The Development of the Church during the Third Century

Key Points During this Time

  • After a long history of enduring sporadic persecutions, the mid-third century saw the first systematic persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire
  • The cult of the martyrs developed in the last half of the third century, strongly impacting corporate and personal spirituality
  • Cyprian of Carthage engaged in a number of disputes regarding church order and discipline, composing treatises and letters that shaped western ecclesiology
  • Christian art and architecture began to flourish from the mid-third century, exhibiting styles and motifs common to the culture yet adapted to biblical stories and Christian purposes (especially funerary)
  • Manicheism posed a competitive threat to Christianity from the mid-third century
  • Texts such as Didascalia Apostolorum, and the work of leaders such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Methodius, Lactantius, and Dionysius of Alexandria helped shape the church of the last half of the third century
  • Numerous internal and external factors appear to have contributed to the great success of Christianity in the third century


The third century was a time of tremendous growth for the church, although it faced some of the most severe challenges of its history. Under the emperors Decius and Valerian, Christianity was subjected to widespread and systematic persecution, resulting in numerous martyrdoms. Whereas the veneration of martyrs became a major feature of early Christian piety, the large number of apostates created a crisis in church discipline once the persecutions subsided. Cyprian of Carthage sought to find a middle way between the rigorist and laxist responses to those who denied Christ under threat of persecution, prescribing different manners of church discipline depending on the severity of the offense. Cyprian’s discussions of this matter and such things as the authority of the episcopacy made lasting contributions to church order and the practices of penance and church discipline in the western church.

The first identifiable Christian art appears around 200. Although much of it is funerary and therefore perhaps not entirely representative, surviving examples show that Christians adapted the motifs and style of their Greco-Roman context to create a body of highly symbolic art, much of which refers to biblical stories of rescue and themes of hope.

With its Christian elements and strong dualism, Manicheism posed a competitive challenge to the later third-century church. The later third century was also marked by a number of important texts, such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, and influential leaders, such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Methodius and Lactantius wrote important texts that shaped the church of that era.

Scholars attempting to explain the success of Christianity in the third century adduce a number of external and internal factors contributing to the church’s growth and vitality. However, attempts to account for Christianity’s success turn out to be more descriptive than explanatory.


Christ’s Kingship

The Resurrection

As the eternal Son of God, Christ’s kingship begins in creation; but in redemption, Christ is shown to be Head and Mediator for the church as well. This is not another creation but a new creation—redeemed creation looking forward to the consummation. Although there is a certain order in Christ’s exercise of his offices, they are true of him at all times: he is never Prophet without being King, or King without being Priest. Nonetheless, we should distinguish Christ’s present reign in grace from his future reign, which will also manifest glory and power. The kingdom is currently like its King before his exaltation, appearing weak and foolish to the world. It is visible not in majesty but in Word and sacrament, discipline, discipleship, and fellowship. As in his other offices, Christ exercises kingship as both divine and human. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords not only as God but as the faithful and last Adam, David’s greater son, whose reign has begun even now and will be realized fully in the age to come.

The Ascension

The most direct account of Christ’s ascension is in Luke 24:13–51 (reiterated in Acts 1). In these passages, it becomes clear that Christ’s ascension and return in glory are part of the gospel itself.  Christ continues to exercise all three offices in his heavenly exaltation, proclaiming and bringing about his Word, interceding for his people, and ruling all things for our good, by the Holy Spirit.

The Significance

The ascension is not simply an exclamation point to the resurrection; it is a distinct event in redemptive history, grounding the significance of eschatology (we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realms but do not yet see him face-to-face), pneumatology (Christ is now present to us by the Spirit’s activity through Word and sacrament), and ecclesiology (the church is a community between two ages, already belonging to the new creation but still on our pilgrimage). Christ’s ascension both grounds the church’s present struggle and guarantees our future triumph.

His Kingdom

Since Pentecost, the Spirit has come to apply the benefits of Christ through the preaching of the gospel, ushering in the new creation, in and through the individual and corporate life of believers, their children, and those who are “far off” (Acts 2:39). This means that the Spirit’s application of redemption can never be separated from the history of redemption. Nor can the doctrine of salvation ever be separated from the doctrine of the church; the same King creates and sustains both by the same means: Word and sacrament.

Covenant and Kingdom

Unlike the covenant at Sinai, which Israel violated against her Great King, God’s covenant with Abraham and David depended on God’s own unwavering faithfulness despite the unfaithfulness of his human subjects. This covenant and all its promises are fulfilled in the new covenant in Christ, who fulfilled the Sinai covenant as well, since he is himself the faithful King and the faithful subject.

The Kingdom and Eschatology

The kingdom of God is “from above”; it is an inbreaking of the age to come rather than a developmental progression drawn from the resources of the present age. Since it is a kingdom we are receiving from God rather than building for ourselves, it cannot be shaken (Heb. 12:25–29). We must avoid both underrealized and overrealized eschatology. Underrealized eschatologies, like dispensationalism, fail to see the real presence of Christ’s kingdom breaking into the present age before his return; overrealized eschatologies, like liberation theology, expect Christ’s present reign to include blessings—such as a fully just and godly civil society—that he has promised to bring only at his return. As difficult as it is in practice, we must affirm that Christ’s kingdom is already truly present, but not yet in its consummated form.

Church Life in the Second and Third Centuries

Key Points During this Time

  • After an intensive and often lengthy period of preparation, converts were initiated into Christianity through a highly symbolic baptism ritual
  • Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays and other times for worship and instruction; celebrating the Eucharist was central to Sunday gatherings
  • The church was known for advocating high standards of personal morality, including sexual behavior and charity
  • Women were prominent in the story of early Christianity, as celebrated martyrs, in special roles of church service, and defining new social roles through celibacy
  • Christian hope of bodily resurrection supplied a powerful testimony. Christian expectations included chiliastic and non-chiliastic understandings of the end times.


Although early Christian practices exhibit the influence of their social contexts, they also display distinctive features and definitively Christian expressions. Christians took seriously the matter of initiation into the church, requiring converts to undergo an intensive period of instruction and preparation prior to baptism. Understanding of doctrine and the practice of Christian moral behavior were expected. The baptismal ritual itself showed great care and abundant symbolism. Although initially baptism seems to have been intended for those capable of making a mature commitment, in time infant baptism came to be a routine practice. Christian art depicting baptism illuminates our understanding of early Christian conceptions of this ritual.

Christians were in the habit of meeting on Sundays from the earliest times, in commemoration of Jesus’ resurrection. Weekly assemblies included the reading of Scripture, preaching, hymnody, prayer, and taking up collections for those in need, but centered on the celebration of the Eucharist. As a mystical participation in Jesus’ body and blood, the Eucharist functioned as an argument against Docetic and Gnostic interpretations of the incarnation. By the late third century, the unbaptized were excluded from the eucharistic portion of the assembly.

In addition to weekly assemblies, Christians met for worship and agape meals at other times. They observed regular fast days and had other personal devotions. The apologists stressed the high moral standards of Christians, pointing to their ethics as an argument for the truth of Christianity. Dependent partly on Jewish moral instruction, the moral philosophy of the day, and Jesus’ own teaching and example, Christians claimed a spiritual power to live extraordinary lives. Many early Christian texts focus on moral behavior, including celibacy as an expression of extreme devotion to God in Christ. Christian attitudes towards the state and military service remained ambivalent.

Women played a prominent role in the growth and stability of the early church. Many subverted social expectations by choosing to adopt lives of celibacy. Some became heroines as martyrs. Although women seem not to have been commonly involved in preaching and presiding at liturgical functions, in roles such as that of deaconess they served the church in key ways.

Christian attitudes towards death were very impactful as a part of the Christian witness. Christians observed many of the same burial practices as their Jewish and pagan neighbors, yet inscriptional and artistic evidence shows the hope with which Christians faced death. Partly as a matter of biblical interpretation and partly in response to Marcion and Gnostics, some Christian teachers held to a chiliastic understanding of the end, in which Christ would assume the rule of earth from Jerusalem for 1000 years after his return. The more pervasive view of the end saw the promised millennium as a more symbolic or spiritual event. Both groups taught the resurrection of the body and maintained the vindication of the righteous in the final judgment, resulting in heavenly reward.

