White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

IX Marks on Church Membership

There are few evangelical churches that practice formal church membership anymore. Our friends at IX Marks (associated with Mark Dever and Capitol Hill Baptist Church) recently posted a new eJournal on the topic of church membership. Matt Chandler’s lead article, Is Church Membership Biblical?, is especially good and worth your time to read. Here’s the intro:

I was 28 when I became the pastor of Highland Village First Baptist Church (now known as The Village Church). I had had a rough go early on in my church experience, and at that time I was not fully out of my “disenchanted with the local church” phase.

In all honesty, I wasn’t sure at the time that church membership was biblical. Despite that, the Spirit had made it all too clear that I was going to be pastoring this small church in the suburbs of Dallas. That was one of the many ironies of my life in those days.

Highland Village First Baptist Church was a “seeker-sensitive” church in the Willow Creek mold and had no formal membership process, although they were actively working on one and wanted the new pastor’s input. I had a strong understanding of the church universal but wasn’t well versed—and, as I said, somewhat skeptical—about the church local. We started growing quickly with young and oftentimes disenchanted 20-somethings who usually had no church background, or bad church backgrounds. They liked The Village because we were “different.” This always struck me as strange because we weren’t doing anything but preaching and singing.

In conversations with these men and women I began to hear things like “The church is corrupt; it’s just about money and a pastor’s ego,” or “I love Jesus, it’s the church I have a problem with.” My favorite one was, “When you organize the church it loses its power.” Although something occasionally resonated in me with these comments (I, along with most of my generation, have authority and commitment issues), I found them confusing since they were being made to me by people who were attending the church where I was the pastor.

Read the whole thing here.

Crumbling Sacred Space

Our friends over at Get Religion posted an interesting news story about church architecture: small, rural churches whose buildings are in  need of repair, what their choice of architecture indicates about their place in the community, and how new churches are making different choices when it comes to the buildings in which they worship.

After you read the short news piece, take a look at this article from Mike Horton, “Why Does Sacred Space Matter?” (from the May/June 1998 issue of Modern Reformation):

Theology is practical, and there is no better testing ground than in the so-called “worship wars.” But, with few exceptions, such debates rarely address one of the most important questions: If matter matters, why don’t our church buildings?

“It’s just a building,” we say of the church-and so it is. “The church is the people, not the brick and mortar.” Right again. According to Scripture, worship is no longer bound to the ceremonies of Mosaic covenant, types and shadows of the reality to come; namely, Christ. He is, after all, the true Sanctuary and Temple of God’s dwelling among his people, and we worship “neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, for the time is coming and now is when people will worship in Spirit and in truth” (John 4:21-24). God commanded the old covenant worship, with its elaborate regulations governing liturgical, ceremonial, and sacrificial rites, but when the “temple greater than Solomon’s” (Matt. 12:42) arrived and, after being reduced to rubble was rebuilt after three days (John 2:19-21), the Holy of Holies could not be located in any particular earthly structure. Instead, as Jesus promised the Samaritan woman, new covenant worship is eschatological-that is, it takes place in the heavenly sanctuary in which believers are already “seated with Christ” (Eph. 2:6).

Calvin’s impatience with liturgical extravagance and novelty focused on just this concern. Like the covenant people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai around the golden calf, we are all inveterate idolaters. We want to worship “our way,” and our minds are “idol factories,” so “our way” always ends up at odds with God sooner or later. The greatest tragedy in all of this is that, in our impatience with God’s redemptive time-table (like Israel at Mount Sinai), we create our own “image of the invisible God” instead of waiting for the advent of the only legitimate incarnation of God (Col. 1:15).

Read the entire article.

We’re also making a special article from Dr. Donald Bruggink available. Dr. Bruggink’s article traces the meaning and loss of many of the visual elements of church architecture. His article first appeared in our May/June 2007 issue.

The Death of Osama bin Laden: What Kind of Justice Has Been Done?

Osama Bin Laden - Dead 2011Dr. Horton’s post below was originally published on Christianity Today.

Understandably, news of Osama bin Laden’s demise at the hands of U. S. Navy Seals provoked cries of celebration. The mastermind of terror, even against civilians (indeed, against fellow Muslims) has been brought to justice. But what kind of justice?

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President George W. Bush authorized “Operation Infinite Justice.” Especially after his comment that “this crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while,” however, the mission was renamed “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Reportedly, the name-change was due at least in part to the concern raised by Muslims that only God can execute “infinite justice.” One would have hoped that the change had been provoked instead by Christian reaction.

