Interview: Dr. Michael Svigel, Christian Doctrine and the Early Church
Many of us have developed a view of the early church without acknowledging the culture of its time, which largely influenced the church. Greek and Roman culture played a role in shaping the early church, so we should know what those cultures were all about! After studying the Orthodox foundations of our faith last week, we continue learning about the early church with Dr. Michael Svigel this week.
Of course, Jewish culture might have been the church’s biggest influence of all. For the first half of the book of Acts, the early church was almost exclusively Jewish. It was headquartered in Jerusalem, and the Jewish people were coming to faith in their Jewish Messiah, Jesus. But the church quickly saw a shift in its culture, as Gentiles came to know Jesus as Lord and joined the church. How did this influx of Gentiles change the culture of the early church? And what part did the Reformation play in the church’s approach to Scripture? Track the church’s changes with us this week with this information-filled interview with Dr. Svigel!
If you missed Part 1 of this series, you can Listen Here.
To hear Chris interview Dr. Svigel about the Reformation, Click Here.
Check out Dr. Svigel’s Amazon Author Page HERE.
Steve Conover: Welcome to the Friends of Israel Today. I'm Steve Conover, and with me as our host and teacher, Chris Katulka. I want to encourage you right at the outset to visit our website, foiradio.org, foiradio.org. There, you can find out more information about our program, the Friends of Israel Today, but you can also visit our archive pages and listen to six years worth of Chris's teachings. Again, visit us at foiradio.org.
Chris Katulka: And another good reason for you to go to foiradio.org is because we're actually continuing a conversation that we had with Dr. Michael Svigel, who is the Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, and we're continuing our discussion on church history and the development of doctrine. And today we're actually going to go down even deeper and we're going to begin to look at that kind of transition point that happened. Remember, the early church was predominantly Jewish and there were more Jewish believers at that time than there were Gentiles. But at some point that transition happened, and the questions I'm going to ask Dr. Svigel are all related to whether or not that had an impact on the doctrines that we believe in today. It's going to be a fantastic discussion with Dr. Michael Svigel.
Steve Conover: But first, in the news earlier this month, the representative for the Islamic Republic of Iran supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, called for the elimination of Israel in a sermon, where he said, "The global arrogance led by America with complicity of Israel seeks to delay the realization of an important issue, which is the destruction of the Zionist regime."
Chris Katulka: You know, this is just disgusting to me, Steve, that here again from Iran, this desire to destroy Israel. When he talks about destroying the Zionist regime, I think it's important for our audience, our Christian audience to know Zionism is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to exist in their ancient homeland, which is Israel. And so he's talking about pushing the Jewish people out of the land of Israel. And you know what? I really think it's time for the voices of Iranian people to rise up against this disgusting hatred of the Jewish people. Voices like Iranian dissident Sheina Vojoudi, who said, "We Iranians are tired of their," the leaders, their Iranian leaders, "We're tired of their antisemitism. We have a long history with the Jewish people and we want to be able to revive that 2,700 year old friendship." Sheina, we stand with you.
Chris Katulka: I'm excited to welcome back Dr. Michael Svigel. He's Department Chair and Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. It's great to have you back on the program, Mike.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Thanks for having me again.
Chris Katulka: So last week, we talked about, I coined it the “development of doctrine,” but really talking more about the core foundational doctrines of the faith, which are really, really important, and really kind of the failures in some way of the evangelical church right now, as we're seeing kind of the sloppy doctrine that we see in evangelicalism right now. That people are embracing false truths about something as important as the trinity. And so last week we talked with Dr. Svigel about that, and so if you're interested in hearing that message, you can go to foiradio.org and you'll find it in our archives page. It's fantastic.
Chris Katulka: But today I want to move us into more how the early church was influenced by the culture that it was growing up in. The earliest church from Acts chapter two through Acts chapter 10 was basically all Jewish. They were Jewish people who were coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. The temple was still standing in Jerusalem. Peter and John and even Paul were preaching in the Messiah, Christ in the temple, and we know that the Jerusalem council that was led by the apostle James was dealing with the issues in the earliest church at that time as it relates to the Gentiles coming to faith in Jesus.
So the scriptures, even the scriptures actually were the Old Testament text. There was no New Testament that was the cannon that the church was using at that time. There were letters going around. But early on in the history of the church, a transition started to happen away from Jerusalem as more Gentiles were coming to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. So I guess, Mike, my first question is, did that transition happen early in the church where we see Gentile influence becoming more prominent than the Jewish influence in the church? Was that something that was going on early in the church history that was happening there?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, probably from our perspective, yes. We begin to see a falling out of church and synagogue and Jewish as well as Gentile believers really after the destruction of the temple, and then after the Bar Kokhba revolt especially, and maybe some of your listeners can look that up in the 130s. And that really we see this parting of the ways of the Jewish forms of early Christianity and the Gentile forms.
