A Christmas Miracle: The Virgin Birth of Jesus

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Originally commissioned in 327 A.D. by Constantine and built over the birthplace of Jesus.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Originally commissioned in 327 A.D. by Constantine and built over the birthplace of Jesus.

Speaking of the incarnation of Jesus, Martin Luther said that there were three miracles involved. “The first, that God became man; the second, that a virgin was a mother; and the third, that the heart of man should believe this.”

Many hearts do not believe this. While we evangelical Christians are celebrating the entry of divinity into the world through the miracle of the virgin birth of Christ, the world is filled with those who object to this classic Christian doctrine.

Some regard the virgin birth as a myth, much like unusual birth stories found in cultures as varied as those of the Aztec or the ancient Egyptians. Those who follow this line of thought somehow forget that Jesus’ birth was linked by the New Testament writers to Hebrew prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). Furthermore, their gospels were written for primarily Jewish audiences who would have been repulsed at any inclusion of well-known “myths” in them. Such material would have caused the first readers of the gospels to have rejected them in full and thus defeated the purpose for which they were written.

I think the main reason people today want to dismiss the virgin birth of Jesus is that we live in a time of intense anti-supernaturalism.  This philosophy was expressed in the work of Rudolf Bultmann who believed that miracles like the virgin birth “belong to a pre-scientific picture of the world in which supernatural beings invade the natural world and bring about extraordinary events. [William L. Rowe. Philosophy of Religion (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company Inc, 1978), 125].

The anti-supernatural presupposition concerning miracles reveals a major divide between Christian orthodoxy and theological liberalism. Encouraged by the Enlightenment, theological liberalism imbibed not only an open, tolerant spirit of inquiry into religious matters but also a spirit of skepticism and suspicion toward traditional theological beliefs. Whereas orthodox Christianity turned to divine revelation (scripture) for authoritative truth, liberalism believed “in the similarity and unity of all means of attaining truth.”[John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through its Development (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 211-212]. Science, experience, revelation, and other efforts to find truth were equally valid and authoritative for they all are part of a common quest for knowledge.

As enlightened and tolerant as liberalism appeared at first glance the reality was different. The philosophy that all truth is equally valid, which sounded wonderful in theory, was not applied in practice. In practice liberalism elevated science above scripture and evaluated scripture using the scientific method.Thus reason ruled over revelation, science became the master of scripture, and those events that were not verifiable were considered suspect, if not totally discarded.

The effect of this philosophy on religious belief has been profound. Since science gains knowledge by observation then all we can know about God’s activity is that which can be observed through natural processes. Liberalism limits God to working though nature. His immanence in the world is elevated and his transcendence is disregarded. Divine intervention in the world is excluded because the liberal has altered a critical feature of the nature of God.  Millard Erickson says they have “a single story view of God.” Once liberalism redefined God’s nature, divine intervention was rendered not only untenable but also unnecessary. Thus the foundation was laid for the exclusion of all miracles from the realm of truth. By definition they were not necessary due to God’s immanence nor were they possible because the “single story view of God” made intervention impossible. If no second floor exists you can’t stoop down to the first floor and for the liberal God lives only on the first floor.

The philosophy espoused by liberalism extends not only to a denial of the virgin birth but also to other miracles. The liberal New Testament Scholar Gerd Leudemann, who denies both the virgin birth and the resurrection, said “the tomb was full and the manger empty.”[as quoted by Albert Mohler in “Can a Christian deny the virgin birth?” BP News (December 24, 2003), Available from http://bpnews.net.%5D

The same philosophical premise that leads one to deny the virgin birth also leads to a denial of the resurrection for both are extraordinary events that require an invasion of the natural world by a supernatural power.

In the modern culture in which we live and minister, there is a clear bias against all things supernatural. This leads many to assume that miraculous events like the virgin birth are not factual, nor are they even possible.

But I contend that the virgin birth is an important doctrine that is worth defending and proclaiming.

First, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a biblical idea.

The Virgin Birth is not something conceived by the church. It is not something conceived by man. It was revealed in Scripture. It is without question that Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 both teach that Mary conceived Christ while she was a virgin. Gresham Machen, in The Virgin Birth of Christ, says “there is no serious question about the interpretation of the Bible at this point. Everyone admits that the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.” [J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 382].

Second, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is related to the sinlessness of Jesus. 

