The Gift You’ll Enjoy Forever

CC BY, jonrawlinson, Foter
CC BY, jonrawlinson, Foter

Consider this for a moment: the eternal God gives lasting gifts. You may think, Yeah, I know that, but really take in the implications.

I’m a stickler for quality. I don’t mind paying more if I am certain the item will last for years to come. That’s not having ‘expensive taste’ or ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, in my opinion. It’s actually saving me money and the hassle of replacing goods. I too like lasting things.

And what God gives you and me are eternal possessions, inasmuch as they belong to him, the Eternal One. God’s gifts proceed from his own good nature, just as light and warmth proceed from the sun. Without the sun we earthlings couldn’t survive; Jesus says the same: “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). All love, mercy, and virtue shine upon us from the glorious God—he being as much the gift as its expression.

God’s Greatest Gift to Us

One gift so many people, including Christians, take for granted is our humanity. I think folk miss out on quality life by either disrespecting their humanity or by not dignifying it and giving it proper expression. Many Christians hold a distorted or wrong anthropology and don’t understand that we were created as humans to eternally exist as humans glorifying God with our humanity. My goodness—Jesus represents us now in Heaven with a human body. I cannot imagine that he lived a crummy earthly life.

I don’t dispute the fact of sin and the depravity of the soul as a present reality. Still, although sin marred the creation, it never effaced the glory of God in it. The angels in Isaiah’s vision cried, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa. 6:3).

Free Yourself

In Christ we have restored freedom to be as human as possible in this life. Let that sink in: free to enjoy life. Jesus modeled a perfect humanity. I think that if we studied his words and life and the deep implications, we could free ourselves from rote and weighty behavior patterns that suck life out of us rather than give us life. We would see that there are far fewer restrictions on our lives pertaining to what it takes to please the Lord and just to experience genuine happiness.

Some people regard the Bible like a big red stop sign: “You can’t do that! You’ll be punished! God is angry!” But it was after I studied portions of the Old Testament prophets (yes) that I discovered just how loving God is and that all his words to us are a “Go!” rather than a no.

I wonder if we unnecessarily tie ourselves in knots sometimes.

Thus, we are free to celebrate and explore our passions, to embrace one another, to develop the virtues within, to enhance our talents, to soak in nature and art, to wonder and draw near to God by it—more gifts he gives.

In Yet a Little While…

Is this not the most fitting way to honor the God who bestows these good and lasting things? And how inseparable they are from our very human nature! It is how we process our existence…humanity is our existence. We are not angels or spirits nor were we intended to be. Instead, God has deemed it that we praise him best as humans; and I will accomplish that by being the best human I can be.

So I honor God and this great gift he’s given me by unpacking all the treasure he’s placed within me. I do it by cherishing others and building lasting relationships. I do it by fighting sin and storing up spiritual wealth. I do it by clarifying his will in my life. I do it by having uninhibited fun. And I do it by gleaning from every experience because I know my growth will continue in the life to come.

I cannot wait to see myself in resurrection with perfect form, within and without. You know, we’ll spend time in Heaven but we’ll return with our King, arrayed in immortal bodies, to a gloriously new earth. I believe that.

What excites me is that the gifts, talents, and virtues—that ‘spiritual wealth’—we amass now…things we love and that God has given us to perfect: they hold much value for that time, although we cannot fathom how. I surmise that this present life is just too important and too short to squander.

Every gift from God should ultimately become a gift back to him. Vibrant, godly, authentic humanity is our best worship.

The Nature of Christ

"Prince of Peace" by Akiane CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr
“Prince of Peace” by Akiane
CC BY-NC, Waiting For The Word, Flickr

The nature of Christ rested at the center of the greatest controversies in church history and often led to the important ecumenical councils of the Church and the development of the creeds. Here we’ll discuss five major heresies regarding the nature of Christ: Ebionism, adoptionism, Nestorianism, Apollinarianism, and Eutychianism. I encourage you to consider the implications that logically proceed from these doctrines. Also, reflect on statements and teaching you’ve heard that veer close to these.

