Reviewing Martin Luther’s “On Christian Liberty”

In October 31, 1517, Martin Luther pinned his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, sparking widespread public reaction in Germany, which eventually led to the permanent schism in the church. However, a split from church was not really what Luther wanted. What he intended was a theological correction of the church. In 1520, suggested by his colleagues, Luther wrote a conciliatory letter to Pope Leo X, which clearly stated that Luther had not been attacking the pope in person,[1] but making an effort to bring the church back to the gospel. Accompanied by this letter Luther included this book, titled On Christian Liberty, arguing for justification by faith alone, not by works or merits. The ideas conveyed in this book are the fundamental doctrines throughout the Reformations, agreed by most of the mainline evangelical Protestant denominations nowadays.

The central idea of On Christian Liberty can be summarized by the following statements: “A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”[2] The first sentence is about the liberty of Christians, while the second is about the service of Christians. These two theses seemingly contradict with each other, but Luther excellently argued for them with biblical verses throughout the whole book. As the arguments go, Luther showed that the first sentence is about that the justification of a Christian is irrelevant to his merits and works, but solely dependent on his faith. A Christian is free, i.e., “lord[ing] over sin, death, and hell.”[3] However, out of this liberty, a Christian “serves, ministers to, and benefits all men,”[4] as a perfect servant of all people, including Christians and non-Christians.[5]

Luther recognized the two-fold nature of man, namely, a spiritual one and a bodily (fleshly) one.[6] Together with interactions among men, Luther divided the book into three parts: the first concerns the spiritual, or the inner, part of man; the second the bodily, or the outer, part of man; and the third, loving neighbors.

First, Luther discussed about the spiritual nature of man, which is the new, and inner part of man. He argued that “no external thing has any influence in producing Christian righteousness or freedom, or in producing unrighteousness or servitude.”[7] What a body eats, drinks, and does have nothing to do with his soul. It is not uncommon that some very bad people prosper, and that some very godly men suffer from hunger or even imprisonment. What makes one righteous or free is very different from merits or works, in spite of what the Catholic Church had been preaching.[8] How did Luther come up with this idea? He referred to the Scriptures, the Word of God. Before arguing for this idea, he established his arguments by proving the supreme authority of the Word of God. He cited Matt. 4:4, where Christ quoted the Old Testament, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” And in John 11:25, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live…” Luther recognized the power of the Word of God, that incarnates to dwell among the peoples. He identified it as the one and the only one thing necessary for Christian life, righteousness, and freedom.[9] This is sola scriptura, one of the five sola’s in this Reformation movement. This is the logical foundation for the doctrine of justification through faith alone.

Then Luther asserted that “faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God.”[10] He cited Apostle Paul in Rom. 10:9, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” and Rom 1:17, “He who through faith is righteousness shall live.” (taken from the English translation of the book) And he quoted Rom. 10:4 as well. By these verses, Luther confidently affirmed that through faith alone one is saved. And the work done by man cannot save him, as in Rom. 3:23, Apostle Paul said, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and in Rom. 3:10, “none is righteous; no, not one.” All things in man are damnable, and man cannot be saved through all these outer things. Citing Rom. 10:10, Luther elaborated his point that “since faith alone justifies, it is clear that the inner man cannot be justified, freed, or saved by any outer work or action at all, and that all these works, whatever their character, have nothing to do with this inner man.”[11] Therefore, the first concern of all Christians should be to “lay aside all confidence in works,” and “strengthen their faith alone,” and “through faith to grow in knowledge”[12] of Jesus Christ, who suffered and rose for Christians. Luther did not forget to add that Christ also preached faith,[13] as in Mark 16:16, “He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” Luther also quoted many other verses to argue for the sole dependence and relevance of faith to the salvation of man. It is evident that the teaching of faith is so often reiterated and emphasized in the Scriptures that there should be no doubt about it.

Luther understood people’s possible criticisms that Luther condemned works in spite of the fact that the Scriptures contain many laws that demand people to do something. Luther pointed out that the Scriptures consist of two parts: commandments and promises.[14] He wrote, “the commandments show us what we ought to do but do not give us the power to do it,” but “through them he may recognize his inability to do good and may despair of his own inability.”[15] However, the promises given in the Scriptures provide hopes for those who have faith. As in Rom. 11:32, Apostle Paul wrote, “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.” Luther elaborated, “the promises of God give what the commandments of God demand and fulfill what the law prescribes… He alone commands; he alone fulfills.”[16] In a nutshell, through faith alone the soul are justified by the Word of God, and the soul are sanctified and filled with blessings, as in John 1:12, “but to all who… believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.”[17] Therefore, while faith does not induce idleness or wickedness, it makes law and works unnecessary for one’s righteousness and salvation.[18]

