Category Archives: World Religions

What Is Calvinism?

Calvinism is the main branch of the historic Reformed movement. The Reformed movement had numerous leaders, including Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531), Martin Bucer (1491–1551), and Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575). The name Calvinism is derived from John Calvin (1509–1564), the theological giant whose thought came to dominate the Reformed movement, both through his writing and the influence of his adopted home town, Geneva, as an international hub of Reformed education and evangelism.

The Reformed movement held three foundational theological principles in common with other Protestants: Sola Scriptura (Scripture is the primary authority for the Christian), Sola Fide/Gratia (justification is entirely by faith, through grace), and the priesthood of the believer.

Each branch of the Protestant Reformation viewed Scripture through a distinctive philosophical and interpretative grid. Martin Luther’s influence made the primary focus of Lutheranism the justification of the believer by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Anabaptists were especially concerned with freedom of conscience, personal commitment to discipleship, and the essentially non-Christian nature of secular society. Calvinism’s organizing principle was the sovereignty and glory of God: Soli Deo Gloria.

Like many of the other Reformers, Calvin was deeply influenced by Augustine’s philosophical approach to the interpretation of Scripture. Calvin was one of the most systematic in developing the implications of predestination in the terms of the philosophy of his era. He also followed Augustine’s example in aspiring to develop a comprehensive Christian worldview that encompassed church and government within one rational system. At the young age of 28, he attempted to set up a government in Geneva involving unprecedented supervision of the private lives of its citizens. Although there was resistance at first, he eventually established a Reformed government that offered a civic example for Reformed leaders all over Europe.

Calvinists didn’t call for radical separation from the world and nonparticipation in government. Nor did they establish a spiritual hierarchy like that in Roman Catholicism. Unlike Lutherans, Calvinists were reluctant to cede princes and other secular rulers power over church officials. They placed a great priority on theological, intellectual, and moral training, and their church leaders tended to be the best educated and equipped of their membership. Calvin’s view of vocation and the sanctity of secular occupations was profoundly democratic, resisting the tendency to view clergy on a higher spiritual plane than those in secular roles. In addition, the Reformed movement had little tolerance for elaborate ceremony in worship and abhorred the use of images.

All Protestant denominations, as well as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, acknowledge human depravity, divine predestination, the need for prevenient grace, and the mysterious interaction of divine authority and human freedom. Calvinism places a radical emphasis on predestination and attempts to work out its implications to a much greater extent than other Christian groups consider biblically appropriate or justifiable.

The principles of Calvinism were officially established at the Synod of Dort in 1618–1619 in response to the Remonstrants, a group that followed the Dutch Reformed theologian Jacob Arminius. The basic principles of Calvinism have since become associated with the acronym TULIP:

Total Depravity: Humans are spiritually dead to the extent that they must be supernaturally regenerated through the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit before they can accept God’s gracious gift of salvation.

Unconditional election: In eternity past, God chose a distinct group of human individuals to be saved and consigned the rest to be objects of His wrath. His choices were not in any way based on His foreknowledge of human actions.

Limited atonement: Christ died only for the elect, not for those God has selected for condemnation.

Irresistible grace: Those God has chosen cannot reject the gospel or resist the Holy Spirit’s supernatural work of regeneration and sanctification.

Perseverance of the saints: Because the elect are chosen by God and their faith is irresistibly enabled, they cannot depart from the faith and lose their salvation.

Not everyone agrees that the “Five Points of Calvinism” can be reconciled with Scripture. Many Christians believe that by normal rules of biblical interpretation, the “Five Points” can’t be reconciled with many passages that affirm human freedom (Isaiah 6:8; Isaiah 53:5-6; Matthew 23:37; John 3:16; John 21:17;1 Timothy 2:1-6; 1 Timothy 4:9-10; Hebrews 12:14-15; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 1:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 2 Peter 3:9; 1 John 2:2; etc.).

From its original home in Switzerland and France, Calvinist (Reformed) theology spread throughout Europe, taking root in such disparate places as England, Scotland, The Netherlands, Germany (especially the Palatinate), Bohemia, Hungary, and Transylvania. Puritans and other English groups transported Calvinism to North America. Calvinism has profoundly influenced European and American cultural development.

Today, many influential denominations hold Calvinist doctrinal positions, including the Presbyterian, the Reformed, and the United Church of Christ. Other denominations, including Anglicans and Baptists, have been strongly influenced by Calvinist thought.

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Were Disagreements Over Christian Doctrine the Main Cause for European “Religious Wars” of the 16th and 17th Centuries?

Many people assume the separation of church and state established in the US Constitution resulted from 16th- and 17th-century “religious violence” and “religious wars” in Europe. The wars of this period included the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) and the English Civil War (1642–1651).

These wars were foundational to the development of the political institutions of the West. They were part of a vast social/cultural/political process that ultimately replaced feudalism and the “divine right of kings” with the centralized, capital-based governments that dominate the world today.

The ferocious wars of these centuries made a deep impression on the collective memory of European people. Estimates of Central European deaths in the Thirty Years’ War run from 3 to 7 million (many of these resulting from starvation and disease among the civilian population). Deaths from war, disease, and starvation during the English Civil War have been estimated at around 800,000, or 4 percent, 6 percent, and 40 percent of England, Scotland, and Ireland’s populations respectively. Because nearly all of the participants in these wars had religious loyalties and convictions, religious feelings were often exploited by rulers. But religion was not the underlying motivation.

