Repenting from Lordship Salvation…Halfway

28 August 2011

The first error of lordship salvation is thinking that God won’t save you (or hasn’t saved you) if you have a rotten life.  Entry into heaven goes with a good life (conditionally or inevitably), and if you examine your life and see that it’s not good, you’re not going to heaven.

The second, and more subtle, error of lordship salvation is thinking that Yahweh is the sort of god who would send you to hell if He could.

I’m finding that there are an awful lot of people who have halfway repented from lordship salvation.  They no longer believe that Yahweh requires sanctification in order to enter heaven.  However, in their heart of hearts, they still believe in a furious god who would send them to hell if he could.

So they invest themselves in the Free Grace gospel: Jesus saves us on the sole condition of faith alone, with no works before, during, or after the moment of faith required.  No front-loading the gospel; no back-loading either.  Just belief in the proper content.  God won’t weigh your works at heaven’s gate to determine your eternal destiny; He will ask a simple question about your soteriology.  Pass that theology test, just once, at any point in your life, and you’re golden.  That done, you can forever fend off the vengeful deity: you have already done all that is required of you, and he can’t send you to hell, no matter how he might want to.  This would, in fact, be good news…if Yahweh were even remotely like the god they’re describing.

***

Do you see that there’s a lot of self-effort going into passing the theology test?  That the good news of the freeness of God’s grace is being turned into a weapon to hold a (fictitious) angry deity at bay?

Do you see that when we do this, we don’t actually trust God at all?  That if we did, we could just trust Him to guide us into whatever content we need to know?

***

To the people I’ve just described, I have a message.  I didn’t think of it myself; I inherited it from someone who lived five centuries ago.  He was a Roman Catholic, confessor to a neurotic Augustinian friar named Martin Luther.  Luther was so obsessed with his sins that he would be in the confessional for six hours at a time, trying to get forgiveness for everything, lest he be damned.
Finally–so the story goes–his confessor shouted at him, God doesn’t hate you; you hate Him!  Don’t you know the Scriptures command you to hope?”

Exactly.

God doesn’t hate you.  And if you’re trying to hold Him at bay, be it with a stack of good deeds, a saving proposition, or with the very words of John 3:16, then the problem is that you hate Him.

But you don’t believe the very first words of the verse.  “God so loved the world…”

The solution is simple: trust Him.  He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him.


Mystical Union: Knocking the Bottom out of the Swimming Crib

24 July 2011

During the summer, people generally prefer to swim outside.  Although it is common to swim in pools these days, old-school swimming facilities usually depended on natural water features: ponds, rivers, and oceans.  An ideal natural swimming location would have clean water, a gradually sloping, sandy bottom, and very little current.  Such places existed, of course, but they weren’t as common as one might hope.  In response, waterfront staff developed a variety of work-arounds to allow swimmers to safely use the water in the absence of perfect conditions.

In situations where the water was very deep, or the current too fast-moving, one of those work-arounds was called a swimming crib.  The crib was basically a very large wooden crate, ballasted and tethered to function sort of like a ‘swimming pool’, immersed in the lake or river.  (You can see an example here.)  One of the most basic uses for a crib was to provide a shallow area for beginners to swim in water that was naturally very deep.  The lake bottom could be thirty feet down, but a 3-foot crib provided an artificial ‘shallow end.’

***

One typical take on eternal life is that it’s “living forever with God” — a simplification that I have certainly been guilty of, myself.  The focus is revivalistic, focused on a heaven-or-hell afterlife.  A person who ‘has eternal life’ is ‘saved,’ which means that he’s going to go to heaven when he dies…and that’s pretty much it.

Given that definition, the Gospel of John, which is very, very focused on eternal life, takes on the appearance of being all about whether people go to heaven or hell.  The purpose of the book, “that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you might have life in His name” is understood to be about taking people who were going to hell and making it so they’re going to heaven…and that’s pretty much it.

This is the theological equivalent of building a 3-foot swimming crib in some very deep, very fast-moving water.  Problem is, what we’re protecting people from, in this instance, is God.

