Saturday, May 29, 2004

a spirit hath not flesh and bones

A little while back, a fellow on another forum objected to a comment I made about God being a spirit and not possessing a physical body. Here is my response to his suggestion that God must be a physical being.


Hello BL,
We have a very different views on this matter, and just to put this is context, your view appears to be that of a Mormon are something close to the Mormon position. The view I hold to on this matter is the view held by the whole Christian church from beginning until now. This is also the historic doctrinal view of Judaism. This is clearly seen in Article 3 of the Shloshah-Asar Ikkarim also known as the Thirteen Articles of Faith.

Article 3 reads this way --“The belief in G-d's noncorporeality, nor that He will be affected by any physical occurrences, such as movement, or rest, or dwelling” or in a more modern wording “I believe with complete faith that the Creator, Blessed is His Name is not physical and is not affected by physical phenomena, and that there is no comparison whatsoever to Him.”

Of course all the Jews and Christians could have been mistaken and Joseph Smith and you are correct, but I would not bet the farm on those odds.

One verse can be all the proof one needs if it is used rightly and contextually, and hundreds of proof texts can be used to teach a distortion if applied wrongly, so the number of verses one can bring into play in such a discussion may or may not be that important. Jewish and Christians scholars (and laymen alike) have always recognised that the Bible is a complicated book. Some of it is history, some is song and poetry, some is proverbial, prophetic, some portions are eschatological, and some is specifically philosophical and doctrinal. Some parts of the Bible are very literal and others are not. Those aspect of the scriptures that you bring up to prove that God is a physical being have always, by Jews and Christians alike, been understood to be anthropomorphic language used to make certain points.

Your methodology of interpreting Scripture proves too much. Not only must God have eyes, nostrils hands and legs, but he must have wings and feathers as well.

Lets return to the verses that I brought up earlier in this discussion. "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have." (Luke 24:39) And then Christ words in John 4:24 “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth." We know from Jesus Christ’s words here that a spirit “hath not flesh and bones” and we know that “God is a Spirit.”

BL you said that “Spiritual substance is as real as natural substance Ken, except that it is of a higher type of matter and is governed by higher laws.” (emphasis is my own). This is absolute, pure conjecture that has been pulled out of thin air.

The word spirit is also the word used for wind, and breath in both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Wind was the closest thing that could be used to describe that which is non-material. Even here with this analogy we find spirit or wind that is at times omnipresent and sometimes particular. Wind is everywhere like God and it can be particular, like and individual. We see this in its uses as the breath of an individual.

When a man gives up his spirit, does a higher form of matter leave his physical body and go to heaven or hell? No; a non-material, eternal aspect of his being is separated from the material aspect of his being.

Let’s look at another term used in Scripture. That is the word “Word” or “Logos” which is used in speaking of the pre-incarnate Christ. John, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, uses this Greek term that is pregnant with meaning when referring to the pre-incarnate Christ for a reason. He uses it because it is familiar to the Greek world to which he is writing. In Greek thought the logos was a divine force, power or reason that governed the universe, but it too was non-material.

In fact a great problem of early Christians was fighting off the opposite of the heresy you espouse here. In neo-Platonic thought the non-material (spirit) was good and all things material (flesh) were tainted with evil. The Gnostics held to a heresy that Christ must have only appeared to be flesh and bone, because he could not truly be flesh and bone (a material being) because this was evil. The object of the Gnostics was to leave the material world, and return to the realm of pure spirit.

BL yours is a simplistic reading of the Word of God that ignores very important teachings in the Scriptures and it ignores the whole teaching of both the Jewish and Christian peoples who received these revelations.

Coram Deo,

Monday, May 24, 2004

I’ve been reading Keith Mathison’s book The Shape of Sola Scriptura and I’ve so far found it very interesting and compelling. After reading a little over 100 pages into this work I took a detour. In the body of this book Mathison quotes Vincent of Lérins. St. Vincent is a contemporary of St. Augustine. Vincent joined the monestary in Lérins in 425 and died in 450 AD.

St. Vincent wrote an important epistle titled The Commonitory: For the Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies. The title is a mouth full, but it is a delightful read.

I set Mathison’s book aside because I believed a quote that he used from The Commonitory to be so important that I wanted to be sure that Mathison was dealing accurately with what St. Vincent actually wrote. After reading the whole of Vincent’s epistle, I am sure that Mathison uses him correctly, and he could have quoted him a good bit more.

It becomes clear that Vincent holds to a very different understanding of the relationship between Scripture and tradition than that of the Modern Roman Catholic Church. It is all clear that he believes that one should not lightly dismiss the historic teachings of the faith, which I believe is an all too common problem among modern Evangelicals who have little knowledge of, or interest in, the history of doctrine or the church itself.

Mathison’s quote that caused me to set his book down and read The Commonitory is taken from Chapter II. St. Vincent wrote “That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.”

That sounds like the conventional Roman Catholic position, but Vincent is not finished. He then defines what he means by this statement. He says “But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation?

It is important to notice two things here. First, St Vincent clearly believes that “the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient.” This is a very high view of the Bible and one that every Evangelical would heartily agree with, but look at what he adds. He asks “what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church's interpretation.”

St. Vincent, in this passage, equates tradition with the historic interpretation of the Scriptures. This is not what the modern Roman Catholic (RC) means by tradition. The Modern RC, when he speaks of tradition, is referring to a body of beliefs that exist extra-biblically.