Islam, of course, is not just a religion; it’s a cultural and even geo-political reality. As such, its strict adherents excoriate co-religionists like Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im who call for an “Islamic Reformation” that would make jihad into a spiritual struggle rather than an armed military conflict.

Unfortunately, Christianity has had a long and complicated history of its own on this score. On one hand, the fourth-century theologian Augustine responded to the sacking of Rome with a detailed scriptural argument for two cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Each city has its own origins, ends, and means. As citizens of both kingdoms, every believer is called to recognize the difference between them. Compared with the City of God, the City of Man is hardly a true commonwealth. It cannot ensure ultimate peace, security, justice, and love. Nevertheless, Augustine argues, it can still be considered a commonwealth in a limited, provisional, and penultimate sense. Out of these reflections (especially in the City of God) there arose a legacy of just war theory and a Christian realism about the legitimacy and limitation of human societies in this time between the times.

Nevertheless, the Middle Ages gave rise to a fusion of Christ and culture known as “Christendom.” In the name of Christendom, kings and their knights rode off to crusades with papal blessing, as David and the hosts of Yahweh redivivus, cleansing the Holy Land of infidels.

In spite of its own contradictions in practice, the magisterial Reformation sought to distinguish between the kingdom of Christ, which conquers by Word and Spirit, and the kingdoms of this age that are given the divine authority to defend temporal justice. Drawing on the New Testament and church fathers, especially Augustine, the reformers realized that there was no theocracy in the new covenant; all nation-states were “secular” in the sense of being common rather than holy. With no holy land, there can be no holy war. Only just wars, based on natural law.

But ideas like “Christendom” die hard. We saw that with the memorial service after 9/11. Held in a building popularly known as the “National Cathedral,” with military honor guards processing and the strains of “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” announcements of a resolve to secure infinite justice in an open-ended “crusade” provided fodder for Islamic extremists in their effort to replay ancient battles. A romantic patriotism has always seethed beneath the professed separation of church and state, as in the famous “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Written by a Unitarian, the hymn confuses Union victory with Christ’s final judgment. Something very close to “infinite justice.”

Cultures are the most dangerous when they invoke holy texts for their defense of holy land through holy war. However, Christians have no biblical basis for doing this in the first place. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus clearly abrogated the ceremonial and civil law that God had given uniquely to the nation of Israel. Now is the era of common grace and common land, obeying rulers—even pagan ones—and living under constitutions other than the one that God gave through Moses. As Paul reminds us in Romans 13, secular rulers are given the power of the temporal sword—finite justice—while the gospel conquers in the power of the Spirit through that Word “above all earthly pow’rs.”

What does all of this mean for our response to the news about the most notorious terrorist in recent history?

First, it means that we can rejoice that even in this present evil age, God’s common grace and common justice are being displayed through secular authorities. “For [the ruler] is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. … Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom. 13:4, 7). Yet the divine wrath that rulers execute is temporal and finite rather than eternal and infinite. Such justice is never so pure that it is unmingled with injustice, never so final that it satisfies God’s eternal law. In view of the image of God stamped on every person, justice must always be tempered by love. Commenting on Genesis 9:6, John Calvin reminded us that we cannot hate even our most perverse enemies, because of the image of God in them. In one sense, the creation of every person in God’s image provokes the temporal sword against murderers. Yet in another sense, it also restrains our lust for revenge. “Should any one object, that this divine image has been obliterated, the solution is easy; first, there yet exists some remnant of it, so that man is possessed of no small dignity; and, secondly, the Celestial Creator himself, however corrupted man may be, still keeps in view the end of his original creation; and according to his example, we ought to consider for what end he created men, and what excellence he has bestowed upon them above the rest of living beings.”

Second, it means that we cannot rejoice in the death of the wicked any more than does God (Ezek. 18:23). We may take satisfaction that temporal justice has been served, but Christians should display a sober restraint. When Christ returns, bringing infinite justice in his wake, his saints will rejoice in the death of his enemies. For now, however, he calls us to pray for our enemies, even for those who persecute us (Matt. 5:44). This is the day of salvation, calling sinners to repent and believe the gospel. We may delight in the temporal justice shown to evildoers, but leave the final justice to God.

Third, it means that the mandate to believe and to proclaim the gospel to every person is all the more urgent. After all, where would we be ourselves if Christ, in his first advent, had brought final and infinite justice instead of bearing it on behalf of his people? On the cross, Christ willingly offered himself as the lightning rod for God’s infinite wrath, rising triumphantly on the third day. The events of 9/11 did not change everything in the way that the events of 33 A.D. did. Nor will the death of Osama bin Laden on 5/1/11 satisfy the final justice that awaits him—and all of us—on the last day.

