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Creating God in Our Own Image

Omniomnivordme.

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.

Correction, Confrontation is not Condemnation

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.

Prescription for Health – or Poison?

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.

When Being Consistent is Actually Inconsistent

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.

When Is It Better To Remain Silent?

A strange question crossed my mind this morning – what situations demand a verbal (or written) response and what situations are helped far more effectively with the deafening sound of silence? I think that most biblically literate people are aware of the dialectic illustrated in the seemingly contradictory teachings of Proverbs 26:4-5. Sometimes you shut your mouth, sometimes you shut the mouth of your opponent. But, how do you make that determination? When is a word aptly chosen to be like an apple in settings of silver, and when is silence to be golden?

I’ve wrestled with this question quite bit lately. I have witnessed some fairly egregious mistakes both in logic and in interpretation, and have (amazingly, for me) managed to keep my mouth shut. For someone who spends significantly more time with his foot in his mouth, I have been pretty proud of myself for my self-restraint. That is, until I feel guilty for letting somebody think he/she has won an argument when all they have really done is to advertise their ignorance. So, I come back to my conundrum – speak up and risk all kinds of negative fallout, or keep silent and risk the opposite, but equal fallout? I do not think I will ever really know for sure, but this is what I have learned in my ever-increasing but not excessively-long sojourn on this earth: It is far better to keep your mouth shut –

When you are not absolutely certain of your facts, or of your discernment of those facts.

There is a difference between knowing something to be true, and knowing beyond any question that said fact is true. I cannot tell you how many times I have offered an absolutely certain-to-be-true assessment of a situation, only to be utterly chagrined that what I thought was true really was not as true as I thought it was. Even if we would be correct about a situation if our discernment of that situation were to be infallible, it can still be wrong if we have missed an important detail. Solution: keep your mouth closed unless you know what you are saying is irrefutably true.

When speaking up would cause more confusion, or hurt feelings, than remaining silent.

I call this “Speaking the truth wearing army boots.” This is speaking the “truth” with a scorched earth policy in mind. “Go ahead and swing the axe and let the chips fall where they may.” How many marriages, families, and churches have been destroyed with such good intentions in mind? You may be right. You may be absolutely right. Keep your mouth shut anyway.

When speaking up simply does more to give validity to your opponent than it does to challenge them.

Believe it or not, some people, and their arguments, just do not need to be refuted – they are self-refuting. None of God’s inspired spokesmen set out to refute every single false teaching. “Have no other gods before me” is a whole lot easier to say than specifically eliminating all eleventy-million different idols that humans have invented. By specifically attempting to individually refute certain teachers (and/or their teachings) we give them far more significance than they are worth. Obviously some opponents do need to be singled out (and Paul and John do a pretty good job with a couple of rabble-rousers), but it is better to keep our powder dry for when we really need to use it, than to go “heretic hunting” and waste valuable time and energy on people and issues that ultimately mean nothing.

When speaking up is ultimately more about showing off your (real or imagined) expertise on the subject under discussion.

I read a book review recently concerning a book that I had  just finished. I did not have that high of an opinion about the book, and I was wondering if I was alone in my response. I came across a phrase that made me laugh out loud, and it has become a favorite expression of mine in regard to certain preacher/authors: “(fill in the blank) sure likes to hear himself type.” I have to admit that one stings a little, because I think it is too often true of what I say (or type). I will try to do better, and only tap out what needs to be tapped out.

So, I doubt I have answered the question – but maybe I will print out this post and keep it handy – just in case I get an itchy tongue (or finger to type)  something when I just should really keep my mouth shut.

Not Quite a Full Book Review – The Pastoral Epistles (George W. Knight III) [NIGTC series]

I am diving into some long-neglected textual studies, and the book I selected to serve as my first effort is George W. Knight’s The Pastoral Epistles in the New International Greek Testament Commentary series (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1992.) This is not a full book review, as I have only really moved beyond the introductory material, but I had to share this information with anyone who is interested.

