Tag Archives: Church History

Missions and the Trinity

by Kevin Hester

Missiology is not my strong suit. It hasn’t been a part of my theological training except by extension. My appreciation for missions has largely come from the clear commands of Scripture and some of the basic principles of ecclesiology. I also think missionaries have such cool stories. I still remember the awe and admiration I had for the missionaries who visited my church during my childhood. They seemed to live such a vibrant Christianity in exotic contexts.

These stories aren’t just part of my childhood experience. As a historical theologian who works primarily in the late classical and early medieval period of the Church, I have run across important missional events that are dotted throughout this period. St. Patrick lived out his Christian mission in Ireland. St. Columba followed his call and worked to establish Christianity among the Picts in what is now Scotland. St. Gregory commissioned missionaries to England and Spain in the late 6th century to evangelize the new barbarians and to battle heresy. In the early 13th century, St. Francis of Assisi tied his new monastic endeavor to preaching and missions, going himself to attempt evangelistic efforts with the Sultan of Egypt.

Missions has been a part of the Christian church from the beginning. The Church blossomed from the work of the apostles and early Christian believers to “go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every nation.” This story is clearly presented in the book of Acts. We see there the same types of exciting stories that were so attractive to my 13-year-old budding masculine sensibilities. But when you turn to church history you quickly see that the explosion of church growth came not from what we call “missions,” but from “normal” Christian people living out their faith in their communities. (This is the basic thesis of Michael Green in his Evangelism in the Early Church, a book I would highly recommend.)

The more I have lived and learned, I have come to understand that mission work isn’t always exotic. I have befriended enough missionaries now to understand that they struggle with life’s everyday concerns just like I do. They work jobs, cook meals, tend to sick children, and go about the business of life in ways not dissimilar from all of us. They certainly have challenges that most of us don’t face when it comes to language and cultural issues, but mostly they work to live out their Christianity in their day-to-day interactions with people.

Missions is organic and basic to the Christian life. The professionalization of missions, much like the professionalization of ministry, has left most of us viewing it as a specific calling for specific people in specific places of the world. This does happen, but it is the exception rather than the norm. Missions at its most basic level is what we call Christian living. The call to all of us is to live out the love of Christ in all our relationships.

This emphasis on relationship can be seen in the history of the word “mission”. As David Bosch points out in his Transforming Mission, the term “mission” wasn’t used to describe evangelism until the Jesuit evangelistic enterprises of the 16th and 17th centuries. Instead, the term mission “was used exclusively with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, that is, of the sending of the Son by the Father and of the Holy Spirit by the Father and the Son” (1). Historically then (and theologically), mission is based in the ontological nature of God and God’s desire to establish (or reestablish) a relationship with his creation.

All my life I have heard mission conference speakers and missiologists work to develop elaborate philosophies and methodologies. Many of these were built on social or ethical concerns. Others took a theological tack focusing on the relationship of general revelation and soteriology. I have even heard injunctions to mission based in eschatology. I really felt for them. I have so longed to hear a missionary sermon that wasn’t based on Matthew 28 or Acts 1. What else, after all, is there to talk about? Jesus said to do it, so I guess we have to.

This is why I was so refreshed to recently read Timothy Tennent’s Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. In this work, Tennent grounds missions not in a command alone, but in the nature of God. Suddenly, it clicked for me. Mission is who God is and “all theology is fundamentally missional because biblical theology reveals God as a missionary God.” (60)

In the divine economy of the transcendent Trinity, the Father sends the Son. In the immanent Trinity’s activity in human history Jesus sends the Church. He sends us to do what he did. He sends us to live and to love. He sends us to show the Father to the world. That is mission. It isn’t tied to a specific call or a specific place. Missions is for all of us. God the Father invites us into His work by being what He is creating (or recreating) us to be. The internal relations of the member of the Trinity serve as the model for the relationships we are called to have with God and with one another.