So as we take satisfaction in the honorable service of U.S. forces in bringing a terrorist to justice in the court of the temporal city, let us never dare to confuse this with “the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). In our response, let us use this opportunity to display to our non-Christian neighbors the radical contrasts between the biblical view of God, humanity, redemption, and the last judgment, and the religious and secularist distortions—even those that profess to be Christian.

WHI-1047 | Proclamation & Persuasion

As part of their yearlong study of the Great Commission, the hosts have been focusing on key events in the book of Acts where Christ’s mandate to preach the gospel, to baptize, and to make disciples of all nations is being worked out on the ground. In this program they’ll walk through Acts 18 and 19 to see how Christ is advancing his kingdom in this age, not by the power of the sword, but through Word and Spirit as we find the apostles reasoning in the synagogues and marketplaces about the basic truth-claims of the Christian faith.


The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
Selected Shorter Writings
J. Gresham Machen
Greg Koukl


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Doug Powell

Seized by Secularism

Like Europe, the United States has now been “seized by secularism,” Newt Gingrich warned at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday. As evidence of the replacement of Christianity with secularism, the former House Speaker cited the following: replacing Anno Domini (A.D.) with the Common Era (C.E.), banning school prayer, striking out “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the court battle over the Mojave Desert Cross that commemorates World War I veterans. Gingrich explained how “secularist fanaticism” encouraged him to join the Church of Rome in 2008. He asked the audience to imagine themselves as the pope, facing a culture that tears down crosses and bans school prayer.

At the same time, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly was ruffled over the current TIME cover story, reporting the denial of hell by evangelical pastor Rob Bell in his book, Love Wins. O’Reilly said we need hell for the Pol Pots, Lenins, and Hitlers of the world, though he cited official Roman Catholic statements about those who try sincerely to do good as unlikely candidates for hell. So Ghandi is in, but Hitler is out. Ah, so good people go to heaven and bad people go to hell—and, of course, I’m a good person. If this isn’t a secularization of the Christian faith, I don’t know what is.

Also in the last couple days, MSNBC commentator Lawrence O’Donnell took on Rusch Limbaugh for distorting Jesus’s teaching. After a tirade against the Left for using Jesus as a mascot for socialism, Limbaugh used Jesus as a mascot for capitalism. Not “What Would Jesus Do?”, but “What Would Jesus Take?”, is the question to ask. And the answer, of course, is nothing. Jesus was against high taxes. Au contraire, O’Donnell responds, quoting Jesus’s conversation with the rich young ruler and the separation of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. For his part, O’Donnell invokes Jesus for a progressive income tax structure.

So what do all of these stories have in common? Lots of things come to mind, but I’ll mention two. First, all of these stories point up the remarkable ignorance of Scripture and a consequent inability to do anything more with it than find quotable sound-bites for positions that one would have if Jesus had never lived. Second, they suggest that there is indeed a creeping secularism that is threatening vital Christianity. However, I would suggest that the kind of Christianity that many worried souls have in mind is not really that different from creeping secularism.

In the 1950s, C. S. Lewis was asked by Decision magazine whether he was concerned about the “de-Christianizing” of the West, especially Europe. Lewis replied, “I’m not really qualified to speak to the question of the culture, but there is definitely a de-Christianizing of the church.” It’s one thing for Christian churches to lose their cultural influence. Fusing Christ with a particular civilization is already a gross distortion of the faith. Nevertheless, “Christendom” is over, regardless of whether you think it was a good or bad idea in the first place. Benign prayers to an unkown god in public schools, apart from the Mediator, is already a capitulation to secularism. Who cares whether crosses no longer dominate national memorials where Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, and atheists are buried? The question is whether the cross is proclaimed in our churches.

Maybe “fanatical secularists” who are so nervous about public expressions of faith have something to worry about, when burning Qur’ans and using Jesus for whatever left-wing or right-wing policy become the most familiar presence of religion in public life. Maybe it’s time for us to stop taking God’s name in vain and begin again to be Christians in a pagan culture.