The Fathers of the Old Catholic Church and Their Problems

Key Points During this Time

  • Though diverse and often judged inadequate by later standards, the fathers from the late second and early third centuries sustained the faith and decisively shaped later Christian thought and practice
  • In response to heresy, Irenaeus articulated the premises on which the old catholic church developed
  • Tertullian was the first Latin theologian and had great influence on western Christianity
  • Alexandria was a key Hellenistic Christian center; its teachers Clement and Origen developed the foundations of philosophical Christianity
  • The church struggled to define the nature of the church’s holiness, wrestling with problems evident especially in the career of Hippolytus and in conflict regarding the status of the lapsed
  • Debates about liturgical practice (Quartodecimans), church discipline (laxist vs. rigorist) and theology (Monarchianism) animated much theological reflection during the period
  • Due to its leadership, size, location, and role in the controversies of the age, the church at Rome rose in prominence to become the chief church by about the end of the second century


In contrast to the apologists of the second century, who attempted to explain the faith to outsiders, the fathers of the old catholic church undertook the task of addressing insiders, using philosophy and rational argument, along with the Bible and the Christian tradition they had inherited. These early formulators of Christian theology combatted heresy, yet some of them would eventually be found to be inadequate or problematic themselves, by later standards of orthodoxy. Yet they all had a hand in shaping Christian belief and practice in this formative period.

Irenaeus of Lyons argued against Gnosticism, stressing the unity of God the creator and the unity of Jesus Christ. He presented Jesus as recapitulating human experience and bringing God’s plan of salvation to its climax. Appealing to the notion of apostolic succession as a way of guaranteeing the authority of recognized teachers, he underscored the orthodox legacy of the church of Rome. Tertullian wrote in Latin and had a profound influence on the shape of western Latin theology. He composed apologies and numerous treatises against heretics and defending orthodox belief. Suspicious of secular learning and the influence of culture on the church, Tertullian was a rigorist and eventually converted to Montanism.

The church in Alexandria was shaped by its context; it was in a center of Hellenistic culture and learning. The Christian teacher Clement encouraged an intellectual appropriation of the faith and he saw the value of pagan philosophy as a tool in Christian discussion. He opposed Gnosticism, writing works of apologetics, ethics, and reflection on various aspects of Christian faith. Origen was a brilliantly gifted Alexandrian teacher in the same tradition. He pioneered the scholarly study of scripture, wrote the greatest Greek apology of early Christianity, and composed the church’s first systematic theology. Some of his speculations were controversial and his personality and success sparked jealousy.

Hippolytus was probably a presbyter in Rome who went into schism when his rival Callistus was elected bishop. Though uncertainty exists as to Hippolytus’ true role and the full extent of his authentic literary legacy, a notable heresiological work and an influential book of church order are among the texts traditionally ascribed to him. The apparent career of Hippolytus highlights the way in which several factors were coming together to elevate the status of the church at Rome by the end of the second century.

In addition to responding to persecution and heresies like Gnosticism, the fathers of the old catholic church faced a number of challenges. The Paschal controversy involved the church in Rome and churches in Asia especially; it involved a dispute regarding the correct observance of Easter in the church calendar. Modalist and Dynamic Monarchian teachers in the church found different ways of defending monotheism, yet the resulting Christologies were deemed to be deficient and dangerous by orthodox theologians. The pressures of persecution had caused some Christians to lapse. Their desire to return to the church after the threat of persecution had passed created debates between “rigorists” and “laxists” about the nature of the church, the place of penance, and the proper exercise of episcopal authority.

The Defense against Rival Interpretations

Key Points During this Time

  • Partly in response to internal and external pressures, the early church developed a three-fold defense of what is apostolic: the episcopate, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon
  • The monepiscopacy grew out of practical leadership concerns and came to be associated with the idea of apostolic succession
  • The rule of faith and the creed were received as summaries of the apostolic teaching, for instruction and liturgical use
  • The Apostles Creed grew out of an earlier formula of baptismal confession used in Rome, attesting to an early practice of regularly reciting in worship a concise statement outlining key tenets of orthodox Christian belief
  • The formation and recognition of the New Testament canon underwent four stages: Scripture principle, canonical principle, closed canon, and recognition of the closed canon; several criteria of canonicity functioned in an interrelated way
  • The church did not create the canon but recognized it, putting itself under the authority of Scripture


Partly as a natural development in its identity formation and partly in response to rival expressions of Christianity, the church of the second and third century developed a “three-fold defense of “what is apostolic”: the monepiscopacy, the rule of faith and creed, and the canon. These interrelated components were understood to constitute reliable channels of apostolic authority as the church moved further away from the generation of the apostles themselves. Though aspects of each component exhibit signs of having been shaped by continuing interactions with “heretics,” they also convey beliefs and practices that were present prior to those controversies.

The bishop functioned as the authoritative teaching office and channel by which the apostolic message had been preserved. The evidence indicates that the earliest Christian communities were led by a plurality of elders or bishops, yet by the early second century a monepiscopacy is emerging, signaled first by the writings of Ignatius of Antioch. Having a single bishop over the local church allowed churches to address a number of practical leadership matters more effectively. By the late second century, the theory of apostolic succession was being developed by Irenaeus, deployed to demonstrate that the recognized teaching chair of a given church ought to be received as the custodian of apostolic truth as it had been handed down since the apostles’ time, from generation to generation. By the third century (Hippolytus), the idea had developed that bishops are successors to the apostles themselves.

The rule of faith and creed functioned as guides by which to interpret the essence of the apostolic message. The rule of faith was a summary of apostolic teaching, in a flexible form that varied somewhat from place to place. It guided the reader or hearer in discerning the basic plot and gist of proper Christian doctrine and behavior. The creed was more succinct and fixed in form, deriving from baptismal confession formulae for regular liturgical use. The fourth-century Apostles’ Creed from Rome stands as the heir to an earlier form, the Old Roman Symbol of the third century. The Roman church led the way in adapting baptismal confessions into a fixed creedal formula, and the Apostles’ Creed became a standard piece of liturgy throughout western churches.

The canon functioned as the repository of the content of the apostolic teaching. Christians inherited the idea of canon and the Jewish Scriptures from Judaism, though differences existed as to which text to use (Hebrew or Greek) and what the precise contents of the Old Testament should be. The church relied mostly on the Greek Septuagint, translating it into many other languages, and largely accepting the books and expansions circulating with Greek copies of the Old Testament. The development of the New Testament canon proceeded through four stages: the recognition of the Scripture principle (late first/early second century), the canon principle (by about 180), a closed canon (by the fourth century), the recognition of a closed canon (in the fourth/fifth centuries). The criteria by which books were received as canonical were their inspiration, their apostolicity, their antiquity, their catholicity, their use in public worship, and their right doctrine.

One persistent question under discussion concerns the relationship between the church and its channels of authority, particularly the New Testament canon. Whereas a process of development involving human activity is undeniable, the church did not create the canon so much as recognize it, and by doing so put itself under a separate authority rather than keeping its own power.

Heresies and Schisms in the Second Century

Key Points During this Time

  • Early Christianity was characterized by a certain variety in belief and practice
  • A strategic and gifted administrator, Marcion led an effective movement that rejected Christianity’s Jewish roots, distinguished the creator god from the redeemer god, emphasized asceticism, and advocated an authoritative canon of Scripture based mainly on portions of Paul’s writings
  • In the 2nd century, Gnostic movements developed systems of belief that interacted and competed with catholic Christianity, combining Jewish, Christian, and pagan beliefs
  • In an attempt to achieve a philosophical-religious solution to the problem of evil, Gnostic groups taught complex cosmologies that tended to involve extreme dualism, a strong rejection of matter as evil, and redeemer myths
  • In rejecting Gnosticism, “orthodox” Christianity affirmed the oneness of God, the essential goodness of creation, the full incarnation of Jesus Christ, and bodily resurrection
  • Largely in response to perceived worldliness and formalization of the church, Montanism arose as an exuberant movement stressing prophecy, rigorous ethics, and eschatological enthusiasm
  • Encratism describes a tendency in some Christian circles towards extreme asceticism
  • The appeal to existing standards of belief and practice suggests that “orthodoxy” in some sense existed prior to Christian “heresy”


In the struggle to define boundaries of belief and practice, the early church grappled with the diversity to be found among those claiming to follow Christ. Early Christian doctrinal self-understanding took shape partly in response to these challenges. For instance, the wealthy shipbuilder Marcion rejected the Jewish roots of Christianity, teaching that the creator god and redeemer god are separate and that the savior Jesus is to be understood in a Docetic manner. He contended that Paul was the only true Apostle and put forward a canon of Scripture based on Paul that was highly selective and heavily edited. Despite the Roman church’s rejection of his teaching in 144, he effectively organized a movement of many Marcionite churches.

