From the Dust:A Review



From the Dust: conversations on creation

A Review


Last night Kay and I and my nephew Zach attended the world premiere of a new film. I could wax eloquent and say this was the first time I've ever attended a movie premiere, and it was, but when we use that language it conjures up the idea of limousines, red carpets, stars in formal attire, paparazzi and other media hype. This world premiere was in a small old theater just off University Avenue in Palo Alto. The film, From the Dust: conversations in creation, is a documentary looking at the state of the conversation concerning science and evolution in the fundamentalist and evangelical communities.

The film asks questions such as, "Does the Bible provide a narrative of mankind's material origins?" "What is the real source of the controversy surrounding evolution vs. creation?" And how do we reconcile scientific discovery with a loving, universal, creator-God?"

The importance of opening a true discussion as opposed to and name-calling those who do not agree with us cannot be overstated. The construction of the film allows representatives of the two sides of the discussion, i.e. those evangelicals and fundamentalists who insist on a recent six-day creation and those evangelicals who see the physical evidence in the world as pointing to the reality of evolution, to present their positions in their own words. This format is effective in avoiding such caricaturization.

The list of those appearing in the film is impressive. Among those interviewed are: Dr. Alister McGrath (Ph.D. in molecular biophysics & D.D. both from Oxford University), Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne (mathematician, theoretical physics,  Anglican priest); Dr. John Walton (Old Testament scholar, Wheaton University, author of The Lost World of Genesis One), Bishop Dr. N.T. Wright (New Testament Scholar, Anglican Bishop of Durham); Dr. Peter Enns (Old Testament scholar and author of The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins), Dr. Richard Colling (Olivet Nazarene University, author Random Designer), Dr. April Masckiewicz (Assoc. Professor of Biology, Point Loma Nazarene University).  Dr. Clay Brinson (D.V.M. University Georgia, Canopy Ministries) Dr. James Denton (M.D.  University of Virginia), Dr. Daryl Falk (Ph.D., President of Biologos Foundation and Professor of Biology, Point Loma Nazarene University), Dr. Jason Lisle (Ph.D.  Astrophysicist), Dr. Jeff Schloss (Ph.D. Professor of Biology, Westmont College) to name just some of the interviewees.

The tone of the film is balanced and positive and representatives of each position articulate their answers to the questions under discussion in their own words and with their own rationale.

Production values are acceptable to good. The digital projection at the theatre was somewhat problematic—projecting a DVD onto the big screen caused occasional pixelization of the image.   However, when viewed on the small screen, (in my case 42”) these problems disappear. 

The questions of worldview and paradigm change are addressed head-on but not in these terms.  There is an explicit recognition that for those who have been raised in the fundamentalist and evangelical camps and taught to distrust science and see all truth as being grounded more or less directly in scripture, the exposure to the scientific method and how science really works is a “gut-wrenching” experience.  A number of years ago the son of one of my colleagues, who graduated from one of the best Christian high schools in Northern California, matriculated at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he majored in one of the scientific disciplines.  Shaking his head he complained that virtually everything he learned about science and the scientific method in High School needed to be unlearned.  I am not talking about evolution here. I am talking about the nature and practice of the scientific method itself.  Unfortunately, as the film reveals things have not changed over the past two decades.  Many conservative Christians still remain ignorant of and hostile to science itself.

The film pivots between science, its nature and limits and biblical interpretation. It raises the issue of the nature of the biblical text and what questions was it trying to answer: to whom is Genesis written, how would its first readers have understood it?  What are the questions they were asking? Were they asking of the text the same questions we ask? Likewise with reference to the scientific method: what are its strengths as well as its limits. Specifically, the interviewees assert the limits of the scientific method.  It is strictly materialistic. As a method of knowledge it can only address the and how of material processes as opposed to questions of meaning and purpose.


The other topic that was introduced but not (unfortunately) more fully developed was that of intellectual certainty.  Specifically what is the nature of the certainty we can have in this world. The fundamentalism of the atheists as well that of the creationists seeks certainty without ambiguity; simplicity with the discomfort of complexity. There is an inherent fear that to let go of certainty is to slip into irrationality. I have observed elsewhere it is as if the rigid belief system literally holds reality together and to question anything is to see reality itself crumble.  I first became painfully aware of this phenomenon over twenty-five years ago, with reference to attitudes toward quantum physics (not evolution)…


. . .in a series of articles in Christianity Today during the mid-1980s on how quantum physics was revolutionizing the concept of the nature of reality. To those with no previous exposure, the subject of the discussion was in some cases quite unnerving. The telling point here is not primarily in the articles themselves, but in the reactions that appeared in the letters to the editor in the following issues. One pastor wrote: “Mass that exists, then becomes non-existent in transit, then exists again according to our will? I don’t have to listen to this! Beam me up, Lord!”. . . Perhaps most disturbing was the example the author of the original article cited in his opening paragraph: “A few weeks ago an acquaintance of ours, a theologian, remarked in the course of a stimulating dinner conversation that he considered quantum mechanics the greatest contemporary threat to Christianity. In fact, he said if some of the results of this theory were really true, his own personal faith in God would be shattered.”  Those responding to the new ideas reacted strongly to having their view of creation challenged with the new paradigm because, I suspect, their own faith and understanding of God himself were tied in an almost absolute way to their view of the nature of the created order, the physical world. To assent to the truth of quantum physics would be to destroy God himself. These reactions did not just come from lay people. They came from pastors and theologians as well. [1]


I find it ironic how deeply we as contemporary conservative Christians had bought into what Daniel Taylor has called The Myth of Certainty[2]. In an era that has been more safe and stable than most any era in history, security/certainty whether it be financial, political or intellectual has been set up as a virtual idol. Doubt or uncertainty is not to be tolerated. Underlying this quest for, or belief that, one has achieved absolute certainty is I believe an irrational fear that without our certainty reality itself will come unraveled. While common, it is in fact idolatrous! Our certainty, our trust and stability is not to be found in our mental constructs, or our bank account, our political system or anything besides our Creator and Savior. Certainty is where we end up when we lose faith. The stance of faith is exploring questions rather than absolute scientific answers.


The film doesn’t break new ground but is a call for understanding between the two camps.  As I watched I recognized several unspoken assumptions that were not explicitly addressed in the film in other than a single comment by one interviewee.  First, what is the source of authority?  From the second century, Christians have formally recognized two “books of revelation,” the scriptures and the created order.  This is true of Catholics, Orthodox and the Reformers as well as later Protestants. These two must be in harmony since God is the author of both—one cannot be legitimately pitted against the other and each has its own sphere to which it is speaking.  Galileo was not the first one to say it, but he did make the quip famous. “Scripture was not given to teach us how the heavens go, but how to go to heaven.”

I believe the film achieves its goal of opening up conversation about the “elephant in the living room,” the E-word (evolution).  It will be valuable conversation starter for  campus and church study groups.

The From the Dust DVD can be ordered from BioLogos Foundation for $20 or $25 for the Blu-ray:


[1] M. James Sawyer, The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 53.

[2] Daniel Taylor, The Myth of Certainty (Downers Grove: IVP, 1999).





