“Why should I believe the Bible?” Because the Bible is…
The Bible reports actual historical events and the manuscripts that we have for the Bible are very reliable. Nothing in ancient literature matches the historical documentation of the Bible. Nothing really comes close.
“Compared with other ancient writings, the Bible has more manuscript evidence to support it than any ten pieces of classical literature combined.”
“The reliability of the New Testament history is overwhelming when compared to that of any other book from the ancient world.”
“The New Testament is easily the best attested ancient writing in terms of the sheer number of documents, the time span between the events and the documents, and the variety of documents available to sustain or contradict it. There is nothing in ancient manuscript evidence to match such textual availability and integrity.”
As a protestant who believes in sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), I believe that tradition and confessional Christianity does not hold a place above Scripture. However, I do believe it is important and helpful to consider what church history has to say on theological issues. So let’s look briefly at the question of whether or not universalism has been accepted in historical confessional Christianity.
Harold J. Brown makes an interesting point that we should consider. He says,
“curiously enough, it is heresy that offers us some of the best evidence for orthodoxy, for while heresy is often very explicit in the first centuries of Christianity, orthodoxy is often only implicit. If we hope, today, that the orthodoxy we believe is the ‘faith once delivered to the saints’ (Jude v. 3), then it is necessary to assume that it is older than heresy. But heresy appears on the historical record earlier, and is better documented, than most of what the church came to call orthodoxy. How then can heresy be younger, orthodoxy more original? The answer is that orthodoxy was there from the beginning and heresy reflected it. Sometimes one catches a glimpse of another person or object in a mirror or a lake before seeing the original. But the original preceded the reflection, and our perception of it. The same, we could argue, is true of orthodoxy—the original—and heresy—the reflection. The heresy we frequently see first, but orthodoxy preceded it.”
False teachings call into question the pillars of Christianity and so teachers and creeds rise up in protection of the church’s foundational teaching. The doctrine of the Trinity has always been orthodox but there has not always been a creed stating such. The reason for this is because false teaching gives rise to defensive of orthodox teaching. Thus, in history we often see heresy argued before we see orthodoxy defended. Greg A. Allison says that the “issue of the continuation of punishment for the wicked became a point of debate with the theology of Origen” (c. 185-254) so it makes sense that universalism was not formally acknowledged as heresy until later on.
Everett Ferguson says that
“apart from Origen, who entertained the possibility of universal salvation after a period of purification and education of souls in the afterlife, those who spoke to the subject understood an ultimate division of humanity in heaven or hell. The expectation of eternal reward sustained Christian endurance in the face of persecution and other hardships.”
W. G. T. Shedd wrote:
“The common opinion in the Ancient church was, that the future punishment of the impenitent wicked is endless. This was the catholic faith; as much so as belief in the trinity. But as there were some church fathers who deviated from the creed of the church respecting the doctrine of the trinity, so there were some who dissented from it in respect to that of eternal retribution. The deviation in eschatology, however, was far less extensive than in trinitarianism.”
Allison demonstrates in his book Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine that
“from its inception, the church has believed that there will be a final judgment of both believers and unbelievers… On the one hand, this judgment will usher believers into the presence of Christ and the blessedness of heavenly reward forever. On the other hand, following the judgment of condemnation, unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment in hell. Only a few Christians deviated from this understanding of the last judgment and eternal punishment.”
A few more examples:
“As regards the fate of the wicked… the general view was that their punishment would be eternal, without any possibility of remission.”
“Everlasting punishment of the wicked always was, and always will be the orthodox theory.”
“The punishment inflicted upon the lost was regarded by the Fathers of the Ancient Church, with very few exceptions, as endless.”
“Church creeds from the early Middle Ages through the Reformation and into the modern era regularly affirmed the eternal punishment of the wicked… The reality of hell and eternal punishment was thought to be as basic to Christian belief as the Trinity and incarnation.”
What follows is important and relevant for individuals, society, and the world. The water is deep at places but must be forded for us to get to solid ground. The world, I fear, is in a swamp of uncertainty, but the water is rising, every day the need for solid ground is more apparent but harder to reach. Wade through this with me, and perhaps we can find something solid to build upon. Something that will stand through the next wave, whatever that wave may be. As we set out, we will use Friedrich Nietzsche as our marker, though he is no North Star, he helps us map the mire.
