Category Archives: Theology
Here is another thought I had from a recent exercise in my daily Bible reading. How often do we think about the “Law of Abraham”? How many lessons do we teach on the “10 Commandments as told to Abraham”? Do we even connect Abraham to law?
No. Abraham is the hero of faith. Abraham is the “go-to” guy when we want to contrast belief, or faith, and law-keeping. Abraham gave us the apostle Paul, Moses gave us the Pharisees.
So, what do we do with Genesis 26:2-5:
And the LORD appeared to him [Isaac] and said, ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws. (Genesis 26:2-5, ESV)
Just in case you did not catch it, those last few words (charge, commandments, statutes, laws) are exactly the same terms used to describe the Law of Moses throughout the Psalms (and other references in the Old Testament).
So, a question arises: when did Abraham receive these charges, commandments, statutes, and laws? We are not told (at least, specifically). The Scriptures are silent as to when or how Abraham received them – but as this text makes obvious, clearly he did receive them – and in much the same fashion as Moses, as the language is virtually identical.
As much as I am loathe to make arguments from the silence of Scripture, I want to use this example to make a point: often we are told the result of something, or a derivative of something, or a consequence of something, without ever having been told what that something is. That something was plain to the original audience, and while it would be derivative to us, its truth is no less, well, truth!
At the risk of offending many in today’s “anything goes” world, I have a couple of applications where I believe this principle is valuable in instructing us, if not binding (and, once again, I am loathe to use the silence of Scripture to bind anything. That is a recipe for disaster).
In two contemporary battles being fought in the church, Christians are being told that, since Scripture nowhere explicitly condemns or negates a practice, then that practice is either allowable, or even is sanctioned. One practice is allowing women to have equal roles in leading, teaching, and shepherding a church; and the other is in regard to allowing many forms of worship, including, but not limited to, instrumental accompaniment to singing, “liturgical” dance (?), and various other forms of making worship more entertaining, or “relevant” as promoters would say.
Now, in regard to the first example (egalitarianism) I firmly believe Scripture to have a clear and unequivocal voice (as I have written about previously). But, many protest that there is no CLEAR teaching in the New Testament regarding this topic. I would suggest that those arguing the second example (worship additions) have a stronger case – but only in the sense that there is no overt rejection of such practices.
What does Genesis 26:1-5 have to do with these questions? Simply this – nowhere are we specifically told that God gave Abraham a list of charges, commands, statutes and laws, at least not with the specificity later given to Moses. Yet, clearly God did, or Abraham could not have obeyed them. This later comment (statement) demands that a previous event had to have taken place. In regard to the two examples given above related to our contemporary situation, what Paul (and others) wrote about the roles of men and women in the assembly, and about the proper decorum in that assembly, had to have had some basis in a previous word from God, or it would have been meaningless to Paul, Peter, or anyone else in the first century. Thus, 1 Corinthians 14, 1 Timothy 2 and 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 3, had to have been written from a larger God-inspired context of male leadership or the words would have been meaningless to a primarily pagan culture (they would have made perfect sense to a Jewish culture, however). The transition from a sensual worship experience (musical instruments, liturgical dance, exotic aromas, etc) had to have a basis in a teaching from the apostles, or the omission of those items from worship as viewed in the New Testament would have been seen as ludicrous. The few passages we have (Ephesians 5, Colossians 3, the basic theme of Hebrews) that do indicate a rejection of the sensual/physical from a majority of practices of worship make perfect sense if we understand an underlying command or instruction from God to do so. And, just to add one more thought here – the emphasis in the New Testament to two very sensual/physical aspects of the assembly – baptism and the Lord’s Supper – makes it clear that it is not just the physical/sensual that is being rejected, but the very aspects of the physical and sensual that were meant to be types of a later more spiritual worship. God gave us our bodies and they are intended to be used in worship, but just as Christ superseded the Old Covenant, so too New Covenant worship is to go beyond Old Covenant worship.
Okay, I know I have drawn a tenuous parallel from one Old Testament text to the modern worship wars. But this is the role of theology – to use the gifts of our intellect to draw fair and legitimate conclusions from Scripture in order to make sense out of a world gone horribly awry. I will leave it to you to judge if my conclusion is valid. While I am certainly not saying my conclusion has the force of Scripture, I am definitely offering the idea it is worth debating.
In sum, I wanted to make one point and then to illustrate how that point might be applied today: We are NOT told every single detail about every single encounter between God and his servants the prophets. Sometimes, we are given a later word that clarifies or magnifies an earlier, unrelated encounter. I believe it is fully within the realm of possibility, and even probability, that our New Testament authors were writing with the clear and unambiguous leading of the Holy Spirit when they penned their instructions on practices related to the worship assembly of the church. We denigrate or minimize that leading to our own peril.