Jesus and the Christ

Christological heresies existed as early as the apostle’s ministry. A Judaizing group called the Ebionites taught that Jesus was an ordinary human possessing unusual but not superhuman or supernatural gifts. They espoused that the Christ descended upon Jesus the man at his baptism and withdrew from him near the end of his life. The doctrine resembles the teaching of Paul of Samosata who taught that the logos was not a being but was equal to what reason is in a human and merely impersonal. Jesus, so said Samosata, was uniquely indwelt by the wisdom of God and, in successive stages, grew closer in relation to him.

Samosata’s teaching is called dynamistic monarchianism, or adoptionism, and holds that this power from God came upon Jesus the man, again, at his baptism. Adoptionism opens a doorway to modern liberal theology that devalues the divinity of Jesus and teaches the recognition of human’s God consciousness.

Nestorius, on the other hand, did affirm both the divinity and humanity of Christ but insisted that the two natures not be confused but viewed as being completely distinct. Nestorius was opposed to the term theotokos, a reference to Mary as the “God-bearer.” The Alexandrian school taught that if there was in Christ a physical union of God and man, then it could be argued that Mary was the “mother of God.” Nestorius, of the Antiochene school of thought, opposed this and claimed that the logos had taken residence in Christ. The divine element in him, however, was not in his human nature.

Nestorius implied a lack of unity, stating, “I distinguish between the natures, but I worship but one [Christ].” Christian orthodoxy acknowledges both natures of Christ but that the two became one and simultaneously retained their uniqueness. It remains questionable whether Nestorius really taught what he was accused of due to the vagueness of his teaching.

Swallowed in Divinity

Apollinaris offered a truncated view of Christ’s humanity. He believed that Jesus took on genuine humanity but not all of it. Apollinaris was very concerned about maintaining the unity of the Son. He opposed Arianism—the Son was not pre-existent and was created by the Father—but ventured too far with his teaching. According to Apollinaris, Jesus was a “compound unity,” part human and the rest divine. What Jesus bore of humanity was merely his human flesh. This flesh was animated by the divine logos (spark), which replaced a human soul.

Thus, Jesus was human physically but not psychologically; his soul was divine. Jesus was essentially different from all human beings because he possessed no human soul or will nor did he possess the capability to sin because he was divinity poured into a human vessel. Further, there is a slight implication that Jesus’s flesh could have only been a mystical, docetic one, not truly subject to his overpowering divinity.

If Ebionism represents the extreme view of Jesus’s humanity, then Eutychianism is the opposite extreme. Eutyches agreed on the two natures of Christ but felt that the two became so blended in their union that there could only be one nature and it fully divine.

Apollinarianism and Eutychianism differ from the others because they hold that Jesus had one nature and not two. These two doctrines are called monophysite doctrines, meaning “one nature”; Ebionism, adoptionism, and Nestorianism are dyophysite.

Council of Chalcedon

The fourth ecumenical council at Chalcedon brought an end to these disputes, specifically Eutychianism and Nestorianism. The council began on October 8, 451, and was attended by 630 bishops and deputies. After five sessions that lasted until the 31st, the council finalized the Chalcedonian Creed, one of the greatest, that further defied Christological heresy and established sound Christology.

Swedish theologian Bengt Hagglund, in his History of Theology, helps clarify the significance of the creed (in part):

We confess one and the same Son [against Nestorius, who…was believed to teach that there were ‘two sons’], our Lord Jesus Christ, who is perfect in His divinity [against dynamism, Arius, and Nestorius] and perfect in humanity…with a reasonable soul and a body [against Apollinaris who replaced Christ’s human soul with the Logos and taught that the Logos assumed a “heavenly flesh”], of one essence with the Father according to divinity…of the same essence as we according to humanity [against Eutyches]…”

The value of the Christian creeds is inestimable. The Church is triumphant over heresy today because of the great work the Fathers undertook to clarify and summarize Holy Scripture. Many groups in the Protestant Church overlook and even avoid creedalism, being speculative of it. Yet the creeds are the signet of the Church, concisely expressing theological thought contained in the scriptures. The creed is, as Cyril calls it, the “synthesis of faith” and has been a sustaining force in the existence of the Church.

Maps Lead to Heaven, GPSs to (Ahem!)

CC BY-NC, ejorpin, Flickr
CC BY-NC, ejorpin, Flickr

A recent excursion reminded me of all the reasons I despise Global Positioning Systems (GPS). We pay tech companies for the convenience of GPS, not always for any intelligence in the device.