In the discussions (wars?) between those who agitate for equality for women in the leadership roles of the church and those who posit a more conservative (complementarian) view, one argument that is presented prominently by the egalitarians is that the Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) were not written by Paul (as they clearly claim to be). The “evidence” provided is that the letters demonstrate a development of congregational leadership that did not occur until the early 2nd century, and that the language, style, and even the content of the letters is vastly different than the “acknowledged” letters of Paul. The purpose of this argumentation is transparent – if Paul did not write the Pastoral Epistles, and they can be demonstrated to be from a much later time period, then the instructions regarding male leadership can be dismissed because they are “sub-apostolic” or “post-apostolic.”

What I want to share is that Knight provides probably the best, most complete, and forceful refutation of those arguments I have ever read. The material from pages 21-52 should be mandatory reading for any student of the Bible – if for no other reason than Knight works methodically through the arguments against Pauline authorship, and demonstrates that each and every one is either demonstrably false, or at the very least, has equal basis for Pauline authorship.

I have only briefly skimmed Knight’s material on the qualifications for the eldership, but his treatment of 1 Tim. 2:8-15 is equally forceful in refuting the arguments of the egalitarians. (Knight does not personally wade into the “gender wars.” He simply explicates the text, allowing the clear meaning of the text to come through.) Those who oppose Knight must come to the discussion with far more “ammunition” than what I have seen presented. The text of Timothy (and I would argue the rest of the New Testament as well) simply does not support their contentions.

To summarize this brief glimpse, the introductory material in this commentary demonstrates how wrong various scholars are when they attempt to date the Pastoral Epistles past the time of Paul, and therefore the attempt to dismiss Paul’s teaching on male spiritual leadership is equally wrong. Knight refutes each argument (elegantly and powerfully), concluding that Paul was indeed the author and therefore the teachings in the book are fully apostolic and trustworthy.

One brief additional note: the commentary is indeed based on the Greek text, so a reader who has no background in NT Greek will be handicapped once the textual commentary begins, but the contents of the commentary would still be valuable to an “English only” reader. It would just take a little more effort to understand completely what is being presented.

Theology Matters – Really!

Some little voice in the back of my head tells me to follow up just a tad bit on my post yesterday. There I made the somewhat (?) confusing statement that I agreed more with someone that I ultimately would disagree than with someone who, on the surface, I should agree. It is a frustrating feeling. However, while still firmly believing that what I said is true, I also think that I may have inadvertently said something that I do not believe is true.

Theology matters. It matters greatly. We cannot avoid that truth, no matter how fervently we might wish to. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of separate groups that all claim in some fashion to be “Christian.” Many of these groups proclaim doctrines that are diametrically opposite to doctrines taught by other “Christian” groups. Yet, with no apparent sense of confusion or shame, everyone seems to go along with the idea that all of these groups are somehow on the same page and headed in the same direction. Logic, if not theology itself, makes this a foolish conclusion.

A person cannot be a Calvinistic-Arminian, nor an Arminian-Calvinist. A person cannot be a Cessationist-Pentecostal, nor a Pentecostal-Cessationist. A person cannot be a Catholic-Protestant, nor a Protestant-Catholic. The same bifurcation holds true with Pedo-baptists and Credo-baptists, egalitarians and complementarians, transubstantiationalists, consubstantiationalists and symbolists. Many other theological issues that have divided Christianity simply will not allow for cheap and meaningless compromise for the sake of a supposed unity.

Theology matters. When I say that I agree with someone with whom I must ultimately disagree, I am not saying that I can set aside the substantive disagreement for the sake of the more temporary agreement. Now, mark these words carefully – I am not saying that such a person is not in a saved relationship with his or her God. I simply am not in a position to make eternal judgments. However, I can, based on my understanding of the Scripture, decide whether what I understand of his or her position is true. I can also be taught, and I reserve the right to teach what I believe to be the truth.

I hold many doctrines to be of such weight that I simply cannot “agree” with those who hold clearly opposing conclusions. I may be correct, the other person may be correct, or a third option is possible – that neither one of us is entirely correct and the absolute truth of the matter lies in some third possibility. But, I cannot simply lay aside my conclusions and convictions simply in order to avoid hurting someone else’s feelings, or to massage some flimsy and ultimately false “unity.”

