Does faith just compensate for lacking evidence of a divine Creator?

printable version (PDF)

David R. Bickel

University of Ottawa
Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology
Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

 

July 31, 2020

Faith and evidence

While faith is important in multiple monotheistic religions, it meant everything to the orthodox Christianity of the first century. That is clear throughout its canonical documents. Consider these representative examples:

  • Jesus of Nazareth could only perform miracles among those with faith.1
  • He said everything is possible for whoever has faith when praying.2
  • A delay in answers to the prayers of the chosen is a test of their faith. 3
  • He reprimanded his disciples terrified by a life-threatening storm for their lack of faith. 4
  • Even more controversially, only those who had faith in Jesus as the prophesied Messiah and Son of God had eternal life.5

Why Christians put so much emphasis on faith is explained by the earliest catholic writings,6 the letters of Paul. The core teaching of Christianity was that Jesus, known as a shamefully executed criminal, atoned for the crimes all people have committed against their Creator, who signaled his acceptance of the atonement by physically raising Jesus from the dead.7

That message was astonishing enough to polarize people from the beginning. On one hand, Christians regarded that report as God’s promise of forgiveness that has the power to eternally save everyone having faith in it.8 To everyone else, the message appeared so foolish as to refute itself. The governing monotheists were repulsed by the idea that someone so obviously cursed by God would be the Messiah prophesied in their holy writings. Those schooled in Greek philosophy viewed religious concepts like prophecy, atonement, and bodily resurrection as primitive superstitions worthy only of disdain. While the more religious opponents of Christianity demanded a sign from God and more philosophical opponents demanded convincing arguments, Christians were content to put faith in the testimony of ordinary people claiming to speak on behalf of Jesus.9

Thus, neither type of opponent could find the kind of evidence that would have made Christianity credible to them. Christians, believing God gave them the faith needed to properly evaluate the evidence for the messianic claims of Jesus,10 in turn regarded unbelief as the epitome of sin and folly.

The contempt that leading intellectuals had for faith against human conceptions of evidence has continued to modern times. It has become popularized by atheistic scientists arguing as authorities on philosophy and religion. A widely quoted example expresses the topic of this essay:

Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.11

Christian faith in particular is considered not only an excuse for lacking evidence but also an unfair requirement:

How is it fair for God to have designed a world which gives such ambiguous testimony to his existence? How is it fair to have created a system where belief is the crucial piece, rather than being a good person? How is it fair to have created a world in which by mere accident of birth, someone who grew up Muslim can be confounded by the wrong religion?12

Objections against Christian faith appeal to emotion as well as to evidence. In the words of Charles Darwin,

I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.13

And why should that unpalatable teaching be entertained if faith is just a way to compensate for a lack of evidence? It will be argued that faith actually has another rationale, one that explains faith as a consequence of monotheism rather than a desperate attempt to defend it. In short, while faith does believe what would not be warranted by the evidence when it is weighed as if there were no Creator, faith in such a Creator would be needed if he in fact did exist.

Why the existence of a Creator would require faith in his words

According to traditional monotheism, the self-existent God created the universe from nothing. The Creator is completely distinct from the creation and yet loves it and sustains it.

If people are indeed created beings, then every ability they have is a free gift from their Creator. They cannot take credit for anything good, as if being created in a certain way were an earned wage.14 Rather, they received all their abilities as undeserved gifts.

What if people, in spite of having received such undeserved gifts, were to claim them as deserved wages? That would require denying their status as beings owing their very existence to their divine Creator. Unlike other false beliefs, that particular false belief would prevent them from having any meaningful knowledge of their loving Creator. That state of self-isolation from his love would by its nature have to separate them from the happiness and security of knowing his limitless love. They cannot enjoy his unmerited love as long as they insist on their own worthiness.

How would people come to know their divine Creator and his care for them? Only by using their created senses and reason to receive and believe the promises of his unending love. According to the earliest recorded Christian teachings, those testimonies come not only in the form of created gifts such as food15 but also in the form of messages from God spoken through prophets and through the witnesses Jesus sent to testify to all nations.16 Just as every divine command requires obedience, every divine promise requires faith, trust that God will keep the promises of his undeserved love and free gifts.17

