A friendly discussion on the Real Presence and the Eucharist: Andrew Harland-Smith’s opening statement

Christ is for everyone! will be hosting a friendly discussion between myself and Andrew Harland-Smith on the topic of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Here is Andrew’s opening statement, titled “The Real Presence as the Means of Christification.”


The Real Presence as the Means of Christification

Introduction and Structure

1. A Definition of the Real Presence

When I say that Christ is really and corporeally present in the Eucharist, I mean to say that Christ’s body and blood are physically present ex opere operato in the elements.

Further, Christ’s body and blood are present ex opere operato just in case their presence in the elements is metaphysically independent of the merits of either the minister or the recipient. Alternatively, contra Calvin, Christ is not present to those who receive the Eucharist by faith. Rather, Christ’s presence is prior to faith.

As a side note, focussing on the real corporeal presence of Christ in the eucharist might be somewhat misleading. Largely because such a focus might give the impression that Christ is present only in the bread and the wine, not in the wider Divine Liturgy. But perhaps we can return to that point somewhat further down the line. For the time being, we can justifiably focus on the narrower proposition that Christ is corporeally present in the elements.

For the sake of convenience, refer to this view as the “Real Presence”. This will be a contentious move for some; particularly for those after Calvin, who insist that his is a “Real Presence view”. For present purposes however, the point of contention is between those who, like Steven, affirm a broadly memorialist account of the Eucharist, and those who, like myself, affirm Christ’s corporeal presence.

2. The Structure of My Argument

My argument for the Real Presence proceeds in two key movements. In the first, I contend that ontological Union with Christ is central to the Christian scheme of salvation. This I contend, follows from a classical understanding of God as the source and ground of our being.

In the second, I contend that, as essentially (and not contingently) embodied creatures, our ontic union with Christ is effected only through Christ’s corporeal presence to each of us. Just as a husband must be present to his wife to be united with her, so likewise, union with Christ requires His presence to us.

Ontological Union with Christ

1. Defining Union with Christ

When I talk about ontological union with Christ, I have in mind what some refer to as the “mystical union”. Though for the sake of precision, we might instead talk about “subjective or personal union with Christ”. Some caution is required however, as the term “subjective” may be apt to mislead. Particularly if you imagine me to be saying that our union with Christ is nothing more than a matter of how we feel internally; of some ephemeral affect scarcely distinguishable from indigestion.

Suffice to say, that is not what I mean by “Union with Christ”. Rather, I have in mind the notion that Christ indwells or, better yet, penetrates, our being. I hesitate to describe the relationship between ourselves and Christ in terms of “perichoresis”. Nonetheless, the relationship between ourselves is, in an important sense, analogous to perichoresis.

2. The Centrality of Union with Christ

Steven and I, are Classical Theists. Specifically, we maintain that God is not a being, as if He were but one instance of a broader category. Rather, we both insist that God is Being itself; that other existing things merely participate in Being, in God Himself. In fact, Steven has a great video on youtube entitled “Do Things Exist Inertially?”, that I have found particularly useful in coming to terms with this conception of God and His relation to Being.

In any event, grant that the two of us are right. Grant that is, that God is Being itself; that insofar as we exist, we merely participate in Him. If then sin is, or at any rate involves, a separation from God, its effects cannot be merely moral or legal, but must rather be metaphysical. More directly, sin does more than put us in a position of normative debt to God. More than anything else, through our sin, we cut ourselves off from the source of our being. Hence I think, why the scriptures say that “wages of sin” is death. It’s not so much that God looks at our sin, is displeased with it, and so responsively imposes the death penalty upon us. It’s rather more that through sin, we withhold ourselves from God, and so from the source of our being.

Hence also why the scriptures illustrate the human condition post Eden through the motif of a fall. Because God is Being itself (Being in which we participate), the nature of the Divine-Human relationship is necessarily vertical. Insofar then, as it involves a separation from God, sin necessarily involves a lurch down the chain of being.

Granted that sin creates for us these essentially metaphysical difficulties, it follows that salvation cannot merely be a state of affairs obtaining in virtue of God choosing to remit the normative debt that we owe to Him. Rather, it will need to involve a change in the way we ontologically related to God as the source of our being. More directly, redemption will require that we ascend the chain of being.

For the Christian, this is precisely the point of the incarnation. God becomes human in the person of Jesus, not merely to satisfy some normative debt that we have incurred, but to unite Himself to us, and by so doing, serve as the ontological bridge between ourselves and Divinity. Hence in Ephesians 2 verses 4 and 5, St Paul writes variously that we are “made alive together with Christ”, “and raised up with Him…”.

The critical point to observe here, is that participation in God is assured through Union with Christ. Alternatively put, we are united to The Father because we are united in the first instance, to The Son. Hence I think, the meaning of Christ’s famous statement “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to The Father except through me”.

From Ontological Union to Real Presence

1. To the Real Presence in Some Sense

Nothing I have said is anything with which Steven ought necessarily to disagree. In fact, I take it that what I have said so far is nothing more than an orthodox articulation of the gospel. At the fall, we are separated from God; from God who is the source and ground of our being. But through the incarnation, we unite to Christ and so to God; to God in whom we once again live, and move, and have our being.

Given the central role that union with Christ plays in any orthodox scheme of salvation, the question that matters, is by what means are we, as individuals, united in our being to Christ? Here I maintain that Christ himself must be really present to each and every one of us. Just as a husband must be present to his wife to be united to her, so likewise, Christ must be really present to each of us, in order that we might be united to Him.

The aptness of this analogy to marriage is, I think, particularly clear in light of Ephesians 5:22 and following, where St Paul explicitly likens the relationship between Himself and his Church, to that of the husband and a wife. There we see the suggestion that the marriage bond is a mirror image of the relation that Christ bears to His Church.

Insofar then, as Christ is the consummate husband, He is really present to each of us; not a distant reality accessible only in thought or memory, but really and metaphysically here with each of us; hence our capacity to unite ontologically, with Him.

Notice, nothing I have hitherto said, leads necessarily to the conclusion that Christ is corporeally present to us. What matters for the purposes of this section 3a however, is simply that there is some sense in which He is present to us. Whatever that sense might be.

2. To the Real Corporeal Presence

Having said that, I do think that Christ is corporeally present to each of us. He is not ‘present’ to us in some vague ‘spiritual’ sense (though I rather despise this dichotomisation of physicality and spirituality). Rather, He is present to each of us physically; hence our physical and not merely emotional or intellectual union with Christ.

I take it after all, that the whole of our being is united to Christ: body and soul. Alternatively put, it is not merely our immaterial soul (if even we have such things) that is united to Christ. Rather, inasmuch as we are essentially, and not contingently embodied creatures, it seems to me that ‘our’ redemption requires a union with Christ that is as much bodily as it is ‘spiritual’.

The question that matters then, is not merely how it is that we are united to Christ, but how it is that we are physically united to Him. Here St Paul’s analogy to marriage presses itself with greater force: by what means can a husband be physically united to his wife granted that he is not physically present to her?

To avoid all doubt, the sexual imagery conjured by this analogy is specifically intended. It seems likely to me at any rate, that the power of St Paul’s analogy consists precisely in its suggestion that conjugal union is a “fractal pattern” of Christ’s union with His Church.

In any event, the suggestion that union with Christ is as much physical as it is spiritual, should be familiar. In 1 Cor 6:15-16 St Paul urges that we “flee sexual immorality”; the essence of his reason being, that our bodies are members of Christ. Specifically, citing the ‘one-flesh’ nature of the marriage bond (Gen 2:24), St Paul reasons that to ‘unite’ to the ‘sexually immoral’, is, given our own physical union with Christ, to make the sexually immoral, members of Christ.

Here the explanatory power of the Real Corporeal presence becomes clear. Given that Christ is really and physically present in the elements, union with Christ in body and soul is unsurprising. Because we physically receive Christ, and so God, into our bodies, it is no surprise that our union with Christ as much bodily as it is spiritual.

If however, Christ is not really present in the Eucharist, if it is simply a commemoration of a distant reality, our bodily union with Christ is a surprise. Particularly if, as Steven appears to suggest, such union is effected through the Eucharist. Steven writes for instance, that in the Eucharist we appropriate Christ’s sacrifice to ourselves. And no doubt he is correct. The question however, is how it is that the Eucharist can effect bodily union with Christ granted that He is not physically present.


Thanks to Jesse Roach and Dan Vecchio for their invaluable assistance.

How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant?

Another common point of contention between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians is that of the role of the Church Fathers for Christian theology.

Many people are of the opinion that taking the Church Fathers “seriously” means abandoning Protestantism for either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. In my personal opinion, this is a myth most often put forth by people who have not read very much serious Protestant theology for themselves. In the first place, the Protestant Reformers were constantly citing from the Church Fathers in support of their positions. Moreover, the most important contemporary Protestant theologians were well-versed in the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology more generally, such as Karl Barth, TF Torrance, Jürgen Moltmann, and Wolfhart Pannenberg. Now these figures may agree or disagree with the Church Fathers to various extents, but my point is only that it is a myth that Protestants either do not or cannot take the Church Fathers and the history of Christian theology seriously.