Strange introductory paragraph: within the past year or so I read (and reviewed) a book on baptism edited by Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright entitled Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ. The book is basically a refutation of the arguments in favor of infant baptism, or to put it positively, a defense of adult, believer’s baptism. As the purpose of the book is the efficacy of infant versus believer’s baptism, the topic of baptism for the remission of sins is dealt with only tangentially. And, because the editors (and, I would assume, most of the authors) are Baptists by denomination, you will not find much of a defense of Restoration Movement beliefs regarding the importance of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. However, and this is the point of this really strange introductory paragraph – I learned a great deal about the Calvinist approach to baptism, and why even many neo-Calvinists are opposed to infant baptism. It is an enlightening book, and I highly recommend it to all who are interested in theology, and especially the topic of baptism.
Baptism and the Remission of Sins: An Historical Perspective, David Fletcher, ed. (Joplin, MO: College Press Publishing Co., 1990) 432 pages.
I’m not exactly sure when I first read this book, but my copy has a 1990 publication date, so undoubtedly it was sometime in the 1990’s, or perhaps early in the first decade of the 2000’s. I just finished re-reading it, and I am struck with a profound thought: This is a book that needs to be read and digested by every member within the Churches of Christ who is concerned about the recent developments within the brotherhood of congregations of the Churches of Christ. Quite simply, this book places the Restoration Movement’s theological wrestling with the practice of baptism within its historical perspective, and as such, provides a wealth of information for understanding the rejection of the importance of baptism by many of the “leading voices” within the Restoration Movement.
The book is a collection of independent studies, and as such, suffers from the general problem of collections: some are outstanding, some are not so much. The opening chapters by Jack Cottrell I hold to be nothing less than brilliant – and provide a historical perspective that is utterly missing in most discussions regarding baptism. Beyond question, the information detailing Huldreich Zwingli’s distortion of baptism is absolutely critical to understand if you want to fully grasp the significance of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and the other Restoration leaders. Chapter 3 on the British Restorers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was valuable, but not as illuminating as the first two chapters. Chapters 4 and 5 examining Alexander Campbell’s views on baptism (by John Mark Hicks) are superb – distilling the amount of material and the oftentimes contradictory nature of Campbell’s teaching is a monumental task. Hicks performs the task admirably, and if you know nothing of Campbell and his writings, these introductory chapters will help you immensely. Chapter six is especially eye-opening, and is critical to know in light of present controversies: it details the debate between Campbell and John Thomas regarding the necessity (or lack thereof) of a person’s knowledge and understanding of the meaning of baptism prior to that person’s baptism. My guess is that chapter alone will shock and disturb many within the Restoration Movement. I was personally disappointed with Michael Greene’s treatment of Barton W. Stone in chapter 7 – I believe a far more sympathetic view is both possible and necessary – but I tend to be more of a Stoner than a Campbellite, so I am a little prejudiced there. Chapters 8 and 9 are good (discussing the Rebaptism Controversy between David Lipscomb and the Gospel Advocate versus Austin McGary and the Firm Foundation; and the Open Membership controversy between the Christian Church and the Disciples of Christ), but not exceptional. I believe the subject matter of chapter 8 deserved greater detail, and the material of chapter 9 was also covered in far too cursory manner – but still those are tiny quibbles against two very informational chapters.
So much is being written and discussed today about the meaning and purpose of baptism, how much one must know before baptism, and probably most discussed – how should the members of Churches of Christ view the baptisms performed in the denominations (and increasingly, non-denominational churches)? The practice of baptism is becoming more and more common, and more and more theologians are openly discussing the importance of baptism related to a person’s salvation. I find it distressing to the point of absurdity that, at the very moment when the eyes of more and more preachers and theologians are turning to baptism again, so many “leaders” or “prominent preachers” within the Churches of Christ are backing away from baptism as fast as they can, and promoting the neo-Calvinistic view of baptism promoted in Schreiner and Wright’s book.
While not the only reason I can give for this movement, I would suggest that increasingly more and more preachers, elders, and congregational leaders within congregations of the Churches of Christ are utterly ignorant of the history, and yes, theology, of the practice of baptism. While this book does not delve deeply into the second topic (chapter 10 does cover the design of baptism), the history of baptism as practiced in the early church, the Reformation, and particularly within the Restoration Movement is covered in exceptional care in this collection of essays. If you are struggling to understand baptism in this post-modern context, or if your congregation is struggling to understand baptism today, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow believers to buy, and study, this book.
