Matt Crawford

About Matt Crawford

Matt Crawford served as an assistant pastor at Auburndale Baptist Church while studying at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He currently resides in Durham, England where he works at Durham University as a postdoctoral researcher, investigating canonical and non-canonical gospel literature. He is a contributing author for BibleMesh.

What Does the Doctrine of the Trinity Have to Do With Christmas?

Trinity-Stained-GlassThe doctrine of the Trinity seems to many Christians to be the most obscure and arcane of the Church’s dogmas. In contrast, Christmas is the holiday that more than any other stirs the emotions of followers of Jesus, regardless of denominational affiliation, inspiring them to acts of charity and service to others. What, then, could the seemingly rationalistic doctrine of the Trinity possibly have to do with the divine love we experience and celebrate at Christmas?

A pointer in the direction of answering this question may be found in the oft-overlooked second stanza of the Christmas carol, “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” The author writes, “God of God, light of light / Lo, he abhors not the Virgin’s womb; / Very God, begotten, not created: / O come let us adore Him / Christ the Lord.” Those familiar with church history will quickly recognize in this stanza echoes of the Nicene Creed from AD 325: “We believe . . . in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father . . . Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance (homoousios) with the Father.”

So why would someone think it fitting to include allusions to the Nicene Creed in a Christmas carol? The answer in brief is this: the message of Christmas is that God is with us in Jesus, and the doctrine of the Trinity tells us that it is God Himself who is with us.

Christmas is about the gift of God to humanity in the sending of His Son into the world in a humble stable. So great is this gift that this child is called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). But here we encounter something of a problem. God certainly had not been completely absent prior to this point in human history. Most importantly He had spoken through the prophets of Israel and filled the Jerusalem temple with His presence. And yet the nativity accounts in the Gospels seem to suggest that there is something new, something unique, about the presence of God in the person of the infant in Bethlehem. What then is new about God’s presence “with us” in Jesus, Emmanuel? The newness lies in the fact that in Jesus, God Himself steps into world history in human form, showing His solidarity with us in the most profound and intimate way, from the passage through the birth canal to the ignominy of a criminal’s death and everything in between.

Now at this point certain theologians, both ancient and modern, are tempted to draw back. In the ancient world Arians asserted that Jesus wasn’t equal with the Father. In the modern world, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims make similar claims. But the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, at root, asserts that Jesus is as much divine as is His Father, sharing the undivided will, power, and authority that belong to God alone. As a result, the classical doctrine of the Trinity insists that the one who came forth from Mary in human flesh was, in the language of the creed, “very God,” not some lesser divine being, or a God-in-the-making.

In summary, we might say that you’re not really able to say that Jesus is “God with us” unless you accept that Jesus is Himself fully God. In other words, unless Jesus is homoousios with the Father, He can’t really be Emmanuel. The doctrine of the Trinity, therefore, provides the deep roots that support and sustain the event we celebrate at Christmas.



When Was Jesus Born?

Almost universally today, Christians throughout the world celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. Why do Christians celebrate on this day and is it a good idea to do so?

To begin with, nowhere in the Gospels is there any clear indication of the time of year Jesus was born. Perhaps the most specific time marker in Scripture is the statement in Luke 2:2 that Jesus was born during a census while Quirinius was governor of Syria. But we don’t know precisely what year that census occurred, much less what month. Furthermore, the few other clues that are there do not necessarily point toward a December date. For example, some have suggested that the presence of the shepherds sleeping with their flocks at night is unlikely to have occurred in December, since, even in Palestine, it is a cold time of year. In fact, for roughly three hundred years after Jesus was born no one celebrated His birth on December 25. When some Christians, such as Clement of Alexandria, first began trying to figure out the date of His birth much later, they tended to put it sometime in the spring, not the winter, but even then it there was no consensus on the right date.