***

Eternal life has to be “living forever” — otherwise, as Zane Hodges aptly observed, “eternal life” isn’t a very good name for it — but is that all we need to say about it?  Jesus didn’t think so.  “And this is eternal life,” Jesus prayed to His Father, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”

Eternal life, according to Jesus, is knowing God.  How?  Through Jesus, who said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”  That’s inexhaustible.  It’s far, far deeper than “going to heaven when you die.”  And while, of course, lip service is paid to this notion, in fact it is largely ignored.  We keep everybody in the 3-food swimming crib of going to heaven, when they could be diving deep into relationship with God Himself.

The solution?  We need to knock the bottom out of the crib.  This will undoubtedly be the occasion for much whining, but we have no right to speak in a way that stands between people and a living relationship with God.


Crock-Pot Theology

10 July 2011

There are times when it is necessary to say nothing, to wait and grow.  There are also times when the growing is done, and it’s time to let your hard-won light shine.  We all go through such seasons.  I’m going through a wait-and-grow season vis-a-vis the Free Grace Food Fight presently, which is why I’ve had nothing to say about it for a while.

Then, too, different people have different gifts.  Some people are theological microwaves; pop in a question and get an answer back 30 seconds later.  Others are crock-pot theologians.  Answers may be few and far between, but rich and flavorful for having been so long in the preparation.

My friend Michele is such a person, and she’s just delivered a crock-pot feast over at Sanc’s Blog.  The specifics are aimed at a narrow segment of the Christian community; if you don’t live in that end of the pool, just let the references to modern-day Euodia and Syntyche pass you by.  The meat of the matter is accessible enough, and it’ll be a blessing to you, if you can hear it.


A Problem of Generations

8 May 2011

After his Romans 1:17 insight, Martin Luther did not doubt his salvation. He had been delivered from the crushing weight of having to earn his salvation — a thing which he knew he could never do — and he had no doubt that the God who delivered him would make good on His promises.

When he got around to filling in the theology to explain his experience, Luther couched it in terms of the Reformation doctrine of election, as did John Calvin and the other early Protestants.  Now this doctrine is the occasion for a great deal of suffering today, as people torment themselves with doubts about whether they are elect.

Luther was no stranger to the question, and he has an answer for it: “Do you doubt whether you are elected to salvation? Then say your prayers, man, and you may conclude that you are.”  For Luther, basking in the glow of his deliverance from bondage, it was a simple question.  God doesn’t hate you; He loves you.  He’s trustworthy.  So stop worrying and trust Him.

Fast-forward a generation or so, though, and there’s a real mess among the Protestants.  The question Luther could not take seriously, dazzled as he was with his epiphany, remained: How can I be sure I’m elect?

Answers flew thick and fast: Do you exhibit real sorrow for sin?  Do you love hearing God’s Word?  Do you love God and His people?  and so on.  And of course, if people were honest with themselves, the answers came back a bit dodgy.  We aren’t as broken over our sin as we should be.  We don’t always love hearing God’s Word — sometimes we want to sleep instead.  We certainly don’t love God, let alone His people, as well as we ought to do.  The more people looked at themselves, the more doubt abounded.  Again, this was not a new problem that just appeared.  John Calvin himself considered the issue, and wrote that when we look at ourselves, we doubt, but when we look at Christ, we trust Him and doubts vanish.

But Calvin’s advice fell to the wayside, and people turned from looking to Christ to examining their own hearts: their works, their affections, their sorrow over sin (or lack thereof).

***

Do we suppose that Free Grace is so different, so special, that this same thing cannot happen to us?

It’s already happening.  No doctrinal formulation, however correct, is immune to getting Pharisee-ized by someone who doesn’t actually walk with God.  Unstable people can and do twist the truth, to their own destruction.  I may talk more about that in coming weeks.

***

But first I’d like to talk about a positive second-generation agenda.