(Note: In searching for images of the cover of the book, I noticed a 2009 publication date – I provided images of both titles of the books. I could not discern if there was a substantial change from 2000 to 2009, so the 2009 might be a simple re-print, or it could entail an updated and/or corrected copy.)
Pardon me for a little whimsicality, but that phrase always returns to me when I think of things that are easily explained, but just as easily confused and exaggerated. The expression (actually just a series of unrelated abbreviations from the aviation world) came from a friend who liked to claim he could speak in tongues. If you are a pilot, that is pretty funny. If you think you can speak in tongues, not so much.
Today I revisit my last offering and expand upon it. When we speak of God in Platonic or Aristotelian terms (like saying God is the ultimate idea, or that he is the “unmoved mover”) we utterly lose the biblical concept of God and therefore create God in our own image.
Specially, and to the point, the more “omnies” we put in front of our descriptions of God, the less Hebrew (and therefore less biblical) and more Greek (and therefore, more philosophical) our understanding of God. The classic definition of God in virtually any sermon or class that you will hear revolves around three “omnies” – omniscient, omnipowerful, and omnipresent. In English that would translate into, “all knowing, all powerful, and all present.” So we have come to know and believe about God. But are these descriptions true?
Let’s take the first one – does God know everything, as in everything? Many passages could be provided to affirm that. What is less well known are the passages that limit, or at the very least, appear to limit God’s knowledge. For example, 2 Chronicles 32:31, “And so in the matter of the envoys of the princes of Babylon, who had been sent to him to inquire about the sign that had been done in the land, God left him [Hezekiah] to himself, in order to test him and to know all that was in his heart.” (ESV) God did two things here that are quite unacceptable for an Platonic/Aristotelian God – he “tested” Hezekiah (meddled in Hezekiah’s business) and he had to learn, or discover, or find out, what was in Hezekiah’s heart. But what about a more well known example – Genesis 22:12, “He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.'” (ESV) Once again, as in the previous text, a Platonic/Aristotelian God would already know what the outcome of the situation would be, and in fact, would not have put Abraham to the test to begin with. In fact, the whole episode is an intolerable and grotesque act for a Platonic/Aristotelian god – why would an all knowing and all loving God make such a brutal command. In Greek terms it is simply unthinkable. God would be beyond such “inhumanity.”
What about the second – that God is all powerful. Can God do anything he wants? Let me rephrase the question – Would it please God if no one ever sinned, if no one ever hurt anyone else, if everyone strove to serve God and him alone? Can God force that outcome? Well, I suppose theoretically he could, but would God then be God? Yes he would, in the Platonic/Aristotelian mold, but not in the Hebraic mold. In other words, according to the Old Testament, God is a limited God – he is limited by his own holiness. There are things God cannot do simply because if he did them, he would not be the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Many things transpired that were against God’s will, and any being that could speak the world into existence could have stopped those unwanted events. However, God limited his actions in the world for the express purpose of remaining God – so that his holiness might be revealed through the events, and not through his overpowering them not to happen.
So then, is God omnipresent – is God everywhere at once? Once again, theoretically yes, but following the last example, does he limit himself in his presence in the world? Well, if you read Ezekiel 10, you read that the glory (presence) of the LORD clearly leaves the temple in Jerusalem, allowing for its destruction. Once again, God could have protected the temple, and if his presence was truly there I doubt if any human could have destroyed the temple, but God wanted Ezekiel to know that there are times and places where God abandons this earth!
What I have discussed here is clearly open for discussion – are these passages to be interpreted literally or figuratively? But, to be honest, every description of God can be equally challenged. When the poet speaks of God knowing everything or being everywhere – are those statements to be taken literally or figuratively?
To repeat myself ad nauseam, my point is simply this – the more language that we borrow from Plato and Aristotle to define or explain God, the further from the Bible we travel. And when we speak of God getting angry (a no-no for Aristotle) or repenting, or forgetting, or leaving his people, or testing individuals to learn what was in their heart, the more biblical and “Hebrew” we become.
As I closed the last article, so I close this one. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but we are much safer, and beyond question more biblical, if we reside in Jerusalem.
So, its been a while since the ol’ Freightdawg has gone smashing through the clouds. Time to kick the tires and light the fires again.
Two passages of Scripture struck me this past Sunday as I was worshipping. I quote them here in their entirety:
When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? (Luke 5:22, ESV)
. . . having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints. (Ephesians 1:18, ESV)
Did you see a common feature of both of these passages? I’ll narrow it down a little . . .