What I want to do in this brief post is to share some of my own thoughts in response to the question: How to do theology with the Church Fathers as a Protestant? By way of answering this inquiry, I would like to propose four theses.

Thesis 1: Theology is an ongoing conversation in search of the truth.

Christian theology has always been a dynamic ongoing conversation. The earliest Christians did not agree with each other about how to understand the significance of Christ and of the revelation and salvation that He brought. Some of them thought that the Gentiles who believed in Christ still had to obey the Law of Moses and to be circumcised, while others (notably, the apostles) did not. Some of the earliest Christians thought that Christ did not have a true human nature, while others (e.g., the apostle John) insisted that He did. Some of the earliest Christians thought that it was permissible to eat meat from animals sacrificed to idols (e.g., the Nicolaitans from Rev 2:14; and Paul seems to think that, considered in itself, it is a matter of indifference in 1 Cor 10), while others disagreed. So also, Christians disagreed among themselves in later generations of the Church as well. They disagreed about any number of issues: the precise sense in which Christ is the Son of God; whether and how the Holy Spirit is God; how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are related; how the two natures of Christ relate to each other; how free will and divine providence are related to each other; whether all human beings will eventually be saved or not; whether it is permissible to use images in worship and to venerate icons; whether the baptism administered by heretical groups is valid; whether there can be forgiveness for grave sins committed after baptism; whether a person should be baptized as an adult or whether it is permissible to baptize children; whether sacraments administered by an immoral priest are still valid; and so on. This means that, from the very beginning, there has never been unanimous consensus on any theological issue in the Church.

Now, the Church has outlived all of the Church Fathers. They died and went on their way to the Lord. Each one has presumably received the appropriate recompense for his or her work, but in the meantime the Church continues on Earth. Time did not stop in the eighth century! The conversation of Christian theology also continues. Many of the issues debated in the early days are still debated even now. Doing theology with the Church Fathers means knowing their contributions to these ongoing conversations and appreciating the perspective they were trying to put forth for others. Joining an ongoing conversation responsibly means knowing what was said before one joined in. But it does not mean simply accepting whatever the previous contributors said, as if the fact that they had said it settled the matter. New things are being said, and even the arguments of the Church Fathers themselves are not unanimously convincing to later participants in the conversation. For example, hardly anyone would endorse precisely each argument given by the Church Fathers for the doctrine of the Incarnation, or for the Trinity, or for any other particular theological issue. One can think that they were right about a thesis without endorsing the arguments they put forth for the thesis. But when you do that, you take for granted that the conversation continues beyond their contribution, going forward into the future.

For a Protestant like me, theology is an ongoing conversation that will never be complete until the Day of the Lord. It proceeds on the basis of the revelation of Christ, and seeks to deepen its appreciation of this revelation as time goes on. But only on the last day will faith give way to sight (cf. 1 Cor 13). The conversation of theology thus does not have a “stopping point” sometime in the past, as though all that needed to be said was said.

Thesis 2: In an ongoing conversation, it is possible both to agree and to disagree.

A genuine conversation means that at least two persons are permitted to express their opinions about what is being discussed. Now, many people treat theology as if it were not a conversation for all Christians. They talk about the Church Fathers as if they were university lecturers introducing freshmen students to a complex subject for the first time: they speak and are listened to; they are not themselves taught or questioned or corrected. They may appeal to the fact that Church Fathers are nearly all of them churchmen in some way or other: bishops and priests, etc. They might even appeal to a biblical text like 2 Pet 1:20, which says: “No prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” But this is a grossly inappropriate way to think about these things.

In the first place, the Church Fathers themselves did not have this attitude about what they wrote. At the end of a discussion about the person of Jesus in his On First Principles, Origen says this:

The above, meanwhile, are the thoughts which have occurred to us, when treating of subjects of such difficulty as the incarnation and deity of Christ. If there be any one, indeed, who can discover something better, and who can establish his assertions by clearer proofs from holy Scriptures, let his opinion be received in preference to mine.

Origen, On First Principles II, 6, 7

And Augustine:

For the reasonings of any men whatsoever, even though they be Catholics, and of high reputation, are not to be treated by us in the same way as the canonical Scriptures are treated. We are at liberty, without doing any violence to the respect which these men deserve, to condemn and reject anything in their writings, if perchance we shall find that they have entertained opinions differing from that which others or we ourselves have, by the divine help, discovered to be the truth. I deal thus with the writings of others, and I wish my intelligent readers to deal thus with mine.

Augustine, Letter 148 to Fortunatianus IV, 15

And for good measure, consider this line from Cyril of Jerusalem:

For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.

Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 4, 17

Thus, at least these Church Fathers themselves did not think themselves unquestionable authorities who must only be listened to and never questioned. They did not treat each other that way, neither did they expect that others would treat them in that way. The only resource they thought unquestionable was Scripture itself.

In the second place, this attitude is contrary to Scripture. According to the Apostle Paul, what qualifies a person to participate in the discussion about the meaning of revelation is the reception of the Holy Spirit, not the authority or position that a person occupies within the Church. He says: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny… But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 10:14-16). If a person has the Holy Spirit, they are invited to participate in the discussion of the Church about the revelation of Christ.

This does not mean that everyone is just as capable a contributor as anyone else, since some persons have a special gifting in this respect. Indeed, in Scripture, the precondition for being established in the position of bishop or presbyter or deacon is precisely that one has a “firm grasp of the word that is trustworthy in accordance with the teaching” (Tit 1:9) and is “an apt teacher” (1 Tim 3:2). Thus, in the scriptural perspective, a person should not be listened to just because he is a bishop in the Church. Rather, he should be a bishop in the Church only if he should be listened to — which of course does not always happen. But in any case, it is the possession of the Holy Spirit that gives a person the right to participate in the discussion, not simply the position he holds in the Church.

For the Protestant like me, the Church Fathers are worth listening to in some matter if what they say is true, but if what they say is false, then they are not worth listening to in that respect. Of course, their reputation as “Fathers” does mean that they ought to be taken seriously. But even the Church Fathers themselves would never prioritize the truth over what they say, nor did they think that the truth is inaccessible apart from their testimony. And one is free to agree with them on some things but not on others. That is what it means to participate in a genuine conversation: having the freedom to form your own opinion about a thing in dialog with another.

Thesis 3: Disagreements have to be settled by turning to the thing being discussed.

In any honest conversation, we are concerned with the truth. We want to come to know things as they are. Now, all of our statements are taken as true or false depending on how they measure up to the standard of truth or falsity, which is the thing itself being discussed. If I say that a cat is white and another person says that the cat is black, then we have to measure our statements against the thing being discussed — the cat itself. The same thing is true in theology. In Christian theology, we are concerned principally with the person and teaching of Christ, such as this was passed down to the Church by His apostles and disciples in Scripture. Thus, what we say about God, or about Christ, or about the Church, or about faith or justification or anything else ultimately must refer back to the Bible and be measured against the Bible.

The Church Fathers knew this. Whatever topic they might have been discussing, they took the time to interpret Scripture and to show how their opinions agreed with or flowed out of the teachings of Christ and the apostles. This does not mean they were always right, of course. Some Church Fathers were judged to be mistaken about this or that thing, even though they were very prominent and highly esteemed in their time and afterwards. (Origen is a great example of this.) But in any case, it should be obvious that if they themselves are trying to interpret Scripture, then their statements must be judged according to what it is they are trying to describe, namely Scripture.

Now, sometimes it happens that disputes about things are hard to settle. It could be because the thing being discussed is not directly accessible to the people debating about it, or it could be because the people discussing it seemingly cannot agree about how to describe it. In situations like this, people lose their patience and choose sides not according to the truth but rather according to the authority or reputation of the person participating the discussion. But this is a mistake. Statements are not true because of who makes them. They are only true to the extent that they are adequate to their objects. There is nothing wrong with taking a position in such a situation. But you are not closer to the truth simply because you take the side of a prominent party. That is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

For the same reason, in a dispute about the meaning of Scripture or about some doctrine, it is not enough to say that Church Fathers X, Y, and Z understand it in some way. They also are interpreters of Scripture just like we are. They also are fellow students in the school of Christ: “Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah” (Matt 23:10). They can be wrong, just as we might be wrong. Their opinions should be taken seriously, especially if they offer arguments for their opinions. But a thing is not true just because some Church Father or even a number of them say the same thing. Once more, that is a way of preserving a tradition, but it is not necessarily a way of reaching the truth.

There are a couple more points to make in this matter.

