Archive for the ‘Church History’ Category

The following material was published in 1984 in Christianity and Civilization No. 4: The Reconstruction of the Church, pages 6-9, and are reprinted here as grist for the mill of the discussion of “evangelicalism.” Footnotes have not come through, of course. Though this material is offered in connection with a concern for “evangelicalism” raised initially by Rev. Douglas Wilson, I am as certain as I can be that Doug would agree with what is written here about the dangers spoken of.  My point is that one of the several meanings of “evangelical” is precisely someone who would agree with Whitefield and the Methodists in connection with the problems of the Great Awakening. If you want to understand much of what is meant by “evangelicalism” in America, you need to understand the evils of the Great Awakening. — JBJordan

Beginning of citation:

As a result of all this [the inability of the Reformers to get full liturgical worship and weekly communion in place in the churches], protestant people came to think of preaching as the most important aspect of the institutional Church. This was a mistake, because God has not given many gifted orators to the Church. (St. Paul was ridiculed for his lack of oratorical skill, and Moses had the same problem; see Exodus 4:10ff. and Acts 20:7-9; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10.) The proclamation of the gospel needs the pastoral context of the whole “body life” of the Church, and particularly needs the seal of the sacraments. By its exaltation of preaching as a charismatic art, the Reformation moved in the direction, subtly and unintentionally to be sure, of undermining the Church itself. (more…)


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What follows is a debate that took place on my Facebook page last October (2009). It really shouldn’t be allowed to slip down the wormhole of past FB posts. It’s worth reviewing. Perhaps my RC sparring partner, Bryan Cross, will want to add something to this.

It began with me posting a quotation from Martin Luther on enforced priestly celibacy:

. . . the pope has as little power to give this command as he has to forbid eating, drinking, the natural processes. . . No one, therefore, is duty bound to keep this commandment, and the pope is responsible for all the sins that are committed against this ordinance, for all the souls lost thereby, and for all the consciences thereby confused and tortured (Plass, What Luther Says, p. 888).

That was the catalyst for the following debate. (The reader should know that my FB rules forbid posting links to Roman Catholic propaganda sites in comments. That will explain a few lacunae in the flow of the argument.)

1. Kevin Branson: The Church has deemed it best that her ministers be single, and celibate, as Paul deemed it best. At present, the Church therefore requires a vow of celibacy from priests. Someday, that could change, and in certain situations exceptions are made even now, but ordinarily, them’s the rules. Nobody puts a gun to a priest’s head and forces them to take a vow of celibacy, nor did anyone force Luther to do so. It was his own choice, as it was his own choice to break his vow of celibacy.

2. Shawn Honey: Celibacy was chosen by Paul and he recommended it to others; it was not bound upon him from the outside, nor did he bind others to it. Peter chose to marry as did other Apostles and, presumably, countless elders (“husband of one wife…”). I think the point pertains to whether a church has the right to bind the consciences of its ministers in a way that Scripture seems to speak against.

3. Craig Lawrence Brann: True as Mr. Branson’s points are, it remains that the Apostle Paul had good reason for suggesting that men facing an apocolypse not be wed and likewise that women not become pregnant—this counsel was not at all timeless or abstract and it really is one of the roman church’s silliest Order’s to make apology for. Wasn’t it the same Apostle who called forbidding marriage a, ‘doctrine of demons.’ Hardly a class of teaching that ought only be obtained by the clergy!

4. Jeff Meyers: Good points, Sean. Remember, too, that the 1 Tim 3 passage (“husband of one wife”) is about the qualifications for “bishop” (episkopos).

5. Jeff Meyers: Craig, right on. Enforced celibacy for pastors is demonic, as Paul says.

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The previous discussion led to several points that I’d like to take up in like to take up in more detail. For the sake of discussion, I’ll number them for ease of consideration.

1. Typological “evidences” for Mary as perpetual virgin, queen of heaven, etc. etc. I assert here that these have never been the reasons for Marian doctrines, but that they have been brought into consideration by those who are already completely convinced of those doctrines because of their traditions. As the previous discussion demonstrated, I believe, there is no Biblical warrant for the notion that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus Christ. The Bible explicitly states that Joseph did not routinely have sex with her until after her purification.