“. . . question in your hearts . . .” and “. . . eyes of your hearts enlightened . . .”
Those phrases should strike us as being odd – or even more straightforward – should strike us as being psychologically incorrect. We question in our minds, our eyes are in our foreheads, and it is our intellect that is enlightened, not our hearts.
That is because we are philosophically more the descendants of Athens than we are of Jerusalem. In other words, we think (and feel and relate) more in line with Aristotle and Plato than we do with Moses. We are, for all intents and purposes, Greek and not Hebrew.
This realization could be, and may be, the source for a great many posts, but here and now for today one thought will have to do. This philosophical orientation has played all kinds of havoc with our understanding of the New Testament (not to mention the Old Testament!!) It was the Greeks, not the Hebrews, who gave mankind the idea of a tripartite human being – body, soul and spirit. For Moses (just to make things simple) there was one being – the human being (note Gen. 2:7 – God breathed into man His breath, and man became a living being). There was no separation of body and mind, or body and spirit, or body and anything else. If you sinned in your heart, you sinned in the body. If you sinned in the body you sinned in the heart. (Does this not sound like Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount?) This is why, for the most part, there is simply no discussion of what happens to the “soul” or “spirit” after death in the Old Testament. A person died, was buried (“gathered to his fathers”) and that was it. There is, of course, several references to “sheol,” the shadowing realm of the dead, but never a fully developed understanding of what that place was or who (or what) resided there.
The difference between Jerusalem and Athens is probably most visible in this regard – the New Testament speaks clearly and emphatically of a bodily resurrection following death. There is no thought of disembodied “spirits” flapping their non-corporeal wings around in some ethereal void called “heaven.” Jesus is clear, Paul is clear, Peter is clear, John is clear. There will be a “new heaven” just as there will be a “new earth,” and there will be a bodily resurrection, not a bunch of Casper the Ghosts floating around. The idea of pure “spirits” separated from a physical body originates in Plato (the “ideal versus the real”) and not in our inspired Bibles!
To be sure we, and even the inspired Paul and Peter themselves, do not know what that future realm will be like. Paul was emphatic, though, in saying that our resurrected status would be in the form of a body. (See 1 Cor. 15:35-49. Note that Paul does refer to the body as “spiritual,” but never “spirit.” His point is that the nature of the new body will be radically different from this body of “dust,” but it will be a “body” never-the-less.) The “heaven” and the “earth” will be new – undoubtedly beyond our wildest imaginings – but it will still reflect what we as imperfect mortals would recognize as a “heaven” and an “earth.”
Aristotle and Plato and all those other fellows running around in bed sheets gave us a lot to think about, and some really sound wisdom to boot. Athens (philosophy) is a great place to visit, but I think I would rather live in Jerusalem (theology).
Another day, another urgent summons for the Churches of Christ to be less judgmental, less condemning. These sermons and blog posts and on-line articles are ubiquitous these days. It would seem that if you are a minister within the Churches of Christ and you want to become popular (or maintain your popularity) you need to hop on the “bash the church” bandwagon. Pardon me for being a knuckle-dragging troglodyte, but I’ll just let that cart go on by.
It may just be me, but I find it funny (in a serious way) that if a financial advisor corrected our faulty thinking about our retirement plans we would be most appreciative. If we were working with explosive chemicals in a science class and our teacher warned us before we made a pyro-technic mistake, we would say, “thank-you.” If we were applying for a music scholarship and a master musician took us into his or her personal study for an hour’s worth of instruction, we would not be able to stop thanking him or her. But, you let one word of spiritual correction or constructive criticism come from a preacher associated with the Churches of Christ and he is immediately tarred and feathered as a judgmental Pharisee. “Quit being so condemning” is the shrill response. “Don’t you know everyone that says they love Jesus is saved, and who are you to say you know everything about the Bible.”
I won’t be the first to admit that our heritage is full of characters that had more fist than finesse when it comes to biblical conversations. Neither will I be the first to condemn that behavior. Regrettably it is still visible today. Every family has its cranky uncle Joe, and there are are a number of reasons why combative individuals are drawn to independent congregations (and Churches of Christ are NOT alone in this regard!!)
But I truly fail to see where teaching some basic Bible doctrines should be considered judgmental, unless the person listening refuses to accept those teachings, yet recognizes the seriousness of the issue under discussion.