First, the people we call Church Fathers were not the only participants in the historical conversations about Christian theology. So-called “heretics” also participated in the conversation. They are called “heretics” because they did not agree with what later was accepted as the “right” understanding of things. Whether they were rightly called heretics, however, is not a matter that can be settled merely by appealing to the people who disagreed with them. Of course, Arius is a heretic for Athanasius, just as Athanasius is a heretic for Arius; of course, Pelagius is a heretic for Augustine, just as Augustine is a heretic for Pelagius. Once more, what matters is not who says this or that, but rather what is true. And the truth can only be settled by returning to the thing itself under discussion, which in each case was the revelation of Christ as passed down by the apostles in the New Testament. What makes Athanasius orthodox and Arius a heretic is not whether the one or the other gets everyone or even most people to agree with him, but whether the one or the other agrees with Christ.

Second, for the same reason, it is never true to say that there was “unanimous agreement” in the early Church. Even if the Church Fathers all agreed on some issue, – which is not obviously the case, – it would still be true that other persons, so-called “heretics,” disagreed with them, so that there was not universal consensus or agreement. And it should go without saying that just because a person was condemned for a heretical opinion on some issue, it does not follow that they were wrong about everything. People can be right about some things and wrong about others. But in any case, unanimous agreement would not prove anything. At some point in history, there was unanimous agreement by all the relevant authorities that the sun revolved around the earth. They were still wrong about that. Indeed, even the notion of “Church Father” is itself relative. The only reason Copernicus or Einstein are authorities for scientists in a way that Aristotle or Ptolemy are not is that contemporary scientists are educated into an Einsteinian understanding of physics. So also, the only reason that people commonly refer to Athanasius, Augustine, and Basil as Church Fathers rather than Arius, Pelagius, or Eunomius is because they are part of a Church tradition that accepts the teachings of the former while rejecting the teachings of the latter. But it is one thing to belong to a tradition, and it is another thing to have the truth. And for a Protestant such as myself, it is more important to have the truth than to belong to some particular theological tradition, since the truth is what it is independently of all traditions.

Third, it is also possible that some of the Church Fathers did not say what later interpreters think they said. For example, people simply take for granted that the Church Fathers affirmed the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist from the very beginning. In fact, the interpretation of their writings is more complicated than that. One could also read William Whitaker’s A Disputation on Holy Scripture: Against the Papists, especially Bellarmine and Stapleton to see how an early Protestant writer attempted to show that the Church Fathers did not have the conception of the Scripture-Tradition relation that contemporary Roman Catholics were attributing to them. Once more, the dispute must be settled by appeal to what is being disputed. From the fact that Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox claim some Church Father for themselves, it does not follow that the Church Father in question would actually recognize himself in their understanding of him.

Thesis 4: Disagreements about ideas are compatible with agreement in focus.

Let’s consider once more the way things are in science. Aristotle and Ptolemy propose a certain scientific understanding of the world. This conception of things is rejected by Newton, Copernicus, and Darwin. Then Newton’s conception of things is rejected by Einstein, while contemporary evolutionary biology goes beyond Darwin in a few ways. The conversation in science is ongoing, and scientists disagree with each other on all manner of things. But despite their disagreements, they are all in contact with one and the same world. They are fascinated by and share a love for one and the same universe. Their disagreements about ideas are nevertheless compatible with an agreement in shared focus.

I think the same thing is true in Christian theology. Christians may disagree with each other about any number of things. But they are still talking about one and the same Christ. More importantly, they all love one and the same Christ. They have all committed themselves to Him, a fact that is not compromised by their disagreements about ideas. And even more importantly, Christ died for them all. He is the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2). He invites all people to friendship with God through Him in the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 1:9). Christian theology is the collaborative effort to understand better this God and this Christ and this Holy Spirit who call all people to fellowship with them. The “background” against which the historical conversation of Christian theology takes place is the embrace of God in Jesus Christ on the Cross.

This does not mean that everyone in Christian theology shared this focus. If a person said that Christ did not have flesh and did not really die, it seems obvious that he or she is not agreeing with Christ’s own apostles, contrary to the concern of the “apostolic Church”. If a person said that Christ did not really rise from the dead, then it would make no sense to entrust themselves to Christ in the way that apostolic faith calls for. A dead person cannot save you! Thus, not every theological opinion is “fair game.” But neither can we naïvely assume that everything the Church Fathers said is true, that every opinion they rejected was worth rejecting, or that every opinion they affirmed was worth affirming, and so on. To repeat a motif that has come up before in this post, it seems to me far more important that theology be true than that it be traditional. This doesn’t mean that tradition and truth exclude each other, but neither is something true simply because it is traditional, nor is something traditional simply because it is true.

Summary

Briefly stated, according to my conception of theology as a Protestant, it is more important for theology to be true than for it to be traditional. This does not mean that truth and tradition exclude each other, but neither are they inseparably connected. And just as contemporary science can respect the opinions and contributions of Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Newton without limiting itself to what they said, so also Protestant theology can respect the opinions and contributions of the Church Fathers without necessarily limiting itself to what they said or agreeing with them in everything.

What is the Lord’s Supper?

Lately I have been doing research on the Lord’s Supper or the Eucharist. It is a common point of contention between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox. In the following YouTube videos, I try to present my own perspective on things, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism.”

On my view, the Lord’s Supper is a ritual reenactment of Christ’s death on our behalf following the pattern of His preenactment of that death during the Last Supper. At the same time, it is the ritual appropriation of that death in faith by the consumption of the bread and wine, which symbolically represent His body and blood.

This view can make good sense of Scripture without raising the problematic questions and qualifications of the so-called Real Presence view. Moreover, it is compatible with the earliest sources in Church history. Indeed, it is arguably more consistent with these early sources than the Real Presence view.

If you would like to hear more about this, check out these videos I have uploaded to my YouTube channel:

What is the Eucharist? Arguments for Liturgical Zwinglianism and against Real (Corporeal) Presence.” In this video, I address the question of the Eucharist. I present and defend my own view, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism,” as well as give arguments against the Real (Corporeal) Presence view.

5 Proofs of the Real Presence? A Friendly Response to Dr. Jordan Cooper.” In this video, I offer a friendly response to Dr. Jordan Cooper’s five proofs for the doctrine of the Real Presence. I argue instead for my own view, which I call “liturgical Zwinglianism.” According to my view, the Eucharist is a liturgical reenactment of Christ’s death and a ritual appropriation of that death through a communal meal. I argue that this view makes sense of Scripture and is compatible with the earliest testimonies of the Church Fathers.

How to understand John 6? Interpreting the ‘Bread of Life’ Discourse.” One of the most hotly disputed biblical passages in the debates about the Eucharist is the “bread of life” discourse at John 6. In this video, I provide an interpretation of Christ’s words which accords with my “liturgical Zwinglian” conception of the Eucharist. In a sentence, John 6 is not really about the Eucharist, although the Eucharist is about John 6.

How is Christ present in the Eucharist? Dr. Steven Nemes and Fr. James.” In this video, I have a friendly conversation with Fr. James, an Anglican priest, on the question of how Christ is present in the Eucharist.

How to interpret Matt 16:19?

Christ giving Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven

At Matt 16:19, Christ says to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven.”

This is one of the most important texts in the debates between Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox about the nature of the Church and the role of Peter. Many Roman Catholics appeal to this text to prove not only that Peter occupies a special place of primacy among the apostles, but also that he is infallibly guided by God in his decisions.

In this video below, I offer an alternative reading. My reading is compatible with all manner of ecclesiological perspectives, and yet it does not motivate a Roman Catholic notion of the papacy. See the video for more details.

What do Christians believe? Lesson V: The Mediation of Christ

At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The fourth lesson is titled “The Mediation of Christ.” Christ is the mediator of salvation. This mediation goes both ways. He brings to human beings what only God can bring – forgiveness of sins, healing, authoritative teaching, knowledge of God, and the Holy Spirit. He also brings to God those things which He was owed by all humanity: (vicarious) repentance, obedience, trust, and intercession.

It is available in audio format on the Christ is for everyone! podcast, which can be found online and on Spotify and Apple podcasts. Here is the video of the lecture:

Why believe in Scripture?

.Photo by John-Mark Smith from Pexels.

One of the most contested issues in theology has to do with the Bible. On the one hand, it is easy to believe that the biblical texts are the works of human beings who are interested in communicating and propagating their own perspectives on things. On the other hand, it is not at all obvious why anyone should believe that these human words are also the Word of God. Why believe that God speaks through Scripture? Closely related to this are still other questions: Why believe that what the Bible says is true? And how can one know which books count as Scripture and which do not?

Continue reading “Why believe in Scripture?”

What do Christians believe? Lesson III: The Problem of Evil

Photo by Alem Sánchez from Pexels.

At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The third lesson is titled “The Problem of Evil.” In it, I address one of the most commonly raised questions about the existence of God, namely: If God exists, why is there evil and suffering in the world?

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast.

Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

Photo by Marcelo Chagas from Pexels.

I recently participated in an online discussion on the Pints with Aquinas YouTube show with my friend, Suan Sonna. We addressed the question: Did Christ establish an infallible magisterium in the Church?

