The Eternal, Preexistent, Immutable Christ

 

Several years ago, I was advised that anytime I stepped into a pulpit or in front of people to preach or teach I should avoid using “theological” language.  I pushed back at the time, realizing that American Christianity (Christendom) suffers from theological anemia, therefore instead of efforts to keep people in an ignorant state, a preacher/teacher should effort to raise them up to a level of theological understanding and engagement.  If we, as a people, can remember last nights box scores, follow through meandering plot lines in the latest t.v. show, or engage with endless amounts of media and data on a daily basis, then a failure to understand theological words is not due to inability, rather it’s more likely due to indifference.

In the 13th chapter of Hebrews, the Author is rounding out his epistle to the Jewish Christians of the first century (probably 65-66 A.D.) by summarizing what has been said thus far and offering a series of moral exhortations.  One key summary verse comes in Hebrews 13:8

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”

At first glance, the short, pithy verses of chapter 13 seem disconnected, perhaps especially this verse.  We saw recently in an earlier post regarding the commands for these believers to remember their leaders, who had likely died.  Here we see the that despite the passing of their leaders, despite their faithful preaching of the gospel, and now despite the influx of false teaching, the one constant is Christ.  He is the stable Anchor.  He is the unchanging Shepherd who continually guides His sheep regardless of the changing circumstances.  He ordains.  He sustains.

Three key theological terms percolate from this profound verse: Christ is Prexistent.  Christ is Eternal.  Christ is Immutable.  These concepts, all related, are not mentioned here for the first time, rather they are the culmination of the letter and bring it full circle with statements made in chapter 1.  There we see the following:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
    the scepter of uprightness is the scepter of your kingdom.

And,

“You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands;
11 they will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment,
12 like a robe you will roll them up,
    like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
    and your years will have no end.”

Here in chapter 13, and in chapter 1 cited above, we see these attributes of Christ acting as bookends to the letter as His supremacy unfolds in between establishing the focus of the Christian life.

Christ’s preexistence flows out of His eternality.  The former says that He has always been, the latter says that He will always be.  In between these two great truths stands the immutability of Christ, which says that He is unchanging.  What He was in His nature before time is what He is today and what He will be in the future.  Therefore He is perfectly consistent.  Though Christ became a man, His essence or character or attributes we might say, were unchanged.  His incarnation was an addition, not implying that He was incomplete, but an addition to His completeness.

The Preexistence of Christ

When it is said that Christ is preexistent, it affirms that He has no beginning, i.e. that He’s always been.  In the third century, one of the more influential heresies originated, out of Gnosticism, and came to be known as Arianism.  This belief asserted that the Son of God was created by the Father.  The debate hinged on John 3:16 (and others) and the meaning  of monogenes, commonly translated as begotten.  The opposition to Arianism crafted the phrase, “begotten, not made” (The Nicene Creed) which led to Arianism’s eventual banishment as a departure from scripture (though it was also made the official position of the empire at one point).  However, we see Arianism alive and well today, propagated by such cults as Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness.

Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, did not come into being at His incarnation.  He stepped out of eternity and into humanity.  The Author entered His story; the Creator His creation.  John 3:13, John 8:58, John 17:5, Hebrews 1:2; John 1:1-18; Colossians 1:15-17; Philippians 2:5-7

The Eternality of Christ

Related, and implicit in declaring Christ’s preexistence, is His eternality.  Yesterday, today, and forever speaks to the fact that Christ has and will always exist.  That His existence is a past, present, and future reality.  Not only was He not created, unlike angels as established in chapter 1 and 2, and not only did He exist prior to His incarnation, but in His divine essence (and certainly now in His resurrected humanity), Christ will always exist.

In His own words, He is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.  Surprisingly, much debate has raged on recently within orthodox circles over whether Christ has eternally been the Son, a position sometimes called eternal Sonship, see also this post from Hebrews 1.  This debate hinges on whether He became a Son at His incarnation, or whether He has always existed as the Son of God, a difficulty often attributed to interpretations on Hebrews 1:5 and again the use of monogenes or begotten.  However, as we have seen this passage is unlikely to be a reference to the incarnation, rather the enthronement of Christ (see also the use of Psalm 2 in Hebrews 5:5 and Acts 13:33).  Christ has always existed as the eternal Son of God, the same in essence and distinct in person.