Gnosticism is an umbrella term that covers a number of different groups and teachings interacting with Christianity in the second and third centuries. Although our knowledge of Gnosticism was limited due to the shortage of ancient sources, modern discoveries have enriched our knowledge greatly—particularly the find in 1945 of a number of original Gnostic texts at Nag Hammadi in Egypt. Gnosticism drew on pre-Christian, Jewish, and Christian ideas, synthesizing them into fully developed Gnostic systems by the second century. Different teachers promoted distinct systems, each group being defined by its favored myth of origins, its sense of group identity, and its insider language. Common features included an account of a “fall” in the spiritual realm that resulted in the creation of matter, which is evil. A “redeemer” imparts knowledge (Gnosis) to save those with a spiritual nature, so that they may escape their material prison and be reunited with the divine in the spiritual realm. Valentinus was the most influential Gnostic teacher, but there were many teachers and groups. To escape material entanglement, most followed an ascetic ethic, though some may have been libertine instead. With its streamlined dualism and elitist mentality, Gnosticism’s mythological and philosophical answer to the problem of evil proved attractive to many in the Greco-Roman culture. In response, “orthodox” Christians taught that the creator God is the one true God and that creation is good. They insisted on the full incarnation of Christ and the salvific importance of his bodily death, the significance of history in revelation, and the resurrection of the body. Out of this conflict, a number of important lessons may be found for today’s church.

Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla began a prophetic movement in the churches of Phrygia in the 150s or 170s. Believing themselves to be the voices of the Holy Spirit (the Paraclete), the Montanists of “the New Prophecy” preached judgment, seeking to convict the established church of moral laxness and compromise with the surrounding culture. The movement may be seen partly as a reaction to growing institutionalism of the church in the generations following the Apostles. Montanism did not teach different doctrines, but their ascetic rigors and disruptive tendencies prompted negative reactions. The first known synods of bishops met in order to deal with the problem. Focusing on matters of authority, the synods emphasized the importance of Scripture and the place of bishop as authoritative teacher, resulting in the Montanists being declared as schismatic.

Encratism” describes a movement or tendency among some early Christians towards extreme asceticism. Many surviving apocryphal texts promote asceticism and the Syriac church (e.g. Tatian) was characterized by this tendency. A contemporary debate considers whether “orthodoxy” may be understood to have preceded “heresy,” or whether early Christianity was simply highly diverse at its origins. Though early diversity and a legacy of development are undeniable, the ability of the orthodox to make plausible appeals to existing standards indicates that there were inherited norms of belief and practice.

The Church and the Empire

Key Points During this Time

  • Popular opinion responded negatively to Christian aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and Christians’ unwillingness to worship pagan gods. Imperial authorities were bothered by the apparent obstinacy of Christian subjects unwilling to show political loyalty by worshipping the emperor and the gods of Rome.
  • Roman persecution of the church prior to the mid-3rd century was sporadic and localized, not systematic.
  • Christian apologists of the 2nd century responded to both popular and philosophical accusations against Christianity, employing the philosophy and rhetoric of the day in order to rebut accusations and promote Christian belief and practice.
  • The logos Christology of the 2nd-century apologists supplied Christian intellectuals with a way to address non-Christian concerns about Christian teaching, as well as providing the foundation for later Trinitarian speculation.
  • The surviving literature of 2nd-century martyrdom supplied stories and themes that permanently shaped the self-understanding of the Christian church.
  • A developing theology of martyrdom was expressed through several characteristic motifs, many of which helped connect the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ.


Although persecution of Christians in the second century was sporadic and localized, the threat and occasional reality of its occurrence contributed greatly to the formation of early Christian identity. Popular opinion responded negatively to Christians for a number of reasons, including their aloofness, the strangeness of their beliefs and practices, and especially their refusal to honor the gods of Rome and the surrounding culture. Many non-Christian intellectuals found Christian belief to be ridiculous and criticized the social composition of the church. Imperial authorities were bothered by Christian stubbornness in refusing to demonstrate their allegiance to Rome by the usual means, i.e. worshiping the genius of the emperor and the gods of Rome. The legal basis for Roman persecution expressed Roman sensibilities of justice, but also strict Roman insistence on submission to imperial authority.

Christian apologists sought to respond to the critics of Christianity in a variety of ways, relying mainly on the philosophy of the day as a means by which to explain Christian belief. Some sought to clear up misunderstandings about Christian practice, stressing the virtues by which Christians lived. Others upheld the moral superiority of Christianity in comparison to pagan culture. Justin Martyr laid aside numerous popular charges against Christianity, sought to explain Christianity as the fulfillment of Judaism, and advocated an understanding of Jesus Christ that connected him to the principle of the Logos. This gave non-Christian intellectuals a framework in which to understand the significance of Christ and shaped early Christian belief.

Although martyrdoms were sporadic, their occurrence led to the celebration of their faithful acts, especially in the composition of accounts of their martyrdoms. These circulated throughout the churches, shaping Christian theology and liturgy as the church connected the martyr’s experience with that of Jesus Christ. Martyrs were understood to be faithful witnesses and heroic athletes, and the descriptions of their deeds were tinged with commonly occurring motifs, such as grace, Eucharist, baptism, the Holy Spirit, and eschatological hope. Christian self-understanding came to be pervaded by the ideals conveyed by descriptions of martyrs’ deeds.

Son of God: The Son of the Father in the Spirit

Christological heresy arises through failing to affirm of Christ all that Scripture asserts: by either denying the divine or human nature at the expense of the other, confusing or conflating his natures, or dividing his person. I remember Sinclair Ferguson teaching at PRTS on the importance of knowing Jesus Christ to the ends of the page found in chapter 8 of the Westminster Confession of Faith, but then strongly warning us, anything beyond that page is heresy. Looking back to that lesson from 2010, it still surprises me that I receive more questions regarding Christology than any other loci. Just like the title Son of Man, the scope of Son of God encompasses Jesus’ humanity as well as deity. Jesus Christ is both the eternal Son and the true and faithful human son; he is both the one who speaks the divine law and the one who answers the summons with perfect obedience for us.

Sonship: Ontological and Official

The New Testament claims Adamic and Abrahamic senses of sonship for Christ: he is Son upon condition of obedience, according to the image of God, and he is Son unconditionally and forever—except that in the latter sense, Jesus’ unique divine sonship is not by grace but is his very nature as the one and only Word and Son, eternally begotten of the Father (e.g., Matt. 22:41–46; John 1:1–3, 14, 18). The narratives of Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration, Paul’s consistent witness to the humbled and exalted Lord (e.g., Rom. 1:3–6; 8:3–4; Gal. 4:4–5; Phil. 2:5–11; Col. 1:15–17, 18–23), and many similar passages clearly testify to the character of Jesus’ relationship with the Father and the Spirit, as the fully divine and fully human Son of God.

Preexistent Son

The trajectory of liberal theology since the Enlightenment has been essentially Arian (or Adoptionist, discussed below). In this view, “the Jesus of history” was a pious rabbi who was transformed into “the Christ of faith” through the influence of Greek philosophy on developing Christian orthodoxy. Yet even critical scholarship has found no basis for any sharp distinction between Jewish and Hellenistic Christologies in the early church. Jesus was crucified for claiming equality with God; he claimed to be “Lord” prior to David (Matt. 22:41–45), the “Word” prior to creation, and the “I AM” prior to Abraham (John 8:58). The New Testament authors urge faith in and worship of the man Jesus as God and Lord. The doctrine of the incarnation is the center of Christology, bringing together Scripture’s testimony to the full humanity and full deity of Jesus Christ, as summarized in the Definition of Chalcedon (451).

Exegetical Summary

While the Word “was” God (John 1:1), he “became” flesh (v. 14) by taking to himself our human nature in all its aspects in Mary’s womb, yet he was without sin (Heb. 4:15), by the power of the Spirit. Each nature is entirely preserved in its distinctness, in an incomprehensibly intimate union in and as one integral person, Jesus Christ. Scripture gives no place to a view of Christ that pits his divine nature against his humanity, nor assigns some actions of Christ to one nature and some to the other. Jesus, God and man, does all things from the Father by the Spirit. Likewise, Jesus’ growth and limitations and temptations were real; without surrendering or compromising his divinity, the Son fully assumed our humanity and redeemed us in and through it.

Dogmatic Development

This section concerns the main traditional heretical christological views, rather than specific persons who may be associated with them. As with the doctrine of the Trinity, the formal delineation of Christology arose, not from academic or philosophical speculation, but from the concrete faith and practice of the Christian community. The chief historical heresies regarding denial of the incarnation (defined above) are the Ebionite heresy, Adoptionism, Docetism, Gnosticism, and Arianism. The chief heresies regarding the relation between Christ’s divinity and humanity in one person (also defined above) are Apollinarianism, Monophysitism (or Eutychianism), and Nestorianism. The Monophysite and Nestorian heresies represent the extremes of two tendencies of christological reflection: the Alexandrian and Antiochene, respectively. Alexandrian Christologies tend to emphasize the unity of Christ’s person, sometimes to the extent that his humanity is absorbed into his divinity. Antiochene Christologies, on the other hand, emphasize the distinction of Christ’s natures, sometimes to the point that Christ seems to be two persons acting in tandem, one divine and one human. The Council of Chalcedon condemned both views, affirming the ancient catholic consensus that Christ is one person in two natures. During the Reformation, as a result of controversy over the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed came to suspect Lutherans of Monophysitism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ according to both natures), while the Lutherans suspected the Reformed of Nestorianism (because they affirmed the omnipresence of Christ’s divine nature only). The Lutheran-Reformed debate turns on two key concerns: (1) the communicatio idiomatum and (2) the extra CalvinisticumWith the rise of Socinianism and then Protestant liberalism, Arianism returned to the fore; often by way of either Nestorian or Monophysite trajectories, Jesus’ true and full divinity was rejected.

