(Written to the Emperor's Physician)
The Emperor of Heaven, the Lord of men and angels, has sent thee his epistles for thy life's behoof; and yet, glorious son, thou neglectest to read these epistles ardently. Study then, I beseech thee, and daily mediate on the words of thy Creator. Learn the heart of God in the words of God, that thou mayest sigh more ardently for the things that are eternal, that your soul may be kindled with greater longings for heavenly joys.
Gregory the Great, Epistles of Gregory the Great, 540-604 AD, To Theodorus, Physician, (The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume XII, translated by James Barmby, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, editors,T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p.156)
What should our attitude be toward the the Word of God? How do we develop it?
Appollonius of Tyana was what many would claim Jesus of Nazareth was. I think it is helpful to compare and contrast the two men. Appollonius was a standard moral philosopher who gave out moral maxims similar to those of other philosophers of the day. He also was claimed to have accomplished certain miraculous deeds, the deliverance of a demon-possessed individual, deliverance from a vampire, and an encounter with the ghost of Achilles. He was also said to have lived a exceptionally long life and to have mysteriously disappeared when called before the emperor. Given that he lived somewhat after the time of Jesus, I suspect these stories were inspired by the stories of Jesus, but I cannot prove it. There were also a number of stories told about him that fit, not into the miraculous, but the fantastic. (The miraculous is that which involves supernatural intervention; the fantastic is things seen as part of the normal, natural world that are not credible.) These included levitating Hindu magicians, lilliputian-sized men, and fights between elephants and dragons. But the impression given is of a fairly standard philosopher who had various interesting legends tacked on to him. Because he was just a fairly standard philosopher, it is not really clear why he should have had these miraculous powers. And because he was a fairly standard philosopher, in spite of his supposed miraculous powers, he never developed much of a following and vanished quietly into obscurity.
Jesus, however, is never in any of the accounts of Him presented as a standard moral philosopher. The basic letters of Paul, generally considered the earliest sources on Christianity, present Him as the Son of God who came to pay the price for sins and rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-20; Romans 1:4; Galatians 3:6-14). The gospels also clearly put forth this idea (Mark 10:45; Matthew 11:27; 23:34). Even the pagan observers, such as Pliny the Younger and Lucian, characterize Christians as worshiping Jesus as God. The miraculous is not tacked on embroidery, as in Appollonius, but is the very heart of the message. It is difficult to see, if Jesus were simply like Appollonius, how His message could have gotten so completely changed in that short a period. Also, if Jesus had been in no way different from Appollonius, He would have suffered the fate of Appollonius and disappeared into a footnote in the history books. Now this does not prove Jesus was who He claimed to be. He could have been a clever swindler or some form of madman. But it does cast considerable doubt on the idea that Jesus was a great moral teacher who legends grew up around. We know what that looks like, and we know its fate.
Since before recorded history, human beings have sought a higher power or powers. This may have been for moral purity or for life after death. Or it may just have been for better crops or larger herds. And they have looked in many different ways in many different places. They followed moral rules and tried to be better people. But there was always the question of how much was enough to be good enough to please God or the gods. They sought some higher experience that would allow them to commune with the Ultimate. And they followed various procedures to further that experience. But this led them many different ways, and it was not clear whether they were really making contact with something beyond themselves or what it was. Others created ceremonies and rituals calculated to placate the gods or spirits or even manipulate them to do the worshiper's will. But these did not produce consistent results. Then the philosophers tried to reason it out. And they came out with many different theories and could not agree beyond the rudiments. And in all these approaches they sought long and hard, but reached no definite conclusion, and certainly none they could agree on.
But the claim of Christianity is totally different. It is that God revealed Himself to us. Further, we claim that God not only revealed Himself, but became a human being and walked among us. He did this to pay the price for all the wrong things we have done and make a way we could be reconciled to Him. Also, this is accomplished, not by trusting in the things we can do to seek God, but in what He did to seek us. This is fundamentally a different approach to the issue. This does not itself prove it is true, but it requires us to take notice. And we need to ask, how do we respond to this radical set of claims? And for those of us who embrace this truth, we need to avoid slipping back into other ways of looking at things. It is easy to change the emphasis from what God has done to what we do. We do not need a new moral system; we have plenty of those. We do not need a new philosophical system; we have plenty of those too. We need God to intervene and save us. Because without that, we are just spinning our wheels.