If such a Creator exists, then to doubt one of his promises because it conflicts with human reasoning is to make the mistake of trusting fallible mental abilities more than the all-knowing Creator, who by his nature cannot lie. That is exactly how the beginning of the Hebrew Bible depicts the fall of humanity into error.18 Eve’s Creator gave her the fruit of every tree in the garden, even the tree of eternal life. The only exception was a single tree distinguished by God’s threat of death to whoever ate its fruit. Rather than receiving the tree of life as an undeserved gift, she took from the forbidden tree, seeing that its fruit was edible. Apart from her Creator’s threat, it looked like any other fruit-bearing tree. Excluding that threat from consideration, experience and inductive logic would have led her to the conclusion that its fruit, too, was satisfying and nutritious. She trusted her own senses and judgment instead of the word of her Maker.19

The way of self-reliance would have been commendable were there no freely giving Creator and thus no promise of fellowship with him. But supposing the existence such a promise-making Creator, the only reasonable response would be faith in his promises, irrespective of seemingly contrary evidence. For in that case, weighing all of the evidence would prohibit excluding the divine promises from consideration. When those promises are given weight in proportion to the truthfulness and power of the Creator, they become absolutely certain regardless of any finite amount of evidence pointing in another direction when considered alone.

Human inability to put faith solely in a Creator

Let’s then grant that if a divine Creator existed, faith in his promises would be fitting. But how are we supposed to actually believe that? Eve in a garden with a tree of life? Prophecy? Atonement by the sacrificial death of a man claiming to be God’s Son and the Savior of the world? The resurrection of his body a few days later? Not to mention that most of those believing in a divine Creator hope to earn rewards from him rather than to gratefully receive his gifts by faith alone. We simply cannot bring ourselves to have faith in a generous Creator who owes us nothing and teaches us what we could not learn from our own observations and reasoning.20 Not even if we, unlike Darwin, wanted to.

Whether or not we consider ourselves religious, our inability to abandon all reliance on our own wisdom or morality is not new. It was described by Paul in terms of humanity’s fall with Eve.21 If his teaching is correct, then our inability to exercise faith reflects the darkening of our minds due to our replacing the Creator with created things such as our own wisdom.22 In that case, our refusal of his love is so deeply ingrained that it seems natural.

The fact that unbelief comes so natural does not excuse it but rather makes it that much more blameworthy. For immorality by nature and compulsion is far worse than an immoral act. For example, someone who by nature delights in murder after murder is even more reprehensible than someone who uncharacteristically commits a single murder in a fit of rage. In the same way, our habitually excluding the Creator would fly in the face of the reality of our status as lovingly created beings more than would any single lapse of judgment.

According to first-century Christianity, that ingrained unbelief is the foundational sin that requires atonement to restore our fellowship with the Creator.23 Our inability to free ourselves from the tyranny of unbelief is precisely why we would need faith to be created in us by the same power that created the universe—the same power that resurrected the victim sacrificed to offer atonement for who we have become.10


  1. Mark 6:5 ↩︎
  2. Mark 9:23; 11:24 ↩︎
  3. Luke 18:1–8 ↩︎
  4. Luke 8:22-25 ↩︎
  5. John 3:16-21; 20:30-31 ↩︎
  6. While the letter from James was written around the same time as Paul’s letters, its authority was not universally recognized until much later. ↩︎
  7. 1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 4:24-25 ↩︎
  8. Romans 1:16; 4:1-25 ↩︎
  9. 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5 (see “If God exists, why doesn’t he prove it?” David R. Bickel, 2008 at absoluteparadox.com) ↩︎
  10. For a fuller explanation, see “Scientific evidence and first-century reports of miracles surrounding Jesus,” David R. Bickel, 2020. . ↩︎
  11. Richard Dawkins, as quoted by Alec Fisher, The Logic of Real Arguments, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. ↩︎
  12. Sam Harris, as quoted in “NEWSWEEK Poll: 90% Believe in God” (April 8, 2007) ↩︎
  13. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins, ed. Nora Barlow, 1958, p. 87 ↩︎
  14. This argument of Paul (1 Corinthians 4:7) was revived by Martin Luther’s explanation of the first article of the Creed in his Small Catechism. See Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification, Bayer Oswald, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003. ↩︎
  15. Acts 14:14-18; 17:24-31; Romans 1:18-23 ↩︎
  16. Luke 24:25-48 ↩︎
  17. Like any promise, the promise of the Creator’s forgiveness implies an invitation to believe what is promised (Apology of the Augsburg Confession on Romans 4:16). For an analysis of that promise as a speech act, see Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Bayer Oswald, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. ↩︎
  18. Genesis 3:1-19 ↩︎
  19. That summarizes the exposition by Martin Luther. See Luther’s Outlaw God: Volume 2: Hidden in the Cross, Steven D. Paulson, Fortress Press, 2019. ↩︎
  20. John 3:3; 6:44; Romans 8:8 ↩︎
  21. Romans 5:12-21 ↩︎
  22. Romans 1:18-23 ↩︎
  23. John 1:29; 9:41 ↩︎