Although I am sympathetic to and appreciative of Roman Catholicism in various ways, in my studies I have come to conclusions that lead me away from the Roman Catholic Church. At the same time, there are very many people (at least in the online circles I frequent) who feel the pull in the direction of the Church of Rome. There are a few different reasons for that. One of the most prominent is certainly the attraction of the idea or prospect of an infallible teaching office in the Church, which can declare irreformable statements about what is and is not to be believed or done.

I think that there is no such infallible teaching office in the Church. In my recent discussion with Suan, I offered three reasons for thinking so. Because I think people may be interested in reading it, I have decided to post my opening statement for all to read.


My conviction is that Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. I will present three arguments in favor of this opinion.

First, I will argue that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and in principle revisable. This is because it is obtained by means of a fallible process of interpretation. Therefore, nothing in our experience justifies us in claiming to possess infallible knowledge of some theological subject matter.

Second, I will show there is no compelling biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium in the Church. The Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings. Because they are free and fallible, even the loftiest promises God makes about them may nevertheless not come true or at least not stay true for long. For the same reason, also, every social and ecclesial arrangement is in principle contingent and tentative.

Third, I will clarify how there is no theological necessity in the notion of an infallible magisterium of the Church. Some Roman Catholic apologists, theologians, and churchmen argue that if God were to make a saving revelation in history, He would need to establish a reliable and even infallible organ of transmission to preserve it in purity for all generations. But this argument is not only logically invalid; it also presupposes two quintessentially Catholic ideas about salvation and Christian faith that can be rejected.

Let’s go over these arguments in order.

The fallibility of theological knowledge

My first point is that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and revisable in principle. This is all that our experience allows us to say. Careful attention to the hermeneutic nature of the process of reasoning will help us to see how this is true.

Whenever we reason or discourse, we are reasoning or discoursing about something or other. But it is possible to take ourselves to be reasoning about one thing, when in fact all we’ve done is to follow a trail of ideas in a certain direction. This is because, in order for us to engage in reasoning, we first have to target some object available to our consciousness and to endow it with some kind of meaning or content. We pick something and interpret it as being an X. On the basis of that foundational hermeneutical decision, we then begin to reason as our concepts and understanding allow us. But however compelling or persuasive our reasoning may seem to us, it does not prove anything at all about the thing we had in mind unless it really is an X, such as we supposed. If it is not in fact an X, then we have not gained any knowledge about it.

Thus, suppose Suan reasons like this: The cat has just eaten, so it must not be hungry. In order for him to do this, he first had to target some object in the world of his experience and interpret it as a cat. Furthermore, he had to interpret what this thing has done as eating. These interpretive decisions are then paired with his prior understanding of what eating is and how it relates to hunger, which understanding he takes for granted. Thus, on the basis of a number of implicit decisions about how to interpret things, Suan is able to engage in a simple form of reasoning: This thing here, which I take to be a cat, has just done something I take to be eating, so that, in light of how I understand the relation between eating and hunger, it must not be hungry anymore.

But this process of reasoning does not confer knowledge of the object in the world unless the hermeneutical or interpretive decisions on which it is founded are actually adequate to their object. Thus, Suan can only know his reasoning is actually correct if he tries to validate these hermeneutical decisions by turning to the thing itself and confirming them in an experience. But it is also obvious that Suan’s experiences are always going to underdetermine his confidence in his hermeneutical decisions. It may be that the thing is not a cat but only looks like one; or that it only appears to have eaten when in fact it did something else; or that eating and hunger are not in fact always related in the way Suan supposed; or it may be that the thing is no longer available and Suan is stuck with just his memories of how things looked to him to have happened; and so on. Suan’s experiences are never going to provide an infallible confirmation of any of the assumptions of his reasoning. Thus, he will never be certain about the propriety of his reasoning. At best, he will have only a tentative and revisable knowledge, not an infallible one.

The fallibility of Suan’s reasoning is grounded in the fact that his reasoning is based on certain hermeneutical choices about how to interpret things. We have to make choices about how to interpret things because they are not perfectly clear by themselves. But where one choice is possible, so also is another one. Such is the nature of human freedom. And we cannot be sure ahead of time – nor even after the fact – that we have chosen correctly.

The same thing happens in reasoning about theological things. We choose to interpret certain realities in a certain way. For example, we choose to interpret the biblical text as saying X. Our experiences underdetermine those choices, and so it is always possible that we are wrong. Indeed, nothing in our experience guarantees that we have interpreted things the right way, since there are going to be people comparable to us in various ways who nevertheless interpret things differently. For this reason, our experience does not permit us to say anything other than that our theological knowledge, if we have any at all, is fallible and – so far as we can tell – subject to revision.

Now, someone will say: The Roman Catholic Church does not teach that its infallibly taught statements are known with absolute certainty, but only that they are true. That is what Christ promised in the Scriptures. This objection itself admits that the Roman Catholic Church’s idea about the infallibility of the magisterium is not an experientially grounded doctrine. Rather, it is the logical outcome of a certain interpretation of the biblical text. In other words, it is the place the Church has reached as a result of following a certain train of thought. Therefore, it will be necessary to show that this train of thought, this preferred interpretation of the biblical text, is not the only one possible. This brings me to my second argument.

The contingency of divine promises

Many times, Roman Catholic apologists and theologians will argue for the infallibility of the Church’s magisterium on the basis of the promises that God or Christ make in the Scriptures. For example, there is the promise that Christ makes to Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will found my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19).

The problem with an argument like this is that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore fallibility of human beings relative to God. This means that even the loftiest promises that God makes to a person or group of persons need not come true, or at least not in the way they would have expected, if they do not freely cooperate with Him.

For example, Joshua tells the Hebrews, just as they are preparing to enter into the promised land, that the living God “without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (Josh 3:10). But the Gibeonites, who are described variously as Hivites and Amorites, are not driven out because of a deception (Josh 9). Neither did they drive out the Geshurites or the Maacathites (Josh 13:13).

Similarly, God tells the prophet Ezekiel: “Though I say to the righteous that they shall surely live, yet if they trust in their righteousness and commit iniquity, none of their righteous deeds shall be remembered; but in the iniquity that they have committed they shall die” (Ezek 33:13). God can tell you: You shall surely live. And yet if you sin, you will die, despite the unconditional nature of God’s earlier words. Once more, the fulfillment of a divine promise is contingent and not infallible whenever it involves the free cooperation of human beings.

In the same way, God tells the prophet Isaiah that He will take the robe, sash, authority, and key of the house of David from Shebna and give it to Eliakim (Isa 22:15-25). But what Eliakim inherits is what Shebna earlier possessed. It was taken from the one and given to the other because the former had sinned. Thus, its possession is contingent and fallible, not certain. If it could be taken from one of them because of sin, it could also be taken from the other, even though God makes such lofty promises about Eliakim. Eliakim is described as “a peg fastened in a secure place” (v. 23). And yet Shebna also was a “peg fastened in a secure place,” and nevertheless He was about to be cut down and fall (v. 25). Thus, the promises God makes are contingent and tentative, insofar as their fulfillment depends on the free cooperation of the human being.

So also in the case of the promise in Matthew 16. Suppose we grant – though we don’t have to – that Peter was given a position of headship over the college of the apostles. It does not follow that he or one of his successors could not have erred in such a way as to disqualify himself or the very position he occupies. Neither does it follow that such an arrangement is permanent. Human beings are free, possessing a measure of independence from God. This means that things can go wrong, and the promises that God makes to them can go unfulfilled.

And yet God is flexible. He does not let the mistakes of some people ruin His providential purposes. To the contrary, He is free to make use of whatever means He has available at any point in time. Thus, He leads Israel first by Moses, but Moses does not make it into the promised land. Then He leads by Joshua, then by the judges, then by the kings, and then, when the kings become corrupt, by the prophets, and so on. The fact that God establishes an arrangement does not entail that it will remain forever. And God is free to make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to accomplish His purposes.

The perspicuity of the Gospel

This leads me to my third and final argument. I’ve suggested that our very experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological subject matters is only ever fallible and subject to revision. Moreover, the biblical case in support of an infallible magisterium is fatally undermined by the fact that the Bible everywhere recognizes the freedom and therefore essential fallibility of human beings and their arrangements. But sometimes Roman Catholic apologists and theologians give something like an a priori argument for an infallible magisterium. They say that if God were to reveal some saving truth, then He would make provisions for its reliable transmission over time. And in order to prevent its corruption as history marches on, it’s to be expected that He would establish an infallible teacher or body of teachers who can interpret it in such a way that the truth is not lost.