(The context of this quote is a hypothetical look at then current Christmas in Britain, represented as Niatrirb, through the eyes of a Greek historian. The result is a comparison of the secular holiday, Exmas and the religious holiday, Chrissmas.)
But what Hecataeus says, that Exmas and Crissmas are the same, is not credible. For first, the pictures which are stamped on the Exmas-cards have nothing to do with the sacred story which the priests tell about Crissmas. And secondly, the most part of the Niatribians, not believing the religion of the few, nevertheless send the gifts and cards and participate in the Rush and drink, wearing paper caps. But it is not likely that men, even being barbarians, should suffer so many and great things in honour of a god they do not believe in.
C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963, Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus, God in the Dock (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1970, p. 303)
Does it sometimes seem like we are celebrating two different holidays this time of year? How do we deal this situation?
He was a dedicated knight of the King. But he wanted to be better. He had heard there was a treasure, a secret, that would enable him to truly follow the King. So with a cross around his neck to remind him of the great things the King had done for him, he set out on a journey to find it. He traveled to many places and asked questions of many strangers, but everyone gave him different directions. So he set out to test the paths on his own.
Spurring his stallion along a major path, he was confronted by an immense red dragon. His scales glimmered in the sun and flame flickered from his nostrils. "Come with me," said the dragon, "and I will show you real power. I will breath my fire into you, and you will be confident in yourself and do great things."
The knight looked down at the cross, and it was as if the King spoke to him, "The dragon's name is Pride, and he leads knights to destruction. Trust not in yourself, but in what I have done for you." And the knight turned the other way.
As he followed another road, a mysterious lady emerged from the trees. She wore a shimmering green dress and had a gleam in her eye. She smiled at him and said, "Come with me, and I will teach you the depths of inner feeling. And from that feeling will come the power you seek."
He looked once more at the cross and heard, "Her name is Experience; she promises much but requires more and more just to get the same result. She is a fantasy, I am Reality. Do not follow her."
As he rode on, a sickly looking old man, all skin and bones, asked for a ride. As the old man mounted on the back of the horse, he seized the knight with a grip of iron. "I am Despair," said the old man, "and you will never find what you seek, for you are not worthy of it."
The knight glanced desperately at the cross and heard, "You are not worthy, but I have paid the price. The issue is not what you do, but what I have done." With this, Despair lost his grip and tumbled backward off the horse.
The knight spurred his horse to a run, fleeing from Despair, but reined in when he saw a strange sight beside of the road. It was a cave in the side of the hill with the King's sign of the cross over the entrance. He entered gingerly, reluctant to believe it was meant for him. In the rear of the cave he saw a treasure chest, old but sturdy. He slowly lifted the lid and found it was not locked. Inside lay a cross, exactly like the one he already wore. He walked away, both sad and elated. The only real treasure was the one he had had all along.
Re-Posted from "Meditations of a Charismatic Calvinist Who Does Not Speak in Tongues
I used to say there were two sacrifices I made for my church. I did
not play on the softball team and did not sing on the worship team. This
is a story of how I did one of those things. It is not, however, a nice
simple story of how I did something I thought I could not do and
succeeded. It is much more convoluted than that.
main reason for not wanting to be on the worship team is I cannot sing.
Now I have found if I sing softly, I can blend in enough that hopefully
no one will notice, but this hardly seems a good reason to do it up
front. I do, however, have a fairly expressive worship style. (I have
been told by people from a charismatic perspective that they envied my
freedom of worship.) It began when the pastor said he did not want
people on the worship team who could sing well, but who could worship.
And I felt a nudge in the back of my mind, saying, "You can worship."
Now I resisted, thinking this was a crazy idea. But it would not go
away, and things I thought were conflicts vanished, so I gave in and
volunteered to go on the worship team.
enough, I found people responded favorably to what I was doing. There
were even those who came up afterward to thank me for it. I also seemed
to be encouraging people with charismatic tendencies to be more willing
to express themselves that way. I do not think it would have gone very
far, maybe more people lifting up hands than had done so before, but it
was a definite difference.