Two well-known examples involved the establishment of Lutheranism and Anglicanism. In the 16th century, Martin Luther’s reasons for breaking with the Catholic Church were theological, but the Reformation would have been quickly crushed if it hadn’t been supported by powerful European rulers whose motivations were primarily political and economic. King Henry VIII of England separated from Rome and formed the Anglican Church for pragmatic, nonreligious reasons—largely due to the refusal of the pope to grant an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He believed the Catholic Church was interfering with the internal affairs of his kingdom. He also wanted to nationalize the vast holdings of the Catholic Church in England to consolidate his power.

In The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford Press), William Cavanaugh refers to recent scholarship to show that the underlying causes of the “religious wars” of the 16th and 17th centuries weren’t religious. Cavanaugh includes eight pages of examples, of which the following quotation is only the first:

If there truly were a war of all sects against all, one would expect that war would have broken out soon after Europe split into Catholic and Protestant factions. However, between the time that Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517 and the outbreak of the first commonly cited religious war—the Schmalkaldic War of 1546–1547—almost thirty years would pass. The Catholic prosecutor of the Schmalkaldic War, Holy Roman emperor Charles V, spent much of the decade following Luther’s excommunication in 1520 at war not against Lutherans, but against the pope. As Richard Dunn points out, “Charles V’s soldiers sacked Rome, not Wittenberg, in 1527, and when the papacy belatedly sponsored a reform program, both the Habsburgs and the Valois refused to endorse much of it, rejecting especially those Trentine decrees which encroached on their sovereign authority.” The wars of the 1540s were part of the ongoing struggle between the pope and the emperor for control over Italy and over the church in German territories (The Myth of Religious Violence, 143-44).

Cavanaugh provides massive documentation showing that rather than the state being the peace-making force that eventually solved the problem of religiously motivated violence, the process of centralizing public authority in a secular state was itself the most significant cause of violence. “There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the transfer of power to the emergent state was a cause, not the solution, to the wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (ibid., p. 162).

These wars replaced the religion of the church with the religion of the state.

The historical evidence renders . . . the idea that the modern state saved Europe from religious violence . . . unbelievable. State building . . . was a significant cause of the violence. An important aspect of state building was the absorption of the church by the state, which exacerbated and enforced ecclesial differences and therefore contributed to warfare between Catholics and Protestants. In the process, the state did not rein in and tame religion but became itself sacralized. The transfer of power from the church to the state was accompanied by a migration of the holy from church to state (ibid., p. 176).

(The reason many still consider religion the primary cause of war and violence is discussed in (Is Religion Evil?)

 

 

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Should Christians keep the Old Testament feasts?

We enjoy exploring the symbolism of the Old Testament feasts, but we don’t recommend that Christians observe them on a regular basis. The feasts of the Old Testament were intended to be an opportunity for the Israelite people to acknowledge the goodness of God as their provider and intercessor.

Although the Jewish religious festivals are celebrated by Jewish Messianic believers, they are not relevant to Gentile Christians. Paul told us in 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 that Jesus is the Passover Lamb. The Lord’s Supper, therefore, has replaced the Passover. Hebrews 7:27 and other passages declare that man has been once and for all reconciled to God by the death of Christ. Other passages such as Colossians 2:16-17 and Romans 14:5-6 declare that the Old Testament feasts are no longer to be observed:

So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ (Col. 2:16-17 nkjv).

God’s moral law proceeds from the righteousness of God and can never be abolished. The Mosaic Law, as an expression of this moral law, is “passing away” in that it has been superseded by another law, that is, the standard of grace revealed in the New Testament. The believer is now under law to Christ (1 Cor. 9:21; cp. Rom. 8:2-4). Although the Christian is not under the Mosaic Law as a rule of life, some of the Law of Moses is restated in the New Testament—nine of the Ten Commandments are included. The Mosaic Law still constitutes a revelation of the righteousness of God and remains as a part of Scripture which “is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17 nkjv; cp. Rom. 15:4).

Baruch Maoz, an Israeli pastor of Jewish extraction, doesn’t believe it is wrong for Christians of Jewish cultural background to keep the feasts. At the same time, he explains why Gentile Christians shouldn’t observe the Old Testament feasts or other aspects of Old Testament ritual—they have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. They are the “shadow”; He is the reality.

The Mosaic Law in its moral aspects has lost none of its commanding authority. The moral aspects of the covenant are now the rule of life for all those who live by grace. That is one of the reasons why the English Puritans and the Scottish Covenanters identified so warmly with our forefathers. While they longed and prayed for the salvation of our people and our restoration to grace, they knew themselves to be bound to our destiny by the common duties they shared with us as promulgated in the Mosaic Law.

Messiah and the Law

Of course, the ritual aspects of the Law, its symbols, hopes and expectations, all find fulfillment in Jesus. Having been fulfilled, they no longer have the religious value they had in the past yet, for us Jewish Christians, they form part of our national culture. The shadows have passed to give room for the reality, and it is not right for us to insist upon those shadows as if they were still in force. The Mosaic religious institutions, including the sacrifices; the feasts; the specific form of the Sabbath duties; and the restrictions and requirements in terms of dress codes, beards and the such like, are no longer binding. Nor may we exercise our liberty by living as if they were binding. It is our glad and happy duty to demonstrate by our lives, our worship and our communal behaviour that Messiah has come.

