Did the Reformation Reach the East? The Surprising History of Cyril Lucaris and Eastern Orthodoxy’s Reaction to the Reformation – with Shane Angland

Many people assume that the Protestant Reformation was something that only affected the Western, or Roman Catholic Church, but in this week’s episode of the Theology for the People podcast, Shane Angland (Mdiv, Dallas Theological Seminary) shares the incredible story of how the Reformation reached the East. 

Shane explains how Martin Luther actually referenced the Eastern Orthodox churches as examples of Christianity which were not subject to the dictates of Roman papal authority, and he tells the story of Cyril Lucaris, the Greek Orthodox theologian and patriarch of Constantinople, who was highly influenced by the Reformation and its principles.

Shane resides in Ennis, Ireland. He spent years working in Ukraine as a missionary with IFES and serving in a Calvary Chapel church in the city of Kharkiv, before going to Dallas for seminary.

Next month, Shane will be back on the podcast, sharing the true history of Saint Patrick of Ireland, explaining which parts of the commonly-told stories about Patrick are myth, and which parts of the story are often not told, but deserve to be. Stay tuned and keep an eye out for that!

At the end of this episode, listen for a preview of my forthcoming book, The God I Won’t Believe In: Facing Nine Common Barriers to Embracing Christianity. 

Click here to listen to the episode, or listen in the embedded player below.

Did the Reformation Reach the East? The Surprising History of Cyril Lucaris and Eastern Orthodoxy's Reaction to the Reformation – with Shane Angland Theology for the People

Many people assume that the Protestant Reformation was something that only affected the Western, or Roman Catholic Church, but in this episode, Shane Angland (Mdiv, Dallas Theological Seminary) shares the incredible story of how the Reformation reached the East.  Shane explains how Martin Luther actually referred to the Eastern Orthodox churches as examples of Christianity which were not subject to the dictates of Roman papal authority, and he tells the story of Cyril Lucaris, the Greek Orthodox theologian and patriarch of Constantinople, who was highly influenced by the Reformation and its principles. Shane Angland resides in Ennis, Ireland. He spent years working in Ukraine as a missionary with IFES and serving in a Calvary Chapel church in the city of Kharkiv, before going to Dallas for seminary. At the end of the episode, listen for a preview of my forthcoming book, The God I Won't Believe In: Facing Nine Common Barriers to Embracing Christianity.  Visit the Theology for the People blog site for articles and more.

Do You Have a Theology of Glory, or the Theology of the Cross?

Do you have a theology of glory, or do you follow the theology of the cross? Here’s an easy test: honestly ask yourself the question, “Do you seek God primarily because you consider him useful, or because you find him beautiful?” 

There are many things about God that are useful; He is omnipotent and He is able to answer prayers, do the miraculous, help in time of need. But do you seek Him primarily for what He can do for you, or do you seek Him primarily because of who He is? 

Martin Luther and the Theology of the Cross

A theology of glory, as Martin Luther explained, most famously in his Heidelberg Disputation (1518), views God primarily as useful to you. A theology of glory, as Luther used the term, is really a theology of man’s glory. Rather than focusing on and seeking the glory of God, a theology of glory is focused on seeking your own personal glory — with Jesus as your self-help guru, who gives you a “boost” or a “shot in the arm” to help you achieve your goals and reach your potential. 

The theology of the cross, on the other hand, states that it is ultimately by looking at the cross that we learn who God is and who we are (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2). For example, the cross of Christ shows us that, as human beings, we are completely unable to save ourselves — this is why the Jesus’ death on the cross was necessary. Furthermore, it is through the cross that we come to known the depth of God’s love for us. 

The theology of the Cross understands that Jesus is your savior, not your side-kick or personal assistant. The cross causes us, as Paul the Apostle puts it in Philippians 3:3, to “glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh,” i.e. our own abilities or goodness to justify ourselves or earn God’s blessings.