Rodney Stark

The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal, Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religious Force (May 1997)

For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Let to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery (Aug 2004)

The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (Sept 2006)

Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome (Oct 2007)

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades (Nov 2010)

The Triumph of Christianity: How the Jesus Movement Became the World's Largest Religion (Oct 2011


Beginning in 1997, noted American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark[i] turned his attention from broader issues in the field of sociology of religion particularly, to the study of the history of Christianity from a sociological perspective. The volumes listed above chronicle the rapid publication of six volumes, the last five over just seven years.


Twenty five years ago Stark and William Sims Bainbridge published A Theory of Religion (1987) which articulated what has come to be known as the Stark-Bainbridge theory of religion,[ii] this work followed the earlier publication of  The Future of Religion (1986).  At the time of the publication of  A Theory of Religion both authors declared they were "personally incapable of religions faith."[iii]

In 2004 about the time of the publication of For the Glory of God  Stark declared that he had never been an atheist, “Atheism is an active faith with a proclamation: ‘There is no God.’” Instead he confessed “. . . I don’t know what I believe. I was brought up a Lutheran in Jamestown, North Dakota. I have trouble with faith. I’m not proud of this. I don’t think it makes me an intellectual. I would believe if I could, and I may be able to before it’s over. I would welcome that.” [iv]

Three years later, in 2007, he joined the faculty of Baylor University in Waco, Texas as Professor of Social Sciences.  Evidently the previous three years had been a time of spiritual/religious commitment for him, for in an interview at that time he described himself as an “independent Christian.” This was a major shift in his commitment.  He said that he had "always been a “cultural” Christian" i.e. he had always “been strongly committed to Western Civilization." And noted that he “was never an atheist, but . . . probably could have been best described as an agnostic."[v]

The Triumph of Christianity draws from the earlier more focused works as well as adding fresh material around the cracks.  I assume it will be the capstone summary of his deeper work on the subject over the past decade and a half. This is not a conventional history of Christianity, the presentation is instead thematic, in which each chapter digs into weighty themes from historical ecclesiastical and sociological perspectives.

I found The Triumph of Christianity to be engaging, clear and challenging.  Challenging in the sense that Stark is not a “guild” historian who takes the generally established historical narrative history of the church, usually told from the perspective of Enlightenment historians, for granted.  Stark clearly revisits the received narrative challenging long established conclusions about every era As one reviewer said, “He demolishes a number of widely held myths along the way, and backs up his impressive array of knowledge with prodigious amounts of research. He has done his homework quite carefully, and is fully abreast of contemporary scholarship and the relevant literature.”[vi] He is in this sense an iconoclast—throughout the work he demolishes myths citing both contemporary research as well as original literature. This iconoclastic quality I very much appreciate because too many historians simply accept the status quo conclusions as opposed to digging deeper to see if the evidence supports the conclusions that have been received.

To touch on just a few of the conclusions he challenges:

Christianity was born a religion of the poor. The received wisdom decrees that Christianity was a religion born among the poor, disenfranchised proletariat.  In fact, this is not how new religions gain a foothold and grow.  The normal pattern for new religions is to attract the more affluent of society as opposed to the poverty stricken.  The New Testament itself gives hints that the disciples, (beyond Levi/Matthew the rich tax collector) and others of Jesus’ followers were comfortable if not well to do.  Even Jesus himself was probably more than a simple carpenter.

As for the growth of the church during the early centuries, it is probable that mass conversions did not play a major role.  Conversions more likely followed personal social networks through the web of relationships particularly dominated by women, who are historically far more spiritually sensitive than men.  Stark’s conclusions here are reminiscent of those of the mission strategy advocated by the late missionary statesman and strategist Donald McGavern who stated “The gospel flows most freely upon the bridges of relationships.”  Similarly, rather than being a male-dominated misogynist religion as has been charged by Harvard historian Karen Armstrong and Princeton historian Elaine Pagels in their pro-Gnostic literature,  women found a haven in Christianity which stood in stark contrast to the oppressive tyranny that they experienced in Greek society and even more freedom, safety and support than enjoyed by Roman women (who were more “liberated” than Greek women).

Christianity fostered a sense of community that was unknown in the ancient world. As a community the church provided a level of community and a “safety net” for the poor and helpless in its community, something otherwise unknown in the ancient world.  The church also reached out to help those beyond their own—a concept unfathomable to the Romans. The rejection of abortion led to longer lifespans for women since Roman women regularly died as a result of unsanitary abortion practice, along with longer lifespans the birth rates likewise were higher among Christians; this at a time of shrinking populations. This factor in itself contributed not only to the steady growth of Christianity in the Greco-Roman world, but also as a percentage of the total population of the Empire.  Witness a similar phenomenon today in Western Europe with the rising Muslim population due in large part to the falling birth rates among the native European population.

The “Mission to the Jews” was a Failure. Stark challenges the general conclusion found in numerous histories of the spread of the early church in that the mission to the Jews was generally a failure and that the Jewish Christian community fell en mass into the Ebonite heresy (which denied the deity of Christ while recognizing him as a prophet) and died out in the second century.  He contends that a careful reading of the literature reveals that contrary to popular opinion the mission to the Jews was very successful and those of Jewish background composed a significant percentage of the Christian population until well into the fifth century.

Constantine cynically manipulated the Church for his own political ends. If you followed the hype around The Da Vinci Code you will remember that Constantine, “the first Christian emperor,” was portrayed as being a pagan who “played” the Church for his own political advantage and was responsible for the decision at the Council of Nicaea that declared Christ to be God rather than man.  As I have written elsewhere this is at best fantasy.[i]  Stark challenges the Constantine bashers, and instead gives a balanced evaluation recognizing both the beneficial as well as the negative effects his policies had on the ongoing life of the Church in successive centuries. Constantine proved a mixed blessing to the Church.

Christianity was from the start a European religion. While most histories of Christianity focus on the Church as it was planted in Europe, Stark following in the footsteps of Philip Jenkins[ii] and Thomas Oden[iii] looking at the rise and spread of Christianity in both Africa and Asia—reminding us that for centuries there were more Christians in both North Africa and in Asia than there were in Europe.

Life in Rome was cultured and desirable. Despite the often glamorous on screen portrayal of the life of the privileged in the days of the empire, life in ancient Rome was miserable, and in many senses squalid, even for the rich. The culture and quality of life was brutish even for the rich. The idea of community was unknown. Christian ideals of brotherhood and compassion mercy and alleviating misery/suffering provided example and invitation to a better quality of life. Despite the fact that the Romans had engineered an empire, government policies could not maintain it long term. Corruption in the empire ground technical progress to a halt.

The Dark Ages were an ignorant repressive era after the enlightened Greco-Roman  era. C.S. Lewis once proclaimed that the Renaissance never happened. Stark goes further insisting that the “Dark Ages” never happened.  The whole concept of the “Dark Ages” is an Enlightenment engendered fiction.  Admittedly the time following the fall of the empire was one of chaos and destruction as the tribes from the North and East swept into Europe.  But Rome had run its course economically and intellectually.  For several centuries there had been no technological innovation.  A vast majority of the Roman population were slaves.  The life of the free men was far more difficult than the slave.  The slave was at least guaranteed a meal and clothing.  Not so the plebian. There was no middle class. Poverty was rampant.

