A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY

notes prepared by Larry Brown

 

Part 3: Enlightenment

 

Qualities of the Enlightenment

·         Confidence in reason and critical thinking: Descartes said the search for truth must begin with doubt. Question everything. (Descartes remained a devout Catholic). Thomas Jefferson: “Question with boldness even the existence of a God, because if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blind faith” (letter to nephew 1785). John Locke (17th c): “Nothing that is contrary to and inconsistent with the clear and self-evident dictates of reason has a right to be urged or assented to as a matter of faith” (Essay on Human Understanding 4.18.10) Although Locke thought that the essentials of Christian faith were reasonable, he opened the door to future skeptics whose reason would not be so easily convinced.

·         Skepticism toward the past: truth not based on accepting authority (church, scriptures, Aristotle).  Kant: “Think for yourself.”

·         Verification of truth by experience: Francis Bacon and the scientific method; truth found by studying the world around you. Immanuel Kant eventually split knowledge into two separate fields, experience (empirical science based on observation of the physical world) and faith for which no rational proof was valid. The quest for religious liberty in the 16-17th centuries helped the cause of freedom of thought and inquiry in the pursuit of science.

·         Disgust over the chaos of religious divisions which in part led to the wars in the early 17th century, and admiration of the clear, “undisputed” truth of the sciences: “There are no sects in geometry” (Voltaire)

·         Belief in the inevitable progress of human society through education and science.

·         Faith in humanity as basically good (rejection of the Catholic doctrine of original sin). If government and religious authorities leave people alone, they will be happier and more moral.

·         Basic human rights founded on natural reason: freedom of thought and belief, protection of life, health, and property, trial by jury. Locke: “Man is naturally free, and nothing [should be] able to put him into subjection to any earthly power without his consent.” Government receives its authority from the governed. When it no longer respects these rights, the people have the right to overthrow it and form a new one.

·         Christianity (especially Catholicism) was criticized for teaching falsehood (original sin), irrationality (miracles, Trinity), intolerance and persecution, supporting status quo and injustice in society (great chain of being), blind faith in church authority against common sense and experience, extravagant lifestyles of bishops, support of the divine right of kings

 

Question of Theodicy (God’s justice)

·         Leibniz (1646-1716) coined the term “theodicy” as the title of his book; how do we reconcile the goodness of God and the existence of evil? Leibniz argued God created the best of all possible worlds – not the best of all conceivable worlds. But what appears to be evil is “necessary.” If God wanted free individuals, made in his image, then he had to allow for sin, since only the deity is infallible. The fact that evil exists “proves” that God could not have created a world without it. Natural evils occur because creation cannot have the perfection of the creator. God cannot create something as perfect as himself (see Aquinas). If humans could see the whole, we would see the place that natural disasters have in the divine plan.

·         Voltaire (1694-1778) argued that the harsh reality of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake with 30,000 dead made a mockery of Leibniz’ optimistic theodicy. What conceivable reason could God have that would justify such horrors? What kind of God would that be? If God is so good, then he should explain his mysterious will to us.

·         David Hume (1711-76): Theists want to reason from a good and orderly creation to the existence of God. But Hume looked around and saw suffering and disorder as well. What kind of God does that give us? How can an imperfect, evil-invested universe point to the existence of a perfect and good God? “If he is willing to prevent evil, but not able, he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent.”

 

Challenge of the Scientific Worldview

 

·         During the early church years, Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Tertullian (late 2nd c) condemned the “natural philosophy” of the Greeks (thoughts on nature but without empirical testing), calling their teachings “a heap of miserable rags” and “uncertain speculation.” Christians should study the scriptures and not inquire into nature’s mysteries that only God can understand. Much of this criticism arose in context of the Gnostic heresies which relied on Greek philosophy.

·         In the fourth century, Basil of Caesarea was the first churchman to offer an alternative to Aristotle’s works, laying foundations for a Christian philosophy of science. In his Hexaemeron, he discussed three points: being made in God’s image, humanity shares the rational nature of God and thus can use reason to explore the natural world; at creation God established natural laws which govern the universe (that is, God doesn’t intervene to “make” it rain, cause earthquakes, etc); against Aristotle, he thought the heavenly bodies were not spiritual beings but obeyed the same laws of physics as the earthly realm. We might restate these principles as the comprehensibility of the world, the relative autonomy of nature, and the unity of heaven and earth. Having faith in the practical application of the sciences, Basil founded history’s first public hospital which relied more on medicine than miracles for cures (Kaiser, Creation and the History of Science, 1991, 3-7, 43).

