The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Mysterious Case of the Bread, Wine, and Water

The ancient Greeks loved their mysteries. In that, they were like us, although their mysteries were quite a bit different from ours. A mystery, to the ancient Greeks, was not a story in which a crime was committed and a brilliant but eccentric investigator was called in to find the culprit and solve the puzzle that had left the Athenian or Spartan authorities baffled. The Hercules of the Greek mysteries was not exactly known for using his “little grey cells”.

The ancient Greek mysteries were religious rites or ceremonies associated with the cults of particular deities. The ancient Greeks were polytheistic. They recognized many gods and while the stories told about those gods, the Greek myths, were shared by the Hellenic peoples, religious worship varied greatly throughout Greece. The city was the sovereign political unit in ancient Greece and each city had its own established cult honoring the patron gods of the city. Each citizen was expected to participate in the rites of his own city but was also free to worship other gods as well. Several of the Greek gods and goddesses had mystery cults in their honour. The most famous of these were the Eleusian Mysteries and the Dionysian Mysteries.. The Eleusian Mysteries were based in Eleusis and were in honour of Demeter the goddess of harvest and grain and her daughter Persephone. The Dionysian Mysteries, in honour of Dionysius or Bacchus, the god of wine, were not tied to a particular location, and indeed spread throughout all Greece and eventually to Rome. Both of these mystery cults clearly had their origins as fertility religions.

Mystery cults were not open to everybody but rather only to those who were initiated. The first mystery of one of these cults was it’s initiation rite. As part of the ceremony each initiate would swear an oath that they would not reveal the secrets of the cult to outsiders. This is why they were called “mysteries”. The Greek term “to mysterion” originally meant a secret. Some of the mysteries were multi-layered, with initiates learning more of the cult’s secrets as they progressed. Due to the secretive nature of the mysteries we do not know all of the details about them. We do know that many of the mystery rites involved a re-enactment of the main myth pertaining to the gods the cult worshipped. In the Eleusian Mysteries, for example, this was the rape of Persephone, in which she was abducted by Hades, taken to the underworld, and searched for by her mother until an arrangement was made that she would spend part of the year in the underworld as Hades’ queen (winter) and the rest of the year with her mother (spring through harvest).

While the ancient Greek mysteries are long gone, they have inspired the rituals of many other groups down through the years. One obvious example to point to is freemasonry. Freemasonry too is a group whose initiates are sworn not to reveal its secrets. When the Dionysian Mysteries came to Ancient Rome, according to Livy, (1) subversive elements abused the secrecy of the Mysteries to plot sedition against the Republic. Similar accusations have been made against the freemasons. Freemasonry is also like the Dionysian Mysteries in that more often than not it is just an excuse to have fun, get drunk and throw a party.

Christianity too has been influenced by these practices. Christianity borrowed many things from the Greeks, and mystery rites were one of them. We will see what the Christian mysteries are momentarily, and how they are both similar to and different from Greek mysteries. First, it needs to be pointed out that the fact that Christianity incorporated the concept of a “mystery” from pagan Greek religion, does not mean, as some skeptics have argued, that Christianity is not the divinely revealed, true faith. Just because pagan fertility religions feature a dying and reviving god, does not mean that Christianity, centred around the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an event in human history attested by eyewitnesses that took place in the capital of a province of the Roman Empire, under the nose of the Roman authorities, is not true. Rather, as C. S. Lewis has argued, it means that in Christianity, the myth has come true. (2)

It should also be pointed out that just because the Church borrowed something from the Greeks does not mean that by doing so the Christian faith was polluted and corrupted. There are many Christians who do not like that Christianity borrowed so much from the Greeks. Some would argue that Greek thought has been a corrupting influence in the Church. These would use the expression “the Hellenization of Christianity” to describe the process whereby Christianity was supposedly led astray from the purity of its Hebrew roots.

It is impossible, however, to conceive of what this supposed, pristine, pre-Hellenized Christianity would have looked up. The earliest Christian writings, including those of the Apostles and close associates of the Apostles like St. Luke that are considered canonical Scripture by the Church, already incorporate elements of Greek thought. St. John the Evangelist begins his Gospel by identifying Jesus with both the logos of Greek philosophy and the God of the Old Testament, bringing Greek and Hebrew thought together. Jesus Himself quotes a Greek proverb in the New Testament in His post-Ascension appearance to Saul of Tarsus leading to the latter’s conversion.(3)

The Christian mysteries have a clear Scriptural warrant as well. Greek was the universal language when Christianity was born. It became the language of the Church and remained the language of the Church for centuries. During these centuries the Church referred to its own rites and ceremonies as “mysteries”. Eventually, Latin, the language of Rome, became more common in Western Europe and in the Western Church. When the Western, Latin-speaking Church split from the Eastern, Greek-speaking Church in the 11th Century, the Eastern Churches continued to call their rites mysteries and they do so to this day. The Western Church, however, had begun as far back as Tertullian, to use the Latin word “sacramentum” to translate the Greek “mysterion”. Hence, the sacred mysteries of Christianity, are in the Western Church known as “sacraments”.

The Eastern Church does not take a position on how many Christian mysteries there are. It recognizes at least seven, the seven that the Roman Catholic Church considers to be sacraments. Martin Luther and John Calvin, however, argued that there were only two sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. These are the two rites which the early Church first called mysteries, the two which most obviously resemble Greek mystery rites, the two which are clearly instituted by Christ Himself for His Church in the New Testament, and the two which are recognized by all branches of the Christian Church, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. These are the two that are the subject of this essay.

Baptism and Holy Communion are not called “mysteries” anywhere in the New Testament. Baptism, however, is clearly an initiation rite, and Holy Communion is a sort of visual re-enactment of the central event in the Christian narrative – the death of Jesus Christ for our sins, and the shedding of His blood. They are therefore the functional equivalent of Greek mysteries with an important difference. There is no “secret knowledge” that the baptized are sworn to keep hidden from those outside the Church.

In this, the orthodox Christian Church is to be distinguished from the heretics, called anti-Christs by St. John the Apostle, who challenged Apostolic doctrine and authority in the early centuries of the Church. These have come to be known as “Gnostics” because they claimed to have “secret knowledge” or “gnosis” which they revealed only to their initiates.

In contrast with the pagan Greek and Gnostic practices, the Christian Church from the time of the Apostles has publicly declared the doctrines of the faith into which its initiates are baptized. The Apostles’ Creed, is believed by Church historians to have originally been prepared in Rome, for use in baptism. In Rome, the church developed the practice of baptizing its converts on Easter Sunday, and as part of the ceremony they would publicly confess their faith. The Apostle’s Creed is believed to have been the formula for those confessions. The Nicene Creed is regularly recited in Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and liturgical Protestant (Anglican, Lutheran, Methodist, some Reformed) Churches as part of the liturgy of Holy Communion. This practice dates back to the century in which the Nicene Creed was composed, and the Church leaders at the councils of Nicaea and Constantinople may very well have intended for the Creed to be used that way. The contents of neither Creed were ever restricted to Christian believers, but contain, rather, the basic Christian message that the Church proclaims to the world.

This is in keeping with how the word “mystery” is used in the New Testament. “To mysterion” is found about 30 times in the New Testament. Jesus Christ Himself is only quoted as using it once, the quotation being found in all three Synoptic Gospels. This is when Jesus, having spoken to the crowd in parables, explains why He did so to His disciples:

Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. (Matt. 13:11)

The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven were not secrets the disciples were to keep hidden forever, however. If they were, the Evangelists would not have written the explanations of the parables down in the Gospels. Following the Resurrection, Jesus commissioned the Apostles to go into all the world, preaching the Gospel to all people, baptizing them and teaching them all which Jesus had taught them. The mysteries of the kingdom were to be secrets no more. St. Paul frequently describes the Gospel as a mystery, hidden in past times, but now revealed.

What happened between Matthew 13 and Matthew 28 that brought about this change?

The events of Holy Week of course. On the first Palm Sunday, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, identifying Himself publicly with an Old Testament prophecy about the coming Messiah. At His trial before the High Priests, He identified Himself with the Messianic “Son of Man” from the Book of Daniel. When He rose again from the dead, on the first Easter Sunday, He was “declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4).

The kingdom was no longer to be wrapped up in mysteries, hidden from the multitude and kept secret among the disciples, because the King had revealed Himself, and the Good News was to be preached to every creature. In Christianity, the meaning of the mystery was to be inverted. Christian knowledge is not to be concealed, hidden, and reserved for the initiates but to be proclaimed to the world. As St. Paul put it:

And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory. (1 Tim 3:16)

If Christianity is a religion of revelation, then, and not a religion of secret knowledge, what is the purpose of the Christian mysteries, the sacraments?

Let us look at what the New Testament has to say about them.


Baptism was an Old Testament ritual of purification for uncleanness that became associated with the ministry of John the Baptist. John the Baptist, born six months before Jesus, was the son of Elizabeth, a cousin of the Virgin Mary. An eccentric, Old Testament style prophet, John earned his nickname by preaching in the wilderness around the Jordan River in Judaea. His message was simple “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”. Those who heeded his word, confessed their sins and were baptized by John in the Jordan. Baptism, then, in the ministry of John the Baptist, was an outward sign of repentance.