When we fail to base our concept of mission in who God is we miss the basic outline of Scripture. We commit that all-to-human of errors and make missions about us and what we can or “have” to do. When we do this, “the role of the Church as the body of Christ, the redeemed community in the world, and the ongoing reflection of the Trinity in the world is largely lost. We see ourselves as commissioned to tell the story, but we don’t see ourselves as intrinsically part of the story. However, the Church must do more than tell the gospel; we must embody it.” (63)

The missio Dei as expressed in the Trinity is about relationships. God, as a personal being, reveals Himself to a people He created for Himself. He calls all of us to tell His story and by telling His story to tell our own. He calls us to live lives of holiness and love; lives more in tune with the coming eschatological future than the present. The Father invites us into His mission. The Son revealed the Father and gave Himself for us. The Spirit calls us into service and empowers us to fulfill it through the activity of the Holy Spirit. Much like the incarnation was meant to give us a clearer picture of the Father, the sending of the Church serves to clarify the meaning and the purpose of the incarnation.

None of this means that God does not call some people to proclaim the gospel in exotic places. What it does mean is that each of us is a part of God’s worldwide missionary enterprise. God’s method is based in Trinitarian relationships. God tells His story and He does it through our relationships. It looks like we all have a story to tell.

 

A Trinity in Name Alone is Not Enough

by Kevin Hester

In October of this year, Christianity Today reported the findings of a recent LifeWay Research poll commissioned by Ligonier Ministries. The poll was targeted at the evangelical community and surveyed a number of key theological topics and concepts including God, the person and work of Christ, the Holy Spirit, Scripture, and salvation. While these topics would seem to be basic Sunday School fodder, the results of the survey were disturbing. In most cases, 25-50% of Evangelicals reported a lack of awareness or assurance regarding the teaching of the Church on basic dogma.

One seeming bright spot was that 96% of self-reported Evangelicals believed in the Trinity. However, subsequent questions revealed that this affirmation lacked significant comprehension. For example, 31% of respondants said that God the Father was more divine than Jesus, and 58% believe that the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a personal being.

This survey reveals that our churches, while confessing dogma, are failing to adequately teach, define, and defend the basic beliefs of the Church. Evangelical ignorance of basic Trinitarian theology is especially troubling given the evangelistic efforts of anti-Trinitarian sects like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and various oneness Pentecostal groups. When these efforts are coupled with societal forces pushing the Church toward inclusivism, it is not difficult to imagine a new Socinianism arising.

In order to defend the faith, our churches must remain committed to theological catechesis in the home, in our Sunday Schools, and from our pulpits. Yet many forces press against such teaching. Emphases on practical Christian living and evangelism are needed, but not at the expense of doctrine. An identification of catechesis with “liturgical” or “liberal” faith communities pushes many Evangelical congregations toward a softer social focus. In downplaying doctrinal distinctions, the non-denominational movement has left many Evangelical churches devoid of any theological teaching at all. When these forces are coupled with a lack of education among the clergy and the arguments of the cults, we leave our congregants open to heresy and fail to heed the words of Paul (Ephesians 4:14) and Peter (2 Peter 3:17).

There are biblical, historical, and theological reasons for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. While the word “trinity” is not found in Scripture, the concept certainly is. God is clearly presented as one God (Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 44:6, Romans 3:30). At the same time the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit are all clearly defined in Scripture as personal beings who do the work of God and receive the worship that is due only to God. The union of their purpose and will as well as their economic distinction is seen in Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20), and in the great benedictions of the Church (2 Corinthians 13:14).

Historically, the Church has affirmed its Trinitarian belief in consistently rejecting teaching that sought to conflate the persons of the Godhead (Monarchianism) and beliefs which denied the full divinity of Christ (Adoptionism and Arianism) or the personality and divinity of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatomachianism). The Church established this belief in the foundational confessions of the Church at Nicea (A.D. 325) and Constantinople (A.D. 381) affirming that the one God exists eternally as three distinct (but not separate) personal ways of existing.

Theologically then, the Church teaches that God is one in number, purpose, and will, but three in relation to dispensation or work. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are united in one God all possessing the attributes of God in full measure. Because God cannot change this Trinitarian, existence is an eternal aspect of God’s ontological existence.

