Bible Translations: Translation Philosophy, Textual Criticism, & Source Documents

Shane Angland (MA Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary), joins the podcast this week to talk about Bible translations and what makes some translations better than others.

Shane is the lead preaching elder at Ennis Evangelical Church in Ennis, Ireland. A native of the west coast of Ireland, Shane served as a missionary in Ukraine with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and later earned a Masters Degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, where the focus of his studies was on Textual Criticism.

In this episode, Shane explains what Textual Criticism is (and is not), and explains the important elements involved in Bible translation, such as translation philosophy and source documents. He also dispels some common misconceptions about Bible translations, such as that newer translations remove content from the Bible, or that they are less accurate than older translations.

Shane and I have some common friends in Ireland and Ukraine, and it was great getting to know him and listening to him share his knowledge on this subject.

See also the series of articles on Bible translation I posted here years ago:

  1. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 1
  2. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 2: the King James Bible
  3. Making Sense of Different Bible Translations – Part 3: Gender-Inclusive Language and the NIV

You can listen to this week’s episode by clicking this link, or by listening in the embedded player below: Making Sense of Bible Translations – with Shane Angland

Making Sense of Bible Translations – with Shane Angland Theology for the People

Shane Angland (MA Theology, Dallas Theological Seminary), joins the podcast to talk about Bible translations and what makes some translations better than others. Shane is the lead preaching elder at Ennis Evangelical Church in Ennis, Ireland. A native of the west coast of Ireland, Shane served as a missionary in Ukraine with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, and later earned a Masters Degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, where the focus of his studies was on Textual Criticism. In this episode, Shane explains what Textual Criticism is (and is not), and explains the important elements involved in Bible translation, such as translation philosophy and source documents. He also dispels some common misconceptions about Bible translations, such as that newer translations remove content from the Bible, or that they are less accurate than older translations. If you’ve benefited from this episode, please share it online, and leave a rating and review for this podcast in the Apple Podcast store. Also, visit the Theology for the People Blog at nickcady.org.

Will Suicide Send You to Hell?

1 Corinthians 3:16-17 says:

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

This text has been used, particularly by the Roman Catholic Church to say that if a person commits suicide, they go directly to Hell – no passing Go, no collecting $200.

“Mortal Sins” and “Venial Sins”

Using these verses as justification, the Roman Catholic Church labels suicide a “mortal sin,” for which no atonement can be made, as opposed to “venial sins” which a person may be cleansed of through paying for them via suffering in purgatory.

First of all, the entire idea of mortal and venial sins goes contrary to the clear teaching of Scripture, which states that there is only one unforgivable sin, which is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit (click here for an explanation of the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit). Furthermore, it is only Jesus who atones for our sins, we cannot atone for any of our sins, and to claim that we can “pay” for our own sins through our sufferings is to negate and minimize the work of Jesus on the cross, and say that Jesus suffered and died in vain.

The key passage used by the Roman Catholic Church to justify this belief in mortal vs. venial sins is 1 John 5:16-17. I have written about those verses and what they mean here: What is the “Sin Unto Death,” and Why Should We Not Pray for It?

“You” and “Y’all”

In 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul uses the plural form of “you” – in other words, he is saying: “All y’all (together) are the temple of God.”

What’s important to remember about this passage, is that Paul the Apostle is writing to the Corinthian church about their church. Some in the church were harming and tearing apart the church with their divisive attitudes and actions, and Paul is giving them a stern warning that if anyone destroys the temple of God (the Church which He loves), God will take that personally and not let is slide.

Later in 1 Corinthians, in chapter 6, Paul once again speaks of the Temple of God in relation to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, but there he does so in regard to the individual believer. This passage in 1 Corinthians 3, however, is not written to or about the individual believer, but to the church about the church. So the point of the passage is not about suicide at all, but it is a warning to those who would harm and tear apart the church with their words and actions.