The Immutability of Christ

The immutability of Christ speaks to His unchangeable being and character.  It would not be enough for us to have a Savior who is prexistent, nor is it enough that He is eternal, but that He is immutable makes all the difference.  This never-changing, unending constancy makes Him reliable and faithful.  It is the nature of this consistency that makes Him trustworthy.  If he were changeable, then He would be an all-powerful, eternal, yet unpredictable.  There would be no guarantee that He would forgive sins, extend grace, or raise the righteous from the dead.  He could simply change His mind on the whole thing.  Instead, He upholds His promises.  Therefore, the immutability of Christ is an essential quality and a comforting characteristic.

While these theological concepts may be difficult and may require a bit of mental exercise and effort, nevertheless it is clear that they are extremely important, far more than for mere doctrinal precision but for the practical reality that they are certainties that need to be affirmed in our ever-changing world.  The more we come to know and understand about Christ, the more we are brought to the feet of Him who is worthy of worship.

 

Follow the Leader

 

A few weeks ago, I had the delight of revisiting one of my favorite books of the Bible, The Epistle to the Hebrews, for the third time in four years.  It’s caused me to reflect back on fond memories of having either participated in or led an in-depth study through this wonderfully challenging book, but also to look back through my notes for gaps or areas where I hadn’t yet fully fleshed out my interpretations (see the Scriptural Index).

Apparently this was the case in the last few chapters, but the last chapter more specifically.  In that chapter, which is full of practical and ethical exhortations, we have mention of the term “leader” three times, so clearly it is at the forefront of the Author’s mind.  The first two uses form brackets around a particular series of exhortations, while the last use is part of the Author’s salutation. Though it has a variety of uses, including references to specific people such as David or Joseph, the word for leader here means leaders in general.

The first use occurs in Hebrews 13:7 forming the opening bracket

“Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.”

Several observations need to be made on this use of leaders.

Remember your Leaders

First is the command to remember them.  These leaders are identified as “those who spoke to you the word of God.”  While it doesn’t clarify whether this speaking was by way of preaching, teaching, discipleship, individual exhortation, etc., nevertheless these leaders communicated the word of God to the people, and subsequently the Author has exhorted the readers to remember them.  It’s quite possible that the leaders being referenced here had died and their life is to be called to mind.

Consider their Life

Second, we see the command to consider the outcome of the leaders way of life.  As stated, its likely that these leaders had died, therefore having completed the race that was set before them, their life should now be viewed as a model of faithfulness.  The call then is to consider, literally to hold up and look at repeatedly, the body of their life’s work.

Imitate their Faith

Finally we have the third command to imitate the faith of these leaders.  Not only were they to be remembered, specifically their teaching of God’s word and their lives to be considered as an example, but also their faith was to be emulated.

To this pattern of following and emulating godly leadership in doctrine and practice, the Scriptures express the exact same sentiment elsewhere, including a prior use in Hebrews

“so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:12

Similarly we have the following passages throughout the New Testament:

14 I do not write these things to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 15 For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel. 16 I urge you, then, be imitators of me.“1 Cor. 4:14-16

“Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” 1 Cor. 11:1

“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Philippians 3:17

“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:9

“And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” 1 Thessalonians 1:6

“It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.” 2 Thessalonians 3:9

The pattern for follow-the-leader is a clear Scriptural principle.  Never in any of these passages do we see an example of a leader “lording” over or demanding blind allegiance.  Instead we see a pattern of humility in following the Lord , submitting to His word, and a call for other believers to imitate these qualities in the lives of those who lead them in the Word of God.  This is the mark of a leader and the definition of discipleship.  It represents what biblical leadership among the gathering of God’s people should look like.

