Misconceptions About Homosexuality in the PCA

Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article will demonstrate that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold: 1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to; 2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and 3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

Next week the Presbyterian Church in America gathers in St. Louis, Missouri for its 48th General Assembly. This is after a year of COVID and a postponed GA in 2020, so there is a lot on tap. One of the main items of concern within the PCA is the perceived threat of homosexuality encroaching on the PCA. Many things have been said about this threat, both in terms of what currently exists within the PCA and what might exist if we slide down a slippery slope.

The PCA stands for biblical morality. Those biblical positions are spelled out clearly in the Westminster Standards and our Book of Church Order. Westminster Confession of Faith 24:1 states, “Marriage is to be between one man and one woman: neither is it lawful for any man to have more than one wife, nor for any woman to have more than one husband at the same time.” Additionally, Larger Catechism 139 forbids gay sex in any form. In 2019, BCO 59-3 was made constitutionally binding and was amended to state the following, “Marriage is only to be between one man and one woman (Gen. 2:24,25; Matt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 7:2), in accordance with the Word of God. Therefore, ministers in the Presbyterian Church in America who solemnize marriages shall only solemnize marriages between one man and one woman.” Further, our Westminster Standards give us an excellent theological foundation for considering the issues of temptation, desire, indwelling sin, and sanctification.[1]

In 2019, the 47th General Assembly commissioned an Ad interim Committee to study and report on the issues of human sexuality (hereafter AIC). The resulting report is excellent, giving us a thoroughly confessional report that is informative and pastorally sensitive. I heartily commend this report as the answer that the PCA needs in order to remain faithful in this challenging time.

Given our strong confessional and constitutional foundation and the excellent AIC report, the PCA is on solid footing regarding the issue of homosexuality. Nevertheless, there are many within our denomination and without who are raising the alarm about “homosexual pastors” in our midst. I have personally seen several allegations about certain PCA pastors and elders that I believe to be untrue. As a confessionalist and as an ordained pastor, I am bound by vow to preserve and promote the truth and the good name of my neighbor, as well as to defend the innocence of those falsely accused and to discourage tale-bearers and slanderers (WLC 144). Indeed I would be sinning if I were silent in a just cause and held my peace when correction of untruths was called for (WLC 145). In this article I am seeking to keep my vow by laying out what I know to be true against some of the misstatements and rumors that have been circulating. I would remind my readers that the Larger Catechism likewise calls all of us to not stop our ears against a just defense (WLC 145) and to readily receive a good report regarding the innocence of our neighbor (WLC 144).

I will address the most important of these misconceptions section by section. In doing so, my earnest desire is to preserve and promote the purity, peace, and unity of the PCA. I have dialogued both in public and in private with several individuals and groups on the issues I am about to report on. The purpose of this article is to inform those who have not been as intimately involved in these discussions as I have so that they can judge rightly as we come to the General Assembly next week.

Gay Christian – Some have articulated that there are Pastors and Elders in the PCA who call themselves Gay Christians, or otherwise claim a Gay identity, and teach others to do the same. I am acquainted with quite a few pastors and elders in the PCA who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations, and yet I am aware of no pastor or elder in the PCA that identifies this way. There is a reasonable misunderstanding on this point because of a Christianity Today testimony in which the author uses the word “gay” 12 times.[2] However, a careful analysis reveals that he only refers to himself as such in the past tense. The opening line of the article is, “Bill, I’m gay.” Rather than being a declaration of his present identity, this is a testimony of how as a newly converted Christian he confessed his struggle for the first time to his campus minister. This is supported by the same pastor’s repeated clarification that he does not presently, and has not over the past 20+ years, used the term Gay or Gay Christian to identify himself.[3] His preferred term is “same-sex attracted,” though he realizes that term comes with some baggage from the ex-gay movement.[4] There are some PCA pastors and elders who will use the term “gay” as a descriptor in certain situations, specifically when talking with non-believers, but they emphatically reject that it is a core aspect of their identity. They claim their core identity to be in union with Christ.

Similarly, there are no PCA pastors or elders who embrace “Gay Christianity” as an alternate culture or community in the church. Those who do so are outside the bounds of the PCA and not adherents to our theological system or polity.

There may be members of the PCA, including seminarians, candidates under care, and staff members of PCA churches, who stray into some of these problematic areas. The AIC report advises the following pastoral response in those cases:

“Given this conclusion, how should we respond to fellow believers in our churches who may use such language? First, we ought not start from the assumption that they are being unfaithful or living in active rebellion to God. Rather, in the context of established relationships, pastors and leaders in the church ought to ask questions and seek to understand each individual’s story. Why do they use that language? Have they thought through the relative benefits and dangers? Noting the range of possible meanings of terms like gay and gay Christian, we would do well to seek understanding before imparting advice. In practical and plain terms, the issue of terminology is more likely a matter for shepherding in wisdom, and not in and of itself grounds for discipline.”[5]

Homoerotic Attraction and Sin – There is also a similar misunderstanding that there are PCA pastors and elders who teach that homoerotic attraction is not in itself sinful.[6] This is also not the case. There are no PCA pastors or elders that I am aware of who teach this. Specifically, in a recent presbytery investigation, one pastor stated, “I agreed that same-sex sexual attraction—even resisted—is of sin, is sinful, and is a movement of indwelling sin.”[7] He later stated:

“I don’t recall saying that same-sex attraction is a morally neutral condition. I have repeatedly stated otherwise. Any time I sense an internal sexual or romantic pull toward anyone God has not given me—including any male by definition—I have to recognize that pull for what it is. It is an effect of the fall, yes, but more precisely it is the pull of what St. Paul terms the flesh. It’s a motion of the internal corruption that remains in the believer throughout this life. “This corruption of nature, during this life, doth remain in those that are regenerated” (see WCF 6.4-6). This temptation is “original corruption” and is “properly called sin,” even when it does not lead to “actual sin.” Apart from Christ, I would carry the guilt of original corruption.”[8]

All PCA pastors and elders that I am aware of affirm the theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith chapter six on sin and of statements 3-6 on sin in the AIC.

On the subject of sin, PCA pastors and elders affirm that homoerotic orientation is sinful and therefore is the subject of repentance and mortification. PCA elders and pastors also affirm that temptation to sin is itself sin. Again, I am aware of no pastors or elders in the PCA who would deny these doctrines.

Furthermore there is a misunderstanding among some that some PCA pastors and elders teach that there is an aspect of being gay that is not of sin or that should be celebrated. In the report cited above that same minister stated, “Owning your sin does not equal celebrating your sin…. If a believer were celebrating their fallen sexuality, then there’s obviously a problem with that.”[9]

Sanctification – There are also reports that there are ministers in the PCA who teach that there can be no growth in sanctification for those who experience homoerotic temptation. This is largely a misunderstanding related to the possibility of orientation change. There are pastors in the PCA who teach that orientation change is rare. However this does not mean that no change whatsoever is possible for a Christian who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptations. When someone asserts that orientation change is extremely rare, he is referring to a change where someone moves from having only attraction towards the same sex to only having attraction to the opposite sex; in other words, from being 100% gay to being 100% straight.

