Should Christians Pray for the Dead? (Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom)

I was invited to say a few words at a funeral recently. I was not very close to the family – which made it both an honor to be invited and also meant that I wast not involved in any of the planning of the ceremony. During the course of the service, many prayers were offered and many of them were directed towards the recently deceased. The helpless theologian I am, I couldn’t help but begin the mental conversation over this classic question:

Should Christians pray for the dead?

It’s vital to realize that this is a very personal and pastoral question, as well as a theological issue. While I was thinking this question over, I ran across the following thoughts about prayers for the dead from two classic Church Fathers:

Cyril of Jerusalem: “We pray for the holy fathers and bishops who have fallen asleep, and in general for all those who have fallen asleep before us, in the belief that it is a great benefit to the souls for whom the prayers are offered… In the same way, b offering to God our prayers for those who have fallen asleep and who have sinned, we offer Christ sacrificed for the sins of all, and by doing so, obtain the loving God’s favor for them and for ourselves.” [4th Century text on Eucharistic Liturgy]

John Chrysostom: “Let us help and commemorate them (the dead). After all, if the children of Job were purified by the sacrifice of their father (Job 1:5), why should we doubt that our offering for the dead bring them any comfort? … Let us not hesitate to help those who have died, and to offer our prayers on their behalf.” [Homily at the very end of the 4th Century]

What do you think about Cyril and John’s beliefs about the effects of prayers for the dead and the reasoning they offer for the practice?

What do you think: Should Christians pray for the dead?
Why or why not?


Continuing The War Against the Sinner’s Prayer: Is It A Heresy?

Forget the War on Christmas.
Do you really want to know a red-blooded, traditional, American-Christian practice that is being destroyed in front of our eyes?
The sinner’s prayer.

For so many, this has been seen as (and still is seen as) the first step into Christianity. The moment of decision. It’s a simple prayer that one is often led through and involves the acknowledgement of one’s status as a sinner, asking Jesus for forgiveness, and possibly asking Jesus to “come into one’s heart.” The sinner’s prayer (or something similar) has been and continues to be the standard Evangelical answer to the question: “How do I become a Christian?”

For my part, I’ve always thought the answer to the above question should be less individualistic and belief-oriented and more communal and action-oriented. How would I answer? Find a church to join and start obeying Jesus’ commands with that community.

Nevertheless, for many the sinner’s prayer is untouchable. Or, at the very least, was.

First, the conservative Southern Baptist darling preacher David Platt launched an unexpected nuclear attack on the sinner’s prayer at a conference in 2012 by calling it “superstitious” and “unbiblical”. 

More recently, progressive Christians have landed some substantial jabs on the sinner’s prayer. Cindy Brandt proposed three reasons why she doesn’t pray the sinner’s prayer with her children. Shortly afterwards, Ben Irwin endorsed Cindy’s critique and offered three alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with children.

Allow me to add one more critique to the mix from the viewpoint of historical theology:

The Second Council of Orange (no, they didn’t invent pulp-free orange juice, they condemned Pelagian teachings in 529) made 25 statements to protect the doctrine of God’s grace. I’d like to quote the third such statement:

“If anyone says that the grace of God can be conferred as a result of human prayer, but that it is not grace itself which makes us pray to God, he contradicts the prophet Isaiah, or the Apostle Paul who says the same thing, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not as for me’ (Romans 10:20; Isaiah 65:1).”

It’s time to give a verdict on the Sinner’s Prayer:
Biblical or Unbiblical?
Wise or Foolish?
Theologically sound or heretical?

What do you think?
Comment below with your verdict! 

A Simple Case for Christian Nonviolence

[1] Jesus’ Direct Teaching

“Nonviolent resistance” might be a more accurate term for Jesus’ teachings: he commands a “third way” between doing nothing and responding to violence with violence, namely, returning evil with good; resisting with love.

  • Jesus clearly expects his followers to live nonviolently – rebuking them on many occasions where they stray from this expectation:
    Luke 9:51-56
    Luke 22:47-51

[2] Jesus’ Explicit Example

  • As the Incarnate God, Jesus’ nonviolent historical life is both: 

[3] Overall Narrative of the Bible – From Old Testament to the Kingdom of God

Despite the (divine and human) violence in the Old Testament, there is a promise of and clear trajectory towards a nonviolent community

  • Israel’s battles weren’t won with military prowess, but by simply obeying & trusting God
    Joshua 6:1-7
    Psalm 20:6-9
  • OT has clear promises of the Kingdom of God’s arrival calling God’s people to nonviolence
    Isaiah 2:1-5
    Micah 4:1-5

[4] The Early Church Thought It Was Obvious

  • The early church (from the time of Christ to the time of Constantine in the 4th century) was fully nonviolent. Here is a small sampling of quotes:

Justin Martyr (100-165 AD)
“We who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons—our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage—and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified.”

Tertullian (160-225 AD)
“Shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”
“If one attempt to provoke you by manual violence, the admonition of the Lord is at hand: To him,‟ He 
says, ‘who strikes you on the face, turn the other cheek also.’ Let outrageousness be wearied out by your patience.“
“Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier…”
“And shall he apply the chain and the prison and the torture and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”
“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger even of his own wrongs?”