Modern Reformation Preview

The May/June issue of Modern Reformation is almost here! This new issue, entitled “Embassy of Grace,” is packed with thought-provoking articles, Bible studies, and book reviews. Here’s a glimpse at what’s coming up:


The Ministry of Reconciliation: Embassy of Grace: Like an embassy in a foreign country, the church is a safe haven for its citizens. From its many locations, the policies of the Great King, Jesus Christ, are announced to the world. As Christ’s ambassadors, aren’t we still called to herald this good news to the world in a ministry of reconciliation?
By Michael Horton

“And He Gave Gifts to Men”: What was once regarded as a high calling is now trivialized by the every-member-a-minister movement. When Luther and the Reformers proclaimed that the pastoral office was a necessity and of divine origin, could anyone infer from the Lutheran church’s contemporary practice that we still hold to this? If not, is there a remedy?
By Brent McGuire

Missionalism, Church Style If God has elected a small and elite few to be saved, what’s the point of sharing the gospel with anyone? Is being “missional” an answer? Can churches Reformed by definition be truly missional in their ministry?
By Jason J. Stellman

Missions and the Work of the Church: In 1932, Harvard professor Ernest Hocking published Re-Thinking Missions, a stunning rejection of Protestant missions as it had been conducted for almost two centuries. What was the church’s reaction then and what does it mean for us today? The author looks at various responses, notably by Pearl Buck and J. Gresham Machen.
By D. G. Hart

What Do We Do About Sunday School?: Is Sunday school primarily a moral training ground for children, from which adults eventually graduate and mature to making autonomous and acceptable moral choices based on feelings? Or is it still about the gospel and seeing Christ in all the Scriptures?
By Susan E. Erikson

The Church in a Pluralist Society: After Lesslie Newbigin returned from the mission field to his “home” in the West, what did he begin to realize about a theology of mission in an increasingly diverse and pluralistic culture?
By Shane Lems

Ad Extra: Articles Aside

Studies in Acts
Acts 3: The Ambassadors of the Kingdom
By Dennis E. Johnson

Focus on Missions
A Servant’s Enduring Faith
By Marie Notcheva

From the Hallway: Perspectives on Evangelical Theology
Defending Nothing, Evangelizing No One: “Oh Apologetics, Where Art Thou?”
By Craig A. Parton

For a Modern Reformation
Missional & Vocational
By Michael Horton

The Latest Ideas Sweeping the Land…

SimChurch:  Being the Church in the Virtual World, By Douglas Estes
Reviewed by Nick Lannon

A Dialogue: In and Out of Our Circles
Defining the Church, White Horse Inn Interview with Edmund Clowney

Lutheranism 101, Edited by Scot A. Kinnaman
Reviewed by John J. Bombaro

Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims, By Daniel R. Hyde
Reviewed by Ryan Kron

Christianity at the Religious Roundtable: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, By Timothy C. Tennent
Reviewed by John D. “Jady” Koch, Jr.

Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God, By John Piper
Reviewed by Beryl Clemens Smith

Point of Contact: Books Your Neighbors Are Reading
The Finkler Question, By Howard Jacobson
Reviewed by W. Robert Godfrey

WHI-1046 | Proclaiming the Cross & Resurrection

On this edition of White Horse Inn, the hosts take a look at the conversion of St. Paul and the numerous sermons that he and others preached from Acts 9 through 17. In all of these sermons, the message appears to be the same. The focus is Christ-centered, and the emphasis in particular is on his sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead. The hosts also discuss the different tactical approaches that Paul uses in a Gentile context as he delivers his famous Mars Hill address in Athens, Greece.


Can We Still Believe in the Resurrection?
Mike Horton
For the Sake of the Gospel
Kim Riddlebarger
History & Faith
J. Gresham Machen
WHI Discussion Group Questions
PDF Document


The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
Scandalous: The Cross & Resurrection of Jesus
D.A. Carson
What is Faith?
J. Gresham Machen
The Testimony of the Evangelists
Simon Greenleaf


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Doug Powell

Risen Indeed!

Every Easter affords fresh opportunities for national news magazines to take up the question of Jesus’s resurrection. It’s difficult to point with any firmness to a “consensus” in Jesus scholarship any more than in other studies. Nevertheless, even liberals recognize (and lament) a trend in New Testament scholarship away from many of the “assured results” assumed by their predecessors only a generation ago.

Many factors have contributed to this more conservative trend, but two are worth mentioning. First, there has been a trend toward earlier dating of the Gospel accounts, which undermines the critical presupposition that the most obvious reports of Jesus’s bodily resurrection and deity are later interpolations. Second, especially since the last 40 years or so, there has been a trend toward placing Jesus in his Jewish milieu and this has led—generally speaking—to greater suspicion of the quite Gentile (Greek) biases that have dominated higher-critical (i.e., liberal) scholarship.

It’s helpful for us to return to the “facts of the case.” Here, speculation is useless. It does not matter what we thought reality was like: whether we believed in thirty gods or none. It doesn’t matter what we find helpful, meaningful, or fulfilling. This is not about spirituality or moral uplift. Something has happened in history and we cannot wish it away. It either happened or it didn’t happen, but the claim itself is hardly meaningless or beyond investigation.