The signal concerns of the Free Grace movement as a whole are first-generation concerns.  For the person who is escaping the crushing weight of Roman legalism, or slavery to the never-ending introspection of Puritan-style Calvinism, or the soteriological roller coaster that is fear of losing one’s salvation — for that person, the hallmark books and talking points of the Free Grace tradition are a kiss on the lips.

I would take nothing from that.

However, the way it’s articulated causes a different set of problems a few years down the road, and this is the thing that it is hard for first-generation Free Grace people to see.

But then, I am not first generation.  My parents were Free Grace before I was born.  I am 35 years old, and have attended Free Grace churches my entire life — and a Free Grace college, and a Free Grace seminary.  This is an enormous privilege, and I am incredibly grateful for it.  I take the signal talking points of Free Grace as a matter of bedrock reality.  But my heritage also gives me a different perspective.

My concerns are second-generation concerns.  Yes, receiving eternal life is free — but then what do you do with it?  Of course the moment you came to Christ was important, but the most important moment of your life?  I hope not — I shudder to think that the most important moment of my spiritual life could have happened when I was four years old, and it’s all downhill from there.  Sure, eternal rewards is a liberating and motivational doctrine — but given that motivation, by what ethic shall we make decisions?

The common theme here is a quest for a coherent, understandable, biblically faithful doctrine and practice of sanctification.  That’s not too much to ask, and it will require breaking new ground.  Best we roll up our sleeves and get crackin’.


Mystical Union: The Only Path to Maturity

30 January 2011

The posts on mystical union appear to have touched a nerve in the FG community.  Clearly this is an area that warrants much more investigation and discussion; I am much encouraged that we’re on the right track .  And so we continue…

In John 17:20-23, Jesus prays for all who believe in Him to be one: “I do not pray for these [eleven disciples] alone, but also for all those who will believe in Me through their word….”  Please note, Jesus is not asking for a loose alliance, but that we would be one “as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You….”  Jesus wants us to be one as the Trinity is one.

Is that even vaguely possible?

Of course not.  It would take a miracle.

And that’s exactly what Jesus prays for–a miracle: “…that they also may be one in Us.”  We cannot unite with each other apart from God; what we can do is be joined to the Trinity, and thereby be united to each other.

Jesus has a purpose in mind: “…that the world may believe that You sent Me.”  This tells us something about the unity He is praying for.  All believers are joined to Christ invisibly, but that is not the answer to Jesus’ prayer.  Jesus is praying for something that unbelievers can see, so that they might believe.

By what tools are we to be thus visibly united?  How do we do it?  “And the glory You gave Me, I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one.”  The Father gave glory to the Son, and the Son has given that glory to us.  By that glory we are to be united.

But what does it mean?

I’m having a hard time describing it here.  If you’ve seen Jesus’ glory revealed in two believers in the same place at the same time, then you’ve seen what he’s talking about, and the unity that inevitably flows from it.  If you haven’t, I’m not sure I can explain that particular miracle to you, except to say that when the glory shines forth, we recognize our mutual Friend Jesus in each other, and for His sake we love one another, and find ways to get along.  When our sins obstruct the glory, suspicion reigns, and there is no unity except the pseudo-unity that comes from having common enemies.

All this is not only an answer to Jesus’ prayer and a witness to the world; it is also necessary for our own spiritual growth: “I in them and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one….”  The path to perfection, to maturity, lies in the sort of unity that Jesus prays for.  One of the great sins of conservative evangelicalism is the presumption that division leads to greater purity, and thence to maturity.  It simply isn’t true; Jesus says that we will be made perfect in one.  Divided, the Body will never be mature.  (Now, this same Jesus taught us about church discipline and so on, so it’s not as though division never happens in an obedient church.  But although division may be necessary at a particular time, it is a setback, and we should treat it like one.)

And again, Jesus has a purpose in mind for the miracle He is praying for, and he expands on it here: “…that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as you have loved Me.”  Not only will the world see the sign and know that Jesus is who He says He is; our visible unity will also be a sign to them that God loves us, just as He loved Jesus.

