Christianity Through Roman Eyes: What Does a Pagan Roman Letter from 111 A.D. Tell Us About Early Christians?

Alexamenos Graffiti

The earliest known mention of Christians by a Roman appears in a letter by Pliny, a Roman governor of Asia Minor – what is now part of modern Turkey.  The letter is actually the second earliest writing about Christianity by a non-Christian, the first being from about 90-95 AD by Josephus, a Jewish writer.

Pliny’s letter was written in 111 AD, which puts it immediately after the New Testament era. At this point in history, the last “books” of the New Testament were written and the last of the Apostles would’ve died off not long before this.

Pliny is writing to Emperor Trajan for advice about dealing with this strange new group of people called Christians. The letter gives us some interesting insights into the earliest Christians.

THE SITUATION 

Pliny writes in the letter:

“For the moment, this is the line I have taken with all persons brought before me on the charge of being Christians. I have asked them in person if they are Christians, and if they admit it, I repeat the question a second and a third time, with a warning of the punishment awaiting them. If they persist, I order them to be led away for execution; for whatever the nature of their admission, I am convinced that their stubbornness and unshakable obstinacy ought not to go unpunished.

“Now that I have begun to deal with this problem, as so often happens, the charges are becoming more widespread and increasing in variety. An anonymous pamphlet has been circulated which contains the names of a number of accused persons. Among these I felt that I should dismiss any who denied that they were or ever had been Christians when they had repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and had made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had ordered to be brought into court for this purpose along with the images of the gods), and furthermore had reviled the name of Christ—none of which things, I understand, any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

“Others, whose names were given to me by an informer, first admitted the charge and then denied it; they said that they had ceased to be Christians two or more years previously, and some of them even twenty years ago. They all did reverence to your statue and the images of the gods in the same way as the others, and reviled the name of Christ.”

So, people are being accused of being Christians and Pliny is having them brought before him.  Obviously, something about these Christians is causing the pagan Romans concern, even to the point of having pamphlets published naming names of supposed Christians.

Those accused of being Christians were ordered by Pliny to worship and pray to pagan idols of Roman gods (likely Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, etc.) and a statue of the Emperor Trajan and to curse the name of Christ, things no “genuine Christian” would do. Some of these accused Christians obey Pliny and other do not. Those that refused, Pliny states plainly, were led off to execution.

EARLY CHRISTIAN PRACTICES DESCRIBED

Pliny receives (and, thus, so do we) some interesting insights into early Christianity from the questioning of those who claimed they had once been Christians but no longer.

Pliny continues:

“They also declared that the sum total of their guilt or error amounted to no more than this: they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately among themselves in honor of Christ as if to a god,”

This is interesting because many skeptics try to claim that the idea that Jesus Christ is God developed long after – even centuries after – Christianity originated. In other words, they claim the first Christians didn’t believe Jesus was God, but as time passed and legends grew, Jesus Christ became God. Yet, here we have a non-Christian witness telling us Christians worshipped Jesus as God at the very beginning of the second century. And, clearly, this was a practice that had to be going on before the letter was written, which places this practice of worshipping Jesus as God even earlier.

Pliny continues:

“and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called on to restore it. After this ceremony it had been their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind;”

Several things are interesting to note here.

First, when Christians would gather, they worshipped Christ and made oaths to follow biblical morality (which included being honest with money [“to not deny a deposit when called on to restore it”]). Then, they would gather again at a later time for a shared meal. We read in the Book of Acts that sharing meals was a regular part of living as the local church for the first Christians (Acts 2:46).

It’s a bit humorous in hindsight that Pliny describes the food of the Christians as “ordinary” and “harmless.” There were rumors back then that this strange new cult of Christians were cannibals. That may sound crazy to many of us today, but when you take into account the Christian ordinance of communion (The Lord’s Supper), where Christians symbolically eat the “flesh” (bread) and drink the “blood” (wine) of Christ, one can understand how such a rumor could begin. Communion is a ritual implemented by Christ himself to be done to remember his self-sacrifice upon the cross for the forgiveness of sins (Matt 26:26-28; 1 Cor 11:23-26). Such a rumor starting among those unfamiliar with Christian practices and beliefs makes perfect sense.

“but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies.”