The first point to make about this argument is that it is logically invalid. God certainly would make provisions to ensure the reliable transmission of the saving truth from generation to generation. But it doesn’t follow that He needs to make use of any one particular means for doing so. His own infallibility as the preserver of the truth over time need not translate into the permanent infallibility of any particular medium He works through. He led the people of Israel at times through Moses, at times through the judges, at times through the kings, at times through the prophets. No one office is infallible. God alone is infallible, and He makes use of whomever He wills. So also, in the history of the Church, God can make use of whatever means are available to Him at any point in time in order to preserve the saving truth for His people.

There is something else to note about the a priori argument for the magisterium. First, it would appear to assume that the saving truth that God reveals must necessarily be something obscure and easy to lose track of. That must be why the risk of error is apparently so great. Second, it assumes that salvation is fundamentally or at least in part a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulas. But both of these assumptions must be called into question and can even be rejected.

In the first place, God can have made provision for the reliable transmission of the saving truth throughout the generations precisely by making this saving truth something clear enough for the average person to understand and appreciate. In other words, God can have made provisions for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something perspicuous and easily accessible.

Consider the example of water. Everyone knows that water is good, that it hydrates, that it is healthful, that it benefits human life in various ways. There is no need for there to be an infallible water-master in order for the human tradition of appreciating water to be reliably transmitted throughout the generations. Indeed, it would be ridiculous for anyone to claim that he is an infallible guide on water. Our knowledge of water is the same as our knowledge of anything else outside ourselves: fallible and revisable. But it is still true that the most important things about water – for example, that it is necessary for us and that it improves our lives in various ways – are so clear and obvious that we have no need of an infallible teacher in the matter.

In the same way, the saving truth that God has revealed is perspicuous like this. What is this truth? It is the truth that fellowship with the one true creator God in the Holy Spirit has been made possible for all people through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, on the basis of His mediatorial work. This is the truth that saves us, and it is easy enough for anyone to appreciate it. This is the message that Irenaeus says can be “clearly, unambiguously, and harmoniously understood by all” in the Scriptures, prophets, and gospels (Against Heresies II, 27, 2). This is the message that Origen says was delivered by the apostles “with utmost clarity to all believers” (On First Principles Preface, 3). This is the message that all the Christian churches everywhere plainly and obviously teach, according to both Church Fathers. Thus, it is not only possible but also traditional to say that God has made provision for the reliable transmission of salvation by revealing something that is clear enough on its own. This undermines the necessity of an infallible magisterium.

Someone will object: But what about all the heresies that have afflicted the Church throughout the ages? The truth can easily be mixed with damnable error. As I mentioned before, this line of argument presupposes that salvation is at least in part if not fundamentally a matter of assenting to certain well-defined doctrinal statements and dogmatic formulae. Moreover, it clearly is looking at Church history through the lens of contemporary Roman Catholic dogma. This argument for the necessity of an infallible magisterium seems sooner to express a fundamentally Roman Catholic conception of salvation and its conditions. And it is open to us to reject both the one and the other.

Salvation is not first and foremost a matter of believing certain well-defined doctrinal statements. It is friendship with the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 John 1:3). In other words, it is about a relation between persons and not necessarily an appreciation of some theoretical truth. It is obviously possible to enjoy friendship without the theoretical aspect. I can enjoy a conversation with my friend JT even if I do not have a well-defined opinion about JT’s ontological constitution from the point of view of philosophical anthropology. I might be a substance dualist, or a physicalist, or a hylemorphist, or have no opinion whatsoever about what he is. That does not stop me from joking or debating with him. In the same way, a person can enjoy fellowship with God and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit even if he is unsure how to understand God from the perspective of the christological and triadological controversies of Church history, indeed even if he has never thought about those problems at all.

This personal friendship or communion between God and the human being is realized by the preaching of the Gospel. It is the preaching of the Gospel that produces faith in people, and faith is what makes it possible to enjoy this friendship or communion. Furthermore, the preaching of the Gospel can accomplish this effect even if it is not theologically sophisticated or even particularly precise. Someone might say: But if heresy is preached, then it does not produce saving faith. But this assumes that saving faith is assent to certain well-defined doctrinal statements rather than an orientation toward God through Jesus Christ. It is enough to be told about Jesus Christ as the way of access to friendship with God on the basis of His life and death. When that happens, people turn toward Christ in faith and hope and love. They cling to Him and praise God through Him in the Holy Spirit, even apart from a very theoretical understanding of the finer details. There is thus no need for an infallible magisterium in any of this.   

These, then, are my arguments. Christ did not establish an infallible magisterium in the Church. Our experience teaches us that our knowledge of theological things is only ever fallible and subject to revision. The Bible itself everywhere recognizes the essential freedom and essential fallibility of human beings. And yet God saves us by revealing something which we do not need to be infallible in order to enjoy. He invites us to friendship with Him and His Son, Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit. And we can enjoy this friendship even if we are mistaken about various things or even if we do not attend to various problems and nuances of speculative theology at all.

What do Christians believe? Lesson II: The Existence of God

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At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The second lesson is titled “The Existence of God.” In it, I provide a reason for affirming the Christian belief in “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio of the lecture is also available on the Christ is for everyone! podcast here and on Spotify.

“The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” A 10-part lecture series

Photo by Janez Podnar from Pexels.

At the invitation of my pastor, I have begun a ten-week Bible study at my church on the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The title of the series is “The Nicene Creed: What do Christians Believe?” My intention is to present meditations and commentary on the Creed, line by line, illustrating how it is a succinct and comprehensive summary of the basic message of the teaching of Jesus Christ and His apostles. My goal is to provide a detailed but accessible introduction into the basic ideas of Christian faith by way of the Creed.

The first lesson is titled “Why the Creed?”. In it, I ask the question: Why do we have the Creed and why do we recite it every week? Why don’t we simply limit ourselves to the Bible? The answer: Because Christ is the principle of unity of the Church, and the Church tells us in a succinct form who Christ is and what He taught.

Here is the video of the lecture:

The audio from the lectures will be distributed on the Christ is for everyone! podcast. You can access the podcast episode here. It is also available on Spotify. If you find it beneficial, be sure to distribute it to others!

Why are there so many different churches?

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Christianity teaches that “there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6). There is one God, and there is one Lord. And yet Christians are many! How many different churches and denominations are there, all of whom claim to believe in the one God and to serve and worship the one Lord?

There are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants. Among the Roman Catholics, there are your run-of-the-mill Catholics who go to church every Sunday and on holy days of obligation; there are some who go to English-language services and others who only attend the Latin mass; there are very liberal types who believe that the Church is falling behind the times, and there are hyper-traditionalists who believe that things went off the rails after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. Among the Eastern Orthodox, there are those who side with the Church of Russia and those who side with the Church of Constantinople; there are those called the “Old Believers” who keep the liturgical habits of yesteryear, refusing to follow along with modern reforms; there are those who insist on re-baptizing converts from Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, and those who do not; and so on. Among Protestants, there are Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, Methodists, Nazarenes, Adventists, and Pentecostals. There are even non-denominational churches. But even this isn’t the whole story. There are also various Christian churches in Africa, the Middle East, and in Asia that are themselves quite diverse, such as the Coptic Church in Egypt or the so-called “Nestorian” Church of the East. And then there are various groups whose connection to the more popular Christian denominations are a bit more difficult to determine, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and unitarians of various kinds.

There is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. And yet there is such a dizzying plurality of churches and theologies! How can we understand this situation? If there is only one God, why are His followers on Earth seemingly incapable of agreeing with each other on so many important things? Why do they disagree with each other about so much and in many cases even declare curses on each other, threatening each other with hell fire and damnation because of differences of opinion and practice? How to understand this situation?

This is a very controversial matter, and it is hard to say something that will not upset at least some people. Nevertheless, I think that the Bible actually anticipates this situation and has some important things to say about it.

Some people look at the plurality of churches and theologies as a serious problem. Moreover, the debates and disputations between Christians are seemingly unending. They want an easy way to establish one point of view as correct. For such people, the Roman Catholic church is very attractive. It offers an easy, logical system for understanding what is and is not necessary to believe. For example, in Roman Catholicism it is necessary to believe anything that has always and everywhere been taught by all the bishops of the Church, or that was declared by an ecumenical council of the Church, or that was officially declared as a part of the faith by the Pope in a formal statement. The authority of the Church’s teachers and especially that of the Pope functions to end all debates and to provide a solid ground for one’s theological convictions. Furthermore, the Roman Catholic Church claims for itself a long tradition that it claims traces back to the Apostles of Jesus Himself. Thus, many people are attracted to Catholicism for the reason that they become in this way a part of a greater group or community with a rich history.

Other people seem not to be concerned with having a grand system and an easy way to resolve every possible theological dispute ahead of time. Rather, they simply are convinced that a certain point of view is right and commit themselves to it. A lot of Protestants are like this. Whether or not they can convincingly justify to themselves or to others any particular theological matter, nevertheless they are firm in their convictions and maintain them in the face of contrary arguments. The system and the possibility of proving others wrong is not as important to them as the things they are convinced are true.