Knowing this, they will want to be a part of us, the people on whom God pours out His love.  What a witness it would be!  What a witness it is, on those rare occasions when it happens to some degree!

The key to it all is “in Us” in verse 21.  This is a miracle from top to bottom, and none of it is going to work if we are not united to the Trinity.  Only by being in the Father and the Son will we be able to unite with each other.

Conversely, if we find ourselves unable to unite with each other, what does that say about our relationship with the Father and the Son?


Gordon Clark Refuted in Three Sentences

22 January 2011

Faith is trust/reliance/persuasion/belief — frame it how you will — in something which one holds to be truth.  All faith is propositional only if all truth is propositional.  But John 14:6 has already shown us that this is not true.


Father Hatred and the Loss of Beauty in Worship

9 January 2011

Beauty is hard work.  Being good enough to produce something like Handel’s Messiah requires years of training, apprenticeship, and dedication.  The actual creation of it requires a great deal of work.  And even all that is not enough — schooling and hard work can’t put in what God left out.  If the talent isn’t there, then there will be no great work of art, no matter how dedicated the artist might be.

Not everybody is a Handel.  Maybe one or two in a generation are so talented — and not all of them have access to good training, or work as hard as Handel did.  So it becomes very important, if we are to have beauty, that we attend to our history.  If you only get the combination of hard work and talent that produces a Handel every two or three generations, and you want to have a lot of beautiful music, then you have to hoard it from your past.  There won’t be enough to go around in this generation alone — or any other generation.  Which is to say that in aesthetics and art as in everything else, “a good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children,” and we must honor our fathers and mothers.

Now, imagine what happens if a generation arises which does not honor its fathers and mothers.  The rationalizations vary; perhaps they are sweeping away the barnacles of accrued affectation and getting back to the primal essence of the art.  Perhaps they are forsaking superstition and ignorance and advancing forward into the light of a scientific new day.  Perhaps they are simply seeking things to which they feel an intuitive connection, and abandoning the past as irrelevant.  Perhaps they have pronounced all their fathers might gain of them Corban… (we’ll come back to that thought.)

Whatever the justification, the result is the same.  Failure to honor one’s fathers and mothers leads to being cut off from the benefits of their wisdom.  Forsaking the law of your father is not a good idea.  In the matter of beauty, the results are particularly bad.  The lessons of the past are forgotten and must be rediscovered, and the accumulated treasure of the past is ignored.  The result is inevitably a great deal of ugliness, and the loss of an ability to tell that it’s ugliness.  The best rock opera of the nineties may turn out to just be a trifle less terrible than a field of weak contenders.  Without the accumulated treasure of the past, there’s little basis for comparison.

This is what has happened in worship.  When we think of the “worship wars” today, we think of the battle that started in the 1970s and really didn’t go mainstream until the 80s and 90s — shall we sing praise choruses, or hymns?  The folks who argued for choruses, and against hymns, felt that they were casting off the dead hand of almost two millennia of orthodusty and revitalizing the church.  The folks who argued for preserving the hymns felt that they were guarding a great trove of wisdom and glorious worship, stretching back to the dawn of the church.  They were both wrong.

They were wrong because mostly, the hymns at issue were 19th-century revival songs that were, in their day, the music of a similar revolution.  Before that, most churches had a strong continuity in their worship and music with the preceding 1800 years of church history.  The great revivals of the 19th century, along with various good effects, also succumbed to the sin of contempt for the established church, and therefore for their fathers in the faith and the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the generations who went before them.

The result, as we’ve been discussing, was a good deal of ugliness.  In time, people noticed that it was ugly, shallow and unhelpful, and began to do something else — and the result was the present ‘worship wars,’ a revolution against the revolution.  (Not, please notice, a counter-revolution.  That would imply undoing the sins of the past, and what we got instead was more of the same.)