When I was in grammar school in the 1950s, I attended a Roman Catholic school. The sisters taught the Catholic kids that Jesus’ brothers were really cousins. One sister told us that they were Jesus’ half-brothers, because Joseph had had an earlier marriage. She, at least, seemed to know that if they had been cousins, the word for cousin would have been used. So, they had to be real brothers and sisters of Jesus, but not children of Mary. That, of course, was impossible. All this was taught with full and total assurance. 

When one reads discussions of Marian doctrine, one never sees any discussion of the Biblical evidence, except to try and discount it by twisting the grammar. No, the doctrines are assumed, and then the Bible is plundered to find allegorical evidence for it. I have read enough Eastern and Roman theology to feel quite confident about this. The actual Biblical data is pretty clear. Nowhere is Mary venerated. She does not appear in the Bible after Pentecost, which means her entire historical role is located in the Old Covenant as the last Eve who bore the last Abel, as the last ‘Adamah who bore the last Adam.

She surely was dead by the time the latest epistles were written, but nothing in them indicates any veneration of her or anything about her dormition or assumption. Forcing Mary into Revelation 12 or into the book of Esther, or whatever, is just that: forcing. The assumption is made, based on tradition and upbringing, that X, Y, and Z are true about Mary. Only then do parts of the Bible “reveal” those truths. And these “revelations” obscure the actual meaning of the text. The woman in Revelation 12 is the Old Covenant church. Esther is a type of Christ.

Of course, if one accepts the Roman doctrine of Tradition (capital tee), as a separate course of revelation next to the Bible, then things change. It still is an issue how to understand Esther and Revelation 12, of course, but the Marian notions can be preserved. But, here at BT, we are not among those who accept that notion of Tradition.

2. This leads me to my second consideration, which is the influence of timeless and gnostic thinking on theology. Heaven knows, there is plenty of that influence in Lutheran and Calvinistic thought. (I have spent most of my career attacking such things in Calvinistic thinking.) Here, however, we are considered with the Marian notions.

What the Bible shows is the importance of Mary as mother of the Chief Heir of the Old Covenant. Her firstborn son was born under the Law. Her greatness is in her willing acceptance of this role, even though it meant virtually everyone she knew would regard her as a loose woman. And indeed, a sword would pierce her heart. But in all of this she is NOT a symbol of being a mother of the New Covenant church. Actually, the Mary who met Jesus in the garden immediately after His glorification was Mary Magdalene, so if there is a NEW Eve, it is she. Much more importantly, the Spirit who paracletically came from Jesus’ side is the new Eve, and Mother of the Church.

Mary had a role in covenant history, and her role ended when Jesus gave her into the house of His disciple John. It was a great role, but that was the end of it.

3. I’d like to suggest how some of these doctrines come about. This is somewhat speculative, of course, and at age 60 (Korean years) I’m not about to write a dissertation and spend five years looking into all this. But just consider.

3a. Theotokos. A friendly interlocutor referred to Mary as theotokos in the present, but then when challenged realized that this is not quite accorate. Theo-tokos means “God-bearer.” It means that the baby on Mary’s womb was God incarnate, the second person of the Trinity. (Note: It does not mean “mother of God,” and that phrase is much more problematic because of its slippery ambiguity.) But of course, Mary stopped being theotokos the moment Jesus was born. He was no longer in her womb, and she was no longer carrying Him. She WAS theotokos, but she IS no longer theotokos.

If, however, theologians and uneducated monks (especially the latter in late antiquity) go around calling Mary “theotokos,” then it gets into the air that she still IS theotokos. Icons are made with the baby Jesus blessing the world from Mary’s lap. She is his environment, always.

Now, a better construction on such ikons can be that the woman is the Church, which carries Jesus with her into the world. Yes, that’s true, but it’s also true that Jesus is in heaven and not living “inside” the Church. It’s much more important that the Church is inside of Him!