·         In his Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) attempted to reconcile secular philosophy (in particular the writings of Aristotle) with religious faith. He argued that God’s revelation in nature is supplemented by his revelation in scripture. God does nothing contrary to reason, and since human reason derives from God, nothing in God is inconsistent with reason, and will not contradict revelation. A rational study of the world will point to God. This faith in a rational God as designer of a rational universe eventually laid the foundation for modern science.

·         However, Aquinas also led to the church’s suspicion of science: “Theology surpasses other speculative sciences, in point of greater certainty because other sciences derive their certainty from the natural light of reason which can err, whereas theology derives its certainty from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled” (ST 1a.1.5). “Whatever is found in other sciences contrary to scripture must be condemned as false” (ST 1a.1.6).

 

Medieval view of the cosmos

·         In his Summa Theologiae Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) attempted to reconcile secular philosophy (in particular the writings of Aristotle) with religious faith. He argued that God’s revelation in nature is supplemented by his revelation in scripture. God does nothing contrary to reason, and since human reason derives from God, nothing in God is inconsistent with reason, and will not contradict revelation. A rational study of the world will point to God.

·         However, Aquinas also influenced the church’s suspicion of science, when it seemed to contradict current interpretation of scripture: “Theology surpasses other speculative sciences, in point of greater certainty because other sciences derive their certainty from the natural light of reason which can err, whereas theology derives its certainty from the light of divine knowledge, which cannot be misled” (ST 1a.1.5). “Whatever is found in other sciences contrary to scripture must be condemned as false” (ST 1a.1.6).

·         Medieval scholars began to distinguish between God’s normal role as creator of natural laws and His occasional display of supernatural power in miracles. Some placed greater emphasis on God’s transcendence over nature rather than his imminent involvement in nature. Under the influence of Aristotle, God was thought of as the First Mover (the initial Cause) and the Clockmaker who created the intricate mechanism of the universe to run by itself without constant intervention (Kaiser 73).

·         With his admiration for Aristotle, Aquinas had in effect merged the classical Greek view of the natural world with Christian theology. In the Ptolemaic system (2nd century AD) founded on Aristotle’s ideas, the earth was at the center of multiple concentric crystal spheres on which the sun, planets, and stars revolved. The heavens were eternal, unchanging, without defects. The planets moved in perfect circles. These concepts were adopted by the church to represent the sublime perfection of God’s creation.

·         Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the earth orbited the sun (the idea goes back to the Greek Aristarchus, 2nd c BC). He also greatly expanded the estimated size of the universe: “How exceedingly vast is the godlike work of the Best and Greatest Artist” (On the Revolutions, qt. in Ferris 68). We now know that the solar system itself is 100 times larger than Ptolemy’s estimate for the entire universe.

·         Luther described Copernicus as “this fool who wants to reverse the entire science of astronomy,” citing the case in Joshua 10 of the sun standing still, not the earth (in his Table Talks).

·         Some other medieval “proof texts” used against Copernicus: “The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved” (Ps. 96:10). “You set the earth on its foundations, so that it can never be shaken” (Ps 104:5). “The sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises” (Eccl. 1:5), the story in Joshua where God stops the moving of the sun  (Hopper, Modern Theology, 1986, 11).

 

Galileo (1564-1642)

·         Einstein once said: “Pure logical thinking cannot yield any knowledge of the empirical world; all knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it. … Because Galileo saw this … he is the father of modern science.” (Ferris 83)

·         Galileo argued that science cannot be derived from pure reason (such as Descartes proposed), theology, or other ancient authorities such as Aristotle. One starts not with scripture or tradition but with sensory experience and demonstrations to test the predictability of phenomena. Galileo’s true opponent was less the church than the conservative traditions of Aristotelian physics (Frankenberry 5, 8).

·         When Galileo, through the use of the newly invented telescope, discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter, this challenged the classical idea of the planets being attached to rotating crystal spheres. When he saw sunspots and mountains on the moon, it contradicted the idea that the heavenly bodies were perfect spheres without flaw.

