Category Archives: Theology

Early Christian Views on Creation: Part 1

Kevin Hester

Modern evangelicals regularly engage in robust discussions with naturalists and with Christians who promote other, non-literal interpretations of the Genesis account. Many conservative Christians often wonder how creation has been understood throughout Christian history. As a historical theologian who focuses upon the early church, I am often asked about the early church perspective on creation. Many Evangelicals are initially disappointed when I share with them the nature of early Christian views. Most church fathers don’t spend time discussing the literal historicity of the creation account because they simply assume it. Even Augustine, whose complex views on creation have become a recent battleground, demonstrates this essentially literal approach to Genesis when he dates the ages since the creation of man at 6,000 years (City of God, 12.11) and argues for a literal, world-wide flood (City of God, 15).

Still, when the early church fathers did discuss creation, they were answering different questions and responding to different apologetic needs. The questions they were answering tended to be more philosophical than scientific. That does not mean, however, that the early church has nothing to teach us on the topic. If we understand their context, they can show us a way forward by focusing upon the basic principles they developed of a good God actively creating a good world from nothing, and endowing that world with His purpose and design.

If you hope to turn to the early church fathers and their medieval counterparts for specific answers on modern debates related to evolution, the age of the earth, and the nature of the days of the creation narrative as expressed in Genesis, you will be disappointed. However, that is not to say that such perspectives should not or cannot be informed by the teachings and beliefs of the early church. What I will demonstrate is that the early church posited a purposeful, active creation of all that exists ex nihilo (from nothing). And that they developed this reading of the creation story in a context where the predominant views of the universe’s origin ranged from a disinterested passive creation on the one hand (Neo-platonism) and the eternality of matter working through blind causes on the other (Atomism). Further, we will note that Christianity introduces a concept of teleological purpose and systematic expression in creation that lays the foundation for all of modern science. It is because God is a God of order and He created this world for a purpose that science is even possible. Early theologians believed that reflection on the natural world could reveal truth that would lead humans ultimately to God.

The Philosophical Context of the First Century

There were two major views on the origin of the universe (cosmogony) in the ancient world. One of these was Atomism. Atomism is generally identified with Democritus (370 BC), Leucippus (370 BC), and the founder of hedonism, Epicurus (270 BC). Epicurus developed an ethical theory that defined the goal of life as contentment and he believed that fear of the gods prevented many from achieving this end. In order to relieve his hearers of concern related to the gods, he turned to Atomism which posited a purely materialistic perspective on the world. Atomism taught that matter was eternal and all that happened was the result of blind laws working in a cause and effect sequence. Ancient atomism thus shared similar sentiments with modern naturalism. Humans were simply part of a larger mechanism subject to various impersonal forces.

There was a significant revival of Epicurus’ hedonism and atomism in the Roman world just prior to the birth of Christianity in the writings of the Roman poet and philosopher Lucretius (d. 55 BC). While some aspects of evolution were occasionally used to explain humanity and other aspects of the natural world, the primary driver of this system of thought was that this world was composed of eternal material elements, largely self-governed by laws of cause and effect, in an endless cycle of creation and growth, decline, death, and rebirth. The gods, if they existed at all, were simply higher forms of life that should cause no concern for us as we live our lives.

The other major cosmogony in the ancient Roman world was that of a disinterested, passive, and accidental creator God. As the Greco-Roman world moved away from earlier polytheism, they recognized a higher order than the physical world. The believed contra the atomists that reason and moral virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty though reflected in nature must come from a higher source. The best representative of this view is the Greek philosopher Plato (d. c. 350 BC). Plato believed that the physical world composed of matter, subject as it was to mutability and destruction, could only be explained by a greater and higher existence. He therefore asserted that there was a scale of ontological reality that moved from matter on its lowest extreme to rational ideas (forms), and ultimately the Good (God) which was the source of all other existence. For Plato the Good was the ultimate form of existence. This Good or God, was perfect existence having neither beginning nor end, pure actuality. This Good was so transcendent and its essence (ousia) so full that its very existence, its very contemplation of itself, naturally produced lesser existences like the forms, which then naturally and accidentally produced matter and the world.