Actually, every person – unless they are a true universalist – will draw some line at some place in regard to what makes a person a Christian, what constitutes acceptable worship, and how a person ought to live a life committed to Christ. Why is drawing one line at baptism considered judgmental when drawing that line at the “sinner’s prayer” not considered judgmental? Why is adult believer’s baptism considered judgmental when infant baptism is not? The same point could be made with acapella worship, praise teams but no instrumental music, acoustic instruments but not amplified instruments, classic or contemporary songs, high church/low church or just about every other issue that causes conflict in a congregation.
I do not need, nor do I want, to be told that I need to be “more accepting” of individuals who disagree with me on basic, fundamental teachings in Scripture. The only words I need to accept are the words of the inspired authors of the Bible. Do I need to study, to learn, to read, to hear other points of view – absolutely! I try to do so as much or more than many ministers within the Churches of Christ. But the point of reference that I use to judge if what I am hearing is true is a convergence with the Bible – NOT some touchy-feely idea such as “they love Jesus.”
“Come, let us reason together” is a solid biblical concept. If I disagree with an individual there can be only one of three conclusions – either I am right and the other person is wrong, I am wrong and the other person is right, or we are both equally right and equally wrong. If I am willing to admit my culpability in drawing wrong conclusions from Scripture, I cannot be blamed for suggesting that those who disagree with me can also possibly be in error. I may seek to teach, and perhaps also to confront, but that does NOT make me a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee.
Unless, of course, you believe that Jesus was a judgmental, hypocritical, Pharisee as well. As I read the gospels, he had to try to straighten out quite a few twisted twigs during his ministry. Although he corrected, he never condemned honest error – but he was quite emphatic in his rejection of obstinate dismissal of God’s will.
As I have written numerous times – if I am wrong please show me my error! I never want to teach something that is false, either knowingly or unwittingly. And I promise I will not call you judgmental.
Many Christians despise theology, and especially theologians (I will overlook the irony for now, but believe me I see it). “We don’t do theology – we just read and study the Bible” is a common belief, if not outright statement. Alexander Campbell stated emphatically that there would never be a chair of theology at the first college established for ministers of the Restoration Movement (okay, more irony, but let’s move on). In my undergraduate and graduate studies I had courses in Old Testament Teaching and New Testament Teaching, but they could not be labeled Old Testament Theology or New Testament Theology.
So, last night I was reading a book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer has become one of the early 20th centuries most studied, admired, and discussed theologians. Underline that – he was a preeminent theologian, educated by some of the most famous theologians in Germany – and at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He argued with Karl Barth, for crying out loud. No one who rightly knows which end is up can argue that Bonhoeffer is anything other than a top-flight theologian.
Okay – so have I made my point?
So, as I was saying, I was reading in Bonhoeffer and I came across this section –
Theology is the discipline in which a person learns how to excuse everything and justify everything. A good theologian can never be cornered theologically; in everything he says he is just. And the theologian can acknowledge even this without a word of penance. Whoever has begun to justify himself with the help of theology itself has already fallen into the devil’s grip, and as long as he is a theologian, he can never get free! Be a good theologian but keep theology three paces away from you; otherwise eventually it will mortally endanger you. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his lecture on Pastoral Care, see Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works (in English) vol. 14, Theological Education at Finkenwalde: 1935-1937, p. 591, emphasis Bonhoeffer’s).
What was Bonhoeffer’s corrective to the danger of “theology” as he presented it? Staying in the word of God, reading the word of God, preaching the word of God, meditating on the word of God, and praying unceasingly.
Hmmm. Sounds very restorationist, if you ask me. And, if you ask me again, very unpretentious of a top-rate theologian.
Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.
What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.
For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .
The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.
The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.
However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.
What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.
A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.
The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.
In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.
I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.
This post is intended to be a companion piece to my post of yesterday, so if you did not read that article, use the little arrow thingy and back up a page.
I think most Americans are familiar with the screech made by our former Secretary of State when she was being questioned about the murders of our ambassador and assistants in Benghazi. “What does it matter, anyway?” was her response when being questioned about what she knew, when she knew it, and what could have been done differently. “What does it matter, anyway” has become the mantra of an entire generation of Americans – not just politicians with a failed policy on their hands.
Yesterday I discussed the fact that we (primarily in the church) simply do not have the ability to stand firm anymore. Well, that is only partly true. We will fight to our last drop of blood over the color of the curtains, the positioning of the furniture, and the name of the song book that gathers dust in the book rack; but when it comes to issues of genuine faith, of matters that cut to the core of the gospel, we have one timid little response – “What does it matter, anyway?”
I see three primary reasons why congregational leaders, and therefore the congregations they lead, have found it impossible to stand firm against the onslaught of post-modern secularism. They are: a lack of a foundation, a lack of support, and a lack of courage. Let me address each of these individually.