·         Tycho Brahe discovered a supernova in 1572 (nova means “new” star, although it’s actually a dying star exploding which becomes visible on earth). Kepler and Galileo observed another in 1604 (very rare). This challenged Aristotle’s idea that the star-sphere was perfect and unchanging. Kepler also proved mathematically that the planetary orbits are not perfect circles but ellipses.

·         Some church officials refused to look through Galileo’s telescope; their belief in the Ptolemaic system was stronger than what they might see with their own eyes. Others thought it was the devil’s instrument. Under threat of torture, Galileo was forced to recant his findings.

·         Galileo, a devout Catholic, said in his defense that the Bible could not be proven false, as long as it was read correctly, pointing out the figurative language describing God with human features: “[I] agree that the Holy Scripture can never lie or err, and that its declarations are absolutely and inviolably true. I should add only that, though the Scripture cannot err, nevertheless some of its interpreters can sometimes err in various ways. One of these would be … to limit oneself always to the literal meaning of words; for there would thus emerge not only various contradictions but also serious heresies and blasphemies, and it would be necessary to attribute to God feet, hands, and eyes, as well as bodily and human feelings like anger, regret, hate, and sometimes even forgetfulness of things past and ignorance of future ones. Thus in the Scripture one finds many propositions which look different from the truth if one goes by the literal meaning of the words, but which are expressed in this manner to accommodate the incapacity of the common people. … it being obvious that two truths can never contradict each other, the task of wise interpreters is to strive to find the true meaning of scriptural passages agreeing with those physical conclusions of which we are already certain and sure from clear sensory experience or from necessary demonstrations” (in Frankenberry 10-12). “A natural proposition which is proven to be true by natural and mathematical demonstrations can never be contrary to the Scriptures; rather in such a case it is the weakness of our intellect which prevents us from penetrating into the true meaning of the Scriptures themselves” (17).

·         “I judge the authority of the Bible was designed to persuade men of those articles and propositions which, surpassing all human reasoning, could not be made credible by science. … But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us the knowledge which we can attain by them” (Drake, trans. Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo, 1957, 181-13). “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” (Ian Barbour, Religion and Science 1999).

·         In 1992 the pope officially stated that the church had been wrong in condemning Galileo.

 

Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

·         “Nature’s laws lay hid at night; God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light” (Alexander Pope)

·         Newton wrote more on theology than science, although he was an unorthodox Christian in his day, refuting the doctrine of the Trinity; his theological writings were not published until the 20th century. He experimented with alchemy, using myths as symbols for chemical reactions: in the story of Vulcan catching Venus and Mars in a net, Venus = copper, Mars = iron, Vulcan = fire which creates the “net” chemical. From biblical prophecies he calculated the end of the world to come in 2060.

·         He respected scripture but did not consider it authoritative on scientific questions, such as the method of creation. He believed that Moses wrote in the thought-language of his day, concepts which primitive people would understand.

·         “I do not think [the creation of the universe] explicable by mere natural causes, but am forced to ascribe it to the counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent” (Frankenberry 108). He agreed with the classical argument from design: “This most beautiful system of sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being” (114). He thought his studies of physics would lead to belief, not discredit it.

·         Joseph Addison, Newton’s contemporary, wrote in the hymn, “The Spacious Firmament”: “In Reason’s ear they [the heavenly spheres] all rejoice, and utter forth a glorious voice, forever singing as they shine, ‘The hand that made us is divine.”

·         Newton was no deist, and did not agree with the concept of God as watchmaker who wound up the cosmic mechanism and left it to run by itself. The only way the universe could continue to work properly was by continual divine providence. When Newton’s calculations of planetary orbits did not come out right, he hypothesized that God was somehow at work, not just as First Cause of the universe but continuing to be involved in running the Great Machine. He thought that comets might be one way in which God regulates the planetary orbits. Leibniz accused him of using God to fill in the gaps, and depicting Him as an incompetent craftsman, continually tinkering with the cosmic mechanism to make it work properly. Newton responded that in a perfectly operating universe, God would become superfluous (Frankenberry 107).