First, we should know some about Nietzsche. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was born on October 15th, 1844 and died on August 25th, 1900. Nietzsche lived a sickly life and died at the age of 55 of pneumonia. Nietzsche’s father was a Lutheran pastor. “Nietzsche’s uncle and grandfathers were also Lutheran ministers, and his paternal grandfather, Friedrich August Ludwig Nietzsche (1756–1826), was further distinguished as a Protestant scholar.” Nietzsche faced many difficulties from a young age. His father died when Nietzsche was only four years old and just six months after the death of his father his younger brother died.
Nietzsche must have been gifted intellectually from a young age. For example, he composed piano, choral, and orchestral music as a teenager. He also received a good education at a first-rate boarding school. As a teenager, he read “David Strauss’s controversial and demythologizing Life of Jesus Critically Examined” and it had a big impact on him. Early on Nietzsche considered himself devout, he was even called “little preacher” when he was young, but eventually, he would deny the faith, though at first not publically.
Second, it should be understood, that in my mind, Nietzsche’s ramblings are closer to rhetoric than to philosophy. Nietzsche often employees ad hominem arguments and attacks a person (e.g. the Apostle Paul) rather than their arguments. Nietzsche also seems fond of constructing straw man fallacies for his argumentative flame.
Third, Nietzsche wrote in a very unique and even enjoyable style. However, his lack of precision in writing is dangerous; people can construe his writings in many ways, and they have. There is much disagreement over Nietzsche and his work, which must to a large degree, must be because Nietzsche seems to have communicated often more like a poet, using words to paint, and not as much for precision. It is true that Nietzsche at times is very hard to discern and it is also true that his body of work is large and there is much disagreement upon what place Nietzsche’s unpublished work should play in Nietzschean scholarship. However, all that being the case, Nietzsche is still responsible for what he wrote and the way he wrote.
Yannick Imbert has said,
In the history of Western thought, Nietzsche most likely holds the distinction of being the most misunderstood and misrepresented philosopher. Understanding him represents a particular challenge for Christians, given Nietzsche’s radical criticism of anything related to Christianity. Let us consider more closely the philosophy of the so-called father of nihilism.
 See e.g. D. Demelsoet, K. Hemelsoet, and D. Devreese, “The neurological illness of Friedrich Nietzsche,” 9-16 in Acta neurologica Belgica (April 2008).
 Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ed. Edward N. Zalta (Fall 2016 Edition)(https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nietzsche/#Life1844 accessed on December 5th, 2016).
 “From his early boyhood, Nietzsche was expected to follow the family tradition and become a minister himself. As late as 1864, when he studied classics and theology at Bonn University, he seems to have adhered to his family’s expectations (if no longer wholeheartedly). When one year later he finally dropped theology, he proved a family crisis” (Jörg Salaquarda, “Nietzsche and the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” 90-118 in The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997], 92).
 E.g. Nietzsche says, “In Paul is incarnated the very opposite of the “bearer of glad tidings”; he represents the genius for hatred, the vision of hatred, the relentless logic of hatred. What, indeed, has not this dysangelist sacrificed to hatred!… The life, the example, the teaching, the death of Christ, the meaning and the law of the whole gospels—nothing was left of all this after that counterfeiter in hatred had reduced it to his uses. Surely not reality; surely not historical truth!… He simply struck out the yesterday and the day before yesterday of Christianity, and invented his own history of Christian beginnings… The figure of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence—in the lie of the “risen” Jesus… The figure of the Saviour, his teaching, his way of life, his death, the meaning of his death, even the consequences of his death—nothing remained untouched, nothing remained in even remote contact with reality. Paul simply shifted the centre of gravity of that whole life to a place behind this existence—in the lie of the “risen” Jesus… What he himself didn’t believe was swallowed readily enough by the idiots among whom he spread his teaching.—What he wanted was power…” (Nietzsche, The AntiChrist, par. 42).
 So, Alvin Plantinga has said, Nietzsche “writes with a fine coruscating brilliance, his outrageous rhetoric is sometimes entertaining, and no doubt much the extravagance is meant as overstatement to make a point. Taken overall, however, the violence and exaggeration seem pathological; for a candidate for the sober truth, we shall certainly have to look elsewhere” (Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000], 136).
 Class notes from Yannick Imbert’s lecture in “History of Philosophy and Christian Thought” on Oct. 12th, 2016.