There are many benefits of faith. First, it honors God.[19] Second, God “does us great honor of considering us truthful and righteous for the sake of our faith.”[20] Third, “it unites the soul with Christ, as a bride is united with her bridegroom,”[21] as Apostle Paul taught in Eph. 5:31-32. This marriage has great power, that Christ’s possessions are also the faithful man, for example, His righteousness.[22] Moreover, “by the wedding ring of faith he shares in the sins, death, and pains of health which are the bride’s… He makes them his own and acts as if… he himself had sinned; he suffered, died, and descended into the hell that he might overcome them all.”[23] In this process, He washed away the sins of the bride. The bride, through Christ, lord over death, as Luther quoted Apostle Paul in 1 Cor. 15:57, “thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”[24] We also shared the birthright with Christ.[25] This birthright involves a twofold honor: priesthood and kingship.[26] Apostle Peter wrote in 1 Pet. 2:9, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Our priesthood enables us to be “worthy to appear before God to pray for others and to teach one another divine things.”[27] This resonates what Heb. 10:18 and 22 teaches. Our kingship makes us to be a “steward of God’s mysteries,”[28] as 1 Cor. 4:1 teaches. Based on these biblical teachings, Luther criticized the teachings of the Catholic Church that only certain “ecclesiastics” could act as priests, contradicting biblical teachings.[29] On the other hand, the stewardship had evolved to be a great “tyranny” in Luther’s times[30] because the Catholic Church gripped the interpreting authority of the Scriptures.

After discussing the spiritual part of man and faith, Luther moved on to the bodily part of man and the sheer irrelevance of works to salvation. Luther pointed out the reality that as long as we live in the flesh, we are far from being perfect, and we have to keep perfecting ourselves for future life.[31] One must control and discipline his own body. Although by faith man is saved, one “cannot be idle, for the need of his body drives him,”[32] and he must do good works to reduce the drive. However, all these good works does not justify him before God, but he does it out of his love towards God. In other words, these good works are done because of man’s sinful nature, and are not done out of obligation but a free choice because he loves God.

These works are meaningless if a man is not a Christian and a believer. Luther explained with an analogy that a bishop performs his duties because he is a bishop, not that he was made a bishop because he performed these duties.[33] “Good works do not make a good man, but a good man does good work; evil works do not make a wicked man, but a wicked man does evil works.”[34] A Christian does not need works to be justified because he is saved through faith alone. He is free from works and laws, but he does works and obeys laws “out of pure liberty.”[35]

To many people, a person looks good or evil by what he has done, as Christ said in Matt.7:20, “you will recognize them by its fruits.” But the outward appearance can be “deceiving.”[36] Luther suggested we look beyond works about how one is justified, and reminded that we are justified by the Word of God.[37] Luther was not afraid to be annoying to repeatedly reiterate the teaching of justification by faith alone, calling the justification by works a blasphemy, rendering Christ’s works to be pointless.[38]

In spite of the irrelevance of works to the justification, Luther did not reject good works, but suggested they should be taught as much as possible.[39] But because man tends to seek justification through works because of our sinful nature, or Luther said, “[the] perverse notion of works is unconquerable,”[40] both works and God’s grace must be preached at the same time. For example, John the Baptist yelled at the same time “repent!” and “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He preached not only works, but also His mercy and grace. Luther wrote, “we are to bring forth out of our new treasure things new and old, the voice of law as well as the word of grace.”[41] (Matt. 13:52) Therefore, while preaching works as much as possible, “we must also preach the word of grace and the promise of forgiveness by which faith is taught and aroused.”[42] Repentance is from the law of God, but grace and forgiveness come from the promises in His Word.

The third part of the book concerns loving the neighbors. After extensively discussing about faith and works, Luther moved on to the teaching that a Christian does not live for himself in his mortal body, but for others.[43] Even the Apostle Paul wrote this after discussing this central part of Christian teachings in the first part of his Epistles to the Romans, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Rom. 14:7-8) A Christian lives for others freely, with liberty. In everything he does, he should be guided by the thought that he serves and benefits others, i.e., for the welfare and advantages of others instead of his own self-interests.[44] Unlike the “ecclesiastics” who received wages from church, Luther quoted Apostle Paul’s epistles that everyone should work on their own so that they have enough to fund the needy.[45] “… let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Eph. 4:28) A Christian does all these to his neighbors because of his love towards them. The stronger serves the weaker, bearing each other’s burdens, fulfilling the law of Christ. (Gal. 6:2) Apostle Paul wrote, “faith working through love.” (Gal. 5:6)

This is following Christ’s example of humility. As Apostle Paul wrote in Phil. 2:5-8, Christ has the form of God, He does not need works and sufferings to make himself righteous and saved,[46] but He takes the form of a servant to serve the needy and the neighbors.[47] Luther also noted that these neighbors include both Christians and non-Christians: “He does not distinguish friends and enemies or anticipate thankfulness or unthankfulness…”[48] and he also quoted Matt. 5:45: “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rains on the just and on the unjust.” If we recognize the great and the precious things which are given us, our hearts will be filled with the Holy Spirit.[49] An ignorance of these gifts makes Christ be born in vain. By this token, all Christians ought to serve the others not out of the needs for salvation, but out of liberty and love.