·         Although Newton left room for God in the process, he opened the door to the view of nature as a self-sufficient and impersonal mechanism. In the 18th c. Pierre LaPlace expanded Newton’s theory of cosmology in a way that “had no need for the God-hypothesis.” 

 

Charles Darwin (1809-1882)

·         Darwin did not invent the theory of evolution. Some of the ideas go back to the ancient Greeks. Lamarck published a major work on biological evolution in 1801; Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1832) challenged the idea of a recent creation, based on the fossil record (this book inspired Darwin’s research).

·         Darwin’s contribution, in his Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (1859), was to suggest a natural means (without God’s help) for the development of evolution, with his theory of the survival of the fittest. Living things develop certain traits that help them to survive; those without the stronger traits die out. According to Darwin, this process occurs naturally, not supernaturally.

·         His Descent of Man (1871) argued the logical conclusion of that theory, that humanity arose from the same process, not created out of dust in the image of God. He delayed publishing his work for 20 years, knowing the uproar it would create.

·         The theory required extremely long periods of time, far more than Bishop Ussher’s 17th c. estimate of 4004 BC (9:00 am Oct. 23 to be exact) which was printed in some King James Bibles and thus considered scripture by many. Augustine had set creation at 5500 BC.

·         Darwin responded to a challenger that he had “not allowed enough for the stream of variation having been guided by a higher power. … But astronomers do not state that God directs the course of each comet and planet. The view that each variation has been providentially arranged seems to me to make Natural Selection entirely superfluous and indeed takes the whole case of the appearance of new  species out of the range of science” (Frankenberry 128).

·         In 1860, after the publication of Origin, Darwin admitted the possibility of a Designer, at least of the natural laws which direct the evolutionary process: “I cannot see, as plainly as others do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created [a world in which] a cat should play with mice. … On the other hand, I cannot be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect” (Frankenberry 129).

·         As he grew older, he became more skeptical, calling himself an agnostic: “The impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. … The safest conclusion seems to me that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect” (130).

·         In his autobiography Darwin gave reasons why he no longer believed in God: “The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. … It revolts our understanding to suppose that [a God’s] benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? … At the present day the most usual argument for the existence of an intelligent God is drawn from the deep inward conviction and feelings where are experienced by most people. But it cannot be doubted that Hindus, Mahomadans [Muslims], and others might argue in the same manner …. This argument would be a valid one if all men of all races had the same inward conviction of the existence of one God; but we know that this is very far from being the case. Therefore I cannot see that such inward convictions and feelings are of any weight as evidence of what really exists. … Can the mind of man, which has as I fully believe been developed from a mind as low as that possessed by the lowest animal, be trusted when it draws such grand conclusions?” (Frankenberry 136-140).

·         Other discoveries challenged the literal reading of Genesis as well. Georges Cuvier, founder of paleontology, by 1801 had identified 23 extinct species in the fossil record (today we estimate that 99% of species that ever lived are extinct). This challenged the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being, that God had created a full spectrum of creatures all at once. One Quaker naturalist protested, “It is contrary to the common course of Providence to suffer any of His creatures to be annihilated” (Ferris 224).

 

Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

·         Einstein often mentioned God in his writings (such as “I want to know how God created this world … I want to know his thoughts”) but should not be taken for a theist: “I believe in [17th c. philosopher] Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and actions of human beings. … A God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motion it undergoes” (Frankenberry 151, 156). Einstein did not believe in free will; everything is determined by natural laws.

·         “The belief in the existence of basic all-embracing laws in nature also rests on a sort of faith. … Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe, a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble” (147).

·         “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science … and has also given rise to religion” (154).

·         “I am a deeply religious nonbeliever” (152).

·         The materialistic worldview says that we can know only those things that are detectable by the five senses. But Einstein commented, “I am not a positivist. Positivism states that what cannot be observed does not exist. This conception is scientifically indefensible, for it is impossible to make valid affirmations of what people can or cannot observe” (The Quotable Einstein, ed. Calaprice, 195).