Thus, there are at least two kinds of approaches people can take toward this issue. Some of them are concerned to have some kind of logical system. They want “mechanisms” in place that can, in principle at least, resolve any issues or disputes that might arise between people. They want an authority in place which can determine what is to be accepted or rejected without court of appeal. On the other hand, others don’t care so much about all that. They simply maintain what they think is true, whether or not they have a great system in place for resolving disputes or for proving the matter to others. They know what they know and that’s that.

Both of these approaches can lead to a sectarian mindset. In other words, they can lead a person to reject others who do not believe the same as they do. They come to the conviction that all outsiders are lost, that they do not have the truth and that there is no hope for them. As a result, the churches break up into factions, with little hope of reconciliation. Each person sticks to his or her own point of view and is unwilling to go along with others who don’t share it.

At the same time, what goes unnoticed in many of these debates is just how much people of differing opinions have in common. For example, it is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on a number of issues, for example on how to understand the Virgin Mary and her relation to Christ. But they also have very many things in common, most notably that there is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ. It is true that Roman Catholics and Protestants differ on things that both sides consider to be of grave importance. But they can also be mistaken about how important the points of disagreement really are, or at least with respect to how devastating the fact of disagreement might be.

As I said, it is difficult to say anything about this issue which might not upset at least one party. But nevertheless, I think the Bible has something to say about this matter. And if we attend closely to what it says, then perhaps we can find a different way of thinking about the problem of the plurality of churches.

Much like the Christian churches in the modern day, the church at Corinth during the time of the Apostle Paul was afflicted by many divisions and factions. Paul describes the situation as follows:

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:10-12 New Revised Standard Version

Notice what happened! Just as in the present day we have Roman Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and all kinds of Christians, also in the ancient church at Corinth: some people associated themselves with Paul, whereas others with Apollos or Cephas (that is, the Apostle Peter), or with Christ directly. There were a plurality of factions within the church, each corresponding to some important or significant teacher within the early Christian community.

Paul does not appreciate this situation at all. As he writes: “Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Cor 1:13). In other words, the Apostle considers it inappropriate that a community of Christians identify themselves in any other way except with Jesus Christ. Thus, Paul says that when he first went to preach to the Corinthians, “I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1-2). In other words, whereas the Corinthians were dividing themselves according to whether they followed Paul, who first preached to them, or else Apollos, who came along later on, the Apostle means to draw their attention back to the most important person of all: Christ Himself, about whom both Paul and Apollos were concerned to preach to others. On the other hand, Paul considers that it is very worldly to be concerned with the messenger rather than the message. He writes:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 New Revised Standard Version

Here as elsewhere, Paul’s concern is once more to redirect the Corinthians’ attention and concerns away from human teachers and to God and His Son, Jesus Christ.

Now, Paul goes on to say something very fascinating after this. And I think that what he says will be relevant for the discussion about the plurality of churches that exist today. He writes:

According to grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire…

Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or even by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.

1 Corinthians 3:10-15, 4:1-5 New Revised Standard Version

Much of what Paul says in these passages is surprisingly relevant for the present discussion of the plurality of churches and theologies. In the first place, Paul claims that Apollos built upon the foundation he laid in the Corinthian church, which foundation is the teaching about Jesus Christ. And this is in fact what all the churches of the present day try to do! Whether you go to a Roman Catholic or an Eastern Orthodox or a Protestant church, you will hear a sermon about Jesus Christ which draws in some way or other on the teachings of the Apostles, in whose number Paul also was included. Just as Apollos came after Paul and tried to expand on what he had taught in various ways, so also all the churches that exist in the present day are concerned to take the teaching about Christ of Paul and the other apostles and share it with others, building upon it and commenting on it in order to make it intelligible for present-day believers. Thus, Paul not only expected but even experienced first-hand the diversity and plurality of teachers and the possible factions and divisions which might come about as a result.

What does Paul say about this situation of diversity and plurality? First, he says that he laid a foundation, namely that of Jesus Christ. The foundation was not himself but rather “Christ and Him crucified,” as he says elsewhere. Thus, everyone else who is to build up the Church of God must build on this foundation. But Paul also says that not everyone builds equally well or equally valuably. Some people build with gold, silver, and precious stones. Others build with wood. Still others build with hay and straw. Not all of these building materials are equally resistant! And Paul teaches that there will be “a Day” in which the Lord will come and judge the work of each person. This judgment is compared to a “fire” that will burn up the work of some while the work of others will remain and even receive a reward. But even those whose work is burned up will nevertheless be saved, so long as they sought to build on the foundation of Christ Himself.

Thus, Paul recognizes that there is only one foundation of the Church, Jesus Himself, whom Paul preached, and people build upon this foundation in better or worse ways. But he also has something very interesting and perhaps provocative to say about the matter of judging the work of others. Even though Paul himself says that some build well and others poorly, he nevertheless emphasizes: “I do not even judge myself… It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:3-4). He enjoins his audience to take up the same attitude: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes” (v. 5). Indeed, they are not to make distinctions between Paul and Apollos and Peter, but rather to think of each as a “servant of Christ” and a “steward of God’s mysteries” (v. 1). They should leave the judgment to God and – to quote from what Paul says in another place – test everything, holding fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thess 5:21).

I think what Paul teaches here can be useful for understanding the plurality of churches and theologies that we have in the present day. Just as then there were Paul, Apollos, and Cephas, so also today there are Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestants of various kinds. But the foundation laid by the Apostles remains Christ. Each of these churches try to build on that foundation in some way or another. If they didn’t, they would cease to be a church altogether, according to what Paul says; but it is obvious that Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants are all concerned to build on the foundation of Christ in the way they see fit. Now, they may not all build equally well. Some may build with gold, silver, and precious stones, others with wood, and still others with hay and straw. But this will be disclosed on that Day when the Lord comes to judge all things. The building of each will be passed through the fire. But Paul also teaches that even those who built poorly will be saved, even if as through fire. As for the present time, he calls us to leave the judgment to the Lord.

Of course, Paul’s words should also be a warning to all of us. They should motivate us to ask certain questions. Do we build with gold, silver, and precious stones? or with wood? or with straw and hay? Will our building survive and we receive a reward? or will it be burned up? This is a question that each person must ask him- or herself. But at the same time, Paul shares with us once more, toward the end of his epistle, the foundation on which everything is built:

Now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you in turn received, in which also you stand, through which also you are being saved, if you hold firmly to the message that I proclaimed to you … that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 15:1-4 New Revised Standard Version

This is the message that saves us, according to the Apostle Paul. This is the foundation on which everyone builds: that Christ died for our sins and that He was raised again on the third day. It may seem too little, too simple, to function as a proper foundation. But this is in fact what Paul says. Everything else that a church might teach or propose for others to believe must in some way be built on this. And if we hold fast to this above all, then we will be saved.

Someone might say: “But doesn’t every Christian church teach this? What about all the points of disagreement between them? What about all the debates and the disputes and the divisions between them?” Yes, every Christian church teaches this. The differences between them may be quite significant, and it may be that some churches simply cannot get along so long as those disputes remain. But I consider that if we take Paul at his word, then many of these differences will turn out to be differences between gold and silver and precious stones, or wood, or hay and straw. They are not differences in foundation, but only in the building materials.

Someone might ask again: “But how can we be sure who is building correctly?” Paul answered this question, too. He never gives easy answers. He is not naïve about the nature of things. He specifies the foundation on which each person must build, but he does not tell us the difference between a person who builds well and one who does not. He says that he does not judge this matter, that it is a small thing in his mind that he should be judged by anyone, indeed even that he does not judge himself. The Apostle leaves it to the Lord to judge, while he tries to live with a clean conscience (cf. 1 Cor 9:24-27). As for us, he tells us: “Do not despite the words of prophets, but test everything” (1 Thess 5:20-21). Perhaps we can give an analogy here. Scientists do not have all the answers given to them from the start, but rather have to start with what they’ve received from their teachers while trying to improve upon it, testing everything and holding fast to what is proven. So also with us. Each of us received the foundation from the Apostles, as well as from whomever came before us. We have to test these things, holding fast to what is good and rebuilding where we consider there should be some improvements. But the difference between gold, silver, precious stones, and wood, and straw and hay will be revealed on that Day when the Lord comes again. That is perhaps the best we can hope for.

Christ has not given up on you!

Many times, people think of the Gospel as a message about what Christ has done and invitation for us to do something in response. What has Christ done? He has died for our sins, according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:3). What are we supposed to do, then? Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus (Acts 2:38). Thus, we are presented with a simple transaction: Christ has done something for us, and we are to do something in return. If we do this thing in return, then we get a reward, namely eternal life with Christ in heaven. If we do not do this thing in return, then we get a punishment, namely the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt. 25:41).

As commonplace and familiar as this presentation might be, it does not actually tell the whole story of the Gospel. In fact, I think there are two things missing from this picture.