Then Jesus came to John to be baptized. This shocked him. John knew Jesus to be the One he spoke of when he told the Pharisees “I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance. but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire.” When John was preaching “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, what he meant was “Repent, because Jesus, the King God has promised you, is here”. So why was Jesus Himself coming to be baptized?

This is exactly what John the Baptist asked Jesus, and Jesus’ answer was “Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” John may not have fully understood this, but we can understand it now, as the first century readers of the Gospels would have been able to understand it, because of the writings of St. Paul.

In the sixth chapter of his epistle to the church in Rome, St. Paul writes:

Know ye not, that so many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into his death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. (Rom 6:3-4)

The believer in Jesus Christ is joined to Christ in a spiritual union. Christ is in the believer and the believer is in Christ. In Christian baptism, the initiatory rite of the Christian faith, the believer is identified with Christ in His death and resurrection.

This is one side of an important spiritual truth. The other side is that Christ in His death and resurrection, chose to identify Himself with sinful mankind, and take man’s sins upon Himself.. This is how salvation was accomplished. “He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him”. (2 Cor. 5:21)

It was in His death that He took our sins upon Himself. This was not the beginning of His self-identification with fallen man however. In one sense it began with His incarnation. He chose to identify Himself with us by taking humanity upon Himself. Symbolically, however, the beginning of His identification with sinful mankind was His baptism. Baptism was a ritual purification. One was ritually purified with water when one had become unclean in certain ways. John in particular was baptizing as a symbol of repentance. Jesus had no need of such purification for Himself, for He had no sins to repent of, but He underwent the baptism in order to identify Himself with sinners, who do need to repent. The very reason He became a man was to take man’s sins upon Himself and so save those who would put their trust in Him. This was why the Father sent Him (John 6:38-40) and when Jesus humbled Himself by identifying Himself with sinful man in baptism, God the Father acknowledge Him as His Son from Heaven.

In Jesus’ baptism He identified with sinful, fallen, humanity, and in our baptism we identify with Him in His death and resurrection. Christian baptism then, is all about the spiritual union between the believer and Christ, in which that which is the believer’s, i.e. his sins, become Christ’s, and that which is Christ’s, His death and resurrection, become the believer’s. It is quite appropriate, therefore, as an initiation rite into the Christian faith, and was instituted as such for the Church by Christ:

And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:18-20).

Holy Communion

Christ’s words commissioning the Eucharist were recorded in Scripture before any of the Gospels were written. The Gospels were written after the epistles, and St. Paul in the eleventh chapter of his first epistle to the Church in Corinth describes how Jesus established the Eucharist. Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke would later place the words of institution within their context in the narrative of Jesus life.

Christ instituted Holy Communion at the Last Supper, i.e., the last Passover seder that he shared with His Apostles on the night in which He was betrayed by Judas and handed over to the High Priests. At that supper, Jesus took bread, i.e. matzah, a flat unleavened bread similar to a cracker, gave thanks, and then broke it saying:

Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me.

He also took the cup, i.e., of wine, and said:

This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.

St. Paul, after recording this, goes on to tell the Corinthian Church:

For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come. (1 Cor. 11:26)

If baptism is the Christian initiation mystery, Holy Communion is the mystery in which Christ’s death, the central event in Christianity’s redemption history, is reenacted.

St. John does not record the institution of the Eucharist in his account of the Last Supper. Earlier in his Gospel, however, he tells of how the people who had witnessed Him feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes, later came up to Him in Capernaum. They wanted to know how He had gotten there (He had walked across the sea to rejoin His disciples in their boat) and Jesus told them they were looking for Him for the wrong reasons, that they should labour “for that meat which endureth unto everlasting life” instead of “the meat which perisheth”. They then asked Him what work they needed to do to “work the works of God” and were told that “This is the work of God, that ye believe on Him whom He hath sent”.

They still had the feeding of the five thousand on their minds and asked Him for a miracle that they might believe, dropping a hint as to what kind of miracle they would like by referring to the manna their ancestors ate while wandering in the desert of Sinai. Jesus then contrasted the manna with Himself, saying that He was the “bread of life: he that cometh to Me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on Me shall never thirst” and explained that His purpose in coming down from heaven was to save the people His Father gave Him, i.e. those who believe in Him.

This was not received well by His audience, which included people who knew His mother Mary and her husband Joseph, and grumbled at His having said that He “came down from heaven”.

Jesus response to them was not worded in a way that would be easier for them to accept. It included the following:

I am that bread of life. Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which cometh down from heaven, that a man may eat thereof, and not die. I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is My flesh, which I will give for the life of the world. (John 6:48-51)

When this produced further strife among His audience He intensified it by saying:

Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink His blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is meat indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth Me, even he shall live by Me. This is that bread which came down from heaven: not as your fathers did eat manna, and are dead: he that eateth of this bread shall live for ever. (John 6:53-58)

Jesus’ disciples’ called this a “hard saying” and there has been tremendous controversy over it within the Church. When these words are read in their full context there is no conflict with the evangelical doctrine of justification by faith. Jesus clearly equates “eating His flesh” and “drinking His blood” with believing in Him. Jesus is the Savior, Who saved His people through His sacrificial death, in which His body was nailed to a cross and pierced with a spear and His blood was shed. The sinner who trusts Jesus as Savior appropriates that salvation through faith.

There is also a reference to the mystery of Holy Communion in these words. Consider again the words of institution spoken by Jesus at the Last Supper. Here is how St. Matthew records them:

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is My body. And He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is My blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom. (Matt. 26:26-29)

“This is My body”, “This is My blood”. That Jesus did not have this in mind when He said “He that eateth My flesh, and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in Me, and I in him” is extremely improbable.

Some evangelical Protestants insist upon that improbability however, and maintain that there is no reference to the Eucharist in John 6. Such evangelicals insist that the believer does not in any way eat Christ’s flesh or drink His blood in Holy Communion, that the reference to doing so in John 6 does not refer in any way to the sacrament. This is the doctrine taught by the Reformer Ulrich Zwingle. It was not the doctrine of the first evangelical Reformers Martin Luther or John Calvin, nor was it the doctrine of John and Charles Wesley who led the great evangelical revival in the English Church in the 18th Century. The early Reformers and the Wesleys believed, like the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

What Luther and Calvin disagreed with was the doctrine of transubstantiation. To understand that doctrine you need to understand the distinction, going back to Aristotle, between substance and accidents. Imagine a blue box. It is a container in which you can place things to store or transport them. If it were not that it would not be a box. That is the substance of the box, it’s essence, that which cannot be changed without changing it into something other than a box. If you were to paint the box red, however, it would still be a box even though it would no longer be blue. Blue and red, are accidents of the box. They are properties which can be changed without changing its essential nature.

In the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, when Christ’s words of institution are spoken by a priest over the elements, consecrating the bread and wine, the substance of the bread and wine is replaced with the body and blood of Jesus Christ, while the accidents of the bread and wine, remain. In this theology, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, is contained within the physical elements, which remain Christ’s body and blood after consecration.

Dr. Luther objected that no such doctrine is taught in Scripture. The body and blood of the Lord, he argued, is present in Eucharist, because Christ is present in the Word of God which is pronounced over the bread and wine during the consecration. The bread and wine remain real bread and wine and not just “the appearance” of bread and wine. The faithful, in the sacrament, receive both the bread and wine through the physical act of eating the elements, and the real body and blood of the Lord contained in the spoken Word, through faith. (4)

This, according to Dr. Luther and St. Augustine (5), is what makes a sacrament a sacrament – the uniting of the Word with something material, in the case of baptism, water, in the case of Holy Communion, the bread and wine. Dr. Luther’s understanding, is arguably more in sync with what the Church taught from the patristic period down through the Middle Ages, than transubstantiation. The sacraments are traditionally linked with the doctrine of the Incarnation of Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. In the Incarnation, the Son of God, remained God. He did not cease to be “of one substance with the Father” but He added to His person, the nature of true humanity as well. The humanity that the Son took upon Himself, was not merely the outward appearance of being a man. The idea that He was not fully human, but only appeared to be human, is the doctrine of Docetism, against which Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian contended in the 2nd Century AD, and which was formally condemned by the Church as heresy at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. At that Council the Church took a clear Christological stand that Jesus was fully God and fully man at the same time, uniting in His One Person, the two natures of God and man in hypostatic union.

In the Incarnation, the invisible God became visible, by becoming a man. When Christ ascended back to Heaven, He left His Church on earth. St. Paul in his epistles calls the Church the “body of Christ”. The Church then, can be regarded as the earthly continuation of the Incarnation. The Holy Ghost came upon the disciples as they were gathered in the Upper Room on Pentecost. The Holy Ghost indwells individual believers and the corporate Church, in which human beings on earth are joined in spiritual union with Christ Who is seated in Heaven.

The Church has traditionally understood the mystery rites which Christ instituted as being intrinsically connected to the Church’s role as a continuation of the Incarnation on earth. This brings us back to the point made earlier, about how in Christianity, a mystery is something to be revealed, not a secret to be concealed as in paganism and Gnosticism. The Incarnation was an act of revelation – “God was manifest in the flesh” – in which that which was invisible, is made visible. In the Church, Christ Who is presently invisible, being seated at the right hand of the Father until His coming again to judge the world, is visibly present on earth. In the Christian mysteries, the invisible realities of the believer’s spiritual union with Christ in His Church, are made visible by being manifested in visible rites.

