The Holy Spirit and the Trinity

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St Gregory of Nazianzus

St Gregory of Nazianzus

Although Nicaea gave us the basis of the Creed which bears its name, it failed to say much about the Holy Spirit. It was left to St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzus to show that the Spirit, too, was of the same Substance as the Father and the Son. Their greatest achievement, however, was to make sense of the One-ness and the Three-ness of the Trinity.

The Trinity was of the same Substance: the Father was God, the Son was God and the Holy Spirit was God – but the Father was not the Son, neither was either of those two Persons the Holy Spirit, although they are what the Father is in Substance. They came up with the word hypostasis to express the difference. The Son and the Spirit are what the Father is (God) but they are not who the Father is. They relate to each other as Persons in a communion of love which is not to be explained.

The relationship between Father and Son is that the former begets the latter. This mode of eternal filial origination is the distinct hypostatic character of the Son – His Sonship lies in that He is begotten of the Father (before all worlds, God of God, True light of True light, begotten not made).

How has he been begotten? I re-utter the question with loathing. God’s begetting ought to have the tribute of our reverent silence. The important point is for you to learn that he has been begotten. As to the way it happens, we shall not concede that even angels, much less you, know that. Shall I tell you the way? It is a way known only to the begetting Father and the begotten Son. Anything beyond this fact is hidden by a cloud and escapes your dull vision. [Oration 29.8 6]

The Spirt issues perennially from the Father, and this mode of eternal spiration is the distinct hypostatic character of the Spirit, who, however, proceeds from the Father through the Son. The Spirit’s mode of origin – spiration, is what distinguishes the Third Person of the Trinity from the Second.

What, then, is “proceeding”? You explain the ingeneracy of the Father and I will give you a biological account of the Son’s begetting and the Spirit’s proceeding – and let us go mad the pair of us for prying into God’s secrets. What competence have we here? We cannot understand what lies under our feet, cannot count the sand in the sea, “the drops of rain or the days of this world,” much less enter into the “depths of God” and render a verbal account of a nature so mysterious, so much beyond words. [Oration 31.8]

So, all Three Persons are God, but each in a distinct, hypostatic realisation. The Divine Nature is not a common property of three different entities, it is, as St. Gregory showed, a personal being (that of the Father) that is hypostatically realised by the Son and the Spirit as they each derive from and relate back to the Father. The Father is the dynamic cause of the Trinity – Three Persons, One Substance.

This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same;
Just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of Three Infinite Ones, Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because Consubstantial; One God because of the Monarchia.
No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. [Oration 40.41]

St. Gregory himself, rightly warns us that to engage too much in theological reflection led to the danger of dazzling the mind by speaking about mysteries that even the angels cannot comprehend. After that little excursion – something upon which we can all agree.

Defining the Trinity

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Sometimes commentators ask why Bosco is not banned? There is a simple answer, which is that I care about his immortal soul and the souls of others, and what he, and they confess, when they say they need no religion, just a simple walk with Christ, is a commonly held position. After all, one might reasonably ask, “why does all this stuff about the Trinity matter anyway, can’t I be a Christian without an advanced degree in theology – and anyway, no one really understands it?”  The answer is that we are not the first to encounter Christ, and that those who walked the earth with Him thought it vital that the tradition they passed on be held by all followers; St Paul did not merely receive a revelation and declare himself authorised to teach as he liked. What applies to Paul applies to all of us. Christians have known that orthodox belief matters because it defines, as far as we can, who Christ is – and if we fail to grasp that, we can’t have any sort of relationship with Him.

The New Testament talks much about Father and Son, and about the Holy Ghost, but as the last post outlined, understanding the relationship between between the three was a problem. Christians, after all, were Monotheists – believers in One God – and yet their sacred scriptures and their tradition seemed to contain three entities.

By the fourth century it was clear that the notion that this did not mean One God acting three parts – it would make no sort of sense, even as a deep mystery, to have Jesus praying to Himself at Gethsemane, or asking Himself to let the cup pass Him by. But the nature of the relationship between Father and Son (at this point little attention had been paid to the Holy Spirit) was thrown into question by an Alexandrian priest, Arius.

Quoting John 17:3 , along with Colossians 1:15 and Proverbs 8:22 he argued that the Son was not God, but the first-born of creation – a creature, not the Creator. His bishop, Alexander, condemned him, but, as is so often the way, Arius quoted these lines of Scripture and argued that there was a ‘time when the Son was not’, defying his bishop to do anything about it. Arius was not the first, and will not be the last, clever man to think himself illuminated in a way denied to lesser intellects.

