The Bible according to Athanasius

Athanasius was a Christian theologian and prominent Egyptian leader in the fourth century. He wrote many works, was exiled many times, and is remembered especially for his defence of Trinitarianism against Arianism. What is also worth noting is his early articulation of the books of the Bible. In his 39th Letter he wrote:

“There are, then, of the Old Testament, twenty-two books in number; for, as I have heard, it is handed down that this is the number of the letters among the Hebrews; their respective order and names being as follows. The first is Genesis, then Exodus, next Leviticus, after that Numbers, and then Deuteronomy. Following these there is Joshua, the son of Nun, then Judges, then Ruth. And again, after these four books of Kings, the first and second being reckoned as one book, and so likewise the third and fourth as one book. And again, the first and second of the Chronicles are reckoned as one book. Again Ezra, the first and second are similarly one book. After these there is the book of Psalms, then the Proverbs, next Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs. Job follows, then the Prophets, the twelve being reckoned as one book. Then Isaiah, one book, then Jeremiah with Baruch, Lamentations, and the epistle, one book; afterwards, Ezekiel and Daniel, each one book. Thus far constitutes the Old Testament.”

“Again it is not tedious to speak of the [books] of the New Testament. These are, the four Gospels, according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Afterwards, the Acts of the Apostles and Epistles (called Catholic), seven, viz. of James, one; of Peter, two; of John, three; after these, one of Jude. In addition, there are fourteen Epistles of Paul, written in this order. The first, to the Romans; then two to the Corinthians; after these, to the Galatians; next, to the Ephesians; then to the Philippians; then to the Colossians; after these, two to the Thessalonians, and that to the Hebrews; and again, two to Timothy; one to Titus; and lastly, that to Philemon. And besides, the Revelation of John.”

After articulating this however Athanasius goes on to speak of some of the books not accepted amongst the books of the Bible.

“But for greater exactness I add this also, writing of necessity; that there are other books besides these not indeed included in the Canon, but appointed by the Fathers to be read by those who newly join us, and who wish for instruction in the word of godliness. The Wisdom of Solomon, and the Wisdom of Sirach, and Esther, and Judith, and Tobit, and that which is called the Teaching of the Apostles, and the Shepherd. But the former, my brethren, are included in the Canon, the latter being [merely] read; nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics, who write them when they choose, bestowing upon them their approbation, and assigning to them a date, that so, using them as ancient writings, they may find occasion to lead astray the simple.”

Notice here how Athanasius differentiates between these non-Biblical books. Whilst considering neither to have any doctrinal weight, Athanasius still considers some useful in the instruction of new Christians, even though he dismisses the misleading content and dubious antiquity of others which he does not name. This is not unlike books written today.

God is who God is

I wrote this in response to some questions about God, time, evolution, and suffering.


I believe in an evolving creation, in a Creator who’s creativity is eternal.

God’s first creative act was to create time, so it is meaningless of speak of the passage of time before the moment of creation or of a time in which God came to be. God just is who God is. God is not made of any ‘thing’ because God created all things. There was literally no thing in the beginning. God is no thing but it is through God that all things came into being.

How can God comprehend our weakness, our pain, our ignorance, our suffering? By becoming one of us. By taking on our flesh. By suffering and dying on a cross.

How can we advance in godliness? By growing in love and faithfulness, by focusing on the love and faithfulness of God, particularly as displayed in the life, death, and resurrection of God incarnate.

Why do Muslims think the Holy Spirit is either Mohammed or the angel Gabriel?

I have been thinking about the claims I see many Muslims making about the Holy Spirit or Advocate of God, identifying him with either Mohammed or the angel Gabriel.

I believe the Bible verse that Muslims most frequently quote in reference to Mohammed is John 14:15-17, where it says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.”

Other verses that reference the Advocate / Spirit are John 15:26-27 and John 16:7-8, but the most pertinent verse I would think is in John 14:26 where it says, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

It seems fairly clear to me we’re talking of an incorporeal being, not a human, so I’m struggling to see how Mohammed comes into it. If there was any doubt we’re talking about an incorporeal being, I would have thought John 20:22 clears that up where it is written, “When he had said this, he [Jesus] breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

Note these verses are all from the same book, written by the same author.