The ritual aspects of the Law, particularly the sacrifices, intimated God’s method of salvation, but salvation itself was never provided by it except as it reflected the sacrifice of Messiah. It was not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats could provide a sufficient sacrifice (Heb. 10:4). The promise of forgiveness made in the Torah was dependent on the sacrifice of Messiah and derived its strength from that ultimate sacrifice.

To act now as if Messiah came but did not affect our relation to the Law is—as I said before—to deny with our lives what our mouths profess. To think that the coming of Messiah did not alter the Mosaic Law’s relation to us is to ignore the biblical message, which declares that the Law was given through Moses, grace and truth were realized through Jesus the Messiah (John 1:17). Whatever else we may want to say about this passage, there is no doubt that it contrasts two periods—that of the Mosaic Law with that of Jesus, the Messiah (Judaism Is Not Jewish, pp.127-28).

If a Christian congregation occasionally reenacts aspects of an Old Testament feast day for the sake of better understanding their old covenant heritage, it would be within the bounds of Christian liberty. However, such reenactments should be done with a clear, conscious awareness that they are not required of Christians, convey no special spiritual benefits, and are strictly of educational value.

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Why don’t Protestant Christians pray to Mary and other saints, seeking their help and intercession?

Christians who pray to Mary and saints in heaven to intercede for them sometimes say that praying to Mary and the saints is no different than asking living fellow believers to pray for them. They say that the Scriptures tell us to uphold each other and intercede for each other in prayer (Matthew 5:44; Ephesians 6:18; James 5:16).

Though Scripture doesn’t affirm it, it is conceivable that friends and loved ones who have preceded us to heaven are able to pray for us. But when Christians ask living friends and loved ones to pray for them, they don’t worship or attribute godlike qualities to them. They don’t assume they have unique intercessory abilities and special influence with the Savior. They don’t approach particular strangers and ask for their prayer support. Above all, they don’t “pray” to living friends. They ask them to share the burden of their prayer concerns with the Lord.

Christians who pray to Mary and the saints are assuming much more, believing that Mary and the saints are in a position to help in unique and specific ways: St. Anthony helps locate lost objects; St. Anne combats infertility; St. James the Greater heals arthritis; St. Jude offers hope to “lost causes”; St. Sebastian protects athletes; and many other “saints” are reputed to do specific things for many other categories of needy people.

The pagans of the Roman Empire once prayed to specific gods for help relating to the problems and challenges of life; and when Theodosius I officially outlawed pagan worship in ad 380, many people transferred their devotion from pagan gods to the saints. Thus, prayer to saints came to parallel devotion to the pagan gods of popular Roman religion.

Scripture doesn’t support the idea that “specialist” saints in heaven share with God the ability to hear thousands of prayers simultaneously. Nor does Scripture imply that particular people in heaven are able to intercede with God in a unique way in the case of particular kinds of needs. By attributing such abilities to these saints, we detract from the centrality of Jesus Christ as our divine and human mediator. We project the Savior’s unique qualities (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 7:26-28; Hebrews 9:24; 1 John 2:1-2) on fellow believers who share our own sinful tendencies and frailties. Instead of honoring the Son of God who gave His life for us, we glorify the needy creatures He came to save. (See the ATQ article Why don’t Protestant Christians worship Mary and the Saints?)

 


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Should astrology or horoscopes be taken seriously?

Astrology at one time was looked upon with great seriousness by the educated classes. For many centuries people believed that the earth was the center of the universe, and this mistaken cosmology led to the conviction that the personality and character of people could be influenced by the position of the heavenly spheres at their time of birth.

Since the introduction of modern astronomy, it became impossible for any serious-minded scientist to accept the original principles of astrology. Besides the fact that the heavenly bodies are at a much greater distance than our ancestors believed them to be, their positions in the sky have drastically changed with the passage of time.

After the scientific discoveries of the Enlightenment made the original basis for astrology untenable, there have been numerous attempts by occultists to maintain confidence in it by mystical and occult means.

Though there is no genuinely scientific basis for astrology, millions of people resort to daily horoscopes for guidance in their lives. If nothing else, this behavior shows how deeply religious people are, and how strongly they long for a basis for hope and faith. It may not harm someone to read horoscopes, but anyone taking them seriously will be endangered.

At the very least, astrology is a crutch to avoid the effort of seeking out an informed basis for our decisions. At its worse, it becomes compulsive, a false god gripping us with demonic power. This is probably why the Old Testament warns against it (Isaiah 47:13).

(For more information about the occult, see the Discovery Series booklet What’s The Appeal Of The New Age Movement?)

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To What Extent do Christians and Jews Share a Common Foundation in the Bible?

Christians often mistakenly conclude that the primary basis of Judaism is the “law and the prophets.” Actually, Orthodox Judaism puts surprisingly little emphasis on Scriptural authority.