Arius posed a problem for Bishop Alexander, and so popular was his reading of Scripture, that it soon posed a problem for Bishops elsewhere. What the confrontation with Arius did was to force men who had not thought through the beliefs they confessed to do so. So what was it the Bishops held? They held that Jesus was God, in the beginning with God – a notion to make the head spin, but one which accorded with John’s Gospel and which made sense of Jesus being Divine. But Jesus was also human, so how could He be both? The Arians argued that this made no sense, and that they were more logical – Jesus was a created being sent by God to create the world and redeem mankind – but He was not God, as there was only One God. This was easily comprehensible by everyone – hence its popularity.

In order to combat this heresy, orthodox theologians, the most eminent of them being a deacon of Alexander’s, Athanasius (who succeeded him as Patriarch of Alexandria), were forced to think through how God could be both One and Three. The notion that God existed in three modes, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was a common one, but did that mean that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were somehow less than the Father? Athanasius argued that He existed in Three Persons, that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were equal and yet one. The word he used to express this concept was the Greek homoousios – that expressed the view that the Son was of “one substance” with the Father. It was from this formula that the Nicene Creed developed in 325.

The Nicene Creed answers Arianism directly, saying of Jesus that he is:

the Son of God, only-begotten of the Father, that is, of the substance of the Father; God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God; begotten, not made, one in substance [homoousios] with the Father …

So, God was Father, the Generator of all things, but Himself ungenerate (that is He was before, above and beyond our concepts of Time), and Jesus was generated of the Father ‘before all worlds’. The manner in which this has happened was a mystery beyond our comprehension, but it firmly established that Father and Son, and also Holy Spirit, were of the same substance (consubstantial) and therefore both one and three – for which the new word, Trinity, was coined.

The Council of Nicaea in 325 established this as Christian orthodox belief. But, as Athanasius himself was aware, the place of the Holy Spirit in this triad whilst established, had hardly been discussed. This will be the subject of the final part of this series.

On conversion

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One of our authors and commentators, Nicholas, has said that he sometimes feels pressured by others into converting into the Catholic Church; I know he is not the only one here who feels this way, so a word or two on this might not come amiss.

There is, on my part, no agenda in that direction. If it sometimes sounds as though there is, that simply reflects some of the reasoning which led me to convert; it is certainly no reason for others to. My advice, should anyone ask for it, is always the same: think and pray first, second, and third; then do it again. If I fail to suffer from the common disease of convertitis (one symptom is the belief that one of more Catholic than the Pope, but there are others), there’s a simple reason for it, I had no illusions about what I would find across the Tiber. Was the English translation of the Missal trite, and lacking in majesty; were the hymns on the whole trite and banal; were the homilies less than nourishing? Yes, but Rome was hardly alone in any of this. It was not unlike my experience as an Anglican. The difference was that Rome has an authoritative teaching Magisterium and Anglicanism is a talking-shop – a very pleasant and intelligent and congenial one, but a talking-shop all the same. Those who like the that are well-advised to stay where they are.

Make no mistake if you are thinking of converting. Rome knows what it teaches, and if you wish to dissent in a serious way from it, and you are a theologian, you must expect trouble. If a secular analogy can be forgiven, there is no point being a member of my London Club and then complaining it doesn’t allow women in. Go and join a Club that does; there are a lot of them. I happen to be of a generation and background where all-male environments were common, and I enjoy such. I do not wish to have women everywhere, any more, than they want to have men everywhere.

Modern liberal culture teaches relativism. It can do so all it likes, but God’s revealed truths are what they are. If, as I hold, the Catholic Church is the guardian of those truths and I profess and believe all that it does, then on matters of faith and dogma what Rome says goes. If I don’t like that, I can leave.

When I was an Anglican I was happy to argue my corner, and when my side lost the vote I had a choice. I could have stayed and argued and insisted that I was right and that my church should change; or I could recognise that the Church wanted to move on, and go. It seemed than, and seems now, better to do the latter. People who insist that their church should change to accommodate them have too high a view of their own importance. Humility becomes the Christian, and here it means obedience.

If I do not like what the Vatican says about x and y, I am free to dissent. If, however, I were to mount a public argument and proclaim the Church wrong on a matter of dogma or doctrine, I should expect someone to call me on it. No one died and made me Pope. I am not more Catholic than the Pope.

Because I am a Christian, I tolerate liberals in the religious sphere with more patience than I usually possess in the secular arena. But where souls are at stake, toleration is a vice.  I am certain only that God knows who the sheep of His flock are, and that He alone decides our fate. But, being a Catholic, I know where the authority to interpret His word aright lies, and I am happy there. That does not mean, nor does the Church teach, that all Catholics will be saved, or that only Catholics can be saved. Nor does it mean that the Pope is always (or even often) infallible. It certainly does not mean an absence of debate and discussion in the Church. But it does mean that when a dogmatic definition is pronounced, that is it – Roma locuta est – causa finita est.