Barth did much to revive a salutary emphasis on Christology “from above,” stressing that God was at work in Christ for redemption and that the Son is eternally divine and became fully human (but not without problematic elements in his views). Theologians like Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg have come from a different direction in line with broader modern trends, emphasizing Christology “from below” by beginning with the character of Jesus’ humanity to illuminate the character of his divinity. The latter approach, however, tends to end up with a divinized man who is quantitatively, rather than qualitatively, distinct from all other persons. Only in the distinctiveness of each nature, united in one person, do we find the complete Savior who can bring total redemption from sin and death.

The Subapostolic Age

Key Points During this Time

  • “Jewish Christianity” became less prominent during the subapostolic era due to mutual rejection of each other by many Gentile and Jewish believers, though distinctive strands of Jewish Christianity persisted briefly in such groups as the Ebionites, Nazoraeans, and Elkesaites.
  • The so-called “Apostolic Fathers” consist of a loose corpus of texts in different genres composed in the subapostolic era, addressing various issues of identity, moral practice, and church life.
  • Apocryphal literature and other forms of early Christian literature attest to the range of popular piety and doctrinal convictions of early Christian communities.
  • Debate exists as to whether the subapostolic literatures are best understood as testifying to the decay in the vitality of apostolic faith or simply as distinct adaptations to changing circumstance.


The deaths of key Jewish Christian leaders and the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in Palestine brought a new situation for the church in the last part of the first century. The proportion of Gentile Christian believers grew, as Jewish synagogues took steps to exclude Christians and the more extreme elements within each group polarized to the extent that common ground was difficult to find. By the middle of the second century, even the church in Palestine was largely Gentile. However, three strands of Jewish Christianity survived for at least a few generations, each characterized by distinctive features. The Ebionites, whose name was probably based on the Hebrew expression for “the poor,” revered Jesus as a prophet and Messiah, but denied the virgin birth. They observed ascetic practices and were concerned with purity issues. They expected Gentile believers to follow the Law of Moses. The Nazoraeans followed the Law of Moses but did not expect Gentile believers to do so. The Elkesaites followed the Gnostic revelations of the prophet Elkesai. Within orthodox Gentile churches, the influence of Jewish Christianity may also be seen in the use of texts heavily influenced by Jewish Christianity, including the Didache, the Pseudo-Clementines, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, and the Sibylline Oracles.

Out of the subapostolic period of the late first and early second centuries a number of texts collectively known as the Apostolic Fathers survive, supplying unique insight into early Christian thought and practice after the passing of the apostles. The Didache is a manual of church life. Dating from about the end of the first century, probably from Syria, this text focuses mainly on moral instruction for new converts and instruction regarding the conduct of worship practices and church order. Epistle of Barnabas dates from the first half of the second century and is primarily concerned with Christian identity. Barnabas argues that Christians are the legitimate heirs to the Old Testament covenant, particularly due to their figural interpretation of it, in contrast to the Jewish literal interpretation. 1 Clement was written in the 90s by one of the presbyters of the church in Rome, in response to leadership conflict in Corinth. The letter emphasizes the importance of stability and respect for appointed authority and includes rich imagery and theological reflection. 2 Clement is not actually by Clement, but is a homily of moral exhortation composed by an unknown author in the second century.

Shepherd of Hermas is a composite apocalyptic text from second-century Rome. It supplies helpful information about the organization and social location of the Roman church, but focuses on the issue of how to address post-baptismal sin. Ignatius was a bishop of Syrian Antioch who wrote a series of letters to different churches in the early second century, while en route to Rome to face trial and probable martyrdom. The letters depict a leader eager to offer testimony to his faith in the face of suffering and death, who is also concerned with stressing the importance of church unity in response to the threats of divergent beliefs. He is the first writer to attest to a three-fold ministry of bishop, presbyters, and deacons in each congregation. Polycarp wrote a letter to the Philippians in response to Ignatius; the letter is saturated with New Testament language. Papias of Hierapolis wrote five books of Explanations, commenting on the oracles of Jesus. Only fragments survive, offering a tantalizing glimpse into early traditions regarding the composition of the Gospels.

The second and third generations of Christianity also saw the production of New Testament Apocrypha—texts purporting to be from the time of the apostles, yet manifestly from different times and contexts. These include texts of various genres—Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses, for which a few examples illustrate the breadth of the literature. The Gospel of Thomas is an early collection of Jesus’ sayings, displaying an Encratite or Gnostic bent. The Gospel of Peter is a passion narrative with Docetic leanings. The Protoevangelium of James expands the narrative of Jesus’ birth, focusing on traditions regarding the Holy Family, especially Mary. Apocryphal Acts focus on the careers of the apostles, preserving early traditions about their ministries and deaths and often displaying ascetic tendencies. The anti-Gnostic 3 Corinthians was normally included with the Acts of Paul. In the Apocalypse of Peter, Jesus is depicted as offering a graphic description of the torments of the wicked in the afterlife. These texts provide insight into the popular piety of the second and third centuries, as well as clarifying the significant diversity that existed among Jesus’ followers.

Some debate exists as to the significance and use of the subapostolic literature. For some, they show the continuing development of Christian belief and practice along a consistent trajectory from the New Testament period. For others, they betray a decline in vitality and imagination, as church leaders focus more on structures, moralism, and legalism. In either case, they attest to the ongoing devotion of committed followers of Jesus, responding to changing circumstances and new situations.

Christ’s Threefold Office

Christ as Prophet
The prophetic vocation is not only to accurately predict future events, but more fundamentally, to speak God’s actual judgment and deliverance into history. Although Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” promised in Deuteronomy 18:15, he is not simply another Moses. He speaks on his own authority, which is the same as the Father’s; he forgives sins in his own person; he not only has stood in God’s counsel but has eternally and personally come from God. Jesus speaks God’s active word as the prophets did, but wholly unlike them, he is himself the hypostatic Word of God. He is the message as well as the messenger.

Christ as Priest
Christ’s priestly ministry is inseparable from his representation of the elect in the eternal covenant of redemption. Christ was “born under the law”—whether the covenant of creation or its recapitulation at Sinai—“to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal. 4:4–5 ESV).

A. Christ’s Priestly Life

Jesus was appointed everlasting High Priest “after the order of Melchizedek” (Heb. 5:6, 10 ESV)—that is, according to the “better covenant” of God’s unchangeable oath to Abraham rather than the Mosaic covenant’s Levitical priesthood, which depended on the mediation of sinful human beings (Heb. 7:11–22).

Jesus is both the great High Priest and the spotless, once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin. Beginning with the incarnation, he continually accomplished his Father’s will on our behalf as the unsurpassable thank offering. This is his active obedience or law-keeping (Matt. 20:28; John 8:29; Heb. 10:7). Simultaneously, he bore our sins—especially the curse of sin and God’s wrath for sin—as the unrepeatable guilt offering. This is his passive obedience or suffering.

Christ’s Priestly Death: The Meaning of the Cross

While the event of the cross cannot be divorced from the accounts of Christ’s life, teaching, and ministry that precede it in the Gospels, none of the other important aspects of Christ’s saving work can be established unless his death is acknowledged as a vicarious substitution of himself in the place of sinners. Christ’s cross is a sacrifice and satisfaction for sin. Though God’s sinful, covenant-breaking people could do nothing to reconcile themselves to God or avoid his sentence of just condemnation for unfaithfulness, Jesus offered himself on our behalf to usher in the new covenant whose standing is dependent on his steadfastness rather than ours. Blood atonement lies at the heart of both the offense and the wonder of the Christian proclamation. God’s motive is not abstract or arbitrary (much less bloodthirsty); sacrifice for sin and loving gratitude to God are fundamental to the covenantal context of God’s holy and righteous law. The substitutional nature of sacrifice is clearly seen in the Mosaic law’s description of the transference of sin and guilt before God to sacrificial animals (e.g., Lev. 1:4; 4:20, 26, 31; 6:7), vicariously representing the worshipers and their need for atonement. In Christ’s life and death, we have a thank offering that restores what we owe to God and a guilt offering that propitiates God’s wrath.

