biblical authority

Searching for some facts about St. Matthew and those mysterious Epiphany magi

Searching for some facts about St. Matthew and those mysterious Epiphany magi

Several centuries after the birth of Jesus, Syrian scribes offered these names for the wise men who came to Bethlehem -- King Hormizdah of Persia, King Yazdegerd of Saba and King Perozadh of Shelba.

A late 5th century Alexandria chronicle called them Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa, which evolved into the familiar Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian commissioned a Ravenna mosaic in what is now called the Basilica of St. Apollinaris, showing three magi wearing what appears to be Persian clothing, and carrying gifts.

Over the centuries, these images shaped countless Nativity scenes, church pageants and carols, noted Father Dwight Longenecker, author of a new book, "Mystery of the Magi." He is an Oxford University graduate and former Anglican priest who, after converting to Roman Catholicism with his wife and children, now leads Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, S.C.

This weekend, worshipers celebrating the Epiphany feast -- which closes the 12-day Christmas season -- will hear what the Gospel of St. Matthew says about all this. Comparing the simple biblical account with many colorful "Three Kings" stories, Longenecker explained, is rather like comparing the humble, pious, 3rd century St. Nicholas of Myra with the Santa Claus found in Hollywood flicks.

"I don't think we need to give up Nativity plays and singing 'We Three Kings of Orient Are.' But I do think we need to realize that these are elaborations on the historical story from Matthew's Gospel. They're delightful, but they are related to the facts of Jesus' birth in the same way the Broadway musical Camelot is related to scholars writing about the historical King Arthur," he said.

"Our culture has … stuck the magi in the same sentimental, magical Christmas bundle with Santa and a bunch of flying reindeer.

Define ‘evangelical’ — 2013 edition

List America’s prominent evangelical Protestant voices and the Rev. Rick Warren remains near the top, up in the mix with the Rev. Brian McLaren, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Jim Wallis, the Rev. Tim Keller and others.

Many evangelicals, of course, like to argue about who belongs on that list. In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that the experts are finding it harder to decide who is and who is not an “evangelical” in the first place.

“I know what the word ‘evangelical’ is supposed to mean,” said Warren, 58, leader of the 20,000-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., with its many branch congregations and ministries. “I mean, I know what the word ‘evangelical’ used to mean.”

The problem, he said, is that many Americans no longer link “evangelical” with a set of traditional doctrines, such as evangelistic efforts to reach the lost, the defense of biblical authority, projects to help the needy and the conviction that salvation is found through faith in Jesus Christ, alone.

Somewhere during the George W. Bush years the word “evangelical” — a term used in church history — got “co-opted into being a political term,” said Warren, in a recent telephone interview.

Arguments about this vague word are not new. During a 1987 interview with the Rev. Billy Graham, I asked him point blank, “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?”

The world’s best-known evangelist responded, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too. … You go all the way from the extreme fundamentalists to the extreme liberals and, somewhere in between, there are the evangelicals.” Ultimately, Graham said an “evangelical” is someone who preaches salvation through faith in Jesus and believes all the doctrines in the Nicene Creed — especially in the resurrection.

Warren said he would certainly agree with Graham’s bottom line, which is that “evangelical” must be defined in terms of doctrine. The problem is that this isn’t how the term is being used in the public square — especially in the news media.

During the administration of President George W. Bush, he said, most journalists “seemed to think seemed to think that ‘evangelical’ meant that you backed the Iraq war, for some reason or another. … Right now, I don’t think there is any question that way too many people have decided that evangelicals are people who oppose gay rights — period. That’s all the word means.”

Warren based this judgment on his experiences during 22 interviews with major newspapers, magazines and television networks — a pre-Christmas blitz marking the release of an expanded, 10th anniversary edition of his book “The Purpose Driven Life: What On Earth Am I Here For?” The book has sold more than 32 million copies around the world, with translations in 50 languages.

By the end of that media storm, Warren said members of his team were starting to cast bets on whether the perfunctory gay-marriage question would be the first, or the second, question in each interview. On CNN, interviewer Piers Morgan noted that the U.S. Constitution and the Bible are “well-intentioned” but “inherently flawed.”

Morgan continued: “My point to you about gay rights for example — it’s time for an amendment to the Bible.”