These concepts would lead to a radical perspective on matter that would plague the church and contribute to a number of early Christian heresies. Plotinus (d. 270 AD), the Roman popularizer of these concepts, would further expand the ideas and add spiritual and mystical components to them dividing the categories into a descending hierarchy including the One, the Nous, the Soul, and matter.

Early Christian Descriptions of Creation

The early church came to understand and define the biblical references to creation against the backdrop of these predominant views. Much of their teaching worked to counteract particular tendencies from these worldviews that the church perceived as problematic.

Over against atomism, the Church taught that the source for the order and structure of creation was dependent upon God’s purposes. They asserted that Scripture taught that matter had a beginning in time and its regularity was part of a pattern established by God. In other words, because God is a rational being, all His works are rational and ordered. At the same time, they understood God’s care in the world to be pervasive. God was transcendent and beyond the material plane in which humanity resided, but from the beginning had purposefully interacted with His creation. God was interested in the world and was working to fulfill His purposes in it.

The early Christian response to the Platonists was somewhat different. Many early Christians adopted a number of platonic and neo-platonic perspectives. Plato and Plotinus had insisted on the existence of one ultimate divine being. Many Christians saw their focus on the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtues as higher ideals as a different expression of Christian living. Platonism also underscored the Church’s beliefs about God’s ultimate transcendence, aseity, omnipotence, omniscience, eternality, and immutability. Many of the categories used by Plato to describe the Good were adopted or recognized as legitimate categories of ultimate ontology and embraced by the Church as appropriate descriptions of God consonant with the Biblical text.

There were, however, very important differences. Primary among them was the insistence that God was a personal God. God’s purposes in redemption mean that God cares and is intensely interested in the world. God engages in the world to sustain it and ultimately to redeem it. God’s activity and purpose were determined before creation and they describe God’s act of creation as purposeful and intended. Rather than Plato’s passive, accidental creation, the Christian church posited that God actively and purposefully created the world with a goal in mind. God desired a relationship with His creatures and is now working to restore a relationship broken by sin.

Another important distinction from platonic perspectives was the recognition that God’s creation was good. Matter, though it was ontologically less than God, was not evil (contra Gnosticism). In fact, God’s creation of matter and the world was a work of divine ennoblement over which God had pronounced His blessing. After creating the world and humanity God himself had declared it “very good.” In fact, even though the world had been impacted by sin, God’s purposes in redemption were not only spiritual but physical in nature. Paul had presented this concept in Romans 8 and the early church referenced the promised restoration of creation in eschatological terms. Ultimate salvation was not spiritual enlightenment in a heavenly realm, but eternal life in a renewed body on a renewed earth in the presence of the Creator and Sustainer of all good things.

Part two of this article will appear next Tuesday.

 

On the Need for Theologically Rich Worship Songs

Matthew Pinson

Why talk about songs on a theology blog, one might ask. But a theology blog is the ideal place to talk about the church’s song. That’s because the reason the New Testament gives us for singing in church is primarily about theology.

The New Testament Reason for Singing in Church

As Colossians 3:16 tells us (and as Dr. Jeff Crabtree has ably exegeted it in his journal article in Integrity), the reason we sing to each other in church is primarily to let Christ’s teaching and the teaching of Holy Scripture dwell richly, deeply, copiously in the people of God.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord (Col. 3:16, nkjv).

The reason for worship songs in the new covenant church is to teach the congregation biblical theology and to admonish (nouthetountes: to counsel, warn, encourage, or exhort) them to live their lives in accord with that theology. This is done as we sing with grace, or thanks, in our hearts, making melody in our hearts to the Lord (Eph. 5:19). I’ve been emphasizing that recently with my class on Christian Worship at Welch College: The content of our worship music should very carefully fulfill this apostolic purpose for singing songs in church.

Form Matters

Of course, the form of our worship music supports this as well. The way we sing ensures that the people’s voices are heard (the “speaking to one another” of Eph. 5:19). It ensures that the teaching and admonishing function of a song is front and center. It ensures that the edification of the body—not the entertainment or private worship experience of individuals—is paramount. It ensures that the musical form unites and doesn’t divide the body. It ensures that God gets all the glory, not musical performers. This is all part of what it means to think theologically about the end, purpose, or telos of New Testament worship, specifically New Testament singing.