After the fall of Rome there was a regrouping.  Over the succeeding centuries there were genuine technological advances in both agriculture and industry that allowed Europe to feed a burgeoning population. To visit Europe today is to see marvels of medieval architecture far more complicated and magnificent than anything we find in the ancient world. Add to this the birth of the University system that still exists today and the birth of experimental science and we see a much different picture than is normally portrayed.

Post-Christian Europe has rejected Christianity. We look at Europe today and see it as Post-Christian.  In fact the idyllic image of a pious Christian population under the control of the Church is a fiction made from whole cloth.  While the upper classes and royalty embraced Christianity, not so with the peasants.  As in the ancient world the rural areas remained pagan while Christianity flourished in the urban areas. In fact Europe was never really fully evangelized.  The images of churches and cathedrals full of people on a week-to-week basis are pure fantasy. Church attendance in Europe today is not much different than it has been down through the centuries.  The reassertion of pagan cults, witchcraft and magic is simply a visible picture of what has been part of folklore and rural religious beliefs down through the centuries.


Much more could be said, but I think the above points give a taste of the approach and conclusions of The Triumph of Christianity. I plan to use it as one of the textbooks the next time I teach Church History!



[i] He has twice received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) (Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, s.v. Rodney Stark accessed Jan 29, 2012).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Brian S. Turner (ed). Blackwell Companion to the Sociology of Religion  (Maldan MA: Blackwell, 2010), 183. (accessed January 29, 2012).

[iv] The National Institute for the Renewal of the Priesthood, “Interview with Rodney Stark”, 2004, accessed January 29, 2012.

[v] “A Christmas Conversation with Rodney Stark:  accessed January 30, 2012.

[vi] Bill Muehlenberg, Culture Watch,, (accessed January 29, 2012).

[i] “Constantine: The First Christian Emperor?”

[ii] The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia--and How It Died by Philip Jenkins.

[iii] How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity by Thomas C. Oden.

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The reality of the Virgin Birth has been affirmed by the church at least since the writing of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is affirmed in the Church’s earliest creedal affirmation: The Old Roman Symbol  (or the Roman Baptismal Creed) dating from no later than the second century during which time it is cited by both Tertullian and Irenaeus.[1]

The fact of the virgin birth is key in understanding the importance afforded Mary in both the Catholic and Orthodox communions. The Catholic Church has taught the immaculate conception of Mary (that she was born without original sin) to further theologically guard the sinlessness of Jesus, i.e. that he was born into unfallen Adamic humanity.  While Protestants have eschewed the Immaculate Conception, they too have asserted Jesus inherited unfallen humanity from his mother.

 In general[2]  only pagan critics of Christianity and rationalists have throughout the centuries denied that Jesus was born of Mary without a human father.  Discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries have fallen largely in the realm of apologetic defenses of its reality.[3]

For example, Charles Briggs (who in 1893 had been convicted by the Northern Presbyterian Church of denying inerrancy) saw the virgin birth as a touchstone doctrine the denial of which put one on the proverbial “slippery slope” of theological apostasy.

It is not merely the virgin birth that is in ques­tion, in the interest of the more complete hu­manity of our Lord, it is also the doctrine of original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus; it is also his bodily resurrec­tion and ascension. . . .  It is moreover the whole nature of the atonement and Christian salvation with the doc­trine of sacrifice and propitiation.  All these doc­trines are trembling in the balance in those very minds which doubt or deny the virgin birth.  Those who give up the virgin birth will be compelled by logical and irresistible im­pulse eventually to give up all of these. [4]


Indeed Briggs desired  to have A. C. McGiffert, his former student and later President of Union Seminary New York, fired from his post at Union for denying the Virgin Birth.[5]

During the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen published his magisterial The Virgin Birth of Christ,  a volume that has never been equaled in comprehensiveness and scholarship on the topic. It too was apologetic in nature.

During the era of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy the Virgin Birth attained a quasi-official touchstone perspective as being one of the five fundamentals of the faith.  The rationale was that the virgin birth was a quick and easy test to see if someone believed in miracles.

Surprisingly, despite its professed importance as being foundational to the Christian faith, relatively little profound theological reflection has taken place around the virgin birth.  In fact, prominent evangelical theologian Millard Erickson, (who does accept the truth of the virgin birth) denies its necessity as does Wayne Grudem (who also accepts the doctrine) to name just two. Erickson says

But, we must ask, is not the virgin birth important in some more specific way? Some have argued that the doctrine is indispensable to the incarnation. Without the virgin birth there would have been no union of God and man.38 [6]If Jesus had been simply the product of a normal sexual union of man and woman, he would have been only a human being, not a God-man. But is this really true? Could he not have been God and a man if he had had two human parents, or none? Just as Adam was created directly by God, so Jesus could also have been a direct special creation. And accordingly, it should have been possible for Jesus to have two human parents and to have been fully the God-man nonetheless. To insist that having a human male parent would have excluded the possibility of deity smacks of Apollinarianism, according to which the divine Logos took the place of one of the normal components of human nature (the soul). But Jesus was fully human, including everything that both a male and a female parent would ordinarily contribute. In addition, there was the element of deity. What God did was to supply, by a special creation, both the human component ordinarily contributed by the male (and thus we have the virgin birth) and, in addition, a divine factor (and thus we have the incarnation). The virgin birth requires only that a normal human being was brought into existence without a human male parent. This could have occurred without an incarnation, and there could have been an incarnation without a virgin birth. Some have called the latter concept “instant adoptionism,” since presumably the human involved would have existed on his own apart from the addition of the divine nature. The point here, however is that, with the incarnation occurring at the moment of conception or birth, there would never have been a moment when Jesus was not both fully human and fully divine. In other words, his being both divine and human did not depend on the virgin birth[7]

Clearly, the virgin birth is not a central part of the apostolic proclamation, but I find the lack of theological reflection on the virgin birth to be remarkable. In checking several conservative systematic theologies, I found one, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which for half a century was the standard, didn’t even mention the virgin birth!

I also tend to react to the type of argumentation that Erickson and Grudem put forth as being specious and pointless at best, since the issue is not what God might have done, it is what He has revealed that he has done,  and dangerous at worst since it involves ripping the doctrine out of its larger Christological context.

Biblical Evidence

T. F. Torrance, the premier English speaking theologian of the late 20th century, in his posthumously published Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ[8] stands as one who breaks the pattern.  Torrance argues that while the virgin birth is indeed only mentioned by Matthew and Luke, if we take the time to look more closely we find the virgin birth, lurking beneath the surface in Mark, John and Paul.

For example, while Luke speaks of Jesus as the son of Joseph, Mark in relating the same event refrains from this identification, and instead identifies Jesus in a very non-Jewish way: as the “son of Mary”[9] Luke has already established the virgin birth whereas Mark has not mentioned it.  It appears that Mark is deliberately avoiding any reference to Joseph. Likewise Mark (along with Matthew and Luke) quotes Jesus as saying of the Messiah, “David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” “How can Jesus be Lord and son of David—that is, how can a divine Christ be born of human stock?”[10]

Moving on to John, 1:13 which has historically been translated: “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (KJV, ESV, NASB, ASV, etc.) but has more recently been translated “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God”( NIV, NET, etc.).   According to normal Greek usage the recent translation is more accurate, because the term used by John is andros, i.e. male or husband as opposed to anthropos, i.e man(kind), humanity. But this raises the question: What in the world does this mean? As the text is translated it seems to make no sense.