This shift is very rare, according to those who have been ministering in these areas for decades. “In January 2012, Alan Chambers, the last president of Exodus International, an organization representing over 270 ex-gay ministries, stated, ‘The majority of people that I have met—and I would say the majority meaning 99.9% of them—have not experienced a change in their orientation.’ He later clarified that the 0.1% represented a woman who later told him she was bisexual. Mike Rosebush, former vice president of Focus on the Family and director of Exodus International’s Professional Counselors’ Network—himself a psychologist working exclusively with same-sex-attracted men—has said that he has yet to identify a single instance in which same-sex attraction disappeared. Longtime HarvestUSA director Tim Geiger has stated that he has also never seen same-sex attraction go away—in himself or anyone else.”[10]

On the subject of orientation change the AIC has stated:

The error of some Christian approaches to same-sex sexual desire has been to tie faithfulness to the elimination of homosexual temptation (or even the development of heterosexual desire) as though if Christians really did enough therapy, had enough faith, or repented sufficiently, God would deliver them in some final and complete way, changing their orientation. This perspective reflects a sort of over-realized eschatology—a view that what we will be finally and fully in the new creation will be realized in that way in the present life. Against such a view, our Confession reminds us that even in the regenerate, the corruption of sin remains in this life (WCF 6.5). The task for believers is to pursue faithfulness and obedience in this life, holding in view our new creation selves into which we are progressively, though often with many fits and starts, being conformed.”[11]

However, this does not mean that those who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation do not change at all. In the presbytery investigation mentioned above, the pastor stated that some who experience unwanted homoerotic temptations are, by God’s grace, able to see their desires change to the point that they can marry a member of the opposite sex and have children. For those who aren’t able to experience this kind of change, the expectation and reality for the believer is that those unwanted sinful desires would diminish over time both in frequency and intensity. Thus, it is not true that PCA pastors are teaching that believers who have experienced homoerotic temptation should not expect to change.

This is in agreement with Statement Seven from the AIC report on Human Sexuality:

We affirm that Christians should flee immoral behavior and not yield to temptation. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the ordinary means of grace, Christians should seek to wither, weaken, and put to death the underlying idolatries and sinful desires that lead to sinful behavior. The goal is not just consistent fleeing from, and regular resistance to, temptation, but the diminishment and even the end of the occurrences of sinful desires through the reordering of the loves of one’s heart toward Christ. Through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, we can make substantial progress in the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord (Rom. 6:14-19; Heb. 12:14; 1 John 4:4; WCF 13.1).

Nevertheless, this process of sanctification—even when the Christian is diligent and fervent in the application of the means of grace—will always be accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (WCF 16.5, 6), with the Spirit and the flesh warring against one another until final glorification (WCF 13.2). The believer who struggles with same-sex attraction should expect to see the regenerate nature increasingly overcome the remaining corruption of the flesh, but this progress will often be slow and uneven. Moreover, the process of mortification and vivification involves the whole person, not simply unwanted sexual desires. The aim of sanctification in one’s sexual life cannot be reduced to attraction to persons of the opposite sex (though some persons may experience movement in this direction), but rather involves growing in grace and perfecting holiness in the fear of God (WCF 13.3).”[12]

Lastly, on sanctification, there are are a minority of voices in the PCA who insist that true repentance and regeneration should result in the total elimination of homoerotic desires. Frankly, this position is out of accord with our system of doctrine in what it teaches on sanctification (WCF 13.2-13.3). This view seems much closer to Wesleyan Perfectionism than the Reformed view of progressive sanctification.

Orientation – There are some in the PCA who have argued that no Christian should say that they have a “homosexual orientation.” However this is contrary to the AIC report, which states:

How then should we think of the language of sexual orientation? Insofar as the term orientation is used descriptively to articulate a particular set of experiences, namely the persistent and predominant sexual attractions of an individual, it can remain useful as a way of classifying those experiences in contrast to the experiences of the majority of other people. However, insofar as the term orientation carries with it a set of assumptions about the nature of that experience that is unbiblical (e.g., overemphasized rigidity, its normativity, etc.), then the terminology may require qualification or even rejection in some circumstances.”[13]

Given what I have stated above regarding PCA pastors’ teaching on the possibility and expectation of real change for believers who experience homoerotic temptation, we should assume that those leaders in the PCA who describe themselves as having a homosexual orientation are doing so in the first sense mentioned by the AIC.

The Above Reproach Qualification – Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who states that they experience unwanted homoerotic temptation is automatically disqualified from being an ordained officer in the PCA. This is stated on the basis of BCO 8-2 and BCO 21.c.1.1, which cite 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. These two biblical passages state that elders must be “above reproach.” The Greek word used in both instances is ἀνέγκλητος, which denotes being guiltless or blameless. Moreover, 1 Timothy 3:7 states that an elder must have a good reputation with unbelievers. The Greek word in that case is μαρτυρία, which means to have a good witness or testimony. In both these instances it seems that these refer to outward instances where a person would incur guilt or a bad reputation because of their actions. Given what we have seen in the AIC report regarding the issues of sin, sanctification, right use of terminology, and orientation, which we have all covered above, it would seem that some other act or aberrant teaching would need to be in play to make someone fail to be “above reproach.” As we have stated above, I am not aware of any pastor or elder in the PCA who would hold unacceptable positions on these matters.

Furthermore, the AIC states, regarding whether a man who experiences homoerotic temptation is ordainable, “Insofar as such persons display the requisite Christian maturity, we do not consider this sin struggle automatically to disqualify someone for leadership in the church (1 Cor. 6:9-11, 1 Tim. 3:1-7, Titus 1:6-9; 2 Pet. 1:3-11).”[14]

In citing 1 Corinthians 6:9, the committee is presumably referring to Paul’s injunction that those who “practice homosexuality” will not inherit the kingdom of God. In verse 11 Paul states, “such were some of you.” Some in the PCA have argued that anyone who experiences unwanted homoerotic temptation is not a subject for ordination because the verse says “such were some of you,” and those men still experience the temptation. However, 1 Corinthians 6:9 does not say “those who experience homoerotic temptation,” but, “those who practice homosexuality.” The confusion may lie in that both the NASB and the NKJV translate the verse as saying “homosexuals will not inherit the kingdom of God.” However, as the ESV footnote points out, “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts.” The AIC report concurs with this in saying:

Paul coined the term arsenokoitai (1 Cor. 6:9; 1 Tim. 1:10) from the use of two related terms in the Septuagint version of Leviticus 18 and 20. The basic meaning is “man-bedders” or men who have sex with other men. The word malakoi can mean “soft” as in soft clothing (Matt. 11:8; Luke 7:25), or when used pejoratively of men it can mean “effeminate.” In the ancient Roman world, “The ‘soft’ man lack[ed] masculine posture, courage, authority, and self-restraint; he is like a woman.” Fredrik Ivarrson, “Vice Lists and Deviant Masculinity,” in Mapping Gender in Ancient Religious Discourses, eds. Todd Penner and Caroline Vander Stichele (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 180. Sexual passivity or penetrability is not the definition of malakos, but it is one possible connotation. Ivarrson, “Vice Lists,” 180-81. The combination of arsenokoitai and malakoi, uniquely used in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 6:9, likely refers most directly—as per the ESV footnote—to the active and passive partners in consensual homosexual activity. For more extended discussion, see Chapter 5 in Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Say About Homosexuality? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).”[15]

Thus, Scripture does not say that those who experience homoerotic attraction will not inherit the kingdom of God, but those who act on those attractions by engaging in gay sex. Again, there is no PCA pastor or elder who teaches that any form of gay sex is lawful (whether in marriage or not) or engages in same-sex sexual activity. It is also very clear in our recent history that those pastors and elders who have come to that position have left the PCA for denominations who allow those views and practices.