As for the angel Gabriel, the only passage I’m aware of in the Bible that mentions the Holy Spirit and Gabriel together is Luke 1:26-27, 35 where it is written, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary … The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” It sounds pretty clear to me that Gabriel is talking of someone other than himself. So I’m struggling to see how they could ever be seen as the same person.

If there’s any other verses that are relevant I’d like to know, but everything I’m seen suggests to me that the identification of the Holy Spirit / Advocate with Mohammed or Gabriel is considerably forced. At least as far as the Bible is concerned. I recognise that many will be committed to such identifications regardless, but my concern here is on an honest reading of the Bible, not the Quran. I’m not seeing how Mohammed or Gabriel could be read out of these texts without prior suppositions.

What Is Natural Theology?

The following explanation of Natural Theology is sourced from the Gifford Lectures.

Traditionally natural theology is the term used for the attempt to prove the existence of God and divine purpose through observation of nature and the use of human reason. Seen in a more positive light natural theology is the part of theology that does not depend on revelation. To the extent “revealed theology,” which presupposes that God and divine purposes are not open to human understanding, is engaged at all by natural theology it is to address the issue of the probability that revealed theology can be reconciled with reason. During the 17th and 18th centuries attempts were made to establish a “natural religion” to which people might assent and thereby ameliorate harsh charges and actions against doubters of revealed religion. The classic work arguing for a rational derivation of divine purpose is William Paley’s Natural Theology (1802), but the rational arguments for the existence of divine reason at work in the world can be found as early as the writings of Plato (c.427-347).

Christian theology has a long history of attempting to reconcile the revelation of God in Jesus Christ with human reason. Orthodox Christian theology asserts the special quality of salvation found in the unique experience of God in Christ while at the same time holding humans responsible for responding to God’s grace. In short revelation had to be reconciled with a responsible, rational individual. Among the many attempts that have been made to reconcile natural theology with Christian faith were the efforts of Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). The philosopher David Hume (1711-76) argued that natural theology was mere speculation and that if Christian truth was to be believed at all, it must be believed on blind faith.

While for many people science and the scientific method seem to challenge the traditional understanding of faith, for others they complement their religious understanding. Thus the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorne explains the complementarity when he writes, “It is the desire for ontological knowledge, and not mere functional success, which motivates the labour of scientists.” (Belief in God in an Age of Science, 30) Polkinghorne along with Ian Barbour and Arthur Peacocke are scientist-theologians who have in recent years delivered the Gifford Lectures.

A more modern view of natural theology suggests that reason does not so much seek to supply a proof for the existence of God as to provide a coherent form drawn from the insights of religion to pull together the best of human knowledge from all areas of human activity. In this understanding natural theology attempts to relate science, history, morality and the arts in an integrating vision of the place of humanity in the universe. This vision, an integrating activity of reason, is religious to the extent it refers to an encompassing reality that is transcendent in power and value. Natural theology is thus not a prelude to faith but a general worldview within which faith can have an intelligible place.

Anthony Flew, A Dictionary of Philosophy, Revised Second Edition
Dagobert D. Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy
Van A. Harvey, A Handbook of Theological Terms
Keith Ward, “Natural Theology” in The Macmillan Encyclopedia of Science and Religion
John Polkinghorne, Belief in God in an Age of Science

Christians need to hear the gospel

Christians need to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians. Why?

1/ Because there are plenty of people who identify as Christians who aren’t actually saved; who are Christian in name only. They need to hear the gospel.

2/ Because there are plenty of Christians whose faith is immature; who haven’t integrated the gospel into the their life and teaching even after many years in church (or even ministry); who need deeper roots so they can produce healthier fruit. They need to hear the gospel.

3/ Because growing in grace is essential for growing in Christ even for mature Christians. Grace is not just the ABCs of Christianity, it is A-Z. Everyone needs to hear the gospel.

Is YHWH just a Hebrew version of Zeus?