The Facts of the Case

The earliest Christians testified to the following elements of the resurrection claim, even to the point of martyrdom:

1. Jesus Christ lived, died, and was buried.

Even Marcus Borg, co-founder of the sceptical “Jesus Seminar,” concedes that Christ’s death by Roman crucifixion is “the most certain fact about the historical Jesus.”1 There are numerous attestations to these facts from ancient Jewish and Roman sources. According to the Babylonian Talmud, “Yeshua” was a false prophet hanged on Passover eve for sorcery and blasphemy. No less a towering Jewish scholar than Joseph Klausner identifies the following references to Jesus in the Talmud: Jesus was a rabbi whose mother, Mary (Miriam), was married to a carpenter who was nevertheless not the natural father of Jesus. Jesus went with his family to Egypt, returned to Judea and made disciples, performed miraculous signs by sorcery, led Israel astray, and was deserted at his trial without any defenders. On Passover eve he was crucified.2

Suetonius (75-130 AD), a Roman official and historian, recorded the explusion of Jews from Rome in 48 AD because of controversy erupting over “a certain Chrestus” (Claudius 25.4). Late in the first century, Tacitus—the greatest Roman historian—referred to the crucifixion of Jesus under Pontius Pilate (Annals [Read the rest of this entry…]

The Mediator is the Message

Is the Christ in which the church has put its faith the same person as the Jesus who really lived? Some theologians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have said “No.” They claim that the real “Jesus of History” differs greatly from the church’s “Christ of Faith.” Some make this pronouncement with glee. So much the worse for Jesus. Free of the Galilean, the theologian is at liberty to spin a religion out of his own spiritual consciousness. Others who doubt the authenticity of the church’s Christ of Faith embark on a quest for the historical Jesus. So much the worse for the church. She will have to bow to new scholarly findings if researchers discover a “new Jesus.”

Some of my readers have probably seen books on these new Jesuses. In our day, he is always said to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls or gnostic writings. The endorsements on the dustjackets of these books always claim that the new findings will “undermine the foundations of the church.” Such a claim might well unsettle the stomach of an unwary book-browser. When you see books like this, don’t fear them. Pick them up and scan their contents. You will rarely find in these books a scholarly presentation of newly-discovered material. Instead, most are filled with crackpot interpretations of familiar texts which were discovered long ago.

Publishers of such books laud their authors for being “bold and innovative.” Actually, there is nothing particularly bold about these men. Their books are certain to succeed in our sensationalist culture. The truly bold scholars are those who write on such matters without making earth-shattering claims. They enter into a far more risky publishing venture.

The Mediator is the Message
The theologian who accepts a dichotomy between the Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith will always favor one over the other. The most famous example of opting for a Christ of Faith over the Jesus of History is found in the writings of Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann’s Christ of Faith could be believed in even by those who doubted the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

To some of us, this sounds like a good solution to our plight. Many of us are not confident in our ability to evaluate the historical evidence for Jesus. But Bultmann’s Christ is impervious to being disproved. If we find that Jesus never lived, so what? The Christ presented by the gospel writers is still a compelling figure-so compelling that we ought to follow him anyway. Besides, who wants to disband their home Bible study just because the Jesus Seminar cannot agree on what Jesus said or did?

The problem with such reasoning is that the New Testament does not speak of Christ in such terms. Bultmann’s Christ is safe because his message is more important than his person. The New Testament Christ is risky because everything depends upon his Person and work. As St. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:17). No historical Jesus, no salvation. What really happened in history matters to us. The Mediator is the message.

Who’s Mything?
The position of a writer like Bultmann is much more dangerous than that of other contemporary liberal theologians for two reasons. First, his writing is much clearer. More people can be led astray by him because more can understand him. Second, his claim that jettisoning the supernatural side of Christianity will not leave us without something to believe in is attractive to many. Most people would like to feel as if they were both up-to-date and spiritual. Bultmann says they succeed at both if they follow his advice. The problem is that this cannot be done. While Bultmann’s method is understandable, its ramifications are difficult for many to see, and they spell disaster.

In the space of just a few pages of his book Jesus Christ and Mythology, Bultmann charts a new method of Biblical interpretation. He calls us to question the old understanding of those passages of Scripture where God’s action was local or concrete (which Bultmann termed mythological) or where Jesus spoke of a literal end of the world and coming judgement (which Bultmann termed eschatological). He says:

We must ask whether the eschatological preaching and the mythological sayings as a whole contain a still deeper meaning which is concealed under the cover of mythology. If that is so, let us abandon the mythological conceptions precisely because we want to retain their deeper meaning. This method of interpretation of the New Testament which tries to recover the deeper meaning behind the mythological conceptions I call de-mythologizing. (1)

Bultmann is aware that asking people to give up even portions of scripture would be scandalous, so he claims that even these passages are not eliminated: “[My] aim is not to eliminate the mythological statements but to interpret them.” (2)

The Bible contains a vital message under the cover of mythology. At this point Bultmann’s program is still an abstract theory. We will need to see its application before we know what it will mean for theology.