In this book, Luther went over the fundamental teaching about the riches and glory of the Christian life. “It can do all things and has all things and lacks nothing. It is lord over sin, death, and hell, and yet at the same time it serves, ministers to, and benefit all men.”[50] This statement resonates with the central theme introduced by Luther at the beginning of this book, i.e., we lord over all things, but we are also subject to all things. By faith alone we are justified, and we are free to make decisions, not bound by the traditions. Luther raised the example of Timothy and Titus. Timothy was circumcised by the Apostle Paul for the sake of the gospels, but Titus was not circumcised because of the possible messages conveyed to those who were weak in faith. In this example, Christians have the liberty to decide whether to carry out circumcision.[51] Another example is about tax money, that Christ said not to give offense to the authority, and to give the tribute.[52] Apostle Paul gave a similar teaching in Rom. 13:1-7. Even the works encouraged by the church a Christian is free to do, but Luther advised the readers “to be careful not to do it in order to obtain some benefit, whether temporal or eternal, for you would do injury for your faith…”[53]

Luther then concluded this part and also the whole book that “[a Christian] lives in Christ through faith, in his neighbor through love. By faith he is caught up beyond himself into God. By love he descends himself into his neighbors.”[54]

However, Luther was not done. He disputed some possible misunderstandings or criticisms stemming out from the teachings in this book. There are two erroneous extremes, one being the abuse of this Christian liberty that all things that satisfy their fleshly desires are allowed, while the other being relying on their salvation solely on their reverent observance of ceremonies.[55] Both extremes are in error, and Luther quoted Apostle Paul who had attacked this kind of erroneous teachings back in the Apostle’s Age in Rom. 14:3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” However, Luther pointed out that pastors played an important role in guarding the faith of their congregations.[56]

This book written by Luther is so important that it is the cornerstone of Protestantism. In his times, the proclamation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone posed a great challenge to the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that justification through merits. His emphasis of God’s mercy and grace makes the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection, as it is human inability to achieve salvation is the total point of all Christ’s works. He argued all these based on the sole authority of the Scriptures, while in Catholic Church, ecclesiastical traditions played an important role in interpreting the Scriptures. He hailed the Scriptures as the sole authority of all Christian teachings, where all his teachings of faith, works, and loving neighbors were based on what the Scriptures teach. This book and the Reformations brought back the gospel that had been masked by the complex scholastic doctrines in the Middle Ages. The authority of Scripture and Luther’s doctrine of justification are (or, should be) still upheld by evangelical churches nowadays.

From his letter to Pope Leo X, Luther wanted to avoid a split of the church. Clearly, this was a failed attempt as we know from history, but the mere incompatibility between Luther’s teaching and Catholic teaching made a reconciliation very difficult. Of course, it is beyond Luther’s control as the complex political climate of Holy Roman Empire allowed Lutheran Reformation to survive and thrive, unlike previous attempts like Hussites and Waldensians. Reformations happened because of divine providence.

Luther discussed about faith and works in the context of the prevalence of theological teachings that salvation was based on merits. The teaching of Christian liberty freed the fellow Christians from works and merits, or the financial burdens in purchasing indulgences. As the Western societies have become more individualistic, embracing Christian liberty could be misunderstood as freely pursuing lusts and self-centered desires. A reaction of this is the stringent life styles from erroneous organized religious teachings, either it is from Christian heresies or even another religion. While Luther did dispute these two extremes, theologians ought to communicate Luther’s teaching and biblical teaching in a way that speaks to the peoples of this age.

 

[1] Martin Luther, On Christian Liberty, trans. W. A. Lambert, rev. Harold J. Grimm (Minneapolis, MI: Fortress Press, 2003), 75-76.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 54.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 53.

[6] Ibid., 3.

[7] Ibid., 4.

[8] Ibid., 5.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 7.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., 10.

[14] Ibid., 11.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 13.

[17] Ibid., 14. English translation in the book.

[18] Ibid., 15.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 17.

[21] Ibid., 18.

[22] Ibid., 19.

[23] Ibid., 20.

[24] Ibid., 21.

[25] Ibid., 25.

[26] Ibid., 23.

[27] Ibid., 27.

[28] Ibid., 30.

[29] Ibid., 29.

[30] Ibid., 30.

[31] Ibid., 33.

[32] Ibid., 36.

[33] Ibid., 38-39.

[34] Ibid., 39.

[35] Ibid., 41.

[36] Ibid., 42.

[37] Ibid., 43.