But I would say it's a little bit more of a gradual process, and this is one of those things, I'll be honest. It's discussed and debated among scholars as is almost everything, but I'm of the opinion that really Jewish Christians and the Old Testament and some of these concerns continued to exercise some influence on even the church that was becoming increasingly in majority Gentile, probably for a few hundred years.
Chris Katulka: Really?
Dr. Michael Svigel: I'll mention some people. Yeah, I think there's a book. Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple, that does kind of propose an interesting thesis that even through the Council of Nicaea, there was some influence. But I do not want to make it sound like it was all peaches and cream, because there were, as we'll discuss, I'm sure some deviations and some changes that are occurring because of the influence of Greek philosophy and Greek culture as well.
Chris Katulka: Yeah, for our listeners too, as Mike was saying, the Bar Kokhba revolt, this does become very important because this is a decisive moment where the Jewish believers have to make a choice as to whether or not they're going to embrace, really, the nationalism of Israel that's connected to the Messianism or they're going to follow Jesus, the Messiah who's sitting at the right hand of the Father, or are they going to follow this false messiah, Bar Kokhba? And this is a real defining moment for the early church as well. Not just the fall of the temple, but that Bar Kokhba revolt, who was a false messiah.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Right. That's exactly right. These kinds of events, current events, and then the developments really do have an impact. We sometimes don't realize the influence they have, even on the development of theology.
Chris Katulka: We're not denying a national future for Israel when we say that, but we're saying that we believe Jesus is the king of Israel and Bar Kokhba wasn't.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Exactly.
Chris Katulka: And that was a major decisive moment for them. Last week we talked about the development of doctrine. Was the early church, as this is happening, as they're looking at the scriptures and really putting it in a systematized order to help give a foundation for the church to stand on, as they were doing, this was the early church influenced by the Greco Roman culture that was surrounding them as they were putting these foundational tenets of our faith in order? Or even, maybe even the methods of interpreting the scriptures as well. Was the Greco Roman culture influencing that at all?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, and I think that is the case. Now, we can look at this in two ways, positively and negatively, and I think our listeners will realize it's the same today. Are we communicating in a language and using images and concepts that are making the gospel clearer and easier to understand for people, which is positive? Or are we starting to actually affect the content of the gospel? Are we pagonizing it? Are we making it not just culturally relevant, but relative? A little bit of both of those things are actually going on in the first few centuries of the church, just like they're going on today.
Chris Katulka: So, in light of that, as you're saying that influence is there, I was struck because a few years ago, I read that Augustine, who's a fourth century AD Christian theologian that many people read, a well-respected theologian from that time, and even has an impact today. He said this. He said that the Greek philosopher Plato, he's quoted saying this. "I found that whatever truth I had read in the Platonus was in the writings of Paul combined with great exaltation of thy grace."
So, I guess I have two questions. The first would be, would Paul have agreed? I know that's what Augustine is saying. Would Paul have agreed with Plato? And I guess my second is this. What did Augustine see in Plato that would've pulled out these similarities to connect them with Paul's approach to the scriptures?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, that's a good question. That's a great quote. It does kind of point to the direction that Augustine himself was headed, and he was not the first. There were several others, they would call themselves Christian philosophers of a sort, that were trying to find bridges between Christianity and the gospel and the Greek world and Greek philosophy. Some were not very keen on this idea. Tertullian's famous quote, "What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?" We have the scriptures, we don't need anything more.
So, the church has always been in the midst of this tension. I think Augustine was trying to create a system of knowledge that was defensible, appealing, and it does affect his hermeneutics, his interpretation of scripture. He tends to spiritualize things a little bit more, tends to emphasize the heavenly and eternal and the spiritual and the invisible over the earthly and the bodily and the physical, and that's a problem. But he did see in Plato things like the immortality of the soul or that God is wholly other and transcendent and unchanging, and these kinds of things that he did see as points of contact with Christianity. But many in looking back would say, maybe he took it a little bit too far.
Chris Katulka: We're going to take a quick break and we're going to come right back because something's coming up actually pretty soon. We're talking about Reformation, October 31st, Martin Luther. I want to move this conversation forward into kind of the Reformation era. It's been a fantastic discussion. You should stick around for more.
Chris Katulka: 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. 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.org, to get this trusted resource from the Friends of Israel. Again, that's Two Millennia of Church History by Dr. Renald Showers, foiradio.org.