Which is to say that, having discovered that sin didn’t work, we decided to try compounding it rather than repenting of it.  We needed to admit that the first revolution was a sin, that we had forsaken the wisdom of our fathers.  We needed to begin to honor our fathers again.  This we did not do, and many of us still have not.

The result, predictably again, is much ugliness, and a goodly number of ridiculous spectacles.  A guy whose faith has been sustained by numerous Calvary Chapel messages about how the locust-scorpions of Revelation 9 are helicopters and the end is near — this guy is tormented by concern that his Lutheran friend is not being “fed” in his supposedly dry liturgical service.  The Lutheran fellow, for his part, visits his friend’s church once and is permanently put off Bible studies.  Jeepers.


Creeds: Description, Prescription, and the Role of Gratitude

12 December 2010

In a preceding post I mentioned gratitude as a factor in my use of the creeds, and in discussions with friends and colleagues it has become clear to me that this requires a little elaboration.

First of all, a couple of thoughts about the nature of gratitude in general.  Gratitude is not just about warm feelings in your chest.  Gratitude is about what you do.  If your parents raised you, fed you, clothed you, loved you, and you always felt warmly toward them for these things, but you treated them badly and never once gave any indication that you were aware of how much they’d done for you, are you grateful?  No, not really.  Suppose a friend rebukes you for your ingratitude, and you protest that of course you feel warmly about all your parents have done for you.  Wouldn’t your friend be perfectly right to say “So what?”

Of course he would.  That warm feeling is not an all-purpose moral solvent that cleanses whatever you decide to to.  If you take for granted all your parents have given you, and then protest that of course you’re grateful — by which you mean that you have warm feelings toward them — this is just to say that you are only grateful where it doesn’t matter.  Gratitude that is not meaningfully incarnated is not gratitude at all; it’s just cheap sentimentality.

With reference to the early creeds,  I am grateful to those men who went before me, for their many sacrifices and their great struggle.  Even more, I am grateful to Christ for giving such evangelists, pastors and teachers to His Church.  But if this is to be more than a sticky sentiment, a warm feeling in my chest when someone says “Nicea” or “Chalcedon,” then I need to incarnate this gratitude in a way that matters.

These creeds are the weapons our fathers used in their war against heresy.  This is simply a matter of history; it is as God Providentially arranged for it to be, and we must show gratitude for the way God actually preserved His church, not the way we wish He’d done it. So we must celebrate these key aspects of the faith which our fathers so ably defended, and do so in a manner respectful of God’s design in history — which is to say, respectful of what actually happened and what they actually said.  Therefore, an aspect of this celebration will inevitably be the public reading, or the corporate saying, of the creeds.  And so we find once again that “descriptive vs. prescriptive” fails us as a useful way of categorizing.  The creeds are not just descriptions of what the church believed at one point in her history; they are also — in the fashion just described — prescriptions that govern aspects of our present practice.

But how?  How will it work in practice?  We don’t have to say the Creeds weekly, but we can’t just ignore them, either.  Some churches may simply integrate the Creeds into their weekly worship.  Others may choose to do something quarterly, or integrate the Creeds into their doctrinal statements and new members’ classes.  Others still may designate one Sunday a year to celebrate these things.  After all, if we can manage to observe Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to celebrate the warriors who have defended our country, why can’t we find room in the schedule for a day to celebrate the warriors of the Church, who defended our faith?  (And may I suggest the Feast of All Saints as a convenient time?)  There is no One Perfect Way to do this, but do it we must, somehow.

Now, am I saying that a man is in sin if he doesn’t say the Nicene Creed at least occasionally?  Not as such.  Saying the Creed is not directly required by Scripture, and so a man can walk with God and not say the Creed — at least in theory.  However, in actual practice, I find that among American evangelicals, our particular refusal to say the creed is the result of a sinful attitude on our part:  ingratitude, sectarianism and father-hatred that ill becomes Christians.

