The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Heresies of the Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the principle confession of faith for English Presbyterianism. It is also highly regarded by traditional English Baptists, whose own London Confession of Faith is merely a modified version of the Westminster Confession. (1) In this essay, I shall demonstrate that it deviates from orthodoxy in three significant ways – the canon of Scripture, the application of Scripture, and the very Gospel itself. The last of these is the most important deviation and the one on which I shall focus most attention. I have dealt with the first at greater length elsewhere. (2)

Before proceeding, I ought to lay all my cards on the table and acknowledge my own bias. The men who produced the Westminster Confession in 1646 were men of whom I have an extremely low opinion for historical and political reasons. The Westminster Assembly, from which the Confession takes its name, consisted of 121 Puritans who at the time were engaged in unlawful rebellion and sedition against their king, whom they eventually captured and murdered, justifying their wicked actions with their theology. Puritanism in power, was totalitarian and despotic, and fully earned its much-deserved reputation for legalistic Pharisaism, beauty-hating Philistinism, and general life-sucking, joy-killing, spiritual oppressiveness. Historically, Puritanism was the earliest form of English liberalism. (3) From a bad tree like Puritanism, bad fruit is exactly what I expect to find.

One last preliminary step before examining the Confession itself is to define the standard that I shall be applying to evaluate its errors. When I say that the Confession deviates from orthodoxy, I mean Protestant orthodoxy. Protestant orthodoxy includes small-c catholic orthodoxy. Small-c catholic orthodoxy consists of the basic Scriptural doctrines summed up by the early church in the Apostles’, Nicene-Constantinopolitan, and Athanasian Creeds. This form of orthodoxy is held by the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and orthodox Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, and continental Reformed) Churches, excluding, of course, the portions of these churches that have succumbed to theological liberalism. (4) Protestant orthodoxy also includes the basic truths of the Reformation – that orthodox doctrine is established by the authority of the Scriptures alone (5) and that salvation is a free gift given to mankind on the basis of grace alone, accomplished by Christ alone, and received by faith alone, for which God alone deserves the glory. The orthodox Protestant confessions include the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church, the Lutheran Augsburg Confession (1530), Smacald Articles (1537), and Formula of Concord (1577), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and Belgic Confession (1561) of the continental Reformed Church. On two of the three points under consideration, the Westminster Confession departs from the consensus of these older, orthodox, confessions. On the remaining point it departs from a consensus between the Anglican and Lutheran confessions.

Heresy I: The Canon of Scriptures

The third paragraph of the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith reads:

The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.


This was not the viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers, and it is not the position taken in the orthodox Anglican, Lutheran, and continental Reformed confessions. The books that are incorrectly dubbed the Apocrypha here, (6) are the books (7) and additional chapters to books (8) which appear the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures that was supposed to have been produced for Ptolemy II in the 3rd Century BC, but not the Hebrew Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text is what Rabbinic Judaism has, since some point subsequent to the destruction of the Second Temple, regarded as the canonical text of its Tanakh. The Septuagint is what is quoted as authoritative Scripture in the New Testament, what is quoted as the Old Testament in the earliest extra-Biblical writings of orthodox Christianity, and what was received by the Christian church as its Old Testament. The Protestant Reformers adopted what had been a minority viewpoint in the early church, (9) that the LXX books not found in the Masoretic Text should be regarded as “ecclesiastical books” appointed to be read in churches for instruction and edification but not “canonical books.” N.B. that the “canon” in “canonical books” as used in this context, does not refer to the list of books that belong in the Bible – which includes both the canonical and ecclesiastical books – but the use of the books as a “canon”, i.e., rule or standard, by which orthodox doctrine is established. The Reformers’ position was that the “ecclesiastical books” which were part of what the Christian church had received as its Old Testament Scriptures from the beginning, but whose equality with the “canonical books” was not incontrovertible, were not to be removed from the Scriptures, but were to be treated as a distinct category of books, that would be read liturgically, but could only be used to support doctrines established from the canonical books, never to establish doctrine. (10) Hence, orthodox Protestant Bibles like Lutheran’s German Bible and the Authorized Bible of 1611, include these books, but place them in a separate location between the Old and the New Testament. The Reformers’ position, while it was very much a minority position in the first 1500 years of church history, is still within the bounds of small-c catholic orthodoxy, since it does not remove books from the received Scriptures, and everything in the ecumenical Creeds can be firmly established from the canonical books without recourse to the ecclesiastical. The Westminster Confession’s position is not orthodox, and places those who penned it under the curse of Revelation 22:19.

Heresy II: The Application of Scripture and Christian Liberty

The first paragraph of the twenty-first chapter of the Westminster Confession reads:

The light of nature shows that there is a God, who has lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and does good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by Himself, and so limited by His own revealed will, that He may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.

This is what is known as the “regulative principle of worship” – that true worship of God should include nothing beyond what we are specifically commanded to do in the Scriptures. It is easy to overlook the heresy in this principle. The way it is formulated it sounds good and true – until we compare it to the opposite principle, the “normative principle of worship”, which states that Christian churches are permitted to worship in any way that is not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures. As Richard Hooker put it “Whatsoever Christ hath commanded for ever to be kept in his Church, the same we take not upon us to abrogate; and whatsoever our laws have thereunto added besides, of such quality we hope it is, as no lawe of Christ doth any where condemn.” (11) When this comparison is made it becomes abundantly clear what is lacking in the regulative principle – Christian liberty as taught by St. Paul in Romans 14, I Corinthians 10, the book of Galatians, and, indeed, practically every epistle he wrote. The doctrine of Christian liberty is the basis of the normative principle, which is also the consensus of the Anglican and Lutheran confessions. (12) The continental Reformed confessions are widely believed to dissent from this consensus. Article 32 of the Belgic Confession, for example, is generally regarded as a statement of the regulative principle. The principle is much more explicit in the Westminster Confession, however. When the Belgic Confession declares that churches “ought always to guard against deviating from what Christ, our only Master,has ordained for us” and goes on to say “Therefore we reject all human innovations and all laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way. So we accept only what is proper to maintain harmony and unity and to keep all in obedience to God” this is not as out of harmony with the Anglican and Lutheran position as the Westminister Confession’s “He may not be worshipped…any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture.”


Heresy III: The Gospel


The eighteenth chapter of the Westminster Confession is entitled “Of Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” It consists of four paragraphs. The first of these observes that while unregenerate hypocrites may have “false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God, and estate of salvation”, nevertheless true believers “may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.” That this is true is clearly stated in the Scriptures (1 John 5:13). It is a Scriptural truth that had long been buried under legalistic late Medieval theology and the recovery of this truth lay at the heart of the much needed Reformation of the sixteenth century. However, in the second and third paragraphs the Westminster Confession retreats from the Scriptural truths of the Reformation and indeed from the Gospel itself: The second paragraph reads:

This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.

The third paragraph begins by saying:

This infallible assurance does not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto.

If the second paragraph had ended with the words “the divine truth of the promises of salvation” it would have been perfectly sound. It did not end there, however, and by making the “inward evidence” part of the foundation of assurance in addition to the truth of God’s promises, hopelessly confuses the objective basis of assurance with its subjective experience. Consequently, the Confession proceeds to separate assurance from faith, in direct contradiction to Scripture (Hebrews 11:1), the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther, John Calvin, the sixteenth century English Reformers, as well as all of the Lutheran Confessions, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. (13)

The Reformers knew that a true and infallible assurance of salvation could only be built upon ground that is firm, solid and unmovable and must therefore be founded upon the Gospel promises of salvation alone. The believer is not to look inward at his own faith, feelings, works, life, and experience, all of which vary, for evidence of his salvation, but to look outward through his faith to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to find his assurance there. His subjective experience of this assurance is his faith in the promises of the Gospel, that is to say his taking those promises to himself as being true on the grounds of the infallible reliability of the God Who made them. It is not a feeling, an emotional experience, or a conclusion to be arrived at through self-examination and reasoning. It is taking God at His Word, i.e., faith. This is what the Reformers meant when they said that assurance is the essence of saving faith. It did not mean that the believer’s experience of assurance could never be clouded by doubt, but that the only sound way to dispel those clouds is by looking outward at Jesus Christ, as He is presented to us in the Gospel, and never inwardly at ourselves. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit is not a ministry of providing additional, internal evidence of our salvation but of establishing, strengthening, and supporting our faith in Jesus Christ through the means of the Gospel.

By retreating from this doctrine, the Westminster Confession retreated from the Gospel itself. The New Testament Gospel, properly understood, is exactly what its name in both English and Greek suggests. (14) It is not a set of instructions or commandments that we follow in order to save ourselves. It is God’s good news or glad tidings to a world of men and women lost in their sins and trespasses about how He has given them a Saviour Who has done everything necessary to save them. It is all about Jesus, (15) Who He is - the Christ, the Son of the Living God (John 20:31), and what He has done - died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). In the Gospel, justification (being proclaimed righteous in the court of divine justice) and everlasting life are proclaimed to be gifts, given in Christ freely to everyone who believes in Him (Jn.3:14-18 4:7-26, 5:24, 6:27, 29, 35-40; Rom 3:24-26, 4:3-5, 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9). The Gospel presents a triumphant Saviour, Who has accomplished a finished salvation, that is sure and certain, to the sinners whom it invites to trust that Saviour. It is a perversion of that Gospel to tell people that they must look partly to Christ, and partly to something in themselves, in order to find peace and hope. (16)

Conclusion

In the first two of the heresies we have looked at, Puritanism’s Westminster Confession took the teachings of the sixteenth century Reformers, that the ecclesiastical books from the LXX should not be appealed to in order to establish doctrine and that doctrine was to be established on the authority of Scripture alone, to extremes that were much further than the sixteenth century Magisterial Reformers were willing to go, by removing the ecclesiastical books from the Bible altogether, and compromising Christian liberty by insisting that everything be removed from Christian worship as popish, man-made inventions, that was not specifically authorized by Scripture even if it was not forbidden in Scripture either. In the third of the heresies, the Puritan Confession stepped backward from the Reformation into the darkness of legalistic uncertainty against which Luther and Calvin had protested.