Chris Katulka: Welcome back, everybody. We've got Dr. Michael Svigel on the line right now as we're wrapping up our discussion here. I want to encourage you to go to amazon.com and there, if you just look him up, Dr. Michael Svigel, you'll actually be able to go to an author's page and see all of the works that he has had a part in. But the two that I want to really bring home is RetroChristianity, Reclaiming the Forgotten Faith, and A Practical Primer on Theological Method, Table Manners for Discussing God, His Works and His Ways. He's got many more, even Urban Legends of Church History, as well. You can find all of that amazon.com.
Chris Katulka: So, Mike, we kind of are moving from Augustine and now we're moving up into, and we're jumping church history a lot here, because we only have so much time. But what role did Martin Luther play and the Reformation play 500 years ago in this tension between this Jerusalem and Athens approach to the scriptures?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, that's a great question, and that whole Medieval period, that thousand years that we kind of skipped over is... we have to. But it is kind of important because in the Reformation period, the church had kind of gotten to this point where philosophy and some of these influences had really affected the state of theology, especially the late Medieval period, what we call “scholasticism.” Luther and some of the early Reformers responded very negatively against that, and for good reason. It had almost mixed together and made faith and reason or nature and grace almost indistinguishable, and they were attempting to kind of separate these out and put scripture and the earlier church kind of approach more primary. So I think that we're seeing sort of the result of this watered down or contamination or changes or developments or deviations that have occurred because of the secularizing and philosophizing, perhaps, of Christianity to an acute degree.
Chris Katulka: Would you say, if you had to boil it down to... Would you say really Martin Luther brought it back to the scriptures and placed, during the Reformation, where we find these core foundations of the faith? I mean, I know that he probably wasn't liked at all by the Catholic church, but he was really kind of rooting himself back in the scriptures, and there was a lot of... When we talk about culture, we talk about history, there is the Gutenberg press, the printing press that's being used so we're able to share more, connect people with the scriptures, getting the scriptures in the hands of the people. That really changed the dynamic as well as we're talking about this transition, as people are rooting themselves back in the scriptures themselves. Is that a good assessment?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, no, I think it's good. I'm going to kind of reach back to last week's episode where we talked about people dropping things along the way, and the printing press and the publication discovery of all of these old forgotten texts, New Testament manuscripts and early Christian writings, church fathers. And Luther and many others looked back at these things and said, "Wait a second." There's huge disagreements and disparities between New Testament and the early church, and what I'm seeing in the last few hundred years from the scholastics. Put those two together and they kind of got in a fight, and the early church in the New Testament won. So that's how I think it would be the best way to frame that.
Chris Katulka: So, not only could you go back and listen to last week's episode with Mike, Dr. Svigel, you can even go back to 2017 when I had him on and we talked about the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther and the Reformation. That's a 2017 episode that you can see in our archives page as well. So, I encourage you to go back there.
Here's my last question for you. Mike, we're The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry, so you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know where our heart is when it comes to the Jewishness of the scriptures. When I see Paul at the end of the book of Acts and he's standing before Caesar in Rome, and some people could almost follow the trajectory of Christianity where Paul is standing, where Paul started, where he ended. From Jerusalem he goes to Judea, Samaria, the picture of the gospel going out to the uttermost parts of the world.
Because of that, because we kind of see that trajectory of Paul moving to Rome, essentially, you can almost see Jerusalem as a bygone city of the old ways. But when I read Acts, I see Paul anxiously waiting to stand before the leader of the Gentile world, Caesar, to let him know that he should look towards Jerusalem because the King of kings has come and He's coming again. And Paul's in Rome on the basis of the hope of Israel as it ends in Acts.
So, instead of looking away from Jerusalem, I kind of want to end with this. It seems like scriptures are demanding us to look back at what God will do in the world through Christ in Jerusalem. I guess my question is this, does my approach hold any water?
Dr. Michael Svigel: Yeah, I think that's a good approach. It's my approach, anyway, that really, looking back to the promises of the Messiah and the messianic age of the Old Testament, what we see as the coming kingdom at the return of Christ, the millennial kingdom and the new, it's looking at the same thing. And by preaching the coming kingdom, we're really looking back at these promises. Maybe this doesn't hold water, but from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, even to the ends of the earth, last time I checked on a circle, the end is the beginning. So, there's a sense in which...