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VII

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

The Donatist Controversy, born out of the Diocletian persecution (305 A.D.) raged on from 311 to around 361 A.D., a period marked with ebbs and flows of violence from both sides and forced submission of the Donatists to the newly minted church-state.  By 361, the catholics considered the debate beneath them, resulting in largely a peaceful coexistence.  For thirty-plus years, this controversy laid relatively dormant.

In 393, interest in the Donatists was renewed by one of the most prominent and significant theologians in history, Augustine.  From here until 411, Augustine stirred back up opposition to the Donatists and sought, first their reconciliation but later their coercion to the catholic church.  It is properly at the feet of Augustine where one may find the early formulation of Roman Catholic ecclesiology as well as what would become Protestantism.  It’s with him that our discussion of the universal church theory in the early centuries reaches its apex.

Regarding Augustine’s position on ecclesiology, Louis Berkhof states he “was not altogether consistent in his conception of the Church.”   This inconsistency reverberates to this day and is partly the motivation behind this entire series of posts on the historical development of the universal church theory. This  confusion of Augustine’s is fleshed out more clearly in the following summary from Berkhof

“On the one hand he shows himself to be the predestinarian, who conceives of the Church as the company of the elect, the communio sanctorum, who have the Spirit of God and are therefore characterized by true love.  The important thing is to be a living member of the Church so conceived, and not to belong to it in a merely external sense.  But on the other hand he is the Church-man, who adheres to the Cypranic idea of the Church at least in its general aspects.  The true Church is the catholic Church, in which the apostolic authority is continued by episcopal succession.  It is the depository of divine grace, which it distributes through the sacraments.  For the present this Church is a mixed body, in which good and evil members have a place.  In his debate with the Donatists he admitted, however, that the two were not in the Church in the same sense.  He also prepared the way for the Roman Catholic identification of the Church and the Kingdom of God.”

With Augustine, we find two competing positions on the nature of the church.  First, the church is the communion of the saints, comprised of the elect, those who have been regenerated by the Spirit, and those of internal membership, not external.  To which the dissenting groups that we have discussed in previous posts might give a hearty ‘amen!’

On other hand, as Berkhof notes, Augustine is a product of Cyprianic thought and remains consistent with the view espoused of the day where church refers to a catholic, external, institution which is led and ruled by the episcopate.  It is not merely comprised of the elect, nor is it merely a communion of the saints, but is a mixed body, good and evil, wheat and tares, sheep and goats.  Is it any wonder then that both Protestants and Roman Catholics stake a claim to him?  Augustine is often claimed by the former for his soteriology, but by the latter for his ecclesiology.

From 393-405 A.D., Augustine waged a war of preaching and propaganda against the Donatists.  In the former, he labored for reform amongst the loose and lax catholics that had come to mar the purity of the church.  In the latter, he sought those bishops who had been removed for disciplinary reasons.  Logically, appealing to the marginalized and outcast is generally the path for garnering public support.  But make no mistake, Augustine preached, verbally and in written form, with conviction.

In 405, Augustine’s war against the Donatists took the form of ‘governmental suppression’.  It was in this year that the Edict of Unity was passed which labeled the Donatists as heretics, a label that would last in perpituity as well as making them subject to heresy laws, which resulted in essentially their disbanding.  Again, the work of Christian sacralism.  This period is also marked by Augustine’s well known theory of coercion, “compel them to come in” taken from Luke 14:23, “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”  In a letter to Vicentious he writes

I have therefore yielded to the evidence afforded by these instances which my colleagues have laid before me. For originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we should have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point.

The Donatist Controversy came to an end in 411, nearly 100 years after it began.  The catholic Emperor called for a comparison of the two sides, a collatio, over which a catholic, Marcellinus, presided.  Not surprisingly, the catholic side prevailed.  In 412, taxes and heavy fines were levied against all those who failed to join the catholic church, again the power and leverage of Christian sacralism at work.