(1) The Second London Confession of 1689, that is, that replaced the London Confession of 1644 which predated the Westminster Confession by two years. The Congregationalists had modified the Westminster Confession to incorporate their views of church government in the Savoy Declaration (1658), the Second London Confession modified it further to incorporate the Baptist view of baptism. In North America, the Philadelphia Confession of Faith of 1742 was a reissue of the Second London Confession, with two new articles, and thus also a slightly revised version of the Westminster Confession.

(2) In the essay “What Books Make Up the Bible?”: http://thronealtarliberty.blogspot.ca/2018/03/what-books-make-up-bible.html

(3) After the English Civil War, the murder of King Charles I, the interregnum and the despotic dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, and the Restoration of the monarchy and Church of England, the Puritan side in these conflicts developed into the Whig party in Parliament, the first liberal party, whereas the Royalists became the Tories.

(4) For the last thousand years, of course, the Eastern churches have disagreed that the Western churches hold to this kind of orthodoxy, and vice-versa, each regarding the other as being in excommunicable heresy. The disagreement is over a difference between the Greek and Latin texts of the second Creed. It does not pertain to any of the matters we will be looking at here however.

(5) This is the true meaning of sola Scriptura – “by Scripture alone.” The idea that Scriptures can and should be interpreted privately without regard to the Creeds, the ecumenical Councils, and the teachings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church, is more properly called “solo Scriptura”. The former is the doctrine of orthodox Protestants, the latter of radical Protestant extremists.

(6) The term Apocrypha dates back to the early church, and the Westminster Confession’s statement would be correct if it were referring to the same books the Church Fathers were talking about. The Church Fathers, however, used the term to refer to a completely different class of writings.

(7) Tobit, Judith, I and II Maccabees, Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, and the books that are called III and IV Esdras in Bibles in which Ezra and Nehemiah are titled I and II Esdras, and I and II Esdras in the Bibles that use the titles Ezra and Nehemiah.

(8) The Song of the Three Children, the story of Susannah and the Elders and the story of Bel and the Dragon, from the Book of Daniel, additional chapters to the Book of Esther, the Prayer of Manasseh which is appended sometimes to II Chronicles and sometimes to the Psalms in ancient manuscripts, Baruch which was considered part of the Book of Jeremiah in the first few centuries of the Church but was later treated as a separate book, and the Epistle of Jeremiah.

(9) As discussed in my previous essay, referenced above in footnote 2, this was originally a regional viewpoint in Alexandria, Egypt, of which St. Athanasius was the most orthodox voice, but which later found limited support outside Alexandria in St. Jerome, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, and Rufinus of Aquileia.

(10) Note the very different tone of Article 6 of the Belgic Confession. “The church may certainly read these books and learn from them as far as they agree with the canonical books” is not of the same spirit as “therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings.”

(11) Richard Hooker, Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book III, xi, 13.

(12) Article XX of the Thirty-Nine Articles and Article XV of the Augsburg Confession.

(13) Article IV of Luther’s Augsburg Confession reads “Also they [the “our churches” mentioned in Article I - GTN] teach that men cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works, but are freely justified for Christ's sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received into favor, and that their sins are forgiven for Christ's sake, who, by His death, has made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes for righteousness in His sight.” Philip Melanchthon, commenting on this Article in his Defense of the Augsburg Confession, wrote: “But that faith which justifies is not merely a knowledge of history, [not merely this, that I know the stories of Christ's birth, suffering, etc. (that even the devils know,)] but it is to assent to the promise of God, in which, for Christ's sake, the remission of sins and justification are freely offered. [It is the certainty or the certain trust in the heart, when, with my whole heart, I regard the promises of God as certain and true, through which there are offered me, without my merit, the forgiveness of sins, grace, and all salvation, through Christ the Mediator.]” (brackets and parentheses are part of the translation) Similarly, in the Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord we read: “This faith is a gift of God, by which we truly learn to know Christ, our Redeemer, in the Word of the Gospel, and trust in Him, that for the sake of His obedience alone we have the forgiveness of sins by grace, are regarded as godly and righteous by God the father, and are eternally saved.” (III.x) The Lutheran tradition never departed Luther’s teachings on this in the way that Puritanism and the Westminster Confession departed from Calvin’s. Therefore we find the same equation of faith and assurance in C. F. W. Walther’s The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1928), Francis Pieper’s 4 volume Christliche Dogmatik, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1917-1924), John Theodore Mueller’s 1 volume Christian Dogmatics, an epitome of Pieper’s work published in English by the same publisher in 1934, and Robert D. Preuss’s Getting into the Theology of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1977). That John Calvin agreed with the Lutheran position is attested in numerous places in his own writings. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion, he famously wrote “In one word, he only is a true believer who, firmly persuaded that God is reconciled, and is a kind Father to him, hopes everything from his kindness, who, trusting to the promises of the divine favor, with undoubting confidence anticipates salvation” (III.ii.16) Similarly, in his Commentary on 2 Corinthians, he writes “In the second place, it serves to prove the assurance of faith, as to which the Sorbonnic sophists have made us stagger, nay more, have altogether rooted out from the minds of men. They charge with rashness all that are persuaded that they are the members of Christ, and have Him remaining in them, for they bid us be satisfied with a “moral conjecture,” as they call it — that is, with a mere opinion so that our consciences remain constantly in suspense, and in a state of perplexity. But what does Paul say here? He declares, that all are reprobates, who doubt whether they profess Christ and are a part of His body. Let us, therefore, reckon that alone to be right faith, which leads us to repose in safety in the favor of God, with no wavering opinion, but with a firm and steadfast assurance.” Amusingly, it is in his remarks on 2 Corinthians 13:5 that this is found. This verse was and is a favorite proof-text of the Westminster Puritans and the vast majority of theologians who would identify as “Calvinist” for the idea that believers need to be constantly examining themselves for evidence of their salvation. Calvin himself, understood correctly, that in this verse St. Paul was calling on his readers, not to look for evidence of their salvation in themselves, but to look to their own saving faith as evidence of the work of God in his, that is to say, St. Paul’s, ministry. The idea that we must look to ourselves for evidence of our own salvation was condemned by Calvin, who, in arguing against “semi-Papists” who taught that we must ever alternate between hope and fear, as we alternately look at Christ and ourselves, insisted that “If you look to yourself damnation is certain” and that we ought only to consider ourselves in our union with Christ. (Institutes, III.ii.24) In another famous passage from his Institutes he declared “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election.” (III.xxiv.5) The Heidelberg Catechism is in full agreement with Luther and Calvin. Its answer to Question 21, “What is true faith?” is: “True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ’s merit.” Nor is there any departure from this doctrine in the Belgic Confession. The Canons of the Synod of Dort (1618-19) however, depart from the consensus of Lutheran and early Calvinist orthodoxy in the same way the Westminster Confession does. For an excellent discussion of how this deviation from Reformational orthodoxy took place see R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). For a presentation and defense of the original Reformation doctrine against the Puritan heresy written from a Calvinist viewpoint see Prof. David J. Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance, (South Holland, Illinois: Evangelism Committee of the Protestant Reformed Church, 2009). Engelsma aptly condemns the Puritan heresy in the following words: “The Puritan doctrine of assurance is a form of salvation by works. A doctrine of works is necessarily also a doctrine of doubt.” (p. 12)

(14) Gospel is a contraction of the Old English “godspel”, formed from adding good (originally spelled with one long o) to spel, which meant story, message, or tidings. The Greek εὐαγγέλιον is formed the same way and with the same meaning.

(15) When John the Baptist and Jesus Himself preached a message they called a Gospel the content of that message was “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”. This version of the Gospel was addressed to national Israel and meant that the Kingdom of God promised in the Old Testament prophets had finally arrived. This too, was all about Jesus because it was in the Person of Jesus, as Christ the King, that the Kingdom of Heaven was present.

(16) In Westminster Puritanism the “decisionism” that pervades contemporary evangelicalism has its genesis. While the immediate ancestor of evangelical decisionism is the nineteenth century American evangelist Charles Finney, whose teachings the Puritans would have – rightly – regarded as hopelessly tainted with Pelagianism, Puritanism itself took the first step in transforming saving faith from the receptive response to the Gospel of simple belief or trust into an act of the will. Hence their departure from the Reformers on the matter of assurance. In Puritan doctrine, saving faith was not distinguished from other faith merely by its object, Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospel. It also differed from ordinary belief, according to the Puritans, by including the element of repentance, which they defined as the sinner’s decision to abandon his sinful ways and to obey God’s commandments. This was a compound error. It confused both repentance and faith with their results, and reverses the Reformers’ teaching about repentance and faith, namely that it was the presence of faith that made the difference between saving and non-saving repentance rather than the other way around. In Luther’s theology, repentance could refer either to contrition, which was not necessarily saving, or the entirety of conversion which included both contrition and faith in Jesus Christ. Apart from faith in the Gospel, contrition could not save. Furthermore, contrition was not an act of the will. It was the realization that one’s sins had earned for one’s self the just condemnation of God and was itself a product of believing God, in this case believing what He says in the Law. The Law, properly used, was an instrument of grace, preparing men for the reception of the Gospel, by destroying their confidence in their own goodness and revealing to them their hopeless lost estate of sinfulness and therefore their need for the salvation proclaimed in the Gospel. Contrition, by itself, was a repentance that could not save, because salvation is proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and received by faith in that Gospel, not by faith in the Law. It was the addition of faith in Jesus Christ as revealed in the Gospel, that turned contrition into saving repentance, i.e., conversion. The hymn writer, John Newton, described the way God’s grace works through the Law and Gospel to produce conversion in the famous words “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear [contrition produced by the Law], and grace my fear relieved [faith produced by the Gospel].” Conversion, with its two elements of contrition and faith, was not a term limited to the initial reception of salvation, as it usually is in contemporary evangelicalism, but referred to the ongoing ministry of the Law and Gospel in the hearts of believers throughout their lives, and the moving of the will to abandon sin and obey God’s commandments was not part of conversion, but its outcome. If the Gospel promises do not speak to the impenitent, as the Reformers taught, this was not because the decision to change one’s ways was either a co-condition with belief of receiving salvation or a part of saving faith, but because impenitence, the stubborn refusal to consider changing ones ways, comes from self-satisfaction, the considering of self to be good enough and not needing change, which attitude contradicts the message of both the Law and the Gospel. Such self-satisfaction and confidence in one’s own goodness had to be broken down in the heart before faith in the Gospel could form there. The Reformers warned, however, against the danger of placing faith in our own contrition that ought to be placed in Christ alone. See Dr. Martin Luther, Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, (1520), in particular the section on the Sacrament of Penance. Note especially “Beware, then, of putting your trust, in your own contrition and of ascribing the forgiveness of sins to your own sorrow. God does not have respect to you because of that, but because of the faith by which you have believed His threatenings and promises, and which wrought such sorrow within you. Thus we owe whatever of good there may be in our penance, not to our scrupulous enumeration of sins, but to the truth of God and to our faith. All other things are the works and fruits of this, which follow of their own accord, and do not make a man good, but are done by a man already made good through faith in the truth of God” (4:9) See also Preuss’s excellent summary of this subject in Chapter XII, “The Work of The Law and Gospel: Repentance”, pages 62-63 of Getting Into the Formula of Concord.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Grace and the Way of the Cross

