The One Only True & Living God

The One Only True & Living God

The unity of the divine essence states that what God is, only God is. This is a distinct, yet related, doctrine to that of the unity of the divine Persons, which states that the Persons are consubstantial with the divine essence. This latter doctrine flows from the former. Because God is one, creatures ought to worship Him and Him alone, and this one God subsists in three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The unity of the divine essence is paramount to the argument implied by the greatest commandment, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:4-5) The 17th century theologian and philosopher, Hugh Binning, once wrote, “Since God is one, then have no God but one, and that the true and living God, and this is the very first command of God, which flows as it were immediately from his absolute oneness and perfection of being.”

The unity of God grants sufficient reason for why this God is deserving of all honor, praise, and worship. The import of such doctrine is the Judaistical and Christian denial of pagan polytheism. Flowing from Deuteronomy 6:4 are other statements, such as what we find in Isaiah 45:14, “Thus says the Lord: ‘The labor of Egypt and merchandise of Cush And of the Sabeans, men of stature, Shall come over to you, and they shall be yours; They shall walk behind you, They shall come over in chains; And they shall bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, “Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God.”’”

Incursions of henotheistic thought have made their way into churches, seminaries, and theological resources in recent decades. Henotheism is a species of polytheism, where many gods are said to be subject to one principal deity or supreme Being. Rather than being entirely equal, as with many Eastern polytheisms, henotheism teaches a hierarchy in the divine nature. Proponents of henotheism include the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Norse peoples. More recently, however, the late Dr. Michael Heiser has imbibed henotheistic thought. While maintaining monotheism in principle, Heiser defines monotheism as the belief in a “species unique” deity that presides over other divine beings or gods. In my opinion, this is virtually indistinguishable from the Greeks and Romans who saw Zeus or Jupiter, respectively, as the “king gods” who maintained sway over subjugated divine powers, such as Ares, Athena, or Mars. To adopt this position is to (inadvertently?) drink from the fountain of a fundamental metaphysical compromise, i.e. the expansion of “divine nature” to more than one being.

In other words, to grant a divine nature to beings other than YHWH is to grant that which belongs to YHWH alone.

In this brief post, I want to outline why this view represents a shift away from the clear biblical data that explains why Christians have always confessed only one true and living God.

Defining the Orthodox Position

A main point of confusion in this discussion involves the reality of beings that are often worshiped as gods by erring Israelites and pagan nations. What the orthodox position maintains is not that idols lack any real substance or beings that sit, as it were, behind them. Christians throughout the ages, following Scripture, have overtly affirmed the existence of real beings that are either worshiped directly or indirectly (through manufactured idols) as gods. As the apostle Paul notes, “the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons.” (1 Cor. 10:20)

What is denied is that these spiritual beings habitually worshiped by the pagan peoples are actually “gods” or subordinate “Elohim.” We would, instead, want to say that these entities are “so-called” Elohim, but are not truly so. (1 Cor. 8:5) The Bible clearly states that there is only one true and living Elohim, “But the Lord is the true God; He is the living God and the everlasting King. At His wrath the earth will tremble, And the nations will not be able to endure His indignation.” (Jer. 10:10)

Credal and confessional theology is also clear that there is only one God. For example, the Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in one God…” And the 2LCF 2.1 states, “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection…” Furthermore, the Baptist Catechism asks, “Are there more gods than one?” answering, “There is but one only, the living and true God.” (Q. 8)

Are there real spiritual entities other than YHWH that are able to either positive or negatively influence the world? Yes. Are these entities gods? This we strongly deny.

Wrestling with the Biblical Language

Frequently left out of the discussion amongst those who affirm a plurality of gods in addition to YHWH is the element of linguistic device. It is important that we assume the biblical use of analogy, metaphor, and metonymy as we read our Bibles. If we do not make this assumption, we may come away thinking that God has a body, with anatomical limbs, etc., when we read passages as follows, “So I will stretch out My hand and strike Egypt with all My wonders…” (Ex. 3:20) Or, “with the blast of Your nostrils The waters were gathered together…” (Ex. 15:8) Because Scripture interprets Scripture, our reading of these texts must be conditioned by other Scriptural ontological statements, such as, “God is Spirit…” (Jn. 4:24) Or, “God is not a man, that He should lie…” (Num. 23:19) And again, “For I am the Lord, I do not change…” (Mal. 3:6) These passages help us to understand that when creaturely features are ascribed to God, they are ascribed not properly but by way of some improper linguistic device, e.g. analogy or metaphor.