I chose the image above this post for a reason. The realm of theology describes the void where the woman is frozen. There is an absolute truth to which she is headed – in my image that would be the eternal and unalterable truth of God. There is an equally solid truth from which she is jumping – the truth of our convictions. Theology is that space in the middle – theology is a searching, a probing, a “working out” of that which we can see but yet that which is still not under our feet. But theology is not just some whimsical, “pie in the sky by and by when we die” exercise that a few pointy-heads secluded in their ivory towers can participate in. Theology is built on solid study of the Bible – the solid rock upon which all theology must be built. Theology might be described as a leap (and other images are certainly legitimate), but theology is not a blind leap, nor is it a careless leap. Theology is a well-measured, calculated and purposeful leap into the mind and heart of God.

So, theology really matters. I agree with some theologians, and disagree with some – often the same theologian and often in the same book, chapter, or even page. We all see as through a glass, darkly. Or, a fog, depending on our point of view.

Talking in an Echo Chamber

Regardless of who we are, what we do, or what we believe, we like to be around others who share the same interests and opinions. It is the most natural and logical of situations. We seek out those with whom we have the most in common and situations where we feel the most comfortable. It would be ridiculous to constantly want to be around people who disagree with us or to be in situations where we constantly feel threatened.

Nowhere is this phenomenon more apparent than in issues of faith. Christians want to be with other Christians, not Muslims. Muslims want to pray in Mosques, not Cathedrals. Even more specific, Roman Catholics like to worship with fellow Catholics, Lutherans with Lutherans, and Baptists with Baptists. I choose to worship with fellow members of the churches of Christ. It is there that I am at home. I know the language.  I am with family.

Even certain doctrines or beliefs within a specific faith or faith community have their own boundaries. Within the churches of Christ we have those who accept separate Sunday school classes for different ages, and those who believe the congregation should not be divided. We have those who believe it is wrong to eat a common meal in the church building, and those who have full sized gyms and coffee houses in their buildings. We have those who partake of the Lord’s Supper with one cup and one loaf, and those who have the  oversized thimbles full of grape juice and multiple little crackers. Instruments of music, female worship leaders – every question creates new divisions and either creates or deepens animosities.

And every division creates a new echo chamber. It is impossible not to recognize that each position comes complete with a venue to promote that opinion. As early as the second generation of the Restoration Movement, members were divided as to whether they were “Advocate men” or “Standard men.” (Women, I suppose, were identified by their husband’s allegiance). Then there came the Firm Foundation, and the Gospel Guardian, and the Heretic Detector (I kid you not), and Contending for the Faith and the Spiritual Sword and then Image and then Wineskins – and the beat goes on. Each journal, and sometimes associated lectureship, has rules about who can, and more importantly, who cannot be included in their “circle.”  Although in the early years of the Restoration Movement many journals carried written debates and articles that conveyed opinions contrary to the editor, that day has long since disappeared. Now, in order to be accepted by any journal or any lectureship a writer or speaker must be fully vetted, and if there is any shibboleth that cannot be explained, he (or she) is simply excluded.

Every journal and every lectureship within the fellowship of the Churches of Christ today is simply an echo chamber of the opinions and attitudes of those who edit/direct it. Oh, you may have the rogue conservative that travels out west or the closet progressive that manages to sneak in the midwest somewhere, but those situations are rare to the point of being isolated, and perhaps embarrassing to the powers-that-be once they are discovered.

So conservatives speak and write in echo chambers that simply reinforce their interpretations and opinions, and progressives speak and write in echo chambers that reinforce their interpretations and opinions. I am not exactly sure how to change that situation. Like I said, who wants to be in a place where they are threatened and made to feel like a lamb in the middle of a wolf convention? Not I, said this sheep.