We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee.
Because by Thy Holy Cross Thou has redeemed the world.


A traditional devotion for Holy Week, and indeed for the entire Lenten period, is the Stations of the Cross, in which fourteen stages of the Saviour’s sorrowful path from the sentencing under Pilate to the laying of His body in the tomb, are meditated upon. It is an entirely appropriate devotion. All Christians are called to take up their cross and follow their Saviour and in the Stations this is enacted symbolically and liturgically. This is, of course, no substitute for actually obeying Christ’s call to take up the cross and deny oneself and if treated as such a substitute, it will be of little benefit to anyone.

Much has been preached and written about the Way of the Cross – not the Stations but Christ’s call to His disciples to follow in His path – over the years. Sadly, much of it has fallen into one of two great errors. The first of these is the error of trivializing the cross, of equating the minor inconveniences we face in everyday life with the cross we must bear. The second is the error of presenting the call to take up the cross in such a way that it compromises the grace of the Gospel.

If we consider the challenge to take up the cross in the context in which it was originally made there can be no danger of falling into the first error. Jesus first made this challenge at a turning point in His teaching ministry. In the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the Pharisees and Sadducees come to Jesus and ask Him to show them a sign from heaven. He tells them that no sign shall be given to them but the “sign of the prophet Jonas.” This is not the first time this exchange had taken place – earlier in the twelfth chapter of the same Gospel He had given them the same answer, explaining that “as Jonas was three days and three nights in the whale's belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” The sign, in other words, is His death and resurrection. After the repeat of this exchange, Jesus warns His disciples of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”, and, when they arrive at the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, asks them whom men say that He is. They throw out a few of the rumours circulating as to His identity, and then He follows up with “But whom say ye that I am?”

At this point St. Peter gives his famous confession of faith “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” which Jesus responds to by saying:

Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Jesus then instructs them to tell no man that He is the Christ. This may perhaps seem odd. Peter’s confession was not the first time He had been identified as the Christ, nor the first time He had confirmed this. John the Baptist had identified Him as the Christ at the very beginning of His ministry (Jn. 1:32-36), and it was on this understanding that His Apostles had become His followers in the first place (Jn. 1:38-49). He had certainly shared His identity as the Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well, (Jn. 4:26) long before this. Nevertheless, at this point His identity as the Christ was being treated as a secret among His disciples (including the Samaritan woman and those she introduced to Christ), although whispers of it were clearly circulating around the larger public of Judea as evidenced by the repeated requests for a sign. The secrecy would be dropped on the first Palm Sunday, of course, when with obvious reference to the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, Jesus presented Himself publicly to Israel as their Messiah, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey.

An explanation, at least in part, of the secrecy at this earlier stage, is that Jesus had important instructions to give His disciples in preparation for what would happen when He “went public” as the Messiah. Accordingly, Matthew next tells us that “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”

This, we recognize in retrospect, was the entire purpose for which Jesus came as the Messiah, as prophesied in the third and fourth of the Servant Songs of the Book of Isaiah (50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). The disciples, however, raised as they had been to think of the Messiah in entirely different terms, were shocked to receive this teaching from Him Who had just received and acknowledged their confession of Him as the Christ. Peter responded by rebuking Him Whom he had just confessed to be “the Christ, the Son of the living God” and received a rebuke in return.

It is at this point that Jesus issued that famous challenge:

Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

In this context, these words can only mean one thing. He has just told them that He was going to Jerusalem, to be handed over to the elders, chief priests, and scribes, who would put Him to death, and that He would be raised from the dead. This challenge, in this context, was for His disciples to join Him in His suffering and death. To be His disciple was to be His pupil, one who followed after Him and learned from Him. Teachers test their students and here Jesus lays out what the test will be for His disciples. Included in the challenge was the promise that they would also join Him in His resurrection:

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.

Clearly then, this challenge cannot be reduced merely to putting up with our everyday burdens, toils, and nuisances. In its most literal sense, however, it could only ever have been fulfilled by those to whom it was first addressed, as the opportunity to be literally crucified alongside Christ came once in history. Even in the second most literal sense of martyrdom, while this has been going on throughout history and continues in some parts of the world today, it has never really been an option for every single person called to follow Jesus. Does it have any other meaning?

Traditionally, the church has answered this by pointing to the words “let him deny himself.” This does not mean merely “let him deny himself this or that comfort or pleasure”, but “let him deny his own self – his ego, his will, etc.” In this light, to “take up his cross” means to “die” to self, sin, and the world – the world, in the sense of “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 Jn. 2:16). These things – the gratification of bodily desires (encompassing far more than just the sexual), the desire for material gain, and the desire for the praise and esteem of other people – are the motivations that rule most people’s lives and to die to them is to cease living for them, and hence to cease living for one’s self. It is the death of the old, self-seeking, self-governing, self-willed self, to make way for the life of a new self.

Unfortunately, many who understand this to be the enduring meaning of this challenge, and avoid falling into the first error of trivializing the cross, fall into the second error of compromising the grace of the Gospel.

This is done by making fulfilment of the demands of discipleship the “cost” the disciple pays for receiving the grace of God. This, of course, completely undermines the concept of grace, which is that of favour that is freely given, rather than offered in exchange for something, and which is paid for by the giver, not the receiver. One well-known example of this error is the 1937, The Cost of Discipleship, by the neo-orthodox, (1) German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who is widely, if erroneously, thought of as a martyr today. A martyr is someone put to death for their faith. Bonhoeffer was put to death by the Nazis for his political activities – his involvement in the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. However laudable such activities may or may not have been, being put to death for them does not qualify one for martyrdom. (2)

It is not only heretical pseudo-martyrs, like Bonhoeffer who made this mistake, however. One of the books that I read this Lenten season was A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Written by second generation non-juror, (3) William Law, this was a classic of eighteenth century spirituality, which influenced, among others, John Wesley and Dr. Johnson. The book is a call to Christians to practice true devotion, i.e., not just allotting a quick prayer to God here and there, but devoting all of their lives, including the aspects that would be labelled “secular” today, to God, and emphasizing that nothing less is required of all of Christ’s followers, whatever may be their condition in life.

Overall, it is an excellent book and far superior to Bonhoeffer’s highly overrated tome, but it is very weak on grace, despite the author’s having demonstrated a thorough grasp of the subject in his personal correspondence, and in the seventeenth chapter he writes:

And we are to suffer, to be crucified, to die, and rise with Christ; or else His Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection, will profit us nothing.

Here, Law has gotten the cart, as the saying goes, before the horse and, as a result, he misses the meaning of the verses he then proceeds to cite to support this assertion (Rom. 6:6, 2 Tim. 2:11). For the orthodox teaching is not that it is our following the Saviour down the path of suffering, crucifixion, and death that procures for us the benefits of His saving work on our behalf but that it is His saving work on our behalf, the benefits of which are given to us freely and which we receive through faith, that procures for us the following Him along the way of the Cross.

Consider again the call to take up the cross, in its original, literal, meaning. Did any of the men who heard that call that day pass the test of discipleship?

They certainly promised to follow Him to the death. When Lazarus died and Jesus returned to Judea to raise him, St. Thomas, in words that have something of a feel of resignation to fate to them, said to the others “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn. 11:16) On the eve of His arrest, Jesus told the Apostles that they were about to fail the test:

All ye shall be offended because of me this night: for it is written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad. (Matt. 26:31)

This was met with St. Peter’s famous boast, that “Though all men shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended” to which the Lord replied by predicting that the Apostle would deny Him three times that very night, prompting the further denial “Though I should die with thee, yet will I not deny thee”, which all the others echoed.

When the moment of testing arrived, after putting up an initial resistance to the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, which ended when Christ Himself told them to back down, they scattered as predicted, when St. Peter tried to hide himself among the crowd in the high priest’s courtyard to hear the outcome of the trial, he ended up denying his Master three times, as predicted, and of the Twelve, only St. John dared show up, along with the Lord’s Mother and some of His female followers, to witness the Crucifixion.