Further, some in the PCA argue that homoerotic temptation itself disqualifies because the temptation is “unnatural.” This is argued on the basis of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13, which call gay sex an “abomination.” I agree that gay sex is an abomination. But I would point out that the scriptures in their original languages do not say “those who experience sexual attraction towards the same sex are an abomination.” The scriptures uniformly say, “those who engage in gay sex are an abomination.” Leviticus 18:22 states, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.” This is the act of gay sex. Leviticus 20:13 states, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.” Again, it is the sex act that is an abomination.

Now some may argue that being tempted to engage in something that is an abomination makes one not above reproach. I would counter that there are other abominations in the scriptures. The conclusion of Leviticus 18 says this:

But you shall keep my statutes and my rules and do none of these abominations, either the native or the stranger who sojourns among you 27 (for the people of the land, who were before you, did all of these abominations, so that the land became unclean), 28 lest the land vomit you out when you make it unclean, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. 29 For everyone who does any of these abominations, the persons who do them shall be cut off from among their people. 30 So keep my charge never to practice any of these abominable customs that were practiced before you, and never to make yourselves unclean by them: I am the LORD your God.”[16]

The list of sexual sins in Leviticus 18 is long. Are we going to say that if anyone is tempted towards any of these things it makes them not above reproach? Who will be left who is above reproach? Again, the end of Leviticus 18 calls all of them abominations, even the heterosexual sins. If someone has unbidden temptations of lust towards his neighbor’s wife, is he disqualified from ministry?

Deuteronomy 25 lists several sins related to the eighth commandment. “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.”[17] Are we saying that anyone who is tempted to be dishonest in business is disqualified for ministry? These are abominations too.

Proverbs six lists seven abominations, “There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: 17 haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, 18 a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that make haste to run to evil, 19 a false witness who breathes out lies, and one who sows discord among brothers.”[18] In Hebrew poetry, the last item in a list like this is the most important, in this case the most heinous. Are we saying that those who are tempted to be argumentative and sow discord, who struggle with this sin and even occasionally commit it are disqualified from ministry? Sowing discord is an abomination too. Is the temptation to sow discord also disqualifying?

All of this presents a purity test that none of us can pass. All of us are tempted to do things that the Scriptures call abomination. When we say that homoerotic temptation itself is disqualifying we are singling out that temptation to one sin against others. If we are consistent, then we are all disqualified.

Revoice – Many concerns have been expressed about the teachings of an interdenominational parachurch ministry called Revoice. Revoice is a conference that first met in St. Louis in 2018 in a PCA church. It was a new ministry that sought to be a place of encouragement, exhortation, and accountability for Christian believers who experience unwanted homoerotic temptation. A conference like it was needed due to the fact that a previous similar gathering called the Gay Christian Network (now called Q Christian Fellowship) had increasingly taken a stance that affirmed the goodness of same-sex relationships and ostracized Christians who still believed that homoerotic sex acts are sinful.[19] Revoice itself is a broad-tent organization that welcomes all Side B Christians regardless of denomination.[20] As such not everyone who attends or even speaks holds our Reformed views on sin and sanctification (or even anthropology).

As a broad-tent organization, and one that was in its infancy and trying to figure things out, mistakes were inevitably made. Due to the fact that the first conference was held at one of its member churches, Missouri Presbytery performed an investigation of Revoice and the PCA church that hosted it. In that investigation, some of the erroneous teachings were repudiated and warnings and admonitions were given to the conference and to the PCA church that hosted it. But on the whole, the Presbytery found that for an organization that was in its infancy, the conference did a lot of good, while it needed to be shepherded and guided by the Presbytery’s recommendations. In other words, the court of original jurisdiction, Missouri Presbytery, did its job in investigating and issuing repudiations, corrections, and admonitions. It is not the case that Missouri Presbytery has given cover for Revoice or the PCA church that hosted it, or any of its pastors or elders.[21]

There has been some discussion in PCA circles warning us about “Revoice Theology.” What is Revoice Theology? It’s hard to know what is meant by the label in absence of a systematic description by those who employ it. Revoice Theology is not a term that Revoice itself uses, instead it is a label that is intended to warn us of Revoice’s teachings. What does Revoice officially teach? You can read it for yourself (link provided below). We have to be careful not to take talks given at the first Revoice conference when the organization was still getting its legs underneath it as standing in for what the ministry definitively believes always and forever. This was one of the main points of the Missouri Presbytery report: Revoice needs to grow and mature.

Now to be clear, the statement of theology provided below is not right in line with the Westminster Confession. As I said above, Revoice is broadly Christian, welcoming in all sorts of folks who want to be committed to the Biblical sexual ethic. Not everyone in Revoice believes that orientation itself is sinful. They believe that it is a result of the fall and any conscious lusts or actions that flow out of it are sinful. But, let me be clear, PCA ministers and elders do hold the teachings of the Westminster Standards on sin, sanctification, and repentance. PCA ministers and elders who may attend or speak at Revoice do believe that homoerotic orientation is sinful, as I’ve already quoted above.

Revoice statement of theological conviction

In conclusion: Some have argued the PCA is on a slippery slope toward sexual perversion. I hope that this article has demonstrated that this is not the case. The main reasons for this are three-fold:

1: We have confessional standards that are up to the task and are being adhered to;

2: We have an excellent AIC report on human sexuality that I heartily commend to you; and

3: We have robust church courts that are doing their job.

We should be proud of our denomination and its steadfast commitment to biblical truth. We should be thankful for those men and women who have experienced unwanted same-sex attraction and who have heroically stood for Christ and his teachings in the midst of a world that calls them traitors and self-haters for daring to believe in Jesus and do what he says. I, for one, am proud to call them friends.

If you found this article helpful, you might also consider visiting A Faithful PCA.


[1] See WCF 6 on sin, 13 on sanctification, and 15 on repentance.

[2] See https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/may-web-only/greg-johnson-hide-shame-shelter-gospel-gay-teenager.html

[3] See Missouri Committee to Respond to Memorial (Hereafter CRM), p. 63, lines 41-45, “Personally, I have never referred to myself as a “gay Christian” or “homosexual Christian.” And I have not described myself as “gay” in the present tense since the 1990s. It’s always past tense as part of the arc of my personal testimony. I don’t mind when others use the term of me, but I myself have always stated that “I was a gay atheist, became a Christian, and my sexual orientation never changed. I am still same-sex attracted.”” This report is public and can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/18_vvpZg2PwRFwBjwAg4fGp-bhJXh8Mhm/view 

[4] See PCA GA AIC on Human Sexuality (Hereafter AIC),p. 29, lines 35-38 and note 57, “Others find the term gay to be an important part of being honest about the reality of their sexual attractions, especially given that other terms like same-sex attraction are perceived by some to be associated with “ex-gay” or orientation change approaches,” and “See for instance Greg Coles, Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books), 61, 63, where he says, “By talking in terms of attraction instead of sexual orientation, ex-gay advocates were better equipped to treat homosexuality as a passing phase…Because of this linguistic history, I couldn’t help cringing when people referred to my sexual orientation as ‘same-sex attraction.’”” This report can be found here:  https://pcaga.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/AIC-Report-to-48th-GA-5-28-20-1.pdf

[5] AIC, p. 30, lines 31-39. Emphasis added.