Is YHWH equivalent to other gods? Just a Hebrew version of Zeus for instance? With a wife even? No, YHWH’s domain is not limited to the sky. Nor did YHWH come into being at some point like Zeus did. Granted there is some evidence to suggest early Hebrews had a more limited conception of YHWH, but subsequent revelation, not least through Jesus, has expanded our understanding of YHWH.

The Trinity before the Council of Nicea

I thought I’d clarify why I affirm trinitarian doctrine even though I am no fan of Emperor Constantine, a man historically associated with the Nicene Creed (325AD). It’s because, although the Nicene Creed wasn’t formulated till then, the trinitarian thinking it articulated hardly appeared out of nowhere. Christian leaders had been expressing themselves in these terms long prior to that. A prime example is Tertullian (160-215AD), an African apologist and theologian, who put it this way:

“We define that there are two, the Father and the Son, and three with the Holy Spirit, and this number is made by the pattern of salvation . . . [which] brings about unity in trinity, interrelating the three, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are three, not in dignity, but in degree, not in substance but in form, not in power but in kind. They are of one substance and power, because there is one God from whom these degrees, forms and kinds devolve in the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Early Christian Creeds

Christianity has produced a number of creeds, confessions, and statements of faith, throughout its long history. Here’s a list of some of the earliest and most significant:

  • The Creed of Aristides (125 AD)
  • Apostles Creed (120 – 250 AD)
  • The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed (381 AD)
  • The Chalcedonian Creed (451 AD)
  • The Athenasian Creed (298 – 373 AD)

Jesus and the Old Testament

Below is a graphic representation of the number of times Jesus quotes the Old Testament in the New Testament. There are some interesting patterns here.


Firstly, note how the the Gospel of Matthew is the most quote heavy of the four all and that there’s considerable focus on the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. This supports the common claim that his gospel is the most Torah focussed.

The Gospel of Mark also puts substantial weight on the Torah, and it’s the only gospel that references Ezekiel and Joshua. For such a brief and action focussed gospel its surprising how many quotes it references.

On the flip side, note how the Gospel of John, the last to be written, is the least intertextual of them all, only referencing Psalms and Isaiah.

Studying such interconnections between these books can help us to get a better feel for the concerns and intentions of the authors of each gospel.


Different kingdoms

When fellow Christians speak of the separation of church and state I find it’s necessary to tease out what they mean by that.

Do they mean church should only be overseeing the personal dimensions of life while the state overseeing the political dimensions of life, as in a two kingdoms model? Or do they see separation in more counter cultural terms, and seek to exercise power differently to the powerful, as in a rival kingdoms model? In other words, is the state a type of Jerusalem that we should feel at home in or a type of Babylon that we should feel like exiles in?

Personally I lean towards the latter. The kingship of Jesus is not limited to one dimension of life. Jesus is Lord of all dimensions of life. Jesus is the king of kings, or president of presidents if you will. I see it this way: we are to be loyal to the state only to the extent that it doesn’t conflict with higher loyalties … and we can be assured that at some point those loyalties will come into conflict. At that point we will have to choose between two kings. We can’t follow both at the same time all the time.

The Trinity in the Bible

Although the doctrine of the Trinity is not taught explicitly in scripture, it is the many verses which illustrate the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, acting as one, which bring Christians back, time and time again, to the question. Consider, for instance, this introduction to the first letter to the Thessalonians; the intertwining of references to God the Father, to the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Holy Spirit, for a people who daily recited, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Being Christian scripture, it is not something Christians can lightly ignore.

Paul, Silas and Timothy,

To the church of the Thessalonians in GOD THE FATHER and the LORD JESUS CHRIST:

Grace and peace to you.

We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. We remember before our GOD AND FATHER your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our LORD JESUS CHRIST.

For we know, brothers and sisters loved by GOD, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the HOLY SPIRIT and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the LORD, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the HOLY SPIRIT. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The LORD’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in GOD has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to GOD from idols to serve the living and true GOD, and to wait for his SON from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—JESUS, who rescues us from the coming wrath.