The relationship between the virgin birth and the sinlessness of Christ has been debated for centuries and conclusions must be reached with great care. One ongoing debate is between those who attribute Christ’s sinlessness to the fact that he didn’t have a human father and those who respond that women are equally tainted by sin as men. This debate creates more questions than it answers. Could all persons be sinless if they didn’t have a human father? And how did God protect Christ from inheriting sin from his human mother? Surely we must move beyond this debate in our search for truth.

The sinlessness of Christ must be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit. When Mary wonders how she will give birth she is told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most high will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). The virgin birth entails two miracles instead of one and both relate to the sinlessness of Christ.  First, Jesus was born without a human father. This interrupted the transmission of sin from the father. Second, the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary miraculously prevented the transmission of sin from the mother[Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 531.].

Millard Erickson may be correct in concluding that God could have prevented the transmission of sin from Joseph to Christ in the same manner he prevented Mary’s sin from affecting Christ, thereby ensuring Christ’s sinlessness apart from the virgin birth. [Millard Erickson. Christian Theology, 756]. But that hypothetical argument does not merit his conclusion that “Jesus’ sinlessness was not dependent upon the virgin conception.”[Millard Erickson. Christian Theology, 756]. Erickson confuses potential outcomes with actual outcomes. Certainly God could have used a myriad of methods to ensure Christ’s sinlessness. But he actually used the virgin birth. Dealing with the facts as we have them, and not with what could have been, we must conclude that the virgin birth was the means God’s used to produce his desired end.

Third, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth speaks to our Salvation.

The virgin birth not only protects the sinlessness of Christ but it portrays the sinfulness of humanity. The virgin birth illustrates that one who was not under the curse of sin had to enter humanity in order to bring redemption. Salvation could be attained only by a supernatural work. The virgin birth highlights man’s inability to provide for his salvation and reveals God gracefully producing in Mary’s life an undeserved blessing. His work in and through a young girl who was no more deserving than other young girls demonstrates the grace of God without which salvation wouldn’t be possible.

Fourth, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth speaks to the humanity and deity of Christ.

It would be a denial of the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence to state that the deity of Christ was caused by the virgin birth. In the incarnation the eternal Christ enters human history through the means of the virgin birth. The virgin birth doesn’t cause his deity but is the means by which deity and humanity are united. Stanley J. Grenz wrote that “the confession that Jesus was born of a virgin coheres well with the twin christological affirmations that Jesus is fully divine and fully human.”[Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville:Broadman and Holman, 1994), 422]. Of all the possible means God could have chosen to use to bring about the incarnation it is difficult to conceive of one more effective in communicating the dual nature of Christ than the virgin birth.

I agree with J. Gresham Machen who said, “Let it never be forgotten that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands.” [ Machen. The Virgin Birth, 396].

 

 

 

VOTE YES ON AMENDMENT 1 Because “Sometimes You Have To Stand Up For What You Believe”

Twenty five years ago I picked up a copy of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper and my eyes focused on the bold print in a full page advertisement that gave this challenge to all who would read the newspaper on that Friday in November of 1989:  “Sometimes you have to stand up for what you believe.”

The ad stated that “traditional American values are under attack all across America.”  And it was time for the people to stand up for what they believe.

That sounded like a good idea. Don’t you agree that people should stand up for what they believe? Should we not protest when “traditional American values are under attack?”

However, there was a small problem that I noticed with the advertisement. It was sponsored by Planned Parenthood of Louisiana and the “traditional American value” that was under attack was the right of a woman to terminate the life of her unborn child.

That advertisement demonstrated how seriously twisted the idea of traditional American values had become.  For the purveyors of the that advertisement, abortion was a traditional American value.  Those who believed in the sanctity of human life were classified as “extremists”.

The prophet Isaiah recorded a disturbing pattern of behavior among God’s people in Jerusalem and Judah. They had a tendency to play games with words, morality, and truth. To them he records series of woes and one of them states, “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20).

In 1989, those who sponsored the advertisement in the New Orleans newspaper were guilty of the same thing. They were playing word games. They adopted the language of “traditional American values” and applied it to the termination of the life of a child in the womb. That is not a “traditional American value.” It only became legal in 1973 after the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal. It is in no way a value that is rooted in America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

Those who oppose traditional American values such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” have a sneaky and strange way of using language. Those who support Abortion call their position “choice.” In reality their position provides no “choice” to the baby whose life is being terminated. They also call their position one which supports “reproductive rights.” In reality an abortion ends the “reproduction” process and no “rights” are afforded the unborn child.