Christ’s cross is also a military conquest—despite all appearances, Christ was the victorious King even when Satan and the powers of this evil age thought they had won their age-old war with God. The meaning of the cross is multifaceted. All of the following have been proposed as theories of the atonement, and while each by itself has significant problems, several identify something important about Christ’s work—although the truth in any of them hangs together only in light of the cross as a propitiatory sacrifice.

  • Ransom theory—Because of human rebellion, Satan became our rightful lord; Christ triumphed over Satan by luring him into the trap of killing him at the cross (thinking Jesus was a mere man), though he would triumph in resurrection (through his deity).
  • Recapitulation—Christ redeems by becoming the true Adam and representing in himself the true life of humanity before God on our behalf, even unto death.
  • Christus Victor—Through the seeming defeat of the cross, Christ conquered all the demonic and sinful powers arrayed against God.
  • Satisfaction theory—Christ’s crucifixion was his just payment for sin’s affront to God’s dignity and majesty.
  • Moral influence theory—Peter Abelard’s view, taken up by Socinians and many Enlightenment thinkers, that the purpose of Christ’s death was to provide a powerful example of God’s love for sinners that would provoke our repentance and imitation.
  • Governmental theory—Hugo Grotius’s view that Christ’s death is not substitutionary or atoning but rather the basis on which the righteous character of God’s will and his rule are exhibited.

In modern theologies, various versions of the moral influence and governmental theories have dominated, in principle or in practice. These views have gone hand in hand with a denial or downplaying of the doctrine of justification—forgiveness is necessary only in light of real personal transgression. In all of their iterations, they rest on three false premises.

  1. A denial of God’s wrath and the necessity of his justice being satisfied.
  2. A rejection of the possibility of vicarious substitution in the relationship between God and sinners.
  3. An emphasis on the exemplary, at the expense of the expiatory, character of Christ’s death.

We should therefore bear the following points in mind when defending the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The cause of the atonement lies in God’s own pleasure and love; God’s free expression of his love and mercy, as well as his holiness, justice, and wrath, flow from his own character, and none can be pitted against the others. Sin is not merely a weakness that needs to be reformed but also a guilt that is incurred, invoking covenant sanctions. The atonement is grounded not only in God’s moral character and freedom but in the united determination of the persons of the Trinity; vicarious atonement is misunderstood as a vengeful Father taking out his rage on a passive Son. Christ’s sacrifice is both a guilt offering and a thank offering, a whole life of representative service.

Finally, the question of the extent of the atonement has been answered in three ways in the history of the church: universalism, hypothetical universalism, or definite (limited) atonement (defined above). The following are the two main arguments in favor of definite atonement. It emphasizes the relationship between the Trinity and redemption; those who are actually redeemed in time have been mercifully chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world. It emphasizes the efficacy and objectivity of Christ’s saving work; Christ did not die for the abstract possibility of the redemption of sinners (although his death is sufficient to atone for all sin whatsoever); rather, he died for the concrete accomplishment of the redemption of everyone who belongs to him.

Understanding the The Messianic Heir

All of God’s covenantal purposes converge in Jesus Christ. As the eternal Son who would take on our humanity, he is Mediator of the covenant of redemption; as the second Adam, he has fulfilled the covenant of creation on behalf of the elect; as the incarnate, crucified, and risen Savior and Lord, he is head and heir of the covenant of grace, along with all whom he has redeemed.

The Faithful Adam and True Israel

Like Adam, Israel failed to drive the serpent out of God’s sanctuary, succumbing to his seduction. But God promised to preserve a remnant from destruction, from whom the Messiah would come, who would finally crush the serpent’s head and deliver not only Israel but the nations.

Messianic Savior: Son of David

The Davidic covenant is like that with Abraham: an unconditional, unilateral promise of God’s own faithfulness to his Word—in David’s case, the promise of an heir who would reign everlastingly (2 Sam. 7:11–17 and reiterated throughout the prophets). The New Testament takes pains to identify Jesus as this royal son of David’s line. Yet he would not restore the temporal theocracy of the Jewish nation but rather would reign over all the earth in righteousness and peace, bringing Jews and Gentiles together in the unending kingdom promised to David.

Son of Man, the Second Adam

The Son of Man is God’s earthly messianic representative, who is given everlasting dominion over all the kingdoms of the earth—although his kingdom does not arise from any earthly regime (see esp. Dan. 7:9–27). In the Gospels, this title is Jesus’ favorite self-designation, emphasizing his mission to judge, to save, and to reignAlthough Son of Man, as the fulfillment of Adamic sonship, often emphasizes Jesus’ humanity (e.g., Matt. 20:28; Mark 2:27–28), especially in John’s gospel this title carries a simultaneous emphasis on Jesus’ deity (e.g., John 3:13; John 6:53–58; 8:28).

Servant of the Lord

In Isaiah’s Servant Songs (esp. chaps. 42, 49, 50, 52–53, 61), Israel’s corporate commission as God’s covenant servant is embodied in the person of the Messiah to come, the true and faithful Israel, who will secure redemption through obedience and suffering. Jesus proclaimed himself to be this servant (Luke 4:16–21), as did the apostles (e.g., Matt. 12:17–21).

Jesus & the Church

Key Points During this Time

  • Christianity developed within the community of Jesus’ earliest disciples on the basis of core Jewish beliefs, as interpreted and exemplified according to Jesus’ teaching, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection.
  • The most significant controversy in the very early Christian church concerned the terms by which Gentiles would be accepted into the community.
  • With the church’s expansion from Jerusalem, traditions about the work of particular apostles became associated with specific locales by the end of the first century, most notably: James in Jerusalem; Peter and Paul in Rome; John in Ephesus; and Thomas in Syria.
  • Early Christianity was not uniform, yet a common faith in Jesus and a common core of apostolic traditions helped shape a specifically Christian set of doctrinal commitments, worship practices, and ethical expectations.
The Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul

Jesus’ first-century ministry of healing and teaching not only attracted large crowds, but he also gathered a number of disciples with whom he worked closely. Many acclaimed him as the Messiah, the Lord’s “anointed” who would deliver God’s people, Israel. After the Romans put Jesus to death as a political threat, reports of his resurrection led his disciples to become convinced that God had vindicated him as Messiah (Christ), and the events of Jesus’ atoning death and subsequent resurrection became the pillars of Christian faith. Early Christian beliefs, worship, and ethical practices owed much to the traditions of Judaism, to which were added distinctive Christian convictions about the role of Jesus Christ as the world’s savior.

The early church in Jerusalem consisted mainly of Jewish believers, though they were a diverse lot; some were Judaean, but many were Hellenistic Jews from the Diaspora. They looked to Peter and then James, the brother of Jesus, for leadership. Once persecution at the hands of the Jewish establishment broke out against Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, the Hellenists in particular were scattered, taking the message of Jesus’ gospel (or euangelion, meaning “good news”) into the synagogues of many different cities of the Roman world. Soon, even large numbers of Gentiles were being attracted by the Christian message and lifestyle, causing the most significant controversy for the church of that era: the terms by which Gentiles should be received into the church. The Apostle Paul effectively championed a liberal position on the issue, with the result that Gentile Christians were in the majority by the end of the first century.

Fairly strong evidence supports the tradition that both Paul and Peter ended up in Rome and were martyred there under the emperor Nero. Peter probably played a significant leading role in the church at Rome, though the claims that Peter was the “pope” are anachronistic. Other locations came to be associated with the work of specific apostles, namely John in Ephesus and Thomas in Syria. The church at Ephesus may have been the most influential church of the mid- to late-first century, very likely the point of origin of some or all of the Johaninne literature of the New Testament. Strong traditions also place Jesus’ mother Mary in Ephesus, under the care of John. East of Antioch, the gospel spread among communities of Syriac-speaking people, whose traditions preserved certain Semitic features and a literature with strong ties to the name of the Apostle Thomas.

First-century Christian communities were diverse. Yet they enjoyed a significant measure of unity, due to a common faith in Jesus, a shared heritage in Judaism, a core of apostolic teaching, and habits of frequent travel and communication between churches. Out of this matrix arose characteristics that would come to distinguish churches far and wide, such as a shared commitment to interpret the Old Testament scriptures in light of Christ, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Sunday assemblies, and moral emphases.