[6] I use the term homoerotic attraction to make clear that there is a sexual aspect to the attraction being described. The AIC report uses the term same-sex attraction, and I intend this to be synonymous with that.

[7] Missouri CRM, p. 16, lines 22-24.

[8] Missouri CRM, p. 18, lines 7-14. Emphasis added.

[9] Missouri CRM, p. 27, line 1 and lines 6-7.

[10] This section is quoted from a trusted source off the record.

[11] AIC, p. 25, lines 11-20.

[12] AIC, p. 10.

[13] AIC, pp. 30 line 42 – 32 line 4.

[14] AIC, p. 31 lines 29-31.

[15] AIC, p. 6, footnote 4.

[16] Lev. 18:26-30

[17] Deut. 25:13-16

[18] Prov. 6:16-19

[19] These two stances were given a short hand of Side A and Side B, with Side A believing that same sex unions were blessed by God and Side B believing that same-sex sexual acts are sinful. Note that Side B is a very broad-tent with some believing that the orientation itself and temptations are not sinful while others believe that they are. All PCA Side B proponents would profess our Reformed teaching that both homoerotic orientation and temptations are inherently sinful. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Q_Christian_Fellowship

[20] See the above footnote for a definition of Side B.

[21] The text of that investigation can be found here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1XyxAwY-ACZsVS-pe_barvg2_wI9BBJsB/view

Re-Blog – Five Misconceptions about Reformation Day

Today is Halloween, better known as Reformation Day. I jest. Kidding aside, this is an important day in the history of Christianity. But just how important is it, and why?

I wrote this post three years ago at the 500th anniversary of the event. I think the points I draw out still have some relevance.

I would like to point out that my logging of these misconceptions is not simply an exercise in pedantry. These things matter because those misconceptions not only shift the way we think about that day itself, but the medieval church and the conditions in which the reformation started. By clearing away those weeds we can discover fruit that both the medieval church and the Reformation have to offer. This project allows us to see the Reformation more fully and richly as we perhaps discover and glean from the medieval church for the first time.

Take up and read: https://theopolisinstitute.com/five-misconceptions-of-reformation-day/

Did Augustine really say, “The Church is a whore,”?

I hear this quite frequently, “As St. Augustine said, ‘The Church is a whore, but she’s my Mother.”

The problem is that St. Augustine never said that.

If you try to run down the source of the quote, the trail ends in a book written by Tony Campolo. In Letters to a Young Evangelical, chapter 6 he writes, “I would urge you to consider this carefully, and to think about the words of St. Augustine, ‘The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.’ That statement brilliantly conveys how I feel about the church.” He goes on to argue that despite all the failures and sins of the church, she is still our mother, and thus we should be a part of her. Where Campolo got that quote is a mystery because he gives no citation. But if you look further back you will not find it, because it does not exist.

How do I know? Well first off, as someone who has read an awful lot of Augustine and an awful lot about Augustine, I have never come across that quote, and that quote just doesn’t seem like something he would say. A few years back after I heard it yet again I decided to try and find the source. That’s when I discovered that the trail went dead at Campolo. Luckily, as an academic I have access to better search engines than Google.

I went to two of the best search databases for Christian Latin texts, the Patrologia Latina and the Brepols Library of Latin Texts. Between the two of them they contain pretty much everything written by ancient Christian writers in the Latin language. I searched for church (ecclesia) and mother (mater) using several different synonyms for whore (meretrix and prostituta being the main ones) and nothing came up exactly like the quote. That leaves me 99% sure that Augustine never said that.

The closest I was able to find is from Sermon 213 on the Creed. What he says there is significant so I’ve translated it for you:

Let us honor the Catholic Church, our true Mother, the true Bride of her Husband, because she is the wife of so great a Lord. And what shall I say? How great is that Husband and of singular rank, that he discovered a prostitute and made her a virgin. Because she should not deny that she was a prostitute, lest she forget the mercy of her liberator. How can it be said that she was not a prostitute when she fornicated with demons and idols? Fornication was in the heart of everyone; a few have fornicated in the flesh, but everyone has fornicated in his heart. And He came and made her a virgin; he made the church a virgin.*

Here we find the concepts mother, church, and whore, but we do not find that direct quote we are seeking. In fact there is a significant difference between the quote Campolo gave us and what Augustine actually said. Augustine here is saying that the Church was a whore because she formerly lusted after demons and idols. She is no longer a whore because her great husband, Jesus Christ, has liberated her from her thraldom, forgiven her sins, and made her his virgin bride.

Campolo is trying to make the point that although the church fails she is still the church. That is right and good. However, that is not Augustine’s point. Augustine is preaching about the glorious redemption that the great Husband of the church has accomplished. She is praised because of what He has done in and for her. She is our Mother because He is her Husband and because He has sanctified her. To make Campolo’s point resonate with what Augustine actually said, we should love and cherish the church, in spite of her failures, because she is Christ’s bride. Because she is his only bride. He found her, liberated her, sanctified her, and married her. That’s why we love her even when she is imperfect, because she is the only bride Christ has. He makes her great.

It is then grossly wrong to say that the Church is a whore. In fact that is blasphemous to say. Augustine himself says so in Sermon 10, which I found when searching for this supposed quotation:

I read in the Psalm, “The one who disparages his neighbor in private, I will destroy,” (Psalm 101:5).  If it is right for [God] to destroy the one who disparages his neighbor in private, then how much more right is it for Him to destroy the one who publicly blasphemes the church of God? When he says “She is not who she is!” When he says, “What is ours is partial.” When he says, “She is a whore.”**

 

UPDATE: Cyprian wrote concerning this concept in his treatise On the Unity of the Church. Since Augustine cites Cyprian extensively, even from this treatise, it is likely that he learned this concept from the African great himself.

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church.

*My translation from the Latin text edited by G. Morin: Sancti Augustini Sermones post Maurinos reperti in Miscellanea Agostiniana, vol. 1, 1930, p. 447.

**My translation from the Latin text edited by Michael Petschenig, CSEL 53, p.177, available here: https://archive.org/stream/CSEL53#page/n269/mode/2up

 

 

Infant Baptism in the History of the Church

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. The early church was not credo-baptist.

Note: I wrote this post in response to a question I received from a fellow pastor. I like to address practical issues that pastors and Christians are facing on the ground. If you would like me to address a particular question, drop me a note!

Ancient practice in the Church sets an important precedent for present day practice. This certainly doesn’t mean that Christians are bound to only do things as they have always been done, but the principles of catholicity and unity move us not to break from historic church practice on a particular item unless there is a strong biblical rationale.  Where there is not a strong biblical rationale, or, strong cases could be made on either side, the precedent of church tradition should play a factor in making the decision.

Such is the case with infant baptism. Credo-baptists and paedo-baptists both present biblical arguments that either side is fully convinced of. Thus, church tradition is often brought into the discussion to lend weight to the support of one side or another.

So what does church tradition have to say on the issue of infant baptism? What was the historic practice of the church from the earliest days?