Scientific evidence and first-century reports of miracles surrounding Jesus

printable version (PDF)

David R. Bickel

University of Ottawa
Ottawa Institute of Systems Biology
Department of Biochemistry, Microbiology and Immunology
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

 

July 31, 2020

How to judge first-century reports that Jesus worked miracles and rose from the dead1

“How to Help Children Understand Social Distancing.” “How to Make a Watermelon Keg.” “How to Forge a Knife.” Those are some of the methods trending at the time of writing this.2 Obviously, the method for making a watermelon keg will not result in a forged knife. It will not help children learn social distancing. That is not a criticism of the watermelon-keg method. Any method would fail when applied outside its domain. The scientific method of evaluating evidence has proven to be strikingly effective in the study of natural phenomena. Other, less structured methods of inductive reasoning are effective in making ordinary decisions. Are inductive methods also suitable for evaluating the New Testament’s accounts of miracles in the sense of supernatural actions of God?

Let’s review some of those accounts. Paul of Tarsus reported having seen Jesus alive years after his execution on a cross.3 In addition to that eyewitness testimony, he appealed to an early tradition that Peter and James saw Jesus alive a few days after his death and to the report that five hundred others did as well.4 Most of the Gospels describe the resurrection appearances in more detail; for example, the Third Gospel records his eating with his followers after his death.5 All four canonical Gospels also bear witness to many miracles that Jesus performed, mostly to heal people of various health problems but also to stop storms, to feed thousands, and even to raise the dead. For example, the Synoptic Gospels report that Jesus healed a paralyzed man by inviting him to get up and walk.6

The Gospels did not conceal the purpose of their accounts: that their audiences would believe that Jesus is the Messiah promised to save all people from bondage to their enemies,7 especially from God’s anger against violations of his will as recorded in the Ten Commandments.8 In the case of the paralyzed man, the healing is offered as proof that God forgave him precisely when Jesus assured him, “Your sins are forgiven.”9

The modern tradition: evaluating miracle reports as merely human testimony

We have reviewed the testimony of Paul and of the other Christians of the first century. But how believable can reports of supernatural events be? Charles Darwin doubted them in part because he found people of the time to be “ignorant and credulous.”10 Our scientific age’s skepticism toward supernatural events has much earlier roots in the Enlightenment’s arguments against miracles. As a pioneer of the Enlightenment, Baruch Spinoza proved the impossibility of miracles, defined as violations of scientific laws, from the premise that such laws hold with absolute necessity, not allowing any exception.11

Dropping that premise while retaining the definition of a miracle, David Hume offered a more convincing argument, not against miracles themselves but rather against believing testimony about them.12 In his thinking, testimony that a miracle occurred should only be believed if the probability that the testimony would occur given the absence of a miracle is lower than the probability that scientific law would be violated in the way claimed by the witness. He appealed to scientific induction to explain why he considered the former probability much higher than the latter, especially in the case of a reported resurrection. He reasoned that the “wise and prudent” who first heard the reports of miracles would have dismissed them, which is why we have no contemporary records refuting them.13

More recent arguments against accepting accounts of miracles rest on explaining them in terms of psychological phenomena such as false memory.14 Those arguments, like inductive arguments coming to opposite conclusions,15 attempt to apply scientific methods of weighing evidence apart from any revelation of a divine being. Such revelation would only be considered if the type of inductive reasoning used in science, perhaps based in part in testimonies of miracles, pointed in that direction. In short, words of a prophet or an ancient writing would only be considered of divine origin if that is the conclusion of an inductive argument that is not itself guided by anything supernatural.

A first-century alternative: receiving miracle reports as divine pledges

The Enlightenment worldview discussed above, though anticipated in its rejection of religious tradition by ancient Greek philosophy, was not shared by Paul and the other first-century Christian witnesses.16 They never wanted their testimony of the resurrection and other miracles to be weighed according to human wisdom, not even the most careful reasoning of the best philosophers.17

They instead believed that the words of Paul and other witnesses of the resurrection were those of the God who created the universe by commanding, “Let there be light!” From their perspective, people who are completely dead in their opposition to their Creator are resurrected to trust in his promise,18 “Your sins are forgiven because Jesus, the only begotten Son of the Creator, gave his life as a ransom for you! He proved it by raising him from the dead, and we are witnesses of the resurrection.”19 That pledge and testimony itself creates such trust,20 raising them from death in rebellion against God to eternal life in the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus is reported to have resurrected a man dead for four days by telling him to leave his tomb.21
That early Christian belief in the healing power of invitations from Jesus is also seen in the case of the forgiven paralytic:9