These Christians had met for shared meals, but they ceased meeting like this because Pliny outlawed similar meetings for political reasons. The Roman authority didn’t want any competition, so “political societies” were outlawed. Though the Christians were not getting together for political reasons, their gatherings for meals shared enough characteristics with these political clubs for them to be in violation of the law, so the Christians ceased to meet in this way.

The point we should note: with the exception of worshipping the Roman gods and emperor, the Christians were law-abiding.

“This made me decide that it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses.”

Here, we see that both slaves and women held the position of deacon in the early church.

WHEN DOWN IS UP AND UP IS DOWN

Pliny ends this section of his letter by concluding:

“I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”

To close, we must note the irony. After laying out that the Christians are an honest, moral, harmless, law-abiding people, this Roman, who doesn’t hesitate to execute or torture them, describes them as a “degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths”!

Keep in mind, “cult” for most of history is a neutral term without the largely negative connotation that it holds today. “Cult” simply means a religious group devoted to a certain deity or person. Thus, Christians are quite literally members of the cult of Jesus Christ.

But it should also be noted that “cult” may not be the best translation here. The Greek word used is actually superstitio, which can be translated “superstition.” All three Roman writers who mention Christianity in the beginning of the second century (Pliny, Tacitus, Suetonius) describe the group as superstitio. Superstitio “referred to beliefs and practices that were foreign and strange to the Romans” [1] and was a term with a negative connotation.

Where we may think pagans would be open to other forms of religious faith, the Romans considered themselves extremely pious according to their religion and looked at foreign faiths with suspicion. Yet, as long as those foreign faiths also honored the Roman gods, they were tolerated. In the eyes of the Romans, the exclusivity of the Christians’ beliefs put their very society and culture at risk by offending their gods.

Despite this, early Christianity grew and spread in this environment, ultimately changing the culture around it.

So, in a way, the Romans were right to fear the Christians as a threat to their way of life.

 

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

Read Part 2: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

[1] The Christians As the Romans Saw Them by Robert Louis Wilken – Second Edition, Yale university Press, 2003 P.49-50

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Does Mark, the Earliest Gospel, Have a Divine Jesus? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol in his 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims makes a common claim of those who want to challenge the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. Akyol claims that the belief that Jesus is God was a later development that was not held by the first Christians.

According to Akyol, as Christianity spread from the Jews to the pagan Romans, Jesus’ status was raised to divine. He writes, “…the more Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and planted itself on Hellenistic soil, the more it perceived Jesus as divine. This was no preplanned scheme, but the natural result of transferring monotheistic Jewish concepts to a polytheistic Gentile setting” (P.47).

Since the Gospel of John is understood to be the last gospel written and the gospel that most explicitly teaches that Jesus is divine, Akyol argues that Jesus’ divinity was a later development. He writes, “Among the four gospels, the one that has the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any, is Mark [the first gospel to be written]… Yet when we come to Matthew and Luke… the emphasis on Jesus as a suprahuman being increases,” finally evolving into the more obvious teaching of Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel (P.48).

Akyol is right that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel (though some make good arguments that Matthew is the earliest), and the majority of scholars agrees that John was written last, as well as John focuses the most on the divinity of Christ.

But is Jesus’ divinity NOT found in Mark, the earliest gospel? 

In our last article, we already saw how Akyol is wrong about the Epistle of James not holding to the divinity of Jesus, and James is one of the earliest – and likely thee earliest – work in the New Testament, a fact Akyol himself emphasizes.

So, how about the earliest historical narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of Mark? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel and see what it has to say for itself.

 

Jesus’ Divinity in Mark? You Don’t Have to Look Long

If we look at Mark, we don’t have to look far to find Jesus’ divinity. In fact, we only need to look at the first three verses:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Right off the bat in 1:1 we have an expression to describe Jesus that Muslims do not like: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet, even Christians may understand this not as a divine title but as a title that can be applied to the Jewish, strictly human Messiah. So, let’s put that phrase “Son of God” aside for now and look at the rest of 1:1-3.

It’s interesting that Mark chose to begin his account of the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Mark conflates two OT passages: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. As you read on, it’s clear that Mark is applying these OT passages to John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist is “the messenger… who will prepare your way.”

So, we have to ask: who is “your” a reference to?