The wage of that particular sin is a particular sort of death.  If you insist on isolating yourself from other members of the Body in defiance of Eph. 4:3, God may give you your desire, but send leanness to your soul.  Cut off from the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit in past generations, cut off from the wisdom of your fathers, you will be reduced to whatever formulations you can dream up yourself, and you get only the counsel of your living friends — which is to say that you will be low-hanging fruit for the fads of the age, and your churches, your schools, your daily practice will fall victim to a pervasive silliness.  (Oh, wait — I just described modern evangelicalism, didn’t I?)

We are ungrateful, and God has given us over to our folly.  You want to know why, when you walk into a Christian “bookstore,” you can’t hardly find a Greek New Testament or even a decent devotional book, but there are crucifix pencil toppers and “God’s Gym” t-shirts in every size you can think of, including a little onesie for your newborn Christian soldier?  This is why.  Could it be any clearer that we need to repent?


Creeds: What’s There And What’s Not

5 December 2010

When you read the Definition of Chalcedon, you will find a reference to Mary as the mother of God.  As I mentioned last week, that was not just pious boilerplate language; it was at the heart of the controversy, and a key part of the fathers’ success against the heresies of their day.

Now, “mother of God” could be taken to imply all the cult of Mary business — adoration of Mary, prayers to Mary, kissing statues or pictures of Mary, the whole nine yards.  Certainly parts of the present-day cult of Mary are later innovations, but even in 451, the cult of Mary was a going concern.  We can’t say that the fathers at Chalcedon simply didn’t have a clue that anyone would go that route.  They did, and at least some of them approved of it.

So I find myself facing objections on opposite fronts: many of my evangelical brethren object to my use of the Definition because they feel I am giving aid and comfort to the cult of Mary.  On the other hand, there are folks, say from the Eastern Church, who will object that I don’t really agree with the Definition of Chalcedon.  “You don’t pray to Mary,” they will say, “you don’t venerate her as the Mother of God; how can you say that you agree with Chalcedon?”

What these two objections have in common is an assumption that “mother of God” implies all the ‘cult of Mary’ baggage, that the two come as a set and can’t be separated.  But this is just silly.  What the Definition does say can certainly be separated from what it does not say.

I do, in fact, believe what the Definition says: that she is the mother of God.  I believe this because the Word was God, and the Word became flesh, and did so in the usual human way, by growing in the womb of a specific woman and passing through her birth canal.  Now, we have a perfectly good designation for the woman who takes that role in a person’s life, and the word is “mother.”  We don’t blink at saying that Jesus is God come in the flesh, born to the virgin Mary; why would we blink at saying, in the same breath, that God had a mother?  Didn’t he?  (Of course, this is God-the-second-person-of-the-Trinity.  The Father doesn’t have a mother, nor does the Spirit — but who is claiming that they do?  The Chalcedonian fathers would have been first to deny it.)

On the other hand, I note that “mother of God” is all the Definition says on this subject.  It does not affirm Mary as a fit recipient for prayer, for example, nor does it say anything about a Christian duty to venerate her.  It may well be that at least some of the Chalcedonian fathers did, in fact, pray to and venerate Mary.  They might even have found it baffling, unthinkable, that someone could affirm Mary as the mother of God and not pray to her.  Perhaps they would have thought the two ideas were inseparable.  But with the advantage of additional centuries to reflect, we can see that actually, they are separable, and in God’s Providence the Definition only speaks to one of them — the one that the Scriptures clearly support.

Since the Scriptures clearly support it, so should we.


Creeds: Generosity

28 November 2010

I need to say thank you to my good friends Dr. Steve Lewis and Joe Anderson, whose discussion and friendly disagreement over the use and meaning of the creeds inspired me to think more deeply and more clearly about these issues than I ever had in the past.  I’m grateful to you both.

In our theological community, nitpicking is considered the acme of theological skill.  I honed the skill from a very early age; I’m one of the heirs of a particular strain of southern fundamentalism, so I was raised to it.  I can, in all modesty, nitpick with the best of ’em.   To be honest, the skill has served me very well in certain contexts.  It’s important at times to be exact, say what you mean to say, no more and no less, and to hear everything that others are saying — or, even more importantly, to hear what they’re not saying.