Before we go further, I would like to make a few distinctions and give a few definitions. First of all, credo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that only those who credibly and consciously profess belief in Christ are valid subjects for baptism. This can also be referred to as believers-only baptism. Second, paedo-baptism shall be defined as the conviction that infants of at least one believing parent are valid subjects of baptism. The paedo-baptist conviction therefore does not exclude baptism of adults who have converted to Christianity and have never been baptized. I shall also use the term infant baptism as synonymous with paedo-baptism.

Also, I would like to make two caveats. First, I am fully aware of the biblical evidence and rationale for the paedo-baptist position and can readily give it. This point of this article is to give historical evidence in the face of two positions that both claim to have biblical rationale. I am also fully aware that credo-baptists have fully developed biblical rationale for their position (though I disagree with them). The point of this post is to address the historical precedent as a sort of “tie-breaker” to the biblical stalemate. Second caveat: I fully embrace my Baptist brothers and sisters as fellow believers in Christ. This is a intramural discussion, and one I offer not with rancor, yet with firmness of conviction.


 

Infant baptism was the universal practice of the church until after the Protestant Reformation. At the onset of the Reformation, none of the magisterial reformers abandoned the practice of infant baptism, but began to vigorously defend it with fresh biblical rationale based on Covenant Theology. The Reformers went so far in their defense of paedo-baptism that none of them even advocated the re-baptism of those who had received baptism in the pre-Reformation church. To this day, churches that are the ecclesial and theological heirs of the Protestant Reformers have continued that practice of infant baptism. These would be Lutherans, Presbyterians, Reformed of various kinds, and Anglicans (which I would argue fall in the Reformed camp, but someone may protest that I left them out). In these churches there is a continuous and consistent theology and practice of infant baptism that goes back to the days of the early church.

Thus infant baptism was the universal practice of the Christian Church until some Reformation leaders began to question many of the standard practices of Christianity and the Christian life. These Radical Reformers (what scholars call the anabaptists) opposed padeo-baptism, and they advocated for the re-baptism (thus the name anabaptist, one who re-baptizes) of those who had been baptized before the Reformation. But the 16th century anabaptists can not be properly described as holding to credo-baptism as I have defined it. These radical reformers made a very high hurdle to cross before baptism, not simply allowing those who made a credible profession of faith come to the font, but only allowing those who had proven themselves over a long period of time as committed Christian disciples. The radical reformation reserved baptism for the few, a subset of Christian believers. This is not the modern Baptist position. Furthermore, there are many aspects of 16th century anabaptist movements that modern baptists do not adhere to, specificaly, pacifism, communitarianism, and mysticism. The proper heirs of the 16th c. Radical Reformation are to be found in the Menonite and Amish churches, not in modern Baptist churches. (NOTE: see James R. Payton, Jr, Getting the Reformation Wrong, pp. 160-172).

Baptists, rather, are the spiritual heirs of the English Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries. As such, the 17th century theology of credo-baptism was quite new, even by the timeline of the Reformation. There is no real historical precedent for the view before the 17th century and no place where it was practiced outside of England. In contrast, the paeo-baptist position was practiced and defended biblically and theologically from the onset of the Reformation and in every place where the Reformation spread up to the present day.

To the time before the Reformation: no one disputes that the practice of the ancient and medieval Church was universally paedo-baptist after the time of Augustine. This is because Augustine’s treatment of both original sin and the doctrine of grace made a theological path for the practice of infant baptism to become universal. From the 5th century onward, there is no question as to the universal practice of the Church in baptizing the infants of believing parents.

However, in the earliest centuries of the church (before Augustine) the evidence for infant baptism is scant and many credo-baptists will argue based on this that believers-only baptism was the first practice of the church until Constantine got a hold of things. The Constantine thing is always a red herring. Almost nothing he is credited (or blamed) for in the Church is accurate. As I said above, Augustine was the one who closed the book on infant baptism. Constantine himself never weighed in on it and still evidenced the flawed early church baptismal practice in his own life (which I will talk about below).

Yet the argument for credo-baptism in the early church is not sustained by the historical evidence. It is true that the writings we have access to today give overwhelming evidence to adult baptism and to many folks delaying their baptisms well into their adult life. However, this evidence for delaying baptism does not support the credo-baptist position for the following reasons.

1) The reason why adult baptism is the focus in the early church is because everyone is converting to Christianity (it’s the same as in the New Testament). Many of the stories told in the very early church are of converts, and so many were converting from paganism to Christianity that the stories of infant baptism get lost. The story of the early church is one of conversion. Thus the baptism of professing believers is the story told. This is not therefore evidence against infant baptism or for believers-only baptism. It is evidence that people were converting to Christianity in droves and being baptized.

2) There is no writing (that I know of) that is polemical against infant baptism. If the Early Church was credo-baptist by conviction, you would expect much polemic against infant baptism. It simply doesn’t exist.

3) There is evidence for infant baptism in the early church. It isn’t the only practice, but the evidence suggests that infant baptism was a normal and expected practice. One specific example is found in the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (late 2nd to early 3rd c.). In this text a baptismal rite is described that includes infants. There are other examples of this in the early church. As I said above, the adult baptism of converts was the most attested practice, but there is still ample evidence that infant baptism was occurring and no one, I repeat, no one was arguing against it.

4) The reason why many Christians in the early church delayed their baptism was due to a faulty baptismal theology and a faulty soteriology. Before Augustine gave the definitive treatments, many believed that since baptism washed away all previous sin and that if you sinned after baptism there was no possibility for forgiveness, you should delay baptism as long as possible to get your sinnin’ in. This is why Constantine was baptized late in life, for example, not because he was not a committed Christian, but because he wanted to make sure to be saved (there was also a political reason for him delaying baptism). After Augustine developed his doctrine of grace and gave the definitive (and final, at least till the Reformation) argument for infant baptism, this is no longer an issue.

Here’s the payoff, Baptists point to the early church for evidence of believers-only baptism, but are they willing also to own the errant theology that was the reason for it? I think not. There were people who delayed baptism in the early church but it was not for modern credo-baptist conviction that only believers should be baptized. It was for other (faulty) theological reasons. Baptism was not delayed until a credible profession. It was delayed  until the person felt they could go on for the rest of their lives without sin (or to enter the Christian ministry). This is not the modern Baptist position, nor should it be. The early church was not credo-baptist.

St. Ambrose of Milan – Savior of the Nations, Come

This is one of my favorite Advent hymns. It has some of the most powerful lines in the history of Christian hymnody, written by one of the first to really emphasize congregational participation in worship, Ambrose of Milan.

This hymn is also deeply theological. In Ambrose’s words we find the various theological controversies of the day reflected. Namely, the heresy of Arianism, which said that Jesus Christ was not fully divine, is combated in verse 4. Nestorianism, which argued that Jesus Christ was not fully human, is combated in verse 3. But beyond that, the hymn promotes the wonder and awe that we should all have when contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation. Verse three into the first phrase of verse 4 gives me goosebumps. Every time.

Give a listen to Christ Our King’s arrangement of this hymn from the 4th century. I hope it instills in you the wonder that it did for its first singers in Milan.

1 Savior of the nations, come,
Virgin’s Son, make here Your home!
Marvel now, O heav’n and earth,
That the Lord chose such a birth.

2 Not by human flesh and blood,
By the Spirit of our God,
Was the Word of God made flesh —
Woman’s offspring pure and fresh.

3. Here a maid was found with child,
Yet remained a virgin mild.
In her womb this truth was shown:
God was there upon His throne.