Believers in Jesus, are cleansed from their sins by His shed blood and are joined by the Holy Spirit into a union with Christ, in which they are made partakers with Him in His death and resurrection. He identified with sinners in His death on the cross, taking our sins upon Himself, so that through His death He might take away our sins. We, through faith, receive this remission of sins when we believe the Gospel, and are identified with Christ in His death and resurrection. His death becomes our death to sin, His resurrection becomes our new life in Him. When someone believed the Gospel in the Apostolic era, the first thing that happened was that they were baptized. Baptism, a purification ritual from the Old Covenant was transformed into the ritual whereby one was initiated into Christ’s Church. The physical element – the water symbolic of cleansing – was the external act united with the spiritual reality of the believer’s union with Christ, his partaking in Christ’s death and resurrection, and his being cleansed of his sins.

Christ’s sacrifice is not just the basis of our initial union with Christ however. It is the basis of our ongoing Christian lives. We become Christians through faith, believing the Gospel, and we live as Christians by faith, believing the Gospel. “The just shall live by faith”. Christ’s one-time sacrifice, as that which sustains us in the Christian life, is proclaimed in the sacrament of Communion, where Christ’s Word “this is My body” and “this is My blood” is joined to the physical elements of bread and wine.

Through these rites, the spiritual realities become visibly tangible to the believer. By joining the Word, in which the spiritual truths are conveyed, to a physical element representing the spiritual truth, the physical elements become a vessel for the Word, making it easier for the Word to be received in faith. (6)

Faith’s object, must always be Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Son of God, and His one-time sacrifice and resurrection. The Zwinglian doctrine arose out of a legitimate concern that people were putting their faith in the physical elements of the sacraments rather than in Christ. The Zwinglian response to this concern, however, went too far. The Incarnational understanding of the Christian sacraments has been emphasized in Christian doctrine and worship since the earliest days of the Church. It is that understanding of the sacraments as “a visible Word”, an extension of what happened in the Incarnation of Christ, that makes sense of the Christian mysteries.

The case has been cracked and the mystery solved.

(1) Livy’s account is found in Book 39 of his Ab Urbe Condita. In English translation, it can be found in Rome and the Mediterranean (Penguin Classics: London, 1976) pp. 401-415.

(2) See C. S. Lewis’s God In the Dock: Essays On Theology and Ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, and published by Wm. B. Eerdmans in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1970, in particular the essay entitled “The Grand Miracle”.

(3) The proverb is “do not kick against the pricks”, which occurs in a number of Greek writers including Aeschylus and Euripides.

(4) The difference between Dr. Luther’s view on the one hand, and the Roman Catholic and Zwinglian views on the other, is not a moot issue, a case of theological hairsplitting. Transubstantiation denies what is plainly taught in Scripture – that after the consecration, the bread and wine are still really bread and wine. Note Jesus’ reference to the wine as “this fruit of the vine” in Matt. 26:29 after He had already spoken the words of consecration. Likewise, in verses 26, 27, and 28 of 1 Corinthians 11 St. Paul speaks of eating “bread” in the sacrament. The substance of the bread is still present and not exchanged with the substance of the body and blood, leaving only the accidents. The Zwinglian position, denying that in the Sacrament the body and blood are present to be received by the believer through faith is a different form of the same error, and one that historically, was the first step towards the anti-supernatural, rationalistic doctrine that re-interpreted the Virgin Birth, miracles, and Resurrection of Christ into non-literal events with symbolic meanings, that has corrupted many churches in the last century and a half. Of the two, the Roman Catholic error is to be preferred. Roman Catholicism is recognizably Christian. Liberalism is not. For those looking for a more in-depth treatment of the Lutheran understanding of the Lord’s Supper I refer you to John Theodore Mueller, Christian Dogmatics (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1934) pp. 506-540. The treatment in this volume is more exhaustive than Robert Preuss’s summary treatment in Getting Into The Theology of Concord, but is also more concise than that found in Francis Pieper’s three-volume Christliche Dogmatik, of which Mueller’s work is an epitome. The Lutherans are not the only Protestants to hold to Luther’s explanation of the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. Zwingle’s doctrine is sometimes called “Reformed” even though Calvin held to the real presence (in a slightly different way than Luther) and “Reformed” and “Calvinist” are usually treated as synonyms. The Zwinglian doctrine is most associated, historically, with the more radical wing of the Reformation (the Anabaptists) and non-conformist English Protestant denominations. These denominations comprise a large part of contemporary North American evangelicalism and fundamentalism and this tends to give the misleading impression that the Zwinglian view is the “evangelical” view. The Church of England, which traditionally allows for a broad spectrum of theological positions, took an official position that is similar to Luther’s but less concise. The 39 Articles reject transubstantiation, but affirm the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. The latter is not defined, allowing for broad interpretation. In the Catholic revival within the Church of England in the 19th Century, Edward Pusey and John Keble argued in the “Tracts for the Times” for an interpretation that was indistinguishable from Luther’s position of consubstantiation. In the evangelical revival of the previous century, John and Charles Wesley, took a similar position. Note the following:

O the depth of love divine,
The' unfathomable grace;
Who shall say how bread and wine
God into man conveys?
How the bread His Flesh imparts,
How the wine transmits His Blood;
Fills His faithful people's hearts
With all the life of God?

Let the wisest mortal show
How we the grace receive,
Feeble elements bestow
A power not theirs to give.
Who explains the wondrous way,
These the virtue did convey,
Yet still remain the same
– Charles Wesley

(5) “Accedit Verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum, etiam ipsum tanquam visibile verbum” – St. Augustine, In Iohannis Evangelium Tractatus (Tracts on the Gospel of John), 80:3, “The word connected to the element, becomes a Sacrament, that is, a visible Word”.

(6) It is in this sense that the sacraments can be said to be “means of grace”. Grace, has its source in the love of God, was purchased for the believer by the blood of Jesus Christ, is communicated to the believer through the Word, and is received by faith. The mysteries, take the Word, and unite it to a physical element. The physical element conveys the Word, and the Word conveys grace. The physical elements do not convey grace apart from the Word, and faith placed in the physical elements rather than the Word, does not receive the grace conveyed by the Word, for he has turned the sacrament into a work, and grace is not received by works. Similarly, someone who hears the Word and receives it in faith, receives the grace it conveys even when the Word is not attached to the physical elements of the sacraments.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The 400-Year Old Version

My first encounter with the Bible came, not in the form of an actual translation of the sacred writings, but in the form of Bible stories – episodes taken from the Biblical narrative and re-told in language suitable for children. My mother read these to me when I was very young, and in the early grades in school our teacher would read them to us as well (this was in a rural community which had not yet been penetrated by progressive liberalism’s decree that positive mention of Christianity and the Bible in a public school constitutes a hate crime). I also read these for myself as a boy, my favorite being Rev. Jesse Lyman Hurlbut’s Stories of the Bible.

In grade 5 the Gideons presented each of us with our own New Testaments. Whether this still goes on or has been banned as a hate crime by the apostles of tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism, I am not aware. The New Testament I was given came in a bright-red soft-cover with gold lettering and contained the New American Standard translation of the New Testament along with the Psalms and Proverbs.

When I was 15 I read the entire Bible through for the first time. There were a number of Bibles in the house. The one I opted to read that summer was a paperback version of Today’s English Version. More commonly known as the “Good News Bible” this one came with Old and New Testaments and the Apocrypha and was bizarrely illustrated by a number of stick figure drawings. I chose to read this version because I was under the impression that it would be much easier to understand than the older black leather and red hardcover Bibles that were in the family library. Both of those were copies of the King James Version.

At the end of that summer I became a believer in Jesus Christ and began to read my Gideons New Testament regularly. I had not fallen in love with the Good News translation and throughout high school would try out a number of translations, including the New International Version and New King James Version. By the time I graduated and went off to study theology, however, the King James Version had become my preferred Bible translation. It remains so to this day.

The King James Bible is 400 years old this year having been first published by Robert Baker, the King’s Printer, in 1611. For a large part of those four centuries it was the English Bible. It earned that status by the end of the 17th century and maintained it well into the 20th Century. It was the third “official” translation of the Bible into English in the sense of being authorized by the English king for official use in the established Church of England. As such, it faced no competition from its predecessors (the Great Bible of 1539, authorized by King Henry VIII, and the Bishops Bible of 1568 authorized by Queen Elizabeth I). Its primary competition was an unauthorized English translation made by English Calvinists who had fled to Geneva to escape persecution during the reign of Mary I, hence its being known as the “Geneva Bible”. (1)

The King James Bible, as we will soon see, was authorized for the purpose of supplanting the Geneva Bible in the English people’s affections. King James, like Elizabeth I before him, disliked the Geneva Bible, not for the translation itself but because it was published with marginal notes that attacked the Crown and the established Church. It would take most of a century, but eventually the King James Bible became accepted as the English Bible in the established and non-conformist English churches alike, throughout the English-speaking world.

It would face greater competition, in terms of numbers, in the 20th Century. The Revised Version came out in England in 1881, which with some modifications was published as the American Standard Version in 1901. These opened the gates to a flood of new translations that would be published in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are well over a hundred of these by now but none which has achieved anything remotely close to the status of the King James Version, which in many ways remains the English Bible.