When, then, did Christians begin celebrating Christmas on December 25? The answer is we don’t know exactly, though it was definitely sometime in the fourth century and in the city of Rome. The earliest records we have for a celebration on December 25 date from this time and come from the imperial capital. From Rome the celebration gradually spread eastward throughout the Roman Empire. Evidence that it was a recent innovation is that in the year 386 the renowned preacher John Chrysostom pointed out in a Christmas sermon that the festival of Christmas was less than ten years old in Antioch, but had already become very popular. The celebration must have deeply resonated with already existing Christian devotion, for it spread further until it reached the furthest corners of the Christian Church.

Some have attempted to argue that the Christian festival of Christmas on December 25 has pagan roots because the birthday of Sol Invictus (“Invincible Sun”) was celebrated on the same day. This charge is true insofar as Sol Invictus was indeed celebrated on this day. However, the truth of the matter is that we simply don’t know whether the birth of Jesus or the birth of Sol Invictus was the earlier celebration, since the first clear evidence for both celebrations comes from the same time period. The first calendar to record Jesus’ birth as December 25 dates from the year 354, and it likewise preserves the first clear reference to the celebration of the birth of Sol Invictus on the same day. We likely will never know whether the Christians borrowed from the pagans or vice versa, but in the end it matters little for Christian theology and worship.

So does it matter what day you celebrate Christmas or even if you celebrate it at all? Well, in one sense the answer is no, since Christians seem to have gotten by perfectly fine for the first three hundred years without knowing or being too concerned about when Jesus was born. However, in another sense, celebrating Jesus’ birth serves the important purpose of sanctifying the calendar. In classical Rome the year was full of festivals, nearly all of which were tied to the worship of pagan gods. When Christians began trying to reshape the imagination of believers throughout the Empire, they realized that they had to come up with their own calendar to mark the important points in the year. Celebrations such as Christmas on December 25, Epiphany on January 6, and Lent in the spring were intended to remind Christians that the most important events in all of human history had occurred in the 33-year span of Jesus’ life. Henceforth, even the calendar would become an instrument for proclaiming the good news of the birth, death, and resurrection of the Son of God. And that is a message that never grows old, but deserves to be retold with each new year.

T. H. Huxley and the Bible

Ask the average person on the street to name the foremost atheists of our day, and they probably will list the likes of Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett, the late literary critic Christopher Hitchens, or neuroscientist Sam Harris. If you had asked the person on the street in the nineteenth century the same question, there is no doubt that the name at the top of the list would be T. H. Huxley. Although he does not enjoy the same sort of name recognition as the more recent atheists, Huxley in his own day was an outspoken and leading critic of the Christian faith. In fact, his championing of Darwin’s theory of evolution earned him the nickname “Darwin’s Bulldog,” and he coined the term “agnostic” (meaning that we simply cannot know whether or not God exists) to describe his own view.

Although Huxley was famous in his day for his lack of belief in God, in at least one respect he was notably different than the anti-theists today. Huxley did not believe the supernatural claims made in the Bible, but he still advocated the centrality of the Bible in the education of children. In his 2011 publication, A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians, historian Timothy Larsen highlights Huxley’s conflicted relationship to the Bible. As Larsen demonstrates, Victorian doubters like Huxley might have rejected traditional belief in Christianity, but they seemed unable to escape the pervasive influence of the Bible, and at times even revered the book.

A good illustration of Huxley’s ongoing respect for the Bible comes from the year 1870 when compulsory state education of children was enacted into law in England. Huxley served on the London School Board to oversee this new endeavor, and wrote an article titled “The School Boards: What They Can Do, and What They May Do.” In it, Huxley insisted that the Bible must be included in the core curriculum of the state schools, and suggested that he would rather his own children have an education that included the Bible rather than a purely secular one, even if such Bible training involved instruction in what he regarded as misguided theological ideas. Huxley explained why he had such high regard for the Bible:

“I must confess I have been no less seriously perplexed to know by what practical measures the religious feeling, which is the essential basis of conduct, was to be kept up, in the present utterly chaotic state of opinion on these matters, without the use of the Bible . . . Take the Bible as a whole; make the severest deductions which fair criticism can dictate for shortcomings and positive errors; eliminate, as a sensible lay-teacher would do, if left to himself, all that is not desirable for children to occupy themselves with; and there still remains in this old literature a vast residuum of moral beauty and grandeur.”