First, I see the primary issue involved in an inability to stand firm as being the complete lack of a solid foundation. Most important, we have lost the foundation of knowing Scripture. Although we exist with the veneer of being a “Bible people,” we really do not know the Bible. This is true to varying degrees in many elderships, and is only magnified as we move down the generations. Elders today are not selected because of their knowledge of the Bible and their ability to put that knowledge into practice. Elders today are chosen because they are good business men, they are popular, they have the “perfect” family, and maybe even because they come from a long line of previous elders. My wife relates the story of having an elder get furious with her because she corrected him during a teen Bible class. If teenagers can correct men who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of a congregation, that congregation is in serious trouble. I wonder, though, how many teenagers would know more Bible than their elders? Our knowledge of the Bible is pathetic, and it is impossible to stand for issues of faith when we do not know what that faith is.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of Scripture, we have an even lower (if possible) level of knowledge of our history – our tradition. Some would even argue that we do not have a tradition. Yea, and babies come from underneath cabbage leaves. Tradition is a wonderful thing – a blessed thing. But you would not know that by talking to the average member of the Church of Christ. We know nothing of Alex and Bart and Walt and my favorite – ol’ Raccoon John himself. How could we know anything of our history, and why would we even want to, the way it is disparaged and ridiculed from the majority of pulpits and lectureships in the country? Here is a indisputable but despised fact: the more liberal a person is, the closer that person is to the most radical conservative in at least one respect – they both hate our history. Liberals hate it because, to them anyway, it makes us look foolish, immature, and ignorant. Ultra conservatives hate it because we are simply not supposed to have a history – we popped out of the ground fully grown in 33 A.D., and except for a few hiccups now and then, have been pretty much a perfect people. Both extremes are utterly and damnably wrong – contra the conservatives we have a history that stretches back to Abraham at the very least (remember, the “Father of the faithful”), but is made up of every nook and cranny of human history from that point on. And, contra the liberals, it is a wonderful, beautiful, mesmerizing, and totally enlightening history. Alex and Bart and Walt and ol’ Raccoon were brilliant theologians and practitioners. But you would not know it if you read any of our most recent attempts at explaining our Restoration History. (Okay, rant over.)
Second, elders – and especially our young people – find it difficult, if not impossible, to stand firm because they get little or no support when they try. It’s one thing to get shot in the chest when you are facing an opponent – but it is something entirely different when you are getting shot in the back at the same time. I have seen good men reduced to meaningless figureheads not by their opponents, but by the congregation they were leading. There is a good reason the author of the book of Hebrews wrote, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.” (Hebrews 13:17). It is frustrating when an eldership appears to be paralyzed, but it is disastrous when an eldership takes a stand on an issue they consider to be a matter of faith, only to be skewered by the flock they are attempting to protect. Or imagine the confusion of a spiritually mature 16 year old girl who objects to having to shower next to a psychologically damaged 16 year old boy (in all his anatomically glorious self) only to be told that she is being a bully and needs to be more sensitive – and this by members of her own congregation! It is often difficult to take a stand when you know it is going to be controversial, or even worse, contradictory to secular theories. That difficulty is multiplied exponentially when the people you believe to be your spiritual family abandons you.
Finally, there is the issue of courage. It is difficult to take a stand on a matter of faith if you are confused about what that faith is, and if you are convinced that no one will stand with you if you try. But it is utterly impossible to take that stand if you are a coward, even if you know the truth and have a whole army standing behind you. I believe most elders and a majority of young people are good men and kids. But there is a disturbingly large percentage of elders (and adolescents) who are nothing more than weak-kneed, limp-wristed, lilly-livered cowards (I am trying to restrain myself here). These are individuals who know the truth, and who know that there are people who are looking to them for leadership and will defend them to the last bullet. They choose – willingly – to accept the path of least resistance anyway. They do not want to cause a scuffle. They do not want to be seen as being “old fogies.” They are more interested in their image than in their position of leaders (and yes, young people can be awesome leaders). Ignorance can be educated away. Support can be generated. But cowardice? Cowardice kills before the battle is even joined. “There is nothing to fear, except fear itself.” Oh, what timeless words.