Things seemed to be going
well until some people began complaining I was "too charismatic". (I
was never able to determine exactly what this meant; the closest I came
to defining the problem was "kneeling and dancing".) But if I was
encouraging people to be charismatic and the leadership did not want to
go there, we had a problem. Therefore, after failing to resolve the
problem, I followed the leading of God and resigned from the worship
Now I do believe God led me onto the worship
team. (It was certainly contrary to my normal way of thinking.) But I
am convinced that I was led to do what I did in order to point out the
potential conflict in the congregation over things charismatic before it
came to a head in a more destructive way. I was the point man. In
the military, the point man is the one who goes out in front of the
column to act as lookout. He is also the one most likely to get shot.
If I can draw a moral from this, it is that God's will is not always
simple and straightforward and does not always work out as we want it
to. But we must trust Him in spite of that.
Many today see the main thing in life as the pursuit of pleasure and claim we should follow our desires wherever they lead. It is tempting to react against this and see all desires as evil. There are various approaches to this, but the basic idea is that the ultimate moral principle is self-control. There are those who would want to import this idea into Christianity. But what does the Scripture say?
The Bible speaks very clearly of desiring God and the things of God (Psalms 42:1,2; 73:25; 27:4). Further, God makes a definite appeal to our desires in calling people to come to Him (Revelation 21:4; Psalms 16:11; 1 Peter 1:8). Here I suspect that C. S. Lewis was right in claiming in his article The Weight of Glory that the problem is not that our desires are too strong, but that our desire for the things of God is too weak. He likens us to children making mud-pies in a slum because we do not understand the idea of a holiday at the sea. We are willing to settle for the desires for temporal things, such as money, sex, and fame, when we should be desiring the joy of being in the presence of God forever. The problem is not having other desires, but elevating them above the desire for God (Matthew 6:24; Colossians 3:5: Deuteronomy 6:4,5). Therefore, other things are appropriate when put in their proper place (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:4; Titus 1:15). Self-control is important, but it is not the ultimate principle, but only part of a full-orbed obedience to God (Galatians 5:22,23, 2 Peter 1:5-7; Acts 24:25).
But the temptation is, when we see a culture that is more and more becoming unrestrained, if we cannot conform (and it is becoming harder and harder for a Christian simply to conform), to overact. And if we do, we can become the kind of people the world thinks we are. Now it is difficult for anyone who wants to pull the brake cord on the way our society is going not to be branded as a kill-joy. But it is one thing to be branded as one and another to be one. God calls us to be those who rejoice in who He is and what He has done even in difficult times (Philippians 4:4; John 16:33; Romans 14:17). And if we desire the chief thing first, the others will fall into place.
I hate myself because when I see him laid in the manager, in the lap of his mother, and hear the angels sing, my heart does not leap into flame. With what good reason should we all despise ourselves that we remain so cold when this word is spoken to us over which all men should dance and leap and burn for joy! We act as though it were a frigid, historical fact that does not smite our hearts, as if someone were merely relating that the sultan has a crown of gold.
Martin Luther, 1483-1546, The Martin Luther Christmas Book, Shepherds (translated and arranged by Roland Bainton, The Westminster Press, 1948, p.46)
Can Christmas become something we are used to and makes no impact when we hear of it? How can we avoid this?
Ours seems to be an age of extremes, of people pushing principles to their questionable conclusions. I have to ask why this is so. I believe the answer can be found in G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. He says that purely naturalistic processes can only progress in an obvious direction. But progressing into a complex pattern implies an artist making the pattern. If my computer screen got darker and darker until it was pitch black or more and more purple until it was dark purple, it might be a purely mechanical malfunction. But if a face appears speaking to me, I must conclude that someone, somewhere, created what I was looking at.