Those for whom that idea is anathema should not convert. Equally, converts should not expect Rome to be a perpetual chatter-box closing down all discussion so that their own favourite point of view can rest unchallenged. As Chesterton put it, only living things struggle against the current.

 

Misunderstanding the Trinity

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I suggested yesterday that it is clear that Christians have developed their understanding of Scripture from the earliest times; that tradition, oral and written to which Paul refers in his second letter to the Thessalonians, has been preserved and studied. One of the distinctive features of Christianity is that it sees God in Three Persons, the Blessed Trinity. We like to say that it is inherent in Scripture, and indeed Father, Son and Holy Ghost are all found there; but the relation between the Three has not always been clear, and if the early history of Christianity shows us anything, it is that left to themselves, even learned men can be led, and lead others, astray. In this short series I want to examine the developing understanding of ‘Father, Son and Holy Ghost’ in the early Church.

Strictly speaking heresy is only rightly so called when it appears in opposition to orthodoxy, and it is often the case in the early Church that beliefs which were, when enunciated debatable, later became classified as heretical, and it is well to say upfront that in the long debate over this matter, heresy has played a useful part in forcing the Church to be clearer about what is and is not orthodox belief; another reason, of course, why absent authority, chaos is not far away. Most Trinitarians accept a definition arrived at by the Church and guaranteed by it, even if they cannot accept the Church which gave that guarantee.

 

One common early reading, which is still present in some Pentecostal churches is called ‘Modalism’.  Modalism is the belief that God, rather than being three persons, is one person who reveals himself in three “modes,” much as an actor might play three roles in a movie. It is also called Sabellianism or monarchianismModalism is associated with two notable early church figures, Praxeas and Sabellius, both of whom gained a large following in the church in the late 2nd (Praxeas) and early 3rd centuries (Sabellius). The size of their following and an explanation for it is given by Tertullian in A.D. 200:

The simple, indeed, (I will not call them unwise and unlearned), who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation [of the Trinity], on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God.
   They fail to understand that, although he is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with his own order. The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity, whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it.
   They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves the preeminent credit of being worshippers of the one God, as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth. (Against Praxeas 3)

There is not One Divine Person, there are Three. The earliest definition of Our Faith is to be found in St. Irenaeus:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith:

[She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them.

And in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation

And in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord.

Tertullian shows us the problems the early Fathers had:

Before all things God was alone … He was alone because there was nothing external to him but himself. Yet even then was he not alone, for he had with him that which he possessed in himself—that is to say, his own Reason.

    … Although God had not yet sent out his Word, he still had him within himself …

   I may therefore without rashness establish that even then, before the creation of the universe, God was not alone, since he had within himself both Reason, and, inherent in Reason, his Word, which he made second to himself by agitating it within Himself.

It is easy to see from this how Arius could conclude: “there was a time when the Son did not exist.”

The early church answer was that there was a time when the Son was not separate from the Father, but there was never a time when he did not exist. Before He was separate from the Father, He was already the Logos inside of God. There was a term for this: homoousios (of the same substance). It was so important that it was inserted in the Nicene Creed twice.

The second part of this series will explain why this word was so important. But already we have, I think, established that left to themselves, there is no guarantee that theologians or ordinary Christians, will come to an orthodox understanding of who God is.

By whose authority?

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It is clear to anyone examining the history of Christianity that our understanding of the ‘faith once delivered’ deepens and develops. The word ‘Trinity’ appears in the Bible as often as the words ‘the New Testament Canon’, and yet the Church would, and does, say that both are critical parts of our Faith. We all (I hope) read Scripture and reflect upon its meaning, and being fallen beings, we can all come up with interpretations which, to us, are plausible; but say, for example, that, like Arius, we come up with the idea that Jesus was, as the Son of God, a creature, and not God? We can, as Arius did, provide reasons for this view, and we can convince ourselves we are right. It is only if we are willing to submit our judgment to that of another authority that orthodoxy can be maintained. We might, of course, care not a jot for orthodoxy and be firmly convinced that where all previous generations,and most of this generation of Christians have erred, we alone are right, but that way lies chaos, and a house built on sand will not stand. But what authority do we accept?