[38] Ibid., 44.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 45.

[41] Ibid., 45-46.

[42] Ibid., 46.

[43] Ibid., 47.

[44] Ibid., 48.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid., 51.

[47] Ibid., 52.

[48] Ibid., 53.

[49] Ibid., 54.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid., 56.

[52] Ibid., 57.

[53] Ibid., 61.

[54] Ibid., 62.

[55] Ibid., 61-62.

[56] Ibid., 67-70.

Continue reading “Reviewing Martin Luther’s “On Christian Liberty””

Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom, the bishop of Constantinople and one of the most significant figures in Early Church History, wrote On the Priesthood which covers the pastoral theology proper in terms of articles and dialogues. A number of points covered in this work are still very relevant nowadays.

Book II was about the shepherd’s love of a minister towards the congregation that Christ entrusted to him, just as Christ ordered Apostle Peter to minister Christ’s followers after Christ asked him whether he love Christ. (John 21:15-17) A minister was given a congregation, as he loves Christ, however imperfect the love is. It is still true today that the love for Christ of ministers is essential for the church.

Book III stresses the solemnity of pastoral prayers, quoting an analogy from Elijah’s prayer for the fire from Heaven in front of the hundreds of Baal prophets. This is a prestigious authority that God gives, not to angels or archangels, but to men. Pastoral prayers are no casual things; they have to be taken seriously. Even nowadays, for the sake of Christ and His church, ministers ought to practice consistent and regular prayers, for it is solemn and necessary. A sign of lack of prayers can be easily seen.

In addition, Book III details some of the pastors’ emotional challenges in face of oppositions from within the church and the secular world. Ministers are often accused of vainglory and pride by people out of evil purposes or envy. Priests in the time of John Chrysostom had to deal with various secular affairs, such as discerning justice, adding to his emotional stress. This is not easy, because it is not finishing a project but caring for souls, as “souls are more precious than bodies.” Pastors and ministers nowadays have less civil responsibilities, but they still have to provide counselling to people in need. They, especially the famous ones, are still attacked by accusations of vanity and arrogance.

Book IV states the need for ministers to diligently study the Word of God, and attain a thorough understanding of theology, in order to be faced with unpredictable spiritual warfare. The Word was described by Apostle Paul as the shield of faith and the sword of the Spirit. (Eph. 6:16-17) The study of Scripture is not only beneficial for ministers themselves, but it prepares them to tackle the attack of wrong theologies, heresies, or worldly philosophies. Apostle Peter urged all Christians to be ready to answer questions for their reasons for the hope. (1 Pet. 3:15) Because of the variety of the types of warfare, John Chrysostom said ministers must “understand all forms of arts” of the devil, and be “well-guarded in all parts.” He pointed out the distinction between ordinary warfare and spiritual warfare, where the former has a point of victory or defeat, but the latter does not. Hence ministers have to be watchful. The Word has not changed for the past two thousand years, and it will not change. The study of Word is still essential nowadays in face of spiritual warfare in the postmodern world, which is more diverse and full of temptation.

Book V points out that preachers have to be eloquent in preaching, and indifferent to others’ praise. Lacking the former and having the latter means the preachers be despised by the congregations; having the former and lacking the latter feeds preachers’ pride, and makes him deliver messages pleasing to the congregations instead of God; lacking both renders the preaching useless as it does not yield to the pleasure of the congregations, and the sermons are not helpful to the audience. Even nowadays, good speakers help a lot of listeners grow in faith; ignoring others’ flattery prevents the preachers from speaking like those prosperity gospel preachers.

Book VI reiterates the responsibilities of pastors in Book II, the solemnity of ministerial tasks in Book III, and the necessity to be equipped to fight spiritual battles in Book IV. Despite these challenges and the emotional stresses the pastors are faced with, John Chrysostom said he found joy in serving. Today’s pastors should be joyful in serving the congregations Christ entrusted to them despite the hardships.

Continue reading “Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom”

Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book II

In Book I of his On Christian Teaching (Latin title: De doctrina christiana), St. Augustine focused his discussion on things, narrated in my previous entry; and in this Book II, he did on signs. By signs, he meant something that “signifies,” which he elaborated: “for a sign is a thing which of itself makes some other thing come to mind, besides the impression that it presents to the senses.”[1] He then further divided it into natural signs and given signs, where the latter is what he focused on, particularly on the divinely given signs, i.e., the Scriptures. This book discussed the approach to read the Scriptures, to interpret it, and the interaction with other human institutions and knowledge, especially pagan knowledge. In other words, it is the doctrine of the knowledge of God, overlapping with a lot of contents in John Frame’s work.[2]

