Did you know that the Bible says that faith alone doesn’t justify? James said “so we see it is works, and not faith alone, by which a man is justified” (James 2:24).
Did you know that the Bible says that God shed his blood, even though we know that God doesn’t have blood? (Acts 20:28)
Did you know that the Bible says that Baptism saves us? (1 Peter 3:21)
Each of these things the Bible explicitly says. And yet, if I were to say those things in a from a teaching platform, I’d probably get in trouble. Why? Because well, we are saved by faith alone, not by baptism or works…and God is a Spirit, and thus he cannot bleed!
But, surely the problem here is apparent – Scripture says these things!
But, one of the problems inherent in these issues that scripture affirms is that they have been the source of heated debate for centuries. How exactly these verses are to be understood in light of other verses is something that has been the subject of intense study and discussion for a very very long time. Before the Romans Catholic church was called such, these issues were being wrestled with. And of course, through the protestant reformation, a reaction to Roman Catholic interpretation of scripture was raised high. This was a good thing, not because of the reaction, but because of the reformation. It was not enough to simply say that “Rome is wrong” and thus react against them. Why? Because although Rome was (and is) wrong on a great many things, there were some things they weren’t wrong about. They affirmed a right view of the Trinity, and thus understood that it’s actually proper, theologically speaking, to say that “God died” or “God shed his blood” or that “Mary is the mother of God.” Not that those statements are full enough to explain the implications contained in them, but they also aren’t required to be such. When Paul said that God purchased the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28), he didn’t feel the need to explain that he meant specifically God the Son, according to the the human nature of God the Son. He does hint at speaking that way elsewhere (see Romans 1:2-5), but he doesn’t in Acts, and he doesn’t feel the need to justify the statement. The reason being that it IS correct. It is entirely true that God shed his blood, and that God died, and that God was born. Each of those statements is thoroughly true.
So why do so many people react so vehemently against them? Well, certainly there are times when saying things in their most simple form don’t lend themselves to edification, and so saying “God died on the cross” can at times be unhelpful. But, I don’t really think that’s the answer. I think the answer is that sometimes we are more reactionary toward “Rome” (read: false understandings of ideas) than we are concerned for actually reforming our thinking to biblically sound and saturated words. I told someone the other day that it’s proper to say that Mary is the mother of God, and they told me that I was espousing Roman Catholic false doctrine. But that is, plainly speaking, absurd. And I can illustrate why very briefly.
First, is Jesus God? Well of course he is. The next question is – is Mary the mother of Jesus? Again, simply yes. So the third question – if Mary is the mother of Jesus, and Jesus is God, then isn’t Mary the mother of God? And of course the answer is yes. That may make you uncomfortable, but it’s not wrong. And you might say “well, that’s not a helpful thing to say, because it implies that God had a beginning.” And to that I’d answer with two thoughts: First, God DID have a beginning, according to the human nature he took on in the person of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth had a beginning, and Jesus of Nazareth was fully God – thus, God had a beginning. The second thing I’d say is that there is of course a sense in which God did NOT have a beginning, and a sense in which God CANNOT die. But, that doesn’t stop the preacher from saying “God shed his blood to purchase the church” in Acts. If God cannot grow tired, and cannot be harmed, then how did he shed his blood? Well, scripture doesn’t feel pressure to put a whole bunch of theological clarifications on that statement, even though we know that the harmonization of scripture requires that we do this in order to have the fullest grasp of statements like the one in Acts.
Now, as a brief aside – you may be saying “Mary isn’t the mother of God, but the mother of the human nature of Jesus”. Or, you might say “God didn’t die, only his human nature”. And if you said that, you’d be wrong. The short reason is because you cannot separate natures from persons. Natures don’t “do” things. Natures don’t act, though they can be “acted upon”. Natures are the things that determine how we, the person, acts. Cows, by nature, eat grass, not meat. You wouldn’t say “a cow’s nature eats grass” – that’s unintelligible. Similarly, you wouldn’t say “Christ’s human nature died”. If that’s the case, then his human and divine nature were capable of being separated. A dangerous and heretical thing to assert! So, in the same way, you wouldn’t want to say that Mary was only the mother of the human nature of God, as if the divine nature was separated from the human nature before birth. Once the man, the human person, Jesus, was conceived, his human nature was forever joined to his divine nature. And he, the person, was born. He, the man who was God, was born. He, the God who was man, was born.
