General Apologetics

Council, Constantine, and Canon, Oh My!

After many months of not fielding any apologetics related questions that I haven’t written about before, the same topic has come up in conversation multiple times in the last few weeks.

The assertion, which was popularized a few years ago in The Davici Code, is that the accepted canon of Scripture was dictated by Emperor Constantine to the Council of Nicea and that both the canon and the doctrine of the deity of Christ were formulated at that council and passed by a narrow vote.

 

To summarize, the argument is:

1 – The books to be included in the Bible were dictated by Constantine and ratified by the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325               
2 – Both the doctrine of the deity of Christ and the canon of Scripture were formulated at the Council.
3 – These ‘new doctrines’ were passed by a slim majority vote of the bishops present.

For the benefit of those of you who don’t want to wade through some potentially boring history, I’ll say this up front and you can skip to the links at the end watch the video I’ve linked to: EVERY one of the above assertions is not only false, but not even close to truth.

What follows is summary of what the Council of Nicea was all about, and Constantine’s role in it. For more details, check out the links at the end.

Background and Purpose of the Council

After ending the civil war in 324 and becoming the sole ruler of the Roman empire, Constantine called for a council of bishops to address the problem of divisions in the Christian church. Eusebius quotes him as declaring that “Division in the church is worse than war.”

The council convened on May 20, 325 and adjourned on June 19 of that year. Constantine opened with a speech on the necessity of unity in the church, and presided much as a committee chair would today. In other words, he would introduce topics on the agenda and call on speakers but had no vote or official say in any decisions made. Over 1,000 bishops from across the empire were invited; although no exact count was made, estimates of the number in attendance are between 250 and 318, plus support staff including deacons and secretaries.

The Council agenda included the question of the Arian teaching (more on that later), the date of the Easter celebration, the leader of a minor sect (Meletus), and various matters of church discipline (more on that later as well).

We’ve already established that Constantine did not dictate what books should or should not be included in the Canon at Nicea; not only did he not have a vote in the Council, but the question of the Canon was not even addressed there!

On to the formulation of the doctrine of the deity of Christ:

The Council did not ‘formulate’ ANY doctrine. What the council addressed (and ultimately voted on), was the question of whether Arian’s Christology was orthodox or heretical, and how to present ALREADY ACCEPTED doctrine in such a way as to be unambiguous about the deity of Christ. Again, the Council did not formulate doctrine; it formulated a statement defending preexisting and accepted doctrine. Thus, the writing of the Nicene Creed, which recognized a Christology articulated as far back as the the first century, and stated throughout the New Testament.

Arianism, which stated that Jesus was a created being, was a doctrine that was less than a century old at the time. Which view would you consider ‘new’?

Oh, and about that close vote. There was no vote per se – bishops in attendance were either signed the final draft of the Creed, or didn’t. Out of a conservative estimate of 250 bishops present, only three did not sign it. 247 to 3 in favor is hardly close!

The council did produce 20 “canons”, which were declarations of church law – practices either prohibited or commanded by the church, and rules regarding church discipline. None of these 20 edicts had anything to do with the contents of Scripture.

In conclusion:

Not only did Constantine NOT dictate the canon of Scripture or the doctrine of the deity of Christ, but he deferred to the consensus of the bishops in regards to statements concerning the nature and deity of Christ.

The inclusion or exclusion of any books in the Bible was not addressed at the Council at all.

Finally, the wording of the Nicene Creed was approved by almost 90% of those attending the Council.
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Useful Links, in no particular order:

Here is a link to Dr. Michael Heiser's video on What Really Happened at the Council of Nicea and this is an abridged print version of the above with a link to a better quality but much shorter video

James R. White has a well-written synopsis of the events and decisions made at the council at the Christian Research Institute.

Paul F. Pavao has a series of articles on the Council; this is the first. If you read all 4, you will notice that he lists FIVE bishops (rather than three) who did not sign the creed. This is because he lists two bishops whose actual attendance at the council is disputed.

Finally, I list the Wikipedia article simply because it cites a very large number of sources that you can either link to or look up.

How Do We Deal With a “Post Truth” Mentality?

Most of us, if we have been actively sharing the Gospel at all, have run into a rather troubling attitude increasingly more often – especially with those under the age of 30.

I’m referring to what I call the ‘post truth mentality’, and it is a direct result of the relativistic naturalism propaganda foisted upon us by the public school system, colleges, and mass entertainment media for the last three generations.

The logical result of an ingrained belief that all moral truth is relative is a mindset that believes that feelings are paramount – and any ‘truth’ must be subservient to them.  Therefore, any moral or spiritual truth statement is not evaluated upon the merits of its truthfulness or falsehood, but upon whether it feels right (“feel the Force, Luke”).