Let’s continue on to 1:3 to find out: John is the one to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, no one can read any of the four gospels and come to any conclusion other than that John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the Lord.

Further, when we turn to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the OT and read them in context, who is the messenger of these passages preparing the way for? God. The LORD. Yahweh – the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. The God of Abraham and Moses. There is no controversy about this; it’s a plain as day. In Malachi 3:1, the Lord Yahweh is speaking: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah writes in 40:3: “…prepare the way of the LORD [literally: Yahweh]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So we see, not even four verses into Mark’s gospel, Akyol’s argument is already destroyed. Mark begins his gospel by telling his audience that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God, Jesus Christ. 

 

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Another claim Muslims like Akyol like to make is that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Thus, Mark – the author – may have claimed Jesus is God, but Jesus never did. Yet, when we read Mark’s account carefully, we see Jesus claimed divinity by both his actions and words. Let’s look at three examples of this:

And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)

Akyol may not understand the significance of what Jesus is doing, but Jesus’ fellow Jews certainly did because God is the only savior (Isaiah 43:11, 25). For a man to claim to forgive sins, something only God can do, is blasphemy – as Jesus’ 1st Century audience clearly understands. By claiming he has the authority to forgive sins, Jesus is claiming divinity.

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

In 14:62, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself) of Daniel 7:13-14. This Son of Man is described as a being who comes into the presence of God without being destroyed; yet, no sinful human can come into God’s perfect presence without being destroyed. Further, this being is also given glory in God’s presence. Can anyone be given glory other than God is God’s presence? God shares his glory with no one! (See Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; also see John 17:1-5.)  Again, Jesus’ fellow Jews understand that he is making a claim of divinity, as we see by their strong reactions and accusations of blasphemy.

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:36–41)

Now, ask yourself, when the men in the boat witnessed Jesus calm the storm with a verbal command, how would they – all first century Jews, let me remind you – answer the question Mark ends this episode with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus was showing these men something, and these men where NOT Roman pagans or twenty-first century Westerners, but Scripture-reading and -believing Jews; thus, they would understand this “something” as first century Jews.

So, how would they understand this?

First, in the very first words written in the Jewish Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) God creates all things by simply speaking them into existence. Take note that Jesus does not pray to God to calm the storm; he simply speaks.

Furthermore, Psalm 107:23-32 tells of God controlling a storm at sea. Verse 29 reads, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Finally, one cannot read the details of this account and not think of the Book of Jonah. Jonah unwisely attempts to escape God’s commission by fleeing by boat to a faraway land. Because of this, God sends a storm, which Jonah sleep through, only to be awoken by the crew of the ship in a panic. Jonah knows the storm was sent by God because of his disobedience and, thus, tells the pagans to throw him overboard to save their lives. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm immediately stops. The pagans, in turn, worship Jonah’s God.

So, again, I ask: how would a 1st Century Jew answer: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The answer is clear: God.

Akyol’s Big Mistake

As we discussed in an earlier article on Akyol’s understanding of the NT letter of James, Akyol makes the mistake of assuming every work in the NT was written to convey the same message to the same audience, and every NT writing should cover the entirety of Christian theology. This is not the case.

For instance, Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, so it appears his primary audience were Jews, so he focuses primarily on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. Yet, even Matthew portrays Jesus as God in the same ways Mark and Luke do, and at the end of Matthew we have the unignorable Trinitarian proclamation by the resurrected Jesus to baptize in the singular name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, Akyol does quote historian Larry Hurtado, who writes “a remarkable level of devotion to Jesus erupted in the earliest years of the Christian movement,” and Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham, who states, “the earliest christology was already the highest.” But other than these cursory mentions, Akyol ignores any historical scholarship contrary to his theory and quickly moves on.

Yet, let me point out that Akyol himself says that the Gospel of Mark has “the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any.” Thus, even Akyol seems to begrudgingly admit that Mark may contain a divine Jesus.

Finally, isn’t even just ONE reference to Jesus’ divinity in a gospel enough to establish it? If I, for instance, only mentioned once in a story that a woman is pregnant, wouldn’t that be sufficient to establish for the whole of the story that the woman is pregnant? As we saw, Mark begins his gospel by making it clear that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God.

