Interview: Dr. Michael Svigel, Christian Doctrine and the Early Church
A bad reputation is brewing among evangelical Christians. As a whole we’ve been found lacking in our knowledge of biblical doctrine. That’s a problem we need to address! Dr. Michael Svigel is part of the solution. He’s written RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith and is a voice of wisdom on the topic of doctrinal development in the early church.
Dr. Svigel joins this week’s show to share insight into this highly important, highly overlooked historical aspect of our faith. It’s tricky trying to trace how theology developed, as fears of human error disrupting the Word of God can creep into our minds. But Dr. Svigel effectively sets the record straight in this week’s interview, which will be continued in part 2 of his interview next week. Ultimately we’ll discover how so many denominations and varying beliefs within evangelical circles have affected and will continue to affect Christianity going forward.
Check out Dr. Svigel’s Amazon Author Page HERE!
Steve Conover: Welcome to The Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover. With me is our host and teacher, Chris Katulka. I'd like to encourage you right at the outset to visit our website, foiradio.org, to find out more information about The Friends of Israel Today. There you'll find our archive pages and you can listen to six years' worth of Chris' teaching. Again, that's foiradio.org.
Chris Katulka: Steve, we have a fascinating two weeks ahead of us. We started a new series here. We're actually going to look at the church history, which I'm pretty excited about. I know we're The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, but church history is so important. Really we're going to look at specifically what it was like as the important core doctrines of our faith, the binding doctrines of our faith as Bible believing Christians... What did it look like as those were being developed in early church history?
Well, today we actually are going to have Dr. Michael Svigel, Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary to come talk about these very important issues.
Steve Conover: But first in the news, the Arab Israeli minority, which makes up 20% of Israel's population, has been dealing with a violent crime wave driven by criminal gangs with family disputes. The murder rates in the Arab Israeli community far exceeds its share of the population. Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar told the Jerusalem Post the phenomenon of organized crime endangers Israel more than external threats.
Chris Katulka: Steve, before we went on air here we were talking about this is kind of a controversial statement that Mr. Sa'ar is saying here, because he's saying that the crime wave that's going on is even more significant than Israel's external threats, which if you think about what's Israel's external threats, well it's Hezbollah. It's Hamas. It's Iran.
Here's my take on what Justice Minister Sa'ar statement is doing here. I personally think it's misleading. Israel's external threats and internal problems are apples and oranges. An Arab Israeli crime wave can do harm to a country from the inside, but policymakers can help find a solution.
But at the same time Arab Israeli criminals aren't storing arsenals of missiles to launch at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem like Hamas and Hezbollah. Look, at the end of the day it's apples and oranges.
I'm excited to have Dr. Michael Svigel on the program. I wish he could be in studio with us, but he's down in Dallas, Texas. He is the Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. He's the author of RetroChristianity: Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith. He's also the author of The Practical Primer on Theological Method: Table Manners for Discussing God, His Works and His Ways. Another book I know he'll mention later on, Urban Legends of Church History.
Mike, I was chatting with a mutual friend of ours, Hans Guger, and I was saying I'm going to mention these books, and he goes, "Chris, RetroChristianity was like years ago. You got to promote his new book." But I wanted to get started, because I was reading through the internet, and there's a lot there on the internet, and as I was going through it I came across a Lifeway Research study from 2020 called The State of Theology.
What they found among Evangelical Christians is that in our brand of Christianity, Evangelicals, we're pretty sloppy when it comes to core principles of doctrine and theology. So just listen to some of these stats and then we can talk about it.
96% of Evangelical Christians say that they believe in the classic doctrine of the Trinity, one God, three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, yet nearly two-thirds, 65%, say Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God. I'm sure as somebody like yourself who teaches Trinitarianism at DTS, you probably shed a tear when you read those numbers.
Three in 10 Evangelicals say they believe Jesus was a great teacher but he wasn't God, and nearly half, 46%, say the Holy Spirit is a force rather than a person.
So I guess my question to kind of start this conversation is that in your book, RetroChristianity, you said that the Evangelical church... I like this. You said it was in a mid-life crisis and that it's important for us to do something with a look in the rear view mirror as we drive forward as Evangelical Christians.
So in light of these stats, the Lifeway Research, what's the benefit for us Evangelicals today to look back at the development of doctrine and theology over the course of church history?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, that's a great question. I think it is not the only thing we need to do. We need to teach believers the Bible and teach them the basic practices of the Christian life and spiritual formation, but one thing we need to do is retrieve some things that we've neglected and have lost.
I kind of liken our journey through church history at every stage as like a toddler sometimes carrying a handful of a dozen items across the room and then dropping two or three of them by the time they get to you. This seems to be what's going on, especially in Evangelicalism, which is... As a reaction against liberal theology in the 19th century and the right action, reaffirming the fundamentals of the faith, it is relatively in that form a new movement.