Furthermore, we know that the Bible sometimes attributes divine language to things that are not divine. For example, “But where are your gods (Elohim) that you have made for yourselves?” (Jer. 2:28) Clearly, this text is calling manufactured idols “gods,” which are no gods at all. Other texts indicate the falsity of these feigned deities, such as, “Has a nation changed its gods, Which are not gods?” (Jer. 2:11) And, “For all the gods of the peoples are idols…” (Ps. 96:5) The biblical text denies the true existence of any other Elohim besides YHWH, “They will make supplication to you, saying, “‘Surely God is in you, And there is no other; There is no other God (Elohim).’” (Is. 45:14b) Benjamin Keach is helpful on the name “Elohim”:

His Hebrew name אלהיﬦ, Elohim, when taken properly, belongs to none, but the only true and eternal God, and because it is of the plural number, it intimates the mystery of a plurality of persons in one most simple Deity…”

See also Matthew Poole on Psalm 82,

By gods, or the mighty, he understands kings, or other chief rulers, who are so called, because they have their power and commission from God, and act as his deputies, in his name and stead, and must give an account to him of all their actions.

As we read the biblical text, we need to understand the way the Bible uses language. Scripture often speaks rhetorically, and by way of analogies and metaphors that are designed to make a deeper point. When Scripture speaks of God’s “arm” or “hand,” it means to convey not that God really has arms and hands, but that He is poised to exercise His might, either in judgment or redemption. Likewise, when Scripture speaks of the “gods,” it is using the language of the pagan peoples, oftentimes to set the reader up for a major contrast between these pretended deities and the only true and living God.

Why Henotheism?

So, why the modern interest in polytheistic henotheism?

The answer to this question continues to elude me. Assuming the best intentions, Heiser and others may have just missed the important piece of the interpretive puzzle in neglecting to observe linguistic devices employed by the divine Author. Another possible reason for the embrace of this view is a contemporary desire to “re-enchant” the universe. We live in a materialistic cultural rut that strives to remove any and all reference to the supernatural. Philosophical and scientific naturalism has stripped the world of its vibrant, spiritual excitement. But is this a good reason to adopt henotheism?

There appears to be a move toward a more colorful understanding of God’s creation. This is fine as far as it goes. And I am entirely in favor of recapturing a biblical and classical cosmology that assumes the influence of angels, the negative impact of demons, and so on. However, in our zeal to retrieve a more biblically faithful cosmology, we need to be cautious not to retrieve the pagan perversions of this cosmology often spoken of and condemned in the pages of Scripture. While the biblical record grants the real existence of “so-called” gods, or those who are called “gods” or “Elohim” by the pagan nations, we should stop short of granting to these beings what the Bible clearly reserves for God alone. “There is no God besides Me,” YHWH declares. (Is. 45:5) Imagine the delight of the demons if we granted them the status they so long for!

While it may be exciting for some to think of the universe as being under the sway of a multitude of deities, all of whom are in subjection to a “king God,” the reality stands that YHWH is the only true deity in existence. Alternatively, the classical Christian tradition offers a truly interesting cosmology, full of both holy angels and fallen angels, each of which fall under the supreme Lordship of the one true God. These angels are capable of a number of wondrous abilities, and all such beings are designed to lead us to fear and trust in the only true and living Elohim — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The reality of “principalities and powers” urges us to seek refuge in the only begotten Son our Lord, who for us and for our salvation was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, and through His active and passive obedience defeated the powers of darkness and ordered the holy angels into the service of our redemption.

Conclusion

Why is any of this important?

In John 5:44, Jesus asks the question, “How can you believe, who receive honor from one another, and do not seek the honor that comes from the only God?” The final two words of this sentence are, “μόνου Θεοῦ” (monou theou), from which we get the term “monotheism.” Taking theos to be the common New Testament translation of the Hebrew “Elohim,” we are able to see that our Lord Jesus Himself affirmed the “only-ness” and unity of God. Far beyond the bare theological musings of man, this biblical monotheism is the theology of our Savior. As disciples of Christ, may we follow Him not only in what He did, but also in what He affirmed theologically.