So what? Is this theological jargon really all that important? What is really at stake other than some old arcane creeds and musty hymns? The implications of the doctrine of the Trinity likely go farther than you would ever imagine. As we will see below, without the Trinity we have no way of understanding who or what God is. Without the Trinity, there is no Gospel and no pattern for governance in the world. Without the Trinity, there is no reason to love and no model for what that love looks like.

Personal, Relational God

Personal beings are beings that are capable of relating to others. If God does not exist as a Trinity, then there is no ontological basis for the relational attributes of God. To paraphrase Augustine in de Trinitate, what does it mean for God to be love (1 John 4:8) if there is no object of that love? God’s love means that God is a relational God who is infinitely loving. This love has always been part of God’s nature. Without the Trinity, God could be eternally existent, having omnipotence, and immutability, but these characteristics would be self-contained without reference to anything outside God’s self. There would be no underlying reality for its expression and therefore no creation, no redemption, no revelation.

Revelation

The Trinity serves as the basis for our understanding of God’s personality and as a consequence, God’s revelation. We are personal beings and therefore relate personally. Revelation cannot be separated from personhood. To deny the Trinity undercuts any basis for communication between God and humanity. It also brings Scripture into question. We have noted the way that Scripture speaks of both the unity and three-personal nature of God, but Scripture also bases God’s revelation in this fact as well. Jesus is the Word of God with all that entails (John 1). Jesus says when we see Him we have seen the Father (John 14:9). Hebrews testifies that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory and the representation of His nature (Hebrews 1:3). The reality, and by extension the accuracy of the revelation found in the incarnation, is tied to the Trinity.

Gospel

The Father’s sending of the Son and the sending of the Holy Spirit are revelatory, but they are also redemptive. The economy of God’s work in the world involves all members of the Trinity and they work together in creation, revelation, and redemption. The Father accomplishes redemption by sending the Son and accepting His sacrifice for sin. The Spirit applies the benefits of Christ’s death to the believer and works to draw the world back to the Father through the Son. The Gospel itself is therefore meaningless without reference to the Trinity. As Lesslie Newbigin has pointed out an ecumenism that denies Christ’s central role in salvation and its Trinitarian framework is devoid of the power of redemption (Trinitarian Doctrine for Todays Mission, passim).

Human Society

The loss of a rigorous doctrine of the Trinity not only impacts the relationship between humanity and God. The Trinity also serves as the basis for all human relationships in all areas of human society. Inasmuch as humans are created in the image and according to the likeness of God, we should expect to find traces of the Trinity in human relationships. The Trinity serves as the foundation for the equality of humankind (as all members of the Trinity are equally God) but also the order of society. There is a hierarchy of roles in the economy of God’s work in the world, but this is a functional subordination rather than an ontological division. While the Father sends the Son and the Spirit testifies to the Son, each member of the Trinity relates to one another in love and order. The obedience and order demonstrated in the economy of God establish important principles of human subordination as well without denying equality. Each member of the Trinity works in love to glorify the other members rather than themselves.

Love

Naturalism teaches that people are valuable only as they are capable of exercising their will to power; they are simply commodities. Christianity teaches us that humans are intrinsically valuable by nature and that our response to one another must be guided by love. This is indeed part of the greatest commandment (Mark 12:29-31). This commandment is based in God’s nature and is exemplified for us in the members of the Trinity. The interpersonal relationship of the Trinity teaches us how to love. The love for others we are commanded to have is a selfless love that glories in another’s creation in the image of God, recognizes their value, and willingly submits to God’s order. The doctrine of the Trinity helps remind us that love is an action rather than an emotion. As John has said, “My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18).

Conclusion

Part of loving then, is being willing to tell the truth. The Trinity is more than a word. It is more than a quaint, old-fashioned notion or a dusty dinosaur of a dogma. It lies at the very foundation of Christianity and cannot be removed without disrupting the entire edifice of the Church. Rather than a confusing distraction to the Gospel, preaching and teaching on the Trinity (and other foundational Christian dogmas) is the Gospel. Such preaching might just be the most loving thing we could do.