For example I can hold strongly to independence until I see myself as an isolated individual, beholden to almost no one, and see it as the end of a natural process. I can see myself being made more and more a cog in an interlocked societal machine and see it as a result of simple progress. I can believe in more and more equality until no one can be distinguished from anyone else. Or claim some higher individuals or master race should exercise more and more power over others. But a complex Biblical picture of unity in diversity and servant leadership requires an Architect (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Luke 22:24-27; Ephesians 5:21-6:9),
On purely naturalistic grounds we can hold to an ethic of work and success that despises those who fail. Or we can believe in an ethic that offers the same goods to everyone regardless of effort. But to maintain the need of work while helping those in need requires more (1 John 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:12; James 2:15,16; Ephesians 4:28). We can, from a naturalistic viewpoint, claim that almost any sexual activity is all right and it is wrong in almost all cases to restrain it. Or else claim that sex is a dirty thing and should be avoided except when necessary to propagate the species. But to see it as good within an appropriate, committed relationship and wrong outside this requires a Designer (Hebrews 13:4; 1 Corinthians 7:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8; Proverbs 5:15-23).
This problem appears over and over again in various issues. And Christians are in danger of falling into one or the other of the extremes rather than standing where we should. For we believe the world is not an accident, but the work of a Creator. And the right answer to the issues is the picture intended by the Artist.
Re-Posted from "Meditations of a Charismatic Calvinist Who Does Not Speak in Tongues"
Do you have to be cold-hearted to be a Calvinist? Or does it just
help? To deal with this we first need to ask, What is the point of
Calvinism? As I see it, this is that though we were sinners and in
rebellion against God so that we would not have come to Him if left to
ourselves (Romans 3:10-12; 8:8; John 6:44), God chose to bring us to
Himself (Ephesians 1:4-11; Acts 13:48; Romans 8:29,30). The point of
this is the greatness of God's grace and the realization that there is
absolutely nothing we could do to contribute to our salvation. Far from
being a reason for pride, it is a reason for humility, and the
description given of those He chooses is hardly a basis for boasting (1
Corinthians 1:26-31). Therefore, it should cause us to have compassion
on those still enmeshed in the darkness of sin.
there is a danger here of making God's choosing into an abstraction
totally divorced from the fact of the fall and the price of redemption
and of seeing God as choosing between people as casually as a socialite
chooses outfits. We need to recognize that God is beyond our
understanding (Romans 11:33; 1 Corinthians 3:18; Isaiah 55:9), and we
cannot fully comprehend how God's sovereignty fits with human
responsibility or how or why God chooses. But He did not have to save
anyone, and He paid an enormous price to do it (Romans 5:6-8; 8:32; John
Calvinism can be confused with Stoicism, which
says life is tough and God made it that way because He wants us to be
tough. Rather, the Christian says life is tough, so we need to realize
we cannot deal with it ourselves, but must trust God. (Note that the
original Stoicism had no clear idea of a Fall, which distorted their
idea of God and the world.) Calvinism is also confused with
psychological determinism, which says our behavior is completely the
result of our heredity and environment. But it is one thing to say our
behavior is controlled by a personal God and another to say we are
merely the result of background influences. Psychological determinism
leaves us in doubt as to whether we can know anything at since all our
thoughts are the result of irrational causes. It also can leave us
looking at other people as just mechanisms determined by their
All these misconceptions can influence
Calvinists or be read in by opponents. Also, Calvinism in our culture,
and in some parts of the Christian church, carries with it a
considerable stigma. Therefore, only those who have or who develop
considerable determination and strength of conviction can hold to it.
Such people may be perceived, fairly or unfairly, as cold-hearted.
Sometimes you produce what you perceive in people. But to be kept in
perspective, predestination must be considered in connection with the
Fall and redemption.
I am convinced that what the Bible does not say is as important as what it does say and that it is wrong to add to it. (Deuteronomy 4:2; Proverbs 30:5,6; Revelation 22:18,19). But part of our problem is we can start by framing a question apart from Scripture and then expect Scripture to answer it. Now there are occasions where this is legitimate. If I am facing a particular moral dilemma that Scripture does not address directly, it is appropriate to look for principles that pertain to the situation. A book that addressed every obscure moral question would be too cumbersome to use, so I believe God wants us to apply principles to dealing with issues. But it is one thing to do this in unusual situations and another to add as clear-cut commands something the Bible never said. But the real problem can come from framing theological questions and straining for some Biblical basis to supply an answer, when it should have been obvious if God thought it was important.