If our heart’s desire is to have an apostolically shaped worship service, one that relies on the pattern of Christ and His inspired apostles and seeks to let the ordinary means of grace that the Spirit has appointed in His all-sufficient Word shine brightly and guide and structure our worship, then we will carefully structure every aspect of our worship music. That will guide us, rather than the whims and trends of a handful of people in the music industry who make multiple millions of dollars from ever-changing worship fads every year.

Theologically Rich Texts

Key to developing the kind of worship services I’m talking about is choosing worship songs with theologically rich texts. And it’s wonderful that we can “sing a new song to the Lord” and still do this. There is now an abundance of material that either presents freshly written songs that have newly written, theologically rich lyrics, or traditional hymns with which we’re now unfamiliar, set to new music.

I was reminded of this recently when my son Matthew reintroduced me to a new song by my friend Nathan Clark George. The song is entitled “Calm Content.” When Matthew played me this song, I said, “I’ve heard this before. Nathan led us in this song in Welch College chapel a few years ago.”

If you are a pastor or music minister who’s interested in new music that features theologically rich lyrics, I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George. Much of his church music consists of older hymn texts that have been reset to freshly written music that he has composed. Often he will write a new chorus or an additional verse to go with an older hymn text. Sometimes he writes the text himself. (And sometimes he just sings great songs that aren’t really meant for worship, just for fun—for example, his recent “ode to the Carter Family,” Happy with You.)

In “Calm Content,” he takes a wonderful old text from the eighteenth-century hymnwriter William Cowper (most famous for “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood”) and adds a chorus and additional verse. Like most classic hymnody, Cowper’s text is replete with biblical and theological substance. It teaches and admonishes at the same time: Its subject matter is not only doctrinal, but also very practical: learning from the school of Christ to be calmly content in life’s most difficult circumstances.

Resources for New, Theologically Rich Worship Music

I encourage you to check out Nathan Clark George and his friend Gregory Wilbur. They are a part of a growing band of “new hymnodists” who are bringing theologically rich, gospel-drenched song back into the worship life of the evangelical church.

Others include Getty Music, Ligonier Ministries, Indelible Grace Music, Bifrost Arts, Sovereign Grace Music, Stuart Townend Music, Sojourn Music, and many other similar ministries. These ministries are not making money hand-over-fist like the top half-dozen labels that top the CCLI charts. In fact, many of them provide their music free of charge or for a nominal fee. They’re in it for the ministry, and they need your support!

I thank God for this explosion of theologically rich song for the twenty-first-century church, and I pray that it will help evangelical churches recapture their historic desire to use the church’s song for its biblically intend purposes of teaching and admonishing the people of God as they make melody in their hearts to the Lord!

Free Will Baptists at ETS

Jackson Watts

This week the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society will hold its annual meeting in San Diego, California. The theme is “Christ in the Old Testament.” Seven Free Will Baptists will participate in the program, including five who will share some of their scholarly work. Below is a brief overview of the presenters, paper titles, and sections:

Baptist Studies: Phillip T. Morgan of Welch College will present, “Seventeenth-Century General Baptist Use of the Old Testament.

Pentateuch: Matthew McAffee of Welch College will present, “The Documentary Hypothesis Revisited: An Assessment of the Neo-Documentary Approach.”

Systematic Theology: Matthew Pinson of Welch College will present, “Are Arminians Synergists?”

Ethics: Matthew Steven Bracey of Welch College will present, “Edmund Burke and the Moral Imagination in Christian Ethics.”

New Testament (Luke – Acts): Jeff Cockrell of Welch College will present, “Showing the Good God to Pagans: Paul’s Apologia in Acts 17.”

Additionally, several brethren will moderator various sections:

Jesse Owens of Immanuel FWB and Welch College will moderate a Church History  section focused on Baptist Studies.

Zach Vickery of Tippett’s Chapel FWB will moderate a section on Septuagint Studies.

Jeff Cockrell will moderate a New Testament Section.

