How to Check Flaky Theology?

MartinLuther95ThesesIn just a few days, on October 29th, many millions of non-Catholic Christians will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On that day, in 1517, priestly monk Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-Five Theses” that came thundering down upon his church, the Roman Catholic Church. This document consisted of 95 sentences that mostly condemned the Church’s practice of indulgences and declared that salvation is a gift of God based on believing in Jesus as Savior. It occurred in Wittenberg, a college town where Dr. Luther taught. Legend has it that Martin nailed his blistering indictment to the front door of the Wittenberg Church. But that is now largely refuted. It appears that he presented it to church leaders. In this document, he challenges any qualified person to debate him or at least discuss it. This event changed the world, at least the western world, like few others.

In commemoration of this historic event, the October issue of Christianity Today has some articles dedicated to it. One is entitled “Catholic but not Roman.” It includes a statement of faith called The Reforming Catholic Confession. It was engineered by a Steering Committee of ten men and a Drafting Committee of eighteen. The Confession is a two-page doctrinal statement that begins with this introduction, “WHAT WE, PROTESTANTS OF DIVERSE CHURCHES AND THEOLOGICAL TRADITIONS, SAY TOGETHER.” As many church denominational doctrinal statements or creeds, it has categories as follows: Triune God, Holy Scripture, Humans Beings, Fallenness, Jesus Christ, The Atoning Work of Christ, The Gospel, The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, The Church, Baptism and Lord’s Supper, Holy Living, Last Things.

This CT issue also has an article by Jen Wilson entitled “Fact-Checking for Flaky Theology.” In it she advocates checking our theology with the Bible. I’m all for that! But do people really do it? And can they be objective in doing so? Martin Luther did that when he wrote his theses. Wilson says, “Think fake news is scary? You should try false teaching.” She calls for “the scriptural accuracy of the message.” She declares rightly, “We learn to spot a lie by studying the truth…. Churches must return to teaching the Bible…. We must teach them [parishioners] to think critically about the text, employ time-honored interpretations, and reference reliable measures of orthodoxy.”

Wilson’s last statement above can be a contradiction. How about critically examining time-honored interpretations of the Bible made by fallible human beings, such as the doctrine of the Trinity which occurs as the first category in The Reforming Catholic Confession. It says, actually begins, as most such confessions by churches do, “We believe … That there is one God.” Then it says this one God “has life in himself.” The word “himself” is a pronoun referring to a single entity or person. Then the same sentence says this “one God” exists “in three persons–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit … co-equal in nature, majesty, and glory.”

This confessional statement does not explain how the “one God” is a “himself” and exists “in” three persons. And they don’t really mean “in” but “is,” which is quite typical. Jesus taught clearly that God, whom he called Father, indwells himself–Jesus. For he said, “I am in the Father, and the Father is in me” (John 14.10-11; cf. 10.38 NRSV). He said the result was, “Whoever has seen me, has seen the Father” (14.9; cf. 12.45). None of these statements can be construed to mean that Jesus claimed to be God or Father. Yet many Christians make this error in their uncritical thinking. Jesus taught he and the Father indwell us Christians (John 14.20, 23). Paul’s favorite expression for this indwelling is that believers are “in Christ.” Conversely, he says the same as Jesus, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1.27).

In fact-checking the Bible, where does it say God is “in” three persons, much less “is” three persons? Nowhere! But this Confession gets worse as we fact-check it with the Bible. For, the third category in this Confession is entitled Human Beings. It says, “God communicates his goodness … to human beings, whom he has made in his one image.” A human being is a single person. How does that coincide with God being three persons? That is, if God is three persons, and this “Triune God,” as the first category is titled, made humans in its/his own image, then wouldn’t each human have to be triune as well, that is, a tri-personal being? To say humans are made in the image of the triune God because humans consist of body, soul, and spirit, is making an unjust comparison. We are talking about persons, here. Besides, most Christians say God doesn’t have a body. So, if God is three persons then each human being would have to be three persons. Since they are not, these statements in the Confession must be false teaching.

In this Confession, the category entitled “Jesus Christ” says he is “the eternal Son of God.” In fact-checking the Bible, it doesn’t say anything of the sort. It says Jesus is “the Son of God,” but never “the eternal Son of God.” Again, as the “in” in the Triune God statement, this expression is not very clear. It’s drafters intended to say Jesus eternally preexisted as the Son of God before his birth. But the Bible never explicitly says that.

In doing some Bible fact-checking, Luke records that the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and said to her, “Mary, you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High,… The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1.30-35).

There is nothing in this Lukan text that would cause us to think Jesus preexisted his birth as a human being. And the angel’s twice mention that Jesus would be called “(the) Son of God” (actually, no article in Greek text in either case) would be understood by an unbiased reader to mean he exists as Son of God only from the time he is born. And the expression “son(s) of God” appears multiple times in the Old Testament, being applied to men, angels, and Israel’s king; yet it never says they preexisted a birth.

The category “Jesus Christ” in this Reforming Catholic Confession also says, “the only Mediator (solus Christus) between God and humanity.” How can Jesus be such a mediator if he himself is also that God? That is not sensible. Furthermore, this statement says Jesus is “one person with two natures, truly God and truly man.” Both of these clauses originate with the Chalcedonian confession and the Nicene Creed, which were determined at the fifth and first Catholic ecumenical councils, respectively. But there is nothing at all in the Bible that says Jesus has two natures, not even close! That is a human deduction, an interpretation, of the Bible. So, it is not a Bible fact.

To conclude, remember that we’re talking about fact-checking the Bible. Jen Wilson in her article says, “we must point our people back to the Bible, to what God really said” (emphasis hers). Really! Then where does God say in the Bible he is three persons. Where does Jesus say he is God. It’s not in John 10.30, which some Christians cite, wherein Jesus said, “I and the Father are one.” That interpretation ignores Jesus’ context, in which he had just said that he and the Father work together in protecting the sheep–us believers. That refers to a unity in purpose, not the two being the same essence, as some have claimed. (Cf. “one” [Gr. hen] in John 17.21.) And where does Jesus or anyone say in the Bible that Jesus has two natures? All of these things are deductions made by church fathers. Church fathers were fallible men. They could have gotten some things wrong. That’s why Jen Wilkin is right, that we should fact-check our theological beliefs by comparing them with the Bible. We might discover that we had some things wrong.

That’s what happened to me. I believed in the doctrine of the Trinity for twenty-two years and then fact-checked it with the Bible. I then discovered to my surprise that this doctrine is false teaching. The Reformation needs to continue because the Reformers bypassed this doctrine handed down by Catholic church fathers. We need to fact-check it with the Bible. See my book The Restitution of Jesus Christ (2009), available right now only at my website kermitzarley.com.

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