One of the most attractive aspects of the form Anglicanism I grew up with was that it was dynamic; it expected us to grow in the Lord. The idea that the faith was delivered once for all to the Apostles is directly from the Scriptures, but our history tells us that we (Christians) did not understand it all at once, or even over a few years. indeed, surely one of the points of Paul’s letters is that even those converted by him through the Spirit, did not ‘get it’, and even when they did, some of them fell away. That was why the letters were written; it was why they were kept; it is why we read them to this day.

Yet. St. Peter himself acknowledged that they were not always easy to understand, and warned us that some people, in their attempt to do so, had twisted his words. So, from the beginning, the Spirit guided Christians; indeed we might even say that that is why God inspired Scripture itself, so that we should have God’s word to hand. But Scripture does not verify itself or validate itself or explain itself.

We might turn to an Ecumenical Council, but no more than Scripture, does an ecumenical council verify itself. No one said before Nicaea or Ephesus that this was going to be an ecumenical council, and the Orthodox are right to say that only when it is accepted by the people and bishops as such is a Council ecumenical.

We might go to the maxim of St. Vincent Lerins, which tells us that orthodoxy is what has been believed everywhere at all times by everyone, but that will not quite do either, as it does not answer the question of development. Before the Church developed the theology of the Trinity, one might claim that it was inherent in Scripture and therefore has always been believed by everyone, but that begs the question about what ‘everyone’ understood, or understands, by ‘Trinity’?

In the West, the office of the papacy developed to fill this need, with Leo the Great, as we saw yesterday, claiming that that his interpretation of the Petrine claims inhered in Scripture. By the eleventh century the Christian East was unwilling to concede the level of development claimed by Rome, not least when it came to changes in the wording of the Nicene Creed. But the Great Schism did not provide the East with an answer to the question of authority, and it has not help an ecumenical council. The Reformation in Europe was a rejection by some, of Rome’s claims, but it did not fill the gap either; indeed it opened the way to every man claiming personal infallibility.

It may be that modern man needs no authority other than his own, but historically this has not been the case. That is not to say that the existence of the Pope and the Magisterium creates a trouble-free attitude to authority (as any reading of some of the comments on this blog alone would testify), but it is to say it is the least worst option we have evolved.

 

Leo the Great and the Papal claims

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Leo the Great icon

In our search for authority we have seen that the Scriptures neither define nor interpret themselves The obvious place to go is the Pope. There is a good analysis of the claims made by the Church for Matthew 16:18 at the ‘Lonely Pilgrim’ blog (follow the link). Now either we believe Jesus meant what he said, or we need to explain it away. The Protestant view has been to find ingenious reasons why it doesn’t mean what the Catholic Church says it does, but before Catholics get too triumphalist, they might want to note that the Orthodox do not accept the Catholic view, even whilst fully acknowledging that the Bishop of Rome has an honoured historic position. Those with a taste for esoteric controversy might follow up this argument on various Catholic and Orthodox fora.

I probably ought to say up front that to me both the Catholic and the Orthodox views of the Papacy smack of special pleading: both selectively report Church history to justify their existing position. That does not mean that I don’t think they both have something in them, but it does mean that there is a good amount of tares in with the wheat.

The Orthodox are happy to accept a primacy of honour. That phrase would do a politician proud, since it can mean whatever its users want it to mean. It is said that that is what the early Church gave to the Bishop of Rome, but what does that mean?

Of course we can go back to Clement’s letters, and we can argue about who Clement was, and whether he was Pope, but let us not forget that the last person sending letters to advice and admonition to Corinth was St. Paul, and no one said he was Pope. But before we get carried away in the other direction, let us not try to make great claims for the so-called Pentarchy either. Jerusalem lost its important very early and never recovered its authority; Antioch’s first bishop was St. Peter, but no one there ever based any claims to general authority on it; Alexandria, which housed a famous theological school, never claimed authority outside of North Africa; and Constantinople was a late-comer which owed its authority solely to the Emperor.

If our understanding of anything has developed, it is the understanding of the position of the Pope. A recent scholarly book by Susan Wessel shows how Leo the Great (Pope 440-41) was the first Pope to make systematic use of the Petrine verses to show that Rome did, indeed, have authority over other Sees. St. Leo the Great made two main contributions to the developing understanding of what ‘primacy’ mean. The first amounts to an assertion that the past existed in the present, not just because he was Peter’s successor, but in the form of a direct and present link between the Apostle and the Pope. As he put it in his sermon on 19 September 443 (Sermon 3.4)

Regard him [Peter] as present in the lowliness of my person. Honour him. In him continues to reside the responsibility for all shepherds, along with the protection of the sheep entrusted to them. His dignity does not fade even in an unworthy heir.’

This is what Leo understood by the saying of the Chalcedonian Fathers: ‘Peter has spoken through Leo. (See here also W. Ullmann, ‘Leo I and the Theme of Papal Primacy’, Journal of Theological Studies 1960, pp. 26-28).