When Christians Were Killing Themselves

Until the Edict of Milan, AKA the Edict of Tolleration was issued in 313 AD, Christianity’s status in the Roman Empire was that of religio illicita, an “illicit” or illegal religion (as opposed to Judaism, which held the status of religio licita)During this time, Christians throughout the Roman Empire experienced waves of persecution, usually dependent on the attitudes of local authorities, although there were times when persecution was the official policy of the entire empire – such as during the reigns of Nero and Diocletian. Christians also faced persecution outside the Roman Empire.

During this period, many Christians were martyred, and martyrs were highly regarded and respected as those who had been willing to pay the ultimate price for their faith. In fact, martyrdom was so highly regarded, that people began to seek it out and desire it, as a way of expressing their devotion to Jesus. Ignatius of Antioch, for example, wrote about his desire to die as a martyr.

But some people took it even further. Jerome writes about a young woman named Belsilla who flagellated herself so much that she died from her self-imposed injuries. Another woman, Agathonike, upon witnessing the execution of a bishop by burning, also threw herself onto the fire, declaring “this is the meal that has been prepared for me.” She died in the flames, even though she had not been arrested nor charged. There are other accounts of Christians volunteering to be martyred even though they were not even being sought by the authorities. [1]

The Donatists, who considered themselves particularly hard core and dedicated (and looked down on those they considered less-committed, even to the point of questioning their salvation), greatly desired to show their devotion by being martyred. Some Donatists even went to the point of simply killing themselves to show how spiritual they were, i.e. how much they were not attached to this life and how much they desired to depart this world and be with Christ.

The Response of the Church

Seeking martyrdom and committing suicide became such a big issue with the Donatists in particular that it threatened the credibility, and even the existence of the church in their area of North Africa.

Judaism had always considered suicide to be sinful, whereas in pagan Roman culture it was considered an acceptable way to exit this life, and was practiced mostly by the wealthy, in part because slaves were not allowed to commit suicide since their lives did not belong to them, but rather to their masters.

It was Augustine of Hippo, a native of North Africa himself, who took up the challenge of addressing this issue and clarifying Christian thinking on this subject. In his book ‘The City of God’, Augustine considered what the Bible has to say about suicide and weighed various arguments for and against suicide. His conclusion was that suicide is always wrong as it is a violation of the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not murder”), and is never justified even in extreme circumstances. This became the official position of the church. [2]

And yet…

Just because 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 isn’t talking about suicide, it must be noted that suicide is clearly a sin and is never the answer.

Help is available for those who are struggling. You can contact me directly here, or call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Hotline if you need someone to talk to immediately: 1-800-273-8255.

Video

In this week’s Sermon Extra, Mike and I discussed this topic, as it came up in our current series: 1 Corinthians: Grace & Truth at White Fields Church.

What is the “Perspicuity” of Scripture, and Why Does It Matter?

When I was a missionary in Hungary, we used to visit a refugee camp populated with thousands of people from muslim-majority countries, with whom we didn’t have a common language. Everyone in the camp got by with a mix of English, Russian, and sometimes German words that formed a special form of refugee pidgin. But this was insufficient for deeper conversations, such as those about God, Jesus, and salvation.

So, with the help of the International Bible Society, we were able to get New Testaments in Urdu, Dari, Farsi, and other languages, and we handed these out along with humanitarian aid, telling those we met to read them, and then we would follow up. For many of them, this was their first time ever having access to the New Testament in their own language, and by God’s grace, we did see many of them become followers of Jesus.

But this approach to ministry was based on an underlying assumption: that anyone with average reading comprehension skills can sufficiently understand the meaning of the Bible when it comes to what it says about who Jesus is and how salvation is possible through Him.

This assumption is known as belief in the “perspicuity,” or clarity of Scripture.

Not everyone embraces the idea that Scripture is perspicuous, notably the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches – as well as fringe groups including the Mormons (AKA Latter Day Saints) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

It was after a friend of mine converted to Roman Catholicism based on claims he had heard about Scripture not being perspicuous that I was intrigued by this topic and wanted to research it further. I ended up writing my Masters dissertation on the topic – specifically looking at the question of whether the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture was novel to the Reformation, or if it is also found in the writings of the early Church Fathers – which would mean that the insistence on the perspicuity of Scripture in the Reformation period was actually a return to the way the early Christians understood and viewed Scripture.

