Tag Archives: Christian doctrine

Book Release: A Course in Christianity

Dear friends, readers, and supporters:

Today, I received my author copy of  A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. This is the third book I have written in installments on this blog. I hope that by collecting, revising, and making these 51 essays available in print form and on Kindle I can provide some small service to the church. I have pasted the link to the book’s Amazon.com page below. Perhaps you know of someone who could benefit from reading these essays. May the book find its way to those few or many whom it can help on their journey toward God. I have reprinted the Preface to the published book below.

coursebookcover2

[You can see the table of contents and the first three chapters by looking at the Kindle version. The Kindle version does not yet show the book cover, but you can still “look inside.”]

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1539070581/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1477091498&sr=8-6&keywords=ron+highfield

Preface

 A Course in Christianity is third in a series of books I’ve written in weekly installments on my blog ifaqtheology (Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology). It contains in revised form 51 essays I wrote between August 2015 and September 2016. My original plan projected writing a “catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture.”  As the year progressed I realized that the word “catechism” did not accurately describe the product I was producing. A catechism needs to cover all the basics of a church’s teachings in elementary form. I found this task too large to accomplish in one year. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains 800 pages and was written by scores of theologians and bishops. Martin Luther wrote a small and a larger catechism and Zacharius Ursinus, in consultation with the faculty of theology at the University of Heidelberg, wrote the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). But I am no Luther or Ursinus.  I’ve had to content myself with writing on many but not all of the basic teachings of Christianity. Despite its deficiencies as a catechism, I hope that by reading this collection of essays individuals will be motivated to establish a program of self-education in Christianity. I have called it A Course of Christianity For An Unchurched Church because I believe the contemporary church is neglecting its duty of teaching the whole faith to the whole church. And many contemporary Christians are neglecting their education in Christian truth to such an extent that they need to begin at the beginning and traverse the course again. Perhaps the church of today finds itself in a situation similar to the one the author of Hebrews addressed in his day:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (Hebrews 5:11-12).

I divided the book into five parts. Part One contains four chapters that introduce the problem of the unchurched church and issue an urgent call for renewal of its teaching ministry. I argue that “churching” people involves more than making sure they come to church a few times a month to witness what goes on stage. They need to be formed intellectually, spiritually, and morally to maturity in Christ. Part Two examines such central theological topics as God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Trinity, creation, sin, and salvation. In these chapters I consider what is revealed in the scriptures about God’s nature, identity, character, and activity in the world. Part Three includes studies of the church, worship, faith, baptism, and Christian ethics. These essays explore the appropriate human response to what God has done in creating and taking care of the world and in his saving action for us in Jesus Christ. In Part Four, I examine issues that arise in thinking about the soul, the resurrection of body, heaven, and hell. Part Five contains three chapters of theology in the form of autobiography.

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Christian Baptism Before Controversies, Speculations, and Hypotheticals

In continuation of the theme of our appropriation of the salvation Jesus brings, today we address the question of how baptism is related to the Spirit’s act of uniting us to Christ and the act of faith? I want to acknowledge at the beginning that the subject of the “sacraments” in general and in particular baptism has occasioned much controversy in Christian history. I am aware that it is not possible for me to state the meaning of baptism in a way that escapes this history completely. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to urge believers of all backgrounds to read the New Testament in as unbiased way as possible. After all, theology is the church’s self-examination in light of the Word of God that we receive through the apostolic teaching. It should be motivated by the desire to be faithful to the original teaching of Jesus and his apostles. No theologian should treat a denominational confession or a private theological opinion as the ultimate norm of Christian truth. So, the first thing to do is to document the NT statements about baptism. Next, we will document what some influential creeds and confessions of faith say about it. Finally, I will attempt to state a modest theology of baptism, a theology that leaves many interesting but speculative and “what if” questions unanswered.

Jesus’ Baptism and Ministry

Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, and he commanded his disciples to baptize those who accepted their message. The first three Gospels record Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist (Mt. 3:13-17; Mk. 1:9-11; Luke 3: 21, 22). The Gospel of John records the Baptist’s testimony about the Spirit falling on Jesus on the occasion of his baptism (John 1:32-34). Jesus’ earthly ministry included calling on people to repent and be baptized (John 4:1-2) And Jesus said to Nicodemus, “…no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit”(John 3:5). In the Great Commission, Mt. 28:18-20 (cf. Mk. 16:16), Jesus commanded his disciples to baptize believers and then begin the process of further teaching:

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.…”

Acts of Apostles

Acts of Apostles tells the story of the origin of the church and the spread of the Christian gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. At the conclusion of Peter’s Pentecost sermon in response to the audience’s question about what they should do, Peter said,

“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).

In response to Phillip’s powerful preaching, the Samaritan believers were baptized (8:12,13). Phillip preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian official who then requested baptism. After Phillip baptized him, the official “went on his way rejoicing.”(8:36-39). Acts 9:17-19 and 22:12-16 tell the story of Saul’s conversion and baptism. The centurion Cornelius, the first gentile convert, and everyone in his household were baptized after Peter preached the gospel to them and the Holy Spirit had filled them:

“Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” 48 So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (10:47,48).