And so, we should not be surprised when discussing topics such as the truth of the Gospel, abortion, and especially LGBTQ issues that a common response is something like, “well, that may be true, but it doesn’t feel right (or good) to me”.

Sadly, another common response is to call anyone who disagrees or objects to their view as hateful, bigoted, or racist.

I’m always a bit shocked by this response, especially since I try very hard to show Christ’s love and am careful to present my arguments opposing their lifestyle as concern for their welfare – but I shouldn’t be.

You see, we’re seeing the results of education, entertainment, and political systems that have consistently taught us that truth is an illusion, self is paramount, and anything that makes a person less than superior in every way (especially in moral and spiritual choices) is hurtful, and if it goes against the current cultural obsession is hateful and must be silenced.

No wonder when you point out that there is not only objective truth, but objective spiritual truth that you are labeled intolerant and hateful. Should you point out that those denying you the opportunity to voice and defend that view are just as hateful and intolerant as you are being accused of being, then you are obviously a bigoted bumpkin.

So how do you best present the gospel to someone who has been indoctrinated to be aggressively offended by anything that suggests that their feelings could possibly be wrong?

First of all, be aware of three things :

1 = There are no quick or easy answers

2 = I don’t have all of them, and

3 = None of the suggestions I have will work every, or even most of the time.

But that’s OK – we’re called to present the gospel in the most effective, winsome, loving way we can;  the results are up to God. My attitude is this: 

Our job is to present and live out Truth as consistently and godly as possible so that we don’t get in God’s way while he works on the hearts of the lost and doomed people we meet.

That means that in most cases, we’re in it for the long haul. It may be YEARS before we see any “progress” or “results” – but that isn’t our primary concern. Our PRIMARY concern in presenting the gospel to those locked into this destructive and illusory world view is to give them God’s truth (and all real truth is His) presented in a manner and with an attitude that reflects Christ’s nature.

So, how do we do that? Well, I have a few suggestions, given in no particular order:

-) LISTEN and ask questions designed to make them clarify and explain their position. Questions like “what do you mean by that?”, “are yo saying that….?”, and “If that is true, then isn’t _____ also true?” asked with an inquiring attitude rather than a judgmental attitude are good ways to get them to think about the logical results of their statements.

-) Don’t be bullied, and don’t be a bully. Sometimes, you will be personally attacked and called hateful, bigoted, etc. The best response is to calmly point out the error of the assessment, and that whether they chose to believe that or not, you will not stop treating them with love and respect just because they disagree with you.  While not always the case, it is usually a good idea to leave your disappointment with their unwillingness to do the same unsaid.

-) Present the Gospel and a Biblical world view as clearly and concisely as possible. 

-) One thing that I find myself saying more and more often when presenting a Biblical world view is “I don’t believe the Bible because it  makes me feel good or because I like it, but because it is historically and factually true.” 

-) As much as possible, be thoughtful, loving, firm, and consistent. What you DO and HOW you do it is often more telling than what you say.

Did Jesus Ever Claim to be God?

It seems objections to the Christian faith that are uniformed, poorly (if at all) researched, logically incoherent, and just plain unconvincing to any examination keep coming back no matter how definitively they have been refuted.

The claim that “Jesus never claimed to be God; that’s just an invention of the church” is one of the latest.

The reasoning takes one of two paths. The first, which is the more convincing, is that since the Gospels are second century texts or later all of the passages in which Jesus claims deity are fabrications, and he never actually made any such claim. I’ve dealt extensively with why the late date/scribal inventions argument about the Gospels is not valid here and here, so I won’t rehash that argument.

What I do want to address is the second path, which is that even if the Gospel accounts are reliable, Christ never claimed to be God. As one young man I was talking to rather smugly stated, “You can’t show many any verse where Jesus says, “I am God”.

While he is technically correct – the words “I am YHWH” are never recorded as coming out of the mouth of the Christ, there are so many passages where He clearly claims to be God that I won’t even try to list them all here.

The confusion for many comes from an ignorance of context. To actually believe that Jesus never claimed to be God, one must have little or no knowledge of the Biblical text, first century Jewish culture and religious belief, and ancient Hebrew idioms.

First of all, Jesus’ claim to equality with God is not limited to mere words – His primary method of declaring His diety was with deeds. While the best and most compelling of these was His resurrection, Matthew 11:2-5 explains the reason for His many miracles. It was to prove his divine nature. Also, in Matthew 9:2-7 and in the parallel passage in Luke 5 Jesus forgives the sins of a man that He healed. The Pharisees understood that He was claiming to be God; they intended to stone Him for it.