In this week’s episode of the Theology for People Podcast, Mike asks me questions about the perspicuity of Scripture; what it is and why it matters, and what is at stake when it comes to this issue.

You can listen to the episode in the embedded player below, or by clicking this link: The Perspicuity of Scripture: Is the Bible Clear? Can Everyone Understand It?

The Perspicuity of Scripture: Is the Bible Clear? Can Everyone Understand It? Theology for the People

Can anyone pick up the Bible, read it and understand it? Is Scripture "clear," and if it is: about what and for whom is it clear? I wrote my Masters dissertation on the topic of the perspicuity, or clarity, of Scripture. This is an important topic, because whether or not we view Scripture as clear affects how we handle and use the Bible and how we relate to church traditions, and how we view the world in the midst of a culture in which many long-held beliefs and assumptions are being challenged. In this episode, Nick and Mike discuss the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture, looking at the history of this concept and what is at stake in this debate.  For more articles and content, make sure to check out the Theology for the People website.

The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 2 – Recognition, Disputes & the Gospel of Thomas

In Part 2 of this two-part series, Mike and I discuss the process through which the New Testament was recognized as Holy Scripture.

At what point were the books of the New Testament recognized as Scripture? Who was involved in that process, or who made that determination? What about the disputed books, and why was the Gospel of Thomas kept out of the Bible?

We answer these questions and more in this episode. (Click here to listen to Part 1.)

Click this link to listen this week’s episode, or listen in the embedded player below: The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 2 – Recognition, Disputes & the Gospel of Thomas

The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 2 – Recognition, Disputes & the Gospel of Thomas Theology for the People

In Part 2 of this two-part series, Nick and Mike discuss the process through which the New Testament was recognized as Holy Scripture. At what point were the books of the New Testament recognized as Scripture? Who was involved in that process, or who made that determination? What about the disputed books, and why was the Gospel of Thomas kept out of the Bible? We answer these questions and more in this episode. Make sure to check out the Theology for the People blog as well.

The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 1 – Nicaea, Constantine, & Conspiracy Theories

Last week Mike and I sat down to discuss some common misnomers and conspiracy theories regarding the formation of the New Testament canon.

What actually happened in Nicaea? Did Constantine play a role in the formation of the New Testament canon? Who was King James?

Did anything happen that should cause us concern that the Bible we have is not trustworthy, or has been tampered with?

We answer those questions in Part 1 of our 2-part episode on the formation of the New Testament canon. Click here to listen, or listen in the embedded player below: The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 1 – Nicaea, Constantine, & Conspiracy Theories

The Formation of the New Testament Canon: Part 1 – Nicaea, Constantine, & Conspiracy Theories Theology for the People

In Part 1 of this two-part episode, Nick and Mike discuss some common misnomers and conspiracy theories regarding the formation of the New Testament canon. What happened in Nicaea? Did Constantine play a role in the formation of the New Testament canon? If so, is there anything we should be concerned about? Check out the Theology for the People blog as well. 

Augustine on Ambition

Should Christians be “ambitious”? Is “ambition” the opposite of humility?

Augustine of Hippo, the African bishop from the 4th and 5th Century has a take on ambition which might surprise you.

The Opposite of Ambition is Not Humility

According to Augustine, “the opposite of ambition is not humility, it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency.”

We sometimes like to comfort ourselves by imagining that the ambitious are prideful and arrogant so that those of us who never wish and never aspire, who never launch out into the deep, get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility, but this is just a thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness.

James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine

Interestingly, Augustine’s view on ambition is that “playing it safe” and not taking risks is not actually an expression of humility like many may assume, but is often based in pride and a fear of other people thinking less of you if you were to fail.