Warren, of course, disagreed: “I do not believe the Bible is flawed, and I willingly admit … that I base my worldview on the Bible, which I believe is true, and truth. … It was true 1,000 years ago, it’ll be true 1,000 years from today.”

Time after time, said Warren, interviewers assumed that his beliefs on moral and cultural issues — from salvation to sexual ethics — were based on mere political convictions, rather than on the Bible and centuries of doctrine.

“I’ve decided that don’t have faith, so politics is their religion,” he said. “Politics is the only thing that is really real to many people in our world today. … So if politics isn’t at the center of your life, then many people just can’t understand what you’re saying.”

In the end, said Warren, it may be time for various brands of Protestants — charismatics, Baptists, Wesleyans, Lutherans, Calvinists and others — to stop trying to rally under a common “evangelical” umbrella and to start talking more about the specific traditions that shape their beliefs and actions.

“Maybe ‘evangelical’ will be like the word ‘liberal,’ ” he said. “When that word turned into a negative, all of a sudden everybody on the left turned into ‘progressives’ and they moved right on. … Perhaps it’s time to give ‘evangelical’ a rest.”

Presbyterian Divorce Ahead?

Two decades ago, the northern United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. merged with the southern Presbyterian Church in the U.S. to form the new Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This church is not be confused with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or many others inspired by the work of a 16th Century French lawyer named John Calvin.

Presbyterians are good at creating new denominations, assemblies and agencies.

And now they need to do it again, according to Robert L. Howard, a veteran Presbyterian elder in Wichita, Kan. He believes divisions in the 2.5 million-member Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are so deep that it's time to quit fighting over sex, salvation and the scriptures and get a divorce.

"The more I thought about our denominational family, the more it seemed to me -- as a lawyer -- that what we have become is a dysfunctional family corporation," he said. "What we have to do is sit down and figure out how to divide the family assets and go our separate ways."

Thus, Howard wrote a crisp proposal entitled "Gracious Separation."

It's time, he said, to create a four-year task force to oversee division of property and endowments. Seminary and college trustees would get to vote. Pension funds would be divided in proportion to the number of ministers who affiliate with two new denominations. Finally, local congregations would choose -- via super-majority votes -- which way to go, taking their buildings and assets with them. And so forth and so on.

According to Howard's vision, this would lead to one church "consisting of individuals and congregations committed to the exclusive Lordship of Jesus Christ, the authority of the scriptures, and the power of the Holy Spirit to actively transform sinners into saints; and the other consisting of individuals and congregations committed to a 'progressive theology' that affirms multiple ways to salvation, the shared authority of scripture and human experience, and the belief that polity can bring unity among sinners and saints who do not share a common understanding of the Gospel."

This has drawn howls of opposition from the progressive national hierarchy, as well as moderate evangelicals. The Rev. Frank Baldwin, stated clerk of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, said he is especially offended by this description of liberal Presbyterian beliefs. It is also na? to think that modern Presbyterians can be sorted into only two simple camps.

"Instead, there are many issues that divide us in various ways, and at different times people line up with those with whom they differ on other matters," said Baldwin, in an online commentary. "We really need each other to think our way through thorny issues. I weep to think of the trauma the plan would cause in all of the particular churches I know if they are forced to choose one or the other of the plan's unpalatable entities. Many members will simply make their exit and leave the rest of us fighting over the bones."

But many are already voting with their feet, said Howard. The churches that became the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) have lost a million members since the mid-1960s. And Presbyterians are not the only people wrestling with life-and-death doctrinal issues. Other church lawyers will study Howard's proposal with professional interest.

The Anglican Communion has warned the U.S. Episcopal Church that schism is almost certain if bishop-elect V. Gene Robinson, a noncelibate gay priest, is consecrated on Nov. 2 in New Hampshire. In United Methodism, $1 million in budget cuts have claimed a third of the jobs at the Board of Church and Society. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is downsizing and reorganizing, including closing its Commission for Women.

These are hard times for old-line Protestant executives.

Presbyterians must remember, said Howard, that denominations come and go and it's easy for them to become "false idols." Leaders on both sides are fighting over concrete that is already cracking.

"We already have schism. We already have two churches and may have three or more," he said. "We can't become one body through polity and government, instead of through faith and doctrine. Polity has to serve theology and Christology and mission -- not the other way around."