Afflicted Invitation
Paralyzed Get up and walk!
Sinners Believe the pledge of forgiveness! 22

Two of the Gospels reporting that also list additional cases of afflictions remedied by divine words:23

Afflicted Remedy
Blind regain sight
Paralyzed walk
Lepers are cleaned
Deaf hear
Dead are raised
Poor are told the good news

The poor in the last row are those who admit that they deserve their Creator’s sentence, “Guilty as charged.”24 That poverty is overcome by the good news that he gives them a full pardon, even promising them his eternal kingdom.25 By contrast, those who are “rich,” pleading innocent, remain unforgiven.26 Those who did believe the words of Jesus were said to have been saved by that trust, whether he saved them from the affliction of sin or from a physical affliction.27

The healing, forgiving power of the words of Jesus was thought to continue after his death and resurrection. In the eyes of the first-century witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus, their testimony of resurrection appearances was inseparable from the Creator’s giving a divine pardon to whoever would receive it.28 Their report of the risen Creator not only was his assurance that he paid the penalty for all people’s sins in full but also his command that those who hear arise from their death in sin by trusting that promise.29

To highlight the contrast between scientifically evaluating the evidence on one hand to listening to the Creator’s voice in the evidence on the other hand, let’s also consider the case of the words of Jesus as reported in the Fourth Gospel. It claims that Jesus predicted his crucifixion and resurrection.30 According to the best human reasoning as found in historical methods informed by science, there are a number of ways the claim could possibly be unreliable due to flaws in human memory.14 In fact, the unreliability of eyewitness testimony was already a concern when the Gospel was written. That is why it says Jesus promised the eyewitnesses that the Holy Spirit would ensure that they remembered what he taught them.31 Clearly, the author did not intend his audience to rely on the accuracy of human memory but instead to rely on the Holy Spirit’s working through their testimony.

Hard to believe.32 More bluntly, it is impossible to believe the good news that the forgiving Creator’s reign is now here.33 But the Jesus of the canonical Gospels always commanded the impossible. Just as Jesus told those incapable of walking to walk34 and a man incapable of moving his hand to stretch out his hand,35 he tells those incapable of believing the divine pardon to believe the divine pardon.36 At his invitation, those incapable of walking walked. At his invitation, the man who could not move his hand stretched it out. At his invitation, those incapable of believing believed the good news of the Creator’s unconditional forgiveness.

Apart from that life-creating pardon from the almighty Creator, those who are dead in sin would remain dead. They would only be able to evaluate human testimony of the resurrection by scientific methods, philosophy, and other human reasoning. Such evaluations might lead them to conclude that some claims of Christians are probable. But it would never bring them to trust in the Creator’s pardon of all their transgressions, for the sake of his innocent Son’s death as their substitute for the eternal death they deserve according to the Ten Commandments. No, inductive, scientific-sounding reasoning like that of Hume simply cannot raise the spiritually dead. As convincing as it is on its own premises, it cannot create the new life of trust in the Creator’s pledge to forgive their violations of his law. By human powers, those who cannot believe the Creator’s pardon do not believe when invited to believe, just as those who cannot walk do not walk when invited to walk.37

Does God create belief in what otherwise seems impossible?

So should the early Christians’ reports of Jesus’ predictions, the resurrection appearances, and other miracles be evaluated according to inductive methods like those found successful in science? Or should they be received as originally intended, as the Creator’s pardon pronounced on his enemies, a pardon that supernaturally creates trust in itself? Science or a trust-creating pardon from God?

The more scientific approach certainly agrees better with our human thinking. That is to be expected since scientific methods of induction are arguably the most reliable forms of human reasoning about natural causes. But if the divine-pardon position is rejected, then there is no need for Hume’s inductive argument against receiving reports of miracles. For rejecting the original intention of the miracle reports means rejecting their announcement that though all people are born as dead to their Creator, he delivered his Son Jesus as the atonement, which can only be received by a trust they are incapable of without his life-creating pardon. Rejecting the divine pardon means rejecting what the miracle reports are supposed to confirm. That not only greatly diminishes the probability that the miracles occurred but also makes their occurrence irrelevant as far as the claims of primitive Christianity are concerned.

Why reject the claim that the miracle reports carry the trust-creating divine pardon? For a lack of evidence? No, that conception of evidence reflects the Enlightenment’s insistence on scientific or other inductive reasoning as if there were no trust-creating divine pardon. That is circular reasoning: the scientific approach to evidence must be used because that is required by the evidence interpreted by the scientific approach. In other words, the best human methods of evaluating evidence must be used because that is required by the best human methods of evaluating evidence. Any almighty word of the Creator is conveniently silenced by human assumptions.

The finding that people remain incapable of believing that word by human methods does not weigh against it. The opposite is true, for that finding corroborates the first-century Christian teaching that such belief is impossible apart from a miracle of divine creation.

What if the claim in the first Christian miracle reports is in fact true? What if the Creator does speak life-giving words of forgiveness through the testimony of the first Christians? More personally, what if he, in their testimony, is announcing to you the good news that he became a man to give his life for your own violations of his commands? Is that a divine promise bringing you to trust his full pardon for your unbelief and for everything else you have done, said, and thought against what he commanded?



  1. I thank Dorothy Johnson for informative discussions. ↩︎
  2. https://www.wikihow.com/Main-Page, accessed July 6, 2020 ↩︎
  3. 1 Corinthians 15:8-11 ↩︎
  4. 1 Corinthians 15:5-7 ↩︎
  5. Luke 24:42-43 ↩︎
  6. Matthew 9:6-7; Mark 2:10-12; Luke 5:24-25 ↩︎
  7. e.g., Mark 1:1-2; Luke 1:1-4; John 20:30-31 ↩︎
  8. For salvation from bondage to God’s wrath as the theological background of the Gospels, see Romans 5. The relevance of the Ten Commandments is explained in “Good news: Incarnation conquered law,” David R. Bickel, 2016. ↩︎
  9. Matthew 9:2-8; Mark 2:1-12; Luke 5:18-26 ↩︎
  10. The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882. With the original omissions restored. Edited and with appendix and notes by his grand-daughter Nora Barlow. London: Collins, ed. Nora Barlow, 1958, p. 86. That dismissive attitude was not new; see Hume’s characterization of the ancient Jews as “barbarous” (An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, David Hume, Oxford University Press, edited by Peter Millican, 2007). ↩︎
  11. As cited on pp. 9-10 of Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, John Earman, Oxford University Press, 2000. ↩︎
  12. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, David Hume, Oxford University Press, edited by Peter Millican, 2007. The originality of Hume on that is disputed by Hume’s Abject Failure: The Argument Against Miracles, John Earman, Oxford University Press, 2000. ↩︎
  13. An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, David Hume, Oxford University Press, edited by Peter Millican, 2007. Contrast the first-century Christian joy that the Father of Jesus hid the things he taught from the “wise and prudent” and revealed them to infants (Luke 10:21). For Christian explanations of why the Creator would hide truth, see “If God exists, why doesn’t he prove it?” David R. Bickel, 2008 at absoluteparadox.com. ↩︎
  14. See especially Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, Bart D. Ehrman, HarperCollins, 2016. ↩︎
  15. e.g., The Resurrection of God Incarnate, Richard Swinburne, Oxford University Press, 2003 ↩︎
  16. See Commentary on Romans, Anders Nygren, Augsburg Fortress Publishing, 1949. ↩︎
  17. 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5, a text with loud echoes In Soren Kierkegaard (“If God exists, why doesn’t he prove it?” David R. Bickel, 2008 at absoluteparadox.com). While Acts 14:14-18 and 17:22-31 share some common ground with philosophy, they do not adopt its tidy exclusion of divine words from the reasoning process. Rather, they authoritatively announce the Creator (Acts 14:15; 17:23). ↩︎
  18. Ephesians 2:1 ↩︎
  19. Mark 2:5-11; 10:45; John 3:16; Romans 4:25; Acts 3:15; 10:39 ↩︎
  20. On the supernatural power of the Creator’s promise according to first-century Christians, see Matthew 8:5-13 and pp. 315-317 of Christian Dogmatics, volume I, Francis Pieper, Concordia Publishing House, 1968. ↩︎
  21. John 11:43 ↩︎
  22. Like any promise, the promise of the Creator’s forgiveness implies an invitation to believe what is promised (Apology of the Augsburg Confession on Romans 4:16). For an analysis of that promise as a speech act, see Martin Luther’s Theology: A Contemporary Interpretation, Bayer Oswald, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008. ↩︎
  23. Matthew 11:4-6; Luke 7:18–23. ↩︎
  24. Just as only the sick need medical treatment, only sinners need Jesus’ call to repentance (Matthew 9:12-13; Luke 5:31-32). ↩︎
  25. That Beatitude (Matthew 5:3; Luke 6:20) seemed to fulfill ancient prophecy (Luke 4:17-21; 7:18–23). “Those who are poor are pronounced blessed. They may be destitute, forced to rely on God for everything, but theirs is the kingdom of God, and one day they will rejoice in its limitless riches and spender. The image in the Psalter of the oppressed and righteous poor man who belongs to God (e.g. Ps. 34:6; 72:2) finds fulfillment in them. That is, they are blessed not because they are poor and financially needy, but despite their property and because their poverty causes them to rely on God and put their hope in Jesus” (The Gospel of Luke: Good News for the Poor, Lawrence Farley, Ancient Faith Publishing, 2010, p. 137, emphasis original). ↩︎
  26. Luke 6:24; 18:9-14 ↩︎
  27. Luke 7:50; 8:48; 17:19; 18:42. All four passages have exactly the same five-word Greek phrase literally translated word-for-word as “The faith your saved you.” It means, “Your trust has saved you!” The word for “saved” may also be translated “healed,” whether the healing is spiritual (7:50) or physical (8:48; 17:19; 18:42). ↩︎
  28. Notice the blurring of testimony about observable events with testimony about messianic and apocalyptic implications of those events in these texts: ↩︎
    • Acts 10:39-42; 18:5; 28:23
    • John 1:33-34
    • 1 John 1:2-3; 4:12-14; 5:11.
  29. John 5:24-27 ↩︎
  30. John 10:18; 12:32-33 ↩︎
  31. John 14:26 ↩︎
  32. Matthew 19:23 ↩︎
  33. Matthew 19:24-26 ↩︎
  34. e.g., Mark 2:5-11 ↩︎
  35. Mark 3:1-5 ↩︎
  36. Mark 1:15. For an exposition of the good news of the presence of God’s apocalyptic reign according to the first-century Christians, see “What does it mean to seek the kingdom of God?
    Matthew 6:33 and Luke 12:31 in the Contexts of the Sermon on the Mount and the Lucan Parables,” David R. Bickel, 2007
    . For more on the first-century claims of the supernatural power of God’s word to heal and forgive, see “Ways the Son of Man calls forth life: Seeking the kingdom of God in word and sacrament,” David R. Bickel, 2005. ↩︎
  37. John 3:3; 6:44; Romans 8:8 ↩︎

A husband’s translation of Proverbs 31 LXX

An Excellent wife, who can find?

Her Value surpasses rare emeralds.

Entrusted with everything by the heart of her husband, one like her will not lack beautiful plunder.

Throughout her Life, her work helps her husband.

Yarn and wool became useful in her hands.

The Needs of life she brings in like a ship bearing spices from overseas.

Without fail day or night, she gave food to her household and employment to her workers.

Recognizing a property’s worth, she bought it, and from the fruit of her hands she planted a garden.

Energized by her strength, her arms were prepared for work.

The Night does not put out her flame, and she tasted the excellence of her labors.

Deeds of prosperity flow from her arms, support from her hands at the spindle.

To Anyone in need her hands are open, and she holds out fruit for the poor.

Her Entire household she clothes, and her husband travels without worry.

His Apparel she fashioned from linen and purple dye.

Thought well of is he when deliberating in the chambers with the parish elders.

Original linen aprons she made and sold to her neighbors.

Noble and reverent are her words, spoken with discretion.

Buoyant in the last days, she is clothed with strength and dignity.

Impeccable is the management of her household, for she does not partake of idleness.

The Commandments and wisdom come from her mouth, and her compassion lifted up her children and made them rich; her husband praised her.

Many Kimmers have earned wealth, and many daughters have worked with skill, but none can hold a candle to you.

Empty is beauty, and deceitful is attraction, for it is the lady of sense who will be commended; the fear of the Lord may she praise.

Leave her the fruit of her hands; may her husband be praised in the chambers.

 

Translated from Septuaginta: Revised Edition (compiled by Alfred Rahlfs and Robert Hanhart, Stuttgart, 2006), Prouerbia 31:10-31, by David R. Bickel

A controversial message from the first Reformation Day

On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther publicly posted 95 thought-provoking messages. They were updated for the Heidelberg Disputation held the next year.

This part is not controversial: “The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” A man marries a woman he finds attractive. Their children flock to their peers with the coolest phones. The irony is that this human love, this ugly selfishness, is not lovable. If even our love cannot please God, then how can he possibly love us?

Answer: “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” He sent his only begotten Son, the completely selfless Jesus of Nazareth, to pay for the selfishness of the entire world. My selfishness. Your selfishness. Because of God‘s unconditional love, he forgives the selfishness of everyone who believes this good news. By making the legal record of their selfishness null and void, he creates attractiveness in them that they did not have in themselves.

The message continues, “… sinners are attractive because they are loved; they are not loved because they are attractive…” That is the Lutheran Reformation. Happy Reformation Day!

Appreciation for the pastors of St. Paul Lutheran Church (UAC), Ottawa, Ontario

Thank you, Pastor Luke Thompson, for heralding the good news in the midst of contemporary thought and culture. Thank you, Pastor Harland Goetzinger, for bringing old and new treasures out of your storeroom.

May the Lord continue to prosper your work in his word at St. Paul Lutheran Church (UAC), Ottawa, Ontario. His word will accomplish its purpose, eternal life.

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Scripture readings and obituary in memory of Samuel H. Bickel

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In the funeral service of Samuel Bickel, Rev. Jeremy Belter, pastor of Atonement Lutheran Church, read these passages from the Gospel according to St. John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. . . . 

He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. . . . 

The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! . . .

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. . . .

The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spiritwithout limit. The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them. . . . 

“Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. . . . 

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. . . . 

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. 

Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.” . . . 

Therefore Jesus told them, “My time is not yet here; for you any time will do. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. . . . 

To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” . . . 

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John 1:1-4, 10-13, 29; 3:16-21, 31-36; 5:17-18, 24-25, 39-40; 6:66-69; 7:6-7; 8:31-32; 20:24-31 (New International Version, 2011)

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At the beginning of the service, Rev. Belter had read Sam Bickel’s obituary:  Continue reading

The sickness behind denominational divisions and its tough cure: 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation

Critics regard the Reformation as a failure, pointing to the many denominations that sprung up in the 500 years since Martin Luther called for reform in 1517. The confessional Lutheran church is not in Christian fellowship with the vast majority of nominal Lutherans. The Reformed church splintered into innumerable Presbyterian, Baptist, and nondenominational sects. What went wrong?

The problem is not new. By 1530 Lutherans found it necessary to officially distance themselves from the Reformed and Anabaptist teachings they were accused of. Did you know Dr. Martin Luther had already not only diagnosed the disease but also prescribed its cure?

Here is the reason for the church’s fragmentation at the time of the Reformation. Recently some have considered it the result of a necessary “historical development” that there is a Reformed church with its army of sects in addition to the Lutheran church. . . . So common is this view of the formation of the Reformed church, so absurd and foolish it is. The reason for a Reformed church in addition to the Lutheran church comes simply from this: the former makes reason into the principle of theology in a number of doctrines, and thus actually ignores the fear of God’s Word, in spite of their assurance that they deeply revere it. Luther proved this origin of the Reformed sects again and again and showed their leaders how they were “thoughtless despisers of Scripture.” To be sure, the enthusiasts maintained that they had God’s honor in mind when they did not take hold of the words in the Lord’s Supper as they actually are. For if someone accepted that Christ’s body and blood actually and essentially were in the Lord’s Supper, then he would have to believe contradictory things, namely, that Christ’s body and blood are in heaven and earth at the same time, and indeed in many places on earth at the same time. But Luther was not deceived by this. Rather, he showed the enthusiasts again directly from this contradiction that they were lacking the fear of God’s Word, in that they wanted to determine according to the thoughts of their reason, instead of according to God’s Word, what a contradiction in divine matters was. Therefore, when they also discussed at Marburg how they could end the conflict between the Lutherans and the Zwinglians, Luther said, “I know no other way, than that they (Zwingli and his associates) give God’s Word the honor and believe with us.” (Francis Pieper, excerpt from “The Fear of God’s Word,” trans. Andrew Hussman, Studium Excitare: The Journal of Confessional Language Studies at MLC)

What? “Give God’s word the honor and believe with” confessional Lutherans? That would even include believing the words “This is my body” exactly as Jesus spoke them! That’s saying the source of the disagreement is human unbelief, not the fact that Scripture is hard to understand. No, standing on Scripture alone is too simplistic.

Yes, we need Scripture, but we also need a healthy dose of common sense. If you think about it, it’s okay to have lots of denominations because their petty little differences about abstract things like grace and faith really don’t really matter anyway. That’s why open communion was invented.

But common sense isn’t quite enough, either. We also need the writings of respected Christian leaders to shed light on the darkness of the Scriptures. From John Calvin on, Protestant scholars have learned a lot since Luther’s time. Granted, each sect has its own revered leaders, but that’s not the point. Let’s learn what we can from the best of them and not sweat the details.

The point is this. Luther’s simple faith in Scripture alone was a good place to start in 1517. It’s not a good place to stand in 2017.

Or is it? Could it be that our own wisdom and traditions have blinded us to the light of God’s word? If so, let’s indeed “give God’s word the honor” and pray with the Psalmist, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. . . . The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Psalm 119:105,130).

On this 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, let’s turn from the unbelief of Zechariah. Along with the most highly favored maiden, may we simply believe the word that the Lord has spoken.

Reformation devotions, December 1517+500 (homologoumena, part 8 of 8)

Morning prayer

In the morning, when you rise, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray Thee to keep me this day also from sin and all evil, that all my doings and life may please Thee. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.

As time allows, read a passage from the schedule found below or a reading from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Then go to your work with joy, singing a hymn, as the Ten Commandments, or what your devotion may suggest.

Evening prayer

In the evening, when you go to bed, you shall bless yourself with the holy cross and say:

In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

Then, kneeling or standing, repeat the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. If you choose, you may, in addition, say this little prayer:

I thank Thee, my Heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, Thy dear Son, that Thou hast graciously kept me this day, and I pray Thee to forgive me all my sins, where I have done wrong, and graciously keep me this night. For into Thy hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let Thy holy angel be with me, that the Wicked Foe may have no power over me. Amen.

Next, consider reading a passage from the schedule or a passage from the Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

Then go to sleep promptly and cheerfully.

Schedule of readings in December

December

1

Acts 1:1-11 1:12-26

December

2

Acts 2:1-13 2:14-47

December

3

Acts 3:1-10 3:11-26

December

4

Acts 4:1-12 4:13-37

December

5

Acts 5:1-16 5:17-42

December

6

Acts 6:1-15 7:1-53

December

7

Acts 7:54-60 8:1-24

December

8

Acts 8:25-40 9:1-19

December

9

Acts 9:20-42 10:1-23

December

10

Acts 10:24-48 11:1-18

December

11

Acts 11:19-29 12:1-19

December

12

Acts 12:20-25 13:1-43

December

13

Acts 13:44-52 14:1-28

December

14

Acts 15:1-12 15:13-35

December

15

Acts 16:1-13 16:14-40

December

16

Acts 17:1-15 17:16-34

December

17

Acts 18:1-17 18:18-28

December

18

Acts 19:1-10 19:11-41

December

19

Acts 20:1-16 20:17-38

December

20

Acts 21:1-14 21:15-40

December

21

Acts 22:1-21 22:22-30

December

22

Acts 23:1-11 23:12-35

December

23

Acts 24:1-9 24:10-27

December

24

Acts 25:1-12 25:13-27

December

25

Acts 26:1-23 26:24-32

December

26

Acts 27:1-13 27:14-44

December

27

Acts 28:1-10 28:11-31

December

28

Psalm 103 4

December

29

Psalm 130 8

December

30

Psalm 4 91

December

31

Psalm 7 104

About these devotions

1517-2017 grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone

God’s law condemns—but his good news promises forgiveness and joy!

I feel the most vital and necessary teaching we Confessional Lutherans are “still standing” by is the proper distinction between the law and the gospel. Before I became Lutheran, I attended and was involved in many Christian churches that were good at preaching the ways I didn’t fulfill God’s word but never clearly preached that Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s law so I didn’t have to do anything else to be saved. Their teachings mixed the law and gospel by conveying if I just did my part, God would do his and my life would be prosperous, fulfilling, and happy. I did believe Jesus died to save me, yet the sermons that promised an “easy yoke” and an enjoyable, “Spirit-filled life” left me insecure, burdened, unhappy, and unsatisfied. I wanted to do good, but I couldn’t do enough to prove to God how thankful I was. I could not understand others saying that reading the Bible made them “feel better” or “comforted.” I kept trying the next book, experience, or deed, but got bitter results: being ashamed of my life, feeling both sad and inadequate by my “good” actions.

At the end of my rope, I read Lutheran articles that clearly separated the law from the gospel. In those articles, salvation was sure, based on Jesus’ works, not man’s. I finally understood the comfort Scripture offered! Now, my trust in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is where my treasure lies, my satisfaction will never disappoint, and my heart finds contentment. I confess with Paul, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes . . . For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (Romans 1:16-17).

This post by Evelyn Bickel commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation (31 October 2017).