I pray. O God, to know thee, to love thee, that I may rejoice in thee. And if I cannot attain to full joy in this life may I at least advance from day to day, until that joy may came to the full. Let the knowledge of thee advance in me here, and there be made full. Let the love of thee increase, and there let it be full, that here my joy may be great in hope, and there full in truth.
Anselm, Prologium, 1033-1109, Chapter XXVI, (Proslogium; Monologium; An Addendix on Behalf of the Fool by Gaunilon; and Cur Deos Homo, translated by Sidney Norton Deane, Open Court Publishing Co, 1926, p. 37)
Does this reflect the proper way to grow closer to God, knowledge of Him leading to love and joy? How might this affect my approach to God?
It is complained that the Christian idea of God is complex and hard to understand. But we need to realize that reality is complex, and the too simple solution is often the suspect one. It was once believed that there were four elements: air, fire, earth and water, and that everything was some mixture of them. Compare that to the variety of elements in the Periodic Table. It was once thought that atoms were tiny balls bouncing around or simple geometric shapes, like spheres, cubes, and pyramids. But they are really complex entities possessing various shells which it requires quantum mechanics to describe. It was once thought a cell was just a blob of protoplasm. We now know it is a miniature factory made up of complex elements.
Nor is reality always easy to understand. Take something as simple as light. It is both particles and waves at the same time. How this is possible is beyond our understanding. Or that there is a probability (on the subatomic level this is a meaningful probability) that a particle will pass through any barrier that is less than infinitely strong without breaking the barrier. Even Einstein's theory, that measurements of time, length, and mass change when objects are moving relative to each other, seems serendipitous. To refuse to believe something because we do not understand it is a denial of how the world really is.
Should we then really be surprised when God turns out to be three in one? If He becomes a man while still remaining God? If His death on a cross obtains our salvation? The very difficulties involved would argue this is something human beings would not make up. We like things we can understand. But we need to beware of too simple answers to difficult questions. For the world is stranger than we expect it to be.
Ulysses, on his journey home in the Odyssey, is forced to pass between two monsters, Scylla and Charybdis. They were on opposite sides of a narrow ocean channel, and to avoid one put you in danger of falling into the clutches of the other. I believe that our culture is in the grip of two monsters.
On the one side we have increasing conformity and depersonalization, and on the other increasing individualism and license.
We are in danger of being seen as interchangeable cogs in a vast machine, pressed into shape to fit in with everyone else. We are seen as a something like play-doh, which can be molded into any shape and will take up every picture it is pressed on. This comes partly from a distorted view of equality. All people are valuable in God's sight, being made in His image (Genesis 1:26; 9:6; James 3:9). But this can be taken to mean we are indistinguishable and must all act alike.
On the other extreme there is total individualism. This sees us as completely independent and left unrestrained to follow every impulse. The problem with that is, we are sinners and there are impulses in us that are best not followed (Romans 7:14; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). But there is the idea that restraint is an offense against the inner self, which is assumed to be good. And both of these ideas feed on each other, so that as people in our society begin to feel more and more like counters, they react by going to extremes to express their individuality.
I am convinced the only real answer is God's grace. We are told there is a real standard of right and wrong that transcends both the individual and society (Romans 7:12; 3:31; Matthew 5:18). But we cannot keep this standard, and God has offered us forgiveness in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 2:13,14; Romans 8:3,4) if we put our faith in Him (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; Philippians 3:9). Then having forgiven us, He begins to work in us to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Titus 2:11-14; Ephesians 2:10). He also makes us part of a body, which is built on unity in diversity (1Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:11-16). This allows me over time to be transformed, though often haltingly and imperfectly, into the person God really wants me to be. Which is the result of the grace and love of God that motivates me to love Him in return (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 5:1,2). And I can grant grace to and receive grace from other Christians, knowing that we are all different and fall short of perfection (1 Peter 4:8; James 4:11,12; Hebrews 12:12,13). And having received it ourselves, we can offer it to those outside. For we are on a journey to Someone who is higher than self and society, and we have us not yet arrived (Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2; 1 Timothy 4:7,8).
Ideas are dangerous, but the man to whom they are least dangerous is the man of ideas. He is acquainted with ideas, and moves among them like a lion-tamer. Ideas are dangerous, but the man to to whom they are most dangerous is the man of no ideas. The man of no ideas will find the first idea fly to his head like wine to the head of a teetotaller.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, Heretics, Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy (Barnes & Noble Inc., 2007, p. 158)
Is the best way to avoid following ideas to an extreme a broad understanding of ideas? How do we acquire this?
What is ordination? What does it mean for someone to be ordained? What does the Bible require for it to be legitimate? Now this is important because the ceremony of ordination came to be a basis for legitimizing the authority of leadership in the church. It also became the basis for dividing the church into two classes: clergy and laity. It has even been seen as vesting a person with a permanent character that cannot be taken away. What truth is there to this?
Now the first problem we face is that the words in the New Testament commonly translated "ordination" do not mean it. They simply mean to place in office (1 Timothy 2:7; Titus 1:5; Acts 1:22). Now there is a question whether one of the terms involved means to elect by vote (Acts 14:23; 2 Corinthians 8:19). But this is dubious, as the meaning of the word is ambiguous. However, nothing else is said about the process of inducting leaders. Now in the Old Testament there is a ceremony for inducting Aaronic priests into their position (Leviticus 8,9). But this seems entirely connected with that particular office.
