Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The Reign of Christ over the Nations

There is a sense in which, if what I have been saying is correct, it might seem unnecessary to argue that Christ is ruling over the nations. After all, Christ had already claimed, before his ascension, to have received all authority in heaven and on earth. When he sat down at God’s right hand, he sat down on his throne above all rule and power and every name that is named. It seems that this would naturally include authority over the nations.

But it is apparent that not everyone draws this specific conclusion from these general premises; and so, I offer up two passages that I believe support this claim more or less clearly. I admit, these passages are not great in number, nor are they as straightforward as one trying to support my position might hope, but I think that what they say goes a long way toward supporting the idea that, even as the apostles were writing, Christ was reigning over the nations.

In the preface to the book of Revelation, John identifies Jesus as the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5). He is not describing, as it seems to me, what Jesus would someday be or ought to have been, but declaring instead what was true of Christ at the very time he was writing. It appears, then, that even before the close of the canon, Jesus was already ruling the kings of the earth.

In the letter to the church of Thyatira, Jesus told the saints there that he that overcometh and he that keepeth my works unto the end, to him will I give authority over the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to shivers; as I also have received of my Father (Rev 2:27).

There is, in this passage, a promise that was clearly focused upon the future. Those saints who were part of the church in Thyatira, if they were faithful, would one day in the future share with Christ in exercising authority and rule over the nations. But notice: this future promise to the saints is based upon an already-accomplished achievement for Christ. For as he says, this authority and this rule over the nations was something he had already received of his Father. Is this not what the passage says? How does it fail to prove that Christ, at the time he spoke this promise to his church, already possessed authority over the nations or that he was already ruling them with a rod of iron?

If we can say that Jesus is already ruler of the kings of the earth- and we must if we are to be true to scripture- if we can say that he has already received authority over the nations and that he has already received to rule them with a rod of iron, how can we not say that he is presently reigning over the nations? I am sincerely interested to hear from those who disagree with these conclusions. I would very much like to understand why you believe they do not follow from these passages.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Reign of Christ in the Church

As I’ve been attempting to demonstrate, even during the apostolic age, Christ was reigning in heaven and over all heavenly beings. As Peter said, he was on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities being made subject to him. But there are, I believe, many verses that show that, at the same time, Christ was also reigning over earth. As promised, I’ll now be attempting to prove that, even while he was reigning from heaven, Christ was already ruling over the earth: in the church, over the nations, over Israel and from the throne of David.

1. Christ was reigning in the church.

One sub-issue frequently in play between proponents of the various millennial positions is the relationship between Christ’s kingdom and the church. Some postmillennialists and amillennialists go so far as to say the two are nearly identical, while some premillennialists say that there is little to no present connection between the two. While defining the precise relationship between the church and the kingdom would be beyond the scope of this post, I would at least argue that, though the kingdom of Christ extends beyond the church, the church is clearly an earthly manifestation of his kingdom and, as such, is proof of his earthly reign.

There is, of course much controversy over the meaning of Jesus’ words to Peter that he would build his church upon this rock (Matt. 16:18). It is evident, however, that in the next breath, Christ did promise to give Peter great authority in the church. What is important to the present discussion is Christ’s designation of this authority as the keys of the kingdom of heaven (16:19). Peter’s authority in the church, then, was identified as authority in the kingdom. This suggests, at the very least, a very significant relationship between the church and the kingdom.

Second, Paul told the saints of Ephesus that God had given Christ to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all (1:22). More specifically, he told the Colossians that God had already delivered them out of the power of darkness, and translated them into the kingdom of the Son of his love (1:13). Christ was the head of the church, and the saints were, therefore, subjects of his kingdom.