Even Huxley, who popularized the idea that humans can’t know whether or not God exists, nevertheless saw in the Bible a distinct “moral beauty and grandeur” and recognized its indispensable place at the foundation of Western civilization and its usefulness in guiding conduct amidst a “chaotic state of opinion.” If Huxley thought education in the Bible was necessary in his own day, how much more so today in light of the further decline of biblical literacy in the West.

The Depiction of the Four Gospels in Christian Art

A sixth-century mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy

Sitting as it does at the heart of the western tradition, the Bible has for centuries inspired countless displays of artwork, from stained glass to epic poetry to oratorio. Although these examples of human creativity span a vast geographic and chronological spectrum, they often employ a surprisingly consistent set of symbols. In other words, they speak in a certain language, which can be traced through the centuries and across continents.

A page from the Book of Kells (Ireland, c. 800 AD)

One clear example is the recurrence of the symbols assigned to the four evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). If you’ve ever been to a medieval church, such as the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (top of page), or looked at an illuminated manuscript such as the famous Lindisfarne Gospels from Northumbria, you will perhaps have noticed that the authors of the four gospels are regularly depicted, and they are almost never alone. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are nearly always accompanied by four distinct creatures.

The usage of these images goes back ultimately to Irenaeus (d.202), one of the most famous theologians of the early church. Against heretical groups that used only one of the four gospels, Irenaeus insisted that you had to have all four to get a complete picture of Jesus (Against Heresies 3.11.8). To support his argument he relied upon the presence of the four living creatures around the throne of God, as recorded in Revelation 4:6-7. The first creature, which was like a lion, represents, according to Irenaeus, the Gospel of John, which begins with a notable emphasis on the divinity of Jesus. The second creature, which was like an ox, is aligned with the Gospel of Luke, since Luke begins with the story of Zechariah the priest in the Temple where animal sacrifices were made. The third creature around the throne had the face of a man, so Irenaeus said this represented the Gospel of Matthew, which begins by tracing Jesus’ earthly lineage back to David and Abraham. Finally, the fourth creature was like an eagle in flight, which is linked to the Gospel of Mark, since Mark begins with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah.

A page from the Book of Kells (Ireland, c. 800 AD)

Although in the later patristic and medieval tradition some of these symbols are switched around (e.g., Jerome assigned the lion to Mark and the eagle to John), Irenaeus’ linking of the four creatures from Revelation 4 to the four gospels proved to be very influential for later Christian artwork, as it was taken up by scores of artists throughout Europe and beyond. Irenaeus creatively used these four creatures surrounding the throne of God to symbolize the four gospels, all of which tell the story of Jesus as the hope of human salvation. The ongoing representation of the four evangelists with these four creatures continues to emphasize that the church relies upon not just one, two, or three, but four gospels which testify to the saving life of Jesus.

Pity: Moral Weakness or Theological Virtue?

In certain respects the influence of the Bible upon Western culture was so pervasive and thorough that it can be difficult for modern persons to imagine the world that lay on the other side of this monumental historical shift. The Christian legacy has become the air we breathe such that we no longer recognize how strange some distinctly Christian ideas were when they first appeared on the world stage. Once such example is the notion of “pity.” Most people, even if they acknowledge their own failure to live up to such a standard, would nevertheless regard it as virtuous to feel pity for persons who are suffering, especially those who suffer unjustly.

Classical, pre-Christian authors had an ambivalent attitude towards the idea of “pity.” Aristotle, for example, identified pity as “the pain felt toward another’s undeserved misfortune,” yet in his Ethics, pity fell short of being a virtue, and was instead classified as merely an emotion. The Stoics later took an even more negative perspective on the idea. Seneca, for instance, spoke of it as a “weakness of the mind overly distressed by misery.” Moreover, he, along with Cicero, suggested that the expected norm was certainly to help others in dire straights, but only those who were upstanding citizens who would likely be able to reciprocate with acts of gratitude later on. Thus, in their view one should always have an eye out for one’s own interests and in all circumstances be sure to retain one’s composure.