But…

But there are other times when it’s a weakness.  It can be a real problem when we’re trying to obey Ephesians 4:3 with living people, and I’ll save that discussion for another time.  But the trouble it causes the living doesn’t even hold a candle to the trouble it causes us when we’re dealing with the dead.  We read every historical formulation as though it were written yesterday, and criticize it for all the things it doesn’t say, all the things it says differently than we would say them.  We do not pay attention to the vital historical context in which the creeds were written, and therefore we do not notice the victories our fathers achieved.

What we ought to do is ask a different question.  Not, “Would I say it like this?” but “Did they succeed at addressing the problem before them in their day (not, notice, the problem before me, now)?”

For example, “Eternally begotten of the Father” in the Nicene Creed is hard to prove.  In Scripture, begetting seems to be discussed in the context of the Incarnation, and it’s not exegetically clear that it applies to the preincarnate Christ.  But what was the context?  The Nicene fathers were at war with the heresy of Arius, who said that Christ was not eternal, but “There was a time when He was not.”  “Eternally begotten of the Father” was the Nicene fathers’ way of clearly, unequivocally saying that the Arian claim was a lie.  For the need of the hour, it was a most effective tactic, imperfect as it may seem to us from our present vantage.  (Do you think you have a better solution to the problem?  Let’s say you’re right — so what?  Who couldn’t come up with a better answer, given a millennium and a half to think about it?  But the Nicene fathers didn’t have a millennium and a half.  Arius had to be refuted then; the sheep God committed to their care needed a solution then.)

Why did it matter?  As with all the early Christological controversies, what was at stake was nothing less than the very essence of the Christian faith: the promise that human beings can be partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4).  Jesus is the paradigm case: He shows that it is possible for full deity to really meet full humanity.  If His deity is diminished (as Arius would have had it) then what we struggling, sinful men partake of is not really the divine nature, but something less.  And if His humanity is diminished, then it is not possible for real human beings to partake of the divine nature — which is to say that we go over the same cliff by a different path.

Believe it or not, we get “mother of God” (Theotokos if you prefer the Greek) in the Definition of Chalcedon in similar fashion, as a refutation of Nestorius, who was perfectly happy to say that Mary was the mother of Jesus, but would not say that she was the mother of Christ.  For Nestorius, “Christ” meant both the man Jesus and the divine Word, come together in one, and he would not affirm that the divine Word had a mother.  The fathers took this (correctly, I might add) as a flat denial of John 1:14, and a serious threat to the theological underpinnings of the promise of 2 Pet. 1:4.  As a result, they adopted the verbiage “mother of God” to unequivocally deny the errors of Nestorius — and it worked, beautifully.  They were defending the truth that Jesus is undiminished deity and undiminished humanity.  They succeeded; we reap the benefits of their success–and make no mistake, “mother of God” was the instrument of their success.

Can we improve upon the wording of the Nicene Creed, or the Definition of Chalcedon?  Perhaps so.  Ought we to evaluate them as though it were written last Tuesday by some evangelical pastor in Tucson?  Of course not.  What we ought to do is read them as a stunning and hard-won refutation of a pernicious heresy.  We ought to say them as celebrations of victory — they are the particular formulations by which, once upon a time, the core truths of the faith once delivered to all the saints were preserved so that we might hear them now.   The men who wrote them are our people, members of Christ’s church and part of the same Body in which we now find salvation; we are their brothers-in-arms, their spiritual children and heirs.

We ought to be generous enough with them not to subject their words to tests they weren’t designed to meet.  Nor should we Monday-morning quarterback them, as if they ought to have been omniscient and foreseen the loopholes that later generations found in their words, or the abuses to which their words were later put.  It is enough to ask of them that they handled — often heroically — the problems of their own day.  It is far too much to ask that they would also have anticipated ours; that’s our job, not theirs.  “Sufficient to the day is the evil thereof.”