As we come to see the beauty and depth of God’s love, displayed for us in the most ultimate way on the cross, it compels us to respond by surrendering our lives to Him (2 Corinthians 5:14-15). This transforms us from being people who seek to use or leverage God for our own power or glory, and who instead take up our crosses and die to ourselves, that Christ might live in us (Galatians 2:20). We do this, remembering that Jesus surrendered himself to the will of the Father, even unto death on a cross, after which God highly exalted Him (Philippians 2:8-9). Therefore, we also know that if we, rather than seeking to exalt ourselves, seek to exalt Jesus and surrender our lives to Him, God will exalt us in the end as well (1 Peter 5:6).

Useful or Beautiful?

Do you seek God primarily because you consider him useful, or because you find him beautiful? How you answer that question will have big implications for how you view God, and how your faith weathers the storms and trials of this life. For example, if you seek the Lord primarily because you find Him useful, what will happen if there is ever a time when you feel that following Jesus isn’t useful? What if God doesn’t answer your prayer in the way, or within the time frame you expected, or hoped?

If, however, by looking at the cross, you become acutely aware of the beauty of God’s heart and the depth of his love, you will have a faith that is able to weather any storm. 

By looking at the cross, we are made aware of who God is and who we are. May we look to the cross, and rather than putting confidence in our flesh, may we glory in Christ Jesus. As we look to the cross and see the beauty and love of God on display, and may it compel our hearts to live not for our own glory, but for Him who died and was raised for us.

Reformation Day: Martin Luther, the Bible, & the Gospel

Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Gospel

Originally posted on CalvaryChapel.com

If you own a Bible in your own language, it is a direct result of the Protestant Reformation, and the key figure God used to ignite that worldwide movement of returning to the Bible was Martin Luther: a German monk and professor of theology at the University of Wittenberg.

I grew up attending a Lutheran school until eighth grade. During my time there, I learned a lot about Luther, including studying his catechism. Years later, when I put my faith in Jesus and was born again, I started attending a Calvary Chapel church; and over the years, I have grown in appreciation for Martin Luther and the pivotal role he played in God’s work in the world.

The last day of October is celebrated around the world as Reformation Day, because it was on October 31, 1517, that Martin Luther set into motion the movement now known as the Reformation, by mailing a letter. Yes, you read that right: on the eve of All Saints Day (Halloween = “All Hallows Eve”), Luther mailed, not nailed, a letter.1 2

The letter was addressed to the Archbishop of Mainz,3 and Luther sent it because he wanted to alert the archbishop that plenary indulgences were being sold in the archbishop’s name by a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel had been sent from Rome the year before to sell these certificates promising the release of a soul from purgatory in exchange for their purchase, as a fundraising campaign for the building of St. Peter’s Basilica. Luther assumed the archbishop was unaware that this was going on, and that upon receiving his letter, the archbishop would tell Tetzel to cease and desist. That, however, is not what happened.

As a result of the archbishop’s inaction, Luther, as a professor, decided to organize a scholarly debate on the topic of indulgences: whether they were actually effective in procuring the release of a soul from purgatory. To this end, he wrote up what are now known as the 95 Theses, which he titled: A Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. This paper, which was posted on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, was an invitation to a scholarly debate, but in it Luther challenged both the selling of indulgences and the doctrine of purgatory as unscriptural. By doing this, Luther was challenging the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching and authority, and insisting that the Bible, not the church, should be the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes correct doctrine.

The posting of the 95 Theses is considered the spark which ignited the Protestant Reformation: a movement which sought to reform the church by shedding man-made traditions and returning to the faith which had been handed to us by God in the Holy Scriptures. 

Today, there are nearly 1 billion Protestant Christians in the world.4 In the “majority world,” including Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Muslim world5, Protestant Christianity is growing faster than any other religious movement by conversion.6

Before Luther, there were others who sought to reform the church and bring the Bible to the people. John Wycliffe (1331-1384) published the first English translation of the Bible. Jan Hus (1369-1415) taught the Bible to the common people in Prague. Peter Waldo (1140-1218) commissioned a translation of the New Testament into the local vernacular of southern France. Each of these people were persecuted for trying to put the Scriptures into the hands of the common people.