The story did not end here, however. Following the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles became bold witnesses for Jesus, proclaiming Him to the crowd at Pentecost (Acts 2), and suffering persecution and imprisonment for Him (Acts 4:1-21, 5:18) and ultimately to undergo martyrdom – with the exception, according to most traditions recounting the history of the early church, of the Apostle who had been present at the Crucifixion.

Clearly, a powerful transformation had taken place. It was not merely the disciples themselves, however, who were transformed by the power unleashed in the Gospel events, but the call to take up the cross and, indeed, all of Jesus’ teachings and commandments. Considered apart from Jesus’ Death, Burial and Resurrection, and the grace of God revealed therein, Jesus’ teachings, such as those found in the famous Sermon on the Mount, very much ring with the tone of Mt. Sinai: “this do and live.” Apart from the saving grace revealed in the Crucifixion and Resurrection, Jesus’ words at the end of the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s Gospel seem ironic and mocking. Paraphrasing the words of Sirach 5:23-27, Jesus gives the invitation “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30). Five chapters later, He says that burden is a cross! Easy? Light?

All of this takes on a very different appearance in the light of the Gospel of grace and not merely because Jesus, unlike the Pharisees, had Himself born the burden He placed on the backs of His followers. In the Gospel as proclaimed by the Apostles, we are told that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again the third day and we are invited to believe in Him as our Saviour. In further teaching and expounding this, the Apostles tell us that we are to consider, by faith, Christ’s death to be our death, and His resurrection to be our new life, to regard ourselves as having been joined by the Spirit to Christ in His death and resurrection, and therefore to reckon ourselves dead to sin, and alive to God and righteousness. Fallen human beings are unable to meet God’s righteous demands, but God in His loving grace and mercy, makes provision for us. This is the very essence of the Gospel.

When St. Paul wrote “I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:19-20) did he mean that by his own effort he had accomplished the crucifixion of his own self as the necessary precondition of receiving the grace of Christ? Of course not. Such an interpretation of these words, from the epistle written to the Galatian church to tell them that not only do they enter the Christian life by faith, but they continue in it and live it out the same way as well, would be not only absurd but obscene. The Apostle continues by saying “and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

The clearest passage on this subject is found in the sixth chapter of the epistle to the Romans. Earlier in the epistle, St. Paul had indicted the heathen nations with sin (1:18-32), then the Jewish nation which had been given God’s law (2:1-29), showing that with or without the law, all will be judged by their works, (2:9-16), but then showing that nobody will be justified by his own works because all, Jew and Gentile alike, have sinned (3:9-23), however, God freely justifies sinners, Jew and Gentile alike, who believe in Jesus, on account of the propitiatory sacrifice He made on the cross (3:24-26), and that this justification is according to the principle of grace rather than law and therefore by faith and not by works (3:27 to 5:1), contrasting the abundant grace that has come to the world through Christ with the sin and condemnation that had come through Adam (5:2-21). Here, in the sixth chapter, the Apostle answers the legalistic objection that his teaching will lead to licence to sin (6:1) by saying:

How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein? Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection: Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin. For he that is dead is freed from sin. Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him: Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace. (Rom. 6:2-14)

Instead of producing licence to sin, the Apostle is saying, the Gospel doctrine that God justifies sinners freely by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and not their own works frees men from the tyranny of sin. The believer is united with Jesus Christ in His Death and Resurrection, and so should consider himself to be dead to sin in Christ’s Death, but alive to God in Christ’s Resurrection. Note that in this passage the believer’s participation in Christ’s Death and Resurrection is not something that the believer is to strive to achieve through vigorous self-mortification, but something he is to look to by faith as an established reality. It is connected here with his baptism, i.e., the Sacrament that is the rite of entrance into the Christian faith.

Christ’s Death and Resurrection changed everything. Before His Crucifixion He set before His disciples the path of the Cross, the path of self-denial and sharing with Him in His sufferings and death. The path remains, but His Death and Resurrection has transformed it from one in which sharing in Christ’s suffering and death is something we are to strive to achieve, but something that has been accomplished for us by grace and which we are to live out by faith. Again, we do not strive to share in Christ’s sufferings and death in order to obtain the benefits of His Crucifixion and Resurrection, which are given to us freely by grace through faith, rather it is the grace given to us through the Crucifixion and Resurrection, which gives us the power to follow, however falteringly, in the footsteps of our Saviour.


(1) The neo-orthodox were liberal theologians who had lost faith in their own liberalism. They moved closer to orthodoxy, but did not actually embrace it. Bonhoeffer was a forerunner of the regrettable “God is dead” theology of the 1960s.
(2) If you are looking for an example, from the same era, of the genuine article to which Bonhoeffer was a counterfeit, I recommend Edith Stein. I recently read her biography and have been reading, over Lent, her The Science of the Cross, the treatise on the writings and thought of St. John of the Cross that she was completing in her last days. While the book does sometimes lean towards the second of the errors discussed in this essay, she also, following her subject, grasps that crucifixion is not something one can do to oneself but must come from God, and that faith is the path to union with Him. She was raised Jewish, studied phenomenology under its founder Edmund Husserl, whose teaching assistant she became. While pursuing her academic career she converted to Christianity and joined the Roman Catholic Church. Heavily influenced by the writings of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross, she joined a Discalced Carmelite convent and became a nun taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was transferred to a convent in the Netherlands after the rise of the Third Reich, but after the Nazi takeover of this country, she was arrested by the SS, sent to Auschwitz, and martyred there. She was canonized a saint by the Roman Catholic Church during the pontificate of John Paul II, despite complaints by the, in my opinion at least, Christophobic hate group the Anti-Defamation League of the Binai B’rith and its leader Abraham Foxman.
(3) Non-jurors were orthodox churchmen who refused to swear the oaths required of them, when Parliament changed the reigning monarch in 1688. Second generation non-jurors, like Law, refused when the throne passed from the Stuarts to the Hanoverian succession after the death of Queen Anne.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Nature and Origin of Evil

Since ancient times, it has been the practice of the Christian church to observe a forty-day fasting period in preparation for Easter, the annual Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian Passover in commemoration of the redemption of the world that inaugurated the New Covenant, of which the Passover of the Old Covenant was an anticipatory type. In the English-speaking world we call this period Lent. (1) In the Western church, this period begins on Ash Wednesday (2) which, as the name indicates, is a day set aside for the sober business of remembering our morality, and repenting our sin, (3) setting the tone for our reflections during this period. It is a very appropriate tone, since our sin and morality, are both the reason for Christ’s entering the world on His redemptive mission, taking our humanity, our mortality, and, as He died on the cross, our sin, upon Himself, and the enemies over which He triumphed when He rose victorious from the grave.

It is also ancient custom for the church’s lexicons to assign readings from the Pentateuch, and especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, to this period. The readings assigned to the daily offices (4) in the Book of Common Prayer begin Genesis at the start of Shrovetide (5), the two and a half weeks just prior to Lent. The book of Exodus is very fitting for this period, of course, because it tells the story of the redemption of national Israel from slavery in Egypt, the first Passover foreshadowing the Christian one. The book of Genesis prepares for this by explaining what the Israelites were doing in Egypt in the first place, but it also goes back to the beginning of the story, to the entrance of sin and death into the world with the Fall of man, and to Creation itself. St. Basil the Great’s Hexaemeron, a series of lessons on the six days of Creation, were originally a set of homilies preached during the Lenten season.

The juxtaposition of meditations upon Creation with reflections on sin and mortality, brings to mind the conundrum that theologians and philosophers have been struggling to answer for centuries. That is the question of evil. Why is there evil in a world created by a good and all-powerful God?

Framed that way, the traditional and orthodox answer to the question is that God gave man and the angels free will in the sense of the ability to make moral choices, i.e., choices for which they are responsible and can be held accountable, and that implicit in such free will is the possibility of evil. We shall return to this answer, but first let us look at a different angle of the question. What is evil?

This is actually a trick question, which requires some elaboration to explain. Everything that exists, is either a substance – in the philosophical sense of the term, which includes non-material substances such as spirit and energy – or an attribute– a quality, like colour, for example, that exists, not in itself, except in a transcendental realm like Plato’s realm of the Forms, but in substances. The existence of attributes, is secondary to that of substances, on which it is dependent, and a further distinction must be made between real attributes, whether properties or accidents, (6) in which the qualities are positively present in their substances, like sweetness in sugar, and “unreal” accidents that are only negatively present, i.e., absences, wants, and defects. The latter, while present and observable, do not “exist” in the same sense that substances and real attributes do. Everything that does exist, in this sense, must either be eternal, the source of its own existence, or created, dependent upon something prior to itself for its existence. As the existence of attributes is a secondary form of existence to that of substances, so the existence of all created substances and attributes, is secondary to that of the eternal. Only God, as the First Cause, is eternal, truly possessing existence in Himself that is not dependent upon another. (7) Everything else that exists derives its existence from Him as part of His Creation, either as substance or attribute. Since God Himself is Good, evil therefore, must either a) be part of His Creation as a substance, b) be part of His Creation as a real attribute, or c) not exist. Evil is certainly not a substance created by God. Nor is it a real attribute of anything that He made. Throughout the account of Creation, God looks upon the things that He has made – Light, Earth and Sea, plant life, the sun, moon, and stars, the birds of the air and fishes of the sea, and land animals – and sees that they are good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Finally, after creating man in His own image, He “saw everything that he had made: and behold, it was every good.” (Gen. 1:31) Therefore evil does not exist. The orthodox answer to the question what is evil is that it is not.