Matthew Bracey will moderate a section on 18th – 19th Century Church History.

Matthew McAffee will moderate an OT  Backgrounds section, especially as it relates to Ancient Near Eastern studies.

After the meeting, audio recordings of the presentations will be available to purchase for a small price at www.wordmp3.com.

Theological Symposium: FAQ

W. Jackson Watts

(A previous version of this post originally appeared on May 21. For the benefit of those who did not see it, we are re-posting it in anticipation of our Symposium in October).

As Program Chair for the Commission for Theological Integrity, I’m responsible to promote our annual Theological Symposium. Typically we issue what’s known as a “Call for Papers.” This appears on our website and in print publications such as ONE Magazine. This is designed to generate awareness and foster interest in potential presenters and any who would attend and benefit from this free event. However, as potential presenters begin contemplating ideas for the Symposium, I thought it might be helpful to put together this Frequently Asked Questions post to help people make plans to join us this fall.

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Where and when is the Symposium held?

The campus of Welch College in Gallatin, Tennessee. This year our event is a week later than usual: October 28-29.

How are presenters chosen?

We review the papers and proposals that are submitted each year and select those which are well-written and thematically suitable. Sometimes we solicit papers from people if they have recently completed some scholarly work that they are interested in sharing with a broader audience. The only other detail approaching a “requirement” is that presenters must be members of a Free Will Baptist church.

 What can I write on?

Typically we will receive and consider papers on any topic that are broadly theological in nature—biblical studies, systematic theology, philosophy of religion, ecclesiology, etc. This year’s theme is “The Doctrine of the Church,” so preference will be given to papers that deal with some aspect of ecclesiology whether it be church government and polity, the ordinances, preaching, or a related sub-field.

Must I have an advanced degree to present a paper?

No; While most of our presenters have received graduate theological education, it is by no means a requirement.

Where can I stay?

There are several area hotels which provide a reasonable rate to those in town for Welch-affiliated events. Hotel information is available here.

Why attend in person when live-stream is available?

Two main reasons: First, we don’t guarantee live-streaming every year, and even if we do live-stream we may or may not post video content on our website after the event is over. We have done this in the past, but it is a year-by-year decision. Second, attending in person allows you the chance to ask questions in person to presenters, hear the discussion and dialogue following each presentation, and connect with other Free Will Baptist pastors, scholars, and laymen. I’ve seen many fruitful relationships form and develop as a result of this event.

If I am interested in presenting, what are the specific requirements and deadlines?

You can email fwbtheology@gmail.com for a fuller list of what we’re looking for in terms of paper content and format. Concerning deadlines, all ideas and inquiries about presenting should be submitted to this email address prior to July 1. Abstracts/proposals should be submitted by July 15. Submissions for review should be submitted by August 15. The final draft should be submitted by September 15.

Thank you for your interest in this event!

Hawkins to Address the Challenge of Genetics

by Theological Commission

On Monday afternoon of the 2019 National Convention in Cincinnati, the Commission for Theological Integrity has invited Dr. Ian Hawkins to address an emerging scientific challenge. The title of his seminar is: Genes Made Me Do it! The Implications of the Genetic Revolution for Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and Free Will.

In the past 15 years the historicity of Adam and Eve has come under fire in academic circles. This new debate has been caused by recent work in genetics that has called into question whether the human race could have come from only two individuals. Not only does the idea of a non-historical Adam and Eve call into question doctrines such as creation, but it has a profound effect on doctrines like original sin and free will. This seminar will discuss recent objections to these findings, as well as how science can be used to support a historical Adam and Eve, original sin, and free will.

Hawkins has taught at Welch College since 2007, where is he is Chairman of the Department of Arts and Sciences, and Science Program Coordinator. He has a master’s degree in molecular biology from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in Chemistry Education from Middle Tennessee State University. Hawkins is married to Katie (Stewart). They have two sons: Joseph and Luke.

Note: The Commission’s annual seminar is always held at 2:00pm on Monday. It is an hour and a half given the substantial nature of the topics, and also to allow extensive audience response and questions afterward. Check your programs once arriving at the Convention for the exact room location of the seminar.