In the first place, this “transactional” interpretation of the Gospel does not leave very much room for love. Christ expects that we love Him (cf. John 14:15). After all, Christ loves us! That is why He died for us: because He loves us and wants to save us from destruction. The Apostle Paul writes very poignantly on this matter: “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). But if Christ loves us and invites us into a loving friendship with Him and God His Father, then it seems like the “transactional” approach to the Gospel is going to partly distort things.

We normally do not “love” all those persons with whom we enter into some kind of transaction or agreement! Your landlord agrees to give you a place to live, and you agree to pay him some monthly sum so that you can live there. There need not be very much love in a relationship like that! But Christ loves us, cares for us, and wants us to love Him in return. To my mind, this implies that there is something more than a mere “transaction” going on in the Gospel.

In the second place, the “transactional” presentation of the Gospel makes it sound as if Christ has already done “His part,” so that now it falls to us to do our part. Of course, Christ did say on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30). That is true. He gave Himself once for all as a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world, and that part of His mission is over now (Rom 6:10; Heb 7:27, 9:26; 1 Pet 3:18). There is no second sacrifice; there is no more atonement to be made. As Paul says, “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival” (1 Cor 5:7-8). But Christ is still working for our salvation in various ways, even if this does not include continually offering Himself as a sacrifice. He has not given up on us!

One way in which Christ continues to seek after our salvation is by interceding for us. Thus, the Apostle John writes in his first epistle:

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 2:1-2 New Revised Standard Version

Christ is our advocate who pleads for us. As the Apostle Paul says,

Who is to condemn [us]? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Romans 8:34 New Revised Standard Version

Christ therefore not only died for us, but He is also at the right hand of God and intercedes for us. As I’ve mentioned before, interceding for our salvation is the very essence of Christ’s person. John does not say that Christ’s death is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, but rather that Christ Himself is the sacrifice – as if to plead for sinners is the very definition of Christ’s person. And if this is who Christ is, then until He comes again in glory to judge the living and the dead, He does not cease to intercede for us.

Another way that Christ works for our salvation is by working to sanctify us. The apostles teach clearly that Christ’s goal is not merely to die for our sins and win atonement for us, but also to make us holy and righteous and so to present us before God. Consider what the Apostle Paul says:

You who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled [to God] in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him.

Colossians 1:21-22 New Revised Standard Version

Why did Christ die for us and reconcile us to God? “So as to present us holy and blameless and irreproachable before Him.” He wants not only to save us from the death and destruction which our sins deserve, but also to teach us to live rightly with one another and with God our Father. As I said elsewhere, God wishes to establish in Christ a friendship which extends to all people. And obviously there can be no friendship when people do not agree on how to act! How can we be friends with God if we sin against Him day by day, disregarding His law and having no care to obey Him?

But if Christ wants not only to die for us but also to make us “holy and blameless and irreproachable,” then it is clear that He continues to work even to this day. He has not given up on us! Every day He intercedes for us to the Father. Every day He reminds us of His goodness by providing gifts and blessings to us which we cannot claim to deserve. When we sin and go off in the wrong direction, straying from His path, He comes after us, like the Good Shepherd that He is, and brings us back to the fold (John 10:11-18). He sends us the Holy Spirit in order to fill us with love for God (Acts 2:33). He does not leave us to our own devices but rather intervenes in our lives in order to bring us to God (1 Pet 3:18).

Consider the case of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9). Christ appears to him on the road toward Damascus. He reveals the truth to him. And Jesus even makes provisions for Saul in Damascus. He reveals to Ananias that he must lay his hands on Saul, so that he can receive his eyesight once more (Acts 9:10-19). Look at how Christ intervenes in the life of Saul, even after His death for the whole world! He reveals Himself to Saul, He gives him a clear direction of where he must go, He puts him in connection with other Christians, He provides a community for him, and He even heals his physical blindness. Christ continuously intervenes in the life of Saul, who later was known as Paul, showing His care for him and leading him on the right way throughout his entire life.

Christ bought us. What was the price of purchase? His own precious blood (1 Cor 6:20). Therefore, He considers that we belong to Him. He will not leave us, nor forsake us (compare Heb 13:5). He has not given up on us!

The world is a gift for human beings

Photo by Randall Hop from FreeImages.

Christianity teaches that human beings are unique among all the creatures that live on the Earth, even if they are also very similar in various ways.

Just like the animals, human beings have bodies, and they are always concerned to preserve the life and health of their bodies. An “animal” is something that is animated. In other words, it has life and can move around on its own in order to preserve its own life. In this sense, human beings are animals just like cats, dogs, horses, and the rest. That is why Genesis says that both the animals and human beings are “living creatures” (Gen. 1:20-21, 24, 28; 2:7, 18). In modern language, we would call them “animals.”

The body is very important for human beings. The Apostle Paul teaches: “No one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it and tenderly cares for it” (Eph. 5:29). Of course, some people come to hate their bodies for various reasons and even try to harm it. But it is also clear that, if it comes to that, something has gone wrong. Hating your own body is a sign that something isn’t right somewhere. Our bodies make it possible for us to live in the world and to enjoy the good things provided in it: food, drink, activities, and the friendship of others. The body is a good thing! Human beings are supposed to live in their bodies.


But there is also a crucial difference between human beings and the other animals. The Bible teaches that the human being is made “in the image and likeness of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). This is a profound teaching, and it has been interpreted in various different ways in history. At the very least, however, I think the following points can be understood from what the Bible teaches.

The Bible teaches that God has granted the human being the responsibility of caring for the Earth. All the other animals make use of the Earth’s resources to preserve their lives, but the human being is given the additional task of taking care of the Earth itself and everything that’s in it. This is what the Bible teaches in Psalm 8:

“You [God] have made [human beings] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.”

Psalm 8:5-8 New Revised Standard Version

When the Psalmist says that God has granted human beings “dominion” over the “works of His hands,” we should understand this correctly. It does not mean that human beings are free to do whatever they please with the Earth that has been entrusted to them! Quite to the contrary: human beings are themselves inhabitants of the Earth. No one who is thinking straight would destroy his own house, since he has to live in it! In the same way, human beings cannot live if the Earth is not in good condition. We need food, water, and shelter in order to be happy and healthy. That is why it would be better to think of this “dominion” in terms of a responsibility. Just as the owner of a company might entrust the manager with taking care of a particular franchise, promoting it and making sure it runs effectively, so also God entrusts human beings with the care of the earth.


Someone might ask: But aren’t the Earth and nature so much more powerful than human beings? How can they have dominion over them? That is certainly true. But at the same time, it’s also clear that human beings are capable of making use of the materials that the Earth and nature provide in order to make our lives better. We can hunt or farm the land for food, and we can use its “stuff” to build houses, roads, buildings, medicine, and technology for ourselves. As the famous Romanian theologian Dumitru Stăniloae said, the world that God has created is knowable by us so that we can make use of it in order to live good lives. It is true that there are some things which are presently beyond our control, but God has given human beings “dominion” over the world precisely so that they can take up the challenge of “domesticating” it and making it a home for them! Whatever is not in our control now is a challenge for us to conquer.

Christianity thus teaches that human beings are “created in the image and likeness of God.” Among other things, this means that they are given charge over the whole Earth. It is their home, and God gives them the responsibility of caring for it.


This is a tremendous responsibility, of course, but it also implies that the Earth is the gift of God for human beings. God does not leave human beings to fend for themselves! He has provided for them everything they need in order to be happy, healthy, and to enjoy their lives in the world. Thus, we read in Psalm 104:

“You [God] cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”

Psalm 104:14-15 New Revised Standard Version

Notice what he says! He does not say that God causes these things to grow, and, as a happy coincidence, human beings can make use of these things in order to make themselves happy and nice. No! Rather, what the Psalmist says is that God causes these things precisely so as to take care of the human being. They exist for the sake of human beings. The world is a gift!

Thus, human beings are created by God with the responsibility of caring for the Earth. This is how they are His “image and likeness.” Just as He rules over everything, so human beings are supposed to rule over the Earth. But the deeper truth is that God has provided a home for human beings in this Earth He has created. And just think how wonderful the Earth is! Everything we love, everything that makes us happy, is something that we find here on Earth, whether it is food or drink or friends or activities. And these things all come from God, who created the Earth for us. God creates the world in order to make it possible for us to enjoy life and to be happy in this world. The Earth and everything in it is a wonderful gift in which our every need can be met and we can be happy — if only we take care of it and make use of it properly, as God intends.

God wants us to trust Him

Photo by Ali Taylor from FreeImages.

Even though the Bible contains texts from very different periods of time, written by very different people, concerned with very different things, there is nevertheless one theme which is consistently present from the beginning to the end: trust in God.


Many texts in the Old Testament have to do with trust in God. Psalm 4:5 says: “Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the Lord.” Proverbs 3:5-6 enjoins us to “Trust in the Lord with all our heart.” Moses castigates the Hebrews because, in spite of the many signs and miracles which God had done, they had “no trust in the Lord their God” (Deut. 1:32). Psalm 37:5 tells us commit our ways to the Lord, trusting in Him, and He will act. And Psalm 84 ends with these wonderful verses: “No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you” (vv. 11-12).