 

Christian responses to  Darwin

·         Charles Hodge (1797-1878), professor of theology at Princeton, championed the anti-Darwinian cause, arguing for intelligent design in creation. Natural selection removed God from the world entirely. Hodge emphasized the difference in facts (which we all can agree on, such as the modern view of the solar system, comparative biology, the existence of fossils, etc) and the interpretation of facts: “If we admit the similarity in structure of all vertebrates, must we admit the evolution of one from another?” He recognized that in principle a theist could believe in evolution (the gradual development of life over eons of time) in a process directed by God, but felt that evolution contradicted a strictly literal reading of scripture. He also pointed to the intellectual snobbery of the scientific community: “[It is said that] Science and Religion are not antagonistic because they are in different spheres of thought. This is often said by men who do not admit that there is any thought at all in religion; that it is merely a matter of feeling.” (Keith Hardman, Issues in American Christianity, 1993, 216-17)

·         Other Christians such as Teilhard de Chardin responded more positively to the idea of evolution. A Jesuit archeologist, he saw evolution as God’s method of creation, not a product finished 6000 years ago, but a continuing process, God’s spirit animating all life and nature, growing and developing in new directions.

·         In the 19th c. archeological discoveries of creation accounts from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon shed light on the imagery used in Genesis. Many cultures describe the beginning before creation as a watery chaos. The word bara does not exclusively describe God’s ability to create “out of nothing” but means “to cut, divide” as he separates the waters below from above (applied to men cutting trees, Josh 17:15, Ezek 23:47). The word translated “firmament” (raqia) literally means a dome which holds back the waters above. The sun, moon, and stars are “set” in the heavens like jewels on the surface of the dome. In the flood account, the “windows of heaven” are opened to let the waters above rain down. If we understand these descriptions to be figures of speech, why must we insist on a literal reading of six 24 hour days?

·         Many theologians through the ages worried over details in Genesis that did not make sense if taken literally. Origen and Augustine thought that Genesis 1 should not be read literally, due to the fact that light appears on the first day and the sun on the fourth. “Evening and morning” can’t exist without the earth’s rotation in relation to the sun. Gregory of Nyssa thought that dust motes seen in a beam of light were actually particles of light, which God created on the first day, then collected together to form the sun on the fourth day. In the middle ages Rabanus Maurus speculated that the firmament was made of transparent ice. Hugo of St. Victor read Gen 1 as allegory depicting the original perfection of creation (light), sin (darkness), gradual repentance (growth of plants), and the full daylight of grace in Christ (sun). Peter Lombard saw the creation of the four elements, fire (light), air (firmament), earth and water. Aquinas explained, “Moses was writing to ignorant people and that out of condescension to their weakness he put before them only such things as are apparent to the senses” (Stanley Jaki, Genesis 1 through the Ages, 1992, 80, 116, 124-5, 130).

 

Modern theology: redefining Christian doctrines for the modern world

 

D. F. Strauss, Life of Jesus (1835)

·         Strauss considered the gospels meaningful myth, not history. Miracles, resurrection are not historical facts, but what matters are the eternal ideas they represent.  We can’t find the historical Jesus in the gospels due to the layers of legend; all we see in the NT is the early church’s idealized, embellished portrait of Jesus. They honored his memory by recreating him as a wonderworker who rose from the dead.

·         19th c OT critics such as Wellhausen began to rewrite the history of Israel, assuming that Abraham, Moses, David, were all legendary figures. Today “minimalist” archeologists don’t consider anything in the OT to be of historical value before the 9th century (no exodus, no conquest of Canaan, no Davidic kingdom).

·         Rudolf Bultmann, prominent NT scholar in the early 20th century, wanted to “demythologize” the gospels, reinterpreting the supernatural elements in existential terms. Jesus’ death has meaning only if we appropriate it in our lives, dying to those things in the world that hold us back from authentic human existence. Jesus’ resurrection, not a real event in history, is a symbol of personal transformation and renewal.

·         Emil Brunner, a contemporary of Bultmann, argued that he failed to distinguish between the use of pre-scientific, mythological language in scripture (God defeating the chaos monster Leviathan, Job 41:1; pillars of the earth, Isa 2:8; a three-tiered world, Phil 2:10) and the unique acts of God breaking into human history, such as the incarnation, atonement, resurrection. These fundamental tenets of Christianity are offensive to modern thinking not because of the scientific world view but because they run counter to our humanistic self-understanding, which deserves being called into question.