4. Then stepped forth the Lord of all
From His pure and kingly hall;
God of God, yet fully man,
His heroic course began.

 


Savior of the Nations, Come
St. Ambrose of Milan, 4th c.
Translation of verses 1 and 2 by William M. Reynolds, 19th c.
Translation of verse 3 by the Lutheran Service Book, 2006
Translation of verse 4 by F. Samuel Janzow, 20th c.

Tune: Johann Walter, Wittenburg, 16th c.
Arranged by: Timothy R. LeCroy 2016

Performed by Christ Our King Musicians
Vocals: Tim LeCroy and Liv Cordray
Violin: Erica Kallis
Piano: Liv Cordray
Guitar: Tim LeCroy
Bass: Tim LeCroy

 


If you want to be added to my Advent devotional emails, just leave a comment below!

 

A Brief History of Sanctification

When reading Berkhof’s Systematic theology one comes away with the notion that justification and sanctification were inseparably conflated and that works based theology reigned until the Reformation, (Berkhof, 529-30). While it is true that the Reformers were the first to articulate the doctrine of justification by faith alone and to draw out the distinction between justification and sanctification, it is not true to say that the church was uninterested in the process of sanctification until the Reformation.

Sanctification is, as the word suggests, the process by which a person is made holy. The distinction has historically been made between definitive sanctification, a setting apart by God at one’s regeneration and baptism, and progressive sanctification, the lifelong process by which a believer, by grace, is enabled to more and more die unto sin and live unto righteousness, to paraphrase Westminster. To say that the church never rested in the “apartness” of baptized believers or that the church never sought to become more conformed to God’s law would be incorrect. Furthermore, after Augustine, everyone in the West taught and believed that everything in a believer’s life was totally and completely of and by grace.

Since though we do not see traditional reformed systematic theological categories in the first fifteen centuries of the church, what do we see? I propose that we see different models of sanctification throughout the life of the church. These models are more or less chronological. They are:

  1. Martyrdom (1st-4th) – the intense early phase of the church. The passion of standing for one’s faith in the face of torture and death and the contagious fervor that this threat posed served to sanctify the early church.
  2. Orthodoxy (4th-6th) – Right belief in the era of the Creeds and Councils. Sanctification through right belief.
  3. Mystical Theosis – Eastern contemplative. Becoming God-like through spiritual disciplines and contemplation. Related to orthodox belief.
  4. Sacramental Divinization (5th-7th) – Augustine’s Western counterpart to Theosis. Being made God-like through grace by hearing the word, participation in the liturgy, sacraments, and prayer.
  5. Communal Regulative formation (5th – 11th) – Benedict of Nursia. Sanctification through faithful (full of faith) and evangelical (belief and adherence to the gospel) submission to a rule of life in the community of believers. Still assumed the Augustinian notion of sanctification by grace.
  6. Corporate Sacramental Participation – Carolingian period (8th-10th c). A form of Augustine’s notion, but more emphasizing the entire body being sanctified corporately instead of individual believers.
  7. Curative Pastoral Application – Innocent III (13th-14th) Emphasis on individual participation and involvement in pastoral care to bring sanctification.
  8. Mystical Contemplation (13th-15th) – Mystics like St. Francis and Bonaventure building on the tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius in the mystical contemplation of the Trinity. There is some of this in Augustine too.
  9. Imitation of Christ (15-17th) – Thomas à Kempis and the other devotio moderna adherents. Contemplation and imitation of Christ. There is some of this in Francis as well.

A Word on Reading the Scholastics

Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to spend thousands of hours reading and studying the writings and theology of the scholastic period through the course of my PhD, my teaching, and especially through working on this: a translation of one of the more important works of scholastic theology by St. Bonaventure. Since the writings of the scholastics can be a bit difficult to enter into, I thought I would write a primer on scholastic theology as an entry point for interested readers.

Scholasticism broadly defined is the theological and intellectual movement surrounding the schools of Paris in the 13th and 14th centuries. It is marked by an adherence to the theological tradition, grounded in the teachings of the Bible and the theological exposition of St. Augustine. The basic tenant of Scholasticism was Augustine’s mantra Credo ut intelligam (I believe so that I may understand), or to put it more simply, faith seeking understanding. There are two things that made Scholasticism different from previous intellectual movements: the sic et non method, and the use of Aristotle (This one, not this one).  These two (the method and the philosophy) combined to form a theological movement that posited and explored the thesis that everything could be understood and explained through faith and reason. Therefore, if we do not either understand how the sic et non method works or know a bit about the Bible, Augustine, and Aristotle, we cannot read, understand, or explain the scholastics in an intelligent way. Here are a few points that will help us enter into the wonderful world of scholastic theology.

 1. The fallacy of historical anachronism
The first thing we must note when undertaking to read writings from the past is that we should avoid the fallacy of historical anachronism. What’s that? It’s when we impose later developments onto earlier ones and either criticize the earlier for not having exhibited evidence of the latter, or assume that something in a latter development is also an integral aspect of the earlier ones. An example of this would be in criticizing medieval authors because they do not articulate their soteriology in the exact language of the canons of the Council of Dort. We could however hold medieval writers to the canons of the Council of Orange since it preceded the Middle Ages. The basic idea here is that if something didn’t exist yet, we can’t expect someone to know about it. It would be like expecting Abraham Lincoln to know the intricacies of the whip and nae nae, for example.

 2. The sic et non method
The sic et non method was the way scholastic theology was done, thus it is often called eponymously the scholastic method. The sic et non method was introduced by Peter Abelard in the 12th century. Abelard was a rock star in the classroom, mesmerizing his audiences with his lectures. In them he would posit a question, for example, “Must human faith be completed by reason, or not?” Then he would present the arguments for answering “yes” (Latin, sic) followed by the arguments for answering “no” (Latin, non). Abelard would argue passionately and vigorously for each side of the position, but would never give his answer. He would just leave the audience hanging! While this method lead to his fame, it would not develop into anything more than a show prop for about 100 years.

Meanwhile, around the same time, the theological standard for orthodoxy was being developed by another Peter, this one named Lombard. His Four Books of the Sentences was the standard exposition and articulation of Western (Augustinian) theology for 500 years. This book, not Thomas Aquinas, was the theological textbook of the Middle Ages, and has left such an imprint on the Western theological landscape that we can even see it in the arrangement of books and subjects in Calvin’s Institutes.

In the 13th century, the teachers of Paris, lead by Alexander of Hales, synthesized Abelard’s lecture method and Lombard’s theological textbook to form the scholastic method. It began as an academic exercise. Alexander had his students (one of which was the famous scholastic theologian and contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure) write a commentary on the sentences of Peter Lombard, using a modified form of the sic et non method. Alexander and his students added to Abelard’s method of presenting the yes and no a statement of the correct answer (in the opinion of the student) and then answers to the objections.

Thus when reading any of these scholastic texts, one must understand that the first statements one finds at the beginning of each section are not the opinions of the author! They are simply popular arguments for and against that the author is presenting for the sake of the method. If the reader wishes to understand what the author is actually teaching on the subject, he must skip down to the respondeo, which begins with the words “I respond.” There you will find the opinion and rationale of the author on the question. Following the response then are the responses to the objections that did not agree with the opinion that the author took.