Was Infant Baptism Practiced in Early Christianity?

by Matthew Pinson

Traditionally, advocates of infant baptism (or paedobaptism) say that its practice dates back to the apostles. Yet there is no proof for this assertion. No clear evidence for infant baptism exists before the third century. Even Augustine’s statement that infant baptism was a “firmly established custom” in the church is off the mark. As late as the time of Augustine’s writings in the late fourth and early fifth centuries, many church fathers either didn’t practice infant baptism or did not themselves receive baptism until they were adults. It was not until after Augustine’s death in the fifth century that one could call infant baptism a firmly established custom.

In understanding this question, we need to talk about two things: First, we must discuss what caused infant baptism to take root in the third century and become general practice by the fifth century. Second, we must establish that infant baptism was not the practice of the early Christians from the time of the apostles to the third century.

Yet before we do these two things, we must take note of the main idea that seems to be driving the paedobaptist argument from history: If infant baptism was a late addition, then why was there no controversy over its introduction into the churches? The answer to this question is twofold: First, there is no clear evidence of infant baptism before the third century, and the paedobaptist must face this. No amount of discussion about why infant baptism came on the scene with little recorded opposition obscures the fact that believer’s baptism is the clear practice before the third century—and infant baptism is not. Second, Tertullian did speak out against the introduction of infant baptism, which we will discuss in a moment.

Now, why was infant baptism introduced in the third century? There are two things here that we must discuss: first, the catechumen system, and the second, the question of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration. The catechumen system was in place as early as the second century. In this system, people would undergo a period of instruction after conversion and before baptism. The early church fathers placed so much emphasis on one’s being instructed in the faith prior to baptism that most converts underwent months or years of catechetical instruction before their baptism.

Many of the best-known church fathers underwent such catechesis and didn’t receive baptism until adulthood, even though they were born to Christian parents. These included, among others, such men as Athanasius, Basil, Clement of Alexandria, Hippolytus, Gregory of Nyssa, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustine himself [1]. If infant baptism had been a custom since the time of the apostles, surely these men would have been baptized before adulthood. Yet these men were products of the catechumen system. They were catachumens who underwent instruction in the faith for many years before being admitted to baptism.

So, given this background, how did infant baptism come to displace the catechumen system? It is simply this: People began to believe the erroneous doctrines of infant damnation and baptismal regeneration, and soon they became widespread in the churches.

Now we must deal with the question, what proof is there that, before the third century, baptism was administered only to believers and not to infants? [2] The best place to start is in early second-century Christianity. Every reference to baptism we find in second-century Christianity reflects confession of faith as an essential qualification for baptism [3].

The earliest and best second-century source on believer’s baptism is the Didache (or “The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” A.D. 100-110). This document goes into more detail on baptism than any other second-century treatment. The Didache not only establishes moral qualifications for the one who is about to undergo baptism but also requires the baptismal candidate to fast for a day or two [4].

Paul K. Jewett asks, “How shall we account for the omission of all reference to infant baptism in this primitive manual of proper baptismal usage? It is hard to imagine such an omission occurring under the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or even Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational auspices. . . . Is it not, then, highly implausible that the Didache was produced by a community of early Paedobaptists who just happened to say nothing about infant baptism?” [5].

All other references to baptism in the second century yield the same results. Paedobaptists have long tried to misconstrue Justin Martyr as teaching infant baptism when he speaks of “many men and women, sixty or seventy years old, who from children were disciples of Christ” [6]. Yet no Baptist would deny that if a child is mature enough to be a “disciple of Christ”—and is one—then he can be admitted to baptism. Far from supporting infant baptism, Justin’s comment supports disciple’s baptism.