Finally, John, in the book of Revelation, reminded his readers that in addition to loosing them from their sins by his blood, Christ had also already made them to be a kingdom to be priests unto his God and Father (1:6). This was a kingdom in which John was a partaker with them (1:9). Here, then, we see direct identification of the saints as the kingdom of Christ. Again, while it might be too much to say that the kingdom of Christ is fully identical with the church, it seems clear, on the basis of these passages, that the church is at least an earthly manifestation of that kingdom and, therefore, of his reign upon the earth.

Friday, August 25, 2006

New Blog

I just wanted to inject a little commercial announcement: I've opened a new blog on which I plan to discuss matters related to grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

My original intention in starting this first blog was to include posts from a number of subject areas, but it seems best to continue devoting LFA exclusively to theological topics. Still feeling like it would help me to think out loud about some of these other issues, I've decided to carve out a bit more 'sphere space.

Warning: If you're not intensely passionate about learning or teaching the trivium, this new blog is likely to be the least interesting page you've ever had the misfortune to open. However, if you think these topics might amuse you, please pay it a visit.


Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Earthly Reign of Christ: An Introduction

Premillennialists, even those who acknowledge that Christ is presently reigning in some capacity, believe that one day in the future, upon his second coming, Christ will begin to rule from earth over an earthly kingdom, one that will last for one thousand years. Even though some might acknowledge that Christ is ruling in heaven in the present age, many tend to struggle with the idea that his current reign extends to earth in any significant way.

The underlying thought seems to be that unless Christ is physically ruling from earth, his power and sovereignty over earthly matters must be somewhat constrained. In particular, some would say that until he takes his throne on earth, Christ cannot be said reign over the nations, cannot be said to reign over Israel, and especially cannot be said to reign on the throne of David.

Now, I believe that there are several reasons to affirm that Christ will one day literally reign from earth. I do not, however, believe that an earthly rule is necessitated by any limitation in the power of Christ’s heavenly position. In fact, it appears to me that Christ’s authority and sovereignty are in some ways greater, even on earth, because he is reigning from heaven. It also seems to me that the very aspects of Christ’s reign that are so frequently called into question (his rule over the nations, over Israel, etc.) are explicitly stated in scripture to be attributes of his heavenly reign which was a reality, again, even as the New Testament was being written.

In short, I believe the Scriptures teach that as soon as Christ ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God, he began to reign, not only over all heavenly beings, but also over all earthly powers. He began at his ascension to reign in the church, to reign over all nations, to reign over Israel, and to reign in particular from the very throne of David. It is this series of ideas that I will attempt to demonstrate in the next post.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Present Reign of the King of Kings

I feel I've said enough about the rapture of the church and it's relation to the timing of the Great Tribulation. I'd be happy, however, to entertain further discussion in the comment section.

I'd like now to move on to another eschatological issue that some Evangelicals have come to view as a test of true faithfulness to Scripture. This is the doctrine of premillennialism. The basic premise of this teaching is that when Christ comes again, he will then begin to reign on earth over an earthly kingdom which will last for a thousand years. There are, however, more extreme forms of premillennialism which, in addition to this idea, also deny that Christ is reigning in any way shape or form in the present age. It is this latter issue that I think important to address first. I will attempt to demonstrate that even while the New Testament was being written, Christ was already reigning in his kingdom.

First, we see that in the course of Christ’s earthly ministry, the kingdom is already is said to have been at hand (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), to have come near (Luke 10:9), and to have come upon his hearers (Matt 12:28). There is a certain sense, in Christ’s days on earth, in which the kingdom has already been appointed to him (Luke 22:29) and in which he has already received authority over all flesh (John 17:2). After his death and resurrection, we see an intensification of these royal indications, as Christ announces to his apostles that all authority has been given to him both in heaven and on earth (Matt 28:18).

But the key moment in the inauguration of Christ’s kingdom is clearly his ascension into heaven. The scriptures place great significance upon this event. It is at this time that Christ was received up in glory (I Tim 3:16), to return to where he was before (John 6:62), and to enter the presence of his Father (John 20:17; Heb 9:24). The scriptures are clear, moreover, that the ascension of Christ marked, in many ways, the “beginning” of his kingly rule. As far back as the prophet Daniel, we see the coronation of the Son of Man being identified with his ascending to the throne of the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13-14). And we see Jesus himself indicating that his inheritance of the kingdom should take place upon his going away (Luke 19:12).