My Bible vs. Our Bible

My Bible vs. Our Bible

Most of us have multiple Bibles positioned strategically (or not) throughout our homes. When we need a new one, we drive down the street to Mardel or click “Buy Now” on Amazon. Or, if you’re fancy, you might shell out the cash for a Schuyler on evangelicalBible.com. We make the purchase, and a copy of God’s Word becomes our possession.

This is one of the privileges of living on the other side of the 15th century, when the printing press was invented; and on this side of the Industrial Revolution, when mass production of just about any product became normal. Christians living before Gutenberg weren’t so fortunate. For them, just about everything they knew about the Bible came through someone they trusted, a priest or bishop, or perhaps an educated seminary professor. The communal aspect of reading and following God’s Word was integral to their identity as Christians. They could not know the Word apart from their relationship with other people.

This is not the case for us. We can pick up one of our many copies of God’s Word and read it by ourselves anytime we’d like. We can listen to the Bible while driving to work. And we can scroll through the Bible on our iPhones. While all of this convenience comes with numerous advantages we rightly relish, there is a drawback. This drawback can be overcome, even while maintaining the unique privileges we have in this age. But if it is to be overcome, we need to be aware of it.

The Bible Is Given by God to the Church

First, I want you to try and put yourself in the shoes of a pre-modern Christian.

You live from Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day. You are devoutly committed to your local church. And you commune with the saints regularly. You do not own a single Bible. The available codices are reserved for monks and missionaries, but not a commoner such as yourself. Everything you know about the Bible has been read to you by someone else. And you’ve been able to memorize a great deal. The words that you do know from Scripture are more precious to you than gold and rarer to you than jewels. You credit the possession of such treasure to the community you gather with week in and week out. Your church explains your survival. As a result, you see your church as a real lifeline. It’s vital. The only Bible you’ve ever seen is at your church. The pastor reads from it every Lord’s Day, and it was produced over the course of a year by a band of monks in a scriptorium a week’s ride from where you live.

It’s the church’s Bible.

On the Lord’s Day, when you attend church, that same Bible is visible at the front of the sanctuary. It never leaves the building. It is the people’s Bible. It might even be said that no one in your village would even know a single verse from Scripture if it weren’t for that one hand-copied Bible at your church. It is read in community, formative of the community, and understood by the community.

Okay, we can stop imagining. By now, I’m sure you get the picture.

It would be very difficult to individualize God’s Word in a society like the one described above. For the pre-modern saint, God’s Word was “our Bible,” not “my Bible.” Not only is this the case historically, but it’s also the case biblically. All of the epistles in the New Testament, even those originally addressed to individuals, e.g. Titus, Timothy, and Philemon (cf. Phil. 2), were intended for the church. The church is tasked with stewarding the Word of God and administering the Word of God through preaching and teaching. On several occasions, apostles Paul and John address “the church” in their epistles.

In 1 Corinthians 1:2, we read, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours…” This epistle is given to the church of Corinth, narrowly. But it is given to the whole church more broadly. In 2 Corinthians 1:1 we see similar language, “To the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in Achaia…” In 1 Thessalonians 1:1, we read again, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…” And once more in 2 Thessalonians 1:1, “To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”

The apostle John, in 2 John 9, writes, “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us.” In 2 John 1, John addresses “the elect lady and her children,” which is likely a metonymy for the church.

The Bible is given to the church. While this was more culturally obvious before the printing press and the mass production of Bibles, it is a conviction we can and should retrieve even while enjoying our technological advantages. Just because we have “our” Bibles (a blessing to be sure), doesn’t mean we should think of the Bible as belonging preeminently to “me.” It is God’s revelation given to “us,” God’s people, God’s church.

Communal Language in Scripture & Early Creeds

The Lord’s Prayer situates the subject within a communal context. In other words, the person who prays prays with his fellow saints. Look at the first line: “Our Father in heaven…” It begins with the first person, plural, personal pronoun, “Our…” Our Lord assumed His church would pray prayers like this one together. Similarly, the Scriptures themselves were to be read to churches. In 1 Thessalonians 5:27, Paul writes, “I charge you by the Lord that this epistle be read to all the holy brethren.”

