All these passages they neither understand rationally, nor distinguish as to their occasions, nor apprehend in the light of Gospel mysteries, nor realize in the strict meaning of the words; and so they impugn the divine nature of Christ with crude and insensate rashness, quoting single detached utterances to catch the ears of the unwary, and keeping back either the sequel which explains or the incidents which prompted them, though the meaning of words must be sought in the context before or after them.
Hillary of Poitiers, 185-254 AD, On the Trinity, Book IX, 2, (translated by Rev. E. W. Watson and Rev. L. Pullan, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, Second series, Vol. IX, p. 156)
It is commonly said we should not take things out of context, but how can we safeguard against this? How can we recognize it?
Is there such a thing as morality? And if so, what is it? While rejecting morality is intellectually possible, it is extremely hard to do on a practical basis. As C. S. Lewis points out, if you observe people it will not be long before someone claims another person ought to do this or should not do that. This is true regardless of the person's philosophy. Many who reject conventional views of morality end up reaffirming it on another level. They may may reject what they consider to be outmoded views of sexual morality but become dogmatic about saving the environment. They may even use some new moral principle as the basis for throwing out an old moral principle. And we need to ask why. If morality is simply some strange idea we have concocted, why can we not throw it out?
Now some may claim this is only enlightened self-interest. They may even claim we evolved the idea because we found it more advantageous to cooperate than to always be competing. But this misses the whole point. Morality says we should behave in certain ways, even if we do not want to and it is not in our advantage to. Or we could say we are doing things for the good of posterity or survival of the species. But apart from morality, why should I care for the good of posterity or the species more than what is good for me? Or I could say I am doing things for the good of society. (This seems to me upside down, as I would hold that society exists for the good of the individuals in it.) But I have to ask, without morality, why I should care for the good of society? Now society can impose behaviors on me by force (though apart from morality, there is no justification for this). But without moral obligation, I will obey society only as far as it is able to force me to and no further. The result of any of these views is a veneer of morality. One that goes along only as far as it is to my advantage and is always looking for ways around the rules and and for what I can get away with. (We are naturally this way, but these approaches greatly increase the tendency.)
But if we want a real morality, the kind we automatically suppose, we need an objective standard outside ourselves. In fact, it would tend to imply a Lawgiver. But it at least implies some principle that dictates how we should act even if we do not want to and even if no one is looking. And if it is only an illusion, we need to ask the reason for its persistence. And we also need to ask where such a strange idea came from. For it seems odd that we should invent such an idea if there is no basis for it.
We think of the opposite of faith as doubt. And from a certain perspective, it is. But from another perspective, the opposite is fear. Doubt can even be seen as the fear that God's truth and promises are not true. "Do not fear" is one of the most common statements of Scripture. We live in a world full of fears, real and imagined. It is only as we put our faith in God that we can face those fears (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-6; Hebrews 11:6). In future posts I would like to look at our fears and ask how faith in God speaks to those fears. We live in a time when we seem to be surrounded by fears. I do not claim to have any easy, pat answers, but I think we need to face the issue and discuss it.
God is described in Scripture both as being true (John 17:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 John 5:20) and as speaking truth (John 3:33; Romans 3:4; Titus 1:2). This means that He genuinely exists and that He speaks with honesty. He is also wise (Romans 16:25-27; 11:33-36; Jeremiah 10:12). This is important, because it is not enough just to know things, but to know how to wisely use that knowledge.
This results in certain important questions. Is truth something above, to which God conforms, or is it something God creates? If it is the first, then there is something higher than God, and God is not really the one true God. If the second, then truth becomes arbitrary and has no real basis. The better alternative is seeing truth as God's nature, and that it is neither over Him nor below Him. This means that God is consistent; He makes sense. But it does not mean there are not things about God that are beyond our understanding (Isaiah 55:9; 1 Corinthians 3:18; 1:19-25). It is from knowing this that we must go into the difficult questions like why there is suffering in the world. These are, of course, not easy to answer, but they must be seen in this context.
It is also based on this that we are able to trust God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:3-6; Hebrews 11:6). Our faith rests in the fact that God is true and able to uphold His promises (Philippians 4:19; Romans 8:28; 1 Peter 5:6,7). This does not mean we will have a smooth life, with no problems. Scripture prepares us for exactly the opposite (Acts 14:22; John 16:33; 2 Corinthians 4:17,18). And in this context, we need faith to continue to follow Christ. As C. S. Lewis points out, the real enemy of faith is not reason (real intellectual objections need to be met and answered) but feeling and desire. The feeling we get when everything around us seems to be going wrong and we wonder where God is. Or when we find ourselves in a place where it would be easier to do the wrong thing and we need faith in God to avoid it. It is then we need faith in a God who is true and does not lie, even if we do not know what He is doing in our lives. And it is there that faith in God, not as a piece of information but as a person, comes in.