But I just wonder (thinking out loud here), if some of the outrageously stupid things that were said in these echo chambers were spoken in a venue where they could be challenged and proven to be utterly baseless, would the condition of the average church member not be much healthier? I mean, to be absolutely honest and utterly frustrated here . . . it cannot be that it is scripturally wrong to hold or participate in a particular belief or practice and at the same time for that belief or practice to be scripturally right and blessed by God. One belief or practice is (a) wrong, and therefore a sin, or (b) right and therefore blessed by God or (c ) it is not a scriptural issue to begin with and therefore is neither (a) nor (b). But it cannot be both (a) and (b). Likewise, a passage of Scripture cannot have diametrically opposite interpretations and both (or all, if there be more than one radically different interpretation) be correct. One interpretation must be false. Jesus did not suggest that the Pharisees and Sadducees were merely mistaken. He called them blind guides and fools, and a brood of snakes. I get the impression Jesus believed the Pharisees and Sadducees were BOTH flat out, positively, absolutely wrong.

I have grown weary trying to hear a sane and honest, and yet direct, debate about some issues facing the Church of Christ today. There are a lot of people talking and writing and pontificating and lecturing and other sundry things. But they are all doing so in their respective echo chambers, where they receive standing ovations and feel-good reviews and everyone goes away happy. It is easy to feel good about what you hear in an echo chamber.

Problem is, Jesus did not say to listen to the voices in an echo chamber. He said to listen to his voice. God said listen to the voice of Jesus. It seems to me that the ONE voice we are not paying attention to today is the ONLY voice we should be listening to.

Credulity Crisis – Critiquing Christian Themed Entertainment

test

test (Photo credit: DaveBleasdale)

This post is a continuation of my last post. In this installment I will be making a careful examination of the claims of the book and soon to be released movie, “Heaven is For Real.”

For those who have not read the book, the story is about a little boy who suffers terribly from a misdiagnosed appendicitis attack, comes close to death and experiences a vision in which he claims to have seen (among other things) Jesus, his deceased grandfather, and his sister, who was actually never born. In his vision the grandfather has become younger in heaven, while his never-born sister has aged to a young girl. There are many problems with the story, but I just want to focus on the theology.

I need to make something absolutely clear here as I begin. In no way do I want to suggest that the little boy on whom the book and movie is based did not have the visions that are claimed in the book. I have personal reasons for allowing that he did, indeed, have those visions. This critique is not an ad hominem attack on that little boy. However, the interpretation of those visions has become the basis of a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there are serious repercussions that flow from the veracity or falsity of those religious interpretations. It is to those interpretations that I now turn.

Disciples are commanded, not merely encouraged, to test the veracity of the spirits that claim to be from God (1 John 4:1). I do not have to guess that a book or movie that discusses a vision of heaven and the residents thereof to be a message from God. The parents of the little boy, the publishers of the book and the producers of the movie all claim that the message comes from God. So, I can rest on a firm foundation that I am not arguing against a straw man. I am testing a spirit that claims to be from God.

So, I begin by asking, “Does the message support or contradict a portion of Scripture that we can all agree upon as being a clear message from God.” The first text I want to point out is Luke 16:19-31. The relevant words are found in v. 27-31:

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV, emphasis mine)

This, of course, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. If we cannot agree that this passage is from the mind of God then I suggest we cannot agree on anything.

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second passage is much longer – 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. I can only summarize here, but I encourage you to read the entire passage. In sum, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that our resurrection bodies will in no way, shape or glory be similar to our present human body. While we will have “bodies” they will be as different from our human bodies as the leaf is different from the seed.

Once again, unless you want to remove one of the greatest teachings on the resurrection from the New Testament, we have to say that this passage came from the mind of God.

Third, I would turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but for length we will only point out v. 15-17:

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of The Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet The Lord in the air. And so we will be with The Lord forever. (NIV, emphasis mine)

Here again we have the apostle Paul writing one of the foundational texts on the nature of the resurrection, and quoting Jesus no less; so I take this passage to be from the mind of God.

What do we learn from those passages? We learn that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sending someone back from death, or even near death, to accomplish the purpose for which the written Scriptures are more than sufficient. How much more sufficient is the story of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of our New Testament?