There is also a textual problem in the verse: should the “who” be singular or plural. Without going into too much detail, the early church fathers all cited this “who” as being singular.  In fact, Tertullian, the late 2nd early 3rd century theologian and apologist tells us that the gnostic teacher Valentinius corrupted the text at this point changing the singular to a plural.[11]  Such a change was theologically motivated to get away from the idea of the virgin birth! If indeed the text is to be read as a singular rather than a plural, then it makes much more sense. The  “who” refers to The Word /Jesus, “who was born . . . by God.”  T. F. Torrance says, “If the text is to be read in the singular, then we have in the fourth Gospel quite explicit direct reference to the virgin birth of Jesus.”[12] 

Turning our attention to Paul, we again find the virgin birth behind his language in Romans 5 with his Adam-Christ parallel.   In discussing the origin of both Adam and Jesus, Paul uses the term γίνομαι (to become, or come into existence).  He does not use the normal Greek terminology for human birth: γεννάω.  Like Adam, Jesus comes into existence: he is not generated.  But while the first Adam came into existence from earth, the second Adam’s existence is from heaven, “sent of God, he came into existence of woman, but from heaven.”[13]


In Galatians 4 we see the same sharp distinction.  Three times in this chapter Paul uses the term γεννάω speaking of human birth. [14] But when he speaks of Jesus’s earthly origin he eschews the uses of γεννάω and opts again for γίνομαι.[15] This would appear to be a conscious effort on the part of the Apostle to clearly distinguish the method of Jesus’ origin/birth from that of all other humans born since Adam’s  “coming into existence.”  While Bloesch suggests that Paul does not know of the virgin birth, it seems far more likely that in the closely reasoned passages of Romans 5 and Galatians 4 that explicit mention of what seems assumed by the very wording Paul adopts would add topic that is on the surface extraneous to his argument.


The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth[16]


  • ·         The Virgin Birth is not a theory of explanation

We do not think of the virgin birth properly if we understand it to be a theory explaining the incarnation. It is rather an historical fact indicating what happened. We recognize that the source of the virgin birth is an act of creative divine grace that took place within our human existence. We must draw the distinction between apprehending the reality of the work of God in the birth of Christ and comprehending it.

The virgin birth has two sides to it, one side visible and the other invisible: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. This presents us with two questions: What? and How? It is at this point we see clearly that there is no natural understanding of the how that corresponds to the what. The how: the work of the Holy Spirit is an in-breaking of God into our human nature.

In a very real sense the virgin birth is related to God's creative activity of Genesis. By means of his creative act the creator himself has stepped into his creation and is re-creating fallen humanity.

When confronted with the issue of the virgin birth we as Westerners who think in scientific categories immediately ask questions that are biological in nature seeking a scientific explanation.  I have in my younger years engaged many times in these kinds of discussions/debates:

"Procreation requires both a male and a female."

"Scientists can manipulate an egg to start the process of development."

"That may be true, but then the egg always develops into a female because there is no Y-chromosome."

"But the Holy Spirit must have somehow supplied the X-chromosome."

And so goes the conversation. Another variant on these types of debates is as follows:

"Jesus had no human father. He was born through a special work of the Holy Spirit and God is his father."

"So Jesus is both God and man? Doesn't that mean that he is some kind of a demigod like the children of the gods in Greek mythology?-- That he is half man and half God?"

"Christianity has always insisted, on the basis of what the Bible says that he was fully God and fully man."

“100% God and 100% man and we have just one man?  That is really bad math!”

Again, so goes the conversation. The problem is that in focusing on the mechanism of the virgin birth and trying to understand how the Holy Spirit accomplished it, we lose sight of the theological reality because biological questions yield only biological answers or in this case non-answers.

In the case of the virgin birth this is a unique event in which God chose to act and take on our humanity, our creatureliness and although he was not a creature he voluntarily bound himself for eternity to our created fleshly state.

It is a new creative act, but unlike the original creation this creation does not take place out of nothing (ex nihilo) but from within our human existence.

  • ·         Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the mystery of Christ

The Virgin Birth cannot be understood alone and apart from the mystery of the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ. It is a sign that God is doing something . . .  something that is mysterious, something that can be apprehended but not comprehended. It is a sign of the union of deity and humanity and of God's radical identification with the crown of his creation.

  • ·         The Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the resurrection

The Virgin Birth must be seen in conjunction with the Resurrection as concrete signs bracketing these 33 years of history in which God himself has acted in incomprehensible  solidarity with us, sharing with us on this earth a common humanity  while  at the same time sharing it  in such a way that by his sharing in our humanity we are liberated from the bondage, decay,  corruption and  sin, and as a result freed us to life from the bondage of that common humanity and now participate in the new humanity of Jesus Christ, the last Adam.

As Thomas Torrance has said:

The birth of Jesus tells us that God acts in Jesus Christ in such a way that his birth does not fall under the power of man, under the arbitrary forces in human history, or under the causal determinisms of this world, but that in his birth God the son freely and sovereignly enters into them from without. The resurrection tells us that the life and person of Jesus are not held under the tyrant forces of this world, that though he was born of a woman and made under the law, Jesus Christ was not dominated and mastered by our fallen flesh in its judgment, but is triumphant over all, in achieving his redeeming purpose of reconciling our humanity to fellowship with God.[17]

  • ·         The Virgin Birth and empty tomb as pointers to the mystery of Christ

The virgin birth acts as a pointer to the mystery of God's self-revelation within the life of fallen humanity, and that this revelation veils itself in our humanity.

The resurrection of Christ points to the fact that God unveils himself, reveals himself within human life.

Positive teaching

  • ·         The reality of Jesus’ humanity

As 21st century Western Christians we often think of the virgin birth as a sign of Jesus deity. From the perspective of the biblical writers in the early church it signified something very different – his true humanity. Even within the lifetime of the apostles we find professing Christians denying the humanity of Jesus. This is one of the key reasons for the writing of John's first epistle: members of the church were denying that Christ had "come in the flesh." As the church moved out of its early Jewish worldview and confronted the Greco Roman world steeped in dualism particularly a dualism that saw the spiritual in stark opposition to the physical and who scoffed at the idea that God become man, the virgin birth was truly offensive to the point that it had to be rejected. The apostle calls this rejection "the spirit of antichrist."

Jesus did not appear on the scene full-grown and out of nowhere. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels makes clear that he was a Jew, from Nazareth, one whose parentage and relatives were well-known. The explicit accounts of the virgin birth given by both Matthew and Luke make it clear that he is the son of Mary. His birth is unique, but he is human.