Over a century before Luther, Hus had protested the sale of plenary indulgences, pointing out that the idea that God’s favor or blessings could be earned in any way, runs contrary to the message of the gospel and the testimony of the Scriptures, and the concept of purgatory is in conflict with the biblical teaching of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement on the cross.

Martin Luther had long struggled with feelings of condemnation and inadequacy, until his own reading of the Scriptures led him to an epiphany when he read Habakkuk 2:4: “Behold, as for the proud one, His soul is not right within him; But the righteous will live by his faith.” This led Luther to the other places in the Bible where this phrase is repeated: Romans 1:17Galatians 3:11, and Hebrews 10:38 – where the message is clear: It is not by our own works that we are justified before God, but it is God who justifies us sinners as a gift of His grace, and we receive that justification by faith. After all, the Bible explains, this is how Abraham, the father of our faith, became righteous: he believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6Romans 4:322). We receive God’s righteousness, which he has provided for us in Christ, in the same way.

Luther became convinced that everyone needed to be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and he took it upon himself to translate the Bible into German, a translation that is still in use to this day. Soon the Bible was translated into other languages, including English, as the Reformation spread.

Martin Luther called people back to a belief that the Scriptures are perspicuous (clear), and can be understood by those who read them. He called us back to a belief in the inspiration and sufficiency of Scripture: that it is the ultimate rule of faith, by which we are to measure both doctrine and our lives.

In April 1521, Luther was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, at which Luther was commanded to recant his teachings. Luther refused to do so, famously stating:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason – for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves – I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant.”7

This October, as we celebrate Reformation Day, may we take the opportunity to open the Bible and read it for ourselves, and may we embrace and celebrate the message of the gospel: that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, and that we are justified freely by his grace as we trust in him by faith.

NOTES

1 Marshall, Peter. 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. OUP Oxford. 2017.

2 Little, Becky. “Martin Luther Might Not Have Nailed His 95 Theses to the Church Door.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 31, 2017. 

3 “Luther’s Letter to the Archbishop of Mainz (1517).” Historyguide.org, 2002. 

4 “Global Christianity: A Report on the Size and Distribution of the World’s Christian Population.” PewResearchCenter. Accessed December 2011. 

5 Miller, Duane A., and Patrick Johnstone. Believers in Christ from a Muslim Background: A Global Census II (2015): 2–19. academia.edu

Melton, J. Gordon (22 October 2005). Encyclopedia of Protestantism. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9780816069835 – via Google Books.

7 “Here I Stand: Martin Luther’s Reformation at 500.” Abilene Christian University Special Collections, March 11, 2019.

The Theology of Glory vs. the Theology of the Cross

In our current series at White Fields called Grace & Truth, we are studying through the book of 1 Corinthians.

This past Sunday, we studied the second half of chapter 1, in which Paul talks about “the message of the cross.” In doing so, Paul makes clear between 1:17 and 1:18 that the message of the cross is the gospel, and the gospel is the message of the cross. This message is “the power of God” for all who believe; precisely the same thing Paul says about the gospel in Romans 1:16. In other words, the gospel (the central message of Christianity) is the message of the cross.

Martin Luther wrote about the difference between a “theology of glory” and the “theology of the cross.” In this week’s Sermon Extra, I explain some of this historical context for Luther’s differentiation between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross, as well as how we can recognize theologies of glory in our modern times.

You can also listen to the podcast of this episode here:

Sermon Extra: Is the Theology of the Cross at Odds with the Theology of Glory? White Fields Community Church | A Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado

In this week's sermon extra, Pastors Nick Cady and Michael Payne discuss Martin Luther's description of Theology of Glory vs the Theology of the Cross and how it works out in modern thinking, as well as the way to be happy.  — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/whitefieldschurch/support

You can watch the entire message from this past Sunday, “The Message of the Cross & the Power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:17-31), here:

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.

Reader Questions: Evidence of Faith

Here on the site there is a feature where you can Ask a Question or Suggest a Topic.