The Bible verses and passages that have most permeated the culture of English-speaking societies, so as to be familiar to almost everyone regardless of their religious convictions or lack thereof, are known to us in the language of the King James Bible. The Ten Commandments, given by God to the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, are foundational to both Jewish and Christian morality. When we speak of them there are three words that pop into everyone’s head almost immediately – “thou shalt not”. We can hardly imagine those authoritative ordinances of God spoken in any other way. The same holds true for the Lord’s Prayer and the comforting Twenty-Third Psalm. Despite the multitude of contemporary language versions available, the universally recognizable forms of these remain the renditions beginning “Our Father, Which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name” and “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” The most loved Bible verse of all time, John 3:16 is still quoted throughout the English-speaking world as “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life”. We can hardly think of the Parable of the Good Samaritan without it ending without it ending with Jesus exhorting the lawyer to “Go, and do thou likewise”, or of the story of the woman taken in adultery, without Jesus saying to her “Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more” (2)

Fundamentalist educator Dr. Bob Jones Jr. in his memoirs wrote that none of the modern translations “has the tremendous power and majestic glory of the King James Version”, going on to say:

I love the old Elizabethan “hath” and “doth” and “receiveth.” I told someone recently that if I can read the Bible without “lithping,” it doesn’t seem like the Scripture to me. (3)

Dr. Alister McGrath, until recently of Oxford University, from a somewhat different angle, wrote:

Our culture has been enriched by both aspects [as “the superb translation of the Bible” and “the classic work of English”] of the King James Bible. Sadly, we shall never see its equal – or even its like – again. (4)

What Dr. Jones celebrated and Dr. McGrath lamented is the unique status of the King James Bible, among all other translations, in the English speaking world.

Why is it that no newer translation can ever take the place of the King James Bible?

One obvious reason is that each new translation must compete, not only against the King James, but against all the other new translations. The King James had one major rival – the Geneva Bible. The RSV, ESV, NASV, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, TEV etc. are all rivals of each other as much as they are of the King James.

More importantly, however, is the fact that the King James Bible came out at just the right time in history to become the English Bible. The King James Bible came out in the era that saw an explosion of English literature that shaped modern English as we know it, and was itself one of the most important, probably the most important example of that literature. It was published two decades after Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen and a little under six decades before John Milton’s Paradise Lost. This was the era of the greatest English dramatists – William Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were still writing when the KJV came out and Christopher Marlowe had only died ten years before King James ascended to the throne. The most important of the metaphysical poets, John Donne, was writing in the period immediately before and after the publication of the King James Bible.

The literature of this era became a tremendous source of inspiration, allusions, and outright quotations for the literature of the centuries to follow. This was especially true of the King James Bible because it was not only an exemplary work of literature but Holy Scripture as well. It was the official Bible of the established Church of England and as such was read from the lectern in Anglican Churches every Sunday for centuries. It would be the Bible of the great revivals within the Church of England – the evangelical Wesleyan revival of the 18th century and the Catholic revival of the Oxford Movement in the 19th century. It also, however, became accepted as the Bible of the non-conformist Protestant churches and in Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist pulpits the preachers would expound from the text of the King James Bible in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Only the plays of Shakespeare come even close to approaching the King James Bible in terms of the number of quotations, axioms, and other expressions and allusions that it added to everyday, conversational, English.

When looked at from this perspective, the peers of the King James Bible are not other English translations, but such culture-shaping translations as the 4th Century Vulgate of St. Jerome or Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible. With the latter in particular, a number of parallels can be drawn. The Luther translation, shaped modern German, as the King James Version shaped modern English. Just as the Luther translation was a key element of the Reformation in Germany, so the history of the King James Version is the history of the English Reformation.

A number of factors led to the 16th Century Reformation in both England and continental Europe. In the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance the modern nation-state, in which a single government has political sovereignty over a nation (a people group with a common cultural identity) had begun to develop. This, in and of itself, probably made another division in the Church, similar to that which had divided the Greek and Latin Churches in the 11th Century, inevitable. In continental Europe, the catalyst for the division was corruption in the Church, particularly the sale of indulgences. Dr. Martin Luther denounced this corruption, resulting in a conflict with Church authorities which was intensified by controversy over theological issues such the authority of Scripture and justification by faith. He translated the Bible into the German vernacular because he wanted the German people to have access to the Word of God for themselves. His translation had a tremendous literary, cultural, and political impact as well as a religious one.

The English Reformation happened a bit differently. It began in 1534 when Parliament upon the request of King Henry VIII, passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring King Henry “the only supreme head on earth” of the Church of England. If the King was the “only supreme head on earth” of the English Church, the Pope could not be, and so this Act effectively separated the English Church from the Roman Catholic Church. It was not done out of theological controversy or to confront corruption. This was done purely for political reasons.

As a result, the Church of England after the Act of Supremacy, was initially no different in doctrine, practice, and organizational structure than it was prior to the Act of Supremacy, except that it no longer recognized the authority of the Pope. This was more or less the way it remained under Henry VIII, although his chief supporter among the clergy in his conflict with the Pope, a man whom he appointed Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, was sympathetic to the doctrines of Luther and Calvin. After Henry died, his throne passed to three of his children in succession, each of whom died without an heir – Edward VI, Mary I, and Elizabeth I. Edward and Elizabeth were Protestants and in their reigns, briefly interrupted by the reign of Mary I, a Roman Catholic who burned about 300 Protestants at the stake and temporarily reversed all of her brother’s reforms and her father’s Act of Supremacy, the Church of England adopted a number of Protestant reforms. The requirement that priests be celibate was abandoned, services were held in English for which Thomas Cranmer prepared the Book of Common Prayer, and finally in Elizabeth’s reign, the 39 articles, a Protestant Confession affirming justification by faith and rejecting transubstantiation and purgatory, was adopted by the established Church.

A broad spectrum of theological views were tolerated in the Church of England under Elizabeth I, but what was not tolerated was disloyalty to the throne or to the established Church. Two groups were not satisfied with the Elizabethan Settlement, Roman Catholics, and Puritans. The latter were a group of Protestants who believed that the reforms under Edward and Elizabeth had not gone far enough. They wanted to get rid of the hierarchy of bishops, the vestments of the clergy, crosses in the church, the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, and a host of other things. They took the position that if the Bible didn’t explicitly command these things, they should not be tolerated. It was during Elizabeth’s reign, that the High Church (5) arguments for the established Church and its position, against the Roman Catholic and Puritan objections were developed by men like Richard Hooker, author of Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity.

This is the historical backdrop against which the development of the English Bible must be understood. Early in the 1500’s, William Tyndale, in various German and Flemish cities, published his translations of the Bible from Greek and Hebrew into English, and had those translations smuggled into England. He was eventually arrested and executed for heresy, but his translation became the starting point for all subsequent translations. Henry VIII authorized the first official English translation for the Church of England a few years after Tyndale’s execution. This translation became the Great Bible. A second official translation was authorized by Elizabeth I, which became the Bishop’s Bible. Both of these relied heavily on Tyndale’s work, as did the Geneva Bible preferred by the Puritans. English Catholics, living in exile during the reign of Elizabeth I, began work on a Catholic translation as well. They published the New Testament in Reims and then completed the Old Testament in Douay. The translation is named after those cities, usually in reverse order for some reason.

Elizabeth was the last descendant of Henry VIII and she died childless. The throne then passed to the next available descendant of Henry VII. That happened to be James Stuart, who was already James VI of Scotland. Since James had been raised Protestant and already ruled a Presbyterian country , the Puritans thought his ascension meant their day had arrived. Before he arrived in England to claim his throne, they sent him a petition asking him to hear and redress their grievances against the Established Church.

In response, King James called a conference at Hampton Court Palace in January of 1604. Moderate Puritans were summoned to present their complaints and representatives of the Established Church were summoned to respond to the Puritan position. John Reynolds, president of Corpus Christ College led the Puritan party. Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London was the voice of the High Church at Hampton Court even though the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift was also present. As Reynolds presented the Puritan demands for presbyterian church government, the abolition of Prayer Book liturgy and vestments, and these sort of things, King James listened politely, but did not grant the requests.

He had no intention of doing so. The Puritans had misunderstood his position. King James had been raised Protestant, although he was baptized a Catholic, but he was a Protestant in theology in the way that High Churchmen like Richard Hooker, John Whitgift, and Richard Bancroft were. He had no sympathy for Protestant extremism – it was Protestant extremists who had separated him from his mother, the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots, when he was 1 year old, forcing her to abdicate in his favour, so that they could control Scotland and him, through a series of tyrannical regents, in his youth. When he achieved the age of majority, and began to rule in his own right, he endorsed the established Presbyterian Church of Scotland, but his experience had led him to believe that fanatical Calvinism was potentially a seditious movement. The marginal notes of the Geneva Bible, which were heavily flavoured with Calvinism, confirmed him in this suspicion. A handful of the notes read like anti-royalist, republican propaganda to him. Subsequent history, as we shall shortly see, showed his fears to be well-grounded.