 

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

·         In What is Christianity? (1900) Harnack summed up liberal theology of the 19th century. He called for a return to the gospel of Jesus, the simple message that he taught, and not the gospel about Jesus, created by Paul and the early church.

·         Jesus spoke about the Father, not himself. His good news concerned the Fatherhood of God (of all people, not just believers), the infinite value of the human soul, and the higher righteousness of love.

·         After Jesus’ death, the church under the leadership of Paul (who didn’t know the historical Jesus) embellished his story with supernatural tales of a virgin birth, miracles, and resurrection. Paul’s Jewish heritage emphasized the theme of redemption from sin by a blood sacrifice, and from the mystery religions he borrowed the idea of a dying and rising god, in the fashion of Osiris and Dionysos.

·         Early Christianity had been contaminated with the Hellenistic thought of Paul, John, and the church fathers. Harnack wanted to restore the original gospel which Jesus taught, by clearing out all the accumulated rubbish of tradition and supernatural belief.

·         H. Richard Niebuhr described liberal theology: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the work of a Christ without a cross.” (Kingdom of God in America, 193)

 

Reinhold Niebuhr on original sin

·         Niebuhr (1892-1971), America’s most prominent theologian in the 20th century, criticized liberal theology’s optimistic view of human nature and its abandoning traditional doctrines such as sin and atonement. However, he attempted to redefine original sin for those who, in his opinion, could no longer believe in the Genesis story of eating an apple at the prompting of a talking snake.

·         The doctrine of original sin developed from the church’s attempt to explain the pervasiveness of sin, not as individually conscious acts but as a taint on all humanity, universal corruption. Augustine attributed the spread of Adam’s sin to sexual reproduction, passed from one generation to the next. The inherent sinfulness of sex is an idea unacceptable to modern thought.

·         Borrowing ideas from Kierkegaard (19th c), Niebuhr attributes sin to the anxiety that arises from the tension between our freedom and our finiteness. God endowed humanity with freedom, a quality necessary for creativity and love to exist. But in our freedom, we recognize that we are not totally free, that we are restrained by limitations imposed on us because we are creatures and not the Creator.

·         Neither our freedom nor our finiteness is the source of evil (the latter idea being the error of Gnosticism). Freedom is also the source of loving relationships and creativity. Instead, as free creatures, we struggle against these limitations, causing within us anxiety which leads to sin. We sense our insufficiency, our inability to control our lives completely. Anxiety results from our lack of faith in God.

·         In attempting to relieve this anxiety by our own means, we fall into one of two types of sin. Pride causes us to deny our limitations and set ourselves up as our own gods. We may have too much confidence in our achievements, believing they will give our lives lasting significance (see Deut 8:17-18). We may believe our finite knowledge, gained from a limited perspective, is actually final and ultimate knowledge, the Truth. Writing in the 1930s, Niebuhr discusses the national pride of Germany and their claim to be the master race, measuring all others by their standards. But he also warns of similar tendencies in America as a world power having too much confidence in ourselves and our secure place in God’s plans.

·         Sin also may take the form of sensuality, in which we seek to escape our limitations and responsibilities by losing ourselves in physical pleasures.

 

Contemporary approaches to Christology

·         Donald Bailey, God was in Christ (1948): Most formulations of Christology prior to the modern age (as in the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon) began “from above” with the assumption that Jesus was divine, then attempted to explain his humanity. As Bailey notes, this approach led to a form of docetism, where Jesus was not truly human but only appeared to be. His human nature was described as something clearly different from our own, and suggestions based on scripture of limitations in knowledge, growing personality, inner struggle and temptation were avoided.

·         In reaction, most 20th century theologians have discussed the problem of Christology “from below” beginning with Jesus’ humanity and then proceeding to explain how he can be considered in some sense divine. “Put aside for the moment your perplexities about dogma and begin with the historical Jesus. … If the original disciples came to regard Jesus as Messiah and Lord and Son of God, it must have been primarily because his human life and personality made such an impression on them.” (31)

·         Bailey compares the paradox of Christ’s humanity and divinity to several mysteries of the Christian life. History seems to proceed by a network of cause and effect relationships, by means of natural scientific laws and human agency; yet we believe that God in some unseen way directs history toward a providential goal. Likewise, the Bible is a collection of writings composed by men over thousands of years reflecting their historical context; yet we also believe the Bible to be inspired by God and important for us today. In our own lives, we attempt to follow the commands of God and example of Jesus; yet we acknowledge that every good work derives ultimately from God working in us: “I, yet not I, but the grace of God.” (1 Cor 15:10)