Christ’s present reign is also indicated in those passages describing the majestic status which he had resumed upon his ascension. Upon entering heaven, he was highly exalted, receiving a name above every name (Phil 2:9) not only in this age, but also in the age to come (Eph 1:21). All things placed were under his feet (Heb 2:8) and he became the head (Col 2:10), being seated above all principality, power, might and dominion (Eph 1:21).

But the strongest evidence that Christ’s ascension marked the beginning of his reign are those passages that describe him as taking his seat at the right hand of God. Over and over again, the Scriptures emphasize that, having ascended, Christ was exalted to God’s right hand (Acts 2:33), the right hand of the Majesty on high (Heb 1:3), the right hand of Power (Matt 26:64). Most significant, however, are those passages that describe Christ’s position at his Father’s throne. Hebrews tells us that he sat down at the right hand of the throne of majesty (8:1) Revelation tells us that when he ascended, he was caught up to God’s throne (12:5), that he sat down with his Father on that throne and that he was already sharing that throne with his Father, so that he was able to speak of that throne as his own (3:21).

Finally, Hebrews tells us that when Christ sat down at the right hand of God, he began waiting for his enemies to be made his footstool (1:13). In I Corinthians, Paul makes it crystal clear what else Christ began doing at precisely the same time, for as he says, he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (15:25).

When Christ ascended into heaven, he sat down on his throne. To say he did not also begin to reign is, I believe, to make utter nonsense of the Scriptures. There may be some reasonable dispute as to the present nature and extent of the kingdom of Christ in this age, and I intend to address those issues in the next couple of posts. What should not even be entertained, however, in the clear light of scripture, is the idea that Christ has not yet begun to reign in any sense. The scriptures cannot possibly support such a notion. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something-- maybe even a set of best-selling novels.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The Rapture of the Church and The Resurrection of the Saints

Other scriptures that have led me to a post-tribulational position are those that describe the relationship between the rapture, the tribulation, and the resurrection of the dead.

1. In I Thessalonians 4, Paul said that the dead in Christ would rise first, and then, only afterwards, would those who were alive and remaining be caught up in the air. To emphasize this order of events, Paul said that the survivors would in no wise precede them that are fallen asleep (v.15). Thus we see that the rapture clearly occurs after the resurrection of the saints.

2. In Revelation 20, John wrote that he saw the souls of those who had been killed by the beast for refusing to worship him. He went on to prophesy that these would come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. More importantly for the purposes of this argument, John revealed that the raising of the martyrs of the tribulation period would be the first resurrection (v.5). That is, the first group of saints to be raised from the dead would be those who had suffered in the Great Tribulation.

3. It goes without saying, of course, that if the raising of the tribulation martyrs is to be the first resurrection, then there can be no resurrection before the tribulation. If, therefore, there cannot be a resurrection before the tribulation, then the rapture, which takes place after the resurrection, simply cannot take place before the tribulation.

Thus it seems that the pretribulational position is further undermined, not by a fanciful allegorical interpretation, but by the plain words of scripture themselves. It is, in fact, difficult for me to see how a literal interpretation of this language could possibly allow for any other position. I ask again, is the doctrine of the pretribulational rapture taught so clearly in the Bible as to serve as a legitimate mark of faithfulness to the scriptures?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Rapture of the Church and the Coming of Christ

Let me begin by addressing the pretribulational issue. Again, several traditions hold it as a point of orthodoxy that the rapture is to take place before the Great Tribulation. What I would like to do is point out those passages that lead some of us to believe that the rapture is actually supposed to happen after the tribulation. Let me reiterate: my goal at this point is not to convince readers of my eschatological position. All I hope to do in this post is to demonstrate that a Bible-believing Christian, using only historico-grammatical methods of interpretation, could reasonably come to the conclusion that the rapture of the church is to occur after the Great Tribulation. The following is my first argument for this position.