This question was recently sent in:

Hi Pastor Nick,
Regarding James 2:14: is “works” or “deeds” limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience? Can you expand what an actual “works” is? Based on what I have researched in Strong’s [Greek & Hebrew Lexicon], this word “works” can be likened to evidence. If “works” is limited to spiritual disciplines and obedience, wouldn’t the Pharisee’s have been in the pocket when in comes to saving faith? Can a work, or evidence of saving faith be something like forgiveness, patience, or trusting belief? (John 6:28) I have been listening to you for quite some time online, and so I am thinking it could be “both”. lol. I believe that obedience and spiritual disciplines are VERY important, but they have been an overflow from my friendship with Jesus. They come very naturally to me the more time Jesus and I spend together. I have friends that tend to throw around this verse when they are not witnessing the type of obedience THEY feel should be demonstrated within the church. I tend to be very tolerable when it comes to most topics, but on this issue I get very agitated. I am not sure if it’s because I am denial, or because my friends are, in my opinion, using Scripture to justify moralism. I want to enjoy the book of James, come along side of it, not have any bitterness towards it.

Good question! It seems that James understands “works” to be outward expressions of faith. Clearly this includes acts of obedience, as James describes in chapter 2, using Abraham as an example, but it James also says that “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

As Jesus explained, sin includes not just outward actions, but thoughts of the mind and attitudes of the heart. He also taught that to not forgive is a sin. Therefore, to keep oneself unstained from the world includes forgiveness and other attitudes that pertain to holiness. As you rightly mentioned, Jesus stated that the “work” of God is to believe in Jesus whom He sent (John 6:29).

It is possible to do good works apart from faith, but, as John Calvin stated, the motivation for good works in that case will be self-justification or self-glorification. This is what the Pharisees were guilty of, and why Jesus claimed that they were lost in spite of their good works. Calvin argued for “Total Depravity,” which he understood as meaning that apart from Christ, our motives for doing good deeds are skewed, and it is only once the love of God has been poured out in our hearts that we are capable of doing good for truly pure motives.

In his commentary on Romans, Martin Luther compared works to the heat and light that are exuded by fire. You can have light apart from fire, and you can have heat apart from fire, but if you have fire, it will naturally result in heat and light. In the same way, you can have works apart from faith, but faith naturally produces works.

So, the answer to your question is: Both 🙂

Christian Responses to Plagues and Threats in the Past

A virus that affects the vulnerable, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, is a threat that we should take seriously.

As we consider how to respond to COVID-19, it is worth considering some of the responses to plagues and threats by Christians in the past.

The Plague in Rome

Jesse Lusko posted recently:

In 250 AD the plague wiped out 1/3 of the population of Rome. There was hysteria and most Romans abandoned the weak and the sickly and fled. Pagan historians record how Christians instead sacrificially cared for the sick and faced death with joy and confidence. Cyprian writes “In contrast to the prevailing despair, the Christians seemed to carry their dead in triumph.”

The Atomic Age

C. S. Lewis wrote these words in 1948 after the dawn of the atomic age:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”

In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.

This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

Luther and the Plague in Wittenberg

The Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe in the 14th century, but what many people don’t realize is that it continued to pop up at times afterwards for centuries.

In August 1527 the plague showed up in Wittenberg, leading to the closure of the university and other social institutions. People began fleeing the city in panic, and many people did get sick. In fact, the mortality rate of those who contracted the plague was 70%.

Martin Luther and his wife believed that they were called to serve the sick rather than to flee their city. They opened up their home and treated many sick people.

No one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.

In other words, Martin Luther believed there was an obligation to help those who contracted the plague, but so long as they were helped, it was a matter of conscience if one remained to aide in this great task.

He argued that it would be better for hospitals with trained staff to care for the sick, yet if one were not to be found, “…we must give hospital care and be nurses for one another.

For more on this, see: Martin Luther and His Incredible Response to the Black Plague

Conclusion for Today

As the people of God, it is important that we respond to the current situation in prayer, in faith, in service, and in generosity. We are called to look out for the weak and vulnerable among us, to be the body of Christ in the world, and to speak with a prophetic voice – proclaiming God’s words of life and the message of eternal hope in Jesus.

