What is an Idol?

I would like to take a break from 1st Timothy for a second to discuss a little future Th.M topic. Toby from Classical Presbyterian has challenged me to make the case that a stained glass image that is supposed to represent Jesus is the equivalent of worshiping an idol. However before I begin that I do want to say as with the discussion we had over the use of musical instruments, the fathers of the Reformed Faith are unequivocally on my side (not to say that Toby has a side). Just one medium snippet from John Calvin shows this:

Idolaters in vain endeavor to elude this second point (Deut 5:8-9) by their foolish cavils; as amongst the Papists that trifling distinction is commonly advanced, that only λατρέια, and not δελέια is prohibited. For Moses, first of all, comprehends generally all the Forms And Ceremonies Of Worship; and then adds immediately afterwards the word עבד, gnabad, which means properly to serve. Hence we conclude that they make a childish endeavor at evasion, when they pay only the honor of service to pictures and statues. But if we grant them what they desire, not even so will they escape; because the prohibition is equivalent to God’s declaring that He will not be worshiped in wood and stone, or in any other likeness. For unbelievers have never been carried away to such an extent of folly as to adore mere statues or pictures; they have always alleged the same pretext which now-a-days is rife in the mouths of the Papists, viz., that not the image itself was actually worshiped, but that which it represented. But the Spirit everywhere reproves them for worshiping gods of wood and stone, since God rejects that carnal worship which unbelievers offer before stocks and stones. If any one should ask them, whom they have it in their mind to worship, they will immediately reply, that they offer to God that honor which they pay to pictures and statues. But this frivolous excuse comes to nothing; because to erect the idol before which they prostrate themselves, is really to deny the true God; and, therefore, no wonder that He should declare that unbelievers worship wood and stone, when they worship in that wood and stone phantoms of their own imagination. And we have already said, that all rites which do not accord with the spiritual worship of God, are here forbidden: and this is enough, and more than enough to put to flight all such misty notions, (nebulas.)…But if it be not agreeable to our judgment that God should repay every one according to his deserts, and yet that He at the same time requires the sins of their fathers of the children, we should remember that His judgments are a great depth; and, therefore, if anything in His dealings is incomprehensible to us, we must bow to it with sobriety and reverence.

One could at this point say well we are not Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox and we do not offer prayers to the images of Christ or other fleshly beings in mediation that plaster our sanctuaries, and you would be right to say that. However it would not be right to say that praying is all that we do in the worship of God or that stain glass images of Christ cannot become idols of worship to people in the sanctuary. We deceive ourselves if we say that the images of the 12th Century Danish sculptor that adorn our walls dressed in a toga standing in for Jesus can in the least bit be taken seriously. Why would it even make sense for half-a-second to us to place a fake Jesus on the decor of the house of God? Would we tolerate placing a triangle in place of a cross? So why does it not bother us to place the picture of a sinful human in place of Christ, even if we are “worshiping” it? So even before we get into any real discussion of whether or not this false Christ can equal an idol we must first think about whether it is prudent to give people a false impression of what Christ looked like in the flesh. If we consider this I think we have the answer to our idolatry question already.

Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?

Here is an article by Al Mohler on a subject that recently came up on Toby’s Classical Presbyterian blog:

Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth? This question would perplex the vast majority of Christians throughout the centuries, but modern denials of biblical truth make the question tragically significant. Of all biblical doctrines, the doctrine of Christ’s virginal conception has often been the specific target of modern denial and attack.

Attacks upon the virgin birth emerged in the aftermath of the Enlightenment, with some theologians attempting to harmonize the anti-supernaturalism of the modern mind with the church’s teaching about Christ. The great quest of liberal theology has been to invent a Jesus who is stripped of all supernatural power, deity, and authority.

The fountainhead of this quest includes figures such as Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann. Often considered the most influential New Testament scholar of the twentieth century, Bultmann argued that the New Testament presents a mythological worldview that modern men and women simply cannot accept as real. The virgin birth is simply a part of this mythological structure and Bultmann urged his program of “demythologization” in order to construct a faith liberated from miracles and all vestiges of the supernatural. Jesus was reduced to an enlightened teacher and existentialist model.