The addition of the words born of the Virgin Mary to the earliest creeds were in direct opposition to the claims of the docetic teachers (prevalent during the late first and second century) who argued that Christ only appeared (dokew) to be human while in reality he was a spiritual being without physical substance. On the other hand the virgin birth also testifies to the fact in uniting himself with humanity the second person of the Trinity did not simply come upon an already existent man — that is God did not simply adopt a human, who then became the "Son of God" but rather vitally united himself with humanity. The virgin birth also gives the lie to any teaching that would make God and man co-equal partners in redemption. God joined himself with true and complete humanity by his own sovereign decision. Of course humanity is involved, that is the contribution of Mary but as has been said humanity "is the predicate not the subject, not Lord of the event."[18]

  • ·         Disqualification of human capabilities

The virgin birth is an act of divine grace coming into humanity but in such a way that it denies any possibility of an approach of man to God beginning inside humanity itself.

The virgin birth signals a move from God to man not man to God. Human powers and abilities are not in play. The fact that Mary was a virgin disqualifies her from active participation in the even the conception of Jesus. The incarnation is not a cooperative effort between God and man. It is in no sense a product of human activity. With this in mind John's statement in chapter 1 verse 13 of his gospel makes sense. The birth of Jesus the Messiah marks a unique entry of eternity into time.  As such the virgin birth marks off this supernatural event is utterly unique. The virgin birth is a signal of an internal unconditional act of pure grace on the part of God apart from any human activity.

  • ·         A re-creation out of the old creation

The virgin birth is a creative act of God which is in a real sense parallel to the original creation.  But this creative act has a specific focus. It is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as was the original creation; it was a creation ex virgine and signifies both a new creation in one sense but a re-creation in another.  It is the fountainhead of a new humanity out of the old humanity and a humanity that now participates in the very life of the triune God.

Western Christendom has from its early centuries insisted that the human nature of Jesus was unfallen, because only as a person with an unfallen human nature as well as being a person who had actually  never sinned could he have been the perfect sacrifice. Over the past century numerous New Testament scholars and theologians have challenged this assumption on both exegetical and  theological grounds.   Exegetically we find in Luke, in Paul and particularly in Hebrews language that asserts that Jesus’ humanity was like ours in all ways, but that he never sinned.  Theologically if Jesus’ humanity was unfallen, he certainly was qualified to be the perfect sacrifice, but his humanity did not touch our humanity in its fallen condition.  The patristic dictum “that which he did not assume, he did not heal” expresses the ancient faith of the church—that Jesus assumed a humanity like our own and sanctified it from within through his divine union with it.  Luke says that he grew (prokoptw- the Greek term here  speaks of hammering hot iron on an anvil) in favor with God and man. This sanctification of fallen humanity  involved a lifelong struggle of beating back, blow by blow the fallen condition which was twisted and in opposition to God and required a constant reliance upon the Father through the Spirit throughout his life.

The result of this process was that Jesus became the Last Adam who put to death Adamic humanity reconciling it from within in his death and was raised the progenitor of a recreated humanity. This  recreated humanity participates in this new humanity of Christ.


  • ·         The setting aside of human autonomy

We have mentioned this above but to reiterate.  The virgin birth is a sovereign act of Almighty God which bypasses all human autonomy. Had Joseph been Jesus’ human father, Jesus would have indeed been born of a husband’s will, but Joseph was in fact left  “sitting on the bench,” so to speak. He is not consulted until after the divine work has begun. His only part is to provide human care for Jesus and his mother. He excercises no autonomy, he like Mary adopts the role of a servant in the great drama of the incarnation.

The necessity of the virgin birth does not put any stigma on marriage, human sexuality and birth. The entry of God incarnate into the human condition sanctifies human nature and joins it to God in his purity.  Mary herself was not immaculately conceived but she too was sanctified through her calling as the mother of our Lord.

  • ·         The Virgin Birth, the pattern for grace, the model of faith

The virgin birth is a sign (semion) of the gracious act of God, which becomes a pattern for understanding God’s working in grace.  It is God who takes the initiative through the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary announcing to her that she has been elected by God in his grace for this unique task. She receives the word, the announcement and believes. But this belief is not of herself but of the strength given by the Lord—and for that she is blessed (not because of her virginity).[19]

Mary becomes the pattern for our faith: 

…it is not of our self-will or free will that we are born from above,  ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the  ‘become’ of the Word become flesh.’, grounded in it and derivative from it..  What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ happens in every instance if rebirth into Christ. . . . Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation  between a human father and human mother. Just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and our knowledge of God . . .[there is] no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.[20]

  • ·         Demonstration of the virgin birth only through the Spirit

The virgin birth like its twin doctrine, the resurrection, is not demonstrable by the rationalistic canons of historiography. These canons rule out a priori the possibility of the in-breaking of God into the created order to work miracles. The only demonstration possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit (see 1Cor 2:1).

The virgin birth has archetypal importance for all other acts of grace. While it is true that the reality of the virgin birth is not an explicit part of the apostolic proclamation, it forms a vital place in the substructure upon which the apostolic proclamation and all other Christian doctrines stand.

  • ·         The necessity and importance of the virgin birth

While even some evangelical theologians seem to relativize the importance of the virgin birth (see above), it is vital to note that denials of the virgin birth (and/or the resurrection)  have historically inevitably been accompanied by heresies that undercut an orthodox understanding of the person of the incarnate Christ. In other words the sign of the virgin birth cannot be separated from the thing signified, a true incarnation of God in human flesh.  Attempts to do so empty the Incarnation of its content and with it the possibility of salvation which is anchored fully in the grace of God.


[1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Longman, 1972, esp. 100-130.

[2] Several authors of the last two generations who have affirmed the deity of Christ, have nevertheless  rejected the virgin birth as mythological.  These authors are generally those who are deeply committed to critical historical methodology such as Wolfhardt Pannenberg.

[3] Donald Bloesch provides a very helpful survey of  the discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries in his Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 80-131.

[4] C.A. Briggs,  "The Virgin Birth of Our Lord," American Journal Of Theology 12 (1908) 210.

[5] M. James  Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, NY: Mellen University Press, 1992), 92.


[6] This was the argument of Tertullian in the early 3rd century, Adversus Marcionem 4.10.

[7] M. J Erickson,. (). Christian Theology (2nd ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998),772.  See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 529-532.

[8] T.  F. Torrance, Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).

[9] Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22, Torrance, ibid., 89.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ”, Ch 19, Ante Nicene Fathers 3 (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans),357.

What, then, is the meaning of this passage, “Born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God?” I shall make more use of this passage after I have confuted those who have tampered with it.  They maintain that it was written thus (in the plural.Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,” as if designating those who were before mentioned as “believing in His name,” in order to point out the existence of that mysterious seed of the elect and spiritual which they appropriate to themselves. But how can this be, when all who believe in the name of the Lord are, by reason of the common principle of the human race, born of blood, and of the will of the flesh, and of man, as indeed is Valentinus himself? The expression is in the singular number, as referring to the Lord, “He was born of God.”  And very properly, because Christ is the Word of God, and with the Word the Spirit of God, and by the Spirit the Power of God, and whatsoever else appertains to God. As flesh, however, He is not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of man, because it was by the will of God that the Word was made flesh.  To the flesh, indeed, and not to the Word, accrues the denial of the nativity which is natural to us all as men.

[12] Torrrance, 91.

[13] Ibid ., 93.

[14] Galatians 4:23, 24, 29.

[15] Galatians 4:4.

[16] This entire section is a summary of Torrance’s theological exposition of the virgin birth.