Calling abortion rights a “traditional American value” has always struck me as calling evil good and good evil. As the prophet said, it substitutes “darkness for light” and “bitter for sweet.” But that is where we are in America today.

I am aware that the right to abortion is the law of the land. But just because something is legal does not make it right. Slavery was legal for the first 76 years the U.S. Constitution was in force. But just because it was legal did not make it morally right. It was an inherent evil and was incongruent with the values of freedom and liberty embedded in our founding documents.

Currently, because of Court rulings allowing homosexual marriage, some businesses have been forced to close because they refused to provide services to events which clashed with their “traditional” view of marriage as being between a man and a woman. Our government is interpreting Civil Rights Laws, which were designed to protect against racial discrimination, and broadly using them to insist that Christians who own businesses like flower shops, bakeries, and photography studios be forced to provide their services for “weddings” which the business owners view as being immoral.

Although this issue is still playing out in the courts, I can see the day arriving (and it has possibly already arrived) when it is legal to coerce Christian business owners to act in violation of their consciences. This may be legal, but that will not make it morally right. What is next? Can Christian cinematographers be forced to film pornography simply because they hire their services out to other public entities? Will Christian doctors be forced to perform sex change operations or abortions simply because they work in the public domain? Once the government can coerce someone to violate their conscience in one area, what is to restrain them in other areas?

What can Christians  do when something is legal but not morally right? I live in Tennessee and we have an opportunity to have our voice heard on one issue this November 4.

“Yes On 1″ is a campaign in support of Amendment 1 which is on the ballot this fall. Many believe Amendment 1 is about ending abortion in Tennessee. That is not the case. No state can end abortion within its borders unilaterally.

Amendment 1 will simply allow the people’s duly elected representatives to the Tennessee General Assembly to pass legislation regulating abortion within the state. Currently Tennessee has become a destination for people to come seeking abortions. The reason for this is that our state Supreme Court has adopted an interpretation of abortion rights that is even more broad than the one found in the U.S. Constitution. Because of this libertine legal interpretation, according to the Tennessean newspaper, our state is now ranked 3rd in the nation in the number of out of state abortions. Our neighboring states have placed restrictions on abortions and as a result of their responsible and sensible restrictions, those seeking a place for a quicker and easier abortion drive to Tennessee to terminate the life of the unborn.

According to Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Tennessee Baptist and Reflector, Tennessee currently has no laws about informed consent, no laws requiring a waiting period before obtaining an abortion, and no laws requiring inspection of facilities that provide abortions. Amendment 1 will allow our legislators to pass regulations regarding these and other issues and will help put an end to Tennessee’s status as the abortion destination of the south.

Reflecting on that newspaper advertisement from 25 years ago in the New Orleans’s Times-Picayune I urge you to take the challenge. “Sometimes You Have to Stand Up for What You Believe.” Early voting begins October 15 and election day is November 4.

Vote YES ON 1 and stand up for what you believe.

Traditional Baptist says, Jesus “is the Savior, not the burglar of souls!”

Herschel Hobbs influenced generations of Southern Baptists as author of the commentary for the Life and Work Sunday School Lessons. Sometime ago, a member of my church brought to my office a grocery sack filled with these old commentaries. Since then I have read a few of them and have been cataloging their contents so that I can find Hobbs’ teaching on certain passages and ideas when I need them in my study.

This morning I was perusing some of his writing from 1995. As I read the commentary he wrote for the September 10 lesson of that year, I became aware of how Hobbs’ teaching was clearly reflected  the traditional  Baptists views treasured by Southern Baptists for generations. Although his lesson was not focused on the current “Reformed Revival” taking place in the Southern Baptist Convention, his clear biblical teaching reveals his belief in the traditional Baptist stance on the doctrine of salvation that has  been proclaimed for generations but is now being challenged by the New Calvinists that dominates the Southern Baptist Convention leadership.

Let me quote Hobbs’ comments and you can then compare them to the views being taught by the “young, restless, and reformed” Calvinists who, though a minority, have an inordinate amount of influence in today’s Southern Baptist Convention.

Hobbs comments on Romans 3:22: “Within ourselves we are not righteous, but such is God’s righteousness that He chooses to regard as righteous, or justified, in His sight every single one (all without the definite article) who through faith believes in Jesus Christ. In God’s sight there is no difference, no distinction, between Jew and Gentile; both are treated alike.” (emphasis Hobbs)

That certainly stands in contradistinction to the teaching of the New Calvinists that election is unconditional. Hobbs teaches that God regards as justified every single one who through faith believes in Jesus Christ. Both Jew and Gentile are treated alike by God.