Under Roman jurisprudence, a person was supposed to be present in his legal representative, even as the deceased was in his heir. The same jurisprudence was present in the eastern empire, so to argue that anyone in Constantinople would have been ignorant of this conception of what it meant for Leo to have said what he had said seems to strain credulity. Indeed, as K. Shatz puts it in Papal Primacy From Its Origins to the Present (1996), Leo made ‘the “church of tradition … into the church of the capital city that extends its laws to the whole world.’ (pp. 33-36 for the argument).

On this understanding the Pope was not simply Peter’s representative but his living successor – Peter spoke through him. Thus, Rome’s judgments and decrees were rendered universal because the Holy Apostle was understood to be present in Leo and in the system of justice he administered. As Leo put in in that same sermon on 19 September 443 (3.3):
Persevering in the fortitude he received, blessed Peter does not relinquish his government of the Church. He was ordained before the others so that, when he is called rock, declared foundation, installed as doorkeeper for the kingdom of heaven, appointed arbiter of binding and loosing (with his definitive judgments retaining forces even in heaven), we might know through the very mysteries of these appellations what sort of fellowship he had with Christ. He now manages the things entrusted to him more completely and effectively. He carries out every aspect of his duties and responsibilities in him and through him whom he has been glorified.

So, if we do anything correctly or judge anything correctly, if we obtain anything at all from the mercy of God through daily supplications, it comes about as the result of his works and merits. In this see his power lives on and his authority reigns supreme. This, dearly beloved, is what the confession has obtained [Matthew 16:18]. Since it was inspired by God the Father in the apostle’s heart, it has risen above all the uncertainties of human thinking and has received the strength of a rock that cannot be shaken by any pounding.

It is Peter’s presence that brings about the Christian universalism that Leo envisoned himself exercising. If we look at his letter to the bishops of Illyricium, 12 January 444, placing them under Anastasius, the bishop of Thessalonica, and telling them that serious disputes must be referred to Rome, we see him exercising that power of which his sermons spoke.

The primacy of Rome was not simply the result of Apostolic succession, or of inhertance from St. Peter, but of this very special relationship which ensured that Peter spoke through the Pope. As Leo says in a sermon given on 29 September: [Sermons 5.4]
our solemnity is not merely the apostolic dignity of the most blessed Peter. He does not cease to preside over his see but unfailingly maintains that fellowship which he has with the eternal Priest. That stability which he received from Christ the rock (by having himself been made ‘rock’) has poured over onto his heirs as well. Whenever there is any show of firmness, it is undoubtedly the shepherd’s fortitude that appears.
Leo’s views are set out in fuller form in a sermon preached on 29 June 443 (Sermon 83.1) in which he makes it clear that since Peter exercises the Lord’s power on His behalf, so too does the Pope exercise the powers of Christ Himself, as Peter speaks through him.

This is not a claim made by any other Bishop. It was made in public by Leo in his sermons and letters, and it was based firmly upon Scripture, patristic testimony and the common law of the Empire. Before examining how it was exercised in a situation where there was a dispute, we must turn to Leo’s second contribution to the delineation of the Petrine primacy.

Revelation 13: Some thoughts

Scholars have long noted that the two beasts of Rev. 13 are a recapitulation of the Leviathan and Behemoth motif found in the Old Testament and intertestamental literature. These beasts are symbols of chaos and evil and form bookends capping the Israelite view of history. At the beginning of history, they represent the chaos which God overcame when He established the ordered cosmos. In the course of history, their continued subjugation by God serves to remind humans of God’s power, and their own weakness. At the end of history, they are destroyed in the eschatological battle and judgement: their death represents God’s final act to judge and annihilate evil from His kingdom; they are served as food for His saints at the marriage-supper of the Lamb.

St John took this motif primarily from Daniel, but it can be found in the Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and elsewhere. The precise meaning of the images in Daniel and John’s reworking of them has plagued interpreters since they were first penned. Some have come to the conclusion that they are generic symbols of spiritual and human evil, without specific identification.

We can, nonetheless, draw some conclusions about what St John was saying, while also asking questions about how we approach the interpretation of this passage. The broad brushstrokes tell us that the beast from the sea is a political and military entity that oppresses Christians, while the beast from the earth is a religious figure. Preterists have understood the first beast as Nero and the Roman Empire, while they have interpreted the second beast as the priests of the imperial cult, since the second beast promotes worship of the first beast.