These statements, although capable of much more explanation, are prima facie true.
So, what does this have to do with reaction and reformation?
Well, the basic answer is that when we come to a place where we cannot accept explicitly biblical statements (baptism saves us, God has blood, etc…) simply because they SOUND more Roman Catholic (or whatever else) than we’re comfortable with…then we’ve walked away from sola scriptura. Scripture is our authority, and insofar as Roman Catholicism agrees with scripture, we agree with Roman Catholics. And insofar as Presbyterians agree with scripture, we agree with Presbyterians. And insofar as Arminians agree with scripture, Calvinists agree with Arminians. And on and on it goes.
We MUST be ok with using scriptural language, regardless of how abused scriptural language has become. If we aren’t, and instead relinquish biblical language to the abusers of the bible, what vocabulary are we relegated to?
If this subject interests you, I’d encourage you to actually do some reading on it. To start with the old creeds and confessions. For example – the Nicene says that Jesus is “truly God” and then, just a few lines (not sentences, just lines) later, it says that he was “made human”. How can God be made? Well, the answer with a full explanation for how we articulate and understand doctrines like that is beyond the scope of this blog post. The point here is simply that it IS biblical language.
Another one: The Athanasian Creed states that Jesus, the Son of God was “neither begotten nor made” (strange considering the language of the Nicene Creed), and that God the Son is “coeternal and coequal with the Father.” And yet, just a few lines later, it states that the Son is “equal with God as regards divinity, but less than God as regards humanity.” So, Jesus is both equal to, and less than, God the Father? Yes. Scripture rightly teaches this.
We could multiply quotes like this from the great creeds and confessions. And of course that’s not to say that they couldn’t be wrong, but the fact that throughout church history the incredible majority of the greatest scholars the church has produced have all agreed with these statements certainly carries much weight.
So what’s the point? I’ll try to summarize with a personal story of my struggles regarding the issue of biblical language.
The verse 2 Cor 5:21 has frequently puzzled me. In that verse, Paul says that Christ “became sin” and that we “become the righteousness of God.” And again, much debate has been had over the meaning of those words, but that’s not what perplexed me. What puzzled me was “why was Paul so sloppy in his language?” I mean, if I were to articulate the atonement in terms like this in say, a systematic theology class, I definitely wouldn’t get a great grade! Why? Because, we understand from the whole counsel of scripture that saying “Christ became sin” is not right. The “correct” way to speak of the atonement is that Christ was “counted as a sinner” and we are “counted as righteous.” Of course the problem with saying that is that it implies that Paul was wrong to say what he said. Was Paul really sloppy when he said that Christ became sin instead of saying that Christ was “counted as a sinner”? Well again, because of sola scriptura, we must say NO! Scripture is the authority, and no matter how the writers of the bible seem to say things in the most confusing way, we must assert that it is not them, but us, who don’t truly understand how to synthesize the doctrine they present.
It should NEVER be wrong to say what scripture says. Yes, we must eventually say ALL that it says, and it can be unwise and unhelpful to fail to do so. But, it certainly can’t be unbiblical to say “baptism saves you”. We have to be ok with the fact that James said that faith alone doesn’t justify us. We also MUST work to understand what he meant in light of Paul’s teaching about justification by faith alone, and I personally think the answers are easier and more clear than many make them. But all of that is beside the point.
The point is simply this: don’t be reactionary just because biblical language has been abused. There are many prosperity preachers who abuse the bible’s wonderful blessing-promising, joy-centered approach to following Christ, but that doesn’t mean we should turn (as many have) away from the truth regarding those things. Instead of being reactionary, we should be reformational. If someone says what is right, we can say “we agree!” If an Arminian says “God is sovereign”, a Calvinist certainly won’t agree with exactly what is meant by that statement, but they better say heartily “I agree!”
Being reformational is the better way to handle the abuses of scripture that so many many throughout our history have contended for.