Now, I’m sure a Calvinist might respond that those who are unconditionally elected will place their faith in Christ. They might even say they agree with Hobbs teaching in the passage  quoted above. But Hobbs won’t let them off the hook that easily. He concludes his comments in this lesson by saying, “Everyone can be saved through faith in Christ. Our responsibility is to see that all people everywhere have the opportunity to believe in Him.” (emphasis mine)

When Traditional Southern Baptists talk about our doctrinal position being in the Hobbs/Rogers tradition, we are saying that our beliefs about salvation are in harmony with those taught by Herschel Hobbs and Adrian Rogers and millions of like-minded Southern Baptists. We believe that “everyone can be saved through faith in Christ.”

To those who believe that election is unconditional, that Christ’s atonement is limited to a select group, and that grace is irresistible, those of us in the Hobbs/Rogers Tradition of  Southern Baptist life would confess that we agree with the thoughts expressed by Hobbs in his Sunday School comments when he wrote:

“God offers us salvation by grace through faith. But in the final analysis the decision is up to the individual’s response to God’s gracious offer.

“We should never cease to pray for lost people. But we should do so recognizing that a holy, righteous God cannot wink at sin or hardened hearts. God offers His salvation on the grounds of the individual’s repentance and faith. These are inseparable graces. If you truly repent, you will believe in Jesus as your Savior. God has done all that He can to save you. But you must be willing to be saved. Jesus ever stands at the door and knocks. If you open the door, He will come into your life. But He will not break the door down against your will. To do that would destroy you as a person and make you into a puppet. God loves you too much to do that. Just remember, He is the Savior, not the burglar of souls!”

AN UNFLATTERING TAKE ON SOUTHERN BAPTISTS

I must admit that I am not a regular reader of The Atlantic magazine. I’m more of a Lewis Grizzard or Golf Digest guy myself. The  Atlantic is a magazine that started over 150 years ago in Boston. Some of its founding writers were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Greenleaf Whittier. The magazine has quite a history. It published many works by Mark Twain and other famous American writers.

Thus, I was very interested when I found out that The Atlantic recently took note of we Southern Baptists. And the article was not real flattering. It was titled “Baptists, Just Without the Baptisms.”

I don’t blame The Atlantic for the unflattering article. The fact is that we Baptists haven’t been very flattering lately.

The article noted that we Southern Baptists have lost almost a million members in less than 10 years. We are down from 16.6 million in 2005 to 15.8 million in 2012. But that’s not all. The hit’s just keep on coming!

The number of Baptisms performed in Southern Baptist churches has dropped by 25% since 1999. According to a Southern Baptist Pastor’s Task Force that is set to report at the June meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Baltimore, baptisms in the SBC “reached a plateau in the 1950’s” and “peaked in the 1970’s.”

Furthermore 25% of Southern Baptist churches reported 0 baptisms in 2012. Sixty percent of Southern Baptist churches reported no youth baptisms in 2012. Eighty percent of Southern Baptist churches reported either 0 or 1 young adult baptism (age 18-29) in 2012. And for a denomination that does not practice infant baptism, it is disturbing that the only age group that is growing in the number baptized is children under age 5.

That is troubling!

We must ask ourselves, what is going on and what must we do to address the situation?

First, it seems that we are facing an increasingly hostile cultural environment. The biblical message that all humanity is separated from God due to sin and needs redemption through Christ is viewed with hostility by a culture that believes everyone is born with innate goodness, that there are fewer and fewer limits on human behavior, and that God is somehow obligated to love and approve whatever His creatures choose to do.

Decades ago Karl Menninger asked “whatever happened to sin?” The answer today is that we have redefined behavior so that there are fewer and fewer things considered sin. We haven’t changed our behavior, we’ve changed our definitions. In classic Christian thinking the Seven Deadly Sins were lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy, and pride. In our society lust is promoted and encouraged by virtually every media outlet, gluttony is rarely mentioned, sloth is covered by many government programs, wrath is viewed as justified behavior, envy is promoted by political leaders who seek use it to promote their campaigns and garner votes, and pride is celebrated on  holidays dedicated to ___________ (fill in the blank) “pride month.”

A society that sees nothing as sinful also sees no need for a Savior. A society that sees God as approving all things will never understand the need for transformation, redemption, or a new birth.