This analysis leads to some important exegetical questions. Are there historical figures which these beasts represent? Does a historical interpretation exclude a futurist one? Do both of the beasts represent specific human figures? There have been disagreements regarding the last question: some have seen the first beast as symbolic only of an empire(s), with the second beast being the Antichrist figure, while others have seen the first beast as representing both the Antichrist and his empire, with the second beast representing a religious figure who supports him.

Many adherents of the “Islamic Antichrist Theory” identify the first beast as a revived caliphate, led by the Mahdi, while they see the second beast as an imposter, pretending to be the “Muslim Jesus”, i.e. the Jesus of the Qur’an and Hadith, rather than the Jesus of the Bible. For more information on this theory, see The Islamic Antichrist, Mideast Beast, and Mystery Babylon, by Joel Richardson.

The text seems to indicate that an empire and/or its ruler is revived: “And I saw one of his heads as it were wounded to death; and his deadly wound was healed: and all the world wondered after the beast” (v. 3, KJV). Some preterists have argued that this is a reference to “Nero redivivus”, the popular myth that Nero had survived his downfall and the imposters who claimed to be “Nero alive again”. Others have interpreted this as a resurrection (or resurrection stunt) perpetrated by the Antichrist as his challenge to the true Christ.

Some have taken the beast from the earth as the revival of the first beast, understanding the earth as a reference to the grave or “abyss” from which the empire re-emerges. While this reading is certainly possible, verse 12 seems to indicate that the two beasts are simultaneous, not sequential: “And [the second beast] exercises all the power of the first beast in its presence, and causes the earth and those who dwell on it to worship the first beast, whose deadly wound was healed.”

I could go on, but I wish to end this post by discussing its application and relevance.

  1. Evil may appear triumphant, but it will be destroyed: the Beast and False Prophet are thrown into the Lake of Fire.
  2. Christians face persecution from the state, but also religious seduction. Sometimes this comes from other religions, sometimes this comes from within Christianity.
  3. Sometimes Christians must die for their faith – particularly when the alternative is apostasy. Unrepentant apostates will end up in Hell (Rev. 14:9-10).
  4. There is a spiritual dimension to our struggle:  Satan gives authority to the Beast and lying miracles for the False Prophet to perform.
  5. The woes of the Middle East are not going away anytime soon: scholars have always identified the beasts of Dan. 7, which John fuses as the composite beast of Rev. 13, as empires of the Middle East, viz.: Babylon; Medo-Persia; Alexander and his successors.

The Bible alone?


In an entirely characteristic fashion, Bosco’s response to yesterday’s post on the Canon ignored the main issue, and blundered into another:

My spirit is satisfied with the KJV. The Holy Ghost wouldn’t have put it in my hot little hands if it want good. I don’t know anything about these other books you talk about. But I do know about the 7 books that aren’t in the KJV that are in the Doughy Reims catholic bible.

Of all the oddities, devotion to the King James Bible as the only edition is one of the oddest. Its prose is majestic, and I like it a great deal, but no one who knew anything about translations would claim it is the most accurate translation available. When Bosco praises it for leaving out what Protestants call ‘the Apocrypha’, he raises another question about authority. Those books are in the original codices of the Bible, as one would expect, since they were based on the Septuagint, which many Jews in the diaspora used. The same Church which authorised leaving out books such as ‘Hermas’ authorised keeping those books in the Canon. In effect, Bosco is telling us he was happy to leave the decision about what the word of God is to a set of translators in seventeenth century England. Now, as an English patriot, I am familiar with the idea that God is an Englishman, but this takes the idea rather far.  The notion that before the seventeenth century – and after – only those who could read English had proper access to the word of God is surely so absurd that not even Bosco could mean what he wrote.

For the Orthodox and the Catholics, there are points of difference, but we agree on Scripture (indeed the Orthodox would add some books which the Western Church has not accepted).  Scripture here is defined not by what a committee of scholars decided on in the seventeenth century, but by what the early Church received. Suppose, then, that the Church is, as it is, competent to define Scripture, are we to suppose it incapable of interpreting what it defined? The simple notion that Scripture interprets itself is disproved by history; indeed there were, as his letters attest, those who were willing to tell St John that he had not understood what Jesus had meant. John’s letters suggest that his own church was unable to cohere, with individuals claiming inspiration by the Spirit; that set a pattern.

One of the reasons that the Catholic Church has cohered is that in the successor of Peter, it has a source of authority. . It has been careful not to over do this, although from time to time there have been those who wanted to make large claims about the areas in which the Pope was infallible. From time to time, too, there have been those determined to imitate the dissidents in St John’s church; but the centre has held. Again, the Church has not made extravagant clams about how every verse of Scripture is to be read, but it reserves the right to say which interpretations run counter to what has always been held. An unexciting and conservative approach, when compared to the claims made by individuals who feel entitled to claim for themselves more infallibility in interpreting Scripture than the Church, which tells us what is and is not Scripture, but then the Church speaks to the ages, not to an age, and it speaks with the authority of its founder.