Unlike pagan religions, Christianity is a religion of the books, in which the Words weigh. The Words are divinely given signs that signify, requiring our interpretation. He pointed out because of human sins, “these signs cannot be shared by all nations.”[3] Therefore, the Words were written down. He proposed a seven-stage process to learn God’s will from the Words, namely in the following sequences, fear of God, holiness, knowledge (requiring love to avoid boastful attitude), fortitude (a hunger for righteousness), compassion (purification of one’s mind), purification of the eyes, and wisdom. He concluded this with a proverb, functioning as inclusio: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[4] (Ps. 111:10)

He then elaborated on the third stage, knowledge, where he defined the canon of the Scriptures. He deemed that one “should follow the authority of the great majority of catholic churches.”[5] He listed all books in the Old and New Testament, and roughly the Apocrypha of the Roman Catholic Church nowadays. These books have “all things that concern faith and moral life,”[6] echoing the sufficiency of the Scriptures.[7] All people should be familiar with them, and then proceeded to understand and analyze the obscurity. He resorted the obscurity and ambiguities to the signs that are “metaphorical.”[8] Scriptures were authored in Hebrew and Greek, but people of his times read Latin. The need of translations contributed to an additional layer of interpretative challenges. Some words were not translated for the sake of “solemn authority,”[9] while others found no counterpart in Latin. He suggested investigating various translations for clarification, understanding the surrounding context, acquiring the knowledge of the original language, or using a more literal translation. In addition, he thought among the Greek translation of the Old Testament, “the authority of the Septuagint is supreme.”[10]

He then went on to the metaphorical signs. He believed certain numbers in the Scriptures had figurative meaning, such as three, four, seven, ten, and forty. Some of them are still widely accepted by Protestant churches nowadays. Some Hebrew names also bear figurative meaning that require understanding. Understanding of animals and plants, music, and other human institutions helped, according to him.

He then went on to human institutions, which were either superstitious or not. He defined something as superstitious if “it concerns the making and worshipping of idols, or the worshipping of the created order or part of it as if it were God, or if it involves certain kinds of consultations or contracts about meaning arranged and ratified with demons.”[11] He condemned fortune telling according to Deut. 13:2-3, and Wisd. 13:9, and because it involved “selling uneducated people into a wretched form of slavery.”[12] He condemned the use of the data of birth dates (i.e., constellations) to predict one’s character and future actions, saying it is great folly, by citing the different personalities of Esau and Jacob. He even condemned those who were into these things, subjected by “the decree of divine providence,”[13] contrasting their behavior of their eagerness to predict people’s fate. He also condemned the specialists in these superstitious institutions.

Institutions that were not superstitious can either be superfluous and self-indulgent, or necessary and useful.[14] The necessary and useful ones include social norms, cultures, measurement systems, currencies, alphabets etc., which are vital to human society. He deemed that Christians, with good reasons, should be good at them. There are also human traditions that were not invented, but discovered. A lot of them were useful in interpreting the Scriptures, including history,[15] topography, and zoology. He suggested not to study astronomy because it did not help much in interpreting the Scriptures.

He strongly supported the use of logic. He thought that logical syllogisms were not something instituted by humans, but by God. He was not opposed the use of the proof by contradictions. He also discussed “eloquence,” which I believe to be rhetoric. It can be used to commend both the truth and falsehood. He pointed it out rightly that “it has to be used in communicating what has already been understood rather than in the actual process of understanding.”[16]

He suggested people to stay away from human institutions found in pagan societies that were self-indulgent. He endorsed the study, with a liberated mind, of branches of pagan knowledge, with the service of the truth and some useful moral suggestions, but abandoning the pagan worship. He suggested more time to study the Scriptures than the useful knowledge outside the book. As he concluded:

“The insignificance of the amount of gold, silver, and clothing which that people took away with it from Egypt, in comparison with the wealth that it later attained in Jerusalem, as shown particularly in the reign of Solomon, is the measure of the insignificance of all knowledge… that is collected from pagan books, when compared with the knowledge contained in divine scriptures.”[17]

And a nice reminder from Apostle Paul, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”[18] (1 Cor. 8:1)

[1] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. E. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 31.

[2] John Frame discussed the use of language, logic, history, science, and philosophy as the situational perspective of the doctrine of knowledge of God in his book; see John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: a Theology of Lordship, (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1987), 213-318.

[3] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 32.

[4] Ibid., 35.

[5] Ibid., 34.

[6] Ibid., 37.

[7] Timothy Ward, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 106-115; Westminster Confession of Faith, BOC, 1.006; see: Doctrinal Outline of the Doctrine of Scripture: Attributes of the Scripture.

[8] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 37.

[9] Ibid., 38.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Ibid., 48.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid., 51; see: what is divine providence?

[14] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 53.

[15] St. Augustine quoted an example of Plato traveling to Egypt, reading Jeremiah’s literature, which led to his philosophies that were fairly compatible with Judeo-Christian thoughts; Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 55-56.

[16] Ibid., 61-62.

