entrapment, leading to being dominated by the powerful. Canadians will eventually (if not sooner) find themselves abused by governments and corporations that are increasingly controlled by psychopaths intent on gaining power and influence.

With technologies currently available, it may take less time than you might think. The Apostle John, writing to seven churches in Asia Minor, gave a chilling view of the future from a vision he received while on a Roman prison island.

Revelation 13:11 Then I saw another beast, coming out of the earth. He had two horns like a lamb, but he spoke like a dragon. He exercised all the authority of the first beast on his behalf, and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed.13 And he performed great and miraculous signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to earth in full view of men.14 Because of the signs he was given power to do on behalf of the first beast, he deceived the inhabitants of the earth. He ordered them to set up an image in honor of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 He was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that it could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 He also forced everyone, small and great, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on his right hand or on his forehead, 17 so that no one could buy or sell unless he had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of his name. 18 This calls for wisdom.42 If anyone has insight, let him calculate the number of the beast, for it is man’s number. His number is 666.

This “beast,” a symbolic name for the ancient Roman Empire, was the main oppressor of both Jews and Christians in the time John wrote the letter to seven churches, now called the book of Revelation. While the “beast” referred to a specific religio-political entity of the time, later readers can see parallels in later despotic regimes that attempt to control the lives and minds of their subjects.

Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin and the rest are all manifestations of the same lust for power that seeks to dominate everyone around for its own gain. Money, goods and prestige flow upward in the pyramid of power, while control and manipulation flow downward. The lowest levels of the pyramid gain the least and pay the most.

When an entire people strays from the one true God they open themselves up to falling into a trap of their own devising. The lust for ease and pleasure ends up in chains of pain and oppression.

My sense is this: once the full extent of oppression and powerlessness has been reached and becomes blatantly obvious to most, there will be a better receptivity to the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. That is good news for those who long to reach the multitudes for Jesus Christ.

Here is the bad news: There will also be intensified efforts to eradicate the preaching of the gospel because of its tendency to undermine the fear and “worship” of the powers-that-be. The prophet Daniel wrote about this phenomenon well in advance:

Daniel 11:33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time.  Daniel 11:33-35 | NIV

The Apostle John also wrote about it in his vision:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. 10 They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” 11 Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been. Revelation 6:9-11 | NIV

This is not my version of a doomsday prophecy, complete with a prophetic timetable. This is merely a reflection on normal human nature and the road we human beings normally take when we reject Jesus Christ as Lord.

Rejecting the true God and his Son Jesus Christ leads to increasingly dangerous behaviours that lead to self-entrapment, which leads to vulnerability to powerful interests bent on controlling the populace for their own gain. Some few will wake up and seek God, and will be persecuted for it by the same powerful interests, just as many Christians around the world are already experiencing at the hands of governments and radical religious groups.

At some point God will hear the cry of fear and oppression and he will intervene.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for the oppressed, but very bad news for the oppressor.

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How Did We Get the New Testament?

Disclaimer: None of the information presented in this post originates with me. The core of it belongs to a Fuller Theological Seminary student paper written by Corey Keating in 2000 entitled, “The Criteria Used for Developing the New Testament Canon in the First Four Centuries of the Christian Church.” His paper is a concise and very readable summary of the process of compilation of the New Testament that we now use. What isn’t from Keating’s paper is from my memory of a lecture that touched briefly on canonization by Dr. Andy Reimer at Canadian Bible College in about 1999.

The book of Acts records a how members in a synagogue in a city called Berea took the Apostle Paul’s message to heart, but not without fact-checking first from the Scriptures on hand at the synagogue. The result, of course, is that “many believed.” [Acts 17:10-12]

But what exactly are “scriptures?” And how can we know we have true and accurate “scriptures?” They were working from what we now call the “Old Testament.” If the Jewish people accepted the Old Testament as scripture, how can we be as sure about the New Testament?