Second, we learn that our post resurrection bodies will not resemble our present bodies. Simply put, we will not resemble what we look like now. To say that someone can take a peek into heaven and recognize its occupants is to contradict what Paul said about our resurrection bodies.

Third, we learn that there will not be “stages” of progressive resurrections. “We who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep” and “we will be caught up together with them” means that they (the saved dead) will not precede us, and we will not precede them. We make the final journey together. Once again to be blunt, our dearly departed loved ones are not in heaven – unless you want to reconstruct 1 Thessalonians 4 (and 1 Corinthians 15).

I would like to stop here and ask the question, “For what purpose was the book written and the movie produced?” The best answer that I can decipher is that God wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to go to heaven. That’s it. The opening chapters of Genesis are not sufficient. The soaring poetry of Isaiah is not sufficient. The melancholy songs of Jeremiah are not sufficient. The life of the Son of God as recorded in the gospels is not sufficient. The hours of agony suffered by that Son of God on the cross are not sufficient. No – it takes a little boy suffering an extended illness and coming close to death and returning to life to get the message out that God loves us and wants us to go to heaven.

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Píse...

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Písek, Czech Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The publishers of the book and the producers of the movie have placed anyone who criticizes the book in a difficult position. All they have to do is accuse the opponent of despising a little boy, disbelieving in God, rejecting the power of God or maybe all three. Obviously I reject that accusation. I believe the theology of the book and movie is horribly flawed – certainly sacrilegious and bordering on blasphemous. Whatever the little boy did or did not see, the resulting production is unbiblical and dangerous.

I started this post by saying I do not disbelieve the little boy’s experience. I would be a reprehensible fool to suggest that I have knowledge that the little boy did not have the vision he claims to have experienced. I can, however, hold the interpretation that a group of adults have made regarding that experience up against the measure of the Word of God. As I have demonstrated, that interpretation fails miserably.

Two other issues bear very quick mention at this point. The interpretation told in the book and movie has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is not some altruistic telling of a gospel story. Serious amounts of money are exchanging hands here – and all based on the events that took place when a little boy was experiencing tremendous pain, was receiving numerous drugs, and was for a time under anesthesia. The entire process just seems scandalous to me.

Second, what pressures are being placed on this young boy? For the rest of his life he will be known as “the little boy who went to heaven.” We have all seen how notoriety destroys the lives of child actors. What happens when the boy grows, and, heaven forbid, stumbles or experiences a valley to match the mountain top experience he had as a child? How will his “adoring fans” respond? How will the world respond? But, more important, how will he respond? You cannot live a perfect life. Somewhere in his life he will experience the desert of spiritual emptiness. I hope the adults in his life are preparing him for that eventuality, so that when it does happen (NOT IF it does happen) he will be prepared to come out on the other side unharmed.

We are not supposed to check our brains at the door when we enter the waters of baptism. To think critically does not mean that we reject everything we see, hear and read; but to be a disciple does not mean that we uncritically swallow every story that claims to be “Christian,” whether that story is titled, “The Passion of the Christ,” “God’s Not Dead,” or “Heaven Is For Real.” Let us test the spirits, and that means some will pass the test, and others will not. Let us pray that God helps us make those decisions humbly and with extreme caution.

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Was the Apostle Paul a Moral Monster?

Skull and crossbones

Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One more post on an issue that is really a burr under my saddle. Hopefully I can get this out of my system with this entry.

Was the apostle Paul a moral monster? Did he, in his teaching, leave a group of Christians to practice something that he knew was wrong, indeed was sinful? Did he, by writing a letter (or better, letters) exacerbate that error by the thousands, perhaps millions, of mislead disciples? These are serious questions, and in the discussions that are so prevalent in the church today these questions must at least be asked.