King James, therefore, had entered Hampton Court committed to supporting the retention of the episcopal hierarchy in the established Church. He wished, however, to maintain peace with as many Puritans as possible. When, therefore, Reynolds proposed that a new translation of the English Bible be made he immediately granted the request. It allowed him to give the Puritans at least one thing they wanted, and the opportunity to get rid of the hated Geneva Bible and its republican notes.

King James appointed Richard Bancroft the overseer of the project. Bancroft, you recall, was the most vocal spokesman for the High Church position at Hampton Court. He would be made Archbishop of Canterbury following Whitgift’s death shortly after the Conference. Bancroft was to appoint the translators, establish general rules to guide them in the translation, and oversee the final revision of the translation.

The translators were divided into six companies, generally consisting of six translators and a director, each of which was given its own section of the Bible to translate. Two of the companies were based in Westminster Abbey, two in Oxford University, and two in Cambridge University. The process was that each scholar in a committee would be assigned the text they would translate, then the committee would meet and produce a final version of their portion of the Scripture, which would be submitted to the General Review committee, which met in 1609 in Stationer’s Hall. This committee, drawn from the membership of the six companies, produced a revision of the text which was submitted to Bancroft for approval. It was then turned over to Richard Baker for publication.

Bancroft, in selecting the translators, chose men who were loyal to the church and state. Only moderate Puritans, like John Reynolds, who were willing to work within the established Church and were loyal to the king, were allowed onto the committees (Reynolds served in the First Oxford Company, which translated the Old Testament Prophets). Most of the translators were High Churchmen, and Bancroft’s first appointment was Lancelot Andrewes, dean of Westminster, who headed the First Westminster Company which translated Genesis through Second Kings in the Old Testament. Andrewes also assisted Bancroft in the general overseeing of the project. Since Hooker’s death, Andrewes had become the main theoretical defender of the established Church against both the Roman Catholic and Puritan oppositions. He was a devout man (6) and in many ways was a precursor to the Oxford Movement revival in the 19th Century. (7) He was also a very learned scholar. The exclusion of the seditious and disloyal did not mean that that scholarly credentials were ignored. The translators were drawn from the top scholars in England at that time, and had instructions to consult with other scholars who did not make it onto the final committees.

The instructions Bancroft gave the translators were simple. They were to translate from the Greek and Hebrew, following the Bishop’s Bible whenever it was possible to both do so and give an accurate English translation of the original. Where the Bishop’s Bible rendition was insufficient, Tyndale’s, Coverdale’s, the Geneva, and a couple of other translations were to be consulted. The Douay-Rheims was not listed but the translators appear to have consulted it anyway. Familiar renditions of Biblical names were to be kept, as was ecclesiastical language such as “bishop” and “church”.

The magnificence of the translation that ensued gradually came to be appreciated over the course of the next century. The Geneva Bible remained popular for a few decades, but it’s popularity declined shortly after the Puritans took their doctrine to the extreme King James had feared they would.

King James was succeeded by his son, Charles I. During Charles reign, the Puritan Oliver Cromwell led a military rebellion against the government, and forcibly removing supporters of the King from Parliament, had that body declared England to be a republic under the protectorship of Cromwell. In an ugly act that would foreshadow the revolution in France at the end of the next century, and the Communist revolution in Russia in the 20th Century, Cromwell had the king condemned and beheaded. During Cromwell’s dictatorship, he closed the theatres, which under the reigns of Elizabeth and James had produced the greatest plays in the history of English literature. Then, long before Dr. Seuss’s Grinch got the idea, he outlawed Christmas. Even though the Puritans had gotten a tremendous amount of mileage out of accusing the Roman Catholic Church and the established Church of England of intolerance and persecution, Cromwell used his armies to persecute Catholics and Anglicans, in some cases massacring them by the thousands.

When Cromwell died, the British Parliament quickly voted to restore the monarchy and the established Church with its bishops and the Book of Common Prayer. Britain had had quite enough of the likes of Cromwell. Puritanism was disgraced, and the Geneva Bible lost favour. The Authorized version, became the English Bible, among members of the Church of England, and non-conformists alike.

The King James Version of the Bible, as we have just seen, is the end result of a century of revision, official and unofficial, of the Tyndale translation of the Bible. It was born out of the English Reformation and after the English Civil War was finally recognized as an exemplary work of English literature from the era that produced Shakespeare, Jonson, and Donne, as well as being the authoritative English translation of the Word of God. No other translation can ever take its place.

This judgment pertains to the King James Version’s status in terms of its unique place in English literature, the history of the English language, and the history of the English Church. Few would contest it, but many would argue that contemporary translations of the Bible are superior translations in terms of their ability to convey to English speakers today, the meaning of God’s Word in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

This is a matter that has been fiercely debated among conservative Protestants, especially in North America, ever since the Revised Version was published in 1881. It has been debated on both a popular and an academic level. Those who believe that the contemporary translations are superior argue that the English of the KJV is out of date, that our understanding of the Greek of the New Testament has improved and better translation methods had been developed since the 17th Century, and that better Greek manuscripts than those available to the King James translators have been discovered enabling us to better reconstruct the original text of the New Testament.

While some of these arguments have merit there is a case to be made against them and for the general superiority of the King James as a translation. Unfortunately, some opponents of the “contemporary translations are superior” position have often expressed their position in terms of a conspiracy theory in which the modern versions are part of a deliberate and diabolical plot to pervert God’s Word and have turned use of only the King James and rejection of the modern versions into a badge of orthodoxy. The legitimate arguments that can be made against the case for the superiority of the contemporary versions as translations is often lost sight of because of these extreme assertions.

It is beyond the scope of this essay to present those arguments fully here. This is especially true of the textual debate. (8) I will conclude this essay with a brief response to the arguments about the archaic English of the KJV and about how our knowledge of 1st Century Greek has improved since the 17th Century.

The extent to which the English of the KJV is out of date is greatly exaggerated. The KJV was not translated into Chaucer’s English, it was translated into Shakespeare’s English, which is still readable today. There are a handful of cases where a word has reversed its meaning since the 17th century, such as the oft-cited example of “prevent”, which in the KJV means “precede” but in contemporary English means “hinder”. Most people who complain about the English of the KJV, however, give the archaic 2nd person singular pronouns (thee, thou, thy, thine) and the old verb forms which end in –th as their examples.

Alister McGrath points out that the second person pronouns were already archaic when the KJV was translated. “By the sixteenth century”, he writes:

The use of the singular form to address a single individual had virtually ceased in English, except in the specific case of family and inferiors. To address another as “thou” was thus to claim social superiority over him or her. (9)

If you read Shakespeare’s plays, you will see what Dr. McGrath is talking about there. The singular 2nd person is only used in Shakespeare by people who are close friends/family, by royalty and nobility speaking to their social inferiors, and occasionally by someone speaking to a social superior in order to be impertinent.

The KJV does not follow Shakespeare’s usage. It uses the same pronouns for everybody, the ones beginning with t- for individual persons, the ones beginning with y- for when groups of people are being addressed. This way of using these pronouns was archaic already in Shakespeare’s day, and Dr. McGrath explains this as being the result of the rule that the Bishop’s Bible be followed whenever possible.

However, Dr. McGrath also uses this to make a point:

Some have suggested that the King James Bible’s use of “Thee,” “Thou,” and “Thy” to refer specifically to God is a title of respect, and argued that modern Christianity should retain this practice. This is clearly indefensible… (10)

Dr. McGrath is half right. It is not true that the singular pronouns were used by the KJV as a sing of respect for God because they were used for everybody. What he fails to take into consideration, however, which is remarkable considering that he raises this in a chapter entitled “The Bible and the Shaping of Modern English”, is that the King James Version itself created this very usage for these pronouns. People stopped using the old pronouns in everyday English shortly after the KJV was published. Since the KJV retained these pronouns, and did not reserve them for intimates and inferiors as had been the most recent usage, the concept of “reverential language” developed naturally. Nobody else spoke this way anymore. Therefore “thee” and “thou” became the way God spoke, for only the Bible used it, and the way one spoke to God.

There is another fact pertaining to these pronouns which Dr. McGrath does not mention. The readers of his book probably all know that “thee” and “thou” mean “you”. So, for that matter, does everyone who encounters the “thees” and “thous” in the King James Version. It is not a serious obstacle to comprehension. What the readers of McGrath’s book might not be aware of is that Greek and Hebrew both have separate second person pronouns for the singular and plural, the way English used to. By retaining the archaic pronouns, the KJV is able to more precisely translate the Greek and Hebrew, than translations which use “you” for both singular and plural. This is not as minor as it may appear because in some instances, knowing whether or not an individual or a crowd is addressed, greatly affects how we understand the meaning of a text.

Earlier in his book, Dr. McGrath points out that it was not until the late 19th Century, that scholars identified the kind of Greek used in the New Testament. This had been a topic of debate for centuries because it was recognized that, with a few exceptions, the Greek of the New Testament was different from classical Greek. Eventually, scholars were able to identify the Greek of the Bible as “koine”, the everyday vernacular of the 1st century.