·         In similar fashion, Bailey says, Jesus was united so completely with the will of God that one could say he became nothing in order that God might become everything in him. Jesus did not consider goodness a quality he possessed but instead derived from God. “There is none good but God” (Mk 10:17). “I can do nothing myself. As I hear, I judge and my judgment is righteous because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me” (Jn 5:30). “Did the Incarnation depend upon the daily human choices made by Jesus, or did he always choose right because he was God Incarnate?” Bailey says we must answer ‘yes’ to both questions and accept the mystery. (130)

·         Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus: God and Man (1968): Pannenberg speaks of “revelational unity,” “the revelatory presence of God in Jesus” or “revelatory identity of Jesus with God” (132). Jesus revealed God perfectly: he spoke the words of God, he performed the deeds of God, he died to accomplish the will of God. Yet this revelation was not merely in words and actions. In Jesus, God did not simply communicate “truths” but God revealed Himself personally through Jesus as self-disclosure. (127) “He is the image of the invisible God … God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Col 1:15,19). “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).

 

Recent developments (to name only a few):

·         The Assumption of the Virgin became official Catholic doctrine in 1950, although the idea goes back at least to the 4th-5th c. in apocryphal literature, and a Feast of the Assumption has been practiced almost as long.

·         An 8th c. record by John of Damascus: “St. Juvenal, Bishop of Jerusalem, at the Council of Chalcedon (451), made known to the Emperor Marcian and Pulcheria, who wished to possess the body of the Mother of God, that Mary died in the presence of all the Apostles, but that her tomb, when opened, upon the request of St. Thomas, was found empty; wherefrom the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up to heaven.”

·         The doctrine states that Mary directly ascended into heaven with a resurrection body, avoiding the corruption of the grave. Mary now sits on a throne to the right of Christ as queen in heaven.

 

Vatican II (1963-65)

·         Vatican II changes in practice: mass no longer in Latin, no prohibition of eating meat on Fridays (except during Lent)

·         Protestants: “The Church recognizes that in many ways she is linked with those who, being baptized, are honored with the name of Christian, though they do not profess the faith in its entirety or do not preserve communion with the successor of Peter. For there are many who honor sacred scripture, taking it as a norm of belief and of action, and who show a true religious zeal. … In all of Christ’s disciples the Spirit arouses the desire to be peacefully united, as one flock under one shepherd, and He prompts them to pursue this goal.” (Documents of Vatican II. 1966. 33-4)

·         Eastern Orthodoxy: “To remove any shadow of doubt, this sacred synod solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while keeping in mind the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to their own disciplines” (359)

·         Judaism: “As holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation  (Lk 19:44), nor did the Jews in large number accept the gospel … Nevertheless, according to the Apostle, the Jews still remain most dear to God, for he does not repent of his gifts (Rom 11:28-9). … True, authorities of the Jews and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ (Jn 19:6); still, what happened in His Passion cannot be blamed upon all the Jews then living without distinction, nor upon the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from holy Scripture. … The Church repudiates all persecutions against any man … she deplores the hatred, persecutions and display of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source” (666).

·         Islam: “Upon the Moslems, too, the Church looks with esteem. … Although in the course of the centuries many quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this Synod urges all to forget the past and to strive sincerely for mutual understanding. On behalf of all mankind, let them make common cause of safeguarding and fostering social justice, moral values, peace and freedom” (663)

·         Unbelievers: “While rejecting atheism root and branch, the Church sincerely professes that all men, believers and unbelievers alike, ought to work for the rightful betterment of this world in which all alike live” (219)

·         While Catholicism in America is adding members (over 11 million in the 1990s), number of priests declined from 53,000 to 48,000 [Noll 166]

 

Open Theism

·         The most significant biblical challenge to the doctrine of predestination since the 1600s (Clark Pinnock, et al. The Openness of God, 1994)

·         “The fall into sin was against the will of God and proves by itself that God does not exercise total control over all events in this world. … To say that God hates sin while secretly willing it, to say that God warns us not to fall away though it is impossible, to say that God loves the world while excluding most people from an opportunity of salvation, to say that God warmly invites sinners to come, knowing all the while that they cannot possibly do so – such things do not deserve to be called mysteries when that is just a euphemism for nonsense” (115).