It kind of was growing up here in this 20th century, defending the Bible and the narrative scripture, which are all good things, but in the process we neglected other very important doctrines and practices. By looking back we'll get a chance to see oh, no, what's that thing over there that we dropped? What is that? To realize this is something really important.
Christianity, the whole narrative of theology, is a whole that fits together perfectly, and if you drop something important other things are going to suffer, and I think that's where we're at right now.
Chris Katulka: Okay. I think kind of during this discussion we're going to be using this term orthodoxy, and I know that in the Evangelical mind that term orthodoxy can drum up feelings of high church, the Catholic church, the Greek Orthodox church, which I totally understand. My mom became a born again believer, but she grew up in the Catholic.
And, you know, quite honestly she feels a little animosity that she didn't feel like she was preached the Gospel simply growing up in the church. I understand that there can be some animosity there or some hurt feelings.
So as we use this term orthodoxy, so that we can put it in its proper place, can we give some definition to the term for our discussion?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah. That's great. The term can be used different ways. If you see it capitalized, you hear the Orthodox church, it's probably talking about the Eastern Orthodox, Greek Orthodox church like a denomination. What we really mean though is that the Greek term “orthos doxa” means the “correct opinion.”
For crucial doctrines and practices, the foundational fundamentals of the faith, there really only one way of seeing it. There's not several different ways of viewing the Trinity or several different ways of viewing Jesus. Those would be false doctrines or heresies.
So for a lot of things there are really just one correct opinion on the crucial doctrines and practices in keeping with what true Christians have always believed throughout history. So that's kind of how we understand orthodoxy.
What we might call in similar circles... We might call those the fundamentals of the faith, or the core doctrines, or the essential truths of the Christian faith. We're really talking about the same thing. Orthodox is just kind of the more technical term for those things.
Chris Katulka: So as we talk about the fundamentals of the faith, as you're saying the orthodox doctrines and theology that really bind Christians together despite all of the denominations that might be out there. I want to ask you, the doctrines... I think sometimes these foundational doctrines, we can almost kind of feel like they just fall out of heaven, but they didn't. They were developed over time.
I know that that can sometimes put a fear in a Christian, thinking “oh, so man had a say on these certain things.” What's the best way to describe the development of these fundamentals that bind us together while alleviating... I hate to do this to you, but while alleviating some of the fears that might creep into the Evangelical mind that it was man who made these doctrines?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah. I think it's important to understand that when we talk about development of doctrine, maybe be a little more specific, we mean development within a doctrine. The church has always held that the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Spirit is God. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the... What we call the doctrine of the Trinity.
Well, the refined language of one God in three persons, one nature in three... This took a little time to hammer that out, but the basic doctrine of the Trinity, the deity and humanity of Christ and some of these things, that took some time to hammer out as far as the best to defend and explain them. That's really what's developing.
The raw material, the doctrine itself, the church has always held, so they have to kind of maintain this intention of certain things that the church has always believed, as well as some of the things within that doctrine, where they through trial and error kind of play with different ways of explaining it, and maybe getting it wrong, going down a dead-end alley and coming back. They know that was not the best way to do it.
So you see the history of the development within a particular doctrine, especially things like the Trinity and the deity and humanity of Christ.
So I think we need to be at ease, that look, there are some things that have never changed and some things that now we find them and explain them better through trial and error, and we are responsible then for those developments.
Chris Katulka: I want to ask you, you know, maybe there is a Christian out there who's driving along and saying, "What does it matter? If someone believes in Jesus, what does it matter if they think that he was created by God? Why do we care so much?"
Could you maybe define or give some explanation as to why these are so important, these... Like you're talking about the Trinity, a real foundational element of our faith. Why are they important? Why shouldn't we just be lackadaisical about it?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah. Number one, there's the one true God and everything else is a false god. God wants to be known as he is. He has revealed himself through his Son by the Spirit and we are responsible for that. We want to know the right God.
If somebody says they knew me and then begin to describe me in all kinds of ways that are totally unrelated to me they don't really know me. So we need to be accurate in our understanding of who he is, but also everything rides on this. If Jesus isn't the God-man, His atoning sacrifice is going to be changed, the value of His death on the cross, His ability to save us. If the Spirit isn't fully God, God isn't actually with us, living in us, transforming us. It really does affect the whole basis of the Christian life and faith.
Chris Katulka: We're speaking with Dr. Michael Svigel. He's the Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. Listen, we're going to take a quick break and we're going to come back with Dr. Svigel and we're going to talk about were the early church fathers, were they reacting to events, or were they being proactive, as we talk about this idea of the foundations of our faith. Stick around.
I hope that you've been enjoying our conversation with Dr. Michael Svigel as we've been discussing church history and even the development of doctrine. But, look, we have a resource for you to help really unpack church history, and it's a resource that's very easy to read and to take in, so that when you're done reading this really concise book you'll have a good grasp on 2,000 years of church history.