3b. More important is the phrase, “the virgin Mary.” The ecclesiastical Creed nicely says, “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, and was made man.” Here it is clear that Jesus’ conception and birth were of the virgin Mary. The so-called Apostles’ Creed, often used but unofficial in the early church, simply says, “born of the virgin Mary.” This might suggest (in context it does not) that “the virgin Mary” was some kind of name, like “Pontius Pilate.” One might begin to think that “the virgin Mary” was always a virgin. 

Now, the Apostle’s Creed does not SAY that Mary was always a virgin, but again, consider ignorant and illiterate monks whose theology is little more than the list of things in the creeds, and who are given to all kinds of superstitions anyway (and for that matter are happy to form gangs and murder people like Hypatia). Is it hard to understand that “the virgin Mary” becomes an idea, a slogan, something timeless? — especially in the gnostic and philosophized context of the ancient world, where all truths are timeless. 

Again, does your Protestant hymnal say “virgin Mary” or “Virgin Mary”? If the latter, why the capital vee? (If so, get rid of it. And for that matter, let the Latin guide you and say, “born of a virgin, Mary”.)

To return, once “the virgin Mary” becomes an idea divorced from history, then it becomes an important theological datum. It fits in nicely with several factors in the early Church:

a. the context of timeless philosophical thinking, regarded by too many theologians and apologists as important. 

b. the influence of ignorant monks and Buddhist-like “holy men” like Anthony.

c. the increasing celibacy of much of the clergy, cut off from real life. Along these lines consider the crackpot opinions of Jerome, which you can read about in the wikipedia article on him. It is no surprise that Jerome condemned Helvidius, Tertullian, and Victorinus for believing that Mary had a real marriage with Joseph. We admire Jerome for some things, but we cannot admire  his vicious asceticism any more than the people of his own day did. 

d. and, perhaps most importantly, the growing fear of music (too emotional), food (too tempting), and sex (way too tempting) in the later early church. The rejection of music, wine, and woman is characteristic of Islam, and Islam just brings to perfection these three trends emerging from late antiquity. Augustine hold that sex within marriage is always sinful, partakes of “concupiscence,” and is justified only to make children. Basil says that sex is a result of the fall, and that if Adam had not sinned, we would reproduce by division. 

Given this context, it is hardly a surprise that after a couple of centuries “the virgin Mary” became an important theological matter.

4. Once these completely unBiblical notions gain currency, they begin to play havoc with orthodox teachings. For instance, in order for Mary to be a virgin always, her hymen must not have been broken when Jesus was born. He just passed through it, as He passed through doors after His resurrection. Now, notice two things:

4a. This confuses the pre-resurrection Adamic body of Jesus and the post-resurrection body of Jesus. Here again we see an example of timeless gnostic thinking.

4b. And no matter how many times this may be denied, this foolish notion means that Jesus did not experience a birth. It is a denial of the virgin birth, because it was not a natural birth at all. Please note, that the Bible never says that Mary was a virgin while Jesus was being born. The doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus only means that no man had slept with her before Jesus was born. The “hymen intacta” notion is a docetic move that implies Jesus did not have a real human body. He was NOT like us in all ways, though without sin. He, unlike us, could pass through the birth canal and cause no ripping of any sort.

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By Rich Bledsoe

If we take as a starting point the Tribal / Monarchical / Empire model, we can then add to it the Late Empire Phase. The particular ‘marker sin’ of Empire is false intermarriage, which signifies pluralism and syncretism. Empires by definition are “cosmopolitan” dominated by cities, high culture, many cultures, and many languages. There is more immediate contact with at least the high points of many civilizations and people groupings than any other form. But, with the corruption of Empire, any recognizable center drops out and agreed upon Truth is lost, and it is replaced by very vague and empty universalisms, and a lot of mush.In the Late Empire phase, the marker sin is the homoerotic.


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I spent the last few days at A Conversation on Denominational Renewal, which thankfully met in St. Louis. The conference was well attended, about 300 or more people. The audience was mostly PCA ministers and elders, but because it was held in St. Louis there were a good many Covenant Seminary Students and professors.

I’m not going to summarize the conference. All I will say is that it was quite stimulating and helpful. When they post the mp3s of the lectures on their website, you need to listen to them. I’ll try to alert everyone when they are posted.