Roman, Greek, and Jewish Worlds Set the Setting

  • Christianity began in a cultural setting defined by three circles of influence: Roman law and government, Greek culture, and Jewish religion.
  • Christian attitudes, practices, and social norms showed the influence of pre-existing cultures, yet were worked out within a distinctively Christian frame of reference
  • Judaism provided the immediate religious context for Christianity

Alexander the Great

The setting in which Christianity began was primarily shaped by three key influences: the political rule of the Roman Empire, the cultural impact of Greek expansion, and the religious legacy of Judaism. These three not only shaped the world in which Jesus of Nazareth was born, lived, and died; they also provided the setting in which Early Christianity grew and flourished. The Roman Empire defined the political and legal environment of the early church. Christians faced charges in Roman courts and their cases were adjudicated by Roman appointed judges. Latin was the official language of government and was especially in use in the western part of the empire. Following the campaigns of Alexander the Great, Greek (Hellenistic) culture spread over much of the Mediterranean world and beyond. Greek was the language most commonly used throughout the Roman Empire. For centuries, Hellenistic standards were the primary influences on education, literature, and philosophy. As Christians developed their own theology, they did so mainly using the categories and terminology inherited from Greek philosophy. Christian practices were deeply shaped by the practices of the broader culture.

Jesus was born a Jew and his earliest followers were Jews. Although the Jewish homeland (Israel) was the scene of a number of revolts against Rome and was eventually taken away from the Jews, the principal elements of the Christian faith found their original significance in expectations shared by many Jews regarding the Messiah. Early Christian worship and leadership were modeled on that of the synagogue, and Christians used the Jewish scriptures, especially the Greek Septuagint. Christian ethics owed a great deal to Jewish principles. One of the most remarkable aspects of the story of the church is to be seen in the transformation of a movement centered on a person of Jesus’ humble origins, to become the official religion of the empire and a decisive influence on western civilization and the world.

Calvin on the Evils of Roman Catholic Worship

Calvin on the evils of Roman Catholic worship and the remedy for the idolatry of having images in worship. He writes, 

But, besides the clear testimonies which are everywhere met with in Scripture, we are also supported by the authority of the ancient Church. All the writers of a purer age describe the abuse of images among the Gentiles as not differing from what is seen in the world in the present day; and their observations on the subject are not less applicable to the present age than to the persons whom they then censured.

** Taken from Calvin, The Necessity of Reforming the Church, 29. 

Arminians Can Enjoy Calvin Too

Imagine if modern day Arminianism considered Calvin(ism) as Jacobus Arminius did;

Next to the study of the Scriptures which I earnestly inculcate, I exhort my pupils to peruse Calvin’s Commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmich himself (a Dutch divine, 1551–1608); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison (incomparabilem esse) in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, or rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent spirit of prophecy (spiritum aliquem prophetiae eximium). His Institutes ought to be studied after the [Heidelberg] Catechism, as containing a fuller explanation, but with discrimination (cum delectu), like the writings of all men.

** Taken from James Arminius (1560–1609) in Schaft – History of the Christian Church Vol. VIII Chapter VIII

Puritan Studies Program

psp-fb-profile-imageBy the Lord’s grace and due to the labors of several individuals, the Puritan Studies Program website is up and running. Please check it out and pass along the word to others especially anyone who might be interested in these post-graduate programs. Most importantly, please pray that these studies would be used for the extension of Christ’s kingdom. If you are interested in these studies, please feel to contact Bob McKelvey.

The Cosmic Trial and Solidarity in Adam

We should not pit this legal analogy for the human story against the relational, which is just as important; both are integral to a covenantal account. The Holy Spirit is the divine witness, who pronounces God’s blessing on creation and makes us true witnesses to God and his works. But there is a false witness, Satan, who in the garden first misinterprets God’s Word and then denies it (Gen. 3:1–5). He succeeds in getting Adam and Eve to doubt God’s Word and attempt to go behind it to discover something hidden about God himself. In this way, we submitted God and his ways to our sovereign judgment. God, however, arrived in the garden in true and righteous judgment, and the ensuing covenant trial, with its curses and promises, is echoed in every subplot of the Bible. And Adam’s new role as covenant transgressor and false witness bears on his relation to all humanity and the rest of creation as well as to God.

total-depravityAs the representative head of humanity, Adam stood in total personal righteousness, in loving fellowship with God, and with the Sabbath held out to him. After the fall, we retain a natural nostalgia for God (which we twist into idolatry) as well as a yearning to attain the consummation (twisted into self-will and oppression). In short, the human race in Adam is now the false prophet who misrepresents God’s Word, the false priest who corrupts God’s sanctuary, and the false king who exercises cruel tyranny.

Every person is now born estranged from the good Father; unwilling to be a faithful son, humanity became a slave of sin and death. The features of a covenant are clearly delineated in Genesis 1–3: a historical prologue (chaps. 1–2), stipulations (2:16–17), sanctions (2:17, over which Eve and Satan argue, 3:1–5), and judgment for transgression (3:8–19). The Tree of Life was the prize waiting for faithfulness, securing participation in God’s own Sabbath rest. Further, the terms that form the basis of an entirely new covenantal state of affairs are announced in Genesis 3:21–24. Adam’s covenantal role entailed his representation of all humanity and all creation (Gen. 3:17–18; Rom. 5:12–21; 8:20). This original covenant of creation may be defended by appeal to non-Christian as well as Christian sources. Even ancient pagan cultures grounded their laws in a narrative of original creation that was universally normative. Judaism grounds human moral solidarity in an original creational covenant with Adam. Islam affirms certain laws that are binding on all people because of a common Adamic origin. Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and our own conscience—all testify to an indelible conviction of moral accountability before a holy God for how we treat each other.

The Christian notion of a creational covenant did not arise because of a Western emphasis on legal categories; Irenaeus and John of Damascus in the East affirm an Adamic covenant, as Augustine did in the West. The beginnings of developed Reformed covenant or federal theology can easily be seen among the Reformers. All of these advocates of a creational covenant with Adam appealed to its biblical basis, not only the obvious covenantal elements in Genesis and the strong parallels between Adam and Christ but also specific passages that refer to Adam’s covenant-breaking (e.g., Hos. 6:7; Job 31:33). Israel’s national existence is in many ways a recapitulation of the creational covenant of the law of love for God and neighbor and is also crucial to understanding the biblical testimony to this covenant of works (and its distinction from the new covenant of grace, e.g., Galatians 3–4).

The creational covenant is rooted in law and love, not in grace. Again, grace presupposes fault and sin, and creation’s original integrity included neither. Against Roman Catholicism, the Reformers taught that before the fall humanity had no need of any “superadded grace” (do-num super-add-i-tum) that would keep an inherent bent toward sin and corruption from erupting beyond control. We did not fall because God removed his grace and we followed our original propensity toward sin; we fell because, against the integrity of original righteousness, we freely rebelled against God’s love. The terms of the covenant of creation cannot be, and were not, simply set aside. But owing to God’s amazing grace, they have been fulfilled in place of the elect by his incarnate Son.

The doctrine of original sin describes our collective human guilt and corruption in Adam. No doctrine is more significant for biblical anthropology, yet none has been more relentlessly criticized. The doctrine arises from two principle biblical sources: (1) the covenantal shape of all God’s dealings with humanity and (2) the specific narrative of the fall from original integrity. The concept of solidarity or representative headship—human solidarity in Adam, Israel’s solidarity in Abraham and Moses, the elect’s solidarity in Christ—is basic to the biblical worldview. It is crucial for Christian theology to affirm the historical veracity of Adam and his representative sin. While there are metaphysical or ontological consequences to Adam’s transgression of the covenant (corruption and death), the basis of these and the essence of sin itself is legal and ethical (1 Cor. 15:56)—that is, just like our commission in the image of God, original sin is to be understood in covenantal terms. In highly developed nations today, amid Pelagian and individualistic presuppositions, it is incomprehensible that each and every person could be held responsible for participation in collective guilt (not just its consequences) on the basis of one person’s own transgression. But it is basic to biblical faith that we are guilty not only for Adam’s sin but as sinners in Adam.

Fundamentalism tends to reduce sin to evil personal behaviors; liberalism tends to reduce it to evil social structures. But sin is far deeper than either account. It is a condition—we sin because we are sinners, not vice versa. We are victims and perpetrators of sin; every sinner is also sinned against, both in interpersonal and broader social contexts. Scripture will not let us contrast “us” with “them” when it comes to sin but declares that all are under sin (Rom. 3:9–12). When reduced to the merely interpersonal dimension, sin becomes negative behaviors or failure to live up to personal or cultural expectations. When the divine-human dimension is considered primary, sin becomes guilt and condemnation before a holy and righteous Lord with whom we have broken covenant. Such divergent definitions of sin thus lead to radically different views of redemption.

Two helpful distinctions are necessary to account for both humanity’s universal sinfulness and corruption and its remaining goodness and abilities. The distinction between righteousness before God and before others—While Scripture (and experience) credits unbelievers with a certain goodness, justice, and wisdom in human affairs, it is the righteousness of God’s own character that is the standard by which all will be judged. The distinction between natural and moral ability—Humans possess a natural ability to obey God’s commands but lack the moral ability to love God and neighbor in accord with God’s righteous character; our human capacities and abilities were not lost in the fall but twisted and deformed in unrighteousness.