[17] Ibid., 67.

[18] Ibid., 66.

Continue reading “Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book II”

Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book I

I recently started reading St. Augustine’s On Christian Teaching (Latin title: De doctrina christiana). I finished Book I. It is surely not something to read for fun, but I would say it is a delightful read. St. Augustine in Book I discussed about interpretations of Scripture, the enjoyment, and the nature of love.

He started with the concepts of things and signs, which, according to external sources, came from Plato.[1] He stated that the things that are to be enjoyed are the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, and the Trinity that consists all of them, which is a single, supreme thing.[2]

He suggested that things that can be enjoyed is unchangeable, and the triune God is this. We cannot enjoy on human which is mutable. And he questioned whether humans should enjoy one another, or use one another, or both.[3] He argued that humans should enjoy God, but use other people.

When it comes to love, he rightly pointed out that there needs no commandment for people to love themselves and what is beneath it,[4] but God and neighbors. God should be loved for enjoyment. Humans should love their neighbors on God’s account too.[5] A great deal of discussion was on who the neighbors were, and it astonishes me that he included angels,[6] while modern Christians do not have an extended doctrines about them.[7]

He ended with an emphasis of love:

… the fulfillment and end of the law and all the divine scriptures is to love the thing which must be enjoyed and the thing which together with us can enjoy that thing (since there is no need for a commandment to love oneself.) To enlighten us and enable us, the whole temporal dispensation was set up by divine providence for our salvation…[8]

… anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them…[9]

… a person strengthened by faith, hope, and love, and who steadfastly holds on to them, has no need of the scriptures…[10]

… when someone has learnt that the aim of the commandment is ‘love from a pure heart, and good conscience and good genuine faith,’ he will be ready to relate every interpretation of the holy scriptures to these three things…[11]

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[1] “De doctrina christiana,” Wikipedia, accessed August 21, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/De_doctrina_christiana.

[2] Saint Augustine, On Christian Teaching, trans. E. P. H. Green, Oxford World’s Classics (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1997), 10.

[3] Ibid. 16.

[4] Ibid., 18.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid., 22-23.

[7] Herman Bavinck discussed about the doctrines of angels on their spirituality, corporeality, their role as messengers, and their lack of God’s image. See: Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 2: God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 443-472.

[8] Saint. Augustine, On Christian Teaching, 26-27.

[9] Ibid., 27.

[10] Ibid., 28.

[11] Ibid., 29.

Continue reading “Reviewing St. Augustine’s “On Christian Teaching”, Book I”

Review of “Allah: a Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf

Struggles between the Christians and Muslims have lasted for centuries. The struggles are both theological and political in nature. There have been efforts in reconciling Christians and Muslims, and even form governments over regions where both peoples coexist. How it goes is still questionable. Moreover, since the 911 attack on Ground Zero and Pentagon, people are exploring this question further into the theological aspect: is the God in the Bible and Quran the same god? Miroslav Volf attempted to answer these questions in his book Allah: a Christian Response.

Miroslav Volf is currently the Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School, and the Director of the Yale Center for Truth and Faith. Born in the Balkan Peninsula, at the time under the rule of an officially Communist and atheist state (Yugoslavia), he managed to remain to be a proclaimed Christian; living with various other religious groups, he witnessed the conflicts between Christians and Muslims, and how these conflicts affect their private and public life. According to him, the Balkans do not argue who the true god is, but “[the issue] is… that the two religious communities give ultimate allegiance to two rival versions of the Master of the Universe.” (page 13) His background is one of the reasons of his interests in political theology and interfaith dialogues. He was the lead author of the Christian response to “A Common Word Between Us and You” written by a group of Muslim scholars.[1]

This book explores two important questions. The first question is: is Christian god and Muslim god the same God?[2] He argued for the same-God position by proving, according to the God described in Scripture and Quran, there are more similarities than differences. The second is: is it possible for Christians and Muslims to live together in harmony and form a government? His answer is yes.

The author first reviewed the history of the conversation between Christians and Muslims about the same-God question. Under the several failed attempts of the Crusades, and the strong new threat posed by Ottoman Empire, the Roman Catholic Church sought to have dialogues with the Muslims. (chapter 2) The author reviewed the work of Nicholas of Cusa, who argued Christians and Muslims worshipped the same God. He also argued if Muslims read the Quran carefully, they would have concluded God is triune despite their denial. On the other hand, the author also reviewed the viewpoints of Martin Luther, the Reformer, who did not say yes or no to the same-God question, but admitted that all monotheistic peoples “believe in the one true God.” (chapter 3)