It's called Two Millennia of Church History, by Dr. Renald Showers. Learn everything that you need to know about church history with this book. Its illustrations and easy-to-read format will enable you to trace the development of each period in church history, such as the apostolic church, the persecuted church, the reformation church, and much more.
The book also covers the change in church doctrine as you watch the spread of orthodoxy, Romanism, and reformation, to the great spiritual awakening and liberal theology. You'll be sure to enjoy and learn from this comprehensive church history guide.
Steve, where can our listeners get their copy of Two Millennia of Church History?
Steve Conover: Yeah. To purchase Two Millennia of Church History or to learn more you can visit our website at foiradio.org. That's foiradio.O-R-G, to get this trusted resource from The Friends of Israel. Again, that Two Millennia of Church History by Dr. Renald Showers, foiradio.O-R-G.
Chris Katulka: Welcome back. We have Dr. Michael Svigel, who is the Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. I really want to encourage our listeners right now, if they would just go to amazon.com you'll see that Mike has an actual page that you can go to to see all of his writings, and there are plenty there for you to pick from. If you just go to amazon.com and you look up Dr. Michael Svigel you'll see his author's page there, a great way to connect with his works.
So we're talking about this idea of the foundations of the faith. We've got Dr. Svigel for two episodes. When we're talking about church fathers and the development, or within the development. As you were talking about of these orthodox doctrines, these foundations of the faith, were the early church fathers as they were looking at these things... Were they being proactive to form them or were they being reactionary to what was happening around them?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, that's a great question. It's actually a little bit of both. If we kind of define theology or thinking and speaking rightly about God as faith seeking understanding, you have the faith once for all delivered to the saints as it says in Jude. So you have this basic Trinitarian creation, fall, redemption narrative that centers on Christ, the person and works, in His first and second coming.
So you have the raw materials of this thing, and people being baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and discipled and following after Christ. But people are going to start asking questions. “What is this? What do we mean, three persons, one God?” Certain problems and apparent contradictions or things.
So there's going to be this proactive element as they are looking to scripture and trying to explain it in contemporary language so people can better understand the faith they believe. But at the same time we know, and Jesus and the apostles predicted this, there are going to be false prophets and false teachers, and they're popping up and saying, "No, no, no. Jesus was just a man." Or, "No, he was actually just a God. He had no body." So they're coming up with all of these abhorrent views and they're having to respond to those as well.
So it's almost a two front kind of battle that they're fighting, explaining it as well as defending it in this developed language.
Chris Katulka: You could almost say this is something that we need to do in the church today as well. We need to be proactive-
Dr. Michael Svigel: Absolutely.
Chris Katulka: ... to teach the truth about the core doctrines of our faith, that we have to be proactive and do it, but we also have to be reactionary, because, man, I turn the TV on, Mike, and I'm telling you sometimes I look at what's being taught on TV and I go “there could be millions of people watching this false teaching right now.” It's just so easy to get it out online or on television, so the Evangelical church has to be both proactive and reactive to what they're seeing as well.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yes. If we did that more I think it would change some of those statistics that you started out with.
Chris Katulka: I totally agree with you. In your book that I was going through recently, Retro Orthodoxy, you have this creative layout here. You say that there are these three different canons of retro orthodoxy. You said the first is something that will never change. That's the doctrines that we're talking about, the foundations of the faith.
The second are some things that have never been the same and never will be. The last one you call some things grow clear through trial and error, these three different canons, I love it, that you call them.
But I want to focus on the second one in our remaining moments here. You wrote some things have never been the same and never will be. It sounds like you're arguing that while there's unity in the foundations of our faith, in the foundational doctrines, the orthodoxy of our faith, there's still diversity as well. How do you balance between the diversity and the orthodoxy? How do you do that?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah. First of all just learning what are those foundational doctrines of the faith. In RetroChristianity I list seven of them. People can number them differently, but knowing that these are the things, the Trinity, the fall and depravity of humanity, the work of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, inspiration of scripture, redeemed humanity incorporated into the church, and then of course the future return of Christ and the restoration.
Once you kind of hammer those out, then you realize that, look, there's a lot of room for diversity. People who hold those same doctrines as us, things like different ways of doing baptism, or the Lord's supper, or organizing our churches, or understanding the order of end-times events, these are things that we've never seen eye-to-eye on. Predestination, for instance. I mean there are things that there are valid Christian perspectives within orthodoxy.
Chris Katulka: That's really important for us to understand because there are ways... Diversity, we live in a culture today that's driving us apart from one another. But even though there's diversity within the church there are principles or... not principles, but doctrines that ground us and unify us as one. That is I think very important, especially in the culture that we live in today.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah. Exactly.