Total depravity” does not mean that we are incapable of any justice or good before others; rather, it means that there is no aspect of our humanity that is left unfallen, from which we might make a beginning of justice and goodness before God. The soul, mind, and heart, as much as the body, are corrupt. Yet the fact that we can turn to God but will not manifests and reinforces our guilt (John 8:44; Rom. 1:18–2:16).

Key Points to Keep in Mind When Dealing with the Fall of Humanity

  • Adam’s representative headship accounts for the grandeur and the tragedy of human existence; it sets in motion the great trial that sets the stage for the fulfillment of all things in Jesus, the faithful last Adam.
  • The covenant of creation is implicitly and explicitly taught in Scripture, integrating both the legal and the familial aspects of humanity’s natural relationship to God and illuminating the character of Christ’s gracious work.
  • No doctrine is more significant for a biblical anthropology than original sin, although none has been subject to more criticism.
  • Human image-bearing was not lost in the fall (we retain our human personhood and dignity), but the exercise and purposes of the image have been spurned and perverted.
  • God delayed the deadly consequences of Adam’s rebellion, making space for the outworking of the covenant of grace through its promise and fulfillment in Christ.

The Security of Believers

This was too good not to post; Joel Beeke (or Mark Jones) writing on the believers hope in the doctrine of perseverance,

The security of believers grounded in the covenant of grace is ultimately grounded in God’s promise of Himself to be our God. Thus, this fourth ground of perseverance ties together the previous grounds of the Father’s election, the Son’s purchase, and the Spirit’s sealing. True believers may be assured that they will have heaven because they already have the Lord as their covenant God, and that is the essence of heaven on earth. Richard Alleine (c. 1610–1681) said that when the Lord gives Himself in the covenant, all that He is in His glory, omnipotence, omniscience, wisdom, righteousness, holiness, all-sufficiency, and faithfulness becomes ours as our friend, portion, sun, and shield forever.63 Coles said “all the attributes of God do stand engaged” to guarantee that the saints will persevere to the end.64 So Puritan logic presses the application home: Is anything too hard for the Lord? The divine grounds of assurance are very important for the peace of the soul, for perseverance is no easy matter for mere men.

Excerpt From: Joel R. Beeke. “A Puritan Theology.” iBooks.

Biblical Theology and Special Revelation

Biblical theology is one of the newer, up and coming, broadening branches of theology. The term itself has been used to indicate three different aspects of the discipline; firstly it can simply refer theology that is biblical; secondly, biblical theology became attached to a movement that arose in the 1940’s, flourished in the 1950’s, declined in the 60’s, and buried in the 70s’; Brevard Childs documented this movement in his book Biblical Theology in Crisis. Thirdly, biblical theology refers to a distinct movement that grew from German soil as part of the Enlightenment in reaction to the alleged failure of orthodox dogmatics to do justice to the historical character of the Bible. J.P. Gabler is customarily viewed as defining the principle of this movement, but the real pioneer from the Reformed perspective was Geerhardus Vos at Princeton in 1893. My discussion will focus on the third kind of biblical theology.

John Murray parroted Vos’s definition as “that branch of exegetical theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible.” The focus is on the process of the historically progressive redemptive character of special revelation. Biblical theology underscores historical diversity, while systematics tries to bring everything together. Both Vos and Murray insist on the organic character of the revelation process; they therefore prefer the title, “History of Special Revelation.”

The real question that these men pose is that of the interrelationship between special revelation of Scripture and systematic theology. All three of them are on the same page: although both disciplines are exegetically based and of a coordinating nature, they are distinct from each other in terms of method and structuring principles. The approach of biblical theology is primarily historical and that of systematic theology is primarily logical. Biblical theology deals with process of revelation while systematics deals with revelation as a finished product. J.J. Davis makes the distinction between what revelation means (systematics) and what it meant (biblical).

The weakness of biblical theology is that there might be a tendency to dwell on what it meant to the original audience. Systematic theology, the circle, can never ignore the line, biblical theology. When we root systematic theology in biblical theology, we achieve its true function and purpose. Biblical theology serves to guide exegesis. This is important because the Bible is not an encyclopedia of doctrine; rather, the Bible itself is revelation and a record of that revelation and leads to a culmination of redemptive history. It is fundamental then for systematic theology to keep in view the historic progressive character of revelation. A biblical theology emphasis will help to restrain systematic theology from surrendering to abstraction, from de-historicizing Scripture, and from ripping truths from their historical context. Systematic theology at the same time helps biblical theology to keep a sense of unity in the midst of historical diversity.

**This post was first seen at Place for Truth, A Voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

What is the Image of God?

Creation’s origin cannot be appropriately understood apart from its eschatological aim. Creation was “very good” but in a real sense unfinished; it had before it the promise of a consummation in everlasting Sabbath blessedness. Humans were created in covenant relationship with God and one another for the purpose of securing this blessedness. Every nonbiblical anthropology begins with an assumption of the autonomous individual—intrinsically independent from God and creation and standing in sovereign judgment over God and creation.

I take the “days” of creation as analogical (though not mythological). They are God’s accommodation to his ordained pattern and commandment of six days of labor and one of rest. Eschatology is the principal motive: we were created and called to imitate God’s pattern of work (Adam’s trial of obedience) and rest (the Sabbath enjoyment held out to him). This original, creational covenant relationship is intrinsic to the meaning of being created in God’s image. All people retain some sense of God as their Lawgiver and Judge and of their obligation to love him and one another. This status as a commissioned servant of God, created in his image, renders every person both dignified and accountable. The fall did not obliterate humanity’s covenant relationship with God but divided humanity between the rebellious children of Cain and those of Seth, who called on the name of the Lord (Genesis 4).

To be created in God’s image is to be called persons in communion. Human existence and identity is not lodged in self-consciousness or in the ability to reason or to will; it is the result of being spoken by God and spoken to by God. And though all are determined as persons by the mere fact of our creation and calling in God’s image, our realization of the purpose of our personhood depends on whether we correspond to God’s intentions. Throughout Scripture, the faithful servant of God is the one who responds to the Great King’s commission, “Here I am.” Such an answer opens us up to the call of our neighbors as well as to God. The image’s relational character is undermined if it is identified with any faculty or capacity within the individual. The image is chiefly the law of love for God and neighbor written on the conscience.

Humans certainly differ from other creatures in their natural capacities for rational reflection, language, and deliberative action. By themselves, however, these distinguish us merely as more complex forms of biological life in certain respects. It is God’s command and promise and the role we have been given in his unfolding drama that marks our uniqueness. In short, the significance of the image of God is our moral likeness to our Creator and our covenantal commission in Adam to usher all creation into God’s everlasting Sabbath. The image is constituted by the following four characteristics.

  • Sonship/royal dominion—As children and servant-kings of God, we are meant to exercise righteous, respectful, responsible dominion over the rest of creation.
  • Representation—Like priests, we are meant to be analogues of God, official embassies of his character, will, and actions; this places the image in the realm of judicial commission (ethical relationship) rather than being a mirror of the divine essence (ontology).
  • Glory—We were created as temples indwelled by the Holy Spirit, filled with the Father’s glory in his Son.
  • Prophetic witness—We were created to hear God’s Word and then respond faithfully, to him in praise and to others in witness to God’s character and works.

The commission of imaging God, which Adam and his children have twisted and spurned, is truly fulfilled in all its kingly, priestly, and prophetic aspects in the eternal Son who became man, Jesus Christ, the very Image of his Father.

A Lucky Animal or know as Materialist Anthropologies

What Makes Us Human? A state of the theological debate, and a question that must be answered when studying anthropology. A fundamental shift is currently occurring in the West from a view of the self as a semidivine entity that transcends body, time, and change to a view of the self as a physical, malleable social construction of chemical interactions. Neither account is willing to receive identity from another—supremely God—as both a gift and a responsibility. Platonist or idealist ontology, with its spirit-matter dualism, has played a dominant role in philosophical and theological views of personhood. The real or “higher” self, which distinguishes humans from the nonhuman creation, is the immortal spirit (or soul or mind). This is also where the imago Dei (image of God) is centered. The body is something we inhabit and use for now but is not who we really are, certainly not forever. The closely related Neoplatonist distinction of persons into three aspects—spirit, soul, and body—a position known as trichotomy, has been a perennial temptation among a small minority of Christians.