1. The coming of Christ is clearly after the tribulation.

This is not really a point in dispute between the pre- and post- tribulational positions. In Matthew 24, Jesus, clearly speaking of the Great Tribulation (a tribulation than which no greater would ever be) (v31) says that immediately after the tribulation of those days (v29) He would be seen coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (v30).

2. The rapture of the church occurs at the coming of Christ.

What is in dispute, however, between the two positions is the relationship between the coming of Christ and the rapture itself. Post-tribulationalists, like myself, believe that scripture teaches that the rapture occurs simultaneously with the coming of Christ. I believe there is good evidence for this. First, in I Thessalonians 4, Paul announces that the rapture would be experienced by those that are alive, that are left unto the coming of the Lord (v15). He says that right before the saints are raptured, the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God (v16).

Also, in II Thessalonians 2, Paul speaks of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our gathering together unto him as if they were a single event (v1) the day of the Lord (v2). In Matthew 24, Jesus links the two events in the same way. Right after He would be seen coming on the clouds of heaven with great power and glory, we see that He would send forth his angels with a sound of a great trumpet and they would gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (v30-31).

Pretribulationalists say that the rapture does not occur at the coming of Christ. They believe that I Thessalonians and Matthew 24 are describing two totally distinct events, that the first is secret and invisible and that the second is public and visible. But is this conclusion really so clear? Is it really true that someone who disagrees with this idea can only be mishandling the Bible?

With all the parallels between the two passages: Jesus’ coming, appearance of angels, sounds of a trumpet, and gathering of saints, is it really so evident that two different events are being described? With I Thessalonians describing the rapture as being accompanied by the descent of the Lord, shouting, voices of the archangel and the sound of trumpets, is it really diving into allegory to question how secret this event might be?

3. The rapture of the church occurs after the Great Tribulation.

If it is all reasonable to view these two passages as describing a single event, then there is nothing extraordinary about our conclusion. We believe that the coming of Christ takes place after the tribulation. We believe that the rapture takes place simultaneously with the coming of Christ; therefore we believe that the rapture takes places after the tribulation. We do not see how the scriptures must be twisted or misinterpreted to support this conclusion.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Eschatology: A Legitimate Line in the Sand?

I want to talk about the end times-- Huge yawn from all who know me. The horse is dead, buried, and bushes have already begun to grow on its grave, yet there you go, still beating it. Why? Before you dismiss me with the click of the mouse, just hear me out. If I don’t convince you to stick with the series after this first post, then just take a break and come back when I’ve finished.

My concern is this: I’m seeing a number of very positive things happening in American Evangelicalism. Every day it seems I come upon some new pastor or new church in my area that holds the scriptures in extremely high regard, that conducts worship in biblical maturity, that upholds the doctrines of grace and proclaims the pure gospel without apology. Many of these individuals and churches come from different denominational and traditional backgrounds, but despite their differences, they are finding that they have much in common; sometimes they have more in common than they do with churches of their own denominations. To me, this is very encouraging. But many times, it turns out, these same individuals and churches who have so much else in common, are prevented from working together as they otherwise might because of differing doctrinal stances on end times events.

Not too long ago, I heard a story from someone whose church is known for its interest in planting new churches. The church is part of a denomination whose statement of faith includes the doctrine of the pretribulational premillennial rapture of the church. I don't remember the precise context, but apparently someone from the church had inquired as to whether it would be permissible to plant a church with a minister who had eschatological views that differed from those of the denomination. The response was, yes, the church could use such a minister, but it would have to do so without the financial assistance of the denomination.