Why does a GPS tell me to take a bypass and then send me through the heart of downtown? Moreover, why when we’re somewhere off course do I have to irritably wait on those who only trust devices, although I follow signs well and can clearly see where to go? Maybe I should stop second-guessing myself. After all, we’ve lived a very long time with only maps, although many of us have never learned to read them.

My disgust includes online web mapping, too. Printed directions are the worst! Many of the step-by-step instructions are needless and actually set drivers up to make errors on the simplest journeys. Call it more hassle than help.

Perhaps your experience is different and GPS rivals the cellphone or internet for “Greatest Invention,” but I think good ole map reading works better most times. All one has to do is look a map over well, use a little common sense, and be at the destination in short order.

The Map of Truth

While I was off-course and stewing about these things, I reflected on how the same principle applies to faith. We have a map; it is the word of God. All we have to do is read it, do what it says, and be on our way.

Sometimes, however, we require for ourselves more than the essentials. Deep theology and philosophy convinces some of us that we’re walking our path the right way and are indeed headed the right direction. I don’t rail against higher theology because I was a graduate theology student, and I continue to deeply value and respect the intellectual aspects of Christian faith. Yet I was astonished at the scores of proponents and their absurd and utterly outlandish ideas about God and faith. You’d be amazed.

The problem is we have young people who feel they need an inordinate knowledge or seminary to live for God; and we find older folk who need to prove something with it. Good doctrine is incredibly important and learning it is essential to personal faith and wholesome churches. But the life of God we desire comes through Jesus Christ. He is the one essential.

And it’s right there—with Jesus—where the immaterial stuff falls to the ground. If the point was to live for God, so much of the fluff I read in seminary would not exist. Thus, the Holy Spirit prompts us to search our map, the scripture itself, and, like Pilgrim on his way to the Celestial City, be about the journey. “Just do what it tells you,” he says. “I’ll give more insight as you go.”

If we really mean to live for Jesus, we can be satisfied with the least that will help us reach him. I’d rather arrive at my destination using my map and feel pleasant than using the GPS and be angry and bitter, maybe even calling off the trip, for all the incongruous or excess information I’ve received. Likewise, there’s enough already in the scriptures to show us Christ and to start us living for him. Any other essential he will bring in due time.

The Fascinating Conversion of Augustine

CC BY-NC, Anne Davis, Flickr

The following was originally an academic book report and is extracted from Augustine’s Confessions.

“For what am I to myself without Thee but a guide to my own downfall?” These are words Augustine had learned to speak following a tortuous path to faith. His was a life that proved the cost of sin and salvation to be the same: everything. Augustine is remembered glowingly as a bishop, church father, teacher on grace, and author of City of God. He is often considered the greatest theologian of the church after the apostle Paul. Yet Augustine’s Confessions show us that the grace of God retrieves even the saint from sin’s dump.

Aurelius Augustinus Hipponensis was born in Tagaste, Numidia (Souk Ahras, Algeria), in North Africa on November 13, 354. His mother, Monica, was a devout Christian and his father, Patricius, was a city official and practicing pagan who in later years converted to Christ. Patricius determined to provide Augustine the best possible education, even above what wealthier students were afforded, which resulted in Augustine studying rhetoric, philosophy, and Greek and Latin literature and grammar. Augustine had a brilliant mind, but he was not a serious student. He was motivated to learn only what engaged his attention, and he describes himself as disobedient. He was often flogged for being slow at learning and wandering off to play rather than completing his assignments.

He says of his parents during his adolescent years, “I disobeyed them, not because I had chosen a better way, but from a sheer love of play. I loved the vanity of victory, and I loved to have my ears tickled with lying fables, which made them itch even more ardently.” Augustine eventually became mischievous and rebellious, something that alarmed Monica. She pleaded with her son to turn to God, but Augustine viewed the things of the church as inferior in intellect and purpose. Monica would remain the prime spiritual influence in Augustine’s life and earnestly prayed for him the rest of her days.