To try to invalidate the witness of the gospels to Jesus’ divinity by arguing that earlier gospels contain less about Jesus’ divinity is like arguing that you’re “kind of” pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and you are either God or you’re not. All four Gospels witness to Jesus’ divinity. The amount of space each gives to it is irrelevant to the discussion.

Read: James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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Confidence in Christ v2

Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – Would Ancient Jews or Romans Invent a Crucified God?

Alexamenos Graffiti

As we explore what the ancient Romans thought of Christians, it’s worth taking a little more time to speak of the absurdity to Roman sensibilities that Christians would worship a crucified person.

Crucifixion – It Ain’t Pretty

One doesn’t have to contemplate crucifixion long to grasp the ultimate horror of it. Simply imagine being laid out naked on a rough wooden beam and spikes being driven through your wrists or forearms and feet or ankles. Some ropes may be used to prevent your flesh from ripping to prevent you from falling from the cross once it has been stood upright. As gravity pulls your bodyweight down on the stakes that have been driven through your flesh and bones, then begins the long wait for your slow death to play out – in public for all to see, in the heat of the sun and chill of the night.

A small, slanted piece of wood for your feet to sit on helps support a bit of your weight. Some studies say the weight of your body and the position of your outstretched arms may have made it hard to breath, and thus, the crucified would have to push up on the spikes piercing their feet and pull up on the spikes through their arms to raise their bodies enough to a position to take in good, deep breaths of air.

Torture usually preceded crucifixion. With the Romans, this often came in the form of being beaten by a leather whip with bits of metal and bones weaved into it to rip the flesh, exposing muscle and bone. Once hung on the cross, the cause of death could be many things: shock from loss of blood, exhaustion, suffocation, exposure, or any combination.

What Did Ancient People Think of Crucifixion?

Martin Hengel in his book Crucifixion: In the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross looks at ancient historical sources and brings to light several things about this cruelest form of execution.

Crucifixion, wide-spread in antiquity, was seen as the ultimate deterrent. A risk that may lead one to be put up on that cross was a risk not worth taking. The cruel and public (not to mention inexpensive) nature of crucifixion was an appealing tool in keeping order. After being tortured, the Romans made the victim carry his own cross to the crucifixion location. After death, the executed was left on the cross as food for wild animals and birds of prey. To ancient people, the victim going unburied would have grim religious significance. It was all a brutal, public spectacle.

In the Roman Empire, the elite inflicted crucifixion primarily on the lower classes (especially slaves), violent criminals, and rebellious upstarts. Such criminals held no rights in the Roman world, and any challenge to the Roman authority would not be tolerated.

What Hengel displays convincingly is that crucifixion was the ultimate humiliation and offense to the Romans. It was a slave’s death. It had such a stigma, the word “crucifixion” itself was not used in polite company. Even writings mentioning this horrible practice avoided using the word. Among the lower classes “crux” was considered one of the most derogatory, offensive things you could say to a person. Having a family member hung on a cross was disgraceful. In no uncertain terms, crucifixion was scandalous to the ancient Romans (and Jews) and a source of dread.

Why is this significant to Christians today?

First, if the first Christians of the first century had decided to invent a story so they could start a new religion (for whatever motivation), creating a story about a crucified God-man who rose from the dead would not be the way to do it. In fact, it would be a good way to make sure your new religion died a quick death. The idea of following the teachings of a crucified man would have been scandalous and offensive to the extreme. If a Jewish or Roman family would have been ashamed and humiliated knowing one of their own family members had been punished by crucifixion, why would anyone want to adamantly declare that they worship a crucified person?  The idea of worshiping a crucified God-man would sound more absurd to ancient Jewish and Roman ears than to modern, secular ears.

Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1:

18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… 

21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Our second concluding point is this: when we get a clearer understanding of the terror and dehumanizing nature of crucifixion, we understand more fully the length Christ went to because of his love for us. Hengel writes, “Death on the cross was the penalty for slaves, as everyone knew; as such it symbolized extreme humiliation, shame and torture.”

“Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,] but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:6-11)

Read Part 1: Christianity Through Roman Eyes: The Absurdity of the Cross – What Does a Piece of Ancient Graffiti Tell Us About Christianity?

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The New Paganism (Part 6) Are the Old Testament Faithful Damned Because They Lived Before Christ?