Faced with the choice between planting a church through the ministry of a man with a different view of the end times, and planting no church at all, the leadership of this denomination found that the latter would be the better option. To me this seems slightly out of proportion. I admit, I understand it, because I used to agree. Surely, anyone who does not believe in the pretribulational premillennial rapture of the church can simply not be taking the Bible seriously. Certainly, these doctrines are taught so clearly in the scriptures that any minister who holds otherwise is not qualified for the office. Certainly, any church that holds otherwise is not worthy of our fellowship.

Well, I have since come to a different opinion. My intent in this series is not necessarily to convince readers of my particular eschatological position. My primary goal is to demonstrate that someone can really, truly, sincerely believe the Bible to be the inspired, authoritative word of God and still come to a view that differs from the pretribulational premillennial position. My hope is that, if you are one who believes this doctrine to be a reasonable biblical criterion for qualification of a minister or fellowship between churches, you would give my arguments a fair examination. There are already, to be sure, plenty of causes of division in Christ’s church; many are legitimate, some are not. All I’m asking is that after reading, you consider whether the doctrine of the pretribulational premillennial rapture of the church really ought to occupy such an important place, as it seems to do, in the test of true fellowship.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: This is the End; I Promise

All right, as a final installment in this series of posts, I wanted to try and address some possible objections to the things I have been saying. I would have wanted to entertain some objections from honest-to-goodness objectors, but since none have presented themselves, I will have to imagine for myself what some of their counter-arguments might be. Sorry if some of these seem a little ridiculous.

1. Our church’s pattern of worship and government is already based upon the apostolic tradition. The kind of evaluation you’re suggesting is no longer necessary for us.

It is wonderful to be part of a tradition that was self-consciously founded upon the teachings of the apostles, but I can’t imagine it could hurt any of us as churches to continually re-evaluate our practices in light of scripture. Perhaps it might be found that we did not begin with such clear conformity as we might have imagined. Perhaps it might be found that, though our beginning was sound, we have strayed over time. Whatever the case, I can’t see how it would ever be safe to place so much confidence in our secondary standards, that we no longer subject our practices to the direct scrutiny of the word of God.

2. The scriptures aren’t all that specific about the practical details of church life. There are certain gaps which we have to fill. Because of this, no one will ever be able to agree as to exactly what constitutes apostolic practice.

There is certainly some truth to this. The point is to at least begin with what we do have, and make sure none of our gap-filling contradicts or hampers what it is we do know we’re supposed to be doing. Furthermore, our inability to attain perfect uniformity in the application of this tradition is no reason not to try. Consider the doctrinal, rather than the practical matters of scripture. Very rarely will two persons share precisely the same dogmatic theology. The solution to that problem is not to let every man invent his own theology, but rather to continue to seek the truth in humility.

3. It is good to have some variety from church to church. You seem to be demanding uniformity.

The lack of detail in the apostolic record does allow for a significant amount of variety from church to church. But is variety really that important of a biblical virtue? Remember that Paul said on multiple occasions that he was giving the same commands to all the churches of God. Clamoring for variety, for variety’s sake, seems to me to be the quickest path to error, error in doctrine as well as in practice.

4. The particulars of apostolic practice are no longer relevant for churches in today’s modern society.

Perhaps this is so. The first century church lived in an age in which truth was considered completely relative and pluralism abounded. It was an age in which men were without hope, immorality was rampant, and family structures were dissolving. It was an age in which Christianity was being opposed on every side. Perhaps, in light of the vastly different conditions we face, it would be better to completely jettison apostolic practices and make up everything new on our own.

5. I was talking about the fact that we have cars and iPods now.

Oh. Well, of course that makes all the difference in the world. Bring out the mud-wrestling worship team!