St Vincent’s position on tradition would match perfectly with the classical Protestant position on the matter, and is in stark conflict with the modern RC view and from another angle it is at odds with most (baptistic) Evangelicals as well.

We see Vincent’s position reiterated a number of times in the thirty three chapters of this work. In referring to the errors of Origen he writes “Hence it came to pass, that this Origen, such and so great as he was, wantonly abusing the grace of God, rashly following the bent of his own genius, and placing overmuch confidence in himself, making light account of the ancient simplicity of the Christian religion, presuming that he knew more than all the world besides, despising the traditions of the Church and the determinations of the ancients, and interpreting certain passages of Scripture in a novel way, deserved for himself the warning given to the Church of God, as applicable in his case as in that of others.

In the body of the epistle it’s clear that St. Vincent believes Origen erred when he abandoned the traditional interpretation of Scripture and followed his own ideas. Origen’s errors, according to St Vincent, were that he thought too much like a modern Evangelical.

In chapter XXVII St. Vincent reinforces what he said in chapter II. He writes “in the beginning of this Commonitory, we said that holy and learned men had commended to us, that is to say, they must interpret the sacred Canon according to the traditions of the Universal Church and in keeping with the rules of Catholic doctrine, in which Catholic and Universal Church, moreover, they must follow universality, antiquity, consent.” He even goes so far as to say that “as to the more ancient schisms or heresies, we ought either to confute them, if need be, by the sole authority of the Scriptures, or at any rate, to shun them…”

In chapter XXIX St. Vincent affirms that Scripture alone is, in and of itself sufficient, but then reaffirms the importance of looking at Scripture in the light shed on it by the historic teachings of the Church. Here are his own words “it has always been the custom of Catholics, and still is, to prove the true faith in these two ways; first by the authority of the Divine Canon, and next by the tradition of the Catholic Church. Not that the Canon alone does not of itself suffice for every question, but seeing that the more part, interpreting the divine words according to their own persuasion, take up various erroneous opinions, it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church's belief,

Notice that St. Vincent here admits that the canon (i.e. the Holy Bible) will, on its own “suffice for every question.” That is not the modern RC position, but it is something that Evangelicals would readily agree with. We flip flop this situation when we look at what he next says. He writes “it is therefore necessary that the interpretation of divine Scripture should be ruled according to the one standard of the Church's belief.” This is where the modern RC and the Evangelical will switch places. The Evangelical will disagree and the RC will agree. But the classical Protestant would agree with both statements.

The Commonitory of St. Vincent is a wonderful work and sheds light on a number of important items that are not addressed here. After reading it I am now ready to return to Mathison’s book. It is proving to be a very good and very important book indeed.

Coram Deo,

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Substitutionary Atonement

Our Lord God is and always has been a gracious Lord. Even before the fall God’s relationship with man was a gracious relationship. God could have placed Adam and Eve in a wilderness, where they would have had to struggle from the beginning . Instead, Adam and Eve were placed in a garden that was able to supply all their needs. They were placed in the midst of plenty, and they were given the job of keeping the garden, but the garden was such that even this work was not hard or strenuous labour.

Some people believe that Adam could have earned salvation for him and for us had he perfectly kept God’s Word. But this is not correct; even had Adam perfectly kept God’s word God would have owed him nothing, because perfectly keeping His Law Word was Adam’s duty. His works could not then, it can not now, nor could it ever have earned eternal life. Had Adam not sinned he would have lived forever, but he would not have earned that life, it would still have been of grace and not something aquired by works. Eternal life is all of grace and it always has been.

We can see the out working of God’s grace immediately after the fall. God had told Adam "But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die." (Gen. 2:17) But this did not happen; Adam and Eve did not die, instead God killed animals and he clothed the sinners in the skins of the animals that were substituted for them.

The guilty did not die when Adam and Eve sinned. Innocent animals died in their stead, and then God covered the nakedness of the guilty party (i.e. Adam and Eve) with the skins of the animals that died in their place. Right here in the first chapters of Genesis we see the shadow of the reality of redemption that is accomplished for us in Christ Jesus.

We, like Adam and Eve, are guilty of sinning against the Lord. We, like Adam and Eve, are deserving of the wages of our sin, which is death. We see the pattern of substitutionary atonement throughout the Old Testament. This is seen in the bloody animal sacrifices that fill the pages of the Old Covenant Scriptures. Like the animals that died in the place of Adam and Eve, all the sacrifices of the Old Covenant were but shadows that pointed to the true Sacrifice for our sins.

The sacrifice of animals can not ultimately redeem us from our sins; they can only point to the true Redeemer. We see this clearly taught in Hebrews chapter nine. All those countless animal sacrifices, over several millennia, pointed to the true Sacrifice which is Jesus Christ. Because of sin someone had to die. God’s holiness and justice demanded it, but yet God’s grace allowed for a substitute. Either the sinner or the substitute had to pay the penalty for sin. We see this too in Hebrew 9. We are told that without the shedding of blood there is no remission from sin.

Jesus came to fulfill the justice of God. In Him God the Son entered His creation. The Lord became flesh and blood. He kept His own Law Word and He gave himself to pay the penalty for the sins of all that will receive eternal life. Again in Hebrews 9 we read "he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself." Jesus atoned for our sins and like the animal skins that covered Adam and Eve, our nakedness is covered by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

Dominus Vobiscum,