A good example is the question of what way Christ is present in the Lord's Supper. The Scripture never directly addresses this question. The only question is what the word "is" means, and it is putting too much of a burden on this word in any language to claim it must mean "is physically" or some other specific meaning (Revelation 17:18; Isaiah 5:7; Hosea 10:11). Now I am not claiming this proves communion is symbolic. I am merely claiming Scripture does not say. Now I do not forbid the individual to speculate on it, but I have a problem with being dogmatic on something and dividing over it when Scripture does not clearly teach about it. (Notice that 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 is about the practice of the Eucharist and not the theory of it. Turning it into a drunken feast where everyone brought their own food and drink and nobody shared was disrespectful no matter what your theory of the Supper is.)
Other good examples are church government and the order of the worship service. While there are general principles given, there is no detailed description found (1 Corinthians 14:40; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Hebrews 13:17). However, there is a detailed description given of such things in the Old Testament. I can only conclude that if God did not include such things in the New Testament, it is because He did not intend to. Therefore, we have freedom as long as we stay within the principles.
I am convinced that God is not shy and that what He intended to say, He said. Now He may not have spoken on every obscure issue; to deal with all of them would make Scripture impossible to use. But I do not believe He left any critical issue to be ferreted out by reading between the lines.
In the second place, the duty of the Christian theologian is to ascertain, collect, and combine all the facts which God has revealed concerning himself and our relation to Him. These facts are all in the Bible. This is true, because everything revealed in nature, and in the constitution of man concerning God and our relation to Him, is contained and authenticated in Scripture.
Charles Hodge, 1798-1878, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, Chapter 1, 5, A (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1982, p.11)
Is this correct? How does it affect our approach to understanding God?
Can atheists be moral? The simple answer is, yes. But the next question is, why? All of us are products of our upbringing. Also, there seems to be a deeply ingrained tendency in human beings to believe in morality. Even if we reject traditional morality, we erect a new morality in its place. Some may accept the the killing of the unborn, but they protest the destruction of endangered species. But what do we base any morality on? This is not just a problem for atheists, but also for agnostics and those who hold to a vague, impersonal God who is not concerned about morality. I remember back when I was an agnostic thinking I should do things for the good of posterity. Then I asked the question why I should care about the good of posterity. The concern for the good of posterity is a moral principle, and without morality I had nothing to base it on.
Some would try to base morality on evolution, claiming that evolution can promote cooperation as well as competition. But this reduces morality to enlightened self-interest. However, is this morality? Let's face it, bank robbers and crooked politicians can cooperate together to accomplish their purposes. But morality is based on the idea that there are certain things I should do because they are right, even if they are not to my personal advantage. If we reject such an idea, let us simply be honest and say we reject morality and have done with it. If I am only moral as long as it is to my advantage to be moral, my morality is useless. But can real morality be justified from a purely naturalistic point of view?
I do think this morality without basis does make it more likely that certain individuals will reject morals entirely. However, I frankly do not think most of us will give up on moral thinking; it is too much a part of us. But I do think that morality without basis leads to moral creep. We can base our morals on whatever people happen to think or whatever is portrayed sympathetically in the media. And a good writer can make almost anything look reasonable. Therefore, we drift in our convictions, depending on what is currently acceptable or the last thing we viewed or read.
But the bottom line is, if I cannot shake this morality thing, where did it come from? Now this is not an unequivocal argument for the existence of God. One can always claim that morality is some kind of a mental fallacy, and people should live only for self-interest, enlightened or otherwise. But we have to ask why this fallacy is so persistent and why we have such a hard time shaking it. And if we are going to keep living by it, we need a logical basis for our behavior.
