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Posts Tagged ‘Eastern Orthodoxy’


A Christian's Pocket Guide to How We Got the Bible (Pocket Guides)Another free book I got at the RTS Alumni and Friends lunch was How We Got the Bible: Old and New Testament Canon and Text by Greg Lanier. It is part of the Christian’s Pocket Guide series by Christian Focus books.

As the title indicates this is a brief introductory study into understanding why the books in the Bible are in the Bible and whether we have an accurate text. Modern scholarship and the media have been busy to undermine our confidence in the Scriptures, and Islam has also been at work to distort people’s view of the Scriptures.

Lanier briefly summarizes the need for this information. He addresses these questions in 6 chapters, though the last is just a few pages as he offers concluding thoughts. He wanted to provide a brief, non-academic book so lay people can have answers they need when challenges to the canon or the texts arise, and they do.

Canon has to do with which books belong, and don’t belong in the Bible. Textual criticism has to do with understanding which texts are the best, or most accurately reflect the original manuscripts.

He begins with understanding the Bible as a Divine Deposit. There have been books that have been discovered that some argue should be in the Bible. Novelists like Dan Brown have had popular stories that argue that the Church has conspired to keep these books out of the Bible. How can we know that these “lost books of the Bible” aren’t really part of the Bible?

Muslims often argue that the Church has changed the Bible since the rise of Islam since they think Muhammad is one of God’s prophets. They want their understanding of the Bible to supplant historic Christianity’s understanding of the Bible.

He defines Scripture as:

“the inspired deposit of writings received as divinely authoritative for the covenant community.”

This is an important definition. We believe they are writings that have been inspired or breathed by God. They were received by the covenant community. This is a distinctively Protestant view. We do not think the Church formed the canon, but rather received it. Scripture is also a covenant document intended for God’s people to know who He is, who we are with respect to Him, what He does for us and also what He requires of us. The first chapter unpacks these ideas in a succinct and clear fashion. It provides the foundation for the next 4 chapters in which he addresses the canon and then text of the Old and then New Testaments or covenants.

The question of the Old Testament canon identifies differences not only regarding “lost books” but differences between Protestants, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox with regard to the Apocrypha. Protestants recognize the Jewish canon, those books recognized by Jews as divinely inspired covenant documents. He explains the three-fold shape of the Old Testament: Law, Prophets and Writings. Law, or Torah, came first and relates the giving of the Old Covenant. The Prophets apply the covenant to the people in later times, and hold out the promise of the new covenant. These cite the Law as divinely inspired. Many of the prophets will also affirm the message of earlier prophets as divinely inspired, as well as often claiming such inspiration for themselves in prophetic formula. The writings contain sections also found in the Law and Prophets.

In terms of the Apocrypha there is little evidence that those books, or additional chapters were understood by Jewish communities as divinely inspired. In the early church there was little agreement about them. This means a few people may have included some of them but most did not. Augustine, for instance, affirmed all found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. The Eastern Orthodox Church followed his lead. Jerome used them as helpful but did not admit them as authoritative. This view held in the Roman Church until the Council of Trent which declared they were part of Scripture.

The Protestant churches have followed Jerome in finding them (possibly) helpful but not authoritative for faith and life. Some, like Calvin, thought they could be helpful. Most Protestant Bibles don’t contain them, and they are not generally read by most Protestants.

Moving to the text themselves, Lanier discusses the kinds of manuscripts we have and how they compare with one another. Another factor is the translations of the Old Testament we have, which themselves are over 2,000 years old. Those would be Greek, Samaritan, Aramaic, Latin and others. As a result we have many manuscripts and fragments to compare and find the best to form the texts that serve as the basis for our modern translations. The God who inspired the Old Testament texts also preserved them sufficiently for us.

Lanier then moves on to the canon of the New Testament. Contrary to Dan Brown’s fictional assertions, there was no council to form the canon. The canon is those books that were used and recognized by the early church. In this he discusses the centrality of the gospel, or new covenant, eyewitnesses, oral and written records. Unlike the books we find in our Bibles, these “lost books” were not received and recognized by the early church. Those who affirmed them we recognized as heretics. There are some books that the early church did use, like the Didache, which they found helpful but never recognized as inspired and authoritative. We see this from how the church fathers write about them.

from NT Bad Arguments

We then move into the question of whether we have the right words. He brings up former Christian and current skeptic Bart Ehrman. He can’t thoroughly refute Ehrman’s arguments, but generally refutes them. He mentions the Muslim doctrine of tahrif al-nass which states that “Jews and Christians have intentionally corrupted the text. As a result the NT doesn’t mention Muhammad (let’s ignore that it was written 500+ years before Muhammad). The text that Muhammad affirmed in 600 is older than many of the manuscripts we have today. Their doctrine is an illogical red herring.