Years ago my pastor told me that “before you can get them saved, you must first get them lost.”

Perhaps we Southern Baptists need to refocus our preaching and teaching on a Biblical anthropology. The Baptist Faith and Message states that “Through the temptation of Satan man transgressed the command of God, and fell from his original innocence whereby his posterity inherit a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. Therefore, as soon as they are capable of moral action, they become transgressors and are under condemnation.”

Man is not innocent. We have inherited a nature and an environment inclined toward sin. The battle in our culture is a battle over anthropology. Is mankind innately good or inclined toward sin? Are we innocent and pure or are we “transgressors” and “under condemnation?”

Perhaps instead of trying to become like the culture in an attempt to influence it, we should stand prophetically apart from the culture and speak  truth to its illusions about mankind. The church should boldly proclaim that all is not well with humanity, that the heart is deceitful and wicked, and that all are in need of redemption.

Through the years I heard the argument repeated over and over that our methodology or our ways of “doing church” must change to reach a new generation. I’m not opposed to new ideas, creative programs, and innovative methods. But could it be that those in the culture have seen our new methodology and have mistaken it for a new theology. Perhaps a watered down theology.

When I was getting my Bachelor’s degree in Communication I was taught Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message.” His view was that the medium used to deliver a message is more important than the content of the message delivered.

For example, if I am interviewed by a television reporter and put on the evening news, many people will not accurately remember the message I shared, only the fact that I was on television. The medium (television) is the message. People will say “my pastor was on the news.” The medium overpowers the message.

Imagine a lost person enters a church. They hear a powerful band, listen to music with familiar beats, watch videos on screens that overpower their senses, and hear a sermon preached by someone dressed like themselves and peppered with movie clips and anecdotes from current events.

Could it be that our methodology (intended to reach that lost person and others in our culture) in fact overpowers the message we are desperately seeking to proclaim. The medium is the message.

I don’t claim to have the answers. But our culture does not seem to be impressed by the church’s message. Perhaps by attempting to identify with the culture in our  methods, our message has gotten lost. It’s hard to argue that we aren’t much better at technology, stagecraft, dramas, video, lighting, social media, etc., than ever before. But our message is more ineffective than ever.

How do we address our spiritual malaise as Baptists? What are the answers? How do we reverse the trends?

Perhaps I’m off base in my musings. What are your thoughts? Let’s put our minds, hearts, and prayers together so that we can fulfill our calling as followers of Jesus Christ to go, reach, and win the world!

So, thanks to The Atlantic for taking note of we Baptists. Your article wasn’t very flattering. But at the present time, neither are we.

 

WHO IS JOHN CALVIN?

John CalvinThe theology of John Calvin is currently experiencing quite a renaissance. His followers are today called “young, restless, and reformed” or adherents of “The New Calvinism.” In fact, Time magazine in 2009 listed “The New Calvinism” as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.”

Calvin and his ideas are making inroads among Southern Baptists. Many  seminarians and young pastors identify with his doctrines, while long established  traditional Southern Baptist Churches (and their leadership) generally stay away from the thinking of Calvin.

Because of the contemporary emphasis on Calvinism, I thought that perhaps we should take a closer look at a man who, although he has been dead for over 400 years, still speaks to many in our day. Who was John Calvin? Where did he live? What did he teach? And would you want to live in a place where he exerted a dominating influence?

John Calvin was born in France in 1509. He was educated in the law and trained for a legal career and only later on became interested in religion. While living in Paris he became acquainted with numerous Protestant Christians who dissented from Catholic teachings on things such as transubstantiation (the view that at communion the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ and are not just symbolic of his body and blood). In 1533 many Protestants were forced to leave Paris because of their call for reform in the Church. Calvin “disguised as a vinedresser, escaped in a basket” from the city.1

Calvin was eventually asked by a friend to assist in the Reformation efforts in Geneva. In 1536 he arrived  in Geneva, but was banished for three years in 1538 before returning for good in 1541. His banishment came at the behest of Roman Catholics who were aligned with less religious people in the city in opposing Calvin’s desire to make Geneva a “model Christian community.”2

Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin began to work in earnest to transform the city into his vision of a model Christian city. Until his death in 1564 this was the focus of his life.

What kind of community did Calvin seek to build? Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin did not believe in the separation of church and state. Religious Liberty was not to be found in Calvin’s Geneva. Although Calvin never officially held public office, he ruled the city as pastor of the church. How did he rule? An ecclesiastical court called The Consistory was formed that included laymen and ministers. Though not a member, Calvin’s will was expressed through this group. His teachings and reforms were the foundation of their decisions.