[17] Torrance, 97.

[18] Torrance, Incarnation, 99.

[19] Torrance, 101.

[20] Ibid, 102.

Grace Mary Fuqua (1932-2011)

Posted on Saturday, September 3, 2011 at 10:22PM by Registered CommenterSacred Saga Team | Comments2 Comments

The following is the euology delivered by my wife Kay at her Mom's memorial service August 27, 2011

My Mom

a Eulogy by

Kay Fuqua Sawyer

We are here to celebrate! My Mom and is having a grand homecoming celebration in heaven…and if it were up to me, I would say that heaven is the richer for her being there. And probably all the angels are now wearing corsages! She was a wonderful Mom in every phase of my life.


Mom chose to serve her Lord first and foremost with her life. Because of that Mom’s life was a grand adventure! Such a grand adventure it has been. When I was a child life in the Amazon jungle was just everyday normal: going barefoot despite poisonous snakes & large insects, swimming with the piranhas, riding bikes all over, climbing banyan trees and mango trees. As I have been an adult in the US raising my own family, my parents’ chosen life has become amazing to me.


Mom was born February 27, 1930 and grew up in Southern California with her mom, dad and older sister. She never did like earthquakes much and I used to tease her when we would have our frequent rockers in the jungle. You see, her dad worked for Pacific Telephone company and when she was only 3 there was a 6.4 earthquake in Long Beach that caused extensive damage and 120 deaths. Her dad had to be away from the family for three days in the aftermath of the quake, getting the phone lines back up and working. A pretty scary experience for a 3 yr old!


Her parents frequently had  missionaries into their home, and Mom knew that was what she wanted to do with her life. To go to a foreign country where they had never heard about Jesus and share the good news of God’s love with them. She attended Biola to get the preliminary training in Bible that she would need. Mom’s family’s home church was Calvary Church of Santa Ana, CA where she has been a member since she was 7 years old. The church had an outreach ministry to the servicemen of El Toro Marine Base. They would invite the servicemen on leave to spent the night on Saturday at the church and have a free breakfast, if they would attend  services in the morning. Well a handsome man named Herb was one of those young Marines. At church Herb met a young lady named Flora Margaret who invited him home for lunch after church. Flora Margaret had a sister named Grace. It soon became evident, after more lunches after church, that Herb was more interested in Grace than Flora Margaret.


Grace & Herb (Mom & Dad) were married in 1950 and joined Wycliffe Bible Translators. Going to Jungle Camp training in Mexico was Mom’s first trip outside of the US, but it certainly would not be the last. 1953 saw them arriving in Yarinacocha, a tiny settlement of a few buildings on the bank of a lake in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The courage, faith and trust in the almighty God that it took for Grace to venture into the middle of the nowhere when she was 7 months pregnant with her first child, is mind-boggling to me! The birth of that first child was another one of those scary moments in Mom’s life. It looked like the baby would be born placentia previa, so Dr. Altig had several volunteers lined up in the hall way to give blood if necessary…one small problem, however,  there was no way to type the blood and match it to Mom’s.  The delivery went better than expected…and here I am!


Then 2 years later David joined our family.

When I was 3 years old, the 5 missionaries were killed by the Aucas in Ecuador. At the time my dad was visiting Mr. Reifsnyder  another missionary that lived several hours travel away. The plan was for him to be gone just a few days. Well the time stretched to a week then a week and a half, and no word from Dad. Then two weeks..we were not able to raise them on the radio. It was a nervous time for everyone because of what had just happened in Ecuador, but there was no way to get in touch with Dad. Finally a small plane was sent out to see if everyone was OK. Sure enough all was well. Mr. Reifsnyder had become  ill so Dad had stayed to help until he got better. But the radio was not working so they could not contact anyone.  Thinking back, Mom must have been worried to death, but turning to God for strength and help in fearful times became second nature for me because Mom always led us there.


Mom’s first assignment in Peru was Kindergarten teacher to students like Jeanie Goodall, Elainadell Townsend and David Nichol. Then for several years she was the Clinic Administrator, keeping everything running smoothly. About that time Verna joined our family.


Becoming the Radio Tower operator was a new challenge for Mom, which she relished, and did wonderfully. Her voice carried well on the radio and she loved serving the translators in the tribes and the pilots in any way that she could. One of the most exciting things she ever did was to be on the radio when contact was made with the Mayoruna people group for the very first time!


When I was in high school she was the publications coordinator for the school books, scriptures, and dictionaries that where being written in the various languages. The first books ever in these languages that had never been written down before! Whatever her assignment was she was always a integral part of the team to get the Word of God to the people. That was her attitude, whatever God gave her to do, she did it with all her might. No job was insignificant. Remembering people’s birthdays, playing the piano for church services and other meetings in the auditorium, playing her accordion for evangelistic outreaches in the Tushmo and other places, singing, making coursages and flower arrangements were all contributions to the work in Mom’s mind.  She was wonderful at keeping in touch with the people back in the US, and memories of her clicking away on the typewriter much faster than was humanly possible will always pop up when I think of Mom. Not to mention the beloved “Peruite” letters that kept many of us connected after we left Peru.


Other snapshots of Mom in my mind are her sitting in the rocking chair her reading her Bible & praying (she was a real prayer warrior—praying for us kids and our families, and people she knew all over the world), encouraging my culinary experiments (pie dough, catsup and marshmellows?), teaching  me to love music by her example, Sitting for hours with Mom putting together puzzles and talking about life,  always having an open home, having people over for meals whether dignitaries, other missionaries, indians, they were all enjoyed and treated with respect. One time two men were coming to Yarina from the Mayoruna tribe with Harriet Fields. They had never been out of their jungle village before. At that point this people group was very primitive and had had almost no contact with the outside world. We had arranged with Harriet that they would come to our home for dinner. As soon as the small single engine plane landed and they got off, the three of them came directly to our house. The two men were full of wonder as they entered the first house they had ever seen…touching strange things, pointing at a chair wondering what it was, chattering excitedly in their own language. Mom had prepared chicken for dinner thinking it would be similar to birds they would have eaten before, and something they could eat with their hands. We sat down to dinner (after we showed them how to use a chair), and everyone began to eat. The two men were smacking loudly, showing their appreciation and enjoyment of the meal. When one of them finished his piece of chicken he tossed the bone out the window…but the bone bounced back at him. What? He and his friend got up to see why the bone did not go out the window. There was something on the window they had never seen…screen. They rubbed their hands on it in wonder and then laughed heartily.


Mom was always open to us having our friends over, having parties and game nights. In fact Mom & Dad built a recreation room built beside our house with a ping-pong table and snack bar, so that the teenagers would have a place to go and something to do. Mom would bake brownies and cookies for all of us.


Mom made our home a safe, welcoming, growing place.


From the time I was very young we had a  worker in our home named Lucia. Lucia helped us with the household chores. Mom spent an hour or so in the mornings with Lucia teaching her how to read, and studying the scriptures with her. Lucia was still in our home until my parents left Peru.