New Paganism Blog_02

The Old Testament Saints

Are the people faithful to God in the Old Testament still damned because they lived before the saving work and death of Christ? This is a question often asked by both Christians and skeptics. The quick answer is: No, they are not damned. The Old Testament faithful are saved by the work of Christ.

To conclude this series on pluralism and inclusivism, we’ll look at one more inclusivist claim of scholar Clark Pinnock. His inclusivist view proposes that one does not have to believe in Christ specifically to be saved, and one way he supports his argument is by pointing to the faithful who are saved in the Old Testament before the coming of Christ.

Surely, Pinnock claims, many loyal people of God written about in the Old Testament had saving faith long before Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. I believe he is correct here, as well see by the biblical evidence below.

Pinnock and other inclusivists name Abraham as a prime example. They are right in that Abraham had saving faith before Christ, but they are overlooking important details. Abraham was not a faithful “pagan saint” who came to salvation through his paganism.

First, Abraham came into a covenantal relationship with God by the self-disclosure of God himself, which is an example of special, not general, revelation. Abraham was likely a pagan before God revealed himself to him in Genesis 12, and all evidence indicates that not only did God initiate this relationship but also Abraham was not chosen for any particularly reason, including any sort of righteous behavior.

Secondly, this means Abraham clearly had correct information about God, which—as we have seen—is a requirement for salvation.

Thirdly, Abraham had faith in God’s promises, which would include looking forward to Christ, a promise going all the way back to the Fall in Genesis 3:15. God promises Abraham that through him all the families of the world would be blessed (Gen. 12:3), and Abraham “believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Immediately following this in 15:7–21, God and Abraham partake in a clear covenantal-sealing ceremony, and we see another covenantal milestone, symbolized by circumcision, between God and Abraham in 17:1–4.

Finally, Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promises. Jesus says in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

We also see this idea in the Book of Hebrews: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.” (Hebrews 1:1-2). Take a moment to read Hebrews 10:1-18, where this fleshed out.

Interestingly, Pinnock cites Romans 4:1–25 to support his view, but Romans 4:20–25 actually counters his view. Paul writes, Abraham had “[n]o unbelief… concerning the promise of God” (4:20), and he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised” (4:21).

Abraham is not an example of an adherent of another faith moved to saving faith by the Holy Spirit; quite the contrary, he is a man in covenantal relationship with the true God through the self-disclosure of that one true God, and a man with complete faith in the promises of God (Heb. 11:17–19), which include the promise of the coming Christ.

If there is any question about this, Jesus himself says to his fellow Jews in John 8:56, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”

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“The Faith Hall of Fame”

Hebrews 11, sometimes nicknamed “The Faith Hall of Fame,” mentions many Old Testament saints who lived in faith. As with Abraham, inclusivists cannot use this to support their case; all those Old Testament saints mentioned knew the God of the Bible, not some generic god or false faith, and believed in God’s promises.

Wellum writes, “[T]he entire context of Hebrews 11 describes a ‘faith’ which is rooted in God’s covenant promises, now brought to fulfillment in Christ.” Hebrews 11 starts by making this clear enough: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation” (11:1–2). “Commendation” is defined as an award involving praise and can be also translated as “approval.” Likewise, Hebrews 11:13 tells us, “These [Old Testament saints] all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar.”

Their faith was not in some false religion with some partial truth about God; as in all of the Old Testament, their faith was specifically rooted in the one true God and his promises of salvation.

Thus, Abraham was justified by faith alone, which is confirmed by Paul (Rom. 4:1–25), and Paul confirms believers before Christ are destined to become “sons” (Gal. 3:23; 4:1). Hebrews 11:39–40 confirms that other Jews and pagans were saved by their faith before the coming of Jesus.

Conclusion

In closing, a careful reading of the Bible shows that Pinnock’s inclusivist interpretations of Scripture are not biblical. One must have knowledge of Jesus Christ to benefit from his salvific work, and the Holy Spirit only works in giving saving faith in connection to Christ. The idea of “pagan saints” in the New Testament era is unfounded, and Old Testament saints were saved by God’s self-disclosure and their faith in God’s future promise of salvation through Christ.

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 3: The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 4: The New Paganism (Part 4) Does the Holy Spirit Work Apart from Christ?

