Church History

a presbyterian and a pentecostal walk into a bar…

I know it sounds like the start of a bad joke (and given the possible scruples of our heroes maybe a bar isn’t exactly appropriate — a church hall perhaps, or if they’re the missional church planting variety of presbyterians and pentecostals then maybe a boutique microbrewery would be more suitable). But it’s the way I often feel in my work at La Trobe University.

Presbyterians and Pentecostals are by far the dominant two church backgrounds of members of our Christians Union group. We do have members from a smattering of other denominations, of course — including a steadily-widening stream of Australian Born Chinese from independent evangelical churches enriching the soil.

That’s why it’s particularly apt that my big task in preparing for our mid-year conference on the Holy Spirit is to get on top of the work of Edward Irving.

Irving was a nineteenth century minister in the Church of Scotland (the forerunner of today’s Presbyterians) who ended up establishing his own Pentecostal denomination — the Catholic Apostolic Church.

From what I’ve read so far, two broad factors seem to have laid the groundwork for this move:

  1. His intuition that the significant role of the Holy Spirit in the incarnation, teaching and healing ministry, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus suggests that He did these things as a spirit-powered human being (and thus as a prototype for his people, now He’s poured the Spirit out).
  2. His dissatisfaction with the way regeneration had come to be understood as a matter almost entirely of individual inward renewal. This led Irving to distinguish regeneration from baptism in the Spirit, yielding what has came to be the traditional Pentecostal emphasis on speaking in tongues as the normal initial evidence of baptism in the Spirit (subsequent to conversion/regeneration).

I’ll try to let Irving speak in his own words as I explore these things in subsequent posts.

how to be Reformed on Reformation Day

It’s Reformation Day!

For the uninitiated, October 31 marks the official beginning of the sixteenth century Reformation — when Martin Luther kick-started Protestantism (although that was never his intention) by nailing his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church.

The presenting issue for Luther was the corrupt practice of selling indulgences — a means by which certain representatives of the Church claimed you could ‘buy back’ souls out of purgatory. But this protest ran far deeper than that.

In particular, the Reformation is known for the rediscovery of God’s free grace extended through Christ as the sole basis for salvation. Hence, Luther’s insistence that people are justified by grace alone through faith alone.

What’s interesting, though, is that Reformed Christianity (usually associated with John Calvin rather than Martin Luther) tends to be known not so much for salvation by grace as for the doctrine of predestination.

But let me quote to you what a certain Twentieth Century professor of Reformed theology once said about predestination:

It is there primarily for Christian preachers deliberately and quietly to consider in all that they say. They will say many and other things better and more credibly if they say them with an eye on the God who can elect and reject and with whom alone is the power and freedom to know him truly. Once the doctrine of predestination is grasped, it is the death of all Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. It has always cropped up in church history when this foe has to be resisted. Yet I would not advise that it be presented too often or expressly. It is best to show in some other way that what is at issue here has been understood.

Yes. It’s Karl Barth. From an early lecture cycle published as the Gottingen Dogmatics (18.IV).

And you take his point, right?

The doctrine of predestination is important — vital even. It underwrites everything else. We’ll “say many other things better and more credibly … with an eye on the God who can elect and reject”.

In particular, it protects the doctrine of God’s free grace and opposes perversions of it (Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism).

But it’s not the thing we should talk about most frequently or loudly. It’s not the thing we should be known for — at least not over and above an emphasis on the goodness and love and grace of God put into action in Jesus.

That is how to be Reformed on Reformation Day … and any day!

pious impudence

I’ve been getting my head into the fourth-century theologian, Gregory of Nazianzus (G-Naz to his friends). He’s the one who blessed the church with the pithy and powerful formulation, ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’ — which so beautifully and forcefully articulates the need for Christ to be fully human, entering completely into our situation, to win our redemption.

One of the other things he spoke about was something he called ‘pious impudence’. Pious impudence is an approach to the God who elects, adopts and sanctifies us that reverently but boldly asks Him to intervene for His glory and our good.

King David wrote many psalms full of pious impudence

David's psalms brim with pious impudence

Here’s an example from Gregory’s oration On His Sister Gorgonia at her funeral. It’s the conclusion to his account of the way a bout of serious illness occasioned a spiritual ‘growth spurt’ for her (Oration VIII.18):

What then did this great soul, worthy offspring of the greatest, and what was the medicine for her disorder, for we have now come to the great secret?  Despairing of all other aid, she betook herself to the Physician of all, and awaiting the silent hours of night, during a slight intermission of the disease, she approached the altar with faith, and, calling upon Him Who is honoured thereon, with a mighty cry, and every kind of invocation, calling to mind all His former works of power, and well she knew those both of ancient and of later days, at last she ventured on an act of pious and splendid effrontery…

Gregory goes on to describe how his sister begged God for healing — and was miraculously answered.

Gob-smacking details aside, it’s important to see how this moment of ‘pious and splendid effrontery’ caps off a sequence in which God is reminded of His ‘former works of power’. God’s intervention isn’t sought cavalierly. Rather, the appeal occurs within the context of a recollection of those events which express God’s character. Yet in faith an impudent appeal is launched, calling upon God to behave like Himself.

Sadly, my pious deference to God’s sovereignty often stymies any honest expression of my needs to Him — let alone a confident expectation that He will intervene for my good!