He begins with discussing where our English Bible comes from. This refers to the formation of the Greek texts used in the vast majority of translations. We return to the large number of manuscripts available to us that have been found in archeological digs and copies by scribes. The relative number of differences is small, and largely insignificant. He discusses scribal errors and corrections, as well as how the better copyists provided marginal notes which help us as well. We also have ancient Latin, Syriac and Coptic translations.

He does all of this efficiently. He doesn’t ignore issues or sweep them under the rug. He instead shows how we’ve worked to find the oldest and best manuscripts to get closest to the autographs using a variety of sources. Integrity is revealed in our footnotes where the most significant issues in our translations are there for all to see. Lanier handles the task well and understandably. You won’t be an expert after reading this, but you’ll have a good idea of how to address many of the most significant objections raised.

I will close with his closing thoughts.

  1. We should be clear on what Scripture is in the first place.
  2. We should have confidence that we do have the ‘right’ OT/NT books.
  3. We should have confidence that we have the ‘right’ words of the OT/NT.

“How did we get the Bible? The answer to this question driving this book is clear. ‘Men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,’ and the written deposit has been transmitted in the covenant community with high integrity, by the providence of God, ever since. Through these Scriptures, we are all, now, witnesses of these things: Christ suffered and died and on the third day rose again, so that repentance and the forgiveness of sins may be proclaimed to all the nations.”

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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One of the joys of being a Presbyterian pastor is voting on changes in the Book of Church Order. While I was a member of the ARP this was a joy I had infrequently. As a member of the PCA, it is one I have more often than I would like.

This summer at General Assembly, we had an Overture to explicitly prohibit the practice of intinction, or dipping the bread into the wine (or more commonly grape juice) when administering communion. I have had some experience in my life with the practice. At times in my youth, the Roman Catholic Church would practice it. How they administered communion kept changing. If you were away for awhile you could safely wonder how it was being done “now”.

http://ts3.mm.bing.net/th?id=H.4547422006740054&pid=15.1I personally do not like intinction. We did dip one Sunday in the church in which I am pastor because we thought we had run out of communion cups. We celebrate weekly communion. It was a pragmatic decision based on our circumstances. It seemed less problematic than withholding the means of grace from the congregation. We actually had a new box of cups tucked away in the Administrative Assistant’s office. Surely the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover our numerous failings that day.

I view intinction as irregular. I refrain from using the term novelty, though in some senses it is appropriate. It is not taught in Scripture, and therefore a novelty. But it is not new. The Eastern Church has practiced it for many a century. It has been practiced at times in the Church of Rome. It does not have an extensive history, as far as I know, among Protestants. Therefore another word we could use is heteropraxy.

The issue for me is this: is it so irregular that we should censure those who practice it?

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“In Christ” is one of Paul’s favorite phrases. A parallel phrase he uses is “with Christ”. Both of these phrases are his shorthand for union with Christ. This is undeniably one of the most important theological concepts in the Scriptures, for our salvation is “in Christ”. Yet, this subject has been largely ignored by theologians for over 100 years. The contemporary church is much weaker as a result of the neglect of this foundational doctrine.

There have been a much needed spate of books that have sought to address this weakness and restore this doctrine to its rightful place in our minds and hearts. That this took so long reveals one of the weaknesses of the current state of publishing. Even Christian publishers are too focused on sales at the expense of needed truth. Thankfully, some smaller publishers have been acting contrary to common practice.

One of the authors of these books is Robert Letham. I must confess that I had not read any of his books, nor owned any until this past year. Now I own three of his books, including Union with Christ: In Scripture, History, and Theology. It shares its subtitle with his book on another neglected subject, the Trinity. The other work of his I recently purchased and began to read is on the also neglected Work of Christ (part of the excellent Contours of Christian Theology series).

Letham, for those unfamiliar with him, is the Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. He has advanced degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary and the University of Aberdeen. The book has an academic feel to it, and I was intellectually stretched while reading much of it. This is not a bad thing, people. This is not a fluffy topic, but one that requires rigorous thinking in addition to the illumination of the Spirit to grasp.

I was well rewarded for my efforts. This book is only about 140 pages long, but it is a dense 140 pages. It is full of meat as he grapples with the topic at hand. True to the subtitle, Letham examines Scripture, the history of the Church and theological formulations to help us understand and apply this most important subject. The importance of this subject is evidenced by how many doctrines Letham addresses in the course of examining it: creation, incarnation, the atonement, justification, adoption, resurrection, sanctification etc.

“Because man was created in the image of God, he was made for communion with God, to rule God’s creation on his behalf.”