The Christian Church has a long and varied heritage when it comes to art. That being the case, it is instructive for us to briefly understand some of the issues involved. This will help us better grasp the Church’s present situation when it comes art.
Christians, at first, as a small unpopular and often persecuted group did not produce works of art that were distinctly Christian or had an impact on secular culture. Early Christian art mainly used pagan vocabulary to express Christian sentiment. “Until roughly A.D. 200 most visual imagery was found in catacombs, the burial places (and sometime hiding places) of Christians.”
“In the third century, as Christianity become more established, marble imagery appeared, though it continued to portray the same images used by the early Christians.” However, the biggest change came with the conversion of Constantine the Great (in 312), the Roman Emperor, and the Edict of Milan (in 313) when Christianity was granted religious toleration within the Roman Empire. After the edict, Christians were free to publically display their faith through art and architecture. After this period we begin to see Christian art flourish.
By 574 we see amazing buildings with huge mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament being dedicated (like San Vitale). The murals and mosaics were especially important because many people were illiterate and did not have Scripture in their language (e.g. the Mass was in Latin). Although, images were helpful in promoting worship some also saw the use of images as dangerous.
“Images, no matter how discretely chosen, come freighted with conscious or subliminal memories; no matter how limited their projected use, they burn indelible outlines into the mind… Images not only express convictions, they alter feelings and end up justifying convictions.”
One of the dangerous, for some, was the veneration of icons. There are three stages in the development of icons. First, “As the emperor’s image represented the presence of the emperor, Christ’s image, or the image of a saint, came to serve as a kind of ‘proxy’ for their presence.” These images assisted the veneration of the saints. Second, there was a rise in the use of imagery in private devotions. People began to go on pilgrimages to shrines or churches. “The third stage occurred at the end of the seventh century, when portraits or images of Christ and the saints began to appear as isolated frontal figures” and “by the beginning of the eighth century it had become common practice to venerate these images, which meant that honor paid to the image honored the person represented.”
These developments brought controversy to the Church. “The practice in the East of venerating the image of Christ inevitably caused those accustomed to a more symbolic orientation to react. Christians who opposed the use of images in worship generally felt that these objects marginalized the work of Christ.” In fact the controversy got so bad that in 730 Emperor Leo II destroyed the “images of Christ, his mother, and the saints.”
Clearly then, the Church took art and the use of images in various forms very seriously.
“The icon… was much more than an aesthetic image to grace the church and stimulate holy thoughts. It was something that expressed deeply held theological convictions, and it was meant to move the viewer to love and serve God. In many respects, an icon was theology in a visual form, and the practice of making an icon itself represented a spiritual discipline.”
However, did the Church cross the line of making idols that were so clearly and vehemently condemned by the prophets in the Old Testament (e.g. Is. 44:12-20)?
During the Early Renaissance, “a renewal in the arts was closely connected with reform movements that began springing up throughout western Europe.” During this period many massive cathedrals were built (e.g. Salisbury Cathedral and Reims Cathedral).
“These great structures, which must have been extremely impressive amid the modest building around them, not only became the center of the social and religious life of the community but were actually intended to be a microcosm of the world. An image of the last judgment was frequently located over the central portal of the cathedral…, reminding those entering of God’s judgment, which was avoided only by eating the holy Eucharist. The space of the church represented the ‘ark of salvation.’ On either side of the portal were images of the prophets and apostles, on whose word rested the hope of God’s people.”
During this period there were also seeds planted that would eventually rise up and challenge the extravagance of the Church and her art. We see this for example through the work of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic of Spain. For example, Francis and Dominic emphasized simplicity and mission.
Next, we will look at the impact of the Reformation on art within the Church. But at this point, it will be helpful for us to see what we can learn from what we have seen from history so far. So, here are a few questions to consider:
- What are some dangerous to avoid when it comes to art and the church?
- What do you think about the extravagance of the church?
- What concerns should we have?
- What takeaways for our modern context of cinderblocks, cement, lights, and lasers?
- How did art serve the purpose of the early church?
- Can art still serve the purpose of the church? If so, how?
- What should we be cautious of regarding art and the church?
 William A. Dyrness, Visual Faith, 26.
 Dyrness, Visual Faith 26.
 Ibid., 27.
 Thomas Matthews, The Clash of the God, 11.
 Dyness, Visual Faith, 35.
 Ibid., 35.
 Ibid., 36.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 37.
 Ibid., 38.
 Ibid., 39-40.