That's probably going a little too far, but still the idea is, look, there's a reason why we see the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven at the restoration. God is not finished. He's got these great and glorious promises he's going to fulfill. Not in some other way than the Messiah, but through the Messiah, and these promises are going to be fulfilled one day. So, I think that's a good way of putting it. Nobody in the New Testament abandons these promises and these expectations and this glorious restoration. What they do is they look forward and tie them to the second coming of Christ, which is what we need to do as well.
Chris Katulka: Amen. We've been speaking with Dr. Michael Svigel. Mike, it's been great to have you on. Again, I want to encourage our listeners to go to amazon.com and there they can find all of the writings and books that Dr. Svigel has put out. They're fantastic. A great way to get yourself acquainted with church history and with orthodoxy and to see these things aren't bad. Actually, they actually help define who we are as Christians. A fantastic way for us to get our understanding of how God has preserved the faith throughout church history. It's an amazing story. This is the area of study for Dr. Svigel and I am thankful he was able to take time out of his busy schedule, his busy teaching schedule and writing schedule to be able to join us. Mike, thanks again for being with us.
Dr. Michael Svigel: Thanks for having me. It's always a pleasure.
Steve Conover: Now, Apples of Gold, a dramatic reading from the life and ministry of Holocaust survivor Zvi Kalisher.
Mike Kellogg: One week a neighbor came to my home to confront me about my faith in Christ. He was not friendly and sure he could outsmart me. He began to insult me, and then he asked, "What is the greatest wisdom on earth? Since you say you worship God, tell me what the Bible says." I replied, "You call yourself a good man who worships the Lord. You tell me what the Bible says." "But I want you to give me the answer," he said. "What does God want us to do?" I told him I would indeed answer him from the Bible, and I said, "You spend your life reading fictitious stories composed by rabbis rather than following God's Word. You think you are wise, but you are far from faith in the Lord." He said, "I know you believe in this one." He meant Jesus.
Soon, his friends arrived. Now he was even more confident. One asked, "Show us about whom you have believed. Is he mentioned in the Bible?"
"Ah, now we have come to an important point," I said. And I read to them from Isaiah 53. "But He was wounded for our transgressions. He was bruised for iniquities. The chastisement for our peace was upon him, and by his stripes we had healed." Immediately, they all began jumping up and down. One demanded, "Where is this written in the Bible? You've made this up. If our rabbis were here, they would put you in your place." I answered, "I did not write the Bible. Read this for yourself." I handed them my Bible.
So they began to read and they began to open their eyes, and with time their hearts. After a while, one said, "You must be a man of wisdom. So do you have a good answer for us about wisdom?" "My answer is also from the Bible," I replied. So I read, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom."
They asked me many questions and wanted to know where I learned about faith. I told them, "I read the Bible." I also told them, "He told his servants, 'Go your way. Behold, I send you out as lambs among wolves.'" And then they became angry and hostile. But people who believe in this one, as you do, are no longer Israelis and have no right to be here.
Is that so? You say you are such faithful Israelis. Have you fought for this country in all the many wars we have had? Of course, none of them fought in any wars because the ultra-Orthodox do not join the military. "I suppose you will tell us you took part in all those wars," one said sarcastically. So I showed them my army papers. Then they began to listen more intently and ask many questions. And they also wanted to know how I came to know Jesus as my Savior. So I opened my Bible and taught them about the one who was wounded for their transgressions. We had a long conversation. It was a big surprise, and a welcome one.
Steve Conover: Thank you for joining us today. It's been a pleasure to have Dr. Michael Svigel with us today and last week. You can go to our archives and listen to today's program again, or last week's episode if you missed it. That's foiradio.org. Chris, where are we headed next week?
Chris Katulka: Yeah, we're only going from one doctor to the next. Today we talked with Dr. Michael Svigel, and next week we talk with Dr. Jim Showers, who is the executive director here at The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry. Dr. Showers and I actually wrote a paper not long ago together called The Eroding Evangelical Christian Support for Israel, the Cause and the Cure. And we're going to talk for the next two weeks about that paper and some of the issues that are going on in evangelicalism when it comes to Israel and support for Israel as well. It's going to be a great discussion.
Steve Conover: Join us then. 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. Again, 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!
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Apples of Gold: The Unfriendly Neighbor
Zvi was confronted about his faith in Christ by a neighbor who insulted him. The neighbor was hostile and rude, but Zvi responded with courage in the Lord. When the man’s friends arrived, they continued their verbal attack more aggressively. Rather than repaying evil for evil, Zvi pointed the men to the Bible to show where true wisdom lies. Hear how God worked a potentially dangerous situation into a fruitful witnessing opportunity.
The Friends of Israel Today theme music was composed and performed by Jeremy Strong.
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