In James K.A. Smith‘s recent book, On the Road with Saint Augustine, he tells the story of Augustine’s journey from provincial North Africa to Carthage, and from there to Rome and Milan, originally as a rhetoric teacher, not as a priest. It was Augustine’s ambition which originally led him from his birthplace to these places, but in Milan his friendship with Ambrose, bishop of Milan, changed his life and led him to pursue a relationship with God which led to him stepping into vocational ministry for the rest of his life.

See also: Book Review: On the Road with Saint Augustine

Smith argues that Augustine never stopped being ambition after giving his life to the Lord. What changed was his goal, the aim of his ambition.

The Ultimate Ambition

According to Smith, the Augustinian question when it comes to ambition is: “Whom and what do I love when I am being ambitious?”

The goal, he would argue, is not to be devoid of ambition, but rather to live a life which has “friendship with God” as its supreme ambition.

This is the only ambition, Smith points out, which comes with a guarantee of success and ultimate security! (“Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” James 4:8)

Solomon and the True End of Ambition

Augustine challenges us to ask, What if buried in your ambition to succeed in business, academics, sports, and other pursuits, is a desire for something else, something more – which is found in God himself?

Currently at White Fields we are studying through the life of Solomon in 1 Kings. Solomon was an ambitious person; he asked God for wisdom so that he could govern the nation well, and he succeeded both in making the nation wealthy and powerful, but also in becoming wealthy and powerful himself.

In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon tells the story of his ambition; he acquired many lovers, much money, incredible power, extensive knowledge, as well as exotic animals, parties and entertainment. And yet, in the end, he found all of it to be empty and ultimately unfulfilling. None of it did for him what he had expected it would.

In the end, Solomon comes to the realization that buried in his ambition was ultimately the desire for God himself, and what could only God can give.

Solomon’s conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is a cliff-hanger, because Solomon says that the chief end of humanity is to keep God’s commandments (in order to be in relationship with Him). The only problem of course, is that Solomon failed to keep God’s commandments — and so have we! What is needed therefore, is one who can reconcile us to God by somehow bridging the gap created by our shortcomings and sins. The good news of the gospel is that this person has come, and his name is Jesus!

Because of Jesus, our ambition can find its ultimate desire, and can be redirected into areas which are secure and eternally meaningful: relationship with God, and participation in His mission to bring the truth of his love and grace to the world!

May God help us to avoid the false humility which is based in fear and pride, and be ambitious for Him!

Why Do Some Countries Celebrate Easter on a Different Day?

Today as we celebrated Easter at White Fields Church in Longmont, Colorado, we had a special greetings sent in from some of the missionaries we support around the world, including several in Ukraine.

See: An Easter Like No Other

Here’s the video of the Easter service, which includes the greetings from those missionaries:

Some of the missionaries in Ukraine mentioned that their country celebrates Easter a week later than we do in the United States, leading some people to ask why that is.

Council of Nicea (325 AD): Setting a Common Date for Easter

The First Ecumenical Council of Christin leaders around the world as held in 325 AD and is known as the Council of Nicea.

Prior to Nicea, churches in different parts of the world celebrated Easter on different Sundays of the year. In order to bring unity, council members created a formula to would calculate the date for Easter for all churches around the world: the first Sunday after the first full moon which follows the vernal equinox, after the Jewish Passover.

To avoid confusion, it determined that the vernal equinox was on March 21. This system guaranteed that all churches around the world celebrated Easter on the same day.

The Great Schism and the Introduction of the Georgian Calendar

In 1054 the Eastern and Western churches split. The division was for theological, cultural, and political reasons. Shortly after this, Pope Gregory VIII introduced the Gregorian calendar, whereas the Eastern Empire continued with the Julian calendar, which had been used since the time of Julius Caesar.

The reason for the introduction of the Gregorian calendar was the realization that the Julian calendar was discovered to be 11 minutes too long, which, though not much, led to the spring equinox no longer being on March 21 by that time. The Gregorian calendar sought to bring correction to this issue, whereas the Eastern Empire (and its churches) continued with the Julian calendar despite the fact that according to it, the vernal equinox was no longer on March 21.

By using two different calendar systems, the vernal equinox now fell on March 21 under the Gregorian calendar and April 3 on the Julian calendar. The two empires (and their churches), as a result, began celebrating Easter on two different days, though on occasion Easter date does still fall on the same day for both calendars (e.g. in 2017 and next in 2025).

As for the question of why the date of Easter changes every year, see: Easter Math: How Does It Add Up?

Book Review: The Bible Made Impossible

Recently I finished reading The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture by Christian Smith.

Content

When approaching the book, it is important to note that Smith is neither an evangelical nor has he been trained as an academic theologian. He is a sociologist and a professor at Notre Dame University; his writing is scholarly and well-informed, but his purpose is writing this book is to critique a certain tendency which he perceives to be a problem amongst evangelicals. This problem is something he calls “biblicism” – which is basically making the Bible the end-all, be-all source of not only theology, but practical living (including things such as diet, finance, etc.).

Smith’s biggest contention is that biblicism leads to “pervasive interpretive pluralism,” which basically means that the Bible can be used to justify several positions which may stand in conflict to one another.

He then asserts that “biblicists” are using the Bible in a way it was never intended to be used, and suggests instead that the Bible should be read through a Christological hermeneutic lens, i.e. that the Bible exists not to be a handbook for everything in life, but for the sole purpose of pointing us to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While the Christological hermeneutic might seem quite obvious, Smith goes on to state that as a result of this Christo-centric view of Scripture, we therefore do not need to consider all parts of Scripture as equally inspired by God, nor applicable to the modern person. Thus, whatever is written in the New Testament, for example, such as household codes and practical rules for life, does not need to be heeded by the modern person in so much as it does not point to Christ and the saving work of God through Him.

Ultimately, Christian Smith’s biggest assertion is that Jesus himself, rather than the Bible, is what should be considered the “rule of faith,” i.e. the measuring rod by which all things are judged. What is important about his point is that he says that texts and words of the Bible itself should be judged by this rule (Jesus Christ himself), and those parts set aside, which do not align with this “rule.”

Finally, Smith closes the book with a lengthy epilogue in which he complains about those who have not agreed with his claims.

Critique

I agree with Christian Smith’s assertion that some people look to the Bible to be something which God never intended it to be (e.g. “The Daniel Diet” or as a guide for investment practices), and I believe he rightly disassembles the views underlying these practices. However, where the Bible does speak to practical issues of life, it would be foolish to write those off as uninspired, or pick-and-choose based on some arbitrary sense of what you perceive to be really about Jesus.

While Smith repeatedly asserts that “pervasive interpretive pluralism” is a problem, he gives insufficient rationale for why it is a problem. Simply repeating something loudly is not a convincing argument. He fails to explain why it is a problem that the Bible can be interpreted in multiple ways using theological and canonical reasoning.

I would argue that the Bible was inspired by God with a degree of ambiguity on certain topics by design! On the most important topics (primary theological issues), the Bible speaks without ambiguity, but on secondary issues, there is often, what I believe to be an intended ability and possibility for pluralistic interpretations. The purpose of this? As Smith rightly says: the Bible is not intended to be handbook, or a manual for life, as much as something which trains us how to think and act in a dynamic relationship with God. It is designed in such a way that we must continually be reading it and studying it, as well as engaging with others, as to its interpretation and application for one’s contemporary setting and circumstances. This is by no means to say that there is an infinite horizon of possibilities of interpretation; there are certainly boundaries for interpretation which are defined within the Scriptures themselves (canonical reasoning), but within these boundaries, sometimes there can be multiple options for interpretation and application – and I believe this is by design, and is not the problem which Smith claims it is.

See also: Is There Only One Correct Way to Interpret a Given Passage of Scripture?

The Key Issue

Where I disagree most with Christian Smith is in regard to what constitutes the “rule of faith.” His claim that Jesus is the rule of faith might sound nice at the outset, but it is wrought with difficulties.

First of all, who defines who Jesus is? How do we know who Jesus is, what He is about, or what He thinks or stands for? Those things are passed down for us through tradition, but guess how: through the canon of Scripture! It is through Scripture, which is the recorded, preserved, and affirmed record of apostolic tradition, that we know anything about Jesus.

Furthermore, and very importantly: the Scriptures of the Bible were the “rule of faith” that was used by the church fathers in determining doctrine at the great ecumenical councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon.

Conclusion

The Bible Made Impossible was a roller-coaster ride. Some of Smith’s points are excellent, and deserve attention by Christians today, whereas some of his other points seemed either half-baked or completely misguided.

I’m glad I read it, but I would only recommend it to those with a keen ability to “spit out the seeds” and think critically and question what might seem at face-value to be a convincing argument.

What Did John Calvin Mean By, “We must remember that Satan has his miracles too”?

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In a recent post titled If Satan Has Been Defeated, Why Is He Still “Prowling Around”?, we looked at how Satan is not God’s counterpart, and certainly not his equal. How then can someone like John Calvin, who has a high view of God’s sovereignty and power, say that “Satan has his miracles too?

Calvin was referring to Matthew 24:24 – where, in his Olivet Discourse, Jesus states that during a time to come of great tribulation, “false messiahs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect.”

The Context of Calvin’s Statement: A Response to Roman Catholic Criticisms About a Lack of Miracles in the Reformation

This statement is only part of a bigger statement by John Calvin. It is found in the “Prefatory Address to the King of France,” at the beginning of Institutes of the Christian Religion. In this section, Calvin is responding to Roman Catholic criticisms of the Reformation, one of which was that the Reformation lacked miracles, which they said proved that the Reformation was not a legitimate, apostolic, work of God.

In his response, Calvin said that the immediate purpose of a miracle like healing was to bring relief to the individual, but the ultimate purpose was to prove that the apostolic preaching was true. Calvin then argues that the Reformation is not a new revelation, but rather the reaffirmation of the original apostolic preaching, therefore it does not necessitate miracles to confirm its validity.

Calvin then takes it one step further by suggesting that many of the supposed miracles reported by the Roman Catholic Church may not be from God, but may instead be of the sort talked about by Jesus in Matthew 24:24, i.e. performed by false prophets by the power of Satan to lead people astray and deceive them.

Interestingly however, Calvin does not disavow miracles entirely, but suggests that there were actually miracles that accompanied the Reformation. He then makes the concluding point that the test of miracles should be what they cause you to worship and trust in. Any miracle which causes you to trust in false doctrines or turn away from the Word of God, he says, are suspect in their origin.

This final point is a good one; you might remember that in Exodus, Pharaoh’s sorcerers were able to do replicate some of the miracles which Moses performed. The effect of these miracles was to cause people not to listen to God and repent, but to trust in false gods. I have witnessed a similar phenomenon amongst people in some circles today who seek signs and wonders; sometimes the signs they seek cause them to trust in things other than God, His Word, and the gospel.

You can read a larger excerpt of what Calvin wrote here, but here are some highlights:

In demanding miracles from us, they act dishonestly; for we have not coined some new gospel, but retain the very one the truth of which is confirmed by all the miracles which Christ and the apostles ever wrought.

But the mark of sound doctrine given by our Savior himself is its tendency to promote the glory not of men, but of God (John 7:18; 8:50). Our Savior having declared this to be test of doctrine, we are in error if we regard as miraculous, works which are used for any other purpose than to magnify the name of God.

And it becomes us to remember that Satan has his miracles, which, although they are tricks rather than true wonders, are still such as to delude the ignorant and unwary. Magicians and enchanters have always been famous for miracles, and miracles of an astonishing description have given support to idolatry: these, however, do not make us converts to the superstitions either of magicians or idolaters.

But our opponents tell us that their miracles are wrought not by idols, not by sorcerers, not by false prophets, but by saints: as if we did not know it to be one of Satan’s wiles to transform himself “into an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14).

We, then, have no lack of miracles, sure miracles, that cannot be gainsaid; but those to which our opponents lay claim are mere delusions of Satan, inasmuch as they draw off the people from the true worship of God to vanity.

Source: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, cited in: The Reformation’s Lack of Miracles: A Response by John Calvin

Celebrating Saint Nicholas

December 6 is Saint Nicholas Day, or the Feast of Saint Nicholas.

Whereas Americans tend to say that Santa Claus comes on Christmas Eve to deliver presents, for Europeans Saint Nick brings chocolate and some gifts on December 6.

“The Real Santa is Dead”

One of my American friends once told me that they don’t do Santa Claus, because they like to keep fairy tales out of their faith. That’s a fair point. However, when it comes to Saint Nicholas, we would do well to not lose the legacy of the historical person as we throw out the proverbial bath water.

To that end, my wife and I have always taken the approach with our kids of telling them about the real Saint Nick: the pastor and theologian who loved and cared for the poor in his community.

We explain to them that the reason there are so many Santas in malls and at events is because Saint Nicholas was such a wonderful person that people want to keep his memory and legacy alive, and they do that by dressing up in that red costume with the beard.

This led to a funny episode once, when we were waiting in line to have our picture taken with a mall Santa, and my son – 5 years old at the time – started talking to another kid in line and told him, “Did you know that the real Santa is dead?!” Needless to say, the kid was surprised and concerned to hear this news!

The Real Saint Nick

Saint Nicholas was born in the 3rd century in the village of Patara, in what is now southern Turkey, into a wealthy family. That’s right: no North Pole nor reindeer for the real Santa, but palm trees and white sand beaches.

His parents died when he was young, and he was taken in and raised by a local priest. Following Jesus’ call to the Rich Young Ruler (Mark 10:21) to “sell what you own and give the money to the poor,” Nicholas dedicated his entire inheritance to assisting the sick, needy and suffering.

He became a pastor, and was later made Bishop of Myra. He became famous for his generosity and love for children.

Nicholas suffered persecution and imprisonment for his Christian faith during the Great Persecution (303-311) under Roman emperor Diocletian.

As a bishop, he attended the Council of Nicaea (325), at which he affirmed the doctrine of the deity of Christ against the Arian heresy.

Homoousios or Homoiousios

The discussion at the Council of Nicaea was summarized by which word to use in describing Jesus’ nature: whether he was homoousios (of the “same substance” as God) or homoiousios (of a “similar substance” as God).

At the the Council of Nicaea, bishops from all over the world gathered to study the scriptures and address the Arian controversy which advocated for the term homoiousios, denying Jesus’ full deity. This view, which is also held today by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was deemed heretical by the council of bishops based on examination of the Scriptures, which teach that Jesus is Immanuel (God with us), and is true God of true God.

The debate got very heated, and at one point Nicholas reportedly got so upset with he deemed to be blasphemy, that he slapped an Arian.

This is the real Saint Nick: Palm trees and white sand beaches, defender of the faith, and slapper of heretics.

Nicholas died in 343 in Myra. The anniversary of his death became a day of celebration, the Feast of St. Nicholas on December 6.

Where the Tradition of Gift Giving Comes From

Many stories are told about St. Nicholas’ life and deeds. Perhaps the most famous story is that of a poor man who had three daughters of marrying age. Because the man was poor, he was unable to provide a dowry for his daughters, which meant that they would not be able to find a descent husband and would either be married into further poverty or would have to become slaves.

After Nicholas found out about this family’s situation, he visited the family’s house at night, leaving them three anonymous gifts: bags of gold, which he tossed through an open window while the family was sleeping.

The story goes that they found the gold in their shoes when they awoke, which is the reason for the tradition in Europe that Saint Nicholas leaves chocolate in children’s shoes. Nicholas provided for these poor girls to help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

Rather than trying to make Christmas Santa-free, let’s take back the true story of Saint Nicholas and take hold of this opportunity to talk about a Christian man who loved Jesus, championed good theology, and exemplified Christ through compassion and generosity to the needy.