Early Christian authors to varying degrees were aware of these long standing traditions of reflection upon piety and its propriety. However, they found that the Christian story required a significant modification of the classical tradition, and so they subsequently recast pity as a theological virtue. These early Christian thinkers retained the sense that the misery of others should cause us discomfort and even pain, and yet regarded this experience as a useful tool for training the soul in the way of righteousness. As Gregory of Nazianzus reflected on the experience of witnessing someone else in misery, “sadness is sometimes more precious than joy, and gloom than celebration – a tear more praiseworthy than unseemly laughter.”

What drove this about-turn in the evaluation of pity? In short, it was the Bible which impressed two important ideas upon the minds of these Christian thinkers. First was the realization that all humanity is equal before God. As Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, even the poor “share the same nature with us, and have been put together from the same clay from which we first came . . . [were] made in the image of God, . . . [and] have put on the same Christ in the inner person.” Second was the supreme example of Christ, the almighty and eternal Son of God, who “though he was rich, yet for [our] sake he became poor, so that [we] by his poverty might become right” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The abundant pity which God showed to humanity in the person of His Son sparked the Christian moral imagination to refashion classical ideals in light of gospel truth. No more is pity a weakness. Rather, it is intrinsic to the divine love shown in Christ, a love that believers are now commanded to show to all mankind.

The classical citations above come from Paul M. Blowers, “Pity, Empathy, and the Tragic Spectacle of Human Suffering: Exploring the Emotional Culture of Compassion in Late Ancient Christianity,” Journal of Early Christian Studies 18 (2010): 1-27. The quotation from Gregory of Nazianzus comes from Brian E. Daley, Gregory of Nazianzus (London: Routledge, 2006), 83.

 

 

Q: “Who does the Bible say Jesus is?”

Perhaps the most basic Christian question is, “Who is Jesus?” It was this question that Jesus Himself asked His disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” (Luke 9:18-20). Since Jesus is without doubt the most central figure in Christianity, discerning His identity is of paramount importance. The most basic answer to this question is that Jesus is fully God and fully man in one person. Let’s explore each of these three aspects in sequence.

First, the Bible says that Jesus is truly God. John 1 is the classic statement to this effect. There Jesus is called “the Word” who was with God in the beginning, and who Himself is “God” (John 1:1). Paul expresses the same point in Philippians 2:6, where he says that Jesus was “in the form of God” and possessed “equality with God” before coming to earth as a human.

Second, the Bible unequivocally asserts that Jesus is truly man. Numerous passages in the Gospels present Jesus doing the things that are suitable for a man to do rather than for God to do. For example, Jesus was thirsty (John 4:7), His spirit was troubled (John 13:21), He wept (John 11:35), and, most importantly, He died on the cross as a common criminal. Each of these activities are something that God in Himself would not be capable of because He does not have a body, and does not experience need or lack like human beings do.

So we have here two basic principles that initially appear to be at odds with one another. Jesus is truly God and Jesus is truly man, begotten from God the Father in eternity as the Son of God, and born of the Virgin Mary as an infant in a stable in Bethlehem. But how can both these statements be true? We might be tempted at this point to resolve this dilemma by supposing that Jesus was sometimes doing God-like things, and sometimes doing human-like things. In other words, at times He was God and at times He was a man. That might help to alleviate the apparent contradiction of supposing that someone can be both God and man.

The problem with this idea is that it runs up against biblical passages that speak about Jesus as God doing human things and about Jesus as man doing God-like things. One example of this is Paul’s statement that “the rulers of this age . . . crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8). Being crucified is something that only a person can experience, but only God would be called “the Lord of glory.”

The Scriptures teach that Jesus is God and man at the same time and in a single person. He is not divided into two separate individuals, but is now and always will be both God and man. And the wonderful truth is that He is both of these things for us, as the perfect mediator between God and humanity.