In America, the public denial of the virgin birth can be traced to the emergence of Protestant liberalism in the early 20th century. In his famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?,” Harry Emerson Fosdick–an unabashed liberal–aimed his attention at “the vexed and mooted question of the virgin birth.” Fosdick, preaching from the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church in New York City, allowed that Christians may hold “quite different points of view about a matter like the virgin birth.” He accepted the fact that many Christians believed the virgin birth to be historically true and theologically significant. Fosdick likened this belief to trust in “a special biological miracle.” Nevertheless, Fosdick insisted that others, equally Christian, could disagree with those who believe the virgin birth to be historically true: “But, side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. To believe in the virgin birth as an explanation of great personality is one of the familiar ways in which the ancient world was accustomed to account for unusual superiority.”

Fosdick explained that those who deny the virgin birth hold to a specific pattern of reasoning. As he explained, “those first disciples adored Jesus–as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God–as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in his birth–as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”

Thus, Fosdick divided the church into two camps. Those he labeled as “fundamentalists” believe the virgin birth to be historical fact. The other camp, comprised of “enlightened” Christians who no longer obligate themselves to believe the Bible to be true, discard this “biological” miracle but still consider themselves to be Christians.

More contemporary attacks on the virgin birth of Christ have emerged from figures such as retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong and German New Testament scholar Gerd Luedemann. Luedemann acknowledges that “most Christians in all the churches in the world confess as they recite the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. Now…modern Christians completely discount the historicity of the virgin birth and understand it in a figurative sense.” Obviously, the “modern Christians” Luedemann identifies are those who allow the modern secular worldview to establish the frame for reality into which the claims of the Bible must be fitted. Those doctrines that do not fit easily within the secular frame must be automatically discarded. As might be expected, Luedemann’s denial of biblical truth is not limited to the virgin birth. He denies virtually everything the Bible reveals about Jesus Christ. In summarizing his argument, Luedemann states: “The tomb was full and the manger empty.” That is to say, Luedemann believes that Jesus was not born of a virgin and that He was not raised from the dead.

Another angle of attack on the virgin birth has come from the group of radical scholars who organize themselves into what is called the “Jesus Seminar.” These liberal scholars apply a radical form of interpretation and deny that the New Testament is in any way reliable as a source of knowledge about Jesus. Roman Catholic scholar John Dominic Crossan, a member of the Jesus Seminar, discounts the biblical narratives about the virgin birth as invented theology. He acknowledges that Matthew explicitly traces the virgin birth to Isaiah 7:14. Crossan explains that the author of Matthew simply made this up: “Clearly, somebody went seeking in the Old Testament for a text that could be interpreted as prophesying a virginal conception, even if such was never its original meaning. Somebody had already decided on the transcendental importance of the adult Jesus and sought to retroject that significance on to the conception and birth itself.”

Crossan denies that Matthew and Luke can be taken with any historical seriousness, and he understands the biblical doctrine of the virgin birth to be an insurmountable obstacle to modern people as they encounter the New Testament. As with Luedemann, Crossan’s denial of the virgin birth is only a hint of what is to come. In Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, Crossan presents an account of Jesus that would offend no secularist or atheist. Obviously, Crossan’s vision also bears no resemblance to the New Testament.

For others, the rejection of the birth is tied to a specific ideology. In The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives, Jane Schaberg accuses the church of inventing the doctrine of the virgin birth in order to subordinate women. As she summarizes: “The charge of contemporary feminists, then, is not that the image of the Virgin Mary is unimportant or irrelevant, but that it contributes to and is integral to the oppression of women.” Schaberg states that the conception of Jesus was most likely the result of extra-marital sex or rape. She chooses to emphasize the latter possibility and turns this into a feminist fantasy in which Mary is the heroine who overcomes. Schaberg offers a tragic, but instructive model of what happens when ideology trumps trust in the biblical text. Her most basic agenda is not even concerned with the question of the virgin birth of Christ, but with turning this biblical account into service for the feminist agenda.

Bishop Joseph Sprague of the United Methodist Church offers further evidence of modern heresy. In an address he presented on June 25, 2002 at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, this bishop denied the faith wholesale. Sprague, who serves as Presiding Bishop of the United Methodist Church in northern Illinois, has been called “the most vocally prominent active liberal bishop in Protestantism today.” Sprague is proud of this designation and takes it as a compliment: “I really make no apology for that. I don’t consider myself a liberal. I consider myself a radical.” Sprague lives up to his self-designation.