Bultmann does not hesitate to offer a test case. He offers the example of those passages in Scripture which seem to teach a localized heaven. He says that these passages employ mythology because their writers were not capable of abstraction. An ancient author’s only way to express transcendence was to portray it spatially:

According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent. (3)

Ancient man thought, but he thought crudely. This understanding of the ancient mind is common. I have seen a similar example in a recent article on ancient representations of cherubim (those six-winged creatures of Old Testament visions). The author says that

Although ancient man understood concepts like omnipotence and omniscience, he did not express them in philosophical terms. Instead, he did so concretely. Man’s earliest attempts to express abstract, metaphysical concepts took a physical form. (4)

While both the author of the article and Bultmann believed that ancient man had some grasp of transcendental concepts, both believed ancient man to be a thrall to concrete expression. Bultmann saw this as a drawback for modern man who had progressed beyond this point.

If Bultmann was right, then a sensitive modern interpreter is needed to understand what the ancients were trying to convey. In the case of heaven and hell, without a Bultmannian guide, moderns might even give up on the Bible, its timeless message having been lost in mythological language:

These mythological conceptions of heaven and hell are no longer acceptable for modern men since for scientific thinking to speak of “above” and “below” in the universe has lost all meaning, but the idea of the transcendence of God and evil is still significant. (5)

The problem with the ancients is that they weren’t scientific. If they had a telescope or a space shuttle, they would have known that their conceptions were flawed. After the heavens have been trespassed by astronauts, who can believe in a celestial cloudland?

Such thinking reminds me of the Russian cosmonaut who said upon his arrival in space that he did not see God. Even as a child I remember thinking how disappointed I would have been if he had. My feeling was not rooted in a deep-seated need to believe without evidence, but in an inkling of the grandeur of the divine. Has it not occurred to Bultmann that his own conceptions might be analogies?

Perhaps the word “transcendence” is mythological in the same sense as the words “above” and “below.” God’s relationship to the universe is unique. Theologians have chosen to give the abstract word “transcendence” a peculiar meaning when it is used theologically to speak of Gods relationship to the universe. Perhaps the ancients knew how to use the language of “above” and “below” in the same unique sense. Their use would have the added advantage of being recognized by most people as non-literal or analogical. Today’s reader might be fooled by the word “transcendent.”

I have a high opinion of the ancient mind. So do many who are familiar with it. One writer who was well-trained in the reading of ancient documents (he had been reading Homer in Greek since the age of 16) was C. S. Lewis. Professor Lewis faced claims like that of Bultmann in the Church of England of his day. Responding to the writing of one clergyman who said that we moderns had to overhaul our image of God, Lewis wrote:

The Bishop of Woolwhich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call that belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. There is something about this in Gibbon. (6)

Edward Gibbon was the famous author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The condemnation of anthropomorphism of which Gibbon spoke took place in the early centuries of Christianity. Lewis argues that even in the ancient church, people could read the scriptures without being led astray by concrete imagery. I propose to show that even in Old Testament times men could do this. God himself taught them how in the Old Testament writings. God “demythologized” himself without the help of a twentieth century theologian.

Today You Will Be With Me in Paradigm
Our tendency to believe that we can look down on the religious expressions of ancient man from a higher summit of understanding is rooted in our modern theology. Were the ancients here with us, they would not bow to us as to superiors. They would lament our corrupted understanding and attribute it to the fall of man. For theological superiors they would have looked back to Adam and Eve before the fall, or perhaps ahead to the glorified state, where they would learn pure theology in the “heavenly school.” They would have rejected the idea that mankind is embarked on a progressive quest for God. They believed in a divine quest where God has sought to bring natural idolaters from all generations to a truer knowledge of himself.

I would like to offer a test case to show how God’s progressive revelation of himself in Scripture demonstrates the ability of the Bible to transcend the timebound categories of its ancient authors. I owe this example to Stephen Prickett, whose book Words and the Word offers an unusually broad base of observations showing the foibles of both conservatives and liberals when it comes to Biblical interpretation.