The author then spent a significant portion of the book stating his stance about the same-God question. He examined the verses in Scripture and Quran for the description of God, and compared the practices of both Christians and Muslims. He showed that there are so many similarities that he would conclude they are describing the same God. (chapters 4-6) He then discussed the most controversial topic: the Trinity, which the Muslims declared heretical and polytheistic. (chapter 7) He tried to show that a lot of Muslims’ objections are not really what Christians claimed. (“Christians deny what Muslims deny… Christians affirm what Muslims affirm.” (page 143)) While the author rightly asserted that the doctrine of Trinity is “not an add-on” in Christianity (page 145), he is yet to prove God in the Quran is triune. He resorted to God’s incomprehensibility. He confessed that the Trinity can only be seen from God’s special revelation, which “has a trinitarian structure.” (page 147) In addition, the author compared the nature of love in both religions. (chapter 8) While both Christians and Muslims believe God is loving, only Christians believe God is love, which requires a triune God. The author attempted to show the levels of “unconditional-ness” of love are similar. He gave an example of Muslims’ loving their enemies, something commanded in the Christian Bible, although Quran teaches “teeth-for-teeth, eye-for-eye.”

In the last part of the book, the author dealt with the possibility of Christians and Muslims living together in harmony, and forming a single government. (chapters 10-13) Based on the author’s same-God thesis and the existence of the common ground, he proposed a rough government system that allows both groups to participate in a nation’s politics. He argued that political pluralism is feasible even if peoples are religiously exclusive. He lastly proposed “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of political wisdom in a multi-religious state,” (page 241) which, he thinks, is something people nowadays lack.

I appreciate the author’s effort in laying out the structure of the democratic government that tolerates both Christians and Muslims. Like other variants of the Christian religions such as Mormonism, Islam can also be seen as a variant of Christianity. Protestants have not fought a war with the Mormons despite the theological differences, they have been fighting against the Catholics in Northern Ireland, or the Muslims in the Middle East. All these struggles are more political and historical, rather than theological, in nature.

The author proposed political pluralism for a multi-religious state. To me, it is feasible, and there are examples. Malaysia, though officially a Muslim state, have Indians that practice Hinduism, and Chinese that practice Buddhism, Taoism, and Christianity, under a constitutional monarchy.[3] Lebanon has been a religiously diverse country too, having Muslims, Christians, and Druze people, running a parliamentary republic.[4] They are not free of conflicts, but it is possible if certain factors, such as the quality of citizens, the tolerance, the level of their God-fearing, are present. However, as Thomas Schelling pointed out from his agent-based model of segregation, while they can be neighbors, moderate segregation is avoidable when stability is achieved.[5] There is not a need to completely integrate different groups of people in one community.

The author held a very controversial, or “hot and spicy” (page 13), viewpoint on the same-God question. The same viewpoint led to the resignation of Larycia Hawkins in Wheaton College recently.[6] His analysis on the similarities about God’s description by Christians and Muslims is excellent, but he did not convincingly reconcile the differences, particularly on the Trinity. It is not surprising that he cannot reconcile the differences regarding the Trinity as “we owe our knowledge of this doctrine (Trinity) solely to God’s special revelation.”[7] He did not even discuss the discrepancies in their historical narratives (for example, whether Abraham sacrificed Isaac or Ishmael). Moreover, even if he were able to prove the same-God proposition, it would not mean the Muslims are eternally saved. And political pluralism, which he envisioned, does not depend on this proposition. In fact, it is very reasonable for the author to be able to discover so many similarities because through the truths about God are revealed to men through nature, (Ps. 19:1, Rom. 1:19) even though the knowledge is distorted by human finitude and fallenness.

Exploring the same-God question, the author did not state that Muslims are actually saved. Nor did he state any “techniques” or “tricks” to proselyte in Muslim communities. The author’s interest is on politics rather than evangelism. But it does not mean his discussion is not useful for evangelism. Whether the same-God question is relevant, or has a positive answer, it is a good gap-bridging dialogue for any evangelistic effort. His ideas regarding political pluralism are applicable outside politics.

Throughout the whole book, the author put an emphasis on the similarities between Christianity and Islam. He did not overlook the differences, but a more balanced view can be achieved by adding more weights to them. Knowing the similarities and differences help reducing the conflicts, which is one of the themes that the author tried to bring out. As J. D. Greear said, “we need to know our Muslim neighbors in order to love our Muslim neighbors. That includes having a clear picture of what they believe.”[8]

No matter what the best answers to the questions that the author raised are, “[loving] the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might,” (Deut. 6:5) and “[loving] your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39) are the two most important commandments. In the parable of the good Samaritans, Jesus implied that the neighbor can be even “foreigners” or people of other faiths. These biblical principles are not based on any possible answers to the questions discussed by the author.

[1] “Miroslav Volf,” Yale Center for Faith & Culture, accessed Apr 2, 2016, http://faith.yale.edu/people/miroslav-volf.