Another favorite memory of Mom is story time. David, Verna & I would all get ready for bed, then snuggle together on the couch while Mom read us chapter books of wonderful stories. Dad would be at his desk “working” just a few feet away, and we would hear him chuckle at appropriate places in the story. (come to think of it, since our windows were just screen, I wonder if the Powlisons or Jacksons next door were listening too!) My own children also loved to hear stories read by Nani (as they called her). Since she was in Peru and her grandkids were in the US, she recorded several cassette tapes of stories for them. My boys listened to those tapes for years and it  brought them close to their grandmother even though they were far apart.


In 1987 Mom and Dad finished their part of the work in Peru, and moved on to Colombia, where Mom served as the school administrator for the missionary kids for another 8 years. The entire 8 years they lived in Loma Linda Colombia, they had to have a packed suitcase ready to go in case they had to be evacuated because of the terrorist activity. Their colleague Ray Rising was kidnapped on the road that Dad had traveled everyday to go to the farm. Then everyone else was promptly evacuated.


Mom & Dad came to Dallas to be a part of the work here at the International Linguistic Center. Mom worked in admissions at Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics. She loved meeting all the new students and getting to know them as she helped them with all their paperwork. She kept in touch with many of them as they went on to assignments in various countries. Inviting the Wycliffe Associates into their home in Cedar Hill was something Mom did every year when they would arrive in the fall.


After Dad went on to heaven 4 years ago, Mom moved to the Cowan apartments here on this center. Still wanting to contribute, she worked at the welcome desk. During her time at Cowan apartments she began to develop a strong friendship with Wes Thiesen, who with his family had also served in Peru as translators for the Bora tribe. Our families had always been good friends and quite often spent Christmas or thanksgiving together.  We were so happy when Wes and Mom decided to embark on yet another adventure, and get married last September. They had a short time together, but developed a strong bond. We are thankful for this extra bonus from our gracious Father God.


I am so thankful and blessed to be the daughter of Grace Mary Howland Fuqua Thiesen. She is my Mom…always will be. Prov. 20:7 says the godly walk with integrity; blessed are the children after them.


Mom (and Dad) your life of adventure and faith is a heritage so rich and full that words cannot express my gratitude. 


Now I have a gift for you from Mom… (video of Mom playing “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me…to God be the Glory” on the piano.)




A Hole in Our Gospel

A Hole in Our Gospel

I have recently finished reading Richard Stearns best selling recent book, The Hole in Our Gospel. In case you are not familiar with Stearns, he is President of World Vision, an evangelical relief agency founded about sixty years ago.  During the past six decades it has grown into one of the largest relief agencies in the world. It has programs that sponsor children in poverty stricken countries, is instrumental in bringing clean water to the underdeveloped areas of the world where it never has been safe to drink the water, sponsors micro-loan funding to build sustainable economic growth among the poorest of the poor. World Vision has an impressive record and has proved itself an organization of impeccable financial accountability, and spends a modest 16.3% of worldwide revenues on administrative overhead and fundraising (as opposed to other well know organizations which spend up to 80% of income on fundraising and overhead!)

 Stearns resume is more than impressive in the corporate arena. He recounts his move from CEO of Lennox to President of World Vision in and intensely personal fashion relating the struggles that finally impelled him to leave the corporate world and refocus his life in ministry. His experience overseas observing particularly in Africa the desperate abject poverty that characterizes much of the continent fueled his passion compassion and vision.  It is out of his own personal transformation that he writes The Hole in Our Gospel.

The book itself is moving and having a significant impact. It has been followed by study books and an entire curriculum for churches to employ. Yet it has also significant criticism from some quarters as simply an endorsement of the social gospel, and as undermining the key Reformation articulation of the gospel as being grounded in the Pauline concept of justification by faith.  I return to these criticisms later, but first need to lay some groundwork.



Before the dawn of the twentieth century the mission activity both domestic and foreign was holistic;holistic in the sense that the missionaries attended to both physical and spiritual needs of those to whom they ministered.  Western missionaries entered cultures and ministered to the physical needs of the people, often chronic medical needs, taught good agricultural practices, founded schools ant taught literacy, as well as doing Bible translation, church planting and evangelism.  Even at home in the US churches were active in both medicine and education, founding many hospitals that to this day retain the names of their denominational beginnings. The same is true in the field of education.

 But, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century the church’s vision became more “spiritually” focused on individual conversion “my personal relationship to the Lord.” The vision of Christ as the Lord of all of Creation and all of life was radically truncated.  The proclamation “Christ is Lord” was reduced to the question “Will you make Christ your Lord?” This new focus had profound effects on the influence of the church in the broader culture.  In short, across much of American Protestantism Christ was relegated to the realm of the “spiritual.” In a betrayal of the Reformation heritage the world began to be  viewed as secular and not a place in which Christians who were serious about their faith should be involved. The position of conservative Christians in broader American society shifted radically in the fifty year period from 1850 to 1900.  Conservative Christians  had gone from being a dominant force in American society to being a marginalized minority. The kingdom was at the turn of the 20th century strictly regarded as future and any involvement in trying to improve things here and now was regarded as “polishing brass on a sinking ship,” since this world would be overturned in judgment at the return of Christ.

 During the latter part of the nineteenth century the US underwent a profound demographic shift.  It changed from a predominantly agrarian society to an urban society.  This had profound implications for the Church and the way that the gospel was conceived and communicated. In the agrarian culture with the accompanying revivalism Christianity  the gospel was conceived simply, individualistically.  If one believed in Christ and obeyed the teachings of Scripture, an individual could be a good consistent Christian. 

Walter Rauschenbusch, who had grown up in a conservative pietistic Baptist home and converted to Christ as a teenager, attended Rochester Theological Seminary and took a pastorate in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York City, ministering among German speaking immigrants.  There he came face to face with rampant poverty, injustice and oppression in the social structures which the individualistic gospel (with which he had been raised) was powerless to address.  This experience led him to rethink the implications of the gospel and articulate “a theology for the social gospel” in a work by that name. His premise was:

the social gospel is the old message of salvation, but enlarged and intensified. The individualistic gospel has taught us to see the sinfulness of every human heart and has inspired us with faith in the willingness and power of God to save every soul that comes to him. But it has not given us an adequate understanding of the sinfulness of the social order and its share in the sins of all individuals within it. It has not evoked faith in the will and power of God to redeem the permanent institutions of human society from their inherited guilt of oppression and extortion. Both our sense of sin and our faith in salvation have fallen short of the realities under its teaching. The social gospel seeks to bring men under repentance for their collective sins and to create a more sensitive and more modern conscience. It calls for the faith of the old prophets who believed in the salvation of nations.[1]

While Rauschenbusch was relatively conservative in his theological outlook, those who took up his mantle saw the message of the gospel and the task of the church solely as working to end human suffering and establish social justice.

 As the Social Gospel took root it was wedded to the theological liberalism coming out of Germany which denied virtually all of the historic theological/doctrinal tenets of historic Christianity. During the first two decades of the twentieth century the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy consumed the attention of American Protestantism. Following in the footsteps of German liberal theologian Albrecht Ritschl modernists jettisoned the historic Christian understanding of the trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. The emphasis was the establishment of a moral-ethical kingdom following the example of the (only human) man Jesus who lived in perfect consciousness of God’s presence with him.

