Tag Archives: Church tradition

Did Matthew Think Jesus Was Divine?

I am all in favour of “orthodoxy”, but I am inclined to think that biblical orthodoxy should take precedence over theological orthodoxy. Or to put it another way, I see no reason why the philosophically informed reading of the New Testament that prevailed in the fourth century should be regarded as a more reliable guide to interpretation than a historically informed reading in the twenty-first century. . . .

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Marv’s conclusion that “the data rather indicates the divinity of Christ is an underlying concept in the gospel of Matthew”. I greatly appreciate the trouble he (and others) have taken to engage with the argument—and their willingness to pursue the debate beyond the entry-requirement of a profession of orthodoxy. But I am strongly of the opinion that if we are going to profess a biblically Trinitarian belief, we have to do so by way of what Matthew and Luke say, rather than by way of what they do not say.

“More on the divinity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels” | p.ost

I have to agree with Andrew here. Orthodoxy seems largely to have been a Christian outworking of a specific sort of philosophy (namely, Platonism and its children/relatives). But if we come to find out that a given orthodox affirmation is untenable in the light of historical research, it is up to us to re-shape orthodoxy based on that new knowledge, rather than holding to the old teaching just because it is the old teaching. After all, “all truth is God’s truth,” and if we come to learn that something we’ve believed for centuries actually is untrue, we must do the godly thing and replace that untruth with the truth, even if it proves uncomfortable.

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The Intermediate State in the New Testament: History of Interpretation

The traditional doctrine of the Church, starting with the Fathers and running down through contemporary times, is that the souls of the dead do spend their time in an intermediate state. In the Apostolic Fathers, martyrs enter into a blissful state at death, to be consummated at the eschaton.[1] Of the Church Fathers, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Gregory of Nyssa all taught the existence of an intermediate state, mainly because the soul, which is immortal, needs a place to go between death and the resurrection.[2]

The official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is that an intermediate state exists. Specifically, Catholic doctrine is that, at death, the soul is judged and sent to heaven, limbo, purgatory, or hell to await the final resurrection.[3] The doctrines of purgatory and limbo are, of course, peculiar to the Catholic Church, but the Reformers also held to the idea of an intermediate state, and some Protestants, along with the Catholics, declare it doctrine.[4] Thus, from the beginnings of the Church through contemporary times, an intermediate state has been traditional doctrine.

However, scholars are divided on whether the NT teaches an intermediate state. Some, such as Osei Bonsu, Oscar Cullman, and N. T. Wright, follow traditional doctrine and argue that the NT does, in fact, teach specific things about an intermediate state.[5] Others, such as Murray J. Harris and F. F. Bruce, claim, on the basis of 2 Corinthians 5:1-10, that the soul faces no intermediate state after death.[6] Finally, Karel Hanhart claims that the NT authors regarded the intermediate state as terra incognita and thus, by and large, were not very concerned with providing specifics about what happens after death.[7]


1. See, for example, 1 Clem. 5:4, 7; 6:2; Mart. Pol. 2:7; Herm. Vis. iii.1.9-2.1. I owe these citations to F. F. Bruce, “Paul on Immortality,” Scottish Journal of Theology 24 (1971): 79, 88.

2. Athenagoras, Res. 12-15; Irenaeus, Haer. 2.34-35; Tertullian, Res. 14-17; Gregory of Nyssa, On the Resurrection of the Dead; Ambrose, On Belief in the Resurrection 21, 88. See also Ps.-Justin, Res. 8. I owe these citations to Osei Bonsu, “The Intermediate State in the New Testament,” Scottish Journal of Theology 44 (1991): 169.

3. See, for example, the New Catholic Encyclopedia, 13.463 and its many citations of Denzinger’s Sources of Catholic Dogma.

4. On the Reformers, see Luther, Letter to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1552; Calvin, Institutes 3.25.7. On Protestants, see, e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith, ch. 32.

5. Bonsu, “Intermediate State”; Oscar Cullmann Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead? The Witness of the New Testament (London: Epworth, 1958); N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003).

6. Murray J. Harris, “The Interpretation of 2 Cor 5:1-10 and Its Place in Pauline Eschatology” (Ph.D. diss., University of Manchester, 1970), “2 Cor 5:1-10, Watershed in Paul’s Eschatology?” Tyndale Bulletin 22 (1971): 32-57, “Paul’s View of Death in 2 Cor 5:1-10.” (Pages 317-328 in New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. R. N. Longenecker and M. C. Tenney; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), Raised Immortal: Resurrection & Immortality in the New Testament (London: M & S Marshall, 1983); Bruce, “Paul on Immortality.”

7. Karel Hanhart, The Intermediate State in the New Testament (Franeker, Holland: T. Wever, 1966), 45-46, 104-105.

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My Troubles with Heresy and Orthodoxy

Orthodoxy and heresy are interesting things.