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Jewish orthodoxy is not based as much on the Hebrew Bible as it is on “oral law.” It believes that when Moses wrote the law, he also inaugurated an “oral law” to be passed to each successive generation of Jewish leaders. In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees considered themselves the recipients and guardians of this oral law. They believed that because they were the only people trained in the tradition of the oral law, they were the only people qualified to interpret the written law. For the Pharisees, the “oral law” had precedence over the written law.

Jesus accepted neither the “oral law” nor the Pharisees’ claim of privileged knowledge and authority. He considered the “oral law” merely the “tradition of the elders” and “commandments of men,” declaring it a man-made invention that “nullified” the Word of God (Mark 7:1-13; Matthew 15:1-20).

Jesus taught that it is the disposition of the heart not mere obedience to tradition that leads to true understanding of the law. Like Elijah (Mark 8:22-29), Jesus had supernatural power and authority (John 5:36; 14:7-11; Matthew 7:29). He knew that if the Pharisees truly honored the law and the prophets, they would see that He fulfilled them (John 5:46-47; Luke 6:6-11). Instead, the Pharisees chose to honor their traditions (John 5:43-44) while paying little heed to the great spiritual leaders and prophets of Israel’s past (Matthew 23:23-39). In spite of Jesus’ moral purity (John 8:45-47), they claimed He did His miracles through the power of Satan (Matthew 9:34; 12:24).

Although individual Pharisees were friendly to him (John 3:1-10; 7:50-52; 19:38-42), Jesus’ refusal to endorse the oral law generally resulted in their animosity both to Him (Matthew 21:23-46) and the apostolic church (Matthew 10:16-28; Acts 6:8-15; 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16).

When Titus destroyed Jerusalem in ad 70, the surviving form of Jewish religion was that practiced by the Pharisees.2 During the next four centuries, the “traditions of the elders” were systematized, codified, and amplified in the Talmud.3In some ways, this emphasis upon the oral law continues to distort and contradict the plain meaning of the “law and prophets.” Israel Shahak, a survivor of German concentration camps and an Israeli citizen, scientist, scholar, and defender of human rights, made these striking observations about the Orthodox Jewish view of the Jewish Bible:

There is yet another misconception about Judaism which is particularly common among Christians or people heavily influenced by Christian tradition and culture. This is the misleading idea that Judaism is a “biblical religion”; that the Old Testament has in Judaism the same central place and legal authority which the Bible has for Protestant or even Catholic Christianity.

Again, this is connected with the question of interpretation. We have seen that in matters of belief there is great latitude. Exactly the opposite holds with respect to the legal interpretation of sacred texts. Here the interpretation is rigidly fixed—but by the Talmud rather than by the Bible itself. Many, perhaps most, biblical verses prescribing religious acts and obligations are “understood” by classical Judaism, and by present day Orthodoxy, in a sense which is quite distinct from, or even contrary to, their literal meaning as understood by Christian or other readers of the Old Testament, who only see the plain text. The same division exists at present in Israel between those educated in Jewish religious schools and those educated in “secular” Hebrew schools, where on the whole the plain meaning of the Old Testament is taught (Jewish History, Jewish Religion, p.36).

Thoughtful Christians realize that Judaism is not unique in its emphasis on tradition. Christian leaders have also often elevated tradition to a higher level of authority than Scripture, with very destructive results. Christians have often nullified the clear meaning of Scripture on the basis of privileged interpretations by elites. In spite of human ambition that seeks to twist the meaning of Scripture to serve personal and institutional power, there have always been those, both in the Jewish and the Christian tradition, who have resisted the idolatry of tradition and institution. Like the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and his apostles, these Jews and Christians have honored not only the letter of the law but its spirit as well. Like the saints of the Old Testament, these “are sure of what [they] hope for, and certain of what [they] do not see” (Hebrews 11:1 niv).

  1. Orthodox Jews do not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not believe that every word in the Bible is a divine revelation. They consider only the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses, to be divinely inspired. The rest of the Bible is considered to be the product of human minds and hands (Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Original Sins, pp.142-45). Back To Article
  2. A leader of the Pharisees of the school of Hillel, Johanan Ben Zakkai, officially broke ranks with the Jews in rebellion with Rome and signed an agreement whereby he accepted Roman political authority in return for the right to continue his religious tradition. He established a center for Pharisaic teaching in Jamnia, which soon after the destruction of Jerusalem became the center of Judaism. Back To Article
  3. Modern Jewish orthodoxy interprets Scripture almost exclusively by means of the oral tradition embodied in the Talmud. In fact, when Orthodox Jews refer to “Torah,” they are referring as much to the Talmud as they are to the Old Testament. Back To Article
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Are Today’s Jews the Physical Descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Israelite Tribes?

Israel is the name God gave Jacob on the night he wrestled with the angel (Genesis 32:28). As a group, his sons along with the 12 tribes that descended from them inherited the name. Although Israel always accepted proselytes,1 it was at first largely made up of people physically descended from Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Eventually the term “Israelite” was replaced by the term “Jew” (Yehudi), derived from the kingdom of Judah (Yehuda), the southern Israelite kingdom that retained its independence for approximately 135 years after Assyria conquered the northern kingdom and took its leading citizens into captivity.

After the fall of the kingdom of Judah, Judaism (the Israelite religion) continued to be open to Gentile converts. The book of Esther mentions one such occasion.