According to historian Clyde L. Manschreck,  in Calvin’s Geneva “between 1542 and 1546, fifty-eight people were executed and seventy six people were banished.”3 During Calvin’s time in Geneva many were forced to leave the city while many who supported his teachings moved there from other areas of Europe.

Manschreck goes on to report that people were sentenced to death in Geneva for things such as adultery, being a witch, blasphemy, and various other offenses. One child was beheaded for striking his parents.

On one occasion, one of Calvin’s numerous critics in Geneva placed an unsigned letter on Calvin’s pulpit. The authorities conducted an investigation and searched the home of a man named Jaques Gruet. In Calvin’s Geneva, homes could be searched at any time without notice. In Gruet’s home they found evidence they used to arrest him. After being tortured, Gruet confessed to writing the letter along with other crimes.  His confession, derived under torture, was cause for him to be condemned to death. He was beheaded for freely expressing his views. In Calvin’s Geneva, freedom of expression was not always tolerated.

As a Traditional Baptist who believes in Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, I admit to being troubled by Calvin’s conflating of religion and government. As someone who believes that all people have the right to freedom of worship, I believe that no one should be coerced to worship. Freedom of conscience is important. Genuine faith cannot be forced. Genuine faith cannot be manipulated by law or government. Genuine faith comes from the heart.

But in Calvin’s Geneva the population was compelled to adhere to what Calvin viewed as God’s sovereign will for the model Christian community. It is difficult to understand how someone like Calvin could reconcile his soteriological positions with his political positions. Let me explain.

Calvin taught that God was absolutely sovereign, good, and just while mankind was totally depraved and corrupt. God thus sent Christ into the world as redeemer. But according to Calvin, not all have an opportunity for redemption (or salvation). He said that Election is the reason why some respond to the gospel and some do not. God, he taught, chose to save SOME through the work of Christ while others were left as reprobates. In Calvin’s view, some hit the jackpot and some don’t. Some are chosen for salvation. Others are left in a state of hopeless reprobation in which they will eventually end up in hell forever.

And why, we might ask Mr. Calvin, did God elect some and not others? He would answer  “Because He wanted to!” Calvin taught that it pleased God to do so. And in Calvin’s view God has “determined what he would have to become of every individual of makind.”4

My conundrum is this: If God had determined that some would be elect (or redeemed) and others would not be elect (thus reprobate), then why would Calvin rule Geneva in a way that required all citizens to conform to his view of the “model Christian community?” How did he expect non-elect citizens to behave like elect citizens? If he truly believed that many were non-elect, how could he build a system of social control that was imposed on all citizens, many of whom were non-elect who didn’t believe in, nor have the desire to obey Calvin’s laws?

While I agree that there must be limits on behavior, Calvin imposed laws that were strict even in the 16th century. Calvin’s Geneva outlawed theatrical performances, coming late to church, laughter, dancing, playing  cards, fighting, and charging interest in excess of five percent. Also prohibited in Geneva were things such as fastings, religious idols or symbols, and many things associated with Catholicism. And behind it all was the man in the pulpit, John Calvin.5

To many of his day, Calvin was viewed as an agent of God who was working to reform a city and remake it as a Christian community. To others, he ruled as a tyrant who dominated the city. Many Protestants streamed into Geneva from other areas of Europe wanting to live and learn in a city like Calvin’s Geneva. Others were forced to flee for fear of being convicted of violating the laws governing Calvin’s political system.

Perhaps the most notorious act of Calvin’s rule involved the notorious Spaniard, Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a physician of some renown and not an orthodox Christian. His views on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other doctrines were outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. And Servetus took great exception to the teachings of John Calvin.

Servetus denied Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and infant baptism. And he stood in opposition to many other ideas promulgated by Calvin in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion. In fact, he and Calvin exchanged many letters in which they debated doctrine. One act that upset Calvin occurred after he sent Servetus a copy of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus sent it back to Calvin with the margins filled with notes in which he pointed out what he believed were errors in Calvin’s arguments. 6

As if sending Calvin’s book back with corrections wasn’t enough, Servetus then published a book in which he took issue with Calvin’s Institutes. This was more than Calvin could handle. Through an aide he informed the French Inquisition of Servetus’ heresy and even gave them what he viewed as evidence of his errors.

