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December 22, 2013

Last week I began a new series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we will take a look at each of the seven councils. For each one we will consider the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance. We continue today with the First Council of Constantinople.

Setting & Purpose

The First Council of Constantinople was held in Constantinople, modern day Istanbul, Turkey. It was convened by Theodosius I who at that time was Emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. The council met from May to July, 381.

The council was convened to try to unite a church that remained divided over the issue of Christ’s nature and his relationship with the Father. Though the First Council of Nicaea had already attempted to reach consensus, Arianism and other heterodox understandings remained a battleground in every region of the empire.

Major Characters

There were 150 Eastern bishops present at the council and among them were a handful of notable characters.

Meletius, bishop of Antioch served as the first president of the council, but died shortly after it began.

Gregory of Nazianzus was elected bishop of Constantinople at the start of the council and, after the death of Meletius, took over as president. However, shortly thereafter, the legality of his election was challenged based on a canon from the Council of Nicaea that bishops cannot be transferred from see to see (Gregory had previously been bishop in Sasima). This dispute prompted Gregory to resign from the bishopric and presidency.

Nectarius was a civil official who was quickly baptized so he could take over as bishop of Constantinople and president of the council when Gregory stepped down.

December 19, 2013

Well isn’t this the most self-serving thing you’ll read all day? But I’d like you to hear me out. It was just over two years ago that Zondervan published my book The Next Story: Life and Faith After the Digital Explosion. This was a book that came out of my own explorations on the nature and purpose of technology—not only digital technology, but all human technology.

I think you should read it, if you haven’t already. Or you should at least consider it.

It is not only a book for techies, for technophiles, for people who watched Star Trek and who live and breathe computer languages. It is not only a book for people who always need to buy the next great thing. It is a book for all of us since. If you are reading these words, the book necessarily applies to you.

Just a few days ago I took the book down from my shelf for the first time in a while and ran through it. It was interesting to see how much it speaks to today’s challenges and even to today’s current events. Obviously I would not have written the book if hadn’t believed that it was important. Still, it was still comforting to see that it really has made a significant difference in my life and that in many ways I really am thinking differently and living differently because of what I discovered along the way.

Let me give you five reasons I think you should consider reading The Next Story.

Read it to learn why you are surrounded by technology. Our functional understanding of technology is “anything that was invented after I was born.” But in reality, everything around us is technology, something that has been invented to make our lives better or easier or more comfortable or more productive. This is as true of the book and the television and the automobile as it is of the iPhone or the web browser. Because you are surrounded at all times by technology, it would be wise for you to understand what technology is and how it functions in this world.

Read it to learn what God thinks about technology. We tend to understand technology as something that exists in the realm of science or science fiction, but there is a deeply theological component to technology. Our ability to create flows out of the fact that we are created in the image of a creative God; our desire to create flows out of our mandate to subdue this world and exercise dominion over it; our motive to create flows out of our purpose in this world, to glorify and enjoy God. We must learn to think Christianly about our technology.

Read it to learn about the connection between technology and idolatry. Perhaps the most important insight I learned when preparing the book was the deep connection between technology and idolatry. Because our technologies always promise more productivity, more comfort, more wealth, more good things—because they always promise to deliver more of what we like the best—we are never far from idolatry when we embrace technology. This has implications all over life and will transform the way you think about the next great device or idea.

December 18, 2013

I had an idea! What if I rebrand this site Reformed People and make it the gossip rag, the tabloid, of the Reformed world? This much is true: I would never run out of people to discuss and evaluate. Just last week I received emails or phone calls concerning at least five open and active people issues, celebrity issues, that I could write about. And those are only the ones I can remember a week later. I won’t rebrand, of course, but the point is, there could be a site dedicated only to gossip and people news that concerns our little corner of the Christian world. Worst of all, I think people might actually read it.

But hold on. Maybe it’s not quite so simple. The Bible offers strict warnings against meddling and gossiping. It warns against sticking our noses into issues that do not concern us. But at the same time it assigns to each of us the responsibility to guard others, to warn them about those who might harm them or lead them astray. There are times where I can or must speak out. There is apparent friction here, tension between the two extremes of broadcasting an opinion on every matter and an unwillingness to speak out on any issue at all. When are we to stay out and when are we to wade in? When am I to stay out and when am I to wade in, with the platform I’ve been given?

5 Desires

As I have considered when I can or should speak, I have gone searching for help and have discovered five godly desires I should have when it comes to speaking about other people (see Denny Burk for more).