Read Part 5: The New Paganism (Part 5) Saved Pagans in the New Testament?

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The New Paganism (Part 3) Exclusivism: Why is Jesus Needed for Salvation?

New Paganism Blog_02

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Inclusivism VS. Exclusivism

In article #2 of this series, we started exploring the idea of inclusivism – the idea that salvation can be attained apart from the knowledge of Jesus (though Jesus’ work was necessary for salvation to be available, even if through a faith other than Christianity). So, we asked, “Is this idea biblical?”

We concluded inclusivism does NOT hold up under biblical scrutiny and concluded that the clear stance of the Bible is exclusivism: salvation is only found in faith in Christ alone.

Before we move on in this series, I wanted to quickly give one more explanation why Christianity is an exclusivist religion.

It comes down to this: Christianity isn’t exclusivist because certain verses say so; Christianity is exclusivist because the whole biblical explanation of reality leads to exclusivism. Those verses we looked at in the last article are simply confirming the exclusivist storyline of the Bible.

And it comes down to three things:

the nature of God,

the nature of humankind, and

the nature of Christ.

If what the Bible says about the nature of God and the nature humankind are true, then the ONLY hope for salvation is Jesus Christ.

 

THE NATURE OF GOD

First, God is perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just.

 

THE NATURE OF HUMANKIND

Secondly, all of humankind has sin. Thus, all of humanity – every individual human being – is separated from our perfectly good, righteous, holy, and just God. To deny this is to not have a high enough view of God or a low enough view of sin.

Separation from God due to sin is the current state of every human (apart from Jesus Christ), and once they die, they will continue to be separated from God. Thus, we need a savior.

This answers a common misunderstanding I hear often from those who are offended by the exclusivism of Christianity. The mistaken idea is that God condemns those who don’t believe in Jesus Christ because they don’t believe in Jesus, as if God chose belief in Jesus as some random reason for condemning people to hell. But humankind is ALREADY condemned because of sin. Jesus Christ is NOT the CAUSE of damnation but the CURE.

So, then the question is: WHY? Why must one believe in Jesus Christ to have salvation? Why can’t someone follow another spiritual teacher? Or, why can’t someone even follow, say, Moses instead – after all, both Moses and Jesus serve the same God?

 

THE NATURE OF CHRIST

Jesus Christ is exclusively the God-man. The second person of the Triune God took on flesh and became a man. He is completely God and completely man.

This God-man lived a perfect life that none of us can and died a death he didn’t deserve. As fully man, he can represent humankind. As fully eternal God, his sacrifice can cover us all and all our sins.

The separation between God and humankind could only be bridged by Jesus Christ, the only God-man. The exclusive gift of salvation could only be won by the exclusive God-man.

This is why Christianity is exclusivist.

The gift of salvation can be attained alone by faith in the only one who could attain it.

Thus, if all that the Bible says is true – about the nature of God, man, and the God-man – then Christianity must be exclusivist.

NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Read Part 2: The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Learn more about Who Jesus Ain’t here.

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The New Paganism (Part 2) Inclusivism: Is Knowledge of Jesus Needed for Salvation?

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

The New Paganism

As our culture becomes more post-modern—as well as post-Christian—in mindset, both traditional religions and unambiguous atheism are being rejected by many and an undefined spirituality—a fuzzy spiritual agnosticism—has been embraced, which lives by the axiom, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”

For all practical purposes, they live as atheists within secular society but still embrace some self-defined form of spirituality. In many ways, Western Christians are living in a culture that is increasingly like the culture the first Christians lived in: a pagan culture. The only thing forbidden in this new paganism is believing your faith is the only true faith.

In the first article, we examined pluralism and its close cousin universalism to see if they were compatible with the Christian worldview. In the following articles, we’ll be looking at the claims of inclusivism, another cousin of the new paganism.

The Nuanced View: Inclusivism

As we saw in the last articlepluralism and universalism are clearly not Christian beliefs; the only way a Christian can subscribe to either view is to disregard much of the Bible. But what about the less extreme view of inclusivism?

Inclusivism is the belief that Jesus Christ’s life and work achieved salvation, but one does not have to believe in Christ to be saved. One can be saved by faithfully following another religion or through general revelation. General revelation is the idea that we can know certain things about God through nature and/or our innate senses.