·         “When God gave creatures freedom, he gave them an open future, a future in a degree to be shaped by their decisions, not a future already determined in its every detail” (123).

·         Non-Calvinists have always had a problem with reconciling belief in free will and the foreknowledge of God (for the Calvinist this is no problem since God predetermines everything). How can my actions truly be free if God knows what I will decide to do tomorrow? Are not my choices confined to God’s foreknowledge (or else God might be proven wrong)?

·         The idea of anyone knowing the future presupposes that the future already exists somewhere “out there,” fixed and unchangeable. If the future already exists, then all our decisions are determined beforehand, thus seemingly denying human freedom.

·         Open theology proposes that, as the future has not yet happened, it is unknowable. Omniscience means God knows everything that can possibly be known, which is not the same as knowing everything. The future does not exist for God any more than it exists for us. Tomorrow is undetermined, open to many possible paths. God may see all the paths, but does not know for certain which specific path a person may take. “Instead of perceiving the entire course of human existence in one timeless moment, God comes to know events as they take place” (Rice, in Pinnock 17). Augustine considered this possibility, “It is impossible to see what does not exist,” but in conclusion rejected it (Confessions 11.17).

·         Several texts imply God’s lack of certain foreknowledge about human decisions. God tested Abraham’s faith with the sacrifice of Isaac; afterward He says, “Now I know that you fear God” (Gen 22:12). Jonah’s message to Nineveh was, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned.” This was not a conditional prophecy (“unless”), but when the king repented, God changed his mind. “Perhaps they will listen and each will turn from his evil way” (Jer 26:3). “Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house” (Ezek 12:3). In some passages, God seems surprised: “I thought that after [Israel] had done all this, she would return to me, but she did not” (Jer 3:7, also 19).

·         What about predictive prophecy? Open theists (conservative, Bible-believing evangelicals) make a distinction between God’s foreknowledge and God’s promises. God freely determines what he will do in the future, and since He is God, He can certainly bring it about. God didn’t “foresee” the fall of Jerusalem to Babylon, but instead determined to punish Judah for its sins in this fashion and worked within human history to bring it to fulfillment. Unlike humans who may promise to do something in the future but unforeseen events get in the way, God is not constrained by any accidents or other forces that would keep him from completing his will.

·         The act of creation did not end once the world was finished. God continues to create in an ongoing process in which we participate, “calling forth new possibilities for the future” (112).

·         The open view of God affects our understanding of history: “God interacts with his creatures. Not only does he influence them, but they also exert an influence on him. God’s will is not the ultimate explanation for everything that happens; human decisions and actions make an important contribution to [history]” (Rice, in Pinnock 16). Humans have genuine, not imagined, freedom in shaping our lives and the world around us.

·         Open theism emphasizes that God created us as free beings in order to have a genuine, loving relationship with us. “God in grace grants humans significant freedom to cooperate with or work against His will for their lives, and He enters into dynamic, give-and-take relationships with us” (7). “By willing the existence of significant beings with independent status alongside of himself, God accepts limitations not imposed from without. In other words, in ruling over the world God is not all-determining but may will to achieve his goals through other agents, accepting the limitations of his decision” (113).

·         “God so values freedom – the moral integrity of free creatures and a world in which such integrity is possible – that he normally does not override such freedom, even if he sees that it is producing undesirable results” (Basinger, in Pinnock 156). Practical implications for petitionary prayer: should we ask God to make someone love us, or to let us escape from the consequences of our bad decisions?

·         Defending a more traditional view, C. S. Lewis credits Boethius (c.475-525) with the idea that God experiences all of time at once: He “does not foresee people making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.” (Screwtape, ch. 27)

 

 

 

SOURCES:

Byrne, James M. Religion and the Enlightenment. 1996.

Ferris, Timothy. Coming of Age in the Milky Way. 1988.

Frankenberry, Nancy K. The Faith of Scientists in their own Words. 2008.

Kelly, Joseph. The Problem of Evil in the Western Tradition. 2002