Prickett finds in the story of Elijah an example of God’s progressive revelation of himself. God had begun this revelation by showing himself a superior force to the pagan gods. The pagan prophets had laid out their sacrifice before Baal, but he did not show up, even after much shouting and self-mutilation on the part of his prophets. Then Elijah set forth his sacrifice. Elijah doused water on the sacrifice to ensure that what was to happen would be a display of great power. Before the prophets of Baal, “the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice….” (1 Kgs 18:38). Even before this demonstration, Elijah was aware that God had a history of revealing himself through the forces of nature. But God knew that if he had terminated his self-revelation at this point in the story, even his trusted servant Elijah might think him a nature-god-certainly the most powerful of nature-gods, perhaps the only nature god-but a mere nature-god just the same. To counter this, God revealed his transcendence by repeating his demonstration of his command over nature, and then dissociated himself from the phenomena he had caused. God finally revealed his presence in a “still, thin voice.” (7) Prickett explains it thus:

Elijah had come to Horeb with certain expectations precisely because of that sense of history that was already, in Israel, distinctively the mark of men of God. Before the assembled prophets of Baal he had already vindicated Yahweh in pyrotechnics-proving once again the power of the God who had traditionally manifested himself by fire. Now he had come to receive the divine revelation for which he believed he had been preparing himself. What followed was the more unexpected. Paradoxically, his notion of Yahweh was disconfirmed by a greater display of natural violence than any yet. But Yahweh is not a fire God. His presence, when at last it is revealed, is experienced as something mysteriously apart from the world of natural phenomena that had been in such spectacular convulsions. Elijah’s own categories are overthrown. (8)

Prickett’s talk of categories being overthrown shows that a Kuhnian scientific revolution was possible even to ancient man. Isn’t this method curiously like the one the de-mythologizer is supposed to follow? God recognizes that the conception of him held by an ancient (in this case Elijah) contained some truth. But Elijah’s conception of God’s majesty was still crude. So God revealed himself in a new way to alter the old conception to a superior and more refined conception of transcendence-all without the help of Rudolf Bultmann!

The Jesus of History Future
The overall clarity of Bultmann’s language obscures the difficulty of some of his concepts. When he claims that modern man ought to be able to retain some kind of Christian faith but without mythology, this is a complex claim. It involves the idea that Christianity contains myth, and the idea that myth is a bad thing, at least for modern man. Both of these ideas are further complicated by the fact that Bultmann offers no precise definition of myth. His examples are understandable enough by themselves, but how is a reader to know what is and isn’t mythical in a given passage? Without a definition, the reader is left to decide for himself. If it is difficult to believe, it must be myth.

In Bultmann’s theory the concrete side of a myth is the flawed attempt of an ancient mind to express a deep truth. This concrete side is rejected by Bultmann. It is untrue. To be sure, the word “myth” can be used in a pejorative sense to mean something untrue. To a theologian, this is the most prominent characteristic of a myth. It is a wrong account of the world. St. Paul himself uses the word in this manner (e.g. 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14). But for St. Paul, there is no underlying truth to a myth. There is no kernel of truth to be found in a myth. That is the biblical sense of the term.

If Bultmann is using the term myth in another sense, then it would be nice to know what that sense is. For a man like Bultmann, who claimed to be able to distinguish different kinds of narrative in the Bible, the obvious sense would be the word’s literary sense. But was he in a position to judge this? C. S. Lewis claimed Bible critics wrote nonsense about the Bible and myth because they had never read myths. Not lack of faith, but lack of good training led to this:

…whatever these men may be as Biblical critics, I distrust them as critics. They seem to me to lack literary judgement, to be imperceptive about the very quality of the texts they are reading…If (a critic) tells me that something in a Gospel is legend or romance, I want to know how many legends and romances he had read, how well his palate is trained in detecting them by the flavour… (9)

Whatever the value of Bultmann’s judgments on a given text, his construction of an overall theory of demythologizing was flawed by his unfamiliarity with myth.

Professor Lewis had read and loved both Greek and Norse mythology his whole life. His book Till We Have Faces is a reworking of the Cupid and Psyche myth. In Lewis’s writing we find an awareness of the complex nature of myth. In our century, we are long past the time when the Greek myths could lead people astray. We can appreciate the power of myth to integrate experience in a way that the early Christians were not free to. In a myth we see an expression of something that happens in nature enacted by great beings or gods. A myth draws together many experiences which were seen as separate.

Bultmann sees the mythical elements of a narrative as being of secondary importance to a message which the narrative was written to convey. Jesus had a message and his disciples valued that message so much that they invested his person with mythical qualities in order to draw attention to his message. Perhaps we moderns can value the message without the myth.