There are two good reasons that it would be good to know how the collection of books and letters that we know of as the New Testament came into being. The first good reason is that we, as believers, need to be confident that the documents that record the life and teachings of Jesus and the original Apostles are a true and accurate testimony. In other words, are these really Jesus’ teachings? Did he really die for our sins? Did he really rise from the dead and become “Lord of heaven and earth?”

We could just assume that the Bible we have is the complete revelation of God and his salvation through Jesus Christ. Being confident of their truth because we understand the process of transmission strikes me as a better way.

The second good reason it would be good to know how it happened involves an idea that has gone viral in our society. It is an idea that has been around for centuries, but has really gained traction in our time. It is the idea that some books were deliberately excluded from the Bible by a nefarious group of men who wanted control over what people believe. The idea was around long before The DaVinci Code.

It is not the existence of other writings that is in question – they certainly exist – it is their faithfulness to Jesus’ message and teaching. In fact, the critics can point to some “gospels” that have received prominence by modern scholars, such as the “Gospel of Thomas,” which departs radically from the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. Some of these other writings have been around almost as long the Gospels.

So what happens when a trusted friend or family member tells you that he believes that a cabal has taken control of the faith by limiting what books got into the Bible? What can you say when that person would rather believe a book that was rejected by the first few generations of Christians as a reliable witness than the accepted canon of the Church?

Perhaps you can begin by reminding them that the men responsible for promoting those books probably have as much of an agenda as those who rejected them so many centuries ago. It may even be the same agenda as those who wrote the books in the first place. If you want to impute motives to the collectors of the New Testament, you might as well have a look at the motives of those who want to alter the canon. Fair is fair.

It turns out that attempts to change the witness of Jesus and the Apostles is the very reason the New Testament eventually took shape as a collection of sacred church writings.

Since the churches were founded upon the work of the original Apostles it makes sense that it would be their writings that would have accurately reported the work of Jesus and the early church, and the gospel they preached. What better written foundation to build the doctrine and practice of the church on?

There is no doubt that there were early writings by Apostles and their delegates to various churches. Each of the writers of the Gospels and Acts is mentioned in someone else’s Gospel, Acts, or the letters of the Apostle Paul. These were preserved by the churches that originally received them, and were usually copied by visiting members of other churches, eventually ensuring a wide distribution of the Gospels, Acts, and letters of Peter, John, James, Jude, Paul and the Letter to the Hebrews.

These books soon came to be the standard by which church doctrine would be measured. Strangely enough, the first recorded attempt to limit the acceptable books of the faith belongs to a heretic named Marcion in approximately 140 AD. He devised the idea that the God of the Old Testament was different than the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

Because of this, his canon excluded almost all of the Old Testament, as well as any Gospels with obvious Old Testament connections. This left only most of the Gospel of Luke and the Letters of Paul (with some editing out of references to the Old Testament). For him, these were the only acceptable and true witness to Jesus and his teaching.

The connection between Jesus and the Old Testament is so glaringly obvious that Marcion’s list was easily rejected by the majority of the church. It’s existence, however, prompted a thoughtful discussion about what constitutes sound, godly teaching to be used by Christians.

Irenaeus, an early opponent of Marcion, appealed to a group of writings that seem to have been well known as “apostolic” to address the heresy. He lists them, quotes from them and defends them as the standard for formulating doctrine and practice in the church.

One notes here that Irenaeus not only has defended the Old Testament, but has promoted the use of New Testament material in its defence. That raises writings now included in the New Testament to the level of Scripture in the eyes of the church. Similar lists compiled by his contemporaries Tertullian and Hippolytus and others further encouraged their use for doctrinal defence. These lists may be said to form the nucleus of what we now call the New Testament.

Naturally, there were more details to be worked out, but the core of the New Testament was pretty well established by the end of the second century.

Note that these lists were initially a reaction against Marcion’s exclusion of works that had already been largely accepted by the church.