Inclusivism is a much more conservative view than pluralism and universalism, and an inclusivist often holds to a higher view of Scripture. The inclusivist believes Jesus when he said “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) and Peter when he says “there is salvation in no one else” but Jesus (Acts 4:12). Yet, the inclusivist diverges subtly from the traditional exclusivist view and says, Yes, salvation is only possible because of Jesus, but one does not have to specifically believe in Jesus to benefit from his salvation.

One of the most respected scholars for presenting an argument for inclusivism is Clark Pinnock; therefore, his arguments will be considered for the rest of this series.

We will address Pinnock’s inclusivism by addressing 4 questions throughout the articles in this series:

(1) Is knowledge of Jesus needed for salvation? 

(2) Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation? 

(3) Are there pagans in the New Testament who gained salvation through other faiths?

(4) Are all the faithful people in the Old Testament damned to hell simply because they lived before the life and work of Jesus Christ?

 

Saved Apart From Christ

“The saving grace of God can be effective through a person’s relationship to God as creature in advance of conversion to Christ,” Pinnock states in his chapter on inclusivism in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World. 

He is careful to point out that inclusivism does not blindly cast a blanket over all religions as equally valid or even good. He admits there are certainly negative aspects, untruths, errors, and dangers in other religions. Contra pluralism, Pinnock confirms that all paths to God are not equally valid and a criterion is needed to discern truth and error (1 John 4:1). Political correctness and blind tolerance, he writes, are not always virtues. He confirms that Jesus is Lord of all and the standard of truth in all religions.

Yet, according to Pinnock, God may use other religions to bring a person to salvation. Christianity is not just the fulfillment of Judaism, but “in some way” the fulfillment of “all religious aspiration and the human quest.” At one point, he refers to religious non-Christians as “’not yet’ Christians.” 

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The Need to Know

The validity of Pinnock’s inclusivism can be determined by answering one question: Is knowledge of Christ required for salvation? 

Interestingly, in his chapter in Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Pinnock cites 1 John 4:1 (“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.“) when stating that we must test all religious claims. Yet, if we continue reading, 1 John 4:2–3 stands in clear opposition of his inclusivist views:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist…”

John goes on to explain in 4:6 that this is the ultimate test of whether one knows God or does not:

“We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.” (4:6)

Immediately, we find Pinnock’s case at a biblical disadvantage!

Pinnock clearly believes that the Holy Spirit can give saving faith to someone who has never heard of Christ. Pinnock differentiates between the work of Christ for salvation and the knowledge of Christ for salvation; Christ’s work made salvation possible, but one does not have to know of Christ’s work to benefit from it, according to Pinnock.

Conversely, as we saw above, 1 John 4 states one must confess belief in Jesus Christ to truly know God. Clearly, in order to confess Christ, one must know of Christ.

An inclusivist may dismiss verses like Romans 10:9 (“because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved“) by saying that the verse doesn’t state one must confess and believe to be saved or Romans 10:9 doesn’t say only those who confess and believe are saved, yet 1 John 4:2-3 makes a clear contrast.

Likewise, 1 John 5:12 states, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Both 1 John 4:2–3 and 5:12 are clearly “either/or” statements, not “both/and” statements.

Commenting on the exclusivity of 1 John 5:12, John Stott explains, “We cannot escape its logic. Eternal life is in God’s Son and may be found nowhere else. It is impossible to have life without having Christ as it is to have Christ without thereby having life also.”

Furthermore, one does not have to read far after Romans 10:9 to find 10:13–14, which lays out that the gospel must be preached, heard, and believed in order for someone to be saved:

For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? (Romans 10:13-14)

Paul concludes in 10:17, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.

Additionally, shortly after one of the most famous proclamations of salvation through belief in Christ, John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”), we find John 3:18. Again, an inclusivist may say John 3:16 never explicitly says that belief in Christ is the only way to salvation, but John 3:18 states, “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

The key phrase here is “condemned already.” Christ is the only solution to the state of condemnation. Since all people are sinful and separated from God by that sin without exception (Romans 3:23), without specific belief in the Son of God that condemnation remains.