In his Illiff address, Bishop Sprague claimed that the “myth” of the virgin birth “was not intended as historical fact, but was employed by Matthew and Luke in different ways to appoint poetically the truth about Jesus as experienced in the emerging church.” Sprague defined a theological myth as “not false presentation but a valid and quite persuasive literary device employed to point to ultimate truth that can only be insinuated symbolically and never depicted exhaustively.” Jesus, Sprague insists, was born to human parents and did not possess “trans-human, supernatural powers.”

Thus, Sprague dismisses the miracles, the exclusivity of Christ, and the bodily resurrection as well as the virgin birth. His Christology is explicitly heretical: “Jesus was not born the Christ, rather by the confluence of grace with faith, he became the Christ, God’s beloved in whom God was well pleased.”

Bishop Sprague was charged with heresy but has twice been cleared of the charge–a clear sign that the mainline Protestant denominations are unwilling to identify as heretics even those who openly teach heresy. The presence of theologians and pastors who deny the virgin birth in the theological seminaries and pulpits of the land is evidence of the sweeping tide of unbelief that marks so many institutions and churches in our time.

Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth? The answer to that question must be a decisive No. Those who deny the virgin birth reject the authority of Scripture, deny the supernatural birth of the Savior, undermine the very foundations of the Gospel, and have no way of explaining the deity of Christ.

Anyone who claims that the virgin birth can be discarded even as the deity of Christ is affirmed is either intellectually dishonest or theological incompetent.

Several years ago, Cecil Sherman–then a Southern Baptist, but later the first coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship–stated: “A teacher who might also be led by the Scripture not to believe in the Virgin Birth should not be fired.” Consider the logic of that statement. A Christian can be led by the Bible to deny what the Bible teaches? This kind of logic is what has allowed those who deny the virgin birth to sit comfortably in liberal theological seminaries and to preach their reductionistic Christ from major pulpits.

Christians must face the fact that a denial of the virgin birth is a denial of Jesus as the Christ. The Savior who died for our sins was none other than the baby who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin. The virgin birth does not stand alone as a biblical doctrine, it is an irreducible part of the biblical revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls.

“Everyone admits that the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.” So declared J. Gresham Machen in his great work, The Virgin Birth of Christ. As Machen went on to argue, “if the Bible is regarded as being wrong in what it says about the birth of Christ, then obviously the authority of the Bible in any high sense, is gone.”

The authority of the Bible is almost completely gone where liberal theology holds its sway. The authority of the Bible is replaced with the secular worldview of the modern age and the postmodern denial of truth itself. The true church stands without apology upon the authority of the Bible and declares that Jesus was indeed “born of a virgin.” Though the denial of this doctrine is now tragically common, the historical truth of Christ’s birth remains inviolate. No true Christian can deny the virgin birth.

This article was originally published on December 13, 2003. It is republished here by request.

As Al Mohler rightly says, of course one cannot deny the virgin birth and be a Christian. It is false doctrine to believe otherwise.

And Another Thing…

This Post grew out of a response I gave to a question posited by “Bob” in a thread on Toby’s Classical Presbyterian Blog.

Bob,

Considering a good 90% of modern American Christians are at the least Semi-Pelagian you have quite a question that I believe needs to be SERIOUSLY considered and prayed about in a manner befitting Gethsemane. We fret over (albeit very serious as well) sexuality issues while allowing many of our “evangelical” conservative brethren to preach a gospel of Works Salvation that is in many ways more endangering to the future and health of Christendom than the ills of Liberal social ethics. We tolerate the abominable teachings of Finney, Graham, and others while fighting the onslaught of liberalism in a separate arena. Both problems, Arminianism and Liberalism, ultimately are cut from the same cloth hermenuetically. They each want to place the value of Salvation upon the unworthy shoulders of beings that cannot bear the weight of their own sin. Whether in Finney’s theology (see an excellent critique here) that weight is paid by generic “good works” or Liberalism’s “Social Gospel” salvation, which like Finney, comes to embrace Process Theology (a modern-day heresy in its own right) and the idea that Christ’s death and resurrection is not enough for salvation but merely places one in the position to move in the direction of salvation by checking off various benchmarks on the way to earning a place in the kingdom through various “good works”.