We’re doing mission this week out at St Anne’s, Merrylands. And it’s got some of us wondering…

As tradition would have it, Anne was the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus (the BVM, as they call her — Blessed Virgin Mary). And we all know the big debate — settled by some friendly gang warfare between the competing groups of monks at the Council of Ephesus in 431 A.D. — resolved that it was better to describe the BVM as theotokos, ‘God-bearer’. She was giving birth to God the Son after all!

But does that mean that Anne, her mother, should be referred to as theotokotokos, ‘God-bearer bearer’? It really makes you think … doesn’t it?

Christian conflict resolution 101 (lessons from the school of John Calvin) — part one

Michael’s overview of Luther’s position on the Lord’s Supper gives me a convenient excuse to reflect a little on what we can learn from the tragic dispute over precisely this issue that drove a wedge between the German and Swiss arms of the Reformation.

I did a bit of work on this a couple of years ago. And the part Calvin played in attempting to resolve this dispute left a distinct impression on me. Almost from the moment he rose to prominence as a Reformer he was swept up in the ongoing international attempt to repair the breach. I’ve distilled the following six ‘lessons’ with illustrations from his efforts at conciliation (first two today, next four tomorrow):

  1. While we cannot stick our head in the sand and pretend about the reality of conflict, pursuing resolution is not an optional extra for Christian people. The way Calvin avoided the two classic temptations when it comes to conflict resolution — either pretend it’s not a problem or make everything about this one issue — is nicely put by Ronald Wallace when he points out that while Calvin lamented that ‘controversy over this central issue should have shown the Church so tragically rent at the place where her unity should be most openly shown’, he was convinced that the solution did not ‘lie in avoiding frank and frequent discussion of points of controversy’.
  2. Although it’s right to recognise that there’s probably at least something to be said for the perspective of both sides, truth really matters in the search for resolution. Calvin’s sympathies with both the Lutheran and the Swiss position were undisguised and often repeated. He was also convinced that the distance between them was not so great as some imagined. In his Short Treatise on the Holy Supper of Our Lord Jesus Christ (1541), he highlighted what both parties had in common: ‘We all then confess with one mouth, that on receiving the sacrament in faith, according to the ordinance of the Lord, we are truly made partakers of the proper substance of the body and blood of Jesus Christ’. Yet this certainly didn’t lead to him paper over the very real differences; he insisted that how we partake of ‘the proper substance’ of Christ’s body and blood ‘some may deduce better and explain more clearly than others’. Thus, he wouldn’t settle for deliberate ambiguity — he reacted strongly when that approach was apparently taken by Bucer and Melanchthon at Ratisbon in 1540, saying that ‘this policy does not please me’. Instead, he embraced the strongly realistic language used in Scripture to describe our participation in Christ (as did the Lutherans), while also carefully qualifying and nuancing it (in a similar manner to Zwingli and his followers)

ok, so Athanasius wasn’t all bad

athanasius_i1Actually, he’s one of my heroes.

I really only expressed my disappointment in the (ahem) ferocity of some of his polemics in order to balance out the shameless piece of Whig historiography posted over at the Resurgence.

From my point of view, the high water mark of his career was his orchestration of the Council of Alexandria (362 AD). There, the various groups opposing the Arian heresy — which denied the unity of being of the Son and the Father in the Godhead — although previously not quite seeing eye to eye, managed to forge something of a consensus.

This was achieved (in a manner anticipating the later Council of Chalcedon) first by clearly identifying those constructions of the doctrine of God which were agreed to be unacceptable. It then moved to clarify the important terms favoured by the different groups. Yet without simply upholding the preferred terms of one party over against the others.

So for those who insisted that Father, Son and Spirit are three ‘persons’, it ensured that this not be understood to imply three separate independent beings, different in essence from each other. (That would be polytheism.)

Conversely, for those wanted to speak of God as one ‘person’, it made sure they didn’t mean to compromise the real distinctions between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (That way lies modalism, where any differences between the persons of the Trinity are ultimately unreal, just matters of the ‘mode’ appropriate to each stage of salvation history — the Father in creation, the Son in reconciliation and the Spirit in perfecting the redemption of the creation.)

The emphasis of the Council thus fell on determining what each party did — and didn’t — mean by their favoured terms. And so an important step towards doctrinal agreement was taken. Of course, it would be going too far to say that the Council cleared up all the confusion. Yet R. P. C. Hanson (The Search For The Christian Doctrine of God, p 645) points out, ‘at least the confusion had been identified, and the way was open for a younger generation of theologians’ to hammer out what we now consider orthodoxy.

Huzzah for Athanasius!

Athanasius at his best

One of the awesome things about reading Christian thinkers from previous generations is seeing just how differently from us they argue. Take a casual glance at Calvin or Athanasius (not to mention the original Mr Potty Mouth, Martin Luther) and you’ll notice that things get very heated — very quickly.

Take this little beauty from the start of Athanasius’s second Discourse Against the Arians, for example:

I did indeed think that enough had been said already against the hollow professors of Arius’s madness, whether for their refutation or in the truth’s behalf, to insure a cessation and repentance of their evil thoughts and words about the Saviour. They, however, for whatever reason, still do not succumb; but, as swine and dogs wallow in their own vomit and their own mire, rather invent new expedients for their irreligion.


Does it remind anyone else of the (now-defunct) Sydney Anglican forums?