“In every province and city, wherever the king’s command and decree came, the Jews had joy and gladness, a feast and a holiday. Then many of the people of the land became Jews, because fear of the Jews fell upon them” (8:17 nkjv).

Soon after the conversions described in Esther, Alexander’s conquests established a common Hellenistic culture around the Mediterranean, exposing pagans to Jewish religion and lifestyle. Judaism became a vibrant missionary faith. Many thousands of Gentiles became God-fearers and converts.2

During the third and second centuries BC, a group of Greek-speaking Hebrew scholars in Alexandria translated the Bible into Greek (the Septuagint) so that it would be available in the common language of commerce and culture. Philo and other Jewish apologists strove to explain Israel’s faith to the Gentile world. They wrote intertestamental books—including those in the Apocrypha—that described the superiority of their God.3 The proselytizing zeal of the Jews was still strong during Jesus’ ministry.4 Most Gentiles who converted to Judaism did so because Israel’s God offered both a superior way of life and the hope of resurrection. Some, like the Edomites and Itureans, were forcibly converted by Jewish rulers.5 There were about six million Jews throughout the Roman Empire when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, of whom a large proportion were converts or descendants of converts. Regardless of their pedigree, all Jews identified with the symbols and story of Israel and hoped that Messiah would come to initiate the longed-for days of blessing and restoration. But when He appeared, many didn’t accept Him (John 1:11).

Two thousand years have brought significant religious and demographic changes to non-Christian people who identify with the Hebrew tradition. A majority of the Jews in the Roman Empire probably converted to Christianity during the first five centuries ad6 following the official Jewish expulsion of Christians from synagogue worship.7 It is a common misunderstanding that following the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem in the Jewish-Roman wars of ad 70 and 135, the Jews of Palestine were driven from the land as a people and that modern diaspora Jews are their descendents. Actually, there never was a great “dispersion” or “mass exile” of Jews following the Jewish-Roman wars of ad 70 and 135. Most of the Jews were “people of the land” (Am Ha’aretz), peasant farmers generally indifferent to politics but devoted to their homeland. Keeping a low profile, they remained in Palestine, many becoming Christians and Muslims under Byzantine and Arab rule. As mentioned earlier, Jews of the Diaspora, including the ancestors of today’s northern European, Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim, continued to be largely the descendents of proselytes.  Today, dark-eyed, brown-skinned Palestinians are more likely to be Abraham’s physical descendents than the light-skinned northern European Ashkenazim displacing them. This has been acknowledged by Jewish historians, including two of the founders of the modern state of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and Itzhak Ben-Zvi:

To argue that after the conquest of Jerusalem by Titus and the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt Jews altogether ceased to cultivate the land of Eretz Israel is to demonstrate complete ignorance in the history and the contemporary literature of Israel . . . The Jewish farmer, like any other farmer, was not easily torn from his soil, which had been watered with his sweat and the sweat of his forebears . . . Despite the repression and suffering, the rural population remained unchanged” (Eretz Israel in the Past and in the Present, Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi, 1979; in Hebrew, translated by Sand, p.198).

The fellahin [Arabic-speaking Palestinian peasants] are not descendants of the Arab conquerors, who captured EretzIsrael and Syria in the seventh century CE. The Arab victors did not destroy the agricultural population they found in the country. They expelled only the alien Byzantine rulers, and did not touch the local population. Nor did the Arabs go in for settlement. Even in their former habitations, the Arabians did not engage in farming . . . They did not seek new lands on which to settle their peasantry, which hardly existed. Their whole interest in the new countries was political, religious and material: to rule, to propagate Islam and to collect taxes (Ibid., p.196).

If Jewishness were determined by the preponderance of patriarchal genes alone, the people we know today as Jews would be a significantly different group. The myth that the dominant group of modern Jews—the Ashkenazim—are uniquely the descendents of Abraham creates a tribal idolatry. Even among Christians, it encourages new manifestations of the Judaizing spirit that the apostles battled in the first century.  

Although today’s Jews still identify with the Israel of the Old Testament, they are not uniquely the descendants of the patriarchs, and their rejection of Jesus has locked their focus on the tribal aspects of the Old Testament tradition while distancing them from the universal message of the Old Testament prophets. Jesus said, “The last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). Israel was formally the primary witness for God in the world, but the members of this judicially blinded group remain the most opposed to His universal plan. When Israel repents its corporate rebellion, it will be “life from the dead.” The elect Jews will be freed from their judicial blindness, and their desperate faith in a tribal God will be transformed into passion for the salvation of the entire human race.

Even though they are not unique “people” in a genetic sense, and have no “rights” they can demand from the Lord (including the “right” to return the ancient Hebrew homeland, displace or drive out its current inhabitants, and establish a Jewish state), both the Old and New Testament testify of God’s love for the Jews and His desire to restore them when they humbly submit to Him and the Messiah He has sent.