Dr. McGrath writes:

This raises an important point concerning the companies of translators assembled by King James. There is no doubt that these included some of the finest classical scholars of the period, well used to dealing with questions of translation of classical Greek. Yet the Greek they were being asked to translate dates from much later, and seems to follow more fluid grammatical rules. To translate it on the basis of an earlier form of Greek would cause difficulties. (11)

To a certain extent this is true but it is exaggerated. If we were to take someone who has studied Attic Greek, the dialect of 4th-5th Century BC Athens that is often called “classical Greek”, and someone who has studied Koine Greek, the common Greek of the 1st Century AD, the former would have far less difficulty reading and understanding the Greek New Testament, than the latter would have reading and understanding Xenophon, Plato, and Thucydides. Koine is a simplified version of Attic. The “dual” number for verbs and nouns, that was rarely used except in poetry in Attic, has dropped out completely in Koine, for example, and the rules are a lot less rigid.

An understanding of how the Koine dialect developed out of the Attic dialect, and how the two differ, does provide contemporary scholars with an advantage that the scholars of the 17th century did not have. How does that advantage weigh, however, against the overall decline in the quality of scholarship?

In North America especially, the last century in which over a hundred new translations have been produced, has been a century of decline in classical scholarship. We are no longer living in the days when someone can become the Chair of Classical Philology at the leading university in Switzerland at age 24, as Friedrich Nietzsche did in 1869. We are no longer living in the days when preparation for University included a solid grounding in the classics and their languages. We are no longer living in the days in which Greek and Latin are learned in youth and a serious scholar is expected to be able, not just to read both languages, but to be able to compose prose and poetry and carry on a debate in both as well. (12)

The men who translated the King James Version were men who had been immersed in the world of classical languages and literature from their early youth and who entered the project of translation, in many cases after a lifetime of study. Is the benefit of living after and knowing about the identification of the Koine dialect sufficient to give men who in many cases did not begin their Greek studies until University or Bible College a superior grasp of their text than men like Lancelot Andrewes and John Reynolds?

(1) My primary sources for the history of the translation of the King James Bible as presented in this essay are Adam Nicolson’s God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Harper Collins: New York, 2003) and Alister E. McGrath’s In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and How It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture (Doubleday: New York, 2001). My theological, ecclesiastical, and political interpretation of this history does not necessarily correspond to that of either of those writers.

(2) Oddly, the other most famous line from this same story, we always remember in a wording that uses King James English but is not the wording of the KJV or any other translation. “Let he that is without sin cast the first stone” is actually found as “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her” in the KJV.

(3) Bob Jones Jr., Cornbread and Caviar (Bob Jones University Press: Greenville, 1985) p. 47.

(4) Alister E. McGrath, In the Beginning, p. 310

(5) “High Church” can have a number of meanings. For the purposes of this essay I am using it to refer to those who defended the established Church of England and the Elizabethan Settlement against Roman Catholicism and Puritanism. Against the Roman Catholic, men like Hooker argued that the established Church of England was the same English Church that had existed prior to the Reformation, that it kept its ecclesiastical hierarchy intact, remained faithful to the Ecumenical Creeds, and celebrated the Sacraments and so remained in organic and organizational continuity with the Apostolic and Medieval Church even though it now recognized the King rather than the Pope as the supreme earthly authority. Against the Puritans, they argued that the established Church had rejected those doctrines of Rome which were demonstrably unscriptural, and accepted those of the Reformers doctrines which clearly were Scriptural, such as the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith. The Puritan idea, however, that something needed explicit Biblical authorization or it was “unscriptural” and should be purged, was rejected. While Scripture must be the highest authority, Hooker taught, overruling all others when conflict arises, tradition and reason are the other legs upon which the Church stands.

(6) Andrewes’ theological and ecclesiastical views were similar to those of Hooker described in the previous footnote, and many would argue that Andrewes was Hooker’s successor as apologist for the Church of England. Adam Nicolson, who records several of Andrewes’ personal shortcomings, also describes his piety: “Down at Chiswick, as throughout his life, the time he spent in private, about five hours every morning, was devoted almost entirely to prayer…It was a daily habit of self-mortification and ritualized unworthiness in front of an all-powerful God.” (Nicolson, God’s Secretaries, p. 32). His prayers and sermons are still in print and T. S. Eliot, inspired by his writings, wrote an essay about him in the early 30’s, and later dedicated a collection of essays to him.

(7) See, for example, Nicolson’s description of the chapel furnished by Andrewes’ on page 188 of God’s Secretaries.

(8) The Greek text used by the King James Version, was an early printed text reflecting a version of the Byzantine text type, i.e. the Greek text that was continually in use in the Greek-speaking Church. The “Majority Text” is another version of the Byzantine text type, that differs from the “Textus Receptus” used by the KJV. Another text type, the Alexandrian text-type, was later discovered among a family of manuscripts that predate the Byzantine manuscripts. Textual critics of the 19th Century argued that the Alexandrian text-type was closest to the autographs because of the age of the Alexandrian manuscripts. John William Burgon, Dean of Chichester Cathedral provided the scholarly answer to their position in a series of articles for the Quarterly Review that were later rebound into his Revision Revised (1883). Burgon argued that the manuscripts that were given the most weight by the new theory of criticism were poor quality manuscripts, that showed evidence of having been corrupted, and which often provided indirect testimony that the Byzantine readings were at least as old as their own, and that textual evidence from Scriptural quotations in the Church fathers and lectionaries, should be given more weight. In the century since, textual critics have ignored, but never adequately answered Burgon’s arguments, while a handful of textual scholars, such as Edward Freer Hills, a self-published Presbyterian author with a Th.D in textual criticism from Harvard and the late Zane C. Hodges, a pastor in Dallas and for many decades a professor of the New Testament at Dallas Theological Society, provided the best additional arguments for the Byzantine text. In Hodges’s case, the arguments were for the Majority Text, an edition of which he co-edited with Art Farstad for publication in 1982. For those interested in the arguments of the other side, I refer you to the writings of the late Bruce M. Metzger of Princeton Theological Seminary, in particular his The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. Look for the 1992 edition as it is the most up-to-date.

(9) McGrath, In the Beginning, p. 266.

(10) Ibid., p. 268.

(11) Ibid, p. 237.

(12) The case for a revival of classical education has been argued by Dr. E. Christian Kopff of the University of Colorado - Boulder in The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition (ISI Books: Wilmington, 1999). Also see Who Killed Homer: The Demise of Classical Education and the Recovery of Greek Wisdom (Encounter Books: San Francisco, 2001) by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Last Things

Some people, it would seem, do not learn from experience.

I remember the year 1994 quite well. I graduated from high school in the spring of that year and in the fall I began my theological studies at Providence College in Otterburne. For me it was a year of memorable experiences. Those experiences did not include the end of the world and Judgment Day.

That should come as no surprise to you since I am writing this seventeen years later in 2011. At the time, however, it came as a surprise to at least one man. That man was Harold Camping, the president of Family Radio, who two years previously had published a massive volume entitled 1994? In that book he speculated that Christ would return in September of the year mentioned in the title.

Camping’s speculations proved to be false and you would think he would have learned his lesson. Camping, however, has adjusted his calculations, and now predicts that the rapture will occur on May 21, 2011.

The 24th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, begins with Jesus’ disciples coming to Him to show Him the architecture of the Temple. Jesus then says to them “See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down.” From our vantage point, two millennia later, we realize that Jesus was predicting the destruction of the Temple that would occur when the Romans sacked Jerusalem later that century. At the time, however, His disciples naturally took His prediction to be referring to something that would take place at the end of time. They therefore came to Him privately, when He was sitting on the Mount of Olives, and asked Him “Tell us, when shall these things be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?”

The disciples did not realize that their questions pertained to two different events that would be separated by a great length of time. We know that now, however, because it is almost two millennia since the Temple was destroyed and Christ has not yet returned “to judge the quick and the dead”. We therefore have the advantage of knowing that Jesus’ answer to the disciples, which has come to be known as the “Olivet Discourse” and which covers the rest of the chapter and all of the next, addresses both the events of AD 70 and His future Second Coming.

In the course of the Olivet Discourse Jesus says:

But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

Is this referring to the destruction of the Temple or to His second coming?

We know that it refers to His second coming because Jesus goes on to exhort His disciples to an attitude of watchfulness telling them “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come”.

Mr. Camping is not the only one who has ignored these words of Christ. In the last half-century there has been a great deal of date-setting, some of it brought on by the end of the second millennium, some of it brought on by historical events like the re-birth of Israel. Nor are Bible teachers, or even Christians, the only ones talking about the end of the world. Hollywood has taken advantage of the end of the millennium, astronomical predictions of an asteroid colliding with earth, speculation about life on other planets and the possibility of an invasion from outer space, the upcoming end of the current b’ak’tun cycle of the Mayan Calendar, Nostradamus’s prophecies, and Al Gore’s environmentalist hysteria to produce a wide array of apocalyptic movies. On occasion some of them were even interesting and entertaining.

The word “apocalyptic” that is used to describe this movie genre is also used to describe a genre of sacred literature. The term is derived from the New Testament where where the Greek title of the last book of the New Testament written, and the last found in the canonical order, is Apokalypsis Ioannu, which transliterated into English becomes “The Apocalypse of John” and translated into English becomes “The Revelation of John”. The word in Greek means the uncovering or the unveiling of that which was hidden or secret. The Book of Revelation is the book that features the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls with their accompanying plagues upon the earth, the unleashing of demons from the bottomless pit, the war in heaven between St. Michael and the dragon who is the devil and Satan, the rise of the twelve headed beast ridden by the Babylonian harlot, the return of Christ, the final judgment, the lake of fire, and the end of the world, which is replaced by new heavens, a new earth, and the New Jerusalem. It is easy to see why it has lent its name to literature and movies discussing the end of the world. The name of the location in the Holy Land that the Book identifies as the place where the armies of the world will gather to wage war against the returning Christ has also become synonymous with “the end of the world”. That place is Har Megiddo or Armageddon.