Halloween, Christians, and What I’ll Be Doing Tonight

45158377_10155894340260893_9149706089233645568_n

According to the Roman Catholic Church, All Saints Day (Festum Omnium Sanctorum) is celebrated on November 1, and is a day of remembrance for all those “who have obtained salvation.”

It is followed on November 2, by the Day of the Dead (Commemoratio omnium Fidelium Defunctorum), which is the “day of remembrance for those who have died, but have not yet received salvation, but are currently residing in purgatory.”1

October 31 is known as All Hallows Eve, the night before All Hallows (All Saints Day), AKA Halloween.

In the Protestant world, October 31 is Reformation Day, commemorating the day when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg castle church in 1517, which is generally acknowledged as the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

On further examination, this may not be exactly how it happened — see What Really Happened on October 31, 1517?

How Should Christians Handle Halloween?

One of the big questions I’m often asked this time of year is how Christians should relate to Halloween.

Some common reactions:

  1. Ignore it / Protest it.
    This often manifests in things like refusing to hand out candy to kids who trick or treat, turning off the lights, leaving the house, etc.
  2. Have alternative events for people to attend, such as “Trunk or Treat” in the church parking lot, or a Harvest Festival.
    These are often billed as “safe alternatives to Halloween”, which implies that going trick or treating in your neighborhood is not safe. Whether this concern is for physical safety or spiritual safety is not always clear, but my assumption is that the latter is in mind.
    Besides the fact that teaching children to go approach strangers’ cars to get candy out of their trunk is probably not the safest idea, these events try to create a fun fall atmosphere without the dark/evil underpinnings of Halloween.
    To be clear, while many churches host fall festivals, what I have in mind here is specifically those which are held on October 31 as alternative events that compete with Halloween.
  3. Celebrate it.
    Some churches straight up celebrate Halloween by having parties, etc.

A Missional Approach to Halloween

Here are a few factors to keep in mind about Halloween:

  1. We serve a God who has defeated sin, death and the devil.
    Colossians 2:15, speaking of the forces of evil, says that He (God) disarmed the rulers and authorities (evil or demonic forces) and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him (Jesus).
  2. God has left us in this world and given us a mission, to reach people in His name.
    There are certain things which you can only do in this life, which you won’t be able to do in Heaven — particularly: evangelism. Jesus himself is our example in this, that he left the security and sanctity of heaven and entered into our fallen, sinful world, full of evil and darkness, in order to bring salvation to us.
  3. This is the only day of the year, when most of your neighbors are going to come knocking on your door. The only day.
    This is missional gold! How can you use the unique opportunity that this cultural moment presents?

I certainly would agree with those who say that Christian churches should not host Halloween celebrations, however, I would argue that churches ought to encourage Christians to take advantage of this unique cultural moment for the purpose of God’s mission. Hosting alternative events on October 31 that take people out of their neighborhoods, therefore, is, in my opinion, unwise and communicates the wrong message — both to Christians and their neighbors.

What We Will Be Doing This Evening

Tonight, my two year old will be dressing up as a tiger. She told us last night that her name when she wears her costume is “Adventure Tiger”. We will be going out to our neighbors houses, knocking on their doors, chatting with them, getting to know them — and, as we do every year, we will be inviting them join us at to our church.

After that, we will put our fire pit in our driveway, start a fire in it, brew a bunch of coffee, and invite our neighbors to come hang out and chat, meet each other, talk about life, etc. — and we will pray and trust that God will use those conversations and relationships as inroads for us to ultimately share with them the hope that we have in Jesus.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the TroubleFace Mom blog:

If Jesus can go straight to hell, stare death and devil in the face, win and come back alive, can’t we open our doors to the 6 year old in a Batman costume and his shivering mom?

May God help us to make much of Jesus today (and every day)!

Is the Book of Esther Fictional? Does it Really Belong in the Bible?

esther1185a

Did you know that the Book of Esther never mentions God?

