Category Archives: Creation

Essential Latin for Reformed Christians: “Ex nihilo”

Reader’s Digest used to have a feature called “It Pays To Enrich Your Word Power.”  Readers could quiz themselves on the meanings of English words.  In the old days, RD motivated readers with the notion that having an advanced vocabulary would benefit you socially and work-wise.  True or not, for Reformed Christians it is beneficial to know some key terms, not only in English, but in Latin too.  Through the years, some terms have become part of our theological vocabulary and sometimes authors and preachers will use them assuming everyone knows what they mean.  And what if you don’t?  That’s where this series comes to your rescue.

Today we’re looking at ex nihilo.  It means “from nothing.”  In theology, it’s used in relation to creation, so the full expression is creatio ex nihilo — “creation from nothing.”  This speaks of God creating the entire universe by the power of his Word, without using any pre-existent matter.

We believe that God created ex nihilo on the basis of biblical teaching.  Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”  At the beginning, God created the universe.  Hebrews 11:3 elaborates:  “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  The material universe came into existence by God’s Word, not by God working with material (visible things) that had been there before.  Romans 4:17 speaks in a similar way.  It speaks of the God in whom Abraham believed, “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  Prior to God’s call through his Word, there was nothing — then with his call, things sprung into existence.  Summarizing the Bible’s teaching, the Belgic Confession says, “We believe that the Father through the Word, that is, through his Son, has created out of nothing heaven and earth and all creatures…” (BC 12).

As a child, weird as it may sound, I used to ponder the idea of “nothing.”  I found it curious that almost everything we call “nothing” is actually something.  You might have an empty box and say there’s nothing in the box.  But that’s not really true.  There would be air, composed of various gasses, and probably a few microscopic dust particles.  There’s still something.  Even if you were to seal the box tightly, attach a vacuum pump, and suck out everything, there would still be something — there would be a vacuum.  So is “nothing” real?  Deep question, right?  From a Christian perspective, the answer goes back to before creation.  Before creation, there was truly nothing besides God, and certainly nothing material.  The Triune God was all there was.  Think about that.  There wasn’t even time.  Only God — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Because he wanted to, not because he had to, he decided to create the material universe by simply calling it into existence.  Through his Son, God the Father just spoke and it all came to be.  Something — in fact, everything — came from nothing.  When you pause to think about it, creatio ex nihilo leaves you in awe of our God and his almighty power.


Transgender?

During the summer months, I often ask parishioners for suggestions for texts to preach on.  This coming Sunday morning, as a result of one such suggestion, I plan to be preaching on Genesis 1:26-27.  This passage is about the creation of humanity in God’s image and the mandate to exercise dominion over the other creatures.  Then at the end of verse 27, the Holy Spirit says, “male and female he created them.”  That got me to thinking about the current pressure on the biblical view of gender.  One thing led to another and I came across this talk from Denny Burk on gender identity.  It’s about 45 minutes, but well-worth your time.  By the way, you may be wondering about the related issue of intersex or hermaphroditism.  He addresses that in answer to a question at the 40 minute mark in the video.

 


Byl on VanBruggen’s Blind Man

Some time ago an English magazine published in the Netherlands included an article by Dr. J. Van Bruggen entitled, “The Blind Man Sat Down by the Road and Cried…”  The magazine, Lux Mundi, is an official publication of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, specifically from their Committee for Contact with Foreign Churches (BBK).  In this article, Dr. Van Bruggen discussed the conflict between what some scientists are concluding and what Scripture says.  Dr. John Byl has penned a helpful response which you can find here.


New Dutch Resource

I’ve added a Dutch translation of my book review of Paulin Bédard’s fabulous book In Six Days God CreatedYou can find it here.  Thanks to Jan van Meerten and the Logos Institute!  The English original can be found here.


Heretic!

inquisition

I was labelled a heretic.  In fact, I’m sure that it’s happened more than once.  No, it wasn’t Roman Catholics or Muslims saying this, although they would/should certainly classify me as such.  It was other Reformed believers.  The particular occasion was this blog post where I shared Richard Sibbes’ answer to the question of whether saints in heaven are aware of our trials and miseries.  Some didn’t agree with that and I was therefore labelled a “heretic.”

There are at least two related issues involved here.

First, there is a popular notion amongst some Reformed believers that every theological error is a heresy.  This notion equates error with heresy, as if they are complete synonyms (words meaning the same thing).