[2] Or more technically, as the author quoted Keith DeRose, “whether the thoughts and utterances of Muslims that are expressed in terms of being about ‘God’… have the God that Christians worship as their object.” (page 84)

[3] Malaysia,” the World Factbook, Central Intelligence Agency, accessed March 30, 2016, https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/my.html.

[4] François Massoulié, Crisis in the Middle East: a century in focus (Witney, UK: Windrush Press, 1999), 134-151.

[5] Thomas Schelling, “Dynamic Models of Segregation,” Journal of Mathematical Sociology 1 (1971), 143-145.

[6] The author wrote an article in response to Larycia Hawkins’ resignation, reasserting his position in this book: Miroslav Volf, “Wheaton professor’s suspension is about anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology,” Washington Post, December 17, 2015, accessed April 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/17/wheaton-professors-suspension-is-about-anti-muslim-bigotry-not-theology/.

[7] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, God and Creation, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 329.

[8] J. D. Greear, “Theologies Compared and Contrasted,” Tabletalk Magazine, April 2016, 19.

Continue reading “Review of “Allah: a Christian Response” by Miroslav Volf”

Scattered Thoughts on Cultural Formation and Ecclesial Colleges

Glass Windows on the Chapel of Duke University
Glass Windows on the Chapel of Duke University

Recently I read James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom about Christian education, worship, and cultural formation. Dr. Smith is a professor of philosophy in Calvin College. In this book, Dr. Smith argued that to make disciples of Jesus Christ, we have to recognize that humans are not thinkers who think to understand, or believers who believe to understand, but lovers who desire or love to understand. And “our loves and desires are aimed and directed by habits that dispose us to be the kind of people aimed at certain visions of the good life.” This “love to understand” understanding is contrary to the “know to understand” understanding.

Dr. Smith first argued that humans are lover that aim at certain visions of good life (chapter 1). Then to cultivate the desires and the worldview of people, he described the importance of liturgies (chapter 2). He then pointed out a lot of secular cultural practices are in fact liturgies although we might not recognize, and practiced “cultural exegesis” to read into the visions behind the cultural practices (chapter 3). Then Dr. Smith switched back to Christian worship, and argued that Christian worship is fundamental to shaping the worldview of the disciples (chapter 4). He then went by each step in a formal Christian worship, and described how they shaped our desires and worldview (chapter 5). Finally, with everything built up, Dr. Smith explained “new monasticism,” and outlined his vision of what an ideal Christian college, or an ecclesial college, is like (chapter 6).

At this point, I have some scattered thoughts on what Dr. Smith has been discussed:

  • Dr. Smith stressed on the existential perspective of how the worldviews form in human beings. By saying human as lover, not thinker, he denied the importance of the normative perspective of the formation. I agree with Dr. Smith that liturgies, or habit building, are effective and important in forming one’s desire, but I argue that it is not the only way. We can see it from our own experience as recipients of education, we understand not only through hands-on work (existential), but also through lectures and informative classes (normative). The Jews also teach their kids about the Law of God, and discuss about them lest they forget. And through our church history, doctrines were established a few centuries after Christ (after Christians’ suffering experience), but then people can attain the theistic worldview not only through liturgies but also the teaching of doctrine (situational). The body of knowledge has three perspectives as a whole, and they are the same thing, as in Frame’s triperspectivalistic framework.
  • The existential perspective of worldview formation is important but not sufficient, as a lot of sects, cults, and other religions have certain liturgies that get people away from it. A non-Christian worldview can have practices similar to Christianity, but conveyed a different teachings. Jehovah’s Witnesses and LDS very often carried a lot of similar cultural values with Reformed Churches, but the differences are too fundamental. Formative education is necessary, through discussion, lectures, or creeds, to enforce the understanding fundamental doctrines so that we believe in the real God.
  • Dr. Smith’s vision of an ideal ecclesial college (he refused to use the term “Christian college” to avoid readers’ confusion with the existing Christian colleges which function like other Ivy Leagues simply with an additional Christian perspectives) is a form of monasticism. He also claimed that and called it “new monasticism.” This kind of schools existed only in the Middle Ages, when most of the populations are Christians, and the societies can accept the notion of school as a place of spiritual formation instead of the transfer of knowledge and skills. However, such schools cannot be even financially sustainable as very few donors would have the same or similar visions about education; and no parents and students would want to go to such schools as they still need to make a living after receiving education. They need the skills for their future vocations.
  • I agree with Dr. Smith’s observation that current schools focus too much on information but not formation. Ultimately, it is the spiritual formation that is essential for one to live according to the law of God. School is an important venue for spiritual formation.
  • While the practices he described about his vision of ecclesial school are important as Dr. Smith stated, I believe they are more effectively carried out at families. The Book of Deuteronomy and Proverbs speaks a lot about family education, with numerous proof-texts, but with little school education.

P.S.: This is an intermediate thought on a review of James Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom based on John Frame’s multiperspectivalism.

Duke University
Duke University

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