C. S. Lewis shows us another way to view Jesus. Not what he said, but his person and work was the message. His teaching was secondary to who he was and what he did. Better a silent Jesus who paid for our sins than a teaching Jesus who aborted his mission. Lewis is clear that Christianity is only viable if Christ is truly God. Christianity is worthless if Christ’s deity and atonement were myths-falsehoods.

But if we accept the truth of Christianity, and look at myth from another angle, as something other than falsehood, then Christianity can be said to be mythic. Something of true cosmic importance is enacted. All of our moral experiences are explained in one event. But that is not all. Nature is involved. There is some connection between the Resurrection and the coming of spring-a connection not lost on hymn-writers or greeting card manufacturers. But in the Resurrection, the normal relation of mythic event to nature is reversed. Usually, the myth serves to explain the general principle. But the Resurrection was clearly not intended as explanation of a more general Resurrection principle we see happening every spring. Spring is rather a foreshadowing of the Resurrection. Christianity is the true myth that makes everyday reality seem thin by comparison.

What kind of message are we really left with if we break the connection between who Jesus was and what he did? Some might say that Jesus did not have to rise from the dead for his teachings to be of value. He taught us to suffer under persecution in hope. But what is that hope? Perhaps that our values will live beyond us. Jesus died, but the church survived and flourished. But if Christ is not risen, how could that principle apply to our lives? If Christ is not risen, the success of the church was a grand mistake. The only principle we could draw is that if we were to suffer persecution and someone got confused enough, he or she might create a myth about us, and our values would be promoted by unearned fame. And that’s if we’re lucky! Some hope.

True hope looks to the future. Faith is trust that in Christ we have a good future. We have a good future because as the Jesus of History past, he overcame death and sin and wrath. As the Jesus of History future, we expect him to be as successful in overcoming our enemies. He has shown himself worthy of that trust. Instead of a dreary modern attempt to adjust Jesus to a so-called scientific view of the world, let us allow God to adjust us to a better view of things. A real Jesus came into the real world and gave it a real plot. We are living in a better crafted story than any storyteller, ancient or modern could have dreamed. We live in a world where accountants and astronauts are ransomed with the blood of God; where rockets travel through an outer space transcended by a real heaven; and where small-minded people, ancient, modern, or even postmodern, can experience a great paradigm shift when confronted with a word from God.

The Jesus of History and the Christ of Faith are not to be separated. The ancients were aware of this when they wrote that “We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ…begotten of his Father before all worlds…who was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Our future depends on holding fast to these ancient words.

About the author: Rick Ritchie resides in Southern California and is a long-time contributor to Modern Reformation. He is a graduate of Christ College Irvine and Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary.

1 Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (New York: Scribner’s 1958), p. 18.

2 Bultmann, p. 18.

3 Bultmann, p. 20.

4 Elie Borowski, “Cherubim: God’s Throne?” in Biblical Archaeology Review (July/August 1995: vol. 21, number 4), p. 36.

5 Bultmann, p. 20.

6 C. S. Lewis, “Must our Image of God Go?” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s 1970), p. 118.

7 See 1 Kings chapter 19 for the story. Prickett says that difficult passages such as the “still thin voice” of 1 Kings 19:12 have suffered at the hands of rationalistic interpreters, even when those interpreters were conservative evangelicals. The King James translators rendered it better, but the English language has changed leaving us without a good translation of this passage.

8 Stephen Prickett, Words and the Word (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), p. 11.

9 C. S. Lewis, Fern-Seed and Elephants, and other essays on Christianity, ed. Walter Hooper, Collins (Fontana), 1975, pp. 107-108; quoted by Prickett in Words and the Word, p. 81.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 1995 issue: “O Come Let Us Adore Him: The Person and Work of Christ” (Vol. 4 No. 6). Pages 33-36

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Copyright © 2011 White Horse Inn

Tullian on The Gospel Commission

Mike Horton’s new book, The Gospel Commission, which rounds out his three book series that started with Christless Christianity, is now available. Last week Tullian Tchividjian pointed out one of the important points Mike makes in the book:

Mike’s excellent point is one that I’ve made time and time again. Namely, that imperatives – indicatives = impossibilities! Whenever we see an imperative in the Bible (what we must do) we need to look for the indicative that grounds it (what Jesus has done). Because, no matter how hard you try or how radical you get, any engine smaller than the gospel that you depend on for power to do what God has called you to do will conk out…most importantly, the Great Commission!

Read the whole thing.

You can now purchase The Gospel Commission directly from White Horse Inn through our new online store. We’re slowly adding resources to the store and the prices are hard to beat. Right now, you can get all three books in this trilogy for less than Amazon sells them.

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