6. Don’t your suggestions amount to legalism?

It is true that what might begin as a pure desire to gratefully keep the commands of God can sometimes turn into a prideful over-obsession with the adhering to the minutest details the law. However, it is never the commands of God that get us into trouble, it is the misuse of those commands. Just as the antidote to gnat-straining is not camel- swallowing, the solution to legalism is not to completely ignore the law of God. The commands of the apostles have been given to the churches for their blessing. I find it difficult to believe that a mere call to obey the words of Christ can be reasonably classified as legalism.

And so, a final recap of what I’ve been attempting to argue: I believe that the practical commands of the apostles, as they are recorded in the scriptures, represent the abiding and authoritative words of Christ to His churches today. I believe that it is only right that churches evaluate their practices in the light of this standard and labor to conform to this inspired tradition. I believe that great blessings will follow if we begin and continue to do so.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: Pragmatically Speaking

Up to now I have been primarily been arguing that we ought to follow the apostolic pattern for church practice because it is only right to do so. I believe, however, from a more practical perspective, that there are also certain advantages to be gained from so doing.

I have already argued that these traditions represent the unchangeable will of Christ for His churches. Therefore, the first benefit from pursuing this pattern is the kind which generally results anytime we seek to fulfill God’s will for our lives. But I think there are also some specifically identifiable blessings that would follow if we began subjecting our practices to the kind of analysis I described above.

First, I think it would give us clearer guidance as we try to be the churches God has called us to be. Every church, from its beginning and throughout its entire life, must make certain decisions about its mission and how it is going to carry out that mission. Without some standard to which to appeal, we are more or less groping in the dark. But God has not left us to do so much guess-work. In the scriptures He has given us His gracious explanation of how we can fulfill His will. Why not take advantage of the light He has provided us?

Second, I think that conforming to the apostolic pattern would give us a firmer foundation, providing the churches with some desperately needed stability. The scriptures warn us not to be blown about by every wind of teaching, and this would include teaching about the practices of the church. In light of the constant influx of new ideas into the church, it would be much easier to keep our proper bearing if we were basing our practices, not on the fleeting opinions of fallible men, but upon the unchanging standard of the word of Christ.

Finally, I think that attempting to adhere to this inspired tradition would lead to greater unity within and among churches. When the foundations for our practices are the whims of particular men or the fads of the times, there is a much greater chance for conflict and disunity between the saints. I'm not saying that churches need to be identical to one another in their practices. It’s true that two musicians can play in harmony even when playing different notes at different times. But any kind of harmony is much less likely when the two are playing two different songs off two different sheets of music. In the apostolic tradition, we have one beautifully crafted piece of music, and if we're all striving to play the notes we find there, a magnficent symphony will result, even if what we're playing is not precisely the same. In short, I truly believe that if churches were to strive to follow the apostles’ teachings, which are the true words of Christ to His to His people, they would begin to experience greater blessing.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: So What?

So what is it specifically that I am proposing? I’m arguing that the apostolic tradition should be moved from being an afterthought, to occupying the forefront of a church’s self-evaluation. I believe that churches should be fervently and continually examining all their practices in light of the instructions given to the churches by the apostles, and that where they find that their practices are not in conformity with those instructions, they should change what they’re doing.

How do we go about evaluating these matters? Here are some very cursory suggestions:

1. We ought to evaluate what the apostles actually commanded the churches. For example, did they really command the saints to meet on the first day of the week? Did they truly command that two or three prophets should speak? Did they actually prohibit women from speaking in the assembly? These questions must be answered from a detailed study of the scriptures, and I’m not suggesting that the process is always simple or straightforward.

2. Once their true commands are properly ascertained, that is, once we understand what it is they were actually commanding, we ought to evaluate how closely we’re following these commands: Are we doing everything they commanded? In the way they commanded it to be done? Are we doing anything they prohibited? Have we added anything they did not command?

3. And if, in fact, we find that we are not acting in line with their commandments, we ought to evaluate the reasons for so diverging. If we’ve omitted or changed or added anything, have we done so for good biblical reasons? For example, was their command or prohibition clearly limited to a particular church, a particular situation, or a particular time, so that it would no longer apply to us? If we’ve added something, what effect does this addition have on our fulfillment of the other commands? Does it detract from their fulfillment? Does it facilitate their fulfillment?