The point here is that while it is good that “evangelicals” are fighting the false diversity of Liberal social ethics at the same time they are no better if they deny Sola Fide in the process. To paraphrase something I heard Michael Horton say one time on the White Horse Inn it strikes me as odd that a term like “evangelicalism” can encompass such a broad spectrum of people to include both Benny Hinn and R.C. Sproul who could not be farther away systematically if they tried but are seen as the same because of their shared views on a very narrow slice of theological pie. My Reformed brethren we have to be careful with whom we lie down with and cast our arm around to win secular political battles when in doing so we put ourselves in danger of losing the Kingdom entirely.

Finding Agreement with John Frame

I also used to say that one should never leave a church if that church needs him/her in order to survive. But from God’s point of view, no human being is indispensable. If he wants a weak church to keep going, he will supply the gifts that church needs. On the other hand, I have come to the view that it is not a tragedy when a tiny, stagnant, sick church folds up and dies. It is better for the members of such churches to be part of living, dynamic fellowships than to stay forever in a situation where they are constantly discouraged and, most likely, not being properly fed.

As someone who rarely, if ever, agrees with John Frame I find in this section from his work Evangelical Reunion (cf. Rev. Toby Brown’s already linked discussion) a paragraph that is quite refreshing. I find myself presently at a time of much discernment and prayer as to my future in the PC(USA). As I think about this I am often troubled by further deepening the already wide gulf between the denominational landscape. What I personally struggle with is whether I am called to be like Jeremiah and others prophets (certainly not calling myself a prophet, that would be absurd) and stay in an increasingly apostate denomination preaching the gospel where many minds are shut to it or seek to follow the example of Matthew 10:14 and shake the dust from my feet and move on to another town.

Thank You Revs. Brown and Crawford, Preach it Brothers

Who gets to be called ‘schismatic?’

October 11, 2007

I continue to find the writings of John Shuck [Letters, October 10, 2007] to be illustrating about what we face by remaining in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here is a minister in good standing who has publicly mocked our faith, who believes that Jesus’ body rotted in a grave, that Jesus will not return again, who mocks Christians on a daily basis over at his blog, and then he has the nerve to label a faithful minister like Bill Crawford a schismatic. What a joke! Friends, when an apostate “minister” stands within our system, not disciplined by his presbytery, who refutes the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and calls a faithful pastor schismatic, we had better know where we stand. How long, brothers and sisters in Christ, will we allow this to go on? How long will we swear our allegiance to an organization that allows a person like John Shuck to wear our label? As my good friend Will Spotts calls us to remember in his farewell address to the PCUSA, we had better remember what is being done in our names. I, for one, will not long abide in an organization that allows this to continue. How about you?

Toby Brown
Cuero, Texas

About letter by John Shuck
October 11, 2007

I think it will be a interesting day indeed when Christian members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) take a moment to see true heresy and apostasy at work by checking out John Shuck’s blog “Shuck and Jive.” Although offensive, it is a lesson in the practical reality of this institution. I think The Layman Online would do a community service to publish this letter and its links. Shucks, a full-blown investigation would be illuminating.Yes, John Shuck is a minister of Word and sacrament and, yes, he has been reported to the committee on ministry of Holston Presbytery and the reply was that he was a “minister in good standing.” You can read the sermons that he preaches from the pulpit of a PCUSA congregation here. Or, perhaps, you would like to read as John talks about the “Rapture” (warning – some medieval nudity here).When John Shuck insults me, I count it all joy.

Bill Crawford
pastor First Presbyterian Church of Thibodaux
Thibodaux, La.

What Kind of Judge is the Father?

My most recent issue of Modern Reformation magazine-if you do not subscribe to this thought-provoking magazine you should-had an essay written by Korey Maas (who is an assistant professor of theology and church history at Concordia University in Irvine, Calif.) that dealt with an issue that is at the forefront of a discussion going on at Classical Presbyterian’s blog-which you can access from this website-dealing with who gets to be married at a Christian Church. One side of the argument says that there must be standards and those standards should be enforced. The other challenges with the viewpoint that if we tell the sinful couple no that they will driven away from the church and that we should accept them into the church and hope that they see the error of their ways by being in the body. As is with most arguments it stems from two basic premises:

1) What is Holy Scripture and how authoritative is it?
2) What kind of judge is the Father?

The First question-I believe-can be answered by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and can be found here:
http://www.reformed.org/documents/icbi.html

The Second question is answered by Korey Maas and can be found here:
http://www.modernreformation.org/km06judge.htm