Christians who are concerned about the perilous times in which we live must do three things. We must return to the Bible, we must once again become a people of the book. We cannot stand firm for a faith of which we are ignorant. We must also not only accept, but we must come to appreciate our history – from Abraham to the apostles to the Reformation to the Restoration to our present day. We are products of our history – and we must learn from that history or we are certainly doomed to repeat its disasters. We must stand in solidarity with those who are taking a risk to defend their faith. We must support our elders when they say “no” to the Baals and Asherahs of secularism. We must support our young people when they refuse to be driven by the twisted beliefs of this culture. And finally we must learn what it means to be biblically courageous – to “Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong” (1 Cor. 16:13). In a memorable line from one of my wife’s favorite movies, “Courage is not the absence of fear – courage is the decision that there is something more important than fear.”
All of this is critical because our faith, our morals, our beliefs, that which we stand on – all of these things matter very much.
What does it matter anyway?
Stand at the foot of the cross and ask that question. Then you may get it.
(Update, Aug. 11, 2016 – it occurred to me that some might notice that I omitted preachers from this discussion. Be assured, I have no mistaken ideas that ministers/preachers are exempt from being cowardly and just flat-out ignorant. As I was writing I was thinking primarily of congregational leadership, and for some strange, backward, unknown reason I still believe that ministers serve under the eldership, not above them. Yes, ministers/preachers lead, but if the elders would exert their God-given authority, fewer young trash-talking preachers would have a pulpit to do so.)
Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. (1 Corinthians 16:13, RSV)
One of the benefits of growing older, I have learned, is that your vision becomes more clear. Not necessarily your eyesight, which I have also learned, becomes more blurry – but your vision. You are able to apprehend things in a manner that youth simply cannot perceive. A few people can see them when they are young, and we notice these individuals and label them as “visionaries” or “mystics.” Old people are called crotchety or old fogies. I appear to be approaching old fogyism.
One of the things I have perceived over the past few years is that with each new “generation,” the ability to stand firm with any teaching or principle that contradicts the prevalent culture – what we call “political correctness” – is slowly but steadily disappearing. In other words, it is perfectly acceptable to “stand firm” when you are defending the garbage that issues from the LGBTQ faction. Such firmness is even considered downright heroic. However, let a high school boy or girl raise their voice in defense of Biblical sexuality and you would think Adolf Hitler himself had been reincarnated. Defend the “right” of a male to use the female locker room just because he “identifies” as a female and you win humanitarian of the year award. Defend the right of a female to be safe in the same locker room and you are vilified as being inhuman (or worse). In many ways I cannot imagine what it must be like to be a young Christian in the typical American high school. The pressure to conform or to be ostracized must be monumental.
I see this trend being played out increasingly within congregations of the Lord’s church. “Can’t we all get along” is the mantra of the day – and that is a very difficult idea to argue against. We have been divided over so many inconsequential things; it would be wonderful if we could learn how to put our personal wants and wishes aside for just a few moments and genuinely consider how we can work together for the kingdom. But there are limits to “just getting along.” There is a line – however narrow – between right and wrong, truth and error, holy and profane, good and evil. God gave us the sense, and he gave us the instructions, to know the difference. To fail to draw those distinctions is to fail to obey God.
The key to understanding the difference between standing firm and looking for compromise is in the above verse (just to list one). Paul said to “stand firm in your faith.” He did not say to demand your opinion in matters of methodology or in matters that are by their nature “inconsequential.” He dealt with those issues in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 9. There are matters that cut to the very core of what it means to be a unified body of Christ, and there are matters that are of individual preference and taste. The first are matters of faith the second are matters of function.
I do not want to suggest that determining the difference between these two poles is always easy. I do want to emphasize that doing so is necessary. To divide a congregation over an issue that is simply a matter of methodology is to sin against the body of Christ. To accept, and to practice, a teaching that violates either the letter or the spirit of Scripture is to commit either heresy, or at the very least, heterodoxy. Read the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3. Note the difference between being reprimanded (the loss of love, the need to stand firm) and being condemned (the teachings of the Nicolaitans, the woman “Jezebel”).
It is absolutely critical that congregational leaders learn the difference between what is of faith, and what is of opinion. An entire generation is at risk. One of my beloved professors, Dr. Eugene Clevenger, taught in his class on the Corinthian letters, “The greatest right I have is the right to surrender my rights.” Equally critical, especially in the 21st century is this, “The greatest responsibility I have is the responsibility never to surrender the truth of Scripture.”
It is a question of sailing between the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of anarchy. It is a narrow and difficult passage. But difficult does not mean impossible. It is not only possible, it is imperative. To fail to make the choice is to utterly fail, and that is something this old fogey simply cannot accept.
How many times have you heard the admonition, “You have to be consistent.” The subject at hand can be a myriad of topics – from discipline to study habits to philosophical approaches to life. Consistency, it would appear, is the holy grail of all being. If we can be consistent, we will have achieved perfection.