In theology, the interpretation of the Revelation of St. John and similar literature such as the Book of Daniel, falls under the category of eschatology. Eschatology is a term derived from the Greek word for “last” and is the theology of “last things”. Since the middle of the 19th Century a great deal of theological literature on the subject of eschatology has been published. Some of it is scholarly and academic, much of it is written at a popular level. There is an unfortunate tendency among the writers of popular eschatology towards sensationalism and speculation about how current events might be precursors of eschatological events indicating that the end is near. This tendency is what leads to foolish predictions like those of Mr. Hocking.

There is, however, another eschatological error that has been growing in popularity in recent years. Errors are like the vices Aristotle wrote about – they tend to come in pairs of opposites. The plethora of popular “Bible prophecy” writings whose authors purport to know far more than can actually be known about the end of the world and how close we are to it repels many towards an opposite error which asserts that we can know nothing at all about such matters, that we have no revelation from God whatsoever about what the future holds.

This error currently goes under the name “preterism”. Preterism should be carefully distinguished from pre-millennialism and pre-tribulationism, for while all three are eschatological positions and all begin with the prefix “pre”, the one is very different from the other two.

Preterism holds that all predictive prophecy in Scripture including the prophecies of the Second Coming of Christ, the resurrection, and the final judgment, have already been fulfilled and that nothing is predicted beyond the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple by the Romans. Pre-millennialism, on the other hand, is one of the two major eschatological positions that have vied with each other throughout Church history. The other is a-millennialism. There is a third position called post-millennialism but it has never been as widespread as the other two and has only ever had a significant influence in North America (although certain forms of progressive liberalism could be considered to be a secularized version of post-millennialism).

Pre-millennialism, which was the leading view of eschatology in the pre-Augustinian Church and which has enjoyed a comeback in the 19th and 20th centuries (albeit in a very different form than the chiliasm of the early Church) holds that in Revelation 19, 20, 21, you have a fairly straightforward depiction of what will happen at Christ’s return. Jesus will come back and defeat His enemies (19), will raise His Church from the dead, bind Satan in the bottomless pit, and establish His kingdom on earth, then after a thousand years (the millennium in pre-millennialism, although pre-millennialists may not necessarily believe the number “thousands” to be literal) Satan will be released to lead one final rebellion, that will be instantly crushed, Satan is then sent to his final doom, where he is soon to be joined by those whose names are not written in the Book of Life (20), after which God creates new heavens and a new earth, and the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city with twelve pearly gates, will descend to earth where God will dwell in the midst of His people forever (21).

A-millennialism, on the other hand, holds that the thousand year kingdom described in Revelation 20 is the spiritual kingdom of God that is present on the earth in our own age. The thousand years, therefore, is not something that takes place after Christ’s second coming as a straightforward reading of the last chapters of Revelation would suggest, but is symbolic of the time period between the Ascension and the Second Coming. This is the interpretation of Revelation that St. Augustine expounded and following St. Augustine it came to replace the chiliasm (early pre-millennialism) of the ante-Nicene patrists as the dominant view within the Church. It remains the most widespread view today, although pre-millennialism has become the majority view among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants.

The term “pre-tribulationism” is a variation of modern, as opposed to early, pre-millennialism. It is particularly associated with the “dispensationalist” school of pre-millennial thought that originated among the Plymouth Brethren and was spread among evangelical/fundamentalist Protestants through the popular Scofield Reference Bible. The term “pre-tribulationism” refers to the timing of the event dispensationalists call “The Rapture”. This term comes from the Latin word rapio, -ere which means “catch up”. This is the Latin word used by St. Jerome to translate the Greek word harpazo in 1 Thessalonians 4:17. “The Rapture” is the event described in this chapter of St. Paul’s epistle, in which living believers are “caught up” together with the resurrected dead in Christ, to meet the returning Christ in the air. Pre-tribulationists believe that this is a separate event from the Second Coming of Christ proper. They believe that the Rapture will take place prior to “The Tribulation”. The word “tribulation” means suffering and distress. Dispensationalists use the term to refer to the period of time, immediately prior to Christ’s return, in which the ultimate Anti-Christ rules the earth.

It sounds awfully complicated doesn’t it? It gets more so. Just as pre-millennialism’s big rival is a-millennialism, so pre-tribulationism comes with its set of rivals. These are post-tribulationism in which the Rapture and Second Coming are identical and mid-tribulationism in which the Rapture takes place after the Anti-Christ has risen to power. There are also some extra creative variations that we need not go into here.

In contrast, the preterist system seems rather simple doesn’t it? The Rapture, Tribulation, Second Coming, Millenium, Final Judgment, and everything else are old news. They all took place by the year AD 70.

Is there support for the preterist position in Scripture?

As mentioned earlier, some parts of the Olivet Discourse have to be interpreted in a preterist way, because Jesus was answering His disciples’ questions about both the destruction of the Temple and His Second Coming. The former event took place in the first century. It seems rather a stretch, however, to reason from this that the Second Coming must have taken place in the first century also.

Preterists can also point to language in the Book of Revelation and argue it is clearly talking about first century institutions and personages with whom the first readers of the book would have been familiar. While this might very well be the best way to read those parts of the book it would seem that the preterists are going too far when they read the events of Rev. 19-22 into the first century as well.

Preterists will argue that futurists (which includes a-millennialists, post-millennialists, and pre-millennialists of all stripes – everyone who believes in a future Second Coming) are making the same mistake that 1st Century Jews made, who were anticipating a Messiah who would be a political liberator who would deliver them from the rule of Rome and re-establish the throne of David in Jerusalem. The kingdom of God is not a literal, earthly kingdom, they argue, it is a spiritual kingdom. Here a number of texts would seem to support them. “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Lk. 17:21). “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence” (John 18:36)

It is significant that the verses quoted above were not spoken by Jesus to His disciples in response to their own expectations that He would literally establish a kingdom on earth. Indeed, whenever they asked Him about His kingdom, giving Him the opportunity to correct them on this point, He did not do so. Instead He told them to watch because they know not the day nor the hour, and that the places of honour at His right and left hand were reserved for those whom the Father had appointed to them.

In contrast, there were others in 1st Century Judea who held erroneous eschatological views, that Jesus corrected rather bluntly. The Sadducees, for example, denied the resurrection of the dead, hinted at in some passages in Psalms and Job, and predicted outright in the Book of Daniel. These came to Jesus hoping to trip Him up. Here is St. Matthew’s account of it:

The same day came to him the Sadducees, which say that there is no resurrection, and asked him, Saying, Master, Moses said, If a man die, having no children, his brother shall marry his wife, and raise up seed unto his brother. Now there were with us seven brethren: and the first, when he had married a wife, deceased, and, having no issue, left his wife unto his brother: Likewise the second also, and the third, unto the seventh. And last of all the woman died also. Therefore in the resurrection whose wife shall she be of the seven? for they all had her. Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven. But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God, saying I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living. (Matt. 22:23-32)

The Sadducees denied the resurrection outright and Jesus confronted them on it. Later on, St. Paul would confront a different error concerning the resurrection. The Thessalonian Church kept getting disturbed by false teaching about the resurrection. First they were worried about members of their church who had passed away. St. Paul wrote the following to allay their fears:

But I would not have you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning them which are asleep, that ye sorrow not, even as others which have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with him. For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep. For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. (1 Thess. 4:13-18)

But then, shortly after writing this epistle, the church was again shaken, and St. Paul had to write them a second epistle in order “that ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand.” (2 Thess. 2:2). Now why would a report that the “day of Christ is at hand” trouble the church?

We find the explanation in St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy. In the second chapter of this epistle he writes about a Hymenaeus and Philetus. What does he say about them?

Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. (2 Thess. 2:18)

It would appear that we have here encountered the founders of preterism.

A virtue, Aristotle said, lies between two opposing vices. Likewise we often find truth between two opposite errors.

What truth lies between those who think we can decipher every little detail about what is going to happen at the end of time from Scripture and those who think that the Scripture says nothing about the future whatsoever?

Pre-millennialism and a-millennialism both have excellent arguments in their favour from Scripture. Pre-millennialists have the most straightforward reading of the text and the support of the earliest Church fathers. A-millennialists, however, have the bulk of orthodox theologians down through the centuries on their side and once we have ruled out the preterist position that there will be no future Second Coming, some of the better of the preterist arguments would seem to support the a-mill position.

Pre-millennialism and a-millennialism, at least in their most basic forms, would therefore both seem to fall within Christian orthodoxy. If we are looking therefore, for a definite doctrine about “last things”, something that could be said to define Christian orthodoxy on the subject, we must look at a more basic level of doctrine where pre- and a- millennialists both agree.

Here we come to the basic certainties about the future, affirmed by Scriptures, in line with the Creeds of the undivided Church, and held by the body of Christ in every time and place in which it has been found down through the centuries, the Four Last Things.