  1. Some examples: Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian priest’s daughter (Genesis 41:45,50; 46:20). She bore him sons Manasseh and Ephraim. Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite (Exodus 2:21). She may have been partially of African descent (Numbers 12:1). She bore Moses two sons: Gershon and Eliezer (Exodus 18:3-4). During the period of the judges, the Israelites intermarried extensively with the surrounding nations (Judges 3:5). Jesse’s wife, the mother of Israel’s great King David, was probably a Moabite. King David himself took the daughter of the king of Geshur as one of his wives. King Solomon was notorious for the number and variety of his wives: Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonians, and Hittites (1 Kings 11:1-3). Other kings and commoners married foreigners, including the notorious daughter of a Phoenician king, Jezebel, wife of Ahab. Back To Article
  2. It would not be an exaggeration to say that but for the symbiosis between Judaism and Hellenism, which, more than anything, turned the former into a dynamic, propagative religion for more than 300 years, the number of Jews in today’s world would be roughly the same as the number of Samaritans. Hellenism altered and invigorated the high culture of the kingdom of Judea. This historical development enabled the Jewish religion to mount the Greek eagle and traverse the Mediterranean world.The conversions carried out by the Hasmonean kingdom were only a small part of a far more significant phenomenon that began in the early second century BCE. The pagan world was already beginning to rethink its beliefs and values when Judaism launched its campaign of proselytization and became one of the factors that prepared the ground for the great Christian revolution. Judaism did not yet produce professional missionaries, as its younger sibling would do before long, but its encounter with the philosophies of the Stoic and Epicurean schools gave birth to a new literature that demonstrated a strong desire to win souls (Shlomo Sand, The Invention of the Jewish People, p.161). Back To Article
  3. See Ibid., pp.162-164. Back To Article
  4. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15 nkjv, see also Acts 2:10). Back To Article
  5. “In 125 BCE Yohanan Hyrcanus conquered Edom, the country that spread south of Beth-zur and Ein Gedi as far a Beersheba, and Judaized its inhabitants by force. Josephus described it in Antiquities of the Jews:Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living, at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.Thus did the ruling Hasmonean high priest annex an entire people not only to his kingdom but also to his Jewish religion. Henceforth, the Edomite people would be seen as an integral part of the Jewish people” (Sand, TIOTJP, pp.157-158).“In 104-103 BCE Judas Aristobulus [son of Yohanan Hyrcanus] annexed the Galilee to Judeaand forced its Iturean inhabitants, who populated the northern region, to convert to Judaism. According to Josephus, ‘He was called a lover of the Grecians; and had conferred many benefits on his own country, and made war against Ituraea, and added a great part of it to Judea, and compelled the inhabitants, if they would continue in that country, to be circumcised, and to live according to the Jewish laws’” (TIOTJP, Sand, 159). Back To Article
  6. The systematic expulsion of Christian Jews from Judaism occurred prior to the Bar Kochba revolt. See below.“In the oldest Palestinian version of the 12th benediction of the Prayer of Eighteen Benedictions, now known to us through the findings in the Cairo Geniza, Nazarines and minim are mentioned together: ‘May the Nazarenes (Christians) and heretics perish in a moment, be blotted out of the book of life, and not be written with the just.’ The introduction of this benediction into the Shemone Esre and therewith into the liturgy by R. Gamaliel II c. ad 90 carried with it a definitive breach between the Chr. Church and Judaism. From then on cursing the Nazarenes became an integral part of synagogue worship and the daily prayer of every Jew. Precisely in this benediction very great care was taken to see that the cursing of the minim was done correctly and without abbreviation. Attending the synagogue and taking part in its worship thus became impossible for Christians. Complete separation resulted. In future confession of Jesus Christ meant excommunication and expulsion from Judaism. The Johannine statements belong to this period” (Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 7, p. 850). Back To Article
  7. Scholars generally agree that in the first century there were approximately six million Jews in the Roman Empire. That was about one tenth of the entire population. About one million were in Palestine, including today’s State of Israel, while those in the Diaspora were very much part of the establishment in cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. At one point Klinghoffer acknowledges that, during the life of Jesus, only a minuscule minority of Jews either accepted or rejected Jesus, for the simple reason that most Jews had not heard of him. Some scholars have noted that, by the fourth or fifth century, there were only a few hundred thousand, at most a million, people who identified themselves as Jews. What happened to the millions of others? The most likely answer, it is suggested, is that they became Christians. What if the great majority of Jews did not reject Jesus? That throws into question both the title of the book and Klinghoffer’s central thesis. The question can be avoided only by the definitional legerdemain of counting as Jews only those who rejected Jesus and continued to ally themselves with rabbinical Judaism’s account of the history of Israel (Richard John Neuhaus, “Why the Jews Did or Did Not Reject Jesus,” First Things).To begin with, a few definitions: Who is a Jew? A Jew is anyone who has a Jewish mother or who converted to Judaism in conformity with Halacha, Jewish religious law. This definition alone excludes racism. Judaism does not seek converts, but those who do convert are accepted on a basis of equality. Let us see how far this goes. Some of the most eminent and respected rabbis were converts to Judaism. Jewish parents throughout the world bless their children every Sabbath and holiday eve, and they have done it in the same way for millennia. If the children are girls, the blessing is, “May G-d let you be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.” Not one of these matriarchs was born a Jewess; they were all converts to Judaism. If the children are boys, the blessing is, “May G-d let you be like Ephraim and Menashe.” The mother of these two was an Egyptian woman who became Jewish and had married Joseph. Moses himself, the greatest Jew who ever lived, married a Midianite woman who became Jewish.Finally, the Tenach, the holy writings of the Jew, contains the book of Ruth. This woman was not only not Jewish by birth, but she came from the Moabites, traditional enemies of the Jewish people. This book describes Ruth’s conversion to Judaism and is read annually on the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah, the “Law,” i.e., the Pentateuch. At its very end, the book of Ruth traces the ancestry of King David, the greatest king the Jews ever had, to Ruth, his great-grandmother.Apart from the Zionists, the only ones who consistently considered the Jews a race were the Nazis. And they only served to prove the stupidity and irrationality of racism. There was no way to prove racially whether a Mrs. Muller or a Mr. Meyer were Jews or Aryans (the Nazi term for non-Jewish Germans). The only way to decide whether a person was Jewish was to trace the religious affiliation of the parents or grandparents. So much for this racial nonsense. Racial pride has been the downfall of those Jews in the past who were blinded by their own narrow-minded chauvinism.