 The conservative Christians reacted viscerally to the growth of liberal Christianity and its takeover of the old main-line denominations, particularly the Northern Presbyterians (PCUSA), Methodists, and Northern Baptists (American Baptist Convention).  As a reaction to the advancing liberal influence the conservatives adopted a separationist mentality.  “If the Liberals are doing anything, we will have nothing to do with it.”  The net result was a rending of a holistic understanding of the gospel.  Northern Conservatives, who during the 19th  century earlier had been involved in ministering to both material and spiritual needs (e.g. the Salvation Army) and had universally opposed slavery, largely withdrew from the material ministries because these ministries were associated with liberalism. 

 Theological liberalism found a natural ally in political liberalism and together they sunk their roots deep into the social consciousness of mainstream American culture.


The Situation At Hand Today

On the one hand, the church in America (both liberal and conservative) has largely abdicated its God-given responsibility to the state with its welfare system. While compassionate in its vision the law of unintended consequences has kicked in and created a permanent underclass that suffers from “learned helplessness.” While most churches do have a “benevolent fund” these funds deal with immediate acute needs. It by and large does not deal with helping the poor get out of their chronic poverty.

Underneath this phenomenon is an understanding of the gospel in Pauline terms of “justification by faith alone.” While justification by faith is certainly a major Pauline theme, even by Pauline standards it is not the gospel. According to Paul the Gospel has to do with the Incarnation, Death and resurrection of Jesus:

. . .the gospel that I preached to you, that you received and on which you stand, and by which you are being saved. . . For I passed on to you as of first importance  what I also received – that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised  on the third day according to the scriptures, . . .Whether then it was I or they, this is the way we preach and this is the way you believed. (1 Cor. 15:1-11 NET Bible)

None of the other NT writers speak of justification by faith alone, nor does Jesus himself in any of the Gospels.  Jesus himself speaks of the “Gospel of the Kingdom” and he identifies love and compassionate deeds as that which characterizes its members.


Declaration not Invitation

 On the whole, Stearns is right on a key point.  We have in our preaching and understanding turned the gospel into a transaction.  We for example may pray the prayer at the end of the four spiritual laws, with hardly any understanding of what we are saying, but by repeating the prayer, we are assured that our fire insurance is paid up (oops! I mean we are saved eternally).  This process smacks of pagan magic whereby we manipulate God by repeating the proper incantation.

At its base the Gospel is a Declaration not an Invitation!  It is declaration of reality.  It is something that is true, it is not something we make true by our response. It is a declaration of a new cosmic reality that has been instituted by the love and the humility of the Triune God who so values his creation and everything in it that he became incarnate in the person of Jesus the Messiah so to reconcile the entire cosmos to himself. He has re-established relationship with humanity according to Paul. “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting people’s trespasses against them.. . .” (2 Cor 5:19)

 As D.A. Carson has said:

It was understood better in the past than it is today. It is this: one must distinguish between, on  the one hand, the gospel as what God has done and what is the message to be announced and, on the other, what is demanded by God or effected by the gospel in assorted human responses. If the gospel is the (good) news about what God has done in Christ Jesus, there is ample place for including under “the gospel” the ways in which the kingdom has dawned and is coming, for tying this kingdom to Jesus’ death and resurrection, for demonstrating that the purpose of what God has done is to reconcile sinners to himself and finally to bring under one head a renovated and transformed new heaven and new earth, for talking about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit, consequent upon Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and above all for focusing attention on what Paul (and others—though the language I’m using here reflects Paul) sees as the matter “of first importance”: Christ crucified. All of this is what God has done; it is what we proclaim; it is the news, the great news, the good news.

 By contrast, the first two greatest commands—to love God with heart and soul and mind and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves—do not constitute the gospel, or any part of it. We may well argue that when the gospel is faithfully declared and rightly received, it will result in human beings more closely aligned to these two commands. But they are not the gospel. Similarly, the gospel is not receiving Christ or believing in him, or being converted, or joining a church; it is not the practice of discipleship. Once again, the gospel faithfully declared and rightly received will result in people receiving Christ, believing in Christ, being converted, and joining a local church; but such steps are not the gospel. The Bible can exhort those who trust the living God to be concerned with issues of social justice (Isa 2; Amos); it can tell new covenant believers to do good to all human beings, especially to those of the household of faith (Gal 6); it exhorts us to remember the poor and to ask, not “Who is my neighbor?” but “Whom am I serving as neighbor?” We may even argue that some such list of moral commitments is a necessary consequence of the gospel. But it is not the gospel.[2]

 What has all this to do with A Hole in Our Gospel? A lot really.  While many are heartily embracing Sterns’ message, many are reading Sterns and seeing him compromising the gospel of justification by faith and accommodating theological and political leftism a la Jim Wallis and Sojouners

To come back to Stearns, I believe he has correctly identified what is a pressing issue that we as 21st century American conservative Christians must address head on.  On the other hand I find the biblical and theological justification for dealing with the issue to be naive and simplistic. Since he is a layman, without formal biblical and theological training I am willing to grant him a bit of slack here.  Because of this I resist the temptation to take him to task for his many misuses of scripture and unjustified and wrongheaded theological innuendo to shore up his argument.

He is one who has come face to face with the radically desperate issues of poverty in the world and sees that the resources are available.  He rightly sees that even those of us who are lower middle class are richer than kings of past.  He rightly summons us to examine our own priorities to see if indeed they are in harmony with the heart of Jesus and in line with the Kingdom, or whether we are smug, arrogant and self-satisfied. In short, does the American evangelical church self-sufficiently rely on its wealth and become spiritually complacent and self-satisfied in a sense that it deserves the rebuke of the Lord to the church of Laodicea in Rev. 3.

 My chief concern as I reflect on the book as a whole concerns his use of rhetoric especially early and late in the book.  He is so passionate about the implications of the gospel (and I largely agree with the implications he sets forth) that his rhetoric implies that failure to live up to Christ’s example imperils one’s salvation. 

Any time someone speaks of what God expects of us he is in dangerous territory.  The language of expectation steps into legalism which is spiritually deadening. The believer must be secure in his or her relationship with God before repentance (I am using the term “repentance”  in its proper sense—a radical change of perspective that is seen in a change in life).  As Calvin states: “A man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God’s grace.”[3]  This recognition is not merely cognitive it is something that is felt deep in the soul. If we view God as a loving father who has unconditionally and freely accepted us, has embraced us as his children and who is disciplining (not punishing) us to bring us to maturity.  If we lack this prior assurance, calls to repentance will produce the fear of punishment, rejection and possible cutting off of relationship (loss of salvation).

The question here is one of law/rules vs. love and relationship.  So much of the teaching on our relationship to God is based upon performance rather than relationship. What is communicated is the lie that God grades us on our performance.  Such a mentality undermines the unconditional freeness of the gospel and ultimately makes salvation to be of works rather than grace.  Such an understanding is a one way ticket to defeat, self-condemnation and fear because it assumes punishment for failure.  Yet this flies directly in the face of  Paul’s unequivocal proclamation:  “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus!”



[1] Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (New York: Macmillan, 1917), 5.

[2] D. A. Carson, Editorial, Themelios 34.1 (2009): 1-2

[3] Calvin. Institutes III.3.2


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