Actually, one of the best clues to Christ declaring his Godhood is the reaction of the Pharisees to what He does and says. Every time their reaction to His deeds is to kill him, it is because they recognize one of his statements or demonstrations of His deity. Some examples in addition to this incident are John 8:23-24 and John 10:25-33.

At the trial before the Sanhedrin, Matthew 26:63-64, Mark 14:61-62, and Luke 22:66-72 all record Jesus as answering a direct question as to whether He was God by with the expression “You have said it”(Literally, “you yourself have said it”), and it bore the same meaning then as our modern version : “you said it, man!”. In other words, a definitive affirmative answer.

Another thing to keep in mind is that the titles ‘Son of Man’ and Son of God’, in the mind of first century Hebrew theologians as well as the general Jewish populace were titles reserved for God and the Messiah. While some believed the Messiah to be a representative of God much like a prophet (only much more powerful), the other prominent belief was that the Messiah would be God himself. Whenever Jesus referred to him as the Son of Man, or as God as His Father, both the Pharisees and the disciples would recognize His claim to be divine.

And finally, one last point. The jews of the time were very adamant that the worst kind of blasphemy possible was to appropriate for oneself the worship and adoration reserved for God alone. Yet not once did Jesus rebuke anyone for worshipping him. That silence in and of itself is another of His claims of deity.

So, when someone tells you that Jesus never claimed to be God, you can clear up that particular misconception quite easily!

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Here is a short list of some of the passages that refute this rather lame argument:

Matthew 9:2-7, 11:2-5, 12:1-8, 16:13-18 and 24-28, 17:1-12, 19:28-29 and 63-64, 28:16-20

Mark 1:2-12 and 24-28, 8:29-30, 9:30-31, 14:22-25 and 61-62

Luke 2:54-49, 5:20-25, 7:20-22 and 48-50, 9:18-22

John 3:13-15, 5:17-24, 8:23-24, 8:57-59, 10:25-33, 14:9-10, 20:28-29

“Mythicism” Revisited

Every Easter season, we are inundated with the inevitable litany of TV shows, blog posts, and newspaper and magazine articles attempting to debunk or deny the resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

And every year, there is one particular rather ridiculous idea that crops up and just frustrates me no end that anyone can seriously repeat, much less profess to actually believe.

But, once again, the trope that not only are the Gospel accounts of the life of the Christ not historically accurate, but that Jesus never even existed is being trumpeted all over the internet and in print as well.

The reason it frustrates me so much is because not only has the idea that Jesus never existed been definitively refuted, but even among atheist circles, it is considered a ‘fringe’ argument because the evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed is so compelling.

But first, let’s take a look at the “the story of Jesus is nothing more that previous mythology and folktales repackaged to appeal to a first century audience” argument. This argument proposes that the Apostles and their followers took nativity stories from Horus, Mithras, and other pagan deities and created a Messianic figure for personal fame and fortune.

I have three objections to this argument. First, the primary audience of the Apostles were the Jews. Jewish culture and religious teachings both were passionately opposed to entertaining ANY foreign religious mythology; it not only was expressly forbidden by their sacred texts, but was scrupulously shunned as the main reason for their enslavement at the hands of pagan governments in the first place. No Jew would expect anything resembling pagan God myths to be accepted by either the leadership or the populace. The best they could hope for would be utter rejection.

Second, the argument both ignores the many and significant differences between the Gospel accounts and the pagan myths that they supposedly borrowed from AND asserts that if there is any similarity between a fictional (or mythological) account and a later narrative presented as history, the latter story must also be false.

By that line of reasoning, it can be demonstrated that the wreck of the Titanic never happened: Fourteen years before the maiden voyage of the Titanic, Morgan Robertson wrote a novel in which a ship named the Titan sank in North Atlantic in the month of April. This fictional ship was similar in size to the Titanic, was traveling at the same speed, there were not enough lifeboats for the number of passengers aboard, the ship struck an iceberg, and more than half of the passengers and crew died. Since this was written before the wreck of the Titanic and there are so many similarities between the events related the only reasonable conclusion is that the wreck of the Titanic is nothing more than a well-told retelling of the previous story. Absurd, isn’t it? So is this line of reasoning when applied to the Gospels.

Third, the entire Roman empire would have to be populated by unthinking morons for the apostles to be able to pull of inventing a mythical, nonexistent man and then write and preach about him and his exploits and getting anyone over the age of 6 to believe them.

They were writing while hundreds of eyewitnesses to the events (or lack of them) had happened! While there are non-Biblical documents referencing Jesus from the first century, NONE of them deny that he existed.