Lydia and her household (16:14-15), the Philippian Jailer (16:33), Crispus, the synagogue ruler (18:8), and those disciples who had received only John’s baptism were also baptized (19:2-6).

Paul

Paul never makes an argument that believers ought to be baptized. He assumes it and uses the universal practice to make further theological points. In Romans 6:1-10, Paul assumes without question that all the Roman Christians, whom he had not met, had been baptized. In these verses Paul refutes the ridiculous slander that accused him of teaching that we should sin all the more because the more we sin the more grace we get. He asks the Roman believers to call to mind their baptism as the demarcation between the old life of sin and the new life of righteousness. Their baptism should teach them the absurdity of sinning to get grace:

“Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In Galatians 3:23-29, Paul uses the universal practice of baptism to make another point. We are not under the obligation to obey the law to attain right standing with God. We have a right relationship with the Father through Jesus Christ. Notice the seamless and natural relationship between faith and baptism in this text:

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Galatians 3:26-27).

In 1 Corinthians 12:12-14, Paul makes a very interesting connection between baptism and the Spirit. He reminds the Corinthians that the basis for the harmony of the unity and diversity of the body of Christ is that “we were all baptized by[or “in”] one Spirit” (12:13). Apparently, some early Christians were even having themselves baptized again “for the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:29). In Ephesians, Paul lists baptism among the seven ones that all Christians share. Again we find baptism assumed as a universal practice.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

In another very interesting text in Ephesians, Paul speaks of baptism as something Christ does for us, a washing that purifies and makes holy:

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (5:25-27).

In Colossians, Paul argues for the supremacy of Christ over all other powers and supposed saviors. Christ embodies and makes available to us the fullness of the divine nature and all wisdom. And we have been joined with him through baptism:

“For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority. 11 In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, 12 having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Colossians 2:9-12).

In these words, Baptism is compared to the Jewish covenant practice of circumcision. Christ is the one who cuts away the old, sinful flesh. Hence God in Christ is the true actor in baptism. If we also consider the other texts quoted above, we can say that the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are the true actors in baptism, though it is a practice to which we submit and the church administers through its duly appointed representatives.

These texts and others (e.g., 1 Peter 3:21) were written before the controversies, speculations, and hypothetical cases that arose in the two millennia since that time. When you listen to them without these distractions, you hear resounding joy and hope. They speak of the promises of God and work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. They draw for us a clear line between the dead past and the living hope of the present and future. They speak of assurance and confidence and certainty. I hope that we will not let any controversy, speculation, or hypothetical case rob us of the mood in which these texts are written. Whatever our speculations, we can receive baptism as a gift administered by the church’s human hands but performed by the Spirit acting in union with the Father and Son. What a wonderful gift! Don’t reject it, delay it, or demean it. Enjoy it.

Next Week: creeds, denominational confessions and a modest theology of baptism.

Creation: The Most Neglected And Underrated Teaching In Contemporary Christianity

I am very excited to announce the publication of my book The Faithful Creator: Affirming Creation and Providence in An Age of Anxiety (InterVarsity Press, 2015). I got my first copies Tuesday, September 15. I have more I want to say about the church, but in view of the arrival of the book, I want to focus on doctrines of creation and providence for the next few weeks.

Christianity affirms that the God we see in the face of Jesus Christ and experience in the power of the Holy Spirit, is the Creator of all things. The first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to be careful to avoid idolatry. There are many “so-called gods and lords” out there in the culture, “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6:). And the first declaration of the Nicene Creed (381) affirms: “I believe in one God, Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.”

Considering its foundational importance and its comprehensive scope, the Christian doctrine of Creation may be the most neglected and underrated teaching in contemporary Christianity—and the most hated by those outside. In the first paragraph of Chapter 1 of The Faithful Creator, I underline the importance I see in the doctrine of creation:

“Learning how a thing began tells you much about how it will end and the course of its journey. In our experience everything begins from nothing and returns to nothing. From dust to dust, sunrise to sunset, in the end everything returns to its beginning. And if our origin really is nothing, our end will be nothing as well and our story a meaningless tale. But the Bible’s story does not begin with nothing, and it does not end with nothing. It begins and ends with God. And because God is our beginning and end, our journey will not be meaningless, for God surrounds and enfolds our time in his eternity. God alone is our origin and our creature-relationship to God defines our essence, and this makes the study of divine creation supremely relevant to our existence” (p. 25).

Taking creation and the Creator seriously can transform the way you feel about the world around you and your own existence. And taking the faithfulness of the creator seriously by coming to embrace the doctrine of God’s all-embracing providential care, can begin to liberate us from the pervasive anxiety that robs us of the “peace that passes understanding.” These are the reasons I wrote this book.