If for Platonism all that is truly real is spiritual, then the opposite form of reductionism is materialism: there is no such thing as the soul or continued existence after bodily death. All we are and do as humans has a physical explanation. Modern science seems to support some form of materialism. Many liberal Protestant and Jewish scholars also suggest that the Old Testament is at best silent on the question of the soul and does not teach life after death. Reacting against Platonist dualism, some Christians advocate a modified monism, arguing that humans are such a unity of physical and spiritual that neither aspect may be separated or conceived distinctly from the other.

Scripture presupposes and directly affirms a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit (the dichotomy position), seen pointedly in the living soul’s presence with God after death, apart from the body. Dichotomy is not dualism; human nature is not to be identified exclusively or even primarily with the soul. The real self is the whole self, body and soul. Scripture addresses persons in their wholeness; we should not deny the (temporary) separability of body and soul in the intermediate state. While Platonism sees embodiment as a curse, biblical faith understands disembodiment as a curse.

Understanding the Doctrine of Providence

Though God reigns and his purposes are sure, the apparent randomness of nature (discussed in the previous chapter) also characterizes history. We must avoid the twin dangers of hypersupernatural fatalism and antisupernatural materialism.

Direct/Indirect Cause: The Doctrine of Concursus
Concursus, or “concurrence,” in theology refers to the simultaneity of divine and human agency in actions or events. A biblical view of concursus requires more than God’s general oversight of history. Scripture testifies both to his predestination of all that comes to pass (primary or direct causation) and to the reality and responsibility of the decisions and actions of humans (secondary or indirect causation). In permitting evil, God not only lets it happen; he determines how far it will go and how he will work it out for good. Yet God’s work in hardening hearts is not the same as in softening them: God gives the redeemed a new heart, while he gives the wicked over to their own desires. God is neither the author of evil, nor a mere spectator of it. Fatalism and materialism share a common assumption of univocity between God’s willing and acting and human willing and acting; either our activity must give way to God’s or vice versa. But God’s activity and our activity do not need to get out of each others’ way; God causes all history to serve his sovereign purposes without canceling the ordinary liberty, contingency, and reality of creaturely causation.

The Revealed/Hidden Distinction
Scripture distinguishes between matters hidden from us and those revealed to us (Deut. 29:29). God’s hidden will is distinguished from his revealed will. We must not attempt to figure out God’s secret providence; we must attend to the means he has provided for our salvation (Word and sacrament) and to earthly welfare (family, friendships, vocation, and so on). Though God has not promised to reveal to us everything we might want to know about his will for our lives and about our trials, we should trust his promises as sufficient for faith and life in Christ. After all, the time and place where evil seemed most triumphant was the cross, where it was forever defeated.

Common Grace/Special Grace|
Providence belongs to God’s common rather than special (or saving) grace, although the former ultimately serves the latter (e.g., Eph. 1:10; 3:9–12). Common grace is responsible for God’s kindness and benefits to all people indiscriminately.

  • It restrains personal and corporate human sin.
  • It restrains God’s wrath and delays his judgment.
  • It bestows goodness and kindness upon unbelievers.

To affirm God’s common grace is to recognize the God-given truth, goodness, and beauty in the world, not simply its sinfulness and corruption. When we disparage these, we are holding the providential work of the Holy Spirit in contempt.

Unlike ordinary providence, miracles are God’s extraordinary suspension or alteration of natural laws and processes. The difference does not concern whether God is involved in every aspect of our lives, but how. The question is not whether causes are exclusively natural or supernatural, but whether God’s involvement in every moment is providential or miraculous.

Cultural Challenges to the Doctrine of Providence

Some notion of divine providence is one of the most universally attested religious assumptions throughout history, yet it is one of the most contested in the modern world, for two main reasons:

  • It is difficult to acknowledge gifts, much less a transcendent Giver, in a world of supposed givens; contemporary technologically advanced cultures are often far removed from the actual, personal sources behind the goods and services we enjoy.
  • A secularized, romantic notion of providence was employed to give divine sanction to imperialist cultures, nations, and ideologies, with devastating consequences; the terrors of the twentieth century disillusioned many regarding a “benevolent Providence” undergirding unending historical progress.

Christians must realize that, while God’s saving will in Christ has been clearly revealed in the gospel, the precise activity of God’s providential governance remains largely hidden (even from believers).

Trinity & Predestination

The doctrines of the Trinity and predestination (or God’s decree) come together in the eternal covenant of redemption: before the world existed, the triune God is already turned toward us, with a purpose to create all things and redeem a people for everlasting fellowship.

I. Drama to Doctrine to Doxology
Predestination is clearly taught in Scripture, but its meaning has been debated throughout the history of the church. The Bible clearly teaches that God is sovereign over all that comes to pass. There is also a close connection between God’s foreknowledge and foreordination: God knows all things exhaustively because he has decreed them from eternity. Therefore, even the sinful acts of humans are included in God’s plans, though they remain freely willed by us. Predestination typically refers to God’s sovereign determination of all events, while election and reprobation refer to his decree with regard to salvation or condemnation. There are four key conclusions to draw from the biblical testimony on these themes:

  1. Predestination is an exercise of God’s that freely expresses his character; because he is holy, righteous, loving, and good, God cannot will any ultimate
  1. Reformed theology distinguishes between God’s permission and positive determination; God neither sins nor causes people to sin, though in his goodness and wisdom he remains Lord over sinners and sinful acts.
  1. God’s decree in eternity and its execution in time must be carefully distinguished; purposes are different from their fulfillment, and determinations are different from their accomplishment—both must be affirmed.
  1. God’s sovereignty is not only demonstrated in narratives and described in doctrines; it is celebrated in praise, such that only when we are led to doxology have we really understood the revelation of the mystery of God’s decree.

II.      Historical Interpretations of God’s Decree
Divergent historical positions on predestination have often reflected deep theological disagreements about the God-world relation and the meaning of salvation.

  • Pelagianism—God elects to salvation on the basis of foreseen faith and obedience accomplished from our own free will, even apart from gracious assistance.
  • Semi-Pelagianism—Though human salvation begins in our free movement toward God, growth and ultimate salvation require God’s gracious assistance (and our subsequent cooperation).
  • Augustinianism—Against Pelagianism: God unconditionally elects to gracious salvation (including the faith and obedience of the redeemed will) and reprobates to just condemnation because of sin.
  • Arminianism—Against the Reformed: God’s grace is not only necessary for perfecting faith and obedience but is a precondition for both, yet this preceding grace is universally available to all, God electing those he foresees will exercise their free will toward faith and good works.
  • Socinianism—Denies both God’s predestination and foreknowledge of the free acts of creatures.
  • Eastern Orthodoxy—Often understands the Augustinian-Pelagian controversy as a Western problem because of the focus on legal categories but nevertheless affirms synergism—that is, salvation is a process of grace-assisted cooperation with God.
  • Lutheranism—Does not fit into any of the preceding categories; denies the Augustinian-Reformed understanding of reprobation and the irresistibility of grace but is just as committed to monergism (salvation is the work of God alone).

The notion that predestination is the “central dogma,” or all-controlling idea from which the whole Reformed theological system is deduced, has been refuted by recent historical scholarship. It is of immense benefit to consider our election in Christ as he is freely offered in the gospel, but it is a dangerous labyrinth if we presume to speculate about God’s secret counsels.

III.   The Logical Order of God’s Decree
There is no temporal before and after in God’s eternal decision making; “succession” in God’s decree is a logical rather than chronological consideration. The main question is whether God’s decision to elect some and reprobate others came before or after his decision to permit humanity’s fall. The supralapsarian answer is that election comes before the decree to permit the fall. The fall—as well as creation itself—serve to carry out God’s free purposes in election and reprobation. The infralapsarian answer is that election comes after the decree to permit the fall. Election and reprobation are God’s free, gracious, and just response to the fall of his human creatures.

A.Traditional Reformed Interpretations
Both infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism (but not necessarily their terminology) have a long history in Western theology. It is difficult to classify the Reformers on this issue, except Zwingli, who was consistently supralapsarian. The Reformed orthodox tolerated supralapsarianism but favored infralapsarianism. Supralapsarianism seems to make God the author of evil and suggests election to salvation and reprobation to condemnation are virtually parallel “positive” purposes of God. While election is the cause of salvation, reprobation should never be seen as the cause of condemnation.

B. Barth’s Revised Supralapsarianism
Barth brought this internal Reformed debate to the forefront of theology by strongly endorsing a thoroughly reworked supralapsarian position: Jesus Christ the one Son of God is also the one eternally Elect Man, and all humanity is already eternally elected, justified, and sanctified in him. Such a position collapses time into eternity and law into gospel, undermining the historical reality and diverse characteristics of God’s activities in creation and redemption. Yet in his radical supralapsarianism and affirmation of universal election, Barth stopped short of advocating the final universal salvation of all humanity.

(HT: A summary of Michael Horton’s, The Christian Faith, Chapter Nine)