Servetus fled France and headed for Italy, but on his way he stopped off in Calvin’s Geneva, where he went to church, was recognized and arrested. The following quote from historian Clyde L. Manschreck describes what occurred.

“The Genevan Council found Servetus guilty of obstinately spreading heresy and sentenced him to death by burning. Seven years earlier Calvin had vowed that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not leave it alive. On the day after sentencing, Servetus was chained to a stake, his book (in which he opposed Calvin) fastened to his arm, sulphur and straw rubbed into his hair. But the straw and fagots (a bundle of sticks or twigs bundled together as fuel) were damp and Servetus died only after half an hour of agony and screaming. At the end he cried ‘O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!'” 7

To be fair, Calvin and the Geneva Council were not the only ones of that period who believed that killing heretics was just. Many in the period thought that heresy was a poison to the people that must be dealt with severely.

However, we must not simply let those who acted in such a manner off the hook too easily.  As a Baptist we must remember that we too were once a persecuted people. Baptists in the early American colonies were persecuted for dissenting from the majority view of the colonial leaders. Henry Dunster, the first president  of Harvard College, was removed from that position in 1654 Harvard College when he became a Baptist. In 1651, Obadiah Holmes was beaten on the Boston Common for preaching as a Baptist in a state in which it was illegal to be a Baptists.

Persecution often occurs when the power of the government is used to enforce one religious group’s ideas upon others. The danger of integrating church and state is that it limits the freedom of those who don’t agree with the church that is supported by the state.

As a traditional Baptist, I believe in freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. Let every person proclaim his views. Let us proclaim the gospel. And let the Holy Spirit use that proclamation to convict, convince, and call men and women into the kingdom. I believe so strongly in the gospel that I am willing to put it up against every man made philosophy  and every religious idea ever presented and I am convinced the gospel will prevail!

When Christians attempt to prop up their faith by using the power of the state they are in reality demonstrating a lack of faith in their beliefs. We don’t need the government to fund our faith, preach our faith, or impose our faith. We need the government to allow freedom of conscience to all and to give us the liberty to preach the good news of Christ. And when we faithfully proclaim the truth about Jesus, lives will be transformed and culture itself will be transformed.

Those like Calvin who seek to dominate through governmental power are in actuality demonstrating a lack of trust that their faith can be victorious over the world. “‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit'”, says the Lord,” should be our motto. As the hymn says, “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.”

My final question is this: would you want to live in a world like Calvin’s Geneva? I’m not so sure the “model Christian Community” was all it was cracked up to be. No Religious Liberty. No freedom of expression. No freedom of conscience.

As a Traditional Baptist many doctrines that were taught in Geneva would have violated my conscience.

Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught that infants should be baptized by sprinkling. We believe in believer’s baptism by immersion.

Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught and practiced the melding of church and state. We believe in Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State.

Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught that Jesus died only for the elect and that all people were not savable. Traditional Baptist believe in the savibility of all. Whosoever will may come to Christ.

Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin believed those who held dissenting views should be persecuted, excommunicated, or otherwise punished. We believe those who hold dissenting views should be prayed for, witnessed to, and allowed to make a free choice of whether to convert or not to convert.

No doubt, Calvin was  brilliant thinker, strong leader, and influential personality. We cannot ignore his influence on the Church throughout the centuries. His doctrinal positions continue to stir debate and demand intellectual engagement.

But his story, like all of our stories, includes more than meets the eye. When modern day “new Calvinists” or “Young, Restless, and Reformed” folks think of Calvin, I sometimes wonder if they know anything about him other than the TULIP, the 5 theological points that summarize Calvin’s soteriology (doctrines about salvation)?

Calvin’s story is more than the TULIP. And before we begin planting 21st century TULIP gardens, perhaps we should know a little more about the man behind the TULIP.

ENDNOTES

1.            Clyde L. Manschreck.  A History of Christianity in the World. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 188.

2.            John Dillenberger and Claude Welch. Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through It’s Development. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), 23.

3.            Manschreck, 190.

4.            Ibid, 189.

5.            Ibid, 190.

6.            Ibid, 191.

7.            Ibid.

FREEDOM: Why Authentic Baptists Should Care About The Little Sisters of the Poor

Listening to our Baptist Heritage (third in a series)

As a  Baptist I’m not a big fan of the idea of toleration. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the concept of freedom. In America today there is much talk about toleration. I want to propose to you that the focus on toleration is a misguided, and even dangerous, focus.