Furthermore, in John 3:33–34, 36, we read, “Whoever receives his [Christ’s] testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure… Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”

The Gospel Call

When ordering the teachings of the Bible into a systematic theology, what is often referred to as the gospel call is placed immediately before regeneration (i.e. being born again). The gospel call is – of course – communicated, which means it’s a clear exchange of giving and receiving information about Christ so the non-Christian hearer may be saved.

Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology states, “Anyone who comes to Christ for salvation must have at least a basic understanding of who Christ is and how he meets our needs for salvation.” Grudem cites the following three pieces of knowledge as essential for salvation:

(1) All people have sinned (Rom. 3:23);

(2) The penalty for sin is death (Rom. 6:23); and

(3) Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Rom. 5:8).

Along with this information comes a personal invitation to receive the free gift of salvation through Christ, and thus a personal response, based on the knowledge received, is needed (John 1:11–12; Rev. 3:20, 22:17). 

Grudem, citing Romans 10:14 (How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?”), emphasizes the absolute importance of the gospel call because if a person never hears, how can he be saved? In other words, without the knowledge of Christ, there is no salvation. In the same way, John Frame in his Systematic Theology places the gospel call before regeneration.

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The Big Picture of the Bible

Along with the explicit verses we looked at above, which are enough to discount inclusivism, exclusivism — the belief that there is only one true faith — is taught throughout the Bible. Throughout both the Old and New Testament there are many warnings against following false gods, false prophets, and false faiths.

In Exodus 20:3, the first of the Ten Commandments says there are to be no other gods worshipped other than the one true God (Isa. 43:10, 44:6), and the second commandment forbids worshipping idols (Exod. 20:4-5). The Shema, arguably the most important group of verses to Jews, states God alone is to be worshipped (Deut. 6:4), which is echoed by Paul about the Father and the Son in 1 Corinthians 8:6. In John 4:22, Jesus bluntly tells the Samarian woman “salvation is from the Jews,” instead of saying something, like “salvation is found in many faiths.”

Yes, general revelation appears to have instilled some truths in non-Christian faiths (and even secular thought) as we see in Paul’s interaction with the Athenians in Acts 17, but the overall view in Scripture of other faiths is overwhelmingly negative.

For instance, Romans 1:18–2:5 explains that faiths apart from the gospel of Christ are the result of sinful rebellion against God’s clear revelation in nature. We are told that because of the sinful suppression of God’s truth, adherents to false faiths have become “fools” (1:22), and they are “storing up wrath” against themselves (2:5).

Nowhere in Scripture do we find confirmation that the partial truths found in other faiths can lead to saving faith.

Why Evangelize? Why Missions?

Furthermore, if the inclusivists are correct, one has to ask why Jesus commands the spreading of his gospel and why his commands for evangelism hold such prominent places in Scripture.

The Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations is the culminating climax of Matthew’s gospel (28:18–20), and Luke records Jesus’ words about the Spirit empowering his disciples to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth as his final words before his ascension (Acts 1:8).

Moreover, if inclusivism is true, much of the book of Acts, which tells of the first Christians’ work to spread the gospel, can be discarded as a waste of time – as well as all evangelism and missions. If knowledge of Christ is not needed for salvation, evangelism and missions are pointless, but this is clearly not the stand Jesus and his first followers take.

Finally, throughout Scripture, correct doctrine is emphasized (1 Tim. 1:3–4; Eph. 4:11–14; Gal. 1:6-8, 11–23; Deut. 6:7), confirming again that knowledge is important to faith. Stephen Wellum writes in Faith Comes By Hearing, “It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Scripture is concerned that one’s theology is correct.”

Proper knowledge of Christ cannot be separated from saving faith.

So, faith comes from hearing, and salvation comes from knowing and believing.

NEXT: Is the Holy Spirit needed for salvation? **The 1st two articles in this blog series were long! The last 3 will be short and sweet!** 

Read Part 1: The New Paganism (Part 1) Pluralism: Are There Many Paths to God?

Sources:

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013. Kindle.

Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Morgan, Christopher W. and Robert A. Peterson, ed. Faith Comes By Hearing. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008. Kindle.

Pinnock, Clark H. “An Inclusivist View.” In Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic Worldedited by Stanly N. Gundry. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996. Kindle.

Stott, John R. W. The Letters of John. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009

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