Another example of a list is a document dated at roughly 170 AD that was found by a man named Muratori in the mid-eighteenth century, and is now referred to as the Muratorian Canon. The writer compiled a list of normative writings for the church, along with reasons for accepting or rejecting books that were available at the time. In one case he calls a book “too recent” and that it therefore could not have the stamp of either prophetic or apostolic authority. ”

Apostolic authority” seems to have been the main criterion for including a book in the accepted canon of the church in the second century. This does not absolutely require that an Apostle be the writer. They do need to be from the time of the Apostles and to accurately represent the teaching and activity of Jesus and the Apostles. For instance, the Gospels of Mark and Luke make no claim to having been written by Apostles. Mark and Luke, however, were long-time ministry partners of Peter and Paul, respectively, and had essentially unlimited access to their mentors’ memories of their encounters with Jesus and the other disciples for their writings.

Churches founded by the original Apostles also had traditional understandings of the gospel of Jesus that assisted them in determining whether a writing was a true representation of the “faith once delivered.” As Gnostic writers tried to supplant true doctrine with their own writings that claimed apostolic authorship, the leaders of these churches rejected them as “unorthodox.” They compared these slightly later writings with those already accepted as “orthodox” and rejected those that taught a different gospel.

Since the four accepted Gospels agree in teaching about Jesus, for instance, a “gospel” that shows Jesus teaching about “secret knowledge” (such as the “Gospel of Thomas”) would have been rejected outright at the time. To accept such a different take on Jesus’ teaching when so many reliable witnesses agree makes no logical sense. A self-contradicting canon would reduce Christianity to complete nonsense – something that even ancient theologians were intelligent enough to figure out. What that says about modern scholars who wish to include it or replace the accepted canon I shall leave to the reader.

What about the councils of the third and fourth centuries that are thought by many Protestants to have “corrupted” the church by “imposing” doctrines and a canonical New Testament? Since no records of the actual minutes of the meetings have been handed down, surely there must have been back-room deals made or political horse-trading for favours in return for acceptance of certain books, right?

Since the purpose of this post does not cover doctrine as such, we will concentrate on the canonization of the New Testament. For one thing, there was no longer any argument about whether the books approved by Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus were going to be part of the accepted Canon. By the time of Origen in the early 200’s they were already accepted as authoritative by the church as a whole. Essentially the councils rubber-stamped the scriptures that were already generally accepted by the church. The earlier churchmen and theologians who used these books and letters as authoritative had already proven the point to the satisfaction of the participants of the Councils.

In fact, this seems to signal a shift in how books were included in the Canon. The shift is from the idea of apostolic authority to that of their use by early theologians. “If they were good enough for Irenaeus and Tertullian, etc, they are good enough for me” might be a vernacular way of putting it.

We can look to the examples of Jerome the scholar and translator and Augustine the great theologian, who were both very influential in settling the canon. Apparently, while Jerome was not sure that the Letter to the Hebrews should be accepted, the fact that it was well accepted by the Eastern Church led him to include it in his Latin Vulgate translation. In a similar vein Augustine and much of the Eastern Church reluctantly accepted the Apocalypse (Revelation) due to its acceptance in the West. The turning point was the fact that these books were freely used by prior generations of orthodox theologians.

Notice that by this time there is no need to refer to apostolic authority because that question had already been settled by previous generations of thoughtful theologians. With a few minor exceptions, the list was already settled. Those that needed more discussion, such as 2 Peter, Hebrews and Revelation, were settled by noting that previous generations of theologians were freely quoting them in their own writings.

The history of attempts to alter the witness of the New Testament writings by including spurious works or discrediting accepted works should teach us not to be surprised by similar attempts in our time. The more things change, the more they stay the same when it comes to trying to discredit historic Christianity.

We do not have to accept a self-contradictory new canon of scripture, no matter how scholarly the argument for inclusion seems. Nor do we have to accept the trashing of centuries of witness to the testimony of the Apostles and their faithful companions in the first century.

We can be confident that the New Testament that we now have is a true and accurate presentation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It was meticulously preserved as various writings by the churches established by the Apostles. They were faithfully collected into a “canon” by wise and discerning people who cared about faithfully transmitting the same gospel traditions to later generations.

Let us honour their commitment by being faithful to the real Lord Jesus that these people so faithfully bore witness to.

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