Over the past year or so, I’ve come to believe that the limits of true Christianity are often inscrutable. That is, I’m willing to count not only the orthodox as true believers, but also many heretics, as well. I’m finding that this position is becoming increasingly hard to hold without some measure of doublethink. On the one side of things, the weight of church tradition stands firmly on the side of a sharp distinction between heresy and orthodoxy, with only the orthodox being counted as true believers. But on the other hand, the weight of church history stands firmly on the side of pluralism, because if only the orthodox are true believers, then no one is a true believer.

On the one hand, church tradition. Ever since Justin Martyr’s denunciation of Marcion in the second century, extending all the way to contemporary culture warriors, the church has had a strong tradition of heresy-hunting. This view makes sense for two reasons. First, in order for an ethnos (a “people,” which is the way the early Christians saw themselves — as a race) to be a true ethnos — that is, for all the members of the ethnos to share common practices — ethnic boundary markers must be in place. It must be very clear who is and who is not part of the Christian people. By necessity, that entails defining what is right practice (orthodoxy) and wrong practice (heterodoxy/heresy) and setting those up as religio-ethnic distinctives. Second, this view is the most scientific. According to the scientific method, a hypothesis is either right or wrong — there is no “maybe” in a rigorous description of how the world works. Likewise, since God is knowable and has revealed himself objectively, it is possible to determine exactly what modes of worship and service he finds acceptable and which he finds unacceptable. Therefore, we may distinguish very easily between right and wrong worship.

On the other hand, church history. Since 1054 CE, every Christian has been a heretic. (1054, of course, was when the Great Schism took place, with the Eastern and Western churches excommunicating each other.) To an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholics and Protestants are heretics. To Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox are heretics. To Protestants, Catholics and the Orthodox are heretics. Each subgroup of Christianity has claimed to be the only right way to worship God. The problem, of course, is that each side uses the same text (the Bible) to support their views, and each side is deeply convinced of their own superiority over the others. So, among the Christian churches, it is impossible to distinguish between right and wrong worship.

Thus, the two sides rage inside me. It is intensely difficult to believe, based on church tradition, that there is a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable worship, while also believing, based on church history, that it is impossible to know what that distinction is.


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Apostles and prophets, part 2

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”
-1 Corinthians 12:27-31 [53-57 A.D.]

“Therefore, take the first portions of the products of the winepress and threshing floor — cattle and sheep, too — and give them to the prophets, because the prophets are your chief priests. If you do not have any prophets, though, give to the poor.”
-The Instruction of the Twelve Apostles [70-110 A.D.]

(Note: this is the second part of a two-part post. The first part is here.)

A couple of days ago, I explored what “apostles” are. My conclusion: “apostles” are missionaries, have the highest of all callings, and are still around today. (And we should treat them better than we do!)

Today, I’d like to look at what “prophets” are. Are they just glorified weathermen, or is there something deeper going on? As an example, let’s take a look at Zechariah’s prophecy, when his son John was being named (it’s long; forgive me): Continue reading


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Apostles and prophets

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts.”
-1 Corinthians 12:27-31 [53-57 A.D.]

“You should receive every apostle who comes to you the same way you would receive the Lord.”
-The Instruction of the Twelve Apostles [70-110 A.D.]

It seems to me that, for some time now, parts of the church might have misunderstood what apostles really are. When we in the Protestant tradition hear “apostle,” we automatically think “the Twelve,” lumping the Apostle Paul into that number (Matthias doesn’t count, apparently). And, even though we pay lip service to the Twelve, only six actually really count — Peter, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Matthew, sometimes Andrew, with Thomas being the one everyone likes to hate on (but when’s the last time Bartholomew, James son of Alphaeus, Simon the Zealot, Philip, or Thaddeus have been held up in sermons as exemplars of piety?). Continue reading

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The Babe, the Son of Mary

What child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping,
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

This Advent season, the last words of this hymn — specifically the last lines: “Haste, haste to bring him laud, / The babe, the son of Mary” — have been making me think quite a bit about American evangelicalism’s relationship with Mary. Wikipedia, I think, puts it best: “Marian devotions are important to the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, but most Protestants do not accept them as proper.”

Now, I can’t speak to the anti-Marian motives of other cultures’ Protestants, but I’d hazard a guess as to why American Protestants pay Mary no regard (except, it seems, when singing Christmas songs): first, our forebears had a deep mistrust of anything Catholic; second, our forebears passed on to us their traditions — including practices that had their beginning in anti-Catholicism; third, modern Americans do not typically have a deep respect for authority (if Presidential approval ratings are any indicator). In light of these three things, it might do us some good to think about who Mary was and what she experienced in conceiving and giving birth to Jesus. Continue reading

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