I’d like for us to discuss one part of Jeremy Jones’s lecture on Wednesday morning. The title was “On Renewing Theology.” I think it was one of the most challenging lectures of the lot.

Jeremy addressed problems with the way we tend to conceive of and do theology in the Reformed world, especially the PCA. Early on he talked about “The Ecclesial Culture of Reformed Sectarianism.” He lamented the fact that so many Reformed ecclesial cultures end up as little more than “denominational police states.” How does this happen?


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There is something in the nature of man that he feels the necessity to add to things. This can be a good thing as we transform the natural order from a raw state into a more gloriously refined state but it can also be twisted. Take our conception of and approach to the Eucharist. In the Puritan world an emphasis was put on the judgmental aspect of the Table and our unworthy disposition toward it. This led to, ironically, the same fearful disposition toward the Eucharist that Medieval Catholics had and that the Puritans were seeking to escape.   (more…)

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(I originally posted this at my personal blog.)

John Davenant was perhaps the single most influential delegate at the Synod of Dort (particularly for what he kept out of the final Canons). Much of his influence was examined in my previous post on the subject, but it is certainly the case that he remains a neglected figure. I had never heard of him until I began my studies on Dort, and as I survey some of the secondary literature, I see that a few commentators have questioned whether or not he ought to be considered a Calvinist. G Michael Thomas addressed Robert Godfrey’s claims on Davenant in his book The Extent of the Atonement, but I would like to address this issue a little myself by contrasting Davenant with John Overall, a man who had great influence on Davenant, but also a man whose historical point of view was quite different from Davenant’s.

Davenant wrote an extended treatise on the extent of the atonement, partly meant to explain the Canons of Dort. This is his A Dissertation on the Death of Christ. It was originally included within his Colossians commentary, but some modern reprints have removed it. In this treatise, Davenant affirms that Christ’s death established the new covenant and that the death of Christ is sufficient for all men, but for the elect alone effectually. Davenant’s two-fold approach to the death of Christ, allowing for a general universal atonement and a particular effectual atonement, was not original to him, however, and as Peter White has noted, Davenant was directly influenced by Bishop John Overall (Predestination, Policy and Polemic, pg. 191). Overall’s treatises on the atonement can all be found in Anthony Milton’s The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (pg. 64- 92). (more…)

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When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I encountered “the five points of Calvinism” and “TULIP.” I was told that these came from the Synod of Dort, which essentially decided that Calvinism would be the accepted religion of the Reformed churches in Europe. Calvinism and TULIP were for the most part equivalent.

As I moved from a Reformed Baptist to a Presbyterian, I began to hear pastors mention that Calvinism was more than the five points. I began to learn about “covenant theology,” which served as the basis for baptizing infants. Calvinism now included the TULIP as well as covenant theology and infant baptism. Still later in my studies, I began to learn about the Calvinistic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. My understanding of Calvinism broadened, but I still had a tendency to think of Dort when I heard the term Calvinist.

Given the central place of Dort in the history of Calvinism, I was surprised when I began to read R. L. Dabney’s Systematic Theology and his book The Five Points of Calvinism. He nearly dismissed the five points saying, “Historically, this title is of little accuracy or worth.”[1] As I continued to read in Dabney, I began to discover there were various schools within Calvinism, some of which disagreed in key places. Amazingly, Dabney, Charles Hodge, and William Shedd all distance themselves from theologians like Francis Turretin on the relationship between the decree of God and the cross of Christ, and even go so far as to explicitly reject key exegesis that underlies the “limited atonement” argument found in John Owen’s The Death of Death.[2] These 19th century Presbyterians were neither Arminians, nor Amyraldians though, but rather they represent what is called, for better or for worse, moderate Calvinism.[3]

How is it, I wondered, that I had never heard of this distinction before? Why have I been taught that the Five Points of Calvinism are the summary of Reformed theology? What is limited atonement? This brought on a bit of theological dizziness, and I was eager to learn more about the true history of Calvinism and the Synod of Dort. What did it teach concerning these matters, and what is its place in the larger Reformed church history? (more…)

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