Try this as an exercise if you think the argument holds water: Walk into a church, synagogue, bar with regular customers, local grocery store, or any other place with a large number of people who regularly go there. Now, tell them the story of how Christopher Bloomenpuddle walked into that establishment last Sunday at 12:30 and turned a glass of water into beer, healed Jim Smith of Parkinson’s disease, and then proceeded to give away 150 ice cream sandwiches that he pulled out of his back pocket.

How long do you think it will be before the people who actually were present at that location at that time will refute your story?

Anyway, happy Easter – Jesus DID exist, and He is risen indeed!

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Here are some interesting links related to this topic:

A Wikipedia article summarizing the Robertson novel and the similarities between it and the Titanic

This article by Robert and Marilyn Stewart starts out with a concise definition of Mythicism, and then outlines a brief history of the belief and gives refutations of it from many sources.

This is probably the only time you’ll ever see me quote a Reddit thread here, but this one is too good to miss: A parody (I hope) of the Mythicist position “proving” that Abraham Lincoln never existed!

The “One Less God” Argument

Richard Dawkins and other popular atheist authors and advocates are quite fond of the ‘one less god’ argument, and I’ve heard and read quite a few different self-proclaimed atheists using it lately.

It goes something like this: “We’re both atheists; neither one of us believes in Zeus, Pele, Odin, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just believe in one less god than you. So, believing in YOUR god is just as ignorant and silly.”

I have to work very hard to be charitable when presented this argument. First, it really isn’t an argument; it is a statement of belief. Second, as an argument it is not only logically nonsensical, but relies on a category error to reach the conclusion offered. Continue reading

But Jesus Never Claimed to be God!

This is another old argument against classical Christianity that I still hear rather often: “Jesus never claimed to be God” usually coupled with “so clearly he wasn’t”.

While there is no place in Scripture where Jesus said the words, “I am God”, the assertion that He never claimed to be God is quite very inaccurate. The argument comes from a basic misunderstanding of first century Jewish culture as well as Biblical illiteracy. No serious student of the Bible can make such a claim unless he ignores or discounts major passages of the Gospels.

The way in which Jesus claimed to be God is best summed up in the Homan Quicksource Guide to Christian Apologetics:

“In the first century, much like today, to say “I am God” would be almost meaningless. Even Roman Emperors were ascribed deity or claimed deity for themselves. What Jesus did do was claim to be a very specific God to a specific people in a very specific way. And the way in which He made His claims was unambiguous and unmistakable to those people.”
==Powell, D. (2006). Holman QuickSource Guide to Christian Apologetics (pp. 310–311). Nashville, TN: Holman Reference. Continue reading

Example of a Common Apologetics Failure

I observed a conversation last week that is a perfect illustration of something that has bothered me for a very long time. It shows the most common mistake that people make when trying to present a defense of the Christian worldview to a nonbeliever. This one thing, in my opinion, has served to turn people away from Christ rather than encourage them to seriously consider the Gospel more than any other single mistake we make as defenders of the faith and presenters of the Truth.

I’ll tell you what happened, and you’ll probably guess what the monumental mistake is before I’m even done:

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The Best Apologetic is Also the Oldest!

I’m often asked “What is the best apologetic argument?”, and in almost every case, after a few questions, it’s clear that the real question is “All of this apologetics stuff is just too overwhelming. Can you give me a single, easy to remember argument that I can use whenever I have to defend the faith?

Before I give you the answer that I’m sure most of you expect, please read this post to the end; there is an apologetic argument that you MUST use in EVERY defense of the Gospel, but I don’t think it is what you expect me to tell you.

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“Winning the Argument” is NOT the Purpose

I’ve been seeing a couple of trends lately both online and in the ‘real world’ that I think are related in that both have a foundational misunderstanding of the purpose of Christian apologetics.

One is the tendency for Christian apologists, video posters, and blog commenters to portray an attitude of “win at all costs; crush your ‘enemy’ and his argument to dust” as if the purpose of apologetics is to ‘put those heathens in their place and show how stupid they are’. The other is for Christian leaders as well as laypeople to dismiss the study and presentation of apologetics as unfruitful, unnecessary, and needlessly confrontational. Unfortunately, it appears that the two viewpoints in some weird, twisted way actually feed upon and amplify each other!

As I’ve said, i believe that both wrong-headed attitudes stem from a false view of the two primary purposes of Christian apologetics.

One of the two primary purposes of Christian apologetics is to provide evidence, reason, and experiences that will give both new and seasoned believers confidence in the truth of the Gospel. I firmly believe that the reason that most teens and young adults ‘walk away from the faith” or refuse to seriously consider Christ is because the majority of Christian leaders, parents, and mentors fail (some even actively oppose) in presenting evidences for the faith (apologetics) to our young people.

Continue reading