By the time he was sixteen Augustine had relocated to Madaura, a city twenty miles from Tagaste. There he studied grammar and rhetoric; while there he gathered money to visit Carthage for further education. Not getting all of the money he needed and between schools, Augustine says that it was during this time that sexual lust gripped his heart and plunged him headlong into promiscuity. He writes, “The mists of passion steamed up out of the puddly concupiscence of the flesh, and the hot imagination of puberty, and they so obscured and overcast my heart that I was unable to distinguish pure affection from unholy desire.” It would be the greatest vice of his life. Augustine became a sex addict and soon a son, Adeodatus, was born to him. During these same years Augustine became increasingly mischievous and seeking of ambition, gathering to himself companions who enjoyed like passions.

Finally, arriving at Carthage, Augustine became a master student at the School of Rhetoric where he studied “books of eloquence.” He says that whatever was written in any of the fields of rhetoric, logic, geometry, music, or arithmetic, he easily understood without the assistance of any instructor. He also took an inquisitive look into the scriptures, but he says:

I saw something not comprehended by the proud, not disclosed to children, something lowly in the hearing but sublime in the doing, and veiled in mysteries…Truly they were of a sort to aid the growth of little ones, but I scorned to be a little one and, swollen with pride, I looked upon my self as fully-grown.

This time was also the beginning of Augustine’s nine-year espousal of Manichean philosophy. Augustine was nineteen years-old at this time. The Manicheans were a Christian sect founded by Persian religious teacher Mani. A radical dualism distinguished it, and it attracted many for its straightforward rational solution to the problem of evil. Augustine took a strong interest in astrology, also, and became unshakable in his conviction about it.

He returned to Tagaste to teach rhetoric and says that God was still working to remind him of grace. He had a dear friend from his childhood with whom he had often enjoyed mischief. This friend became seriously ill and fell into a coma for a considerable time. While he was in the coma, he received a baptism; when he revived and learned of it, he became very serious about faith. Upon learning that his friend was revived, Augustine rushed to his bedside. Augustine says that he tried jesting with him concerning his baptism but was stunned to learn that his friend had turned to Christ. The friend even recoiled from Augustine as though he were an enemy. Augustine decided to let his friend recover before inquiring further, but the fever returned upon his friend and he died. Augustine became depressed but more curious about God.

Once again Augustine moved, back to Carthage, to teach rhetoric, putting him in contact with some respected individuals. This marked a turning point in his spiritual progression. At this time philosophy was not satisfying the deep questions in his heart, but a (providential) break in his darkness soon arrived. Faustus, a famous Manichean bishop, visited Carthage. Augustine, now 29, had longed to see this man but had since become disillusioned with Manicheanism. He now found the ideas of other philosophers to be more credible than Manicheanism’s “tedious fables.” Augustine walked away from Faustus disappointed with his empty, eloquent words. Augustine says that his own learning exceeded Faustus’s, and this threw him into further despair and perplexity.

He then took a teaching position in Rome, partly because of the higher salary but more on account of studious Roman learners, something that turned out to be untrue. After arriving in Rome, however, Augustine nearly died of illness; upon recovering his mind, he returned to his Catholic upbringing. His stint in Rome was short-lived and soon he accepted a public teaching position in Milan. Augustine says, “And to Milan I came, to Ambrose the bishop, famed through the whole world as one of the best of men.” Augustine was intrigued with Ambrose. He saw that Ambrose was not only well-educated and eloquent, but also very caring and devout. These traits impressed Augustine and he drew close to Ambrose.

Augustine became Ambrose’s protégé and a catechumen. His faith continued to grow from this point on, but he still could not resolve nagging questions that led him back to philosophy. One day while walking the streets of Milan, Augustine saw a beggar with a “full belly,” laughing and joking. The site tortured him: to think that such a person without anything could attain happiness in life but he himself, an accomplished academician, was burdened, agitated, and guilt-ridden.

He also continued to struggle with promiscuity. Having his mistress and mother of his son with him in Milan, Augustine—now 30—yet planned to marry another matron. The normal minimum legal age for marriage was twelve, but the intended bride was only ten at the time! So proposing to endure the two-year wait, he sent his heartbroken mistress of thirteen years back to Africa. Afterwards, still being swollen with lust and too weak to wait, Augustine obtained yet another mistress. His dear friend Alypius eventually talked him out of the marriage, as it would hinder their quest for truth.