Second, there is another popular notion (found with some) that all theological errors are essentially of the same weight.  Every theological error then becomes a matter of heaven or hell.  In such thinking, to administer the Lord’s Supper differently is virtually in the same category as denying the Trinity.  It might not ever be said that crassly, but when you look at what’s said and done, it often seems to come down to that.

The word “heresy” is not found in the Bible, although the concept is.  To really understand what’s involved, however, we need to turn to church history.  Popular misuse of the terms “heresy/heretic” trace back to a lack of understanding of how these terms have been used in church history.

In the centuries after the apostles, debates raged about certain doctrinal points.  In these debates, certain teachings were ultimately considered to be heretical.  By “heretical,” the Church understood that holding to such doctrines put one’s salvation in jeopardy.  In fact, there were certain teachings where, if one held them consistently and unrepentantly to death, one would not be saved.  The word “heresy” was reserved for these teachings that struck at the very heart of the Christian faith, attacking fundamental doctrines.

One of the most obvious examples is the doctrine of the Trinity.  Denying the doctrine of the Trinity (in various ways) is regarded as heretical.  The Athanasian Creed lays out the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and then says in article 28, “So he who desires to be saved should think thus of the Trinity.”  If in any way you deny that God is three persons in one being, you are a heretic.  Another example has to do with Christ and his two natures.  Says the Athanasian Creed, “It is necessary, however, to eternal salvation that he should also believe in the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Now the right faith is that we should confess and believe that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is equally both God and man.”  If you deny that Christ is both true God and true man, you are a heretic.  When we say that, it should be a clear that we are making a statement about the seriousness of this error, namely that this is an error for which someone can be damned.  A heresy is a deadly error.  The biblical basis of making such strong statements is found in places like 1 John 2:22-23, “Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ?  This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.  No one who denies the Son has the Father.  Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.”

Another classic example of a heresy is Pelagianism.  Pelagius and his followers denied original sin and taught a synergistic view of salvation:  since humans are not dead in sin, they can cooperate with God in salvation.  The Council of Carthage in 417-418 condemned Pelagianism as a heresy and declared that those who held to it were anathema — anathema means “eternally condemned and outside of salvation.”  The Council could confidently assert that because of what Scripture itself says in passages like Galatians 1:8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let me him be accursed.”  In Greek, Paul used the word anathema.  The Church has always regarded Pelagianism as another gospel, and therefore an accursed heresy.

Our Reformed confessions are rather careful in what they label as heresy.  Canons of Dort 3/4 article 10 reaffirms that Pelagianism is a heresy.  Belgic Confession article 9 mentions several “false Christians and heretics”:  Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, Paul of Samosata, and Arius.  These were in deadly error with regard to the Trinity.  Certain Anabaptists are also described as holding to heresy in Belgic Confession article 18.  Though they’re not mentioned by name, the Confession is referring to Menno Simons and Melchior Hoffmann.  They taught that Christ does not have a real human nature from Mary but that, in his incarnation, he took his human nature from heaven.  This is a heresy because it runs into serious trouble with the two natures of Christ, and specifically whether his human nature is a true human nature.  I have more about that in this article from a few years ago.

So with that in the background, let me mention two prevalent errors that are not heresies.  Theistic evolution is not a heresy.  It is a serious error which may lead to heresy, but as such, it is not a heresy.  I have never referred to it as such and I have cautioned others against describing it as such as well.  Women in ecclesiastical office is a serious error that conflicts with Scripture, and emerges from a way of interpreting the Scriptures which could lead to far more serious doctrinal trouble.  However, you should not say that it is a heresy because it does not fit with the way this term has been understood and used in church history and in our confessions.

Not every theological error is a heresy.  Certainly someone’s disagreement with you on a particular doctrinal point does not allow you to loosely throw the term “heretic” around.  The words “heresy, heretic, heretical” should be reserved for only the most serious doctrinal errors, the ones where the Church clearly confesses from the Scriptures that these views are salvation-jeopardizing.  By that, we also recognize that not all errors are of the same seriousness.  We definitely want to strive for doctrinal precision and accuracy, but we also have to realize that not all points of doctrine carry the same weight and therefore we can, even in confessional Reformed churches, have some room for disagreement.  So, if you happened to disagree with what I wrote in that blog post about the saints in heaven, I think you’re wrong, but I will never call you a heretic.  Will you afford me the same courtesy?

[For those who wish to dig deeper into this topic, I highly recommend Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 1, especially chapter 9, “Fundamental Articles and Basic Principles of Theology.”]