Desire Peace. Romans 12:18 exhorts us to be at peace with all men. Whenever possible, we are to avoid controversy and quarrelling in favour of peace. I need to examine myself to see if I am using an issue for noble or ignoble motives and whether I do have that good desire to be at peace.

Desire to Protect. I owe it to my brothers and sisters to protect them from error or other kinds of danger, and to warn them when they may not see it.

Desire Repentance. My ultimate purpose in writing about controversial matters should not be exposure, but the repentance of the person who is in error. Even Paul told Timothy to command false teachers not to teach strange doctrines, he told Timothy that the goal in all this was to produce in the false teachers “love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5). The purpose is not to win a battle, but to compel change.

Desire to Use Controversy Carefully. Controversy generates visitors and, on the Internet, visitors are currency. I need to be certain I am not using another person’s misfortune to elevate myself. I ought to be known for whom and what I am for, not whom and what I am against.

Desire to Quiet the Unrepentant. Even while I address an issue, I want to quiet the unrepentant person rather than to elevate his platform. I should attempt to write in such a way that his profile is diminished rather than extended.

Let me pause for one moment here. One of the shaping experiences in my early days as a blogger was when the publicist for a very well-known, non-Christian author got in touch with me to ask if I would review this man’s latest book. When I pushed and asked why, it became clear that negative reviews from Christians would prove helpful in generating sales. Lesson learned: No press is bad press. One thing I have observed recently is that we can put people with a platform in the difficult position of being told that if they do not speak to an issue, it is proof that they are complicit in it. However, it may be that they are every bit as outraged as we are, but they believe their voice will make the problem worse, not better. They may well be right. (See also Bell, Hell and What We Did Well; and no, Bell was not the author in question.)

December 15, 2013

Today I am beginning a new series of articles on the seven ecumenical councils of the early church. These councils commenced with the First Council of Nicaea in 325 and concluded with the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. Between these two events were five more, each of which attempted to understand and establish a unified Christian theology.

In this series we will take a look at each of the seven councils. For each one we will consider the setting and purpose, the major characters, the nature of the conflict, and then the results and lasting significance.

We begin today with the First Council of Nicaea.

Setting & Purpose

The First Council of Nicaea was convened in 325 by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Constantine had hoped to unite his empire under the banner of Christianity, but now saw such unity threatened by a grave theological dispute. Hosius of Cordoba recommended a council as the means to address the brewing controversy and Constantine responded by calling church leaders to Nicaea in Bithynia (modern-day Iznik, Turkey). Somewhere between 250 and 318 bishops from across the Roman empire attended, and the council began its formal deliberations on May 20.

The major issue the council was charged with addressing was the nature of Christ‘s divinity, and in particular, the relationship between the Father and the Son. As a secondary matter the council was to debate the celebration of Easter.

Major Characters

The two most important figures at the council were Athanasius, a young deacon who came as a companion to Bishop Alexander of Alexandria, and Arius, a controversial presbyter and priest from Alexandria. Constantine was present as an overseer, but did not vote.

The Conflict

The conflict at the heart of the First Council of Nicaea involved the nature of God the Son in relation to God the Father. On one side of the conflict were those who held that Jesus Christ was created by the Father and on the other side were those who held that Jesus Christ was begotten by the Father.

December 13, 2013

Evernote owns me. Evernote knows things about me that I myself have long since forgotten. Evernote is my external brain, my electronic memory. It is one of the best parts of living in a digital age and has quickly become one of my most indispensable electronic tools.

What is Evernote? It is an application designed to record, archive and retrieve information. Designed to use a familiar paradigm—notes stored within notebooks—it is meant to help you remember and act upon ideas, projects and experiences across all the computers, phones and tablets you use. It’s brilliant, and it’s getting better all the time.

Let me explain how and why I use Evernote.

I Take It Everywhere

Evernote goes with me everywhere I go because I never know when I will want to record or retrieve information. I have installed it on pretty much every device I use. It is on my computer at home, it is on my computer at the church office, it is on my cell phone, and it is on my iPad. Where I go, Evernote goes with me and it is never more than a couple of button presses away. It is there when I need to access important documents, and it is there when I have one of those ideas that needs to be recorded right now before I forget all about it.

I Tell It Everything

I regularly feed all kinds of information into Evernote. It took me a while to learn this: The more I enter into it, the more powerful it becomes. When I used it sparingly, I found it less useful than when I committed to it. Here are some of the ways I feed it information:

  • Every time I lead a meeting, I create a note to record agendas, minutes, and observations. (Tip: if you use printed agendas, write all over it and then snap a scan of it on your phone using Evernote’s document scanner feature.)
  • Every time I think of something I need to buy the next time I am out shopping, I add it to a shopping list.
  • When I receive an emailed invoice or receipt, I forward it to Evernote using my Evernote email address. (Tip: add @receipts to the subject line of the email to automatically forward it to a “receipts” notebook.)
  • When doing an interview or when having an important discussion, I hit the “record” button and record the discussion.
  • When I have an idea for a future blog post or even a future book project, I add it to Evernote.
  • Every time I prepare a sermon, conference talk, or devotional, I add it to my “Speaking & Sermons” notebook. This gives me full access to all my sermons and speeches all the time (something that has come in handy more than once!).
  • I use the Chrome extension to clip articles and PDF documents I may want to refer to in the future. (Tip: Evernote Premium will allow you to search within PDF documents, something that will definitely come in hand.)

And that is just a start. If it is information I may want to access in the future, it goes in.

December 11, 2013

Once there was a boy so meek and modest, he was awarded a Most Humble badge. The next day, it was taken away because he wore it. Here endeth the lesson.” And here endeth the opening quote from TIME’s story to announce Pope Francis as the Person of the Year for 2013. Nancy Gibbs continues:

How do you practice humility from the most exalted throne on earth? Rarely has a new player on the world stage captured so much attention so quickly—young and old, faithful and cynical—as has Pope Francis. In his nine months in office, he has placed himself at the very center of the central conversations of our time: about wealth and poverty, fairness and justice, transparency, modernity, globalization, the role of women, the nature of marriage, the temptations of power.

For all of these reasons and more, he is a natural and obvious choice for this distinction.

The world reacted with shock when, on March 13, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was chosen as the 266th pope. However, through the opening months of his reign, he is proving to be exactly what the Roman Catholic Church needed, even if he wasn’t initially what many Catholics wanted. The church has been hit hard by scandal and by the perception that Catholicism is an ancient and obsolete faith with little ability to speak to modern controversies: homosexuality, female clergy, abortion, contraception, and the like. Francis has breathed life into the church and aroused the adoration of the people he leads.

Francis follows the forgettable Benedict XVI who was more of a scholar than a pope of or for the people. Of course Benedict had the difficult task of following the much-loved John Paul II, a man who casts a long shadow.

Francis has been handed the impossible and unenviable task of representing Catholics on every end of the spectrum, from those who want the church to return to its oldest beliefs and oldest forms of worship, to those who want to liberalize the church and to embrace the spirit of the age in every part. A second article from TIME explains the impossibility of his task despite early success and adulation. He brings hope, but irreconcilable hope, to the “elderly traditionalist who pines for the old Latin Mass and the devout young woman who wishes she could be a priest.” If he succeeds with one, he will necessarily fail with the other. Not surprisingly, he is guarded with his words.

He is quoted saying of women who consider abortion because of poverty or rape, “Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations?” Of gay people: “If a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.” To divorced and remarried Catholics who are, by rule, forbidden from taking Communion, he says that this crucial rite “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Yet even while he has avoided speaking bluntly to many of the most pressing issues, he has been masterful in his actions. “He is photographed washing the feet of female convicts, posing for selfies with young visitors to the Vatican, embracing a man with a deformed face.” He makes full use of new media and does so with skill.

The fact is, Pope Francis has taken the Roman Catholic Church by storm and the whole world is watching. Just yesterday Facebook announced that he was the most talked about topic on Facebook worldwide this year. He is Christendom’s newest and biggest celebrity. His reach, his power, his popularity are unparalleled.

December 10, 2013

We have a love-hate relationship with celebrity culture. We who consider ourselves part of this New Calvinism hate the idea of celebrity, but have no clear idea how to avoid the reality. We say we hate a celebrity culture, yet stories about our celebrities dominate blogs and periodicals; a sure way to draw in massive amounts of traffic is to write about each new scandal connected to each of our celebrities. We see the dangers posed by a culture of celebrity, but also see that to some degree it is unavoidable. After all, there are men and women we honour and respect and look up to, who are worthy of our regard and worthy of the leadership we give them.

We expend all kinds of effort in celebrating these people we love, and commending them to others, and spreading their fame. We serve as evangelists for their books and their churches and their conferences. We build them up in our own minds and in the wider church culture. We do this naturally and almost without thinking about it. “You’ve just got to read Don’t Waste Your Life!” “Have you seen Paul Washer’s Shocking Youth Sermon?” “Don’t you read that blog? Don’t you follow that Twitter account?”

We can’t stop this celebrity culture. Not all the way. Carl Trueman has become a celebrity in his own right at least in part because of all he has written to oppose celebrityism. Ironically, his anti-celebrity earned him a place on the front stage at one of the biggest conferences going. And this is what happens to the men and women we raise up—they are given bigger platforms and a louder voice. This is the way we want it. We usually don’t regard celebrityism as a problem so long as our celebrities are the ones on top. It’s the other person’s celebrity we have problems with. If we need to have celebrities, I’m glad that Trueman is one of mine.

This is the front side of celebrity culture—elevating people to high positions. We all see this and all know it. But there is another side as well. There is a flip side and it is even uglier. It is the destruction of those people we once honoured. Sometimes I wonder what we love more, raising up our celebrities or tearing them back down.

Let me pause for one moment to assure you that I began writing this article long before the most recent scandal, and even the one before that (which takes us back all of about ten days, I suppose). But if you think I am taking the passive-aggressive approach to writing about that guy or those guys or that situation, you’re wrong.

Back to where I left off. We love the rise and we love the fall. Both make for fantastic entertainment. I wonder sometimes if the reason we end up tearing down our celebrities is that we have elevated them to such a degree in the first place. Once we have done that, once we have put them on the biggest platforms and once we have given them publishing deals with the wealthiest publishers, there is really only one way for them to go, and it’s not up.

December 08, 2013

Cecil Burke Day was the Christian philanthropist who founded the Days Inn Hotel chain. He was born in Georgia in 1934 and would die of cancer 44 years later in that same state. After dropping out of Mercer University, Day joined the United States Marine Corps and then studied Industrial Management at Georgia Institute of Technology.

As a student at Georgia Tech, Day married Deen Day Sanders, and together they had five children. Over the years, Day became a successful entrepreneur and it was in 1970 that he established the Days Inn chain. It was with the money he earned from that corporation that he became a philanthropist.

His Conversion

Day was a Southern Baptist with a strong belief in biblical values. Because of this, he treated everyone with grace and honor, no matter the person’s social or economic status. After her husband’s death, Deen said,

My late husband was a smart, successful businessman. But more importantly, he was an honest, ethical man. A lifetime of strong Christian faith influenced the way he treated everyone, both inside and outside of the business arena. I think it’s important for students to understand that you don’t have to make a choice between success and ethics. That is Cecil’s legacy to us.

Numerous times, Day himself said, “As I totally depend on Jesus Christ, I continue to grow and feel the assurance of His presence in my life, minute by minute, daily walking with Him, growing in confidence to meet any and all of life’s challenges.” Such people know that laboring in the Lord is never in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

His Contributions

Day owned real estate in Atlanta and opened his first Days Inn hotel in 1970 after he sold a duplex for $4 million. Throughout the 70’s, Days Inn encouraged all of their guests to take home a free paperback Bible. Day coined the phrase “budget-luxury” and his hotel chain spread with great success. One of his mottos was, “Find a need, then fill it.” Having realized that Americans had a need for affordable lodging, he sought to fill it. His motels were clean, comfortable, and moderately priced. By filling this need he became very wealthy.

By the time of his death, he had given fully half of his multimillion dollar fortune to churches and other Christian groups such as New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Much of Day’s influence came through others who carried on his work. After his death, his wife, Deen, continued his legacy of philanthropy through the Cecil B. Day Foundation and other charities. She took philanthropy seriously, as she once said, “It means being a steward of what you’ve been given. Nowhere in your walk of life have you earned what you have by yourself. There’s always a team of people helping you.” Likewise, numerous institutions have been named in his honor, including the Cecil B. Day Graduate and Professional Campus of Mercer University, the Cecil B. Day School of Hospitality Administration at Georgia State University, the Cecil B. Day Butterfly Center, and the Day Chapel at Atlanta’s Perimeter Church.

December 04, 2013

You may have heard of the recent controversy that unfolded in the aftermath of a conference associated with the National Center for Family-Integrated Churches. Among the sessions at that conference was a panel discussion and in that discussion the speakers were asked for their views on Christian rap. The answers were not good and many people have subsequently responded with calls for clarity and repentance.

I do not know any of those speakers by face or by name, except for one. Many people referred to him as “Speaker #4,” but I know him as Joel Beeke and consider him a friend. We have written a series of blog posts together, we have shared a conference platform, we have met together and talked together and prayed together. I admire him as a man who has done as much as anyone to popularize the Puritans and to make them accessible, as a man who founded Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and Reformation Heritage Books. He has had a profound, indelible impact on my life and faith.

When I watched the video of that panel discussion and heard his comments, I was surprised. I was saddened, because it didn’t sound like the man I so admire. I got in touch with Dr. Beeke to talk, to find out what had happened, and to express some of my concerns.

He had read some of the critiques of his comments and those of the other panelists and was already preparing an apology. I asked if I could share it on my site and he was willing to have me do so. Here is Dr. Beeke’s apology:

Recently I was asked to participate in a panel discussion at a Reformed Worship conference. In that discussion the panelists were asked to address the subject of Christian rap music (which I took to mean rap music primarily in the context of a local church worship service). To my regret, I spoke unadvisedly on an area of music that I know little about. It would have been far wiser for me to say nothing than to speak unwisely. Please forgive me. I also wish to publicly disassociate myself from comments that judged the musicians’ character and motives.

—Joel Beeke

Having spoken to Dr. Beeke, I know his remorse for the words he spoke and the hurt they caused. I would encourage you to accept his apology in the spirit it was offered.

December 01, 2013

William WilberforceWilliam Wilberforce (1759–1833) was the English politician and Christian philanthropist who led the abolition of the British slave trade. Wilberforce was Born in Yorkshire, England, but his father died when William was just 8 years old, so he went to live with his aunt and uncle, Hannah and William. (It may be of interest to the readers of this blog that Wilberforce’s aunt Hannah was the sister of Christian philanthropist John Thornton). Because of the wealth of his parents, he was able to live comfortably even with minimal work.

When he was 21, Wilberforce won the seat in the House of Commons in his hometown, Hull, because of the money he was able to invest and because of his great oratorical skills. This vocational move began 50 years in English politics for Wilberforce. In 1784, he was elected to a much more influential seat in Yorkshire. It wasn’t until he turned 37 that he met and—2 weeks later!—married his wife, Barbara Ann Spooner. In the first eight years of their marriage, they had four sons and two daughters. Wilberforce was devoted to the cause of abolishing the African Slave Trade for the rest of his life.

His Conversion

The aunt and uncle Wilberforce lived with were evangelical Christians. But concerned that her son was “turning Methodist,” his mother sent him to a boarding school. When there he lost interest in Christianity and cared more about being accepted by the social elite. But when he was 25, Wilberforce connected with Isaac Milner, a friend he met in grammar school who had since trusted in Christ. After talking with Milner at length about his hostilities and objections against Christianity, Wilberforce professed faith in Christ.

His conversion was not merely a private matter. Rather, his new faith led him to change his own lifestyle and to care for those in need. One of Wilberforce’s biographers, John Pollock, wrote, “He lacked time for half the good works in his mind.” But he believed that such good works could come from a new heart that only God can give. Thus, he was both doctrinal and pragmatic. He loved the truths of justification by faith alone, the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, and the substitutionary work of Jesus. But he also loved pursuing justice for the poor, needy, and enslaved.

His Contributions

While Wilberforce is obviously most remembered for his arduous work against the British slave trade, he also made numerous other vocational and financial contributions to the work of Christ’s kingdom. He volunteered for dozens of societies. For example, he worked for the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Sunday School Society, the Society for Bettering the Condition of the Poor, and he even helped send missionaries to India and Africa. In fact, Wilberforce made major contributions to at least seventy such societies. He also used his wealth to help relieve the suffering of the manufacturing poor, French refugees and other foreigners in distress. Beside all that, he was also active in numerous reform movements including hospital care, fever institutions, asylums, infirmaries, refugees, and penitentiaries.

Finally, Wilberforce wrote a book called, A Practical View of Christianity, which had five printings in six months and was translated into five foreign languages. In it, he articulated the doctrines particular to Christianity which give rise to godly affections (or emotions). He also supported other religious publications and education, especially the schools of Hannah More, a close friend and leading reformer of British education. After ending the slave trade, Wilberforce spent the next 25 years seeking to end the institution of slavery itself. Providentially, three days before he died, Wilberforce heard that the House of Commons had passed a law emancipating all slaves in the British Empire.