At this time Augustine constantly exchanged philosophies in his search for ultimate truth. He and his friends even formed an alliance for this purpose and lived together communally. Although he was a catechumen of the church, he only gradually recanted Manicheanism. He grew weary with astrology calling it “lying divinations and impious absurdities” and took to Neo-Platonism. Yet he did not credit Neo-Platonism with leading him any closer to real truth. So he seized upon the writings of the apostle Paul and these influenced him greatly. He had before thought Paul to contradict himself and to not agree with the Law and Prophets, but he says:

Now all these doubts vanished away. And I saw that those pure words had but one face, and I learned that whatever truth I had read (in the Platonists) was here combined with the exaltation of Thy grace. Thus, he who sees must not glory as if he had not received, not only the things that he sees, but the very power of sight—for what does he have that he has not received as a gift?

Soon Augustine visited Simplicianus, the greatly revered spiritual father of Ambrose. Simplicianus told Augustine the story of Victorinus whom he had known personally and led to open profession of Christ. Victorinus was a well-educated high Roman citizen and senator who had been honored with a statue in the Roman Forum. Victorinus studied the scriptures and found truth in them. And surrendering to Christ, he publicly professed his faith and was baptized before an ecstatic congregation.

Soon Ponticianus, a fellow countryman and friend of Augustine in Africa, visited him unexpectedly and while there saw the writings of Paul on Augustine’s game table. Surprised to see the book and to hear of Augustine’s study, he proceeded to tell of Antony the Great of Egypt who had recently lived. Ponticianus told his own story of being indirectly influenced by the monk’s life and how his two friends and co-workers, all of them imperial guards, after receiving Athanasius’s account in one reading, renounced on the spot all their work and personal endeavors to serve God and become monks.

The reaction in Augustine was cataclysmic. He says to God:

But while he was speaking, Thou, O Lord, turned me toward myself, taking me from behind my back, where I had put myself while unwilling to exercise self-scrutiny. And now Thou didst set me face to face with myself, that I might see how ugly I was, and how crooked and sordid, bespotted and ulcerous. And I looked and loathed myself; but wither to fly from myself I could not discover.

The stage was finally set for Augustine’s conversion. Augustine grew disgusted with himself and knew that there was but one resolution. If his discontent about the beggar had unnerved him, the story of the two guards enraged him. In the most dramatic turn in Augustine’s story, the cataclysm within him erupted and, like a crazed man, he ran and grabbed Alypius and exclaimed:

What is this? What did you hear? The uninstructed start up and take heaven, and we—with all our learning but so little heart—see where we wallow in flesh and blood! Because others have gone before us, are we ashamed to follow, and not rather ashamed at our not following?

Alypius was a dear friend to Augustine and understood, even felt the distress within him. Augustine dashed away to the garden of the house with Alypius following behind him. He beat himself like a madman, tearing at his hair, striking his forehead, entwining his fingers, and grabbing his knees. When he thought he might have “choked with weeping,” he did not want Alypius to see him and darted out of the garden and fell under a distant tree, weeping and wailing over his condition.

Augustine had come to the end of sin, recognizing it for what it had done to his soul, and he cried out to God, “How long, how long? Tomorrow and tomorrow? Why not now? Why not this very hour make an end to my uncleanness?” As he was lamenting he heard a child’s voice chanting over and over “Tolle, lege. Tolle, lege,” or “Pick it up, read it. Pick it up, read it.” It was common to believe that the first words one came upon in the scriptures was a revelatory word from God; Augustine remembered this in Antony’s conversion. He quickly came to his senses and returned to the bench in the garden where Alypius was still sitting and where he had left the book of Pauline writings. Augustine says:

I snatched it up, opened it, and in silence read the paragraph on which my eyes first fell: “Not in rioting and drunkenness, not in clambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying, but put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof.” I wanted to read no further, nor did I need to. For instantly, as the sentence ended, there was infused in my heart something like the light of full certainty and all the gloom of doubt vanished away.

Augustine closed the book and, with a tranquil countenance, marked his conversion. He proceeded to tell all that had just happened to Alypius, but he learned that Alypius himself had a like experience in the same moment, apparently taking up the identical text. Thus, they were both converted at the time and went to inform Monica who had finally received her prayers answered and with great joy.