Chris Katulka: Well, Dr. Svigel, it's fantastic to have you on this first episode. We got another one with you next week, so for our listeners I'm excited that Dr. Svigel will be able to come back.
We're going to chat now more about what I like to call the difference between Athens and Jerusalem. We're going to kind of drill down a little bit and talk about what was going on as the early church that was rooted and grounded in Jerusalem begins to move out, and how these foundational doctrines that we're talking about are impacted as more gentiles are coming into the faith, and what that looks like. So be sure to come back next week, because we're going to have Dr. Svigel with us again. Mike, thank you so much for being with us.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Steve Conover: Now Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: For many months I had not seen the ultra orthodox from the Lubavitch Movement. They tried to convince people that their late leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson from New York, was the Messiah.
I was wondering whether they had left for good until recently when I heard a knock on my door. Several ultra orthodox men stood outside with one of their well-known Rabbis. A few years earlier this Rabbi had argued with me on a crowded bus and shouted at me concerning my faith. He did not know upon whose door he had knocked and was greatly surprised when I answered.
"We've come to visit you," he said. With him were two young assistants whom he was instructing and had a witness to people about Rabbi Schneerson. "What news do you bring?" I asked. "Important news," said one of the young men. They began to speak about Rabbi Schneerson, about who many in Israel no longer want to hear.
"Do you believe he is the true Messiah?" one asked. "You have believed a lie," I replied. Nervously the men looked at the Rabbi. "Did you hear what he said about our holy Messiah?" The one asked me, "Why do you speak against such a holy one?" "You are worshiping blindness," I said, "and you will become spiritually blind as your teacher has become."
"How do you know you follow the truth?" "Because I follow the Bible. I believe only in almighty God as is written in the Bible. Is the Bible not holy enough for you, and do you pray from the depths of your heart or from prayer books?" "We pray from prayer books. How do you know how to pray without a prayer book?"
"I pray before the Lord from my heart." I showed them the important passage of Deuteronomy 6, Verse 4, where it is written, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord, our God, the Lord is one. You should love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words which I command you today shall be in your heart."
They recite these verses many times each day, but they do not understand what they say because they read so quickly. We had a nice conversation and I gave them a piece of cake and a cup of coffee. The hospitality surprised them. One young man remarked, "We know you are against us, yet you receive us warmly as friends. Why?"
"I believe in almighty God," I said. "With him there is no hatred, only love." Then the students wanted to know how I came to believe in Jesus, so I told them. It was a great opportunity for me to explain the true way of salvation. I opened my Bible and read to them what is written about the Lord Jesus in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah 53. They listened, reading along with me while glancing at the Rabbi, waiting to see what he would do, but he did nothing.
Then he said, "It would be better if we left." "Why? We are reading the Bible. Is it forbidden to read the Bible?" But they left, telling me, "We want to see you again." Please pray that they return and that we can have another conversation about the Lord.
Steve Conover: We're so glad you chose to spend these 30 minutes with us for The Friends of Israel Today. It was a joy to have Dr. Michael Svigel with us. He's our guest next week.
Chris Katulka: Yeah. He's coming back, and you know what? We're going to drill down a little bit deeper into some issues in church history specifically related to that separation that happened as the church moved beyond Jerusalem, and asking ourselves the question “what were the things that were left behind as more gentiles were coming to faith and less Jewish people were? So it's going to be a great conversation again as we continue our discussion on church history.
Steve Conover: Our host and teacher is Chris Katulka. Today's program was produced by Tom Gallione. Our theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong. Mike Kellogg read Apples of Gold, and I'm Steve Conover, executive producer.
Our mailing address is FOI Radio, P. O. Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey 08099. That's FOI Radio, P. O. Box 914, Bellmawr, New Jersey 08099. One last quick reminder to visit us at foiradio.org.
The Friends of Israel Today is a production of The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. We are a worldwide evangelical ministry proclaiming biblical truth about Israel and the Messiah, while bringing physical and spiritual comfort to the Jewish people.
Two Millennia of Church History
Since it began in Acts 2, the church has moved from first-century Orthodoxy to the Crusading church of the Middle Ages to the Reformation to modern movements such as liberal theology and Pentecostalism. Trace the course of church history in this well-explained booklet to learn the origins and progression of your own faith!
IN CANADA? ORDER HERE!
Apples of Gold: How Do You Know That You Follow The Truth?
Imagine the surprise when Zvi opened the door one day to a rabbi and his followers who had previously yelled and rebuked him concerning his faith years before on a crowded bus. The men had no idea who lived in the house where they knocked. They were simply traveling around telling people about the man they believed was the Messiah: Menachem Mendel Schneerson, a rabbi from New York. Zvi invited them into his house where he shared the truth of the Scriptures to these men seeking the Messiah.
The Friends of Israel Today theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.
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