Many paedobaptist authors, such as Joachim Jeremias, have said that Irenaeus believed in infant baptism, because of a statement he made (c. A.D. 180) that through Christ people of all ages are reborn, including infants [7]. However, as Everett Ferguson argues, “Before rushing to accept a reference to infant baptism here, we should be cautious.” Ferguson argues that Irenaeus uses the term “reborn” (renascor) for “Jesus’ work of renewal and rejuvenation effected by his birth and resurrection without any reference to baptism. . . . The coming of Jesus brought a second beginning to the whole human race. He sanctified every age of life. Accepting his renovation by being baptized is another matter and falls outside the purview of this passage” [8]. This is the standard baptistic interpretation articulated by authors such as Hezekiah Harvey and Paul King Jewett. Yet this view of Irenaeus is also shared by paedobaptists such as Kurt Aland [9].

As we move into the early third century, we find Tertullian, who wrote the first full treatise on baptism, De baptismo. Strongly favoring the catechumen system, he believed that people should delay baptism until they have been instructed in the faith for a long while: “Consequently in view of the circumstances and will, even the age of each person, a postponement of Baptism is most advantageous, particularly, however, in the case of children. . . . The Lord indeed says: ‘Forbid them not to come unto me,’ Matt. xix. Let them come, then, while they are growing up; let them come while they are learning, while they are being taught whither to come; let them become Christians, when they have been able to know Christ. Why hurries the age of innocence to the remission of sins?” [10] This passage shows that Tertullian is against infant baptism precisely because he is for believer’s baptism.

Baptists, of course, agree that infant baptism took root in the third century. Such church fathers as Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine approved of it. Yet Origen was defensive about it, saying that infant baptism “is a thing causing frequent inquires among the brethren” [11]. This statement works against the paedobaptists’ argument that no one protested the gradual introduction of infant baptism.

There is no direct evidence for the assertion that infant baptism was practiced in the first two centuries of the Christian church. On the contrary, all the evidence establishes believers as the only fit subjects for baptism prior to the third century. When placed alongside the New Testament data on baptism, this demonstrates that apostolic baptism was for believers only.

________________________

[1] Hezekiah Harvey, The Church: Its Polity and Ordinances (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1879; repr. Rochester, NY: Backus, 1982), 211; A. W. Argyle, “Baptism in the Early Christian Centuries,” in Christian Baptism, ed . A. Gilmore (Chicago: Judson, 1959), 187, 202-03, 208.

[2] For one of the best succinct treatments of the early Christian view of baptism, see Paul King Jewett, Infant Baptism and the Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978). 13-43. See also Steven McKinion, “Baptism in the Patristic Writings,” in Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright, eds., Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (Nashville: B&H Academic, 1006), 163-88.

[3] See, e.g., The Epistle of Barnabas (c. A.D. 120-130), which advocates the baptism of believers only: “We go down into the water full of sins and foulness and we come up bearing fruit in our hearts, fear and hope in Jesus in the Spirit” (Ante-Nicene Christian Library, Apostolic Fathers, I, 121). Obviously, infants are unable to exhibit this type of behavior. Another example is found in the Shepherd of Hermas, written in the mid-second century. Hermas makes repentance a condition of baptism (Jewett, 40).

[4] “But before baptism, let him that baptizeth and him that is baptized fast, and any also that are able; and thou shalt order him that is baptized to fast a day or two before” Didache, 7.1).

[5] Jewett, 40-41.

[6] Quoted in Harvey, 202.

[7] Joachim Jeremias, Infant Baptism in the First Four Centuries, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962), 73.

[8] Everett Ferguson, Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology, and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 308.

[9] Harvey, 203-04; Jewett, 25-27; Kurt Aland, Did the Early Church Baptize Infants? Trans. G. R. Beasley-Murray (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963), 58-59. For an early Baptist treatment of Irenaeus similar to this one, see John Gill, Infant Baptism a Part and Pillar of Popery (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1851), 22-23. See also “The Baptismal Question in the Light of Scripture and Church History,” Freewill Baptist Quarterly 26 (1859), which asks, “If infant baptism was practiced by Christ and his apostles, and in the first and second centuries, is it not passing strange that our Pedobaptist friends can find no proof thereof but this passage of Irenaeus,which, after all, says not a word about baptism?” (128).

[10] Tertullian, Tertullian’s Treatises: Concerning Prayer, Concerning Baptism, trans. Alexander Souter (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 69.

[11] Quoted in Jewett, 30.