    This brings us to a second definition. Is there a Jewish people? If so, what is its mission? Let us make this completely clear: The Jewish nation was not born or reconstituted a generation ago by some Zionist politicians. The Jewish nation was born on Mount Sinai when the Jews by their response, “let us do and let us hear,” adopted the Torah given to them by G-d for all future generations. “This day you become a people,” though valid still today, was spoken thousands of years ago. (Quotation from Neturei Karta, “The Difference Between Judaism and Zionism”). Back To Article

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Is Religion Evil?

From the time of the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), many have viewed religion with indifference or hostility, but there has never been such widespread hatred of religion as can be seen today in popular culture. One manifestation of hatred towards religion is the popularity of so-called “new atheism.” Here are some typical “new atheist” quotations:

That religion may have served some necessary function for us in the past does not preclude the possibility that it is now the greatest impediment to our building a global civilization. —Sam Harris

We keep on being told that religion, whatever its imperfections, at least instills morality. On every side, there is conclusive evidence that the contrary is the case and that faith causes people to be more mean, more selfish, and perhaps above all, more stupid. —Christopher Hitchens

One of the things that is wrong with religion is that it teaches us to be satisfied with answers which are really not answers at all. —Richard Dawkins

Nothing is wrong with peace and love. It is all the more regrettable that so many of Christ’s followers seem to disagree. —Richard Dawkins

Most conscientious people know why the “new atheists” feel the way they do. Religion is often misused to rationalize violence, misuse of authority, hatred, and war. But many good things can be used for evil purposes, including family and ethnic loyalty, philosophy, patriotism, and political/economic theory. In fact, although “new atheists” look to science as the basis of rationality and human dignity, science is no more immune to misuse. Principled opponents of eugenics programs have been called “antiscientific,” and the Darwinist principle of the “survival of the fittest” has been used to rationalize slavery and ethnic cleansing. Marxist dogma claimed a “scientific” basis for exterminating entire classes of people it labeled “parasites” or “enemies of the working class.”

Although reason and science have proven their power, they are useless as moral guides without the guidance of religious principles. During World War II science made it possible to incinerate Dresden, Tokyo, Nagasaki, and Hiroshima, but contributed nothing to the discussion of whether doing so was justifiable.

Most people recognize that knowing whether a potential action is “good” or “bad” is more important than merely knowing how to do it. Determining whether an action is moral or immoral is a judgment of value and faith, not of mere reason. Values and faith are intrinsically linked to religion. Even the most basic assumption of science that “knowledge is good” is a judgment of value—a religious act. (See What is religion?)

Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and other “new atheists” aren’t the only people who recognize how destructive misused religion can be. One need not be educated in Oxford or Harvard to recognize religious fanaticism. People from every historical period and every culture know the dangers of religion gone amok. A short list of those who warned against religious dogma and religious excesses would include Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), Isaiah, Zarathustra, Socrates, and Jesus Messiah. Despising religion instead of seeking its renewal isn’t a step towards enlightenment but a step towards nihilism and despair.

Religion—in the sense of a faith system that establishes parameters for good and evil—is just as necessary as science. Rather than being the enemy of science, true religion humanizes and civilizes it and keeps it from creating monsters.

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What Do Muslims Believe About God?

The word Allah is the Arabic word for God, the word used both by Arabic-speaking Christians before the birth of Mohammed, and by Arabic-speaking Christians today. To a devout Muslim, Allah is in many ways similar to the Christian God. Allah is holy, just, infinite, and all-knowing. Jews, too, worship a holy, infinitely powerful God, and share Christian respect for the Old Testament.

The Qur’an portrays God as a just and merciful judge, but doesn’t teach that human sin and distress cause Him suffering 1 . It emphasizes the incomprehensibility of God more than His holiness2 and love 3 .

Christians believe that biblical revelation is progressive 4 , fulfilled in Christ. Although the Old Testament describes God’s supreme love ( Exodus 34:6 ; Psalm 86:5; 103:13 ; Isaiah 49:14-18 ; Jeremiah 31:10-20 ; Ezekiel 34:22-31 ; Micah 7:18-20 ; Hosea 2:14-16 ) at times its portrayal of God is troubling. With the coming of Jesus and the gospel, Christians have the peace that comes with understanding the means by which God offers mercy and forgiveness to His children. In Jesus, God took human form (John 1:14.). Through Jesus we know the infinite, holy God as “Abba,” our “heavenly Father.”