The argument that I object to so strenuously, and that was presented in all earnestness by a young man in Bible class yesterday, goes something like this: the apostle Paul knew certain behaviors were wrong, or at the very least were sub-Christian in nature, but because of the prevailing culture in the communities in which he was trying to preach, he faced a dilemma. He could either teach what he knew to be true (and later proved that he knew was true) and risk upsetting the mores of the people that he was trying to teach; or he could swallow his tongue, actually support the unjust and ungodly behavior in the hopes that he could teach them about Christ without raising their self-defense mechanisms. In other words, the apostle Paul actively condoned certain behaviors, even though he knew them to be against God’s will, so that he could teach the people about Jesus.

I have three huge, nay, monstrous, objections to this line of thinking.

1.  To suggest this behavior means that Paul violated his own integrity. When you teach something that you believe to be true, and later find to be false, you are guilty of an error of fact, but your integrity is not affected (assuming you correct your mistake). But, when you teach something you know is false in order to achieve another goal you have violated the very basic aspect of integrity. It does not matter the ultimate goal here – you are guilty of the theory of “the end justifies the means.” That theory treats your students as mere pawns in helping you achieve your status. It is fundamentally demeaning to those you are trying to teach. It is philosophically corrupt as well as theologically corrupt. When your students find out that you have not only lied to them, but lied to achieve an ulterior goal, they will not only lose respect for you, but also for the subject about which you are attempting to teach them. For someone to suggest that Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or conversely, that it was blessed by God) and then for him to condone it (or conversely, that he condemned that which God had blessed) makes Paul out to be the worst of deceivers.

2.  To suggest that Paul knew a behavior to be wrong, yet taught so as to condone it meant that not only did he teach his audience error, but he taught it is okay to promote that error if the situation demanded it. A student learns not only the content of lessons, but the method and the philosophy behind those lessons as well. For Paul to say, “Listen, I know full well that behavior ‘X’ is wrong, but I’m going to bless practicing it as a command of God so that I can get my point across” was to teach his audience that it is perfectly okay to lie if there is an “acceptable” ulterior motive. Conversely, if Paul knew a behavior was perfectly acceptable to God, yet taught that it was a sin, then the lesson is clear – our teaching is pure regardless of the content so long as we have a “pure” motive behind our erroneous content.

3.  If Paul knew a behavior was wrong, and yet taught in such a manner as to condone it meant that he violated a much higher standard of honesty: he falsely involved the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not just say, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because our culture says it is wrong and so we should avoid it” he said, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because it is condemned in the written word of God.” Likewise, when Paul blessed a certain behavior he used God’s word to verify that claim. Thus, and make no mistake about this, if Paul knew a certain behavior was wrong, and he condoned that behavior by appealing to God’s word, then he is guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to teach a lie under your own authority. When you knowingly and intentionally invoke God’s name in your lie you have violated the very nature of the true God.

I really know of no other way to state this. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or, that a behavior was acceptable to God) and yet he taught and wrote in such a way as to promote that sinful behavior (or, on the flip side, he taught and wrote that an acceptable lifestyle was sinful before God) then he (1) violated his own integrity, (2) taught and promoted that others could violate their integrity if the situation demanded it, and (3) by invoking the word of God to defend his arguments (which he knew were false) he blasphemed the Holy Spirit.

What would we think of a preacher today who taught what he knew was a lie, taught others to practice the same lie, and invoked God’s name and God’s word to support his lies? I would call him a moral monster – a reprobate in the fullest sense of the term.

Why should we think the apostle Paul to be any less of a moral monster?

(BTW – if Paul was thoroughly ignorant of the error of his way the issue is not thereby resolved. It simply makes Paul to be, in the words of C.S. Lewis, a pathetic lunatic – someone who was greatly deluded and someone whose rantings are to be steadfastly avoided.)

Brothers and sisters, fellow exegetes and preachers, before we go around spouting off that Paul only taught that such-and-such behavior was right because the culture of his day demanded it; or that such-and-such behavior was sinful because the culture of his day demanded it even though he knew the opposite to be true let us stop and ask a critical question – What does that behavior turn the apostle Paul into?

I cannot accept the moral morass into which that argument places the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul may be many things: confusing, obtuse, opaque, bewildering, hyperbolic – just to name a few. But a moral monster?

Never.

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