The sum of the matter, again, is this: Because I believe that the apostles’ teachings are to be received as the very words of our Lord, I think it is extremely important that we be doing this kind of self-evaluation. If, having done so, we should find that the apostles truly gave the churches a particular command or prohibition, and if we find that our practices are truly not in conformity with this commands or prohibition, and if we find that we are truly without sound biblical reasons for not conforming, shouldn’t we change what we’re doing?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: The Bottom Line

So far I have been attempting to demonstrate that the apostles’ instructions to the first century churches, as they are recorded in the scriptures, are Christ’s continuing instructions to us, His churches living in the twenty-first century. I believe that this is true even of those traditions that involve merely practical, functional or organizational matters.

Now I am not, at this point, arguing for or against any particular practice in the church. I am not claiming to have anything more than a very murky understanding of this apostolic instruction myself. What I am proposing, however, is that, as faithful churches, seeking to do the will of Christ, we should be striving to understand those teachings and laboring to conform our practices to them.

When questions arise as to how our services should be conducted, how our churches ought to be organized, or how we ought to go about choosing leaders- and even before such questions arise-we should be asking “What did the apostles teach on these matters, and how can we follow their instructions?” The apostolic tradition ought to form the foundation, the entire framework for how we live as Christ’s church in the world, from the most profound doctrines we are to believe, to the most mundane tasks we are to perform.

Again, I believe that to give these teachings secondary consideration, or as more often happens, to ignore them altogether is, in effect, to treat as irrelevant the authoritative commands of our Lord and Savior and to substitute our will and wisdom for His-- a very poor substitution indeed.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: Is it Practical? (prt. 2)

My aim in this post is to establish that Christ gave authority to His apostles to such an extent that their words were to be received as His words. The apostles’ teachings, then, constituted a tradition that was to be preserved and handed down in all churches through all ages. In particular, I want to argue that the authority of this tradition extended to and included the apostles’ instruction, not just on doctrinal and moral issues, but also on the practical inner-workings of the churches.

First, the scriptures are clear that when Christ chose and commissioned His apostles, He endowed them with authority over His church. In Matthew 16, we see that Christ gave Peter (and by implication the rest of the apostles) the keys to the kingdom of heaven and the power to bind and loose; that is, the authority to declare Christ’s will for His people. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28), we see that this authority He gave them was His own authority that He had received from the Father “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore...” Thus does Paul say that the church is founded upon Christ, the cornerstone, and then upon the apostles and the prophets (Eph 2:20).

The apostles, then, went out on their mission as if in the very person of Christ, “He that receiveth you receiveth me” (Matt 10:40), and their words were to be received as His words. “If they kept my word, they will keep yours also” (John 15:20). As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “If any man thinketh himself to be a prophet, or spiritual, let him take knowledge of the things which I write unto you, that they are the commandment of the Lord” (II Cor 14:37).

The teachings of the apostles, therefore, which we have recorded in the pages of scripture, make up an authoritative tradition which the apostles expected the church to keep. “Now I praise you that ye remember me in all things, and hold fast to the traditions, even as I delivered them to you” (I Cor. 11:2). “So then, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye were taught, whether by word, or by epistle of ours” (II Thess 2:15). It is also clear that this tradition was not just for that first generation of Christians. As Paul commanded Timothy, “the things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (II Tim. 2:2). This tradition does not appear to have been optional for the New Testament churches. It was the God-inspired, Christ-ordained standard for all they were to believe and to do. Nor was it only for the Christians living in the days of the apostles, but rather was intended to be passed down from generation to generation.