It should be clear from the above, that the assertion that evil does not exist is not a denial of its presence in the world, the evidence of which presence abounds wherever we look, but that evil, being neither a substance nor a real attribute, has no being, essence, or, the title of this essay notwithstanding, nature. Evil’s presence in this world is like the presence of the shadow that is cast when some object blocks the light. Light is something, it exists, it has an essence, whereas the darkness of the shadow does not, it is simply the absence of the light. St. Basil, therefore, introduces the subject of evil in the second homily of his Hexameron, in commenting on the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep” in the second verse of Genesis. Just as the darkness in this verse, is neither a created nor an uncreated essence, but is the “shadow produced by the interposition of a body, or finally a place for some reason deprived of light” so evil is “neither uncreate nor created by God” but is “is not a living animated essence; it is the condition of the soul opposed to virtue, developed in the careless on account of their falling away from good.” (8)

St. Basil was addressing heresies here, primarily the dualistic heresy of Manichaeism in which darkness and evil are real essences, almost equal to those of light and goodness. St. Augustine, who had been a disciple of this heresy prior to his conversion to orthodox Christianity, declared that “What is called Evil in the Universe is but the Absence of Good”, illustrating the point with bodily diseases and wounds which “mean nothing but the absence of health” and which are not substances but defects “in the fleshly substance, — the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils— that is, privations of the good which we call health — are accidents.” (9) Similarly St. John of Damascus declared that “evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an accident, that is, a voluntary deviation from what is natural into what is unnatural, which is sin.” (10) The writer whose works were attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite devotes much of the fourth chapter of his book on the Divine Names to addressing the question of evil, concludes that “The Evil, then, is not an actual thing, nor is the Evil in things existing. For the Evil, qua evil, is nowhere, and the fact that evil comes into being is not inconsequence of power, but by reason of weakness…[the demons] aspire to the Good, in so fa as they aspire to be and to live and to think. And in so far as they do not aspire to the Good, they aspire to the non-existent; and this is not aspiration, but a missing of the true aspiration.” (11) St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:

No growth of evil had its beginning in the Divine will. Vice would have been blameless were it inscribed with the name of God as its maker and father. But the evil is, in some way or other, engendered from within, springing up in the will at that moment when there is a retrocession of the soul from the beautiful. For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice. It is, in fact, not possible to form any other notion of the origin of vice than as the absence of virtue. For as when the light has been removed the darkness supervenes, but as long as it is present there is no darkness, so, as long as the good is present in the nature, vice is a thing that has no inherent existence; while the departure of the better state becomes the origin of its opposite. (12)

If evil is not something that exists, in either a created or an uncreated essence, but denotes an absence of goodness in created beings, how, since God created all things good, do we explain the presence of this absence?

We return to the orthodox answer of free will – the ability, of men and angels, as rational, responsible, moral beings to make choices for which they are accountable. If free will explains the presence of that void in the souls of men and demons that we call evil, then this raises some further questions. If God created moral, rational, beings with the attribute of free will, then free will itself must be good. How then, can free will, being good, result in evil?

In considering this question it is important to observe that evil is the result of free will, not its product or creation. This is related to what we have already considered about evil not being a substance or a real attribute but a defect or absence. When men and angels exercised their free will in disobedience to God, the evil that ensued was not the entrance into existence of a new essence called evil, but the diminishment of their own being, through the loss of the quality of goodness. Which is why this event is referred to as the Fall. Mankind fell away from what he was to become something less.

The question, therefore becomes, one of how it can it be the nature of free will, an attribute that is itself good, to make choices that result in such a diminishment of being, such a loss of goodness possible. To add another dimension to the question, remember that according to the orthodox doctrine of Original Sin, the choice to sin resulted in the diminishment, not only of our created goodness, but the freedom of the will itself, which then became bound in slavery to sin. The answer is that what was included in the nature of free will, was not the inevitability of this result, but its possibility.

This leads to the question of how, if it is the nature of free will to include the potential for evil choices, for falling away from goodness and its own freedom, free will itself can be considered good.

Here, the orthodox answer is, that while it is the nature of free will to include the possibility of choosing evil, free will is necessary for moral goodness in created, rational, beings. Free will, again, is the quality of being able to make rational, moral, choices for which one can be held accountable. This is a quality which must exist in created beings who bear the image of their Creator, which is the first thing predicated of man in the Scriptural account of his Creation. (13) It is only this quality, which includes the potential for sin, that allows for the possibility of goodness that is chosen.

The influence of his orthodox Catholic upbringing is clearly visible in the novels of John Anthony Wilson Burgess, who wrote under his two middle names. He is most remembered, due to Stanley Kubrick’s film version, for his novel A Clockwork Orange, and the very point of orthodox theology that we have been considering is at the heart of this novel. The main character of Alex, leader of a gang of “droogs”, is caught, arrested, and sent to prison after a string of “ultra-violent” crimes, including the home-invasion of a writer who is beaten half to death and forced to watch the rape of his wife, and the murder of a wealthy, elderly, woman. He is offered the chance of early release from prison, when he learns of the government’s experimental new “Ludovico technique” for curing people of violent, criminal, tendencies. He volunteers to undergo the technique, which consists of his being conditioned, by being forced to watch images of violence while being injected with drugs that cause pain and sickness, to become extremely ill whenever a violent urge arises within him. The prison chaplain objects to the technique and, speaking as the voice of the author, explains that the removal of free will, and the possibility of evil, does not thereby create goodness. The state officials ignore him and proclaim their new technique to be a success, but the chaplain’s commentary is born out as the released Alex finds that he has not been cured of his violent tendencies, so much as robbed of the ability, not just to act on them, but also to defend himself against the violence of others. There is a lesson in this, that our government, which, responding to the demands of the ignorant following the recent string of school shootings south of the border, has just introduced more gun control legislation, legislation which only ever diminishes the ability of the law-abiding to defend themselves and never keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, might learn, if it had ears to hear and eyes to see, but as long as it is led by the Trudeau Liberals, it will remain as blind as a bat and as deaf as a post.

For man to be a good being, not just in the sense in which rocks and trees, fish and birds, are good, but in the sense God intended, of a rational, moral, being who freely chooses the good, required that he be created with the potential of choosing wrongly, of turning away from God and the light, from Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, to the void that is darkness and evil. Man having so chosen, the events that we are about to commemorate in Holy Week, from Jesus’ presentation of Himself as the Christ in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through His death on the Cross on Good Friday, His burial and the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, culminating in His triumph over death on Easter Sunday, are the story of how God set about to rescue man from his own choice and free him from the bondage of sin, that he might finally be the being God intended him to be.





(1) As with “Easter”, “Lent” is a term that indicates the season of the year in which these occur. In the languages first spoken by the church, and modern languages derived from those languages, the celebration of the Resurrection is called Pascha (the Christian Passover) and the preceding fasting period is called by words designating its length, “from the fortieth.”
(2) The Western church does not count the six Sundays as part of the forty days of Lent because Sundays, on which the church meets in remembrance of the Resurrection, are weekly Easters or Paschas. The Eastern church, however, counts the Sundays in the forty days and so begins them on a Monday.
(3) The “Ash” of “Ash Wednesday” alludes to the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and heaping ashes on oneself to mourn over one’s sins, and to the dust and ashes, to which everything temporal is ultimately reduced.
(4) From Latin “officium”, meaning “duty” or “service”, this refers to the Hours of Prayer. There are traditionally seven of these. The Book of Common Prayer assigns readings and liturgy to the two most important, Matins or Morning Prayer, and Vespers or Evening Prayer which, when chanted or sung, is commonly known as Evensong. Elements of two other of the offices, Lauds and Compline, are incorporated into this liturgy.
(5) The period that begins on Septuagesima and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday.
(6) A property is an attribute that arises out of an essence or substance so that it cannot be changed without the substance itself becoming something different, an accident is an attribute that can be altered without altering essence.
(7) Note that God, when asked by Moses: “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you: and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” answered “I AM THAT I AM...Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Ex. 3:13-14.
(8) St. Basil of Caeserea, Hexaemeron, Homily II.4.
(9) St. Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion, XI. Enchiridion is Greek for “handbook”, and this handbook is on the subject of the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and love. Chapter XI falls in the “faith” section, which is rebutting various heresies. The chapter prior asserted that “The Supremely Good Creator Made All Things Good”.
(10) St. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.20.
(11) The Divine Names, IV. 34. Dionysius the Areopagite was the convert St. Paul made at Mars Hill (the Areopagus – hence the Areopagite) in Acts 17. The works attributed to him, are almost universally considered to be much later than the first century, and so the true author is unknown.
(12) St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, II.5.
(13) Genesis 1:26.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Sermon Is Not the Point of Going to Church

The church is the organic community of faith that was established by Jesus Christ through His Apostles, when the Holy Spirit descended upon them as they waited in Jerusalem following His Ascension on the first Whitsunday. It is entered by baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, united in its confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and as His body, continues His Incarnational presence and ministry on earth. When we have the entire church, throughout the whole world in mind, we call the church catholic. When we have the portion of the catholic church that gathers and meets in a specific location in mind, we call it by its particular name. The community of Christian faith, as the Book of Acts records, has been in the practice of regularly meeting together from the very beginning and is commanded by the author of the Book of Hebrews to maintain that practice. Indeed, the Greek word for church, ἐκκλησία, points to this practice for it means “assembly.”

What does the church do when it meets? The Book of Acts says that the first church in Jerusalem:

continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers (2:42)

We will consider these items in reverse order as it is the first mentioned that I wish to focus on. That prayers would be included in meetings of the community of Christian faith requires little in the way of commentary. The breaking of bread mentioned here, is the same breaking of bread spoken of by St. Paul in the tenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthian church:

The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? (v. 16)

This is what is called Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, and the Eucharist (1) – the mystery or sacrament instituted by Jesus Christ for the New Covenant at the last Passover supper that He shared with His disciples under the Old Covenant. It was the custom, at first, for the church to celebrate this sacrament daily, in the evening, at the end of a kind of potluck meal. It eventually became necessary, for reasons alluded to in the eleventh chapter of the last mentioned epistle, for St. Paul to separate the two and the larger meal became what was known as the “agape feast” in the early church.