In the New Testament, we find that the theme of “trust” in God is continued, although in different terms. The New Testament word for trust is “faith,” but it seems to me clear enough that they are talking about the same thing. When we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews that “by faith our ancestors received approval” (Heb. 11:2), what else can this mean except that they trusted in God? Consider all the examples that the author gives in that wonderful chapter: for example, Abraham leaving his family and home in order to follow God into a strange, new land. Is that not the very definition of trust in God? And it is also a clear act of faith! For this reason, it seems to me clear that the New Testament does not teach anything new with its language of “faith.” It teaches exactly what the Old Testament does: that we should trust in God.

Christ does not teach anything different than the Old Testament or the Apostles in this respect. He also teaches us to trust in God, whom He calls our Father:

Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?

Matthew 6:26 New Revised Standard Version

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) alone, Christ tells us that God is our Father eleven times. Notice that Christ never says that God is the Father of the birds, and yet He takes care of them. How much more, then, will He take care of His own children! And He even insists that God is not a Father like the fathers that some of might have had:

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

Matthew 7:9-11 New Revised Standard Version

No one whose mind is right would mistreat his or her own children – and this in spite of the fact that we are, all of us, nevertheless evil and corrupt in various ways. How much more, then, should we trust in God, who does not share in our imperfections!


Christ, the Apostles, and the Old Testament teach us that we should trust in God, who loves us and is our Father. One could even say that this is the very essence of the message of Christianity: trust in God.

But this is not necessarily easy. Trust is a decision that you have to make. And there is something peculiar about trust. On the one hand, we only want to trust someone if he or she is trustworthy. But on the other hand, the trustworthiness of a person is something that can never be proven before we trust in him or her. After all, there is always the possibility that there is something else going on “behind the scenes.” We can always come up with a story about how this person, who seems trustworthy, may not really be so. There is always the possibility of interpreting what a person does or says in a suspicious rather than trusting manner. And because this possibility is always there, it means that we cannot discover the trustworthiness of the other person unless we first trust them.

What Christianity teaches us is that we should trust God. This is easy to say, but it is hard to do. We are confronted with things every day that would drive us away from trusting God: misfortunes, calamities, bad luck, sickness, failures, disappointments. We might think to ourselves: Why are these things happening to me? If God loves me, then why does He let them happen? What if God is really against me? What if He is trying to undo me?

This is the ultimate temptation: to refuse to trust God. And because it is always possible to come up with a suspicious interpretation of what God does or says, it will always be possible for us to refuse to trust Him. God cannot prove His trustworthiness to us if we do not first trust in Him, just like a person cannot prove his or her trustworthiness to us unless we are first willing to trust in his or her honesty and goodwill. This means that we cannot first seek to establish that God is trustworthy and then trust in Him. Rather, we first have to trust Him and then see His trustworthiness.


This is not at all easy to do or to think about. And there will be many times in life when we meet with problems. Then we might hear ringing in our ears the words of those who mocked Christ at His crucifixion: “He saved others; he cannot save himself… He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to!” (Matt. 27:42-43). But Christ, who trusted God with His entire life, was not let down. God raised Him from the dead!

And this is what we celebrate every time we partake of the Lord’s Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26). Notice what this says: we are not merely proclaiming the Lord’s death, as if He died and that were the end of it; rather, we are proclaiming His death – reminding ourselves of it – until He comes, because He is not dead anymore!

Every week, then, when we gather together with other believers and partake of the Lord’s Supper, we are once more encouraging ourselves and one another to trust in God. All the problems of our life are like the cross we have to bear. But don’t lose hope! After the cross comes the Resurrection!

How to understand the wrath of God?

One of the most difficult and controversial teachings of Christianity has to do with the wrath of God. How should we understand it? Is it possible for Christ’s teachings to bring life, joy, peace, and freedom if God can be wrathful toward us?


Some people find that the teaching about the wrath of God undermines their trust and confidence in the love of God. When they are told that God is love, that Christ loves them, they think: Yes, God is love and Christ loves us. But isn’t God also wrathful? Does He not respond in anger to sin? And look at all the sins I’ve committed! How can I trust that God loves me, since I have sinned so much?

Other people take the doctrine of the wrath of God as a reason to be wrathful themselves. The Bible teaches clearly that the anger of human beings does not lead them to practice the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20). They say: Even God gets angry about things. He gets angry with sinners everyday! Why should I not also be angry about the things that people do wrong, especially when they do them to me? We might think to respond that God is rightly angry about certain things. But then again, who doesn’t think they have a reason to be angry?

Thus, the doctrine of the wrath of God can lead to bad consequences for our spiritual lives. Either we lose our trust in God’s love for us, since we give Him so many reasons to be wrathful, or else we take the teaching about the wrath of God as an excuse for our own anger. In both cases, our abundant life, permanent joy, incomparable peace, and liberating knowledge are taken away from us. So what is to be done? How are we to understand the wrath of God?


I think we can come to a better understanding of this issue by carefully considering these words from the Psalmist:

With the loyal you show yourself loyal; with the blameless you show yourself blameless; with the pure you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you show yourself perverse. For you deliver a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.

Psalm 18:25-27 New Revised Standard Version

What is so radical about this teaching is that the Psalmist suggests that God is like a mirror of ourselves. That is to say, the way we experience God is a reflection of the way we ourselves are. God is experienced as loyal, blameless, and pure by those who are themselves loyal, blameless, and pure. The crooked, on the other hand, experience God as perverse – in other words, as a force that impedes them and stands against them in what they want to do.

The difference in our experiences of God therefore has to do with what kind of people we are! God is like a mirror in which we see ourselves. He is experienced as “perverse,” as being “against us,” only if we are “crooked” – in other words, if we are not right ourselves.

Something similar is suggested in this passage from the prophet Obadiah:

For the day of the Lord is near against all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head.

Obadiah 15 New Revised Standard Version

On the one hand, the prophet speaks about the “day of the Lord.” This is a day in which “all the nations” will encounter God. On the other hand, their experiences in this day will be a reflection of who they are and what they’ve done: “As you have done, it shall be done to you.” Why, then, do they encounter God as wrathful? Because they themselves have done evil! They have done “slaughter and violence” to Jacob, to God’s people (Obad. 10-15).

The Bible thus suggests that we experience God as “wrathful” because we ourselves are wicked and against Him. If we do not obey God’s law, if we do not love Him, if we do not follow His path and listen to His call to live in peace and to love one another, then we will see in God a reflection of ourselves: wrath!


But we should not think that God is both wrath and love in equal measure. God is not merely a coin with two sides. The “heads” and “tails” side of a coin are equally the coin. One side is not more important or more central to the identity of the coin than the other. But God is not like that! Christ teaches us that God is love. Love is foundational to who God is, not wrath.

How do we know this? Because in Jesus Christ, God accomplished our salvation while we were still sinners:

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

Romans 5:6-8 New Revised Standard Version

Sinners experience God as “wrath” because they are sinners. They are turned against Him, and so they cannot help but to experience Him as a “force” that gets in their way and will not let them have what they want. But God proves that He is independent of what they experience in Him. He is not merely a mirror that reflects what they are. He also has a life of His own that goes beyond how people experience Him. And what is this life of God’s? It is love. Indeed, it is love for those very sinners who experience Him as wrath! And He proves that He is love, and not the wrath that they experience, because He acts to save them even while they are sinners.

Perhaps this point can be easier to understand if we consider the following illustration. Sometimes people find stray dogs on the street who have been abused or mistreated. These dogs are suspicious of everyone who gets close to them. They bark and bite and try to keep away all attackers! But imagine that some kind-hearted people, dog rescuers, come to the dog. They want to do good to the dog and to restore it to full health. But the dog can’t understand this! It resist them, it fights against them, it threatens them, it barks at them, it tries to bite them. It doesn’t trust them, because the dog only sees the rescuers as hostile forces who might hurt it.

Now, the dog sees the rescuers as a threat, but are they really? No! They are trying to help it, not hurt it. The whole experience can be quite frightening and stressful for the dog, but it is not in fact in any danger! The rescuers are not merely the threat and danger and frightfulness that the dog experiences in them. The rescuers have their own life and purposes, which are to do good to the dog. And they show their independence of the dog’s experiences by doing good to the dog and trying to save it, even though it is so afraid of them and even hostile to them.

The same thing is true in the case of God. People who are caught up in their sins and love them can only experience God as a “contrary force.” They see in God a threat to themselves, to the identities they’ve constructed for themselves, to their preferred way of life. They don’t understand that God wants to bring them life, joy, peace, and freedom! But God is not limited by what people think of Him or by how they experience Him. He loves all people and works in Jesus Christ to accomplish their salvation even while they are sinners who hate Him. That is how Love is the true nature of God, whereas the “wrath” that sinful people experience is only a reflection of who they are.