Now the real question at hand is whether this authoritative enduring tradition was limited merely to the apostles’ doctrinal or moral instruction, or whether it also encompassed the more practical matters of how the churches were to conduct themselves. The scriptures make it plain, to me at least, that the latter were also included. Take for example Paul’s words in I Cor. 11:2 and 14:37 quoted above. To what traditions was he referring? What words was he declaring to be the commandments of the Lord? These two verses serve as book ends to a large section of practical instruction concerning various practices within the church. In chapter 11, he addresses corporate prayer and the practice of the Lord’s Supper. In chapters 12-14 he answers the Corinthians’ questions about the use of spiritual gifts and the function of various members within the assembly.

Nowhere in these passages do we get the idea that Paul is merely offering his suggestions or giving commands relevant only to one particular church. Instead he says that contrary practices are not to be found “in the churches of God” (11:17) and that his instructions apply to “all the churches of the saints” (14:34). These phrases of universal application, in combination with Paul’s statements that these are traditions to be held fast and the very commands of the Lord, should lead to the conclusion, that even when the apostles are teaching on these practical matters, their instruction is to be considered part of the authoritative tradition delivered once for all to the saints (Jude 3).

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Apostolic Tradition: Is it Practical?

I wanted to begin with a topic that will be foundational to a number of other issues I would like to address down the road. As I will probably be using this idea as an important building block in some of my other arguments on ecclesiological questions, I think it would be good to set it forth it at the beginning. Hopefully I can get some feedback on my underlying presuppositions before I build too much upon them. If I've made some fundamental error, it would be good to know it early in the game.

What I want to talk about is apostolic tradition and its continuing authority over the church. As I see it, there are at least three kinds of apostolic tradition. The first is the doctrinal tradition, that is, the tenets of the Christian faith proclaimed by the apostles: the death and resurrection of Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the doctrine of justification by faith and the like. Evangelicals are generally zealous to to uphold this form of apostolic tradition. That is, you rarely hear conservative Christians saying such things as, "I know Paul said that Christ rose from the dead, but what should we believe today?"

A second kind of apostolic tradition is the moral instruction the apostles delivered: instructions on personal holiness, interpersonal relationships, duties of husbands, wives, children, etc. This part of apostolic tradition, as well, is still generally regarded as authoritative among conservative Christians. Though from time to time there may be debate about some of the particulars, most evangelicals would agree that apostolic moral commands are to be obeyed.

There is a third aspect of apostolic tradition, however, that appears to me to be treated by evangelicals as less authoritative than the other two forms. This is the apostolic tradition concerning the practical function and organization of the church. Debates freqeuently rage among conservative Christians as to how churches ought to conduct their services, how they ought to discipline their members, how they ought to celebrate the sacraments, how they ought to be organized and governed, and how they ought to relate to other local churches. What is more telling, however, than the existence of such debates, is the manner in which they are usually carried on. Positions on these issues are almost always argued from some pragmatic point of view. "What kind of service will help our church grow? What kind of leadership arrangement is most effective in today's society?" Rarely is it suggested that the apostles' teachings on these issues ought to be consulted, much less used as the authoritaive standard for answering such questions.

Some might say that if people don't always appeal to the apostolic tradition on these matters, it is only because they aren't addressed much in the scriptures. But this does not seem to me to be the case. Large portions of scripture, such as are found in the epistles to the Corinthians and those to Timothy and Titus, are dedicated to these very questions. Maybe I'm mistaken in my perception that these scriptures are rarely appealed to in such discussions, but if I'm not mistaken, I can only see this as indicating that evangelicals regard these portions of scripture as somehow less authoritative and less binding than those passages setting forth doctrine or moral instruction.

Over the next couple of posts, I would like to argue that the apostles' teachings on the practical function and organization of the church: teachings on the assembly, church offices, the sacraments, etc. are not just suggestions that may or may not be adopted, they are authoritative precepts to be followed by all churches in all ages. Just as the apostles' doctrinal teachings are the standard for what Christians are to believe, so, I believe, are their practical teachings the standard for how Christ's churches are to function.