This academic exercise was undertaken by students of theology studying for a doctorate in the late Middle Ages. Jan Hus, the famous Czech reformer, wrote one of these commentaries as a part of his magisterial studies in Prague, and in it he exhibits the same method developed by Alexander and his students.

The Summa theologica by Thomas Aquinas, though not a commentary on the sentences (he did produce one) employs the sic et non method. Thus readers of the Summa need to understand how the method works.

 3. Augustine and Philosophy – He loved Philosophy!
St. Augustine laid the theological and intellectual framework for Western civilization. His mature synthesis of Christian society can be found in his capstone work The City of God, which was written in 426, four years before his death. In the City of God Augustine argues that the philosophical basis for Christian thought should be what we now call Neo-Platonism, and he even states that Plotinus, the chief expositor of Neo-Platonism in his nine-volume work The Enneads, was the closest of the pagan philosophers to come to a true understanding of God (See Book X in The City of God). In The City of God and other writings Augustine synthesized the Christian faith and Neo-Platonic philosophy to lay the intellectual foundations for the Christian west.

 4. The Scholastics and Augustine
As was already stated above, the theology of the Western church in the Middle Ages was thoroughly Augustinian. This is so in almost every aspect of every subject of theology. For example, medieval theologians were Augustinian in their thoughts on sacraments, sin, grace, anthropology, theology proper, ecclesiology, eschatology, and every other “ology” you can think of. Augustine was the teacher par excellence of the medieval church.

Specifically, on the topic of salvation and grace, medieval theologians consistently maintained their adherence to the Augustinian doctrines of grace. These doctrines are articulated in his treatises against the Pelagians, and also made canonical by the declarations of the Council of Orange. This theology posited the existence of Original Sin, handed down from parent to child all the way back to our first parents, and that original sin destroys the ability in any human being to love God or achieve salvation or do any good work outside the divine aid of God. Augustine also taught that believers must have an act of God performed on them to even make them dispositive for grace. He taught that believers were chosen by God (predestined) to receive this grace a part from any merit in themselves. He also taught that this grace was conferred to believers by a free gift of God through sacraments. No orthodox western theologian (medieval, Reformational, or otherwise) ever strayed from this opinion until the modern period.

A poignant example of this can be found in the writings of Thomas Aquinas, a medieval theologian often pilloried by some Protestant polemicists. In Question 109 of his Summa theologica, Thomas posits ten questions on the necessity of grace in human salvation. You are welcome to read this section, minding the use of the sic et non method I outlined above:

It is notable that Thomas’s answer to all ten of these questions is unequivocal: divine help is absolutely necessary for any good thing to come out of a fallen person. Here are the ten questions:

  1. Without grace, can man know anything? Answer: No
  2. Without God’s grace, can man do or wish any good? Answer: No
  3. Without grace, can man love God above all things? Answer: No
  4. Without grace, can man keep the commandments of the Law? Answer: No
  5. Without grace, can he merit eternal life? Answer: No
  6. Without grace, can man prepare himself for grace? Answer: No
  7. Without grace, can he rise from sin? Answer: No
  8. Without grace, can man avoid sin? Answer: No
  9. Having received grace, can man do good and avoid sin without any further Divine help? Answer: No
  10. Can he of himself persevere in good? Answer: No

Now, admittedly I have done a bit of contextualization to bring his terminology into our modern theological idiom. Thomas is a very precise thinker. So if you take my challenge and read the section, you will find that at times he will say that an extra work of grace is not needed. Nevertheless, none of these things can be done without divine aid. That is what we would call grace. Here are some examples:

Response to question 1: Hence we must say that for the knowledge of any truth whatsoever man needs Divine help, that the intellect may be moved by God to its act. But he does not need a new light added to his natural light, in order to know the truth in all things, but only in some that surpass his natural knowledge. And yet at times God miraculously instructs some by His grace in things that can be known by natural reason, even as He sometimes brings about miraculously what nature can do.

Response to question 2: And thus in the state of perfect nature man needs a gratuitous strength superadded to natural strength for one reason, viz. in order to do and wish supernatural good; but for two reasons, in the state of corrupt nature, viz. in order to be healed, and furthermore in order to carry out works of supernatural virtue, which are meritorious. Beyond this, in both states man needs the Divine help, that he may be moved to act well.

Response to question 3: But in the state of corrupt nature man falls short of this in the appetite of his rational will, which, unless it is cured by God’s grace, follows its private good, on account of the corruption of nature. And hence we must say that in the state of perfect nature man did not need the gift of grace added to his natural endowments, in order to love God above all things naturally, although he needed God’s help to move him to it; but in the state of corrupt nature man needs, even for this, the help of grace to heal his nature.

In these we can see that Thomas is making the distinction between what we would call saving grace and what we would call either common grace or simply, grace, i. e. the grace we need to continue to live the Christian life.

 5. The Scholastic theology of the will
One last thing should be said when thinking about how some scholastics, specifically theologians like Thomas and John Duns Scotus, discuss things like the will, the intellect, the mind, reason, and so on. When they do this they are operating on a whole host of assumptions, set by St. Augustine, on the philosophical foundation for nature and being. Augustine, for example, taught that there is in every human a higher soul and a lower soul (see De Trinitate, Book XII). Augustine also taught, as we have already established, that the human person was fallen and unable to do good or choose God outside of divine help. Scholastic theologians like Thomas and Scotus took this teaching to a particular place when they posited that it was fundamentally the human will that was fallen and thus made the human person unable to do any good thing or to love God or choose to serve him or have faith in him. This theology of the will served as the basis for much of Luther’s thought on the human person, salvation, and the will and is the underlying basis for his doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone.

The reason why Thomas and Scotus taught that there was a part of the human intellect that was untouched by sin has to do with where they placed the image of God in the human person, again following, you guessed it, Augustine. Since they all placed the image of God in the upper or rational soul, that part of the human person could not be touched by the fall, otherwise a person would cease to be rational, cease to be an image bearer, cease to be a person. Yet, these teachers protected the Augustinian teachings on grace in unequivocally stating that despite this, the human person could know nothing or do nothing outside of God’s divine help (as is shown above). Thus I think that anyone labeling these thinkers as semi-Pellagian is straying out of their lane.

Conclusion: Why this matters
Why does this matter? Simply, because there is a resurgent interest in the scholastic period and in thinkers like Thomas, Scotus, Ockham, and Bonaventure. I would add that theologians like Hugh of St. Victor (and the other Victorines), Lombard, Hales, and Anselm are also worthy of study. Thus if we are going to study and read these medieval thinkers, it is always good to read them correctly, contextually, and on their own terms. To put it even more simply, it matters because we want to tell the truth about what these folks actually said.

Why else does it matter? I think another good reason why reading these writers accurately matters is that when we do not tell a true or accurate story about medieval theologians (or patristic writers like Augustine), and then someone is presented with a more nuanced and accurate take on them which better accounts for their writings and their context, it discredits those who propounded the unfortunately false view and those who surround him or her. How many young Protestants have converted to Roman Catholicism (or seriously considered it) because they have heard truncated or even false takes on ancient and medieval writers only to hear a truer take from Roman Catholic authors and apologists? We as Reformed and otherwise Protestant are better served by engaging these ancient and medieval authors correctly, articulating where we differ, celebrating where we find commonality, and enriching on our own traditions where we find anew sources for growing and building upon our own little piece of the great Catholic Church.