Letham begins with creation, which surprised me. But since Jesus is the 2nd Adam, this is the best place to begin. Humanity’s communion with God was destroyed by the first Adam’s sin. Jesus would become man in order to restore this communion, and be the means of that communion. So you see that the book takes a few unexpected twists (I’ll be interested to see how the other books I’ve picked up on the subject work thru this). He spends a chapter on the Incarnation, surveying the development of the doctrine. The Eternal Son united himself with human nature, joining Himself with humanity in order to secure our salvation. In salvation, He then unites Himself with the elect as the means of their salvation thru the Spirit. We only partake of the benefits of salvation if we are so united to Him. This is one of the tougher chapters since it grapples with the nature of the hypostatic union. He traces its development through the ecumenical councils and expressions by Athanasius, Cyril, Nestorius and others. He also shows how this is not neglected by the Westminster Confession of Faith but expressed most often in the Larger Catechism.

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After examining church history, the Reformed Confessions and the Old Testament, Cornelius Venema turns his attention, and ours, to the New Testament in Children at the Lord’s Table?.  He is looking to see if the claims for infant communion can be found in the New Testament. Well, most of the New Testament. He saves 1 Corinthians 11 for a chapter of its own since that passage is so important to the discussion. Venema plays his hand on the first page of the chapter by noting that like with the Old Testament, the New does not address the question as clearly as we might want.

He begins with a puzzling thought- “the alleged analogy between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper.” You have to be patient and not pull a knee jerk reaction to the statement. This is one of the most important aspects of the argument for infant communion. He does not deny a connection, but builds a case for it being connected to all the covenant meals. But before we get too far ahead, he surveys the types of NT evidence we encounter. The first are the account of the Lord’s Supper in the synoptic Gospels.  Second, there are texts that allude generally to the celebration of the Supper by the new covenant community (descriptive). Third, there are texts that address how it should be observed (prescriptive).  Fourth, there are passages describing who should observe it (1 Corinthians 10-11), which is also prescriptive in nature.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper, as recorded in the Synoptic Gospels do not directly address the issue to whether children may participate. There is no mention of a household celebration here. He is reclining at the table with his 12 disciples- all adult males.  They had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. But it also differs from the Passover in a few ways. While the Passover was seen as a sign of the covenant, it was not seen as conferring grace. It was a memorial of God’s redemption of Israel. It functioned as a reminder, and a call to trust in this same God. But there did not seem to be a “sacramental” function. Zwingli would be happy. But, as we will see in 1 Corinthians, there is blessing and cursing involved in the Supper. It is no mere memorial (sorry, Zwingli). We also see that Jesus expected them to celebrate it more frequently than once a year. It was to be a regular part of worship for the covenant community. But partaking in the Supper also seem to require “remembrance”.  There is a remembering and doing involved here. It seems to require active participation in a way that baptism does not. The language of “blood of the new covenant”, as noted earlier, point us to the covenant ratification ceremony on Sinai (Exodus 24), not simply the Passover.

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While I was in seminary the topic of paedocommunion (infants receiving communion) was largely unaddressed. I may have overheard a conversation or two, but it was very much under the radar. During my time in the ARP, the subject was not even on the map. While candidating for a position in a PCA church in New Jersey, the retired minister who was their stated supply encouraged me to study this subject (and I thought “why?!”).

Now that I am in the PCA it is time. There are pastors who hold to this view, though they are not permitted to practice it. One of my elders read Children at the Lord’s Table? by Cornelius Venema so I decided to read it for myself.

“Though it is true that the church’s practice ought to be formed by the teaching of the Scriptures, which are the supreme standard for faith and practice, the Reformed churches read the Scriptures in the company of the whole church and may not ignore the lessons of history.”

The first argument for paedocommunion that Venema examines is the argument from church history. As noted above, sola scriptura is about our final authority regarding practice. Properly applied we also examine church history and historical theology to see how the church has thought and acted in the past. We recognize that the Spirit has been instructing the church in the meaning of the Scriptures for 2,000 years. We don’t start from scratch. But not all the church has thought or done has been in accord with the Scriptures.

Those arguing for infant communion assert an early and widespread practice of infant communion. They claim that the western church has departed from this practice and should return to the practice. Venema examines this claim first. He notes the ample early evidence for infant baptism (he depends upon Jeremias’ work). The evidence for infant communion is note nearly as strong or as early. The first clear statement affirming the practice of infant communion is from Cyprian in the middle of the 3rd century. Prior to this we find statements indicating the church did not practice infant communion. For instance, Justin Martyr (mid-2nd century) says that “no one is allowed to partake but the man (person) who believes that the things which we teach are true…” (First Apology). So the practice he was familiar with was communion after a period of instruction in the faith. Clement of Alexandria (150-219) also teaches that those who receive it have been instructed and receive it “by faith” in Instructor and The Stromata. In the east, Origen, also says that children were not given communion in his Homilies on the Book of Judges.

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