Those early Baptists who were living out their understanding of the Christian faith in England in the 17th century experienced firsthand the dangers of toleration. They learned that toleration demanded that someone be the one who tolerates while others were the ones who were tolerated. And it is no fun to simply be tolerated when the one who is doing the tolerating can change their mind about tolerating you.

John Smyth and Thomas Helwys led a group Christians who were worshiping at Gainsborough in England. These believers dissented from the beliefs of the Church of England (or Anglican Church). King James I, who is famous for authorizing what we know as the King James version of the Bible, enforced laws that prohibited the formation of new religious groups and  punished those who deviated from the beliefs and practices contained the Anglican Church’s Book of Common Prayer.

King James I had the power to tolerate dissent but chose not to do so. Several members of the group were arrested for not conforming to Anglican beliefs. Thus Smyth and Helwys led their group into exile in Holland where they ultimately became what historians consider the first Baptist church.

King James I was not the only monarch to lead a government to crush those who attempted to live out their religious faith. Charles  II was adept at it as well. It was Charles II who imprisoned famed Baptist John Bunyan for the crime of preaching the gospel without a license from the government. Bunyan, as you surely remember, authored one of the greatest works of English Literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress, during one of his imprisonments.

Yes, he was imprisoned more than once. On one occasion he was before a judge for the crime of preaching without a government license, which violated the Religion Act of 1592, and the magistrate wanted to release him. Bunyan told him, “If you release me today, I will preach tomorrow.”

Bunyan, like any authentic Baptist, had a deep-seated belief in freedom. He didn’t want to be tolerated. He wanted to be free. Toleration is a dangerous idea because the one who is doing the tolerating has power over the one who is being tolerated. And even when someone is tolerated they are under the authority and control of someone else.

Authentic, genuine Baptists don’t want to be tolerated. We don’t want to have some magistrate, monarch, president, governor, or any person who has the power to tolerate us. We still believe as John Smyth did in the early 17th century when he said, “that the magistrate is not by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience, to force or compel men to this or that form of religion, or doctrine, but to leave Christian religion free, to every man’s conscience, and to handle only civil transgressions” (As quoted in Leon McBeth’s, The Baptist Heritage, page 85).

Baptists have always maintained that the government (or magistrate) is “not , by virtue of his office to meddle with religion, or matters of conscience.” We don’t want politicians or the politically correct cultural police to tolerate us. We demand freedom. Freedom is due to all people because we are made in the image of a God who created us with freedom. And any time a government official has the power to tolerate, then by definition, he or she has the power to regulate your conscience and mine. He or she has the power to approve what we do or do not do. For some government to have the power to tolerate the religious views of its citizens is to give that government authority over the souls of its citizens. And any good Baptist believes in “soul freedom.”

Continue reading

God with Us

Jesus Christ is the central figure in human history. No person comes close to this man from Nazareth who towers over history.

Yet, in our culture there seems to be a great deal of confusion about who Jesus is.  Many do not seem to understand the nature of Jesus Christ.  Who is this man?  Who is this one whom the Scriptures call Son of Man, Son of God, God with Us, and many other titles?

The Old and New Testaments tell us much about the person  of Jesus Christ.  Specifically, the Fourth  gospel, The Gospel of John,  was written to give us a close up picture of Jesus.  John’s gospel differs from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  Those three are called “synoptic” gospels.  This word means “to see together.”  Those three gospels see the life of Jesus in the same way.  In fact almost all of the material in Mark is repeated in Matthew and Luke.  There are only 24 verses in all of Mark that are not repeated somewhere in Matthew and Luke.  Those three gospels often give the same perspective on the life of Jesus.

John’s writing is different.  John gives us a personal, up close, look at his life.  John was in the inner circle of the disciples.  He was close to our Lord.  There is even some evidence that he and Jesus were first cousins. By harmonizing Matthew 27:56 with Mark 15:40 it suggests that Salome was John’s mother.  If she was also the sister of Jesus, as John 19:25 may suggest, then John and Jesus would be first cousins.  We can’t be absolutely certain of this, but the biblical record makes it clear that John was one of the disciples that was closest to Jesus.  For example, John was one of the disciples who accompanied Jesus for the amazing experience on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17).

John, when writing his gospel, however, was faced with a common problem. How could he communicate the message of Jesus to people who were not familiar with the Old Testament Scripture, the Old Testament sacrificial system, and who came from a different culture. His gospel was targeting those who were more familiar with Greek philosophical concepts and Greek culture than Hebrew culture. Continue reading