There is an old saying that there is nothing certain in life except death and taxes. Scripture would definitely support this saying, for the first of the two certainties at least. The author of Hebrews tells us “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27) We all entered this world through birth. We will all leave it through death. There are exceptions in Scripture that prove this rule – Enoch and Elijah seem to have been translated into the next life without dying and St. Paul, in both 1 Corinthians 15 and 1 Thessalonians 4 indicates that believers who are alive at Christ’s return will also pass into the resurrection life without going through death first.

For the vast majority of us, however, death will claim us at the end of our lives. What lies after death? This question has made death a terrifying and sobering reality to mankind down through the ages. The author of Hebrews, in the verse quoted above, has told us what immediately comes after death.


The last judgment is one of those themes in sacred art, that all the great masters seem to have attempted at least once. The most famous is Michaelangelo’s fresco rendition on the altar wall of the Sistene Chapel, but other examples abound throughout Europe. It was a favorite subject among the early Flemish masters. Rogier van der Weyden created a well-known polyptych version which can be found in the Musée de l'Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune, and there are famous versions by Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch.

The renditions vary but in each the dead are depicted as standing before Christ and being divided into two groups, one which is led by angels into everlasting bliss, the other of which is dragged down by demons into everlasting woe.

Do these paintings accurately portray Scriptural truth?

The concept of a final judgment occurs repeatedly in the teachings of Jesus Christ. In His Sermon on the Mount He speaks of the day when many will come to Him pointing to great works done in His name as evidence of their intimate relationship with Him, to whom He will turn away with a disavowal of the relationship “I never knew you”. Elsewhere in the same sermon He warns than an angry word is enough to endanger a person at this judgment and that it is better to mutilate oneself, if needs be, than to sin. Outside this Sermon He warned that men would have to give an account of every word spoken idly.

In the Olivet Discourse Christ describes the Final Judgment as occurring at the end of time, with the angels gathering the nations of the world before Him, where they will be separated into “sheep” and “goats”. The sheep will be rewarded for acts of mercy done to Christ, the goats condemned for not doing such acts of mercy to Christ, with each group being surprised at this judgment and told that the actions in question were done (or not done) to “the least of these my brethren” which Christ counts as being towards Himself.

St. Paul writes that we will all be judged by our works, and in St. John’s Apocalypse the Final Judgment is depicted as taking place before the Great White Throne of Christ, on the basis of the books containing their deeds. The deciding factor is the Book of Life. Those whose names are not written in that book are cast into the Lake of Fire.

It is clear, therefore, that the entire New Testament teaches that we will give an account to our Maker after death for all of our thoughts, words and deeds in this life. This event is closely connected in Scripture to two other events, the General Resurrection and the Second Coming.

Some of the paintings of the Last Judgment can be misleading, however. The Last Judgment by van der Weyden and that of Hans Memling both show the dead being weighed in a scale by the Archangel. In both cases it is a dead saint being weighed against a dead sinner but the introduction of scales can create the popular misconception that the standard at the Judgment will be whether or not one’s good deeds outweigh one’s bad deeds. That is not, however, the standard God judges by. He demands perfection, and a single sin is enough to tip the scales in favour of damnation.

That is why the only way to survive this judgment is to have your sins removed by the blood of Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was dying upon the Cross at Calvary, He bore the sins of the whole world upon Himself and was judged for those sins. The Gospel message proclaims the remission of sins, through His blood, to all who believe in Him for it. The sinner who trusts in Christ can face the judgment with confidence, knowing that his sins will not be brought against him there, because they have already been judged and paid for at the Cross. Those who do not believe in Jesus, He warned, will die in their sins and will be condemned by those sins at the Judgment.


Each of the Gospels records that the night before the Crucifixion, Jesus and His Apostles celebrated the Passover together. Some of the things which Jesus said to His Apostles at this seder which we call the Last Supper are mentioned by all four Evangelists. These include the prediction of Judas’ betrayal and the prediction that St. Peter would deny Christ three times that very night. The Synoptic Gospels – those of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke, record the commissioning of the sacrament of the Eucharist at this supper. St. John does not talk of this but he does record a lengthy discourse that Jesus gave at the supper. In that discourse Jesus said the following:

Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14:1-3)

What Jesus calls “My Father’s house” here is commonly referred to as “Heaven”. Jesus Himself refers to His Father’s house as “Heaven” in the model prayer He gave His disciples which we call The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer begins “Our Father, Which art in Heaven”. This use of the word “Heaven” should be distinguished from other ways in which the word is used in Scripture. Today, we refer to the place where clouds are and where birds fly as “the sky” and we refer to the place where the sun, moon, and stars are as “outer space”. The Bible calls both of these places “heaven” or “the heavens”. The 21st chapter of the Book of Revelation begins with St. John describing his vision of a new heaven and a new earth – the old heaven and the old earth had passed away. The heaven referred to here is the heaven we can see – the sky and outer space. The Heaven which is God’s house will not pass away.

It should also be noted that when the King James Bible uses the word “mansion” in John 14 it is not using it in the way that Ira Stamphill used it in his gospel tune “Mansion Over the Hilltop”. Stamphill understood the word “mansion” the way it is commonly used today – a very big house on a large estate. Some kinds of dramatic productions used to be performed on a long stage on which several booths or tents would be set up to represent a different location within the story being performed. The actors would move from tent to tent as the story dictated. These tents were called “mansions” and this is what is being alluded to by the use of the word “mansion” here. The Greek word translated “mansion” is “monai” and it means “living place” or “abode”.

In Revelation 21, the Father’s house of which Jesus speaks in John 14, is depicted as a great city, the New Jerusalem:

And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Rev. 21:2)

Christ’s bride is His Church, and the holy city is her dwelling place. When the Book of Revelation describes the holy city descending to earth it is saying that following the Judgment Heaven and earth will be one place. Here in Rev. 21 we find the twelve gates each made from a single pearl, and the streets paved with gold. The final chapter of Revelation describes a crystal clear river of the water of life, flowing down the street of the New Jerusalem, from the throne of God and of the Lamb. On the banks of the river the tree of life grows.

Here, the Book of Revelation closes where the Book of Genesis began. The tree of life, which grew in the midst of the Paradise in which man was placed when first created, was denied to man because of sin. In the New Jerusalem, he may eat of it freely, for:

there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: And they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign for ever and ever. (Rev. 22:3-5)

The Paradise which man lost through sin, Christ has regained for man through His redeeming sacrifice, so that man may experience the Beatific Vision of God.


In the midst of its description of the new heaven, new earth, and the Holy City, the Book of Revelation warns that not everybody will arrive at this state of blessedness:

But the fearful, and unbelieving, and the abominable, and murderers, and whoremongers, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death. (Rev. 21:8)

The point of this verse is not that “murderers”, “whoremongers” and “sorcerers” belong to special categories of evildoers who are far worse than the average sinner and therefore deserve this fate. This is the fate that all people have earned by their sinful actions. The only way to avoid it is through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God Who takes away the sins of the world. Christ came to bear the sins of the world upon Himself in order that man might be redeemed, justified, and forgiven. He promises everlasting life to all who believe in Him. Those who believe in Him have their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, and this second death cannot touch them.

Those who do not believe in Jesus, who do not trust in Him as the sin-bearing redeemer, must bear their own sins eternally, including the sin of having finally rejected the provision God made for forgiveness and salvation.

As Dr. Larry Dixon (1) has put it this is the “Other Side of the Good News”.

Hell is not a very likable doctrine but that is no argument against its truth. Unless one completely shuts one’s eyes to reality, it is difficult to ignore the fact that sin, evil, and suffering abound in the world around us. These things are unpleasant but they are an undeniable part of reality.

Human sin is a reality, and a just God must judge and punish sin. That same just God is a merciful God and has freely given the world of fallen men a Savior in the person of His Only Son Jesus Christ. The salvation Jesus accomplished for man on the cross is available to all who will trust Him for it.

If we don’t trust Him, if we reject the Savior and the salvation God has freely given us, the only option left to us is to bear the wrath of God upon ourselves for all eternity.

Death and Judgment are universal certainties. Heaven and Hell, on the other hand, are mutually exclusive. We either accept the salvation God has freely given in Jesus Christ, or we will receive what we have earned for our sinful rebellion against God.

“The wages of sin is death”, St. Paul wrote, “but the gift of God is everlasting life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 6:23)

Or as Baptist evangelist John R. Rice paraphrased that verse “if you go to Hell, you pay your own way. You go to Heaven on a free pass”.

The day and hour in which Jesus Christ will "come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead" is not revealed to us and will not be revealed until it happens. It is not important for us to know that. What is important is that we know where we will stand at that judgment.

Whether Christ comes back today or ten thousand years from now, the important thing is that we chose Him today.

(1) Dr. Larry E. Dixon, who is professor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Columbia International University Seminary and School of Missions in Columbia, South Carolina was formerly the professor of theology at Providence College in Otterburne, Manitoba. He is the author of a number of books, including The Other Side of the Good News: Confronting the Contemporary Challenges to Jesus Teaching on Hell, first published by Victor Books of Wheaton, Illinois in 1992, reprinted by Christian Focus Publications of Tain, Scotland in 2003. He was my faculty adviser at Providence and my professor for systematic theology, 1st year NT Greek, and a number of other classes.