The Nicene Creed follows this communal aspect of the Holy Scripture. It begins as such…

We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.

The Athanasian Creed begins in a similar fashion…

That we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,
neither blending their persons
nor dividing their essence.

The Chalcedonian Definition likewise includes corporate language. It begins as such, “Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all unite in teaching that we should confess one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Both Scripture and the ancient church following the 1st generation of Christians emphasized the communal structure of the Christian faith. The faith, along with the Scriptures from which it derives, belongs to the church and not to any individual or rogue Bible-interpreter.

Scriptural Abuses and Interpretational Accountability

I do not have the right to do whatever I want with the Bible.

One of the major issues with the Romish papacy is that it individualizes God’s Word at the highest political level. The pope, along with the college of bishops, have supreme authority to interpret the Bible. Historical interpretation aside, the small, elite class at the top gets to set the interpretive standard. Unfortunately, in our day, the “prerogative” of the pope has been assumed by pastors and lay people alike. “Me and my Bible” has become the arbiter of biblical meaning for many. Which is to say, it is now in vogue for many to think of themselves as self-made popes!

Though I may have the civil right to do anything I want with the leather and paper that make up my copy of the Bible, the substance of God’s Word is curated and interpreted by a Spirit-filled community, not by any single individual or elite class at the top. And while we must all come to our own conclusions as to what we believe the Bible means, this should not be done apart from the fellowship we have with other Christians, both dead and living. If the Holy Spirit works in me and you, He has worked in other Christians as well.

Since Scripture was and is given to the church and not to any one person, Christians must labor to understand and interpret Scripture within the context of that churchly community — a community of Spirit-enlivened saints.

Once we understand this, we are dutifully bound to humbly submit ourselves to the accountability provided by the “chorus of saints.” (Prov. 11:14; Rom. 12:16) Furthermore, once we grasp the Bible as the church’s book, we are liberated from the modernist burden of feeling as though we need to chart our own orthodoxy or re-invent the theological wheel. God’s people have been plundering the Scriptures for 2,000 years, and we are privileged to ride their coattails. This doesn’t imply a blind reception of any and every theological opinion. But it does mean that the theology and practice of the many, as represented in documents such as creeds and confessions, should hold more sway in our hearts and minds than any novel opinion offered within the last couple centuries.

Conclusion

Is it your Bible? Or is it our Bible?

While in a sense it is your Bible (you own a copy, and all the promises therein apply to you through Jesus Christ), it nevertheless belongs to the one body of Jesus Christ. This realization does two basic things. First, it keeps us accountable to the Holy Spirit as the Holy Spirit works in others beside ourselves. Second, it frees us from the burden of thinking of ourselves as “developers” of new, shiny theological constructs. When accountability is shrugged off for the “new,” and when theological innovation becomes the norm souls are hurt and Scripture is abused.

Scripture is “our” Bible. The saints are united in the interpretational task, and Christ is glorified where His saints dwell with one mind concerning the meaning of the text.

Shall We Worship Love? The Dilemma of Denying Divine Simplicity

Shall We Worship Love? The Dilemma of Denying Divine Simplicity

“For since ‘God is love,’ he who loves love certainly loves God; but he must needs love love, who loves his brother.” ~ Augustine, On the Holy Trinity, Bk. 8, Ch. 8

Contrary perhaps to a first glance, Augustine isn’t waxing redundant. If God is love, it certainly follows that this love must be loved more than anything or anyone else. It is a love that must be adored, pursued, and even worshiped.

In 1 John 4:8, the apostle writes, “He who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” And again in v. 16, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” These two substantive clauses identify the perfection of love with God Himself. To put it more technically, the divine essence just is love, according to the apostle. Hence, as Augustine observes, this love must be loved. This love must be loved and adored above all else — for God is love.

But this causes a dilemma for those who would deny the identity of divine love with the divine itself. If love in God is God, this love must be worshiped. If love in God is not God, it must not be worshiped.

Let me try to explain…

The Doctrine of Divine Simplicity

The doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS) states that God is not composed of parts. Any parts. No really… there are no parts in God. Zip. Zero.