This, of course, does not mean that there are not those within the Church who think they know what developments there need to be, but it does mean that there is a sheet-anchor attached to them, and any attempts to tamper with what has been received from the beginning. Some will always find this conservatism a reason for breaking off and doing their own thing. For a while  such movements survive, and even thrive, but in the end, they wither and perish; but the barque of St Peter sails on, barnacles and all. It knows whence the Canon came, and it guards it against novel claims, however ingenious; even those which might come from the obiter dicta of the odd Pope .

The Bible and the Canon

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Nicholas’ post yesterday touched on an issue which is of great importance to us all – the Bible. The first thing to say is that the Bible does not define itself. There is, nowhere in it, a list of the Books that it ought to contain, and as historians are aware, the first full copies of the New Testament we have contain in it books not in the modern Canon, such as the Epistle of Barnabas, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Clement. Why do we not receive these, and indeed, other books? The short answer is that they were not in the first complete Canon as defined by Athanasius in his 39th Festal letter (A.D. 367). Athanasius was concerned, as all good Bishops are, about the spiritual welfare of his flock, and he was well aware that during the crisis precipitated by Arius, claims and counter-claims had been made about what was in Scripture; what he set out to do in his Festal Letter was to define Scripture. In so doing he relied not upon his own virtues and judgment – good though both were – but upon the voice of the Church:

Since some have taken in hand to set in order for themselves the so-called apocrypha and to mingle them with the God-inspired scripture, concerning which we have attained to a sure persuasion, according to what the original eye-witness and ministers of the word have delivered unto our fathers, I also, having been urged by true brethren and having investigated the matter from the beginning, have decided to set forth in order the writings that have been put in the canon, that have been handed down and confirmed as divine, in order that every one who has been led astray may condemn his seducers, and that every one who has remained stainless may rejoice, being again reminded of that.

He drew a clear distinction between the Canon and books such as the Didache and Hermas which, whilst good for pious reading and instruction, were not from the Apostles. On this he was most clear. Such was his authority that St Jerome, who had always doubted whether The Epistle to the Hebrews should be accepted, did so. In parts of the East the Apocalypse was not accepted until the Tenth Century. What is clear from this is that the early Christians had been using a variety of texts, but that the Arian controversy had highlighted the need to have an authoritative list. It had also underlined the need for some authoritative voice in interpretation. Nothing Arius had said was no ‘grounded in Scripture’, but his reading of St John was not that of Athanasius or of Nicaea. Which was right? Athanasius went with the understanding the Church had promoted, and was in that sense a conservative.

Conservative theology gives a vote to the ancestors. Some might say it gives them a veto, but what is the alternative? That would be to change doctrine with every fashionable wind. The record here is not an impressive one.

Faith and the Bible

I was moved recently when I heard that Rob was counselling a young woman who is having a crisis of faith that was triggered, at least in part, by her studies in theology at university. I myself faced some difficult questions last year that were triggered by considering the historical and archaeological context of the Bible. Underneath these triggers one will invariably find a wealth of other questions. How we view the Bible is often a significant part of this struggle.

As Christians, we believe that the Bible is the word of God – but what do we mean by this? Those within the spectrum of “orthodoxy” can all agree (I hope) that the Bible tells us something about the spiritual world and about the moral order. This starting-point, however, eventually leads to divergences about how the Bible communicates its message, which entails the question of how we interpret or “decode” the Bible, and to divergences about what other fields of enquiry the Bible may or may not address (e.g. scientific questions).

Our instinctual thoughts on the matter are a priori, for the Bible does not directly tell us how to read it. The Bible tells us that it has authority, that, to use Jesus’ words, “it cannot be broken”, and that it is useful for instruction in righteousness. However, the Bible also tells us that there is a distinction between the letter and the spirit; in other words, that there can be disharmony between the intended principle of a passage and an application derived from a particular treatment of the words that make up said passage.

We must ask ourselves what the Bible is for, because the answer to this question determines how we will interact with it. People who stumble because they are unable to reconcile the scientific theory of evolution with the creation accounts in Genesis are tormented because they feel obligated to reconcile two teachings they perceive to be mutually exclusive. This belief that the two propositions need to be reconciled is an a priori one and may be changed on the a priori level, but also through examination of the context in which the Bible was composed.