With Augustine, his own confusion and lack of clarity with regard to the church is clearly one that has been perpetuated throughout history.  Remember that our 17th Century Westminster Confession definition of the universal church was both visible and invisible, extending to the elect of all ages.  This dichotomy is rooted in Augustine’s ecclesiology, though he had yet to fully make the distinction between visible and invisible.  In fact, Augustine’s assertion of the church as the elect or communio sanctorum would largely fade away for nearly a thousand years.

In the Patristic Period, the universal church exclusively referred to a visible, external, and headed by the bishop, church.  I’ve found no evidence among the historians to conclude otherwise.  It excommunicated those who disagreed and marginalized those who dissented.  Once it married the state, it then coerced with physical force, tariffs, and later physical death.

As noted, until Augustine, the doctrine of the universal church had been largely focused on an external, visible entity with the bishop at its head.  As such, they were able to concentrate on unity, as a catholic church, against “heresies”.  Augustine, perhaps recognizing the inconsistency with this position, also recognizes that the “church” is comprised of the elect.  His difficulty comes when making a defense against the Donatists where he puts forth the teaching of the church as a mixed community.

This mixed community, for Augustine, finds its source in Matthew 13 with the parable of the weeds.

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Our Lord provides the interpretation for this parable

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Excerpts from Augustine’s interpretation are as follows:

You will easily understand, beloved brethren, the hidden meaning of this Gospel, when you remember what we said about some other words of Holy Scripture comparing the just and the wicked in the Church of God to the wheat and the cockle. By this figure we are taught that the threshing-floor is not to be left before the time of the harvest, that the cockle may not be taken away without being separated from the wheat; for the floor would be deprived of its due, and the wheat thus taken off could not be preserved in the barn.

and

But they [Donatists] will, perhaps, say, in order to excuse their errors and justify their conduct, that the Sacred Books were once handed over to the pagans by some Christians afraid of torments and tortures. But since these Christians being unknown, cannot be discovered, now this one and then another is accused of that crime. Yet, whatever may be the truth about these Christians, I ask whether their infidelity has destroyed the Faith which comes from God? Is it not the same Faith that God once promised Abraham, saying that all nations should be blessed in his seed? And what are we taught by this Faith? To let both, that is, the good seed and the cockle, the just and the wicked, grow up in the field of the Church, namely, the world, until the time of the harvest, the end of the world.

and again from Chapter 9 in the City of God

But while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming.  For, leaving out of account that kingdom concerning which He shall say in the end, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you,” the Church could not now be called His kingdom or the kingdom of heaven unless His saints were even now reigning with Him, though in another and far different way; for to His saints He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  Certainly it is in this present time that the scribe well instructed in the kingdom of God, and of whom we have already spoken, brings forth from his treasure things new and old.  And from the Church those reapers shall gather out the tares which He suffered to grow with the wheat till the harvest, as He explains in the words “The harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.  As therefore the tares are gathered together and burned with fire, so shall it be in the end of the world.  The Son of man shall send His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all offenses.”  Can He mean out of that kingdom in which are no offenses?  Then it must be out of His present kingdom, the Church, that they are gathered.

…Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven.

It is plain from the sermon above, that Augustine conflated the church with the world, thereby concluding that the church = the field in the parable from Matthew 13.  From his words in the City of God, this reveals a deeper hermeneutical error in which he equated the kingdom with the church.  This interpretation remained largely intact throughout the medieval period, lending itself to the development of the Roman Catholic Church, until the Reformation of the 16th Century and later where it clearly influenced the Westminster Confession articles on the nature of the church.

The Patristic doctrine of the universal church was clearly in reference to an external, visible, and institutional church, which later joined hands with the state.  This nature of the church reached its apex in the teaching of Augustine, who did not oppose the historical teaching, i.e. from Cyprian, but instead upheld it finding exegetical proofs in Matthew 13, et.al.  This interpretation allowed him to understand and explain why the universal church was so morally bankrupt and equipped him to defend against the arguments of the Donatists.

Unfortunately, his interpretation of the field as the church, rather than the world, undercuts this entire notion of a universal church as it had come to be expressed by the apostolic fathers, from approximately 100-451 A.D.

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"