To put the doctrine of divine simplicity in the words of Herman Bavinck, “But in God everything is one. God is everything He possesses. He is his own wisdom, his own life; being and living coincide in him.”[1] To use the title language of James Dolezal’s helpful book, All That is in God Is God. The Second London Confession (1677) expresses the doctrine as follows, “The Lord our God is but one only living and true God; whose subsistence is in and of himself, infinite in being and perfection; whose essence cannot be comprehended by any but himself; a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions, who only hath immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto…” (2LCF 2.1; emphasis added)

According to DDS, any kind of partition or parthood in the divine essence must be denied. If mereology is the “study of parthood,” God does not have a mereology. Dolezal defines a “part” as “anything that is less than the whole and without which the whole would be really different than it is.”[2] Stephen Charnock expresses the same point, “the compounding parts are in order of nature before that which is compounded by them… If God had parts and bodily members as we have, or any composition, the essence of God would result from those parts, and those parts be supposed to be before God.”[3] In other words, if God had parts those parts would make Him who He is. He would be, in a sense, caused. To put it another way, God would depend on that which is more basic than Himself to be Himself. In sum, God would not be God if He were not simple.

Love in God, therefore, must not be thought to be anything other than God Himself. Hence, 1 John 4:8, 16, “God is love.” Love is not something God “has.” Love isn’t something God participates in with other beings. It’s not something more basic than Himself making Him to be what He is and without which He would be different.

The Dilemma of Denying the DDS

If God is love, we must love love, as Augustine observes above. But this means that the divine essence (God Himself) and love as it is in God must be the same. If this love were not God, it would be a gross error to love love as the highest good. It would be unthinkable to love, adore, and worship that which is not God Himself. To worship what is not God is to commit idolatry according to the first and second commandments. (Cf. Ex. 20) Thus, either love in God just is God, or it is not God. But if it is not God, it cannot be loved as the highest good, adored, and worshiped.

A denial of DDS (as stated above) would seem to imply a real distinction between God’s essence and the love that exists in God. But if this is the case, to worship and adore the love that is in God would be idolatry. Furthermore, the twin substantives in 1 John 4, i.e. “God is love,” would be nothing but poetic, if not hyperbolic, expressions. But this doesn’t seem likely given the identification of love with knowledge of God in v. 8. Nor would v. 16 easily permit flexibility in the language since it identifies the act of abiding in love with the act of abiding in God Himself, “And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him.” Abiding in love just is to abide in God, but this would not necessarily be the case if love and God were really different “things.”

The denial of classical DDS seems to encounter a dilemma — worship love or not. If love is not God, it would be a sin to worship it. If love is God, it would be a sin not to.

Resources:

[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 2, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 174.

[2] James Dolezal, “Still Impassible: Confessing God Without Passions,” in Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, 132.

[3] Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, vol. 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Company, 1979), 186.

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 1)

Understanding Confessional Retrieval (Part 1)

Just a few years ago, I would’ve never imagined the evangelical landscape would include relatively deep conversations revolving around classical metaphysics, theology, and even politics. But thanks to a collective evangelical itch to retrieve the old ways, along with simultaneous disenchantment with the novus ordo of the evangelical industrial complex, Western Christianity is beginning to rediscover its roots. A contemporary reformation (of sorts) is afoot.

This is a good thing.

But as with any positive development, the danger of overreaction, over-realization, and a lack of wisdom looms. In particular, the question of retrieval always seems to be, What should we retrieve?

Monasticism? The episcopacy? Christian imperialism? The college of bishops? What do we retrieve? And do we ever stop retrieving? Does theological retrieval have a goal?

These are complicated questions. But they are questions I hope to address to some extent in the series that follows. This is the first of a few parts in that series. I hope it’s helpful.

What Is Retrieval?

In some ways, “retrieval” is a biblical principle. Throughout the Old Testament, deference is paid to the “old ways” and the “multitude of counselors.” It is a proverbial dictum that we ought not “remove the ancient landmark Which [our] fathers have set.” (Prov. 22:28) The “old paths” are “where the good way” is found. (Jer. 6:16) And we find safety in listening to the many voices that are wiser and older than ourselves. (Prov. 11:14; 15:22; 24:6)

When we speak of “retrieval” within a Christian context, we speak of what is a subset of historical theology. Historical theology is the science of exploring and appropriating the theology of the church’s past to the church’s present. What did our spiritual ancestors believe, and why? More strongly, is what they believed something we ought to be believing today? Have we stepped off the “old paths”?