Hippolytus (170-236 AD)

“The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”

Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD)

“We have come in accordance with the counsel of Jesus to cut down our arrogant swords of argument into plowshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we formerly used in fighting. For we no longer take swords against a nation, nor do we learn anymore to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our Lord.”

Marcellus (298 AD)

“I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.” “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”

Martin of Tours (316-397)

“I am a soldier of  Christ. To fight is not permissible for me.”

Book Review: The Gospel of the Lord by Michael F. Bird

51-Q4LemSWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_If you haven’t started following Michael Bird’s scholarship (he blogs here and has been writing books at an astonishing pace), you need to as soon as possible. Bird’s latest book, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, is a tour-de-force of scholarship concerning the formation of the Gospels. His writing is engaging, witty, and incredibly thorough. The book is an explanation of the historical process which took place from the time of Jesus’ Kingdom announcement to the circulation of a collection of books describing Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection. The result is a “must-read” work by all who are interested in the “what, why, how, and where of the Gospels.”

Bird covers five main topics in the course of his writing: the purpose and preservation of the Jesus tradition, the formation of the Jesus tradition, the literary genetics of the Gospels (including the Synoptic Problem and the Johannine Question), the genre and goal of the Gospels, and the significance of a fourfold Gospel. For each topic, the reader should expect Bird to summarize and critique an impressive amount of historical theories and scholars and then offer his own scholarly and thoroughly evangelical conclusion. Each chapter is also followed by a helpful and interesting Excursus on a related topic (such as patristic views on the order of the Gospels or the non-canonical Gospels).

Bird occasionally goes after some “sacred cows” of scholarship, such as when he attacks the merit and purpose of the idea of positing communities behind the Gospels (such as a Markan community or a Johannine community). He interestingly notes that few historical/literary scholars do this as a way of interpreting other ancient authors. However, for the most part Bird helpfully lays out the majority opinions in the world of scholarship and then carefully crafts his own tentative conclusion. I was particularly impressed with his handling of the Synoptic problem and his explication of the historical and theological significance of the fourfold Gospel [see: Fourfold Gospel].

In the end, perhaps the highest praise I can give this book is to say that it stands in my mind as a close cousin to N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God. Bird mentions in the introduction that reading JVOG was a turning point in his life – it was also the moment in my life which sparked an interest in the study of the historical Jesus, an interest which has shaped my faith and theology in endless ways. I can confidently say the same about Bird’s The Gospel of the Lord – this is a book sure to clear the way forward for continued and thoughtful thinking about the historical tradition, both oral and textual, which stands behind the Gospels.

Note: I received this book from Eerdmans in exchange for an unbiased review. 

Book Review: Why Church History Matters by Robert F. Rea

Robert F. Rea’s new work, Why Church History Matters: An Invitation to Love and Learn from Our Past, is a well-needed clarion call to all Christian traditions that have largely ignored the history of their faith. I have considered church history a vital part of Christian discipleship for many years and in this book Rea clearly spells out many reasons why this is so. In fact, I believe that both Christian churches and Christian schools should be careful to form their children in Church history as much as (if not more) than national history. Thus, I enjoyed Rea’s book and firmly believe that his message is an extremely important one for the Protestant church to hear.

The book is divided into three parts: 1 – How We Understand Tradition, 2 – Expanding Circles of Inquiry, and 3 – Tradition Serving the Church. Part one of Fea’s work explores the meaning of history and tradition and takes a special look at how various groups have understood and related to Christian tradition throughout Christian history. This serves as a helpful background to his discussion on how various Christians understand tradition today. Part two of the book serves to explore the many ways that our Christian identity is necessarily connected to the brothers and sisters who have come before us. He discusses how Christian tradition is actually a vibrant part of the Christian community, how historical Christians can serve as accountability partners, and how they can helpfully broaden our views and correct misunderstandings in our faith. Part three of Rea’s work explores how a proper understanding of Christian history helps the church both understand Scripture and minister more faithfully. Rea helpfully walks through the various strategies of exegesis that have been characteristic of different time periods in church history and gives practical examples of how these historical truths might inform responsible exegesis today.

For the most part, Rea’s book is plenty accessible to students and lay readers. There are times where he condenses a lot of information/names/theories in a few pages (such as when surveying the history of “tradition” from the early Church to the modern period or when detailing the history of exegesis from the early church to the modern period). This may seem overwhelming to novices or, alternatively, over-simplified to those with further education. Rea’s book reads as an apologetic for Christians to know their history and integrate it into their lives, faiths, and ministries appropriately. With this goal in mind, I found Part Two of his work to be the most engaging and practical portion of his book. Ultimately, I believe that an actual primary study of church history is the best way to open one’s eyes up to its incredible importance for today’s church. Thankfully, Rea ends his book with a list of recommended resources – personally, I recommend starting with Justo Gonzalez’ The Story of Christianity.

I’d Recommend This Book For:
– Those wanting to know “why” they should care about Church History
– Those looking for a brief overview of Church History
– Perhaps as a textbook for an introductory undergraduate class on Church History
– Perhaps a church small group unfamiliar with church history yet wishing to dig into it.

Why Church History MattersNote: I received this book from IVP Academic in exchange for an unbiased review.