It is an assumption that the veracity (inerrancy) of the Bible must also be manifested on the scientific level. By way of analogy, consider the following example. Should a man judge a textbook on Latin grammar as useless if it makes an error regarding the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus? Of course not! The purpose of the textbook is to impart knowledge regarding grammar, not the details of a particular story. As long as the book covers its intended subject well, the incidentals are of no account.

In the same way, we should not judge the creation accounts in Genesis because they cannot be reconciled with our modern scientific theories in biology and cosmology. To do so is to confuse the doctrine “Yahweh made the cosmos” with the doctrine “how Yahweh made the cosmos”. An account can, of course, treat both matters in the same way – but it need not do so.

At this point, “conservatives” may cite the argument that the rest of Genesis appears to be a standard historical account (e.g. the Joseph narrative), so we should assume that the beginning is meant to be read in the same way. This argument, however, relies on a number of a priori assumptions that can be challenged (and have been by reputable scholars).

  1. The whole of Genesis was written by the same person (e.g. Moses).
  2. The unity of a work is disrupted if one “suddenly” shifts from the allegorical to the historical.
  3. Ancient historical narratives work in the same way as modern historical narratives.
  4. Genesis falls, essentially, within the historical genre (as opposed to, for example, tragedy).

There are other, broader assumptions pertaining to how texts are interpreted generally, but let us consider these four for the time being.

(1) We do not know for certain that one person wrote Genesis. Tradition tells that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch, but the end of Deuteronomy narrates the death and burial of Moses. Unless one wishes to speculate that the ghost of Moses dictated the final words of Deuteronomy to a scribe, one must conclude that Moses did not literally write all of the Pentateuch.

Other kinds of evidence (e.g. the treatment of geographical locations) strongly suggest an editorial hand that made the Pentateuch intelligible to people living after the conquest of Canaan by Joshua. Consideration of Mesopotamian parallels to Genesis material leads to the strong possibility that portions of Genesis were composed during the Babylonian Exile as a polemic against the prevailing culture.

(2) Unity comes in various flavours. Unity of message does not ipso facto require an author to doggedly stick to one genre or medium to communicate his message. The Gospels are a classic example of this: they feature parables, theological language, actual historical accounts, and interpretation of prophecy (often in ways that look like “cheating” to post-Enlightenment readers).

Subtle authors do not usually express their message in a clear-cut sentence. None of the four Gospels actually tells the reader in the opening sentence what the Gospel actually is. The end of John is one of the clearer sections on this issue: “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (Jn. 20:31, NIV). Note that this verse does not specify how salvation is achieved beyond belief in Jesus; there is no reference to the crucifixion or resurrection here.

This being so, we must acknowledge that we derive the message of the Genesis through a process of interpretation. If we can make mistakes about the message, then we can make mistakes about the unity and methods of the book in question.

(3) The Enlightenment has had a profound impact on the study and writing of history. Hume made a circular argument against the possibility of miracles, and this argument has led modern historians to omit or carefully qualify miracles in their accounts. Ancient historians did not write in this manner, although Thucydides serves as an interesting precursor to the Enlightenment avoidance of miracles. If ancient historians were happy to “break the rules” on miracles, and one can hardly say they were breaking rules, since the “rules” were not in place in their day, then we must be open to the possibility that they were happy to “break the rules” in other ways.

Indeed, there is an interesting parallel to Genesis that illustrates this principle. The “Sumerian King Lists” feature reigns of individual kings that last thousands of years. These numbers are obviously symbolic, but that does not entail that these lists are of no historical value. Unless one can determine the precise point of departure from “reality”, one cannot say that the whole text is fictitious. Perhaps the names of many of the kings are accurate, but the lengths of their reigns are not.

The same sort of consideration must be paid to Genesis. We cannot assume that the author(s) intended to follow our historiographical conventions, but that does not entail that the author had no historical intentions whatsoever. Perhaps the author wanted to record that the Israelites really had lived in Canaan and really had migrated to Egypt; but maybe he was not too concerned about the exact number of Israelites who settled there.

(4) What is genre? What is history? Do writers always slavishly follow the conventions of genre? To the last question, we may answer “No.” Genres are created: there are no rules to follow at their inception because the rules are created at their inception. Subsequent authors may subvert genres, and there is ample scholarship on this phenomenon across a variety of literary fields from Biblical to Greco-Roman to modern English. The generic nature of Genesis is beyond the scope of this already lengthy post, but we must remember that our modern conceptions are anachronistic: the best way to determine how the text works is to consider similar texts from the same sort of context. Modern science is not the context of Genesis.

I would like to conclude this post by expressing my sincere prayer that the Lord will bless Rob’s efforts in ministering to this young woman.

Comfort one another with the comfort you have received.