Some have said, “The way back is the way forward.”[1] This sums up the project of retrieval quite nicely. The church is not a biological, chemical, or mechanical laboratory. We’re not looking for the latest developments in “Christian theology.” Our science is very old. Its purpose is not to locate the new or the most expedient. It’s not even oriented to what we take to be the most interesting or cutting-edge. 

The science of Christian theology concerns itself with a God that calls Himself the “Ancient of Days,” “everlasting,” and, “without end.” We are, fundamentally, a people who derive their knowledge from an eternal God who has sustained an ancient institution for over two millennia through means of an imponderably old Book. Paradoxically, this moves us forward—not only through time but unto everlasting beatitude. This isn’t true with every science. But it is true with ours.

Retrieval is the task of locating the old ways for the nourishment of contemporary spiritual life which, in turn, helps us to persevere well in the faith.

In the next part, I will discuss the “retrieval problem.”

Resources:

[1] I’ll credit this statement to Dr. Richard Barcellos who, if memory serves me rightly, heard it from the late Dr. Mike Renihan.

The Analogy of Scripture

The Analogy of Scripture

What is the analogy of Scripture?

We’ve all probably heard the phrase, “Scripture interprets Scripture.” When we say “Scripture interprets Scripture,” we are talking about the analogy of Scripture. Second Timothy 2:15 says, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

In order to “rightly divide the Word of truth” we need to have recourse to God. God must teach us how to rightly divide His Word. Apart from a divine standard of interpretation, we will always foist our culturally conditioned assumptions and prejudices into the text. We need an ultimate Interpreter, and this ultimate Interpreter is God Himself through His Word.

The Second London Confession 1.9 reads, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched by other places that speak more clearly. (2 Peter 1:20, 21; Acts 15:15, 16)”

Clearer texts further our understanding of more ambiguous or less clear texts. So, when it comes to less clear texts, e.g. Rev. 20:4-10 (millennium), and 1 Cor. 7:14 (holy children), we need the rest of the Bible—the clearer texts therein—to better understand them.

Richard Muller, in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (one of the most important books of our century), defines the analogy of Scripture (analogia Scripturae) in this way, “[it is] the interpretation of unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages of Scripture by comparison with a collation or gathering, of clear and unambiguous passages or “places” (loci) that refer to the same teaching or event.”[1]

Resources

[1] Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 25.

An Account of Credobaptism From Matthew 8

An Account of Credobaptism From Matthew 8

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been preaching through Matthew 8 at Victory Baptist Church. And let me just say, it’s a stunning chapter.

It has everything. 

Life, death, resurrection. Fear, faith, and fruitfulness. It’s a microcosm of the overall redemptive arc of our Lord’s incarnate ministry. From Capernaum, through the trial of storm, landing in the nether regions on the other side of Galilee (and Jordan). 

It’s a colorful chapter, no doubt.

But one theme I tried to maintain while preaching through Matthew 8 was discipleship.

Beginning in vv. 18-22, our Lord feeds a hard-to-swallow pill to two wannabe disciples. Then He actually takes His real disciples and draws a vivid and historically real picture of what discipleship looks like—trial, death, victory at the end of it all. From life in Capernaum, to trial at Sea, to death in the tombs, and at long last re-emergence unto life in Matthew 9:1—a return to Jesus’ “own city.”

Recently, as I was once more chewing the gum of Matthew 8 between the teeth of my mind, something emerged that I had not yet noticed:

Jesus’ real disciples follow Him onto the boat. In v. 23, there is a clear connection between an active, outward following of Christ with what it means, fundamentally, to be a disciple.

The Text, Discipleship, & Following Jesus

In vv. 18-22, the emphasis of the chapter turns to discipleship.

This become abundantly clear when we consider v. 19, “Then a certain scribe came and said to Him, ‘Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.’” The scribe introduces the enduring emphasis from this point on. Our Lord’s response aims at the utter and unapologetic realism of discipleship, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (v. 20) Discipleship is an “unforgiving” environment by worldly standards.