Re-Posted from "Meditations of a Charismatic Calvinist Who Does Not Speak in Tongues"
I remember being involved in a church that was going through a
wringer. It had had problems before I got there, including the exodus
of a large part of the congregation. Soon after I got there the pastor,
who was burnt out by previous problems, left, and a certain part of the
congregation left with him. We got a new pastor, but many of the
officeholders of the church dropped out, either entirely from the
congregation or from the carrying out of their office (some later came
back; others did not). At one point the active leadership in the
congregation seemed to consist in the pastor and five other people, and
one of them kept explaining how their family was soon going to move out
of town. Things came back together, but we kept having periodic minor
conflicts, losing a family here and a family there.
day I was praying through the sanctuary during a time it was empty.
And the thing God impressed on me was, "If the center holds, you will
make it through." (I know this ultimately comes from a pagan source,
but when God brings things to my mind He normally uses the baggage that
is there.) I took this as meaning that if the core of the church would
stick together, we as a church would make it through.
I was in a different congregation that appeared to be doing well. I
knew there were potential problems, but I thought we could avoid them.
Then one day when I was walking through the sanctuary, I felt the
familiar nudge, "If the center holds, you will make it through." And I
asked myself, Are we in that much trouble? Not long afterward we were
involved in a major conflict, resulting in the loss of about half the
congregation. Later, the pastor was promoted to a position in the
denomination, and the new pastor had to deal with a series of problems
and aftershocks. But we stuck together and made it through.
do not want condemn people who switch churches. I have switched
churches myself for various reasons on more than one occasion. But I
think there is too much tendency to desert simply because things get
difficult. Now there are things worth splitting a church over, and
there may be individual congregations where it is just as well if they
close their doors. But I do believe the Biblical exhortations to unity
imply we need to stick together and work out our problems, where
possible, rather than leaving at the first hint of trouble (Philippians
2:1,2; Ephesians 4:1-6; Colossians 3:12-15). One of the great
innovations in ancient warfare was the shield wall. Instead of each
warrior fighting for himself, they made a row of interlocking shields so
they protected their neighbor's flank. We Christians need to do this
for each other. Perhaps then more ministries would make it through,
rather than collapse.
Legalism is a word that is hard to pin down and is used in different ways. It is not simply adding extra rules that God does not command, though this is wrong (Deuteronomy 4:2; Matthew 15:1-14; Colossians 2:20-23). The core of legalism is believing I can be acceptable to God based on my good works rather than on trusting Christ's sacrifice (Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 3:19-31). Now this trust results in a changed life (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; Galatians 5:13,14), but a changed life is our response to God's love for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2). This change is imperfect in the present time (Philippians 3:12-16; Romans 7:14-25; Galatians 5:16,17) and we are just before God based on what He has done for us (Philippians 3:9; Romans 8:33,34; Colossians 2:9-15).
There are various forms of legalism. There is an emphasis on self-control and the strict adherence to the rules.There is a legalism than is more interested in being nice to people rather than following precise rules. This is closer to Scripture, which makes love the basic commandment (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; 1 Corinthians 13:1-7). But if the emphasis is on what I do rather than on what Christ has done, it is still legalism. There can also be an emphasis on experiences or rituals. All of these can be legitimate in their place. But if they are seen as the thing that reconciles us to God, they are wrong.
But these forms of legalism tend to end up in conventional legalism. Conventional legalism is the idea that if I am a good moral person and avoid any obvious sins, I am all right. The Christian version adds basic Christian duties. But it is focused on what society considers respectable. And it is hard to maintain when society does not endorse it. One example of conventional legalism was the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. He believed in and practiced conventional legalism in an Empire riddled by decadence. He was conscientious and tried to turn the tide. In doing so he tried to suppress all strange foreign beliefs. Based on this he condemned a little slave girl who followed a Galilean Carpenter who did not stand for conventional legalism, but offered forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And she maintained this belief in the face of all the tortures the Empire could inflict on her. Marcus Aurelius, for all his position of power, failed. He could not prevent his own son from embracing the decadence nor did he slow the general tide of corruption. And the faith of the little slave girl went out and conquered the world. But often today, we who are her heirs have seated ourselves in the seat of Marcus Aurelius. And have no more ability then he did to halt the decadence of our culture. And I am convinced it is only by reaffirming our original message, that God by free grace forgives sinners, that we can hope to make an impact on our culture.