Except, that is, when being consistent in one area actually forces us to be inconsistent in another area. Then we have problems. How do we achieve consistency when reality forces us to be inconsistent? Hmm.
I have in mind a couple of examples. One is in the area of ethics. For many people the idea of being pro-life means both opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty. This is a commonly held belief – held by prominent Catholic and Protestant ethical specialists. The idea of consistency is prominent among the arguments given to defend both positions. If you are opposed to the taking of a human life, you have to oppose both abortion and capital punishment, or you are being inconsistent. Consistency demands the rejection of both.
Or does it?
If your only criteria is the taking of a human life, then I suppose you can make the argument. That argument, however, reduces most human life to the level of existence. That is, because we started to exist, we must continue to exist until nature or some disaster, ends that existence. The measure of the importance of life then depends solely upon the quantity of life signs, not their quality or value.
However, this argument utterly dismisses the textual (and contextual) support for capital punishment as stipulated in the Old Testament, and some would argue, is repeated at least in theory in Romans 13 in the New Testament. Passages such as Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-14, Leviticus 24:17 and Numbers 35:9-34 make it clear that capital punishment is based on (1) the fact that human beings are made in the image of God, (2) the planned, intentional nature of the crime of murder, and derivatively, (3) the crime of murder strikes at the very core of community life. Provision was made for deaths caused by accidents, although even in an accidental death, the one who was involved in the death lost a certain amount of freedom until the death of the high priest. So the issue is not mere life, mere existence. The issue is that the image of God was destroyed, and the ongoing life of the community was put in peril by allowing a murderer to live.
Therefore, to be consistent, a person has to argue that it is the intentional taking of innocent human life that should be uniformly opposed. Therefore, abortion is clearly a violation of God’s will, but capital punishment is not necessarily a violation of God’s will. Now, to be sure, the manner in which capital punishment has been administered in the United States leads many to conclude it is unfairly used. Personally, while I cannot reject the use of capital punishment out-of-hand, the fact that the use of capital punishment has been used unequally in the past does give me great pause as to its moral grounding. What is often overlooked in the contemporary situation is that such a punishment required two eye-witnesses to the crime, and the punishment for falsely accusing someone meant that the accuser was dealt the same type of punishment that he/she was demanding of the accused (Deuteronomy 19:15-21). How many trumped-up charges involving the death penalty would be pursued if the prosecutor was liable to undergo the death penalty for falsely accusing a defendant? Not many, I would venture.
Therefore, I do not see opposing abortion and opposing the death penalty as being consistent. Abortion is the murder of an innocent, unborn child. Capital punishment is the legal execution of a person who has intentionally, with prior planning and “malice aforethought,” taken the life of another human being. In the realm of ethics, the two are light years apart.
On a more specific theological level, the case is often made that to be consistent, once you determine the use of a word or a phrase used by one author, that same word or phrase must be interpreted in the same manner every other time it appears. This is just linguistic (and theological) nonsense. For just one crystal clear example, consider the word translated into most English translations as “church” – the Greek word ekklesia. The argument is made, based on dubious etymological arguments by the way, that the word means “called out,” and so this is the Holy Spirit’s way of identifying the new people of God. Now, the case might be made (and I emphasize the word might) that the word ekklesia is used in such a manner in one place or another in the New Testament, but it is by no means the case that it is always used in that manner. Just read Acts 19:23-41. There an unruly mob gathers in the theatre and even the legal authorities have a hard time getting them under control. Once order is finally restored, the town clerk finally was able to dismiss the assembly. Twice the word ekklesia is used of this unruly mob, and I dare say no one is going to argue that the holy, sanctified, born-again body of Christ is being referred to in these verses (39-41).
This point is really very obvious in many situations. Paul in Romans and James in the book that bears his name use the word faith in strikingly different ways. I would argue that Paul himself uses faith in slightly (or perhaps even more significant) different ways. As with any situation, context is controlling. To be consistent, we have to bear in mind the entire context of the passage, and define and apply each word as is appropriate for that setting.
So, being consistent in one manner (always using a word using one, single definition) is to be inconsistent in interpreting that word when it is used in a different context. To be consistent in the application of one ethical norm is to be inconsistent in the application of another ethical norm that is built on a different theological foundation. This sometimes creates untidy, even messy, questions of interpretation and moral decision making. Life is that way – flying is not always in CAVU conditions (clear and visibility unlimited). Sometimes you have to fly in the fog. That requires great care, and a determination to understand the entire picture, not just one tiny little slice of it.