In v. 21 “another of His disciples” asks Him if he can “first go and bury [his] father.” To which Jesus responds, “Follow Me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (v. 22) 

Given that “disciple” (μαθητής) describes one who learns or follows, it is appropriate to connect that term here with Jesus’ imperative “follow” (ἀκολουθέω), which is to join or accompany someone. A disciple naturally follows his teacher. 

Furthermore, the context clearly sisters these terms together.

The man desiring to bury his father is presumably a disciple. He is called such in v. 21. But he wants to put his goal—following his Master—on hold in order to do something else. This is unacceptable so long as someone considers himself a disciple. A disciple follows, most fundamentally. No matter what value another occupation may seem to have.

In v. 23, something subtle, but pivotal, happens.

Jesus climbs aboard the boat first. The same boat He had allegedly mentioned according to v. 18. The order is important. The Lord goes first. He goes before His disciples. Naturally, of course, His disciples follow Him into the boat, “Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.” (v, 23) This is the second time, along with vv. 22-23, where discipleship is expressly connected to an active life of following Jesus.

The Text, Discipleship, & Baptism

Having established the connection between discipleship and following Jesus, we can now move to the general maritime trajectory of Jesus and His disciples.

The disciples follow their Lord into a boat. The boat sailed directly into a Galilean squall, which Matthew compared to an earthquake (seismos is the Gk. word used to describe the effects of winds and waves). The waves cover the boat according to v. 24. And their destination is southeast from Capernaum, the “other side” of Galilee—and consequently—the other side of Jordan, i.e. the place of the dead.

The geographical significance cannot be missed. Jesus and His disciples “go down” into the place of the dead, i.e. the tombs of the Gergesenes. (cf. vv. 28-34)

And they do so through water. Water that covers their vessel! And water from which only the Lord Himself delivers them, i.e. “Then He arose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm.” (v. 27)

At this point, the reader is invited to consider the relevance of such a watery deluge on the Sea of Galilee to Jonah, the Flood of Noah and, finally, to baptism—all of which point to redemption from sin and death in Jesus Christ. Again, several layers are no doubt at play in this scene. But it certainly appears as though the Hebrew mind would want to connect the Galilee storm with, at least, Jonah. After all, both Jonah and Jesus are found sleeping on a boat in the midst of a storm. And while the responses of the main characters differ, their surrounding circumstances are nearly identical—down to not only the storm itself, but the responses of the men accompanying them.

But if the other narratives, such as Jonah and Noah, may be connected as parallels to the storm on the Sea of Galilee (and I think they easily can be), then it apparently follows that the storm on the Sea of Galilee is a functional metaphor for baptism. Consider the parallels:

  • Noah and his family are delivered by an ark through the water (1 Pet. 3:20, 21)
  • Jonah is delivered by a fish through the water (Jon. 1:17ff; Lk. 11:30)
  • Jesus’ disciples are delivered by Jesus Himself through the water (Matt. 8:26-28)

If the storm on the Sea of Galilee is a metaphor for the waters of baptism, the natural question ends up being: What immediately preceded that storm? What was the disposition of the disciples before the storm on the Sea?

The answer is found in Matthew 8:23, “Now when He got into a boat, His disciples followed Him.” The disciples were determined to follow their Lord leading up to their “immersion” in the Sea of Galilee, which is, not insignificantly, an extension of Jordan, e.g. where our Lord was baptized.

The prerequisite to the “baptism” in the storm on the Sea of Galilee was that the disciples be actual disciples. That is, that they determine to follow Jesus by faith “onto the boat,” so to speak. Apart from this determination, they would have never entered into the storm.

Just as we determine to follow Jesus through a petition to enter the church leading to baptism, so too did these disciples determine to follow Jesus through stepping onto that boat leading, as it were, to baptism.

Conclusion

I understand that this isn’t a knock-down argument for credobaptism.

But the emphasis upon following Jesus as a disciple leading up to their mutual baptism in the Sea of Galilee seems like a noteworthy image related to how we think of the sacrament of baptism. If the image bears any significance upon how we think of baptism, it would seem like we would need to take into account the manner in which the disciples entered upon the Sea and sailed through the storm.

They did so through determining, by faith, to follow their Lord.