Did you know that whereas almost every Old Testament book is quoted in the New Testament, the Book of Esther is not?

Did you know that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained copies of every Old Testament book except the Book of Esther? (for more on the Dead Sea Scrolls, see: Why the Dead Sea Scrolls Matter for Christians)

The Book of Esther tells the story of a Jewish girl in Persia who becomes a queen and uses her position to save the Jewish people from an attempted genocide. This story is the basis for the Jewish holiday of Purim, a holiday which is not prescribed in the Law of Moses.

These facts, along with the lack of corresponding historical records which corroborate the events talked about in the book have led many people to question not only whether Esther is historical, but whether it belongs in the Bible at all.

Martin Luther, for example, criticized the Book of Esther, accusing it of being too aggressively nationalistic and containing no gospel content.

It isn’t only Christians who are divided over the Book of Esther; Jewish congregations are also divided over whether Esther is a true story or a fable, and whether it belongs in the canon of Scripture (e.g. the Orthodox Union considers it historical and canonical, whereas the Assembly of True Israel considers it neither historical nor canonical).

Let’s consider the relevant questions:

Is Esther Historical?

The Book of Esther focuses on a ten year period (483-473 B.C.) in the Persian Empire during the reign of Ahasuerus, also known as Xerxes.

The book contains several historical, chronological and cultural details, which would lead us to believe that it is intended to be read as actual history, rather than as a parable. As in the case of Jonah (see: Is Jonah a Historical Account or an Allegory?), specific historical and geographical details are characteristic of historical narratives and not of allegorical stories (e.g. the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son).

In Esther 1:1 we read an accurate description of the extent of Xerxes’ empire, in 1:2 we read about the location of the seat of the Persian government, and in 1:3-4, we read that in the third year of his reign, Xerxes gave a banquet for all his officials and servants, including the army of Persia and Media. The reason this is important is that it coincides with the accounts of the historian Herodotus which tell us that Xerxes’ second invasion of Greece took place from 480 to 479 B.C., which means that this great gathering mentioned in Esther 1:3-4, which verse 4 says lasted 180 days, is likely describing the preparation for that military invasion of Greece.

According to Herodotus, Xerxes began his return to Persia after his defeat by the Greek navy at Salamis at the end of 480 B.C. The dismissal of Queen Vashti, described in Esther chapter 1, would correspond to this timeline, having happened just before Xerxes departure to Greece, and his encounter with Esther would have happened just after his return. Herodotus claims that Xerxes “sought consolation in his harem after his defeat at Salamis,” which corresponds with what the Book of Esther describes and the time when Esther would have become queen.

Despite the clear historical setting, no outside sources exist which tell us about Esther becoming queen or about the killing of 75,000 Persians. However, it seems that the author’s intent is to relay historical events, and while corroborating sources do not exist, the same is also true of other historical accounts, including those of Herodotus.

Thus, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence which would lead us to believe that Esther is not a historical account, and where historical accounts from this period do exist, they line up with the historical, cultural and geographical details that Esther gives.

Why is Esther in the Bible if it doesn’t mention God?

Esther was recognized as scripture by the Jews before the time of Christ. Josephus, the Jewish historian, says that the Jewish Scriptures were written from the time of Moses “until Artaxerxes,” whom Josephus identifies as the “Ahasuerus” in the book of Esther (Against Apion 1.40-41 & Jewish Antiquities 11.184). Therefore, Josephus understood Esther to be the last book to be written in the Jewish canon.

In the Christian church, Esther was listed among the books of the Old Testament canon at the Council of Carthage in A.D. 397, but was widely accepted by Christians as canonical long before that because of its inclusion in the Jewish Old Testament canon.

Although God is not named in the book, God is not absent from the story. Like in the story of Joseph, Esther is a story which highlights the providence, or the “invisible hand of God” at work in the world, ordering and ordaining events to happen according to His divine plan.