You can look at the Table of Contents or browse sections or purchase the book at Amazon.com or other online sites:

http://www.amazon.com/Faithful-Creator-Affirming-Creation-Providence/dp/0830840826/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1442619010&sr=8-4&keywords=ron+highfield

Next Post to Follow Soon: “Why Contemporary Culture Hates the Christian Doctrine of Creation”

Christ and Chaos: Making Sense of Christianity’s Many Teachings

Accepting the apostolic testimony to the resurrection of Jesus is the first step into Christian faith. As I emphasized in previous posts, this is a huge leap, a revolution that changes the direction of our lives, places them on a new foundation, and initiates a life-long journey of learning and practice. However, as anyone with more than a superficial acquaintance with Christianity knows, Christianity involves more than belief in the resurrection. And our series asks the question, “Is Christianity true?” not merely “Did Jesus Rise from the Dead?” How shall we continue our progress toward answering the more comprehensive question of Christianity’s truth? Is there a logical order in which we can best assess the truth of Christianity’s many teachings from this point onward?

The first rule I wish to lay down is this: in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus. In some way—to be specified later—each Christian teaching needs to be related to the resurrection faith. This rule is of supreme importance. Only in this way can we root the full spectrum of Christian teaching in the thing to which we have the most direct access, that is, an historical event to which we have access by faith, a faith that is our own act of trust and commitment. In so far as we can see the connection between our basic act of faith in Jesus and Christianity’s other teachings, their meaning, truth, and relevance to life will come to light. We can embrace them and hold them with greater confidence and practice them with greater joy. They will no longer appear to us as disconnected and arbitrary teachings that we are supposed to believe because we can see that the Bible says so or because the church says the Bible says so. A set of arbitrary and disconnected beliefs cannot possibly illuminate our minds, focus our attention, transform our affections, and order our lives toward the fullest experience of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. At best, we can hold them verbally and practice them legalistically.

From the perspective of the resurrection faith, Christianity’s other teachings fall into two broad classes: (1) beliefs that are closely associated with the resurrection itself or that are clearly implied by the event of the resurrection and can be readily inferred from it. In previous posts, I dealt in a general way with this first class of beliefs. The resurrection event took place in a context that gives it significance far beyond its status as mere miracle. I noted three components of that context: “(1) the life of Jesus as experienced and remembered by his disciples; (2) contemporary speculations, beliefs, and hopes surrounding death and resurrection and beliefs about God’s historical plan for defeating evil and saving his people; and (3) the impact of the resurrection appearances themselves.” Included in this class of beliefs are: Jesus Christ is the Revealer of the character, identity, and will of God, Jesus is the Revealer of the true human relationship to God, Jesus is Savior and Lord, and Jesus is the long-expected Messiah. Furthermore, it does not take a long trail of reasoning to see that by raising Jesus from the dead, God approved and validated Jesus’ moral and religious teachings as possessing divine authority and perhaps above all that God overturned the death sentence passed on Jesus and pronounced him innocent of the charges Jews and Gentiles urged against him. Hence the resurrection transformed the meaning of the crucifixion of Jesus from a human act of failure and judicial murder into a divine act of self-sacrifice and triumph.

(2) The second class of Christian beliefs is less obviously implied within the event of the resurrection but was nevertheless taught by the apostles. As I noted in the previous two posts, our trust and love for the apostles leads us to believe their witness to the resurrection. In this act of faith we acknowledge our dependence on them for what we know about Jesus. We acknowledge that our relationship to them will always be as students to teachers. This relationship cannot be reversed. We want them to tell us everything they know about Jesus and every nuance of their understanding of his death and resurrection and reign as Lord. We need them to help us understand what it means to live on the basis of these truths.

We can see how some of what they teach follows readily from the resurrection event itself. We can even think along with them as they come to these realizations. These teachings fall into the first class (1) discussed above. But how some of their teachings are related to the resurrection event is less obvious. We have to study and think hard in order to grasp how their teachings make the connection to the resurrection. It is harder to think along with them from the resurrection itself to the particular teaching in question. As an example of a doctrine with a less obvious connection to the resurrection, consider the teaching that Jesus preexisted his earthly life as the eternal Word through whom God created the world. And the line of development gets even more obscure when we consider doctrines that received their definitive formulation beyond the New Testament era. Perhaps, the doctrine of the Trinity is the best example from this group.

In future posts, we will examine some of the most important teachings that lie close to the heart of Christianity. As we look at these teachings I will keep in mind the purpose of the series, which is to address the question “Is Christianity True?” I am not writing a catechism, that is, series of instructions on what the church teaches. I am asking about the truth of these teachings. Can we reasonably and responsibility accept them as true? This limit is why we must show the connection of each core Christian doctrine to the resurrection; for the resurrection is the decisive event. If a teaching follows from the resurrection, it warrants our acceptance.

Next week perhaps we ought to reflect further on the place of the Bible in Christianity. The question of the place and authority of the Bible must also be subject to the supreme rule I enunciated above: “in our examination of Christianity’s teachings we should never think independently of our faith in the resurrection of Jesus.”