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. (Colossians 1:15-20 NKJV)

For Christians, God’s most loving self-revelation is in His Lamb (Genesis 22:8 ; John 1:36 ; 1 Peter 1:19-20 ) through whom God’s love for the human race was expressed in human form ( Acts 17:3 ; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 ; Hebrews 2:8-10 ).

God’s suffering and grief at human sin and His love for the lost and rebellious begins in the Old Testament ( Jeremiah 3:1 ; Hosea 3:1 ; Ezekiel 34:12 ) resulting in His relationship with a sinful race ( Hebrews 4:15 ; John 10:11 ). It was expressed vividly in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son ( Luke 15:11-31 ) and the Gospel descriptions of Peter denying his Lord.

The Christian God loves even the lost and the rebellious, and sacrifices Himself for hopeless sinners. ( Romans 5:8 ). The Christian God is the initiator of the relationship between Himself and our sinful race ( Isaiah 53:6 ; John 10:11 ; 1 Peter 2:24 ).

  1. According to Islam our sins cannot offend our Creator. God stands too far above us to be directly concerned by our disobedience. When we commit sin we wrong ourselves; God remains unaffected. The following references are from the Qur’an: “Whoever transgresses God’s bounds does evil to himself” (65.1; cf. 2:57; 7:160; 18:35; 35:32; 37:113). Our guilt lies only in our disobedience to our Lord’s commandments. From the biblical point of view, however, sin is not just a transgression of God’s law but an offence against God himself (Psalm 51:4; Luke 15:18, 21. Sin affects God personally and does not leave him indifferent. (The Prophet and the Messiah, Chawkat Moucarry, IVP, pp. 99-100) Back To Article
  2. In the Christian view, God sees sin with such seriousness that He alone is able to provide its remedy. The God worshiped by Christians is embodied in the Lamb of God—the Messiah. Jesus reveals the intensity of God’s concern for the human race. This is a continuation of the theme of God’s suffering and grief at human sin and unbelief that is found in the Old Testament (Judges 10:16; Isaiah 40:11; 53; Jeremiah 3:1; Hosea 3:1). Back To Article
  3. Muslims do not see God as their father or, equivalently, themselves as the children of God. Men are servants of a just master; they cannot, in orthodox Islam, typically attain any greater degree of intimacy with their creator. (Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith For All Seasons, Chicago, Ivan R. Dee Publisher, 1990, p. 180) Back To Article
  4. Christians view biblical revelation as progressive. That is, as we proceed from God’s earliest word to us in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and continue through the historical books, the books of poetry, and the prophetic books, we see that God reveals more and more of His nature and His will to man. The patriarchs, statesmen, poets, and prophets of the Old Testament did not have a clear understanding of the redemption that was to be offered on their behalf through the Lord Jesus Christ. They did not even have a clear understanding of the nature of life after death. However, as God progressively revealed more and more of His nature to the men of Old Testament times, He did make it clear that His greatest revelation was to come in His Messiah. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, revealed God’s nature to us perfectly in the form of a human being. In Jesus Christ (the Greek term Christ actually has the same meaning as the Hebrew term Messiah—”anointed one”) we have become aware of God’s love and grace in a manner not possible during past ages. Back To Article
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How Should Christians View Mary, Jesus’ Mother?

The Bible doesn’t offer us much information about Mary, but her role in God’s redemptive plan was unique.

Luke 1:26-56 records Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel and her visit with her relative Elizabeth. In chapter 2, we see her pondering everything that has happened in connection with her son’s birth. In the same chapter, Mary gently rebuked 12-year-old Jesus for causing Joseph and her much concern by remaining behind in the Jerusalem temple instead of joining the caravan back to Nazareth ( Luke 2:41-49 ).

Mary is mentioned again at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee when Jesus performed His first public miracle ( John 2:1-12 ). She appears a few times after this in connection with our Lord’s brothers and sisters( Matthew 13:54-58 ; Mark 3:31-35; 6:1-6 ). When Jesus hung on the cross, He looked down and tenderly said, “Dear woman, here is your son!” ( John 19:26 ), assigning her to the care of the apostle John. The last mention of her is found in Acts 1:14 , where she is referred to as “Mary the mother of Jesus.”

Mary was a remarkable person. The angel who came to Mary with the announcement that she would bear the Son of God said that she had “found favor with God” ( Luke 1:30 ). God honored her above all other women by choosing her to become the virgin mother of the Messiah. However, the biblical accounts do not emphasize her role as the mother of Jesus. In fact, nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus even call her “mother.”

Although the Gospels portray her motherly concern, they clearly show her subordination to her son. In John 2:4 , Jesus called her “woman” (which wasn’t as harsh an expression in Greek as it would be in modern English), apparently to gently show her that His relationship to her as Savior must take precedence over that of son.

The Bible nowhere implies that she was born without sin. In fact, she herself recognized her need of a Savior ( Luke 1:47 ). She was qualified to give birth to the sinless Son of God because God chose her and miraculously caused her to conceive by the “overshadowing” of the Holy Spirit( Luke 1:35 ). While it is right to honor her as the mother of Jesus Christ, there are no biblical grounds for placing her in a position of mediation between ourselves and our Lord. The Scriptures declare:

There is one God and one Mediator between God and men,the Man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

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