Many scholars believe that the absence of the word “God” from Esther was not a mistake, but was an intentional literary device, aimed at focusing attention on the importance of human initiative and divine providence. The sheer number of “coincidences” in the Book of Esther beg the reader to take notice of the invisible hand of God at work to bring about salvation and justice.

Does Esther contain any gospel content?

Contrary to Martin Luther’s claim that Esther does not contain any gospel content, the story actually contains very many foreshadowings of the salvation which Jesus will bring. Consider, for example the basic elements of the story:

There is an enemy of the people who wants to kill and destroy them. God raises up a savior at just the right time, who uniquely has access to the throne of the great king, who alone can save the people from this impending doom. This savior, at risk to herself, enters into the throne-room of the king and intercedes on behalf of her people, thus securing their salvation. The evil-doers, who throughout the story seemed to act unencumbered, receive the pronouncement of judgment from the king.

Furthermore, we see how the evil Haman desired to be treated as royalty even though he was not. In this we have a contrast with the one who was indeed royalty, but set aside his privileges in order to become a servant so that He might save us (see Philippians 2:3-11 and Matthew 20:28).

Finally, we see in Esther an example of God’s faithfulness to His covenant people.

Conclusion

Because of the scarcity of historical accounts and the lack of thoroughness of those which exist, it would be unwise for us to assume that this story is not historical just because we have not yet found other accounts which corroborate certain aspects of this story. The fact that some parts of the story do have corroborating historical evidence and accounts should give us confidence that Esther is a historical story about actual events – which ultimately are part of the picture and foreshadowing of the Great Savior who has now come: Jesus Christ, who entered into the throne room of God to make intercession for us, that through Him we might be saved from the great enemies of our souls.

Theological Method and the Leaning Tower of Pisa

leaning-tower-of-pisa-world-best-heritage-696x391

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa is not the only leaning tower in Pisa? There are actually several leaning towers in Pisa as a result of the soft soil in that area.

Did you know that the Leaning Tower of Pisa originally leaned in the other direction? As the builders saw the tower beginning to lean, they built the subsequent levels with one side higher in an attempt to straighten it out by putting more weight on the one side. It ended up being an overcorrection which resulted in the tower leaning in the opposite direction, in which it currently leans.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa as a Picture of the Importance of Theological Method

In my studies at LST I have been studying the topic of theological method. Everyone who thinks about God or the Bible does so methodologically, although they do so with varying degrees of self-awareness and consistency.

There are 5 universally recognized sources of theology: Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience and Community.

The way in which a person orders these, the role they believe each of these play, how much importance or credence they give to each one, and how they believe each relates to the other are the questions that go into play in one’s theological method.

Basically: theological method is about the foundations of how we think about God and the Bible.

What we learn from the Leaning Tower of Pisa is that foundations are pretty important. And what happens if you build on a poor foundation, or don’t take care about the foundation you lay – the mistakes the builders in Pisa made – then you will likely end up with a faulty edifice.

Another thing that can happen if you don’t pay attention to foundations is that, like in Pisa, you will end up trying to save your edifice by trying to compensate or over-correct, in which case you may end up leaning in the opposite direction. As Martin Luther said, many of us are like a drunk man trying to ride a horse, who – upon falling off the one side, resolves not to make that mistake again, so he remounts, careful to avoid falling of on the left, and promptly falls off on the right.

A proper theological method will always be driven by Scripture. Reason is a God-given ability which helps us understand His divine revelation, but one which does have its limits in fallen humanity. Tradition is about recognizing the historic interpretations of the Bible by the Body of Christ, such as the Trinity. Again, tradition is not without its errors either, as it has humanity’s fingerprints on it, so this cannot be what drives our theology either. Experience is effective in confirming what we read in Scripture, but what about when we feel something that seems contrary to what the Bible teaches? In these cases, we are to interpret our experiences by the Scriptures, not the other way around. And our community obviously shapes how we read Scripture, but we are to apply the Scriptures to our times and places rather than changing our understandings of Biblical truths based on present cultural mores. Scripture, God’s revelation of Himself, is the proper foundation.

Here is a short video about the Leaning Tower of Pisa: