“Pentecostal” defined

Question from TS, United Kingdom

“What is Pentecostal?”

Pentecostal is a word describing a particular branch of Christianity (denomination). It is a movement that grew out of a ‘revival’ in the early part of the twentieth century that was characterised by ‘speaking in tongues’ and other unusual phenomena.

The word ‘Pentecostal’ was applied to this new form of Christianity because of the similarities to the events recorded in the Book of Acts chapter 2 when the Holy Spirit impacted upon the followers of Jesus. This event became known in the church calendar as Pentecost, hence ‘Pentecostal’.

In the year 2000 there were 115 million Christians around the world who would class themselves as ‘Pentecostal’ or belonged to an official ‘Pentecostal Church’. (Source: Operation World, 2001)

I hope that answers your question TS. Thank you for contributing to freelance theology.
If you have a question or comment please use the ’email me’ button on this website.


“Begotten not Created” – an important phrase in the Nicene Creed

Question from PM, United Kingdom

What does ‘Begotten not created’ mean?

To understand this phrase from the Nicene Creed (that also appears in the carol ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’) we have to understand the theological background to the Council of Nicea in AD 325.

At this time Christianity was the newly established official religion of the Roman Empire and as a result a huge amount of philosophical and other religious ideas were impinging on the Church. One such idea was the exclusive monotheism that became known as Arianism, named after the figurehead leader of the movement Arius.

Broadly speaking Arianism regarded God the Father as the one God, with Jesus the first created being, created specifically as a means to create the rest of the world. Jesus was given the ‘honorific’ title of ‘Son’ because he was the first created being and ‘through him all things were made’.

This obviously caused problems because if salvation came through God alone and Jesus was a created being, then Jesus could not have been the means of salvation for the world. Theologians who recognised this and wanted to assert that Jesus was the means that humanity was saved, and therefore that Jesus was in fact God, had to be careful not to seem to be proclaiming a dualist of polytheist viewpoint (that is they somehow had to avoid making it sound like there were two or more Gods).

The arguments came to a head at the Council of Nicea. Two key themes were included in the creed to specifically counter Arianism. Firstly that the Son was begotten, not created, so Jesus was not a part of the created order and shared the divine nature with his Father. This ‘begetting’ was seen as an eternal process, sot here was never a time when the Father existed alone. Secondly the word ‘homo-ousios’ was used. Literally this means ‘of the same stuff’, i.e. Jesus was, in his eternal nature, no less God than God the Father.

‘Begotten not made’ remains a very important part of Christian theology because it gives us an insight into the relational nature of the Godhead. In the first few centuries, while these theological debates raged, ‘homo-ousious’ became the benchmark word. If you accepted the Son was the same stuff as the Father, then you were orthodox. If you did not then you were a heretic.


Stocks & Shares

Question from RB, United Kingdom

Someone asked me a question and I need help with an answer! My friend asked me “What should I do about my stocks and shares?”

Some Christians are opposed to investing in stocks and shares, simply because they view it as a form of gambling. However, while the stock market does present a risk, investments are usually made using market knowledge. Very rarely is an investment made blindly.

From the point of view of a Christian trying to be salt and light in the world, it is best to invest through an ethical broker. These are fairly easy to find, although they are few in number. Obviously, investing ethically may not offer as big a return as ploughing money into arms manufacturers, but there is a serious question of conscience when it comes to investing.

From a theological point of view it is very important that Christians are aware of the following points.

1. We are stewards of the money and resources given to us, not the sole owners, therefore God has a legitimate claim on everything in our life, including our money.

2. If we are to ‘do everything as to the Lord’ (Colossians chapter 3 v 23), our financial transactions must be squeaky clean and done in an attitude of honesty and righteousness.

3. The first two commandments given by God to the Hebrews at Mount Sinai (see Deuteronomy chapter 5) relate to the priority God has in our lives. We are not to allow anything to become more important than God or trust in any thing man-made (idolatry) – man-made wealth included!

4. Jesus urged his followers to store up treasure in Heaven (Matthew 6 v21) and warned the rich that they would suffer in the life to come because they had already received their reward (Luke 6 v24).

5. The Early Church was characterised by ‘cheerful’ giving (in older translations ‘The Lord loves an hilarious giver’ 2 Corinthians 9 v7) and a sharing of wealth (See the early chapters of Acts).

6. The Lord does bless the upright, often through material wealth. However most of the Old Testament blessings are conditional on the people of Israel fulfilling their side of the covenant. Jesus promises his disciples everything they could possibly need, but the flipside of this is he was all they really needed. There is an old saying ‘The Lord gives you what you need, not what you want.’

Having made those points, we are charged with providing for our families, acting responsibly, treating others with dignity and being mindful of the poor. If your friend can do those things through prudent investment in the stock market, then theologically he has nothing to worry about.


Hell Continued

JM, United Kingdom responded to the post ‘What is Hell?’

“I read the answer to hell. I wasn’t sure about the bit where you say“The medieval imagery of demons roasting sinners on griddles has fallen out of favour in all but the most fundamentalist Christian circles” doesn’t that (the ‘fallen out of favour’ bit) make it sound like a literary critique?

Some would argue that Hell hasn’t changed it’s makeup even if popular thought has – so we need to be looking only at what we can actually glean from what we are told, not what popular opinion tells us.”

That’s an interesting point, but the medieval view never closely paralleled Biblical statements. I personally would argue that we do need to critique past theological images and so I’d stand by the phrase used.

I’d agree that Hell hasn’t changed it’s make up regardless of how human perceptions have moved on, but the torture imagery was a human perception as much as the ‘grey town’ depicted by CS Lewis in The Great Divorce. My key point was that Hell is the prison of Satan, not his dominion. The thought that Satan rules Hell and that his minions torture sinners is not Biblical, belonging more to Christian ‘myth-theology’.

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Predestination (Big Topic!)

Question from VN, United Kingdom:
Dear freelance theologian, can you please give an overview of the whole predestination/free will debate, and give a solution?

And from GT, United Kingdom:
If we are predestined (Ephesians 1 v1 and other places too I think), does that mean that some people aren’t predestined and therefore can’t be saved?

There are a number of starting points for any debate on predestination. The Bible would be an obvious place to start, except that there seem to be some contradictory passages. How do you reconcile Ephesians 1 v 4 (‘For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight’) with 1 Timothy 2 v 3 (‘God our saviour desires all men to be saved‘)? [To add to the confusion both those statements are attributed to Paul.]

Most people when addressing this issue tend to ‘proof-text’, quoting the sections of Scripture that agrees with their point of view. However, this is not a recipe for good, coherent and intellectually satisfying theology.

There are problems with both views. Absolutely rigid predestination and unconditional human freedom have aspects that do not make much logical sense.

If God created people and picked some for eternal salvation, then he automatically destines some to Hell. Calvin stated that in his Institutes as what has become known as the ‘doctrine of double-predestination’. In this respect, Calvin is merely being intellectually honest. If the decision to save people is ultimately God’s, then the fact that some people go to Hell is the flipside of that decision.

In fairness to Calvin, he adopted an extreme view of predestination because he simply could not understand why someone would not accept and respond to the Gospel. He felt it was inconceivable that anyone would turn down the offer of salvation, so he concluded it must be because God did not choose those people that failed to respond. Calvin was awed by the sovereignty of God, and the ‘irresistible grace’ shown to human beings. Calvin felt it was bordering on the offensive to imagine that a mere created being could reject its creator, unless God had willed it that way.

However, there does not seem much point in creating people whose sole purpose is to sin and go to Hell. Calvin believed that the righteousness of God could be seen in God judging those people, but to create beings just to prove a point seems arbitrary in the extreme. It also fails to explain those passages in the Bible that imply God’s will is for any and everyone to be saved (1 Timothy 2 v3, John 3 v16ff, 2 Peter 3 v9 etc).

The problem with advocating that salvation is solely dependent on human free will is also severely deficient. If God is all-knowing and all-powerful, the idea that humans are free is a false one. Just by knowing all outcomes, God is in a unique position to influence each situation. If God knows what will bring a person to him, and does not act to bring people to him, then he is effectively making the choice for them.

If God does not know every outcome, then we have to ask how that can be. It may be that God has surrendered some part of his awareness, in order to allow human beings to make truly free choices. This seems incredibly reckless – why would God risk anybody rejecting him? There is no perceptible reason why God would create beings who would turn against him, and, anyway, in creating beings with the capacity to rebel and choose Hell as their eternal destination, God is ultimately responsible for the existence of those creatures. At some point, the decision to be the creatures they are and to end up in the place that they choose, rests not with the creature, but with the creator. Either way, total free will seems to be an illusion.

So, what’s the solution? As ever in this sort of debate it lies somewhere in the middle. An ingenious proposal by Karl Barth, the twentieth century theologian, runs something like this:

~Christ through his divine nature is the God who chooses people to be saved
~Christ through his human nature is the one perfect human being who has been chosen for salvation.
~Human Beings are able to ‘share in the death of Christ’ and therefore appear as righteous in the eyes of God (following on from Martin Luther’s belief that when we are declared righteous it is because God sees the righteousness of Christ that we share).
~Human Beings are free to choose whether to share in Christ’s righteous standing before God.

This approach means that all human beings, except for Jesus Christ, are predestined for Hell. But, because Christ took the punishment for all of human sin (which through his eternal divinity he could), human beings can opt, through repentance and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit, to share in Christ’s status as the only human chosen for salvation.

This neatly ties up the difficulty of reconciling the Biblical concept of human free will with the Biblical concept of God’s sovereign will. Basically, all humans can do is claim the righteousness of Christ through faith and that means they can avoid the punishment ordained for them.

I hope that goes some way to answering your questions, VN and GT. Thanks for contributing to freelance theology. Thanks also to RF, whose Biblical awareness was much appreciated.


Elijah – a Community Talk

Bible references: 1 Kings chapter 17 verses 1-7, chapter 18 verses 1- 19

Elijah’s name means literally The LORD is God. ‘El’ meaning God in the descriptive sense and Jah, being part of Yahweh or Jahweh, the revealed name of God that is always translated into little capital letters in the Old Testament as The LORD.

Elijah’s name leaves you in no doubt where he stands, but his name, The LORD is God, went against the grain in Israel at that time. King Ahab and his evil wife Jezebel were suppressing worship of Yahweh and promoting the worship of ‘Baal’ instead. Ahab (regarded as one of the more evil kings of Israel) had married Jezebel from the city of Tyre and Jezebel brought the worship of ‘Baal’ into Israel. In this case, ‘Baal’ was the Phoenician weather god Melqart.

Elijah dares to speak out to the King. This was an act of extreme boldness. The King’s rule was absolute. To tell the King off was unheard of. People would think you had lost your head. Or, that you were about to.

Except of course Ahab’s rule wasn’t absolute. Elijah reminds him of that. His comment to Ahab comes out of the blue and then he disappears. If Baal – the weather God – had any kind of reality, then this was a direct challenge to him. Could Baal make it rain? No. When Elijah returns to Israel, he issues another ultimatum and then goes to Carmel, the centre of Baal worship.

There are some key points here. When the priests of Baal start their rituals, characterised by dancing and yelling and cutting themselves, Elijah is in a vulnerable position. He has basically challenged the followers of a weather God to produce fire from heaven. Now he knows that their best efforts have failed to produce rain, but again this is a showdown where Baal could turn up. That’s the risk he’s running.

But Baal doesn’t show. Elijah wants to know why. ‘Where is he?’ He asks, then he starts making suggestions. ‘Perhaps he’s deaf? Perhaps you should shout louder!’ It seems Elijah goes out of his way to antagonise his opponents. He’s on their turf, he’s outnumbered, the King hates him and he is deliberately and brilliantly offensive. It’s often hard to tell the difference between supreme self-confidence and a self-destructive determination – I think perhaps Elijah had a bit of both.

Eventually it’s Elijah’s turn. He orders his sacrifice to be soaked in water. This is after three long years of drought. Water is incredibly precious and you can imagine the crowd’s reaction to all that water being wasted. Elijah has annoyed the King, insulted the priests, and now he has alienated the crowd that had gathered as well.

Elijah prays a simple prayer. No dancing, shouting, or cutting for him. And we know what happens next. Boom! Fire from Heaven!

This was a dramatic encounter with God, but I find the next part of the story is the most arresting. Elijah is branded an outlaw and he runs into the wilderness to Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb). On the way, everything catches up with him. He is exhausted, physically and mentally and he feels like he cannot take any more. At that moment he lies down under a tree and wishes he was dead.

When he gets to Sinai he hides out in a cave and he hears God. You can sense the gentleness of that whisper, like a breath over the mountain, ‘What are you dong here, Elijah?

Elijah’s answer: ‘I’m hiding. I’m the last one left. They’re trying to kill me.

The truthfulness of this tale is seen here in Elijah clearly suffering from a major mood swing. He is recklessly bold on Carmel and achieves something amazing and yet the very next minute he is totally overcome by pessimism and gloom. Nowadays we would classify him as a manic-depressive. One minute he’s manic, uncontrollable, full of energy, a man of action. The next he’s slumped under a tree or hiding away in a cave and he has no hope for the future or any belief in his calling. The ‘peak’ has immediately been followed by a ‘trough’.

What Elijah had suffered from most was a loss of perspective. He had allowed the threats of Jezebel to get to him. He had allowed the situation to trap him. What God said to him was ‘What situation? What situation is so big that I, the LORD, can’t handle it?

God gives Elijah a wake-up call. ‘This is how it’s going to be,’ He says. ‘You’ll anoint this guy and that guy and get an assistant and no-one’s going to kill you. You’re not alone. There are thousands of people who have stuck up for me and I’m going to look out for them just as I am going to look out for you.

I think there is a crucial message in all this. It might not apply to everybody, but I think it applies to many. Firstly the big comedown after the big showdown can happen to anyone. If you have been in a situation where God has acted in a mighty way, but now feel that you’re hiding in a cave, then it’s time to sort that out. It might be that God will tell you exactly what will happen next, or it might be that you just need to rediscover God’s perspective on your situation.

That’s the second point to draw from this. Elijah felt that everything was hopeless. But how Elijah felt was NOT how the situation was. He was not the only one left who worshipped Yahweh. Jezebel wasn’t going to get her way and eliminate him and all traces of belief in the LORD.

This is a really big concept to float in our post-modern, incredibly subjective world. It’s not a very common idea any more, but how we perceive a thing and what that thing is, in its intrinsic self, can be quite different. It can be the same with situations.

And there’s the wake up call for Elijah. Suddenly he realises that how he regards the situation isn’t exactly how the situation is in reality. His perception and what is really going on are in two different places.

In a sense Elijah did the right thing. He ran away from Carmel, the mountain of Baal to Sinai, the mountain of God. He met God there and God helped him refocus his perspective. With God there is always an opportunity for people to see things how they really are. That might mean their situation, their relationship with God or with another person, their role in their Christian community. I think there are some people who have metaphorically stood on Carmel and seen God act powerfully, but since then have sunk deep into a trough of despondency in their life.

The question I think God wants to ask people is ‘What are you doing here?’ Consider where you are in your life, where you’ve been, what you’ve seen, what call has been placed on you.


Defining what Christians mean by ‘hell’

Question from GT, United Kingdom: “What is Hell?”

Hell is the alternative destination for human beings after death. Biblical descriptions are varied. In the Old Testament the Hebrew word used for Hell is ‘Sheol’, literally the Grave or the Pit. There isn’t much description to it and is seems that everybody ends up there awaiting final judgement.

In the New Testament, Jesus refers to ‘Gehenna’, thought to be a permanently smouldering rubbish dump outside Jerusalem, also to ‘Hell fire’ and a place of ‘wailing and gnashing of teeth’ (Matthew chapter 8, verse 12) where ‘the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched’ (Mark chapter 9, verse 48, quoting Isaiah chapter 66 verse 24). (more…)


Was Jesus aware that he was God?

Question from JM, United Kingdom (again)

“Did Jesus know he was God? If so, at what stage?”

Jesus’ self-awareness seems to have been quite high from the beginning of his ministry. In John’s Gospel he is announced as ‘the Lamb of God’ by John the Baptist (chapter 1 vs29-34) and in Matthew, Mark and Luke proclaimed as ‘the Christ – the chosen one of God’ by Peter. In Luke chapter 4 he starts off his public ministry claiming to be the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophetic statement regarding the ‘anointed one’ (Messiah).

Whether Jesus regarded himself as the Son of God, as has been stated in Christian theology ever since, we simply do not know. The gospels are not tell-all autobiographies or even objective studies of the man Jesus. People who knew Jesus and were convinced that he was the Son of God wrote the books.

Jesus often described himself using the phrase ‘Son of Man’, but then he also referred to God as Father and implied that his will and the Father’s will were inseparable (e.g. see John 5 v19). If Jesus was aware of his own divinity at this point, he was also constrained by his humanity. In the gospels he is weak, fearful, hungry, tired (napping during a serious storm on the Sea of Galilee for example) and he frequently asks questions. He is hardly the all-knowing, all-powerful God that Christians claim that he is.

This duality of natures, divine and human co-existing caused a number of theological headaches in the early Christian debates. It was common for the aspects of Christ’s life that revealed his limitations to be ascribed to his human nature, while the miracles and other inexplicable things to be ascribed to the divine nature.

Another, and neater, explanation of this is found in ‘kenotic theology’. ‘Kenosis’ is a Greek word literally meaning ‘self-emptying’ and is used in Philippians chapter 2. According to kenotic theology, the second person in the Trinity, the eternally begotten Son, surrendered his divine status in order to live a fully human limited life. The ‘divine activities’ of the Incarnate Son have been explained, e.g. by John Wimber, as the human Jesus acting in the power of the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit.

Pre-resurrection, Jesus must have known he was different. As an empowered human working in close conjunction with the Holy Spirit to carry out the Father’s will, he discouraged people from calling him the messiah as he knew they had an inadequate earth-bound view of messiah-ship. After the resurrection he had resumed his rightful place at the right hand of the Father and his followers were left in no doubt as to who he really was.

In between, there was still room for doubt. “Will you leave too?” he asks his disciples (John 6 v67). He prays that a different path could be shown to him (Luke 22 v42). And on the cross he cries out in abandonment (Matthew 27 v46). It was only after the resurrection that all doubts ceased, including those of his followers.


Salvation for people who have not heard about Jesus

Question from NM, United Kingdom:

“If Abraham was justified by faith (and not by the law – Romans chapter 4), does that mean other people could be saved without hearing about Jesus?”

Most Christian theologians would agree that the salvation of humanity only comes through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and his subsequent resurrection. The question is whether a person has to be aware of this in order to be saved.

The ‘exclusivist’ approach held by many Christians rests on particular passages that imply that there is no possibility of salvation without acknowledging Christ as Lord. For example, Jesus’ statement about himself as being ‘the way, the truth and the life’ with no-one coming to the Father (i.e. being saved) ‘except through me’ (John ch14). The ‘exclusivist’ ideal has been the driving force behind most of the missionary activity undertaken by both Catholic and Protestant wings of the Christian Church. (more…)