Fellowship is the same word rendered communion in 1 Corinthians, but in our verse in Acts it may be a separate item – although the early Syrian and Latin translations join the two. Whether the verse is speaking of “fellowship in the breaking of bread” as the early translators thought or “fellowship and the breaking of bread” the meaning of κοινωνία, which is rather more than the “engaging in social interaction” that the word fellowship has often been reduced to today, is perfectly illustrated by St. Paul’s remarks about the “communion” of the Lord’s Supper in the verse in 1 Corinthians that follows the one already quoted:

For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread.

We turn now to our topic, the primitive church’s steadfast continuance “in the apostles’ doctrine.” Doctrine, here, is the Greek word διδαχή from which our English word “didactic” is derived. It means teaching, both in the sense of the material that is taught – which is what we usually think of when we hear the word doctrine – and in the sense of the act of instruction itself. It is in the latter sense that the word is being used here. The church in Jerusalem, which was growing rapidly – that first Pentecost of the New Covenant had seen three thousand converts – and these met daily to be taught the doctrines of Jesus Christ by His Apostles themselves.

The church’s teaching ministry did not end with the Apostles. As the church grew, and spread out through many cities, first in the Holy Land, then throughout the entire Roman Empire, the Apostles ordained others to be bishops (overseers) and priests (elders) (2) and entrusted them with the ministry of faithfully instructing the church in the doctrines of Christ, and guarding their flocks like shepherds against the wolves of heresy that even then were beginning to creep in. While there are several different forms of instruction that would fall under the general umbrella of the church’s teaching ministry, such as catechizing - the giving of beginner’s lessons in the basics of the faith to novices in preparation for baptism – the most direct descendent of the “apostles’ doctrine” of Acts 2 is the teaching element incorporated into the liturgy, or formal order of service, in connection with the reading of the Scriptures, that is traditionally known as a sermon or homily. (3)

As important and indispensable as this ministry is to the life of the church, it has suffered a great deal of abuse and corruption due to overemphasis in many evangelical churches. As with so many other of the religious problems (and political problems for that matter) that trouble us today, this can be traced back to John Calvin and especially to the English Calvinists who in the reign of Elizabeth I returned radicalized from their exile in continental Europe, to stir up dissent, sedition, rebellion, and revolution. Calvin, like Luther, sought to reform the practices of the church from the excesses of late Medievalism. Admirable and necessary as this was, Calvin took it to an extreme. He formulated what has since been dubbed the “regulative principle” of worship, which is the idea that the church’s traditional liturgy and worship needed to be stripped of everything that was not commanded and authorized by the Scriptures. To give one example, the Calvinists maintained that the Scriptures did not command the traditional practice of bowing at the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and so, when Archbishop Laud reintroduced the practice during the reign of Charles I, the Puritans threw a hairy fit and gave Laud the same treatment – a corrupt trial and illegal execution – that He, at Whose name Laud saw fit to bow the head, received at the hands of the religious leaders of Israel.

The regulative principle completely violates the spirit of Christian liberty, with which spirit the normative principle, that everything in the church’s traditional worship that is not forbidden in Scriptures is permitted, is far more in keeping as Richard Hooker, the great apologist for classical Anglicanism argued in his Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. The Puritans were great fanatics for the regulative principle. They dubbed most of traditional liturgical worship “man-made tradition”, and in practice their application of the principle meant stripping the church of everything that was aesthetically pleasing, making an idol out of the idea of simplicity, and demanding that the faithful come to a plain building, for the purpose of listening, after a few plain prayers and maybe a plain psalm or two, (4) to a very long sermon. The influence of this thinking is physically visible in those Protestant church buildings where the pulpit stands in the focal point of the congregation’s gaze, right in the centre at the front of the church. This is traditionally where the altar (5) stood, and his having placed it back there where it belongs is yet another reason for the Puritans’ homicidal hatred of Archbishop Laud.

The result, of course, was that as much superstitious abuse, if not more, attached itself to the sermon in the Puritan tradition, as had attached itself to the Eucharist in Romanism. It is not uncommon to hear those under the influence of this kind of thinking refer to the sermon as the “preaching of the Word”, as if the sermon itself were the Word of God, rather than a man’s explanation of the Word of God. Traditionally, the sermon had always taken a subordinate place beneath the Word itself. Churches early on developed lectionaries which would schedule the Scripture readings for cycles, usually of one to three years. Sound reasoning lay behind this. Until the relatively recent invention of the printing press it was not practical for every believer to have his own Bible and even to the present day literacy is far from universal therefore the only practical access to the Scriptures for many believers was and is through the readings in church, making it imperative that these readings be chosen, not to suit the topical hobby-horse of the preacher, but the need for the congregation to hear the entire Word of God, give or take a genealogy here or there, read out to them. The church would set the Scriptural readings in its lectionaries, and the readings would govern the sermon, which would explain the read texts. While the best preachers in the Calvinist tradition have practiced expository preaching, the Calvinist emphasis on the sermon laid the foundation for the topical sermon that is the norm in evangelicalism today – the preacher decides what he wants to rant about, and selects the texts accordingly, thus in effect making the Word of God subordinate to the sermon.

It should be noted that properly and scripturally, there is a distinction between the teaching, preaching, and prophetic ministries of the church. The word “preach” in the English Bible, usually indicates the Greek word κηρύσσω which literally means to perform the role of a herald, i.e., to go somewhere and make an official announcement or proclamation. When the Gospels say that after Jesus’ baptism He began His ministry of preaching that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” they mean that He was acting as a herald to national Israel, proclaiming to them the good news that the kingdom of God, promised in the prophets of their Scriptures, had finally arrived in the person of the King (Himself). When He charged His disciples, soon be His church, to go into all the world “and preach the gospel to every creature”, (Mk. 16:15) He meant that we are to act as His heralds to the whole world, bringing to them the good news that God had sent them a Redeemer, in Jesus Christ, Who had died for their sins to reconcile them to God and then rose again victorious over death, the grave, and hell. This is the preaching ministry of the church and, Katherine Hankey’s “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, seem hungering and thirsting, to hear it like the rest” notwithstanding, it is clearly an outward directed ministry that is not to be equated with the inward directed teaching ministry of the church although the latter, obviously, ought to equip and instruct the church in the performance of the former. The prophetic ministry of the church is the ministry of reproving and rebuking sin. This is the essential role of the prophet, to which foretelling the future is merely accidental. This ministry of the church can be directed both outward and inward, and so overlaps both the teaching and the preaching ministries, but it ought not to overshadow either. Unfortunately, the giving of the sermon in church (the teaching ministry) is almost always described as preaching, whereas this word has developed, in the common lingo, the connotations of nagging people about their behaviour and harping on about their faults (a caricature of the prophetic ministry), confusing the vital distinction between these ministries, and presenting a distorted view of all three of them. While not all of the blame for this confusion can be placed on the Puritans, their overemphasis on the sermon, and their legalistic and moralistic approach to sermonizing, certainly contributed to and greatly exacerbated the problem.

All of this hardly improved the quality of the sermons. My favorite illustration of Puritan preaching at its worst comes from Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Early in the novel the nominal narrator (the bulk of the story is actually narrated to the narrator by someone else) Mr. Lockwood, forced to spend the night at the house named in the book’s title, falls asleep and dreams a dream influenced by names that he has encountered in the literature he has been perusing in his temporary bedroom. He dreams that he goes to a Puritan chapel, where the Reverend Jabes Branderham is going to preach his famous sermon on the “Seventy Times Seven and the First of the Seventy-First”, i.e., all the sins you have to forgive your brother for, and the one on which you are released from this obligation. The sermon was “divided into four hundred and ninety parts, each fully equal to an ordinary address from the pulpit, and each discussing a separate sin!” Understandably, Lockwood fidgets and squirms through this interminable harangue until finally, as the Reverend is about to turn to the sin beyond forgiveness, he and the minister mutually denounce each other for committing it, each feeling that he has forgiven the other the maximum required times, the one for 490 counts of inattentiveness to his sermon, the other for 490 counts of having preached it in the first place!

The dream sermon depicted in Bronte’s novel may be a – slightly – exaggerated caricature, but here is Anthony M. Ludovici:

The first thing that the Puritan party conscientiously set about doing was to make the Englishman miserable…Not only was all amusement forbidden, but the Church services themselves were made so insufferably tedious and colourless, and sermons were made to last such a preposterous length of time, that Sunday became what it was required to be by these employers of slaves — the most dreaded day in the week… Puritan preachers vied with each other, as to who would preach the longest sermons and say the longest prayers, and if any of the less attentive among their congregations should fall asleep during the former orations, which sometimes lasted over two hours, they were suspected of the grossest impiety. (6)

Of the Puritans who crossed the ocean to North America he went on to add:

Short prayers and short sermons were considered irreligious in New England, and it was not unusual for these to last one hour and three hours respectively. A tithing-man bearing a sort of whisk, would keep an eye on the congregations during Sunday service, brusquely wake all those who fell asleep, and allow no deserters.
(7)

For all their claim to get their doctrine and practice from the Bible alone, the Puritans clearly had not learned anything from the twentieth chapter of the book of Acts. In this chapter, St. Paul, St. Luke, and their entourage sail from Philippi to Troas and stay there a week. The seventh verse reads:

And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.

Let us note in passing, that a) the practice of the church meeting on Sundays (the weekly anniversary of the Resurrection) had already begun, and b) the purpose of the meeting was to take the sacrament of communion. Also note that in this verse and verse nine, the word translated “preach” is not κηρύσσω but διαλέγομαι, the verbal form of the word from which our English “dialogue” is derived. It means to have a discussion, conversation, (8) or even in some cases an argument. My point, however, is that on this instance, the Apostle was unusually long-winded, so much so that he put a young man named Eutychus to sleep, and he fell out a window and “was taken up dead.” Long sermons can be fatal! To be fair to the Puritans, however, even the Apostle Paul was not quick to learn from this experience. After reviving the young man, and celebrating the Eucharist, he resumed talking and kept on until the sun came up.