Fully Human

A friend reminded me today of this important aspect of theology. Fourth century theologian Gregory of Nazianzus said, “What has not been assumed is not healed.”

Christ has a human mind, a human body, and a human will. He is like us in every respect, except without sin. If this is not true, if he does not have a human body, then our bodies are not saved; if he does not have a human mind, then our minds are still fallen, if he does not have a human will, then our wills are left without hope of deliverance. In other words, if Christ is not fully human, in every way like us, then we are still in our sins.

Something to remember.

(HT Tomás O’Sullivan)

Ecce homo: a Good Friday Homily

The Passion of Christ has long been a subject for artists. The material has depth of story  and emotion like nothing other. Some of the most beautiful art that has ever been produced has used the subject of Christ’s suffering and death as inspiration. In the world  of music there is the genre of the Passion chorale, in drama, the Passion play, and in art the standard canon of scenes from Jesus’ suffering and death as depicted in the Gospels.

One of those standard scenes in the passion canon is the Ecce homo. This scene gets its name from the famous words of Pontius Pilate as he introduces Jesus to the crowds after his flogging and humiliation. When he presents Jesus to the crowds, Pilate says, “Behold the man,” which in Latin is, “Ecce homo.”

Behold the man. Ecce homo.

This scene began to be a popular artistic subject in the late middle ages and into the Renaissance. Most of these depictions are shown in the third person, with you, the viewer back at an angle watching the entire scene unfold. The angry crowds are shown. The crowds who will call for Jesus’ death. The soldiers are shown, the torturer, the surrounding architecture and city are shown, and of course, Pilate and Jesus. Most of these paintings give the viewer a birds eye view of the entire scene to let you appreciate
the full gravity of this moment in all its awful enormity.

But there is one painting that is different, and it happens to be one of the most famous of this genre. In Caravaggio’s rendition, there are no crowds, no surrounding city, no buildings or architecture, there is nothing at all, but the torturer, Jesus, Pilate, and you.

Yes, Caravaggio’s brilliance is in placing we, the viewer, into the artistic moment. The painting is astounding in its simplicity. Christ is looking down, passively suffering, like a lamb before the slaughter. The torturer is almost gently placing a purple robe on the
shoulders of the suffering Christ. And Pilate, on whom the most attention is given, is standing in the foreground with his hands, palms upward, gesturing toward Christ, his body pointing neither at Christ or us, but his head turned and looking us squarely in the eyes. In Caravaggio’s work Pilate is taking a neutral stance. He is not for or against Jesus. He is almost indifferent. And he looks to us almost as if to say, “What do you
want me to do with him? It is up to you. Behold the man.”

Now, this was revolutionary because the depictions of Ecce homo that preceded  Caravaggio serve to make you empathize with the suffering Christ and to be angry with those who caused his suffering. The torturer is shown with an insane look in his eyes. The soldiers are blood thirsty. The crowds are enraged. You are supposed to be angry at  them. But in Caravaggio’s painting, the torturer almost doesn’t even want to be there, Pilate seems indifferent and annoyed, and the only person to blame for the horrible state of Christ’s suffering and humiliation is the only other person left in the artistic moment: me.

I think Caravaggio gets it right. You see, Pilate is not saying Ecce homo to the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and rulers of Israel. Pilate is saying Ecce homo to you, to me. He is saying to us, “behold the man.” Pilate is asking us what we will do with this Christ, this King of the Jews. He is saying to us, “Behold the man.” Behold him. Behold this Christ.

There is something about considering Christ in this specific moment, almost as if we had hit pause on our TV remote. Here is Christ. Before he dies on the cross, yet in the midst of his suffering and rejection. This is a part of Christ’s passion, you see. This is a part of his atonement. He had to experience this moment. Behold the man.

Behold him as he is scourged. There are two Greek words used in the gospels that
describe the scourging of Jesus. One word emphasizes the many pronged whip that was used, with bones and metal tied to the tips of the leather thongs. These thongs sliced through his flesh. The other word used in the gospels is the word that we get our word for “to chew” and emphasizes how the whip tore and chewed through his flesh. This scourging was for the purposes of torture, and the Romans were very good at it. Its goal was to inflict excruciating pain but still leave the subject alive so that he could be crucified. If this scourging itself would not have been limited, that act itself would have killed him. Behold the man.

Behold him as the Roman soldiers take thorns and twist them and make them into a crown of mockery. Behold him as they cruelly force the thorny crown onto his brow. Behold the blood as it begins to pour. Behold the man.

Behold him as the soldiers mock him and strike him. Behold him as they take a purple robe and place it on him, mocking his supposed kingship. Behold him as he is mocked and beaten by the very ones whom he carefully and wonderfully knitted together in their mothers’ wombs. Behold the man.

Behold him now as he is brought out again before you. Behold him as Pilate presents him to you again. Behold him stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Behold the sacred head now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down. Behold him despised and rejected. Behold him acquainted with grief. Behold the man.

You want to look away, don’t you. We can’t bear to look, can we? It is too awful, too gruesome. But ultimately, we are too ashamed. We cannot look because we know that
it is our sin that put him there. We cannot look because it is our penalty that he is suffering to pay. We cannot look because it is we who have condemned him. Yes, when Pilate looks at us and says, “Behold the man,” we would like to think that we would grant him reprieve. We would like to think that we would take Barabbas instead. But no one has ever taken Barabbas. We have all taken Jesus. We have all condemned him to die.

When did we do this? Every time we sin. Every time we reject goodness of the creator for our own selfish ways. Every time we follow the wicked ways of this world instead of the ways of God we are asking for Barabbas and rejecting Jesus. Every time we harden our hearts and do what we know is wrong, we are saying, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” Behold the man.

Tonight, we are all faced with a choice. Pilate looks at us and asks us a question, “What will you do with this Christ?” The beauty of the gospel is that you can make this choice anew tonight. All past wrongs can be forgiven if you will choose Christ again. Be sorry for your sins! Repent and turn away from them. Choose Christ and send away your own sinful flesh. He suffered and died to make this way for you. He paid the debt that you
owe. He suffered the wrath that you deserve for your sins. Choose Christ and nothing else! Run to Christ and receive his grace! Bask in his mercy that he bought with his
own blood. Be healed with the stripes of his back. Be renewed with the blood of his brow.

What will you do? What will you choose? This the most important decision you will ever make. Will you choose Christ, or will you choose to continue to wallow in your sin and misery? Will you choose Christ or will you choose death? There is no need for you to die because Christ has died so that you all might live. Choose life. Choose Christ.

What will you choose?

Behold the man.

Was Jesus Crucified on the Mount of Olives?

View from the Mount of Olives looking west onto the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock now stands

In a 1996 article in Biblical Horizons, James Jordan makes several observations about the Mount of Olives and it’s significance both in Jesus’ ministry and in biblical theology in general. Now there are several fascinating observations in that article, but one of them particularly stood out to me. There Jordan argues that Jesus was likely crucified on the Mount of Olives. Read the essay here:

I must admit, this suggestion makes a lot of sense and resonates with me. The Mount of Olives figures largely in all the gospels and it’s theological symbolism can easily be articulated due to the significance of olives in the Bible. Many of our modern day designations for places of Jesus’ life are admittedly guesses by scholars, so this suggestion by Jordan is not treading on anything sacrosanct. I must say that given the geography and symbolism it makes a lot of sense. What think ye?