I will close this long essay on the evils of long sermons by making one final point. The Puritan influence was such that by the Victorian era, it was generally thought in non-conformist Protestant churches, that the minister’s job was to preach the sermon and that the point of going to church was to hear it. This generated an atmosphere that was in many ways unhealthy. In many cases, oratorical skill came to be a more important consideration in hiring a minister, than Creedal orthodoxy, which goes a long way towards explaining how the rank unbelief of liberalism crept into so many churches. Even apart from this, however, it was hardly conducive to the Christian humility, of either clergy or congregation, to think of the church as a kind of speech-giving club, in which every Sunday the minister would try his best to be the next Demosthenes or Cicero, and his congregation would listen to him in order to pass judgement on how well he had spoken.

The traditional model, in which the Ministry of the Word and the Ministry of the Sacrament are equals and the sermon takes a subordinate role to the Scripture readings within the former, is much healthier. The more the emphasis is placed on the pulpit, the more likely it is that the pulpit will become the place, where the reverse of the miracle of Numbers 22:28-30 will occur. (9)



(1) This term is a Greek word meaning “thanksgiving” or “gratitude.” The sacrament is also sometimes called a "Mass" although this term, used mostly by the Roman Catholic Church, more properly refers to the entire liturgical service in which the sacrament is celebrated, rather than to the sacrament itself.
(2) The English names of these ministerial offices are ultimately derived, through Latin, from the original Greek names of the same offices. The words in parentheses are the literal meanings of the Greek names. The third ministerial office, of deacon, is similarly called by a derivative of the original Greek name which if translated would be "servant" or "minister."
(3) In common usage these terms are interchangeable, although there is a technical distinction between the two in the official usage of many churches.
(4) The Calvinist application of the regulative principle to music varied from “no music allowed” to “music without instrumental accompaniment allowed” to “only the Psalms allowed.”
(5) For fifteen hundred years, the hearing and explaining of the Word had been the first stage of the liturgy, in preparation for the sacrament of the Eucharist, as it still is, not just in Roman Catholicism, but Eastern Orthodoxy, the ancient churches of the Near East, and most Anglican and Lutheran churches. Despite the fact that the Eucharist was instituted and established by Christ Himself, celebrated daily in the primitive church, and clearly central to Christian worship and fellowship (1 Corinthians 10-11), the Puritans used late Medieval superstitious abuses of the sacrament as an excuse for making it infrequent and, when celebrated at all, as a sort of post script to the service, where the focus was on the sermon.
(6) Anthony M. Ludovici, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook For Tories, (London: Constable & Company Ltd., 1933) p. 189.
(7) Ibid. p. 190.
(8) The Latin word from which our “sermon” is derived has a similar meaning.
(9) This is the passage in which God opens the mouth of a jackass and it speaks like a man.


Saturday, March 10, 2018

What Books Make Up the Bible?

The twenty-second chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew records events that took place in the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, after He had openly presented Himself to Israel as their Messiah on the first Palm Sunday, as recorded in chapter twenty-one, and before the Last Supper, in which He partook of the Passover Seder of the Old Covenant with His disciples for the last time and instituted the sacrament of the Eucharist of the New Covenant on the evening of His betrayal, arrest, and trial, as recorded in chapter twenty-six. During that last week, Jesus taught in the Temple and His enemies came to Him posing trick questions in vain attempts to trip Him up. Three such occurrences are recorded in the chapter we are considering, the first and third by the Pharisees and the second by the Sadducees. After the final question – the one about which commandment is the greatest – Jesus turned the tables on His interrogators and asked them a question which they could not answer after which, the Apostle records “neither durst any man from that day forth ask him any more questions.”

The question from the Sadducees and Jesus’ response is particularly interesting. The Sadducees, whom the Apostle reminds us did not believe in the resurrection from the dead, asked Him:

Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her.
(vv. 24-28)

Jesus answer is to say:

Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (vv. 29-32)

There are two parts to His answer, the first part which addresses the question posed to Him, and the second which addresses the Sadducee’s heretical doctrine. The first part of the answer raises the question of what exactly Jesus meant when He said that they did not know the Scriptures. It cannot be referring to their rejection of the resurrection as it precedes the περὶ δὲ (“but concerning”) at the beginning of verse 31 with which Jesus turns to this matter. It seems at first glance, therefore, like Jesus is saying that what He goes on to explain about the nature of the resurrection state is explicitly found in the Old Testament Scriptures. If, however, this is what He meant, where are those Old Testament Scriptures that say that in the resurrection “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven”?

The answer, of course, is that nowhere in the Old Testament does it say any such thing about the state of the resurrected. Jesus own words are the first revelation we have on this subject. What then was He talking about when He said that they did not know the Scriptures?

Sadly, few evangelicals will know the answer. This is because most of them have never read the book to which the Sadducees were alluding when they posed their question to Jesus. No, they did not just make it up to suit their purposes. The story of the woman who had seven husbands comes from the Book of Tobit, which is set in Ninevah, after the Assyrians had conquered the Northern Kingdom in 720 BC. The book concludes with the destruction of Ninevah in 612 BC, as prophesied in the book of Nahum, but this takes place long after the main narrative has concluded. The title character is a faithful Israelite of the tribe of Naphtali who, like Antigone in Sophocles’ play, gets in trouble with the civil authorities for performing burials that they have forbidden. Blinded by birds after sleeping in the street one night, he sends his son Tobias to a man in Media to collect money the latter owes him. Raphael, “one of the seven holy Angels, which present the prayers of the Saints, and which go in and out before the glory of the Holy one” (11:15) accompanies Tobias and helps him both to accomplish his task, to heal his father’s blindness, and to marry Sara, daughter of their kinsman Raguel. Sara has previously been given in marriage to seven men, but each had been killed on the wedding night by Asmodeus, demon of lust, before the marriage could be consummated. Raphael shows Tobias how to drive the demon away, and so to safely marry Sara.

The Sadducees, in alluding to this story, add the detail that the seven husbands were brothers acting in accordance to the Levirate instructions in Deuteronomy 25, which, although it can be reasonably inferred is not present in Tobit, and, more importantly leave out the more important detail that she was given in marriage an eight time, and this time the marriage was completed. Of these, only the eighth, Tobias, was ever truly her husband in the fullest sense of the term. Thus, “not knowing the scriptures”, they presented a mangled and distorted version of the story. Note that the reason the Sadducees did not know this book very well is the same reason that they did not believe in either the resurrection or angels. They accepted only the Torah (the Pentateuch, the first five books) as canon.

Many Calvinists today deny that this passage in the Gospel of Matthew – which is also found in Luke and Mark – alludes to the Book of Tobit, but in support of this denial, they can only point to the differences between the Tobit account of the woman with seven husbands and the Sadducees version when, as we have seen, these differences are precisely what Jesus was calling attention to in rebuking them for not knowing the Scriptures. The real problem Calvinists have with seeing the allusion to Tobit here is that they, like the Sadducees, do not regard the book of Tobit as Scripture. In this they disagree with the vast majority of Christians throughout history and, if the text does indeed allude to Tobit, with the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

The book of Tobit belongs to those books which in Martin Luther’s German Bible of 1534 and in the Authorized English Version of 1611 were printed in a separate section between the Old and New Testament and dubbed, “The Apocrypha”. This is a misnomer, as the books which can be found in these sections are not the Gnostic, heretical, and pseudepigraphal writings to which the early church first applied this term. In the Bibles of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches as well as the ancient Churches of the Near East these are found within the Old Testament itself. They are not printed at all in most bibles that evangelicals use, such as the popular New International Version. It is a widespread notion among evangelicals that the Bible consists of sixty-six books and that the books contained in the so-called “Apocryhpa” were added by the Roman Catholics at the Council of Trent. This is a distortion of history, and it does not represent the viewpoint of the Protestant Reformers.

When Martin Luther moved these books, in his translation of the Bible, from the Old Testament into the “Apocrypha”, he defined “Apocrypha” as meaning “books which are not considered equal to the Holy Scriptures, but are useful and good to read.” This does not mean that he considered them as being down on the level of his own writings, or even those of the Church Fathers. It meant that he considered them unequal to the books which he left in the Old and New Testaments, but still worthy of being set higher than all other Christian literature by being printed in the Bible itself. This was the same position taken by the Church of England in the Sixth of its Thirty-Nine Articles, which is why the Book of Common Prayer includes readings from them in its lectionary (the readings for the weeks of the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, the Twenty-Third through Twenty-Sixth Sundays after Trinity, and the Last Sunday before Advent) and why it was included in King James’ Authorized Bible in the same position as in Luther’s Bible. Although the evangelical/fundamentalist idea that these books don’t belong in the Bible at all and perhaps should be avoided as being “popish” came, as we shall see, out of the Calvinist tradition, it does not represent John Calvin’s own views. Calvin, on this as on many other matters, was much closer to Martin Luther and the English Reformers than he was to those who would call themselves “Calvinists.”

Those who argue for the “Calvinist” position on the canon – that I and II Esdras (III and IV Esdras in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles which count Ezra and Nehemiah as I and II Esdras), Tobit, Judith, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, the Prayer of Manasseh, I and II Maccabees, and the LXX versions of Esther, Jeremiah (including Baruch and the Epistle of Jeremiah), Daniel (including the Song of the Three Children, Susanna and the Elders, and Bel and the Dragon) – are no part of the Bible and should be regarded with suspicion as popish additions will often maintain that neither Jesus nor His Apostles cited these books in the New Testament and that the earliest non-canonical Christian writings did not do so either. Neither of these claim is true.

The allusion to Sara and her seven husbands in Matthew 24 is not the only reference to Tobit in the New Testament. The Book of Revelation reads like a written tapestry in which threads of imagery are plucked from throughout the Old Testament and woven together. In the eights chapter St. John writes that “I saw the seven Angels which stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets. And another Angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer, and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all Saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne.” (vv. 2-3). The seven angels who stand before God and offer up the prayers of the saints comes from the fifteenth verse of the eleventh chapter of Tobit (quoted above). John Calvin saw a reference to the fourth chapter of Baruch in the tenth chapter of St. Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians where both speak of sacrifices to idols as being made to devils. Later in the same epistle, his reasoning in the verse which speaks of those “who are baptized for the dead” is identical to that used in II Maccabees 12:43-45 to explain Judas Maccabeus’ actions in sending two thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem to offer a sin offering on behalf of his slain comrades. Indeed, there are multiple references to the Maccabees throughout the New Testament. In the Olivet Discourse Jesus references the book of Daniel when He speaks about the “Abomination of Desolation” but it would be difficult, if not impossible, for “whoso readeth” to “understand” what Daniel was talking about without the illumination provided by the books of Maccabees. In the tenth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalem to participate in a festival established, not in the Torah, but in the Maccabees. The author of Hebrews includes a reference to II Maccabees chapter seven in his list of heroes of faith in chapter 11 (verse 35).

Calvinist theologian Wayne Grudem, citing F. F. Bruce and Roger Beckwith as authorities, states that “In fact, the earliest Christian evidence is decidedly against viewing the Apocrypha as Scripture, but the use of the Apocrypha gradually increased in some parts of the church until the time of the Reformation.” (1) John Piper makes similar statements. This is utterly fantastical nonsense, however. Apart from the New Testament itself, of which vide supra, you do not find earlier “Christian evidence” that St. Clement of Rome’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, The Epistle of Barnabas, (2) the Didache, and St. Polycarp of Smyrna’s Epistle to the Philippians. In these Wisdom, Sirach, and Tobit are all cited authoritatively like any other Scripture.

The fact of the matter is that the books that in Luther’s Bible and the KJV are called “The Apocrypha” were part of the Septuagint or LXX. This was a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was said to have had been made by seventy-two Jewish scholars for the Macedonian King of Egypt, Ptolemy II, who wanted copies of all the world’s books of wisdom for the library in Alexandria. (3) According to legend each was required to translate the whole of the Hebrew sacred writings independently of the others and miraculously they all agreed. Whatever truth there may or may not be to that story, it was the LXX and not the Hebrew Masoretic Text that became the Old Testament of the early Church. The books that were in the LXX, but not the Masoretic Text, were accepted as Scriptures – not without dissent, but by a broad consensus – by the Christian Church, from its earliest days, and long before the Council of Trent. N.B. they are included in the canons of the Eastern Churches that broke with Rome in 1056 AD, a good five hundred years before the Council of Trent, and by the Near Eastern Churches that broke with the Greek and Latin Churches almost five hundred years before that.

The dissenting voices to the broad consensus wherewith the LXX, including the books not found in the Masoretic Text, was accepted as Old Testament Scriptures represent a minority, regional, tradition. It was primarily followers of Origen of Alexandria, such as Pamphilus and Eusebius of Caesarea, who argued against the LXX. This was a school of thought that, while highly regarded for its scholarship was not known for its orthodoxy. Origen, notoriously, fell into a sort of proto-Arianism of which Eusebius was also later accused. On the other hand, St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the champion of Trinitarian orthodoxy and Eusebius’ chief opponent, also took Origen’s position on the Old Testament canon, arguing that the canon should be limited to the books of the Masoretic Text, minus the book of Esther, but that a second category of “ecclesiastical books” needed to be recognized, consisting of writings approved by the Fathers for edification and instruction. In this category he placed Esther, the LXX books, and certain early non-canonical Christian writings like the Didache and the Shepherd of Hermas. (4) St. Jerome was of the same opinion, although he included the LXX books in his Latin translation of the Old Testament. Apart from St. Athanasius and St. Jerome, there were very few others among the unquestionably orthodox Fathers who did not fully accept the canonicity of the LXX.

In arguing against the canonicity of the books found in the LXX but not the Masoretic Text these men used the lack of Hebrew originals and the fact that the Jews did not accept the books in their own canon as reasons for excluding them from the Christian canon. The first of these reasons is partially out-of-date as Hebrew copies of some of these books have since been discovered – portions of Sirach and Tobit in Hebrew, for example, were discovered among the scrolls in the caves of Qumran in the twentieth century. The second reason is not a valid reason for excluding these books from the Christian canon. No matter how it is parsed, what it is ultimately reduces to is the idea that a religion that rejects Jesus Christ as the Messiah is a more trustworthy authority as to what books belong in the Bible than the broad consensus of the Christian Church from the earliest days. (5)

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the English Reformers, while they accepted the arguments of Sts. Athanasius and Jerome, did not remove the “ecclesiastical books” from the Bible altogether, but rather set them apart, between the Testaments, in a section that they unfortunately and inaccurately dubbed “The Apocrypha.” The position of these Reformers was that of the Church of England in its Thirty-Nine Articles declared of these books “And the other Books (as Hierome saith) the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (6) Note that this is identical to the distinction Martin Luther drew between the literal interpretation of the Scriptures and the other three interpretations of the traditional quadriga (allegorical, moral, and anagogical). The latter interpretations are only to be considered valid if established elsewhere in the Scriptures literally, and doctrines can be supported from the deuterocanonical books if established in the protocanonical books. Luther frequently quoted the deuterocanonical books in this way and while Calvin was less liberal in his use of the deuterocanonical writings, he did often appeal to Baruch and the Wisdom of Solomon.

So why do evangelicals dissent, not only from the vast majority of Christian Churches (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and ancient Near Eastern Churches all accepting the full canonicity of the “ecclesiastical” or “deuterocanonical” books) but the Protestant Reformers (who kept the books in the Bible, as in Luther’s translation and the KJV, but in a subordinate position, appealed to for instruction, edification, and support, but not establishment of doctrine), and take the unhistorical position that these are “popish” books, added by the Roman Catholic Church at the Council of Trent?

Today’s evangelicals are basically liberal fundamentalists, that is to say individuals who have a mostly fundamentalist theology with considerably less rigidness and strictness – often on things that they ought to be rigid and strict about. Fundamentalism was a late-nineteenth to early-twentieth century movement, based primarily in North America, and descended theologically from the Puritanism of the late sixteenth to seventeenth centuries, in England and her North American colonies. Puritanism was the radicalized form of Calvinism, brought back to England from Switzerland after the reign of Bloody Mary. In addition to being the ancestor of fundamentalism and through fundamentalism modern evangelicalism it was also the ancestor of political liberalism (of which the “conservative” republicanism of the country to our south is a variety).

The Puritans were religious and political extremists. By contrast with Luther and the English Reformers, who reformed Church practices in accordance with the Normative Principle (established church customs that are not forbidden in the Scriptures are allowed to be retained) they followed Calvin’s Regulative Principle (whatever is not authorized by the Scriptures is forbidden) and took this much further than Calvin himself. This principle is enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith (Chapter XXI, paragraph 1) (7), which is the first Confession to go further than the Reformers on the deuterocanonical writings and take the hard position that “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are no part of the canon of the Scripture, and therefore are of no authority in the Church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than other human writings” (Chapter I, paragraph 3). The men who wrote the Westminster Confession of Faith were rebels, revolutionaries, seditionists, and terrorists, waging war against their king and the established Church, who three years after writing their Confession, illegally put their king to death, and established the tyrannical junta that would be the prototype of subsequent, secular, totalitarian states such as the first French Republic, and those of the Communists and Nazis. In placing the LXX books outside the Bible altogether, as the earlier Reformers were careful not to do, not wanting to be guilty of subtracting from the Scriptures, they chose to believe that the religion that rejects Jesus Christ as Messiah is right about the Old Testament canon and that the broad consensus among those who have confessed Jesus Christ is wrong, and were guilty of countless other counts of Judaizing as well. (8)

Today’s evangelicals would do well to reject this heritage, and return to that of the earlier, saner, evangelicalism of Luther and the English Reformers.


(1) Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994)
(2) Not to be confused with the heretical Gospel of Barnabas.
(3) The title of the translation refers to the number of translators, rounded down to the nearest ten.
(4) St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Festal Epistle for 367 AD.
(5) This argument against the exclusion of these books from the Christian canon is all the stronger if, as has long been believed, Judaism did not come to a decisive decision as to its own canon until after the destruction of the Second Temple. The theory, based upon a passage in the Mishnah portion of the Talmud, that this took place at a Council held in Yahvneh or Jamnia in the late first century AD, has gone out of vogue among scholars, but the evidence does suggest that until the destruction of the Second Temple (70 AD) necessitated the translation of Jewish identity out of the terms of the nation Israel and into those of the religion Judaism, there was no consensus among the sects of the first century Jews as to the canon of their Scriptures. As noted in the text of this essay, the sect of the Sadducees had an extremely limited canon, and while the sect of the Pharisees may very well have accepted a canon closer to that of present day Judaism, the first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus speaks of twenty-two books that were divinely inspired and authoritative (the canon of the Tanakh currently recognized by Judaism contains twenty-four books, Ezra and Nehemiah being considered one book, as are the twelve minor prophets), other Jewish groups, such as the one in Alexandria to which the philosopher Philo belonged, used the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide evidence that Hebrew originals of the LXX books not found in the Masoretic Text were used by the Essenes, and, ironically, all branches of Judaism continue to celebrate as a major festival each year, Hanukkah, which was established in the Maccabean books.
(6) For a fuller look at the original Protestant position on the canon see D. H. Graham’s article “The Protestant Bible: A Touchstone of Orthodoxy,” which can be found in Anglican Tradition, Volume I, (2012-2015), pp.25-52.
(7) Ironically the chapter previous to this is the one on “Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.”
(8) See Eliane Glazer, Judaism Without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), pp. 30-63 and Norman Podhoretz, Why are the Jews Liberal?, (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp, 73-80.