Now there is the act of laying on hands. This is used for many different purposes in Scripture (Leviticus 16:21: Mark 6:5; Acts 19:6). It has the basic idea of identification, but it is frequently associated with prayer (Acts 8:15-17; 28:8; Genesis 48:14-16). It is also associated with inducting people into leadership positions (Acts 6:6; 13:3; Numbers 27:18,19), prayer being appropriate at such a time. This seems to be used for various different offices, and it is interesting that the only places that seem to refer specifically to the pastoral office are arguable in their meaning (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). Now I have no problem with laying hands on someone when inducting them into the pastorate. I also have no problem with laying hands on Sunday School teachers and nursery workers when placing them into their positions.
Now I have no problem with having some sort of ceremony (laying on of hands seems appropriate) for confirming pastors in their position. Nor do I have problems with examining them beforehand to see if they qualify for the office. But not only does it not bestow on them any special authority or status, it is not even required by Scripture. The genuine authority in the church comes from the agreeing together of the true disciples of Christ, those who have faith in Him (Matthew 18:18-20; 16:13-19; 28:16-20). There is not, and has never been, any authority in the church passed down by purely mechanical means. Nor are there two separate levels of believers, as all are priests before God (Revelation 1:5,6; 5:9,10; 1 Peter 2:9,10). Certainly there should be leadership (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13; Hebrews 13:17). But they should not be seen as totally separate from the people they serve.
The last thing a hurting person needs is cliches. What is a cliche? Anything we say to avoid having to really care. A Scripture verse, even a perfectly appropriate Scripture verse, can be a cliche if used flippantly and without any real concern for the individual and their feelings. Some Bible verses have been so misused it is hard to use them and not have them come out as cliches. Particularly bad is any cliche which leaves the impression that if you were just more spiritual you would not be so upset about the situation.
Scripture requires that we genuinely sympathize with each others' pain (1 Corinthians 12:26,27; Romans 12:15; Galatians 6:2). The problem is that really caring about people hurts. It is so much easier just to pull a cliche out of the bag to avoid actually caring. The one who cares will take time to listen and show they care before they say something, and what they say will come out of their genuine caring. This is often difficult to do, and I often wonder if I fall short. But we need to make the attempt and not hide behind a cliche.
Dr. Julius Harrison eased into his chair at the head of the table. The Project had achieved its goal. They had raised thirty-two children from infancy in a perfectly controlled environment and with electrodes implanted in their brains to stimulate pleasure and pain. As a result, they had been able to demonstrate by many tests their total control of the subject’s thoughts and actions. That next phase was to instill in these subjects the proper values that would make them the nucleus of a better human society. The purpose of this conference was to outline what these values should be.
"We must assure that women will never be degraded," began Dr. Paula Goldstein, “by conditioning them against rape, sexual harassment, and pornography."
"Wait a minute," interrupted Dr. John Stankowski, "certainly you don't mean to bridle their natural sexual impulses. Surely you must see that the term `pornographic' represents an attempt to stigmatize the appropriate products of free expression."
"Am I to understand," she retorted, "that you wish to perpetuate the relics of the present patriarchal society into our new humanity?"
"It's you who want to perpetuate your sexual inhibitions," he returned. "I suggest we produce a group of aggressive go-getters, who go after what they want and won't let anything stand in their way."
"You want to produce a batch of bullies?" interjected Dr. Horace Mortimer. "We need to make them kind and respectful of the rights of others."
"You want to produce a bunch of wimps or maybe a bunch of homos?" Stankowski responded.
"Only an ape like you would confuse sexual preference with consideration for your fellow person," replied Mortimer.
"Let's start by conditioning them that murder is wrong," suggested Dr. Karen Slaugh.
"Why certainly," returned Dr. Alexander Philippe, "that's something we've all been conditioned to believe."
"Are you telling me that disgust with the taking of human life is nothing more than a conditioned response?" inquired Mortimer.
"Does it not follow from our experiment that all a person thinks and does is produced by their conditioning?" responded Philippe.
"You mean, if we were conditioned different we'd all be nerdy like Mortimer or repressed like Ms. Goldstein," stated Stankowski.
"I mean the great Dr. Stankowski, with all his manly virtues, is nothing more then the product of his upbringing," retorted Philippe.
"Look," said Stankowski angrily, "I worked hard on this Project to build a better world. Are you trying to tell me that all this was a waste of time?"
"Your better world or Mortimer's?" returned Philippe.
With that, Stankowski, unable to hold back any longer, launched himself at Philippe. The others tried to pull him off, but it degenerated quickly into a total melee, each one attacking the others.
Harrison inched his way toward the door. He realized that if the only values they could impart were a result of their conditioning, there was no way to decide what kind of future to build. What significance had anything if all human thought and endeavor was totally the consequence of their conditioning? It was too late for him, but perhaps others should be left with their illusions.
As he left the room he noticed a group of subjects busy with their assigned tasks. Suddenly all of them were grabbing whatever they could find to use for weapons yelling, "Away with the teachers. Away with the givers of pain. Put an end to them! Put an end to them!" He realized they had all been acting, waiting for their chance to rebel. The experiment had failed. The subjects were not conditioned. He wasn't sure whether to be sad or glad.
But on the other head the passionate, in that they are swept on into frenzy of mind by the impulse of anger, break up the calm of quietness, and so throw into confusion the life of those who are put under them. For, when rage drives them headlong, they know not what they do in their anger, they know not what in their anger they suffer from themselves. But sometimes, what is more serious, they think the goad of their anger to be the zeal of righteousness. And, when vice is believed to be virtue, guilt is piled up without fear.
Gregory the Great, 540-604 AD, Pastoral Rule, Part III, Chapter XVI, (translated by Rev. James Barmby, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume XII, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, pp. 39,40)
How might we mistake anger for zeal? How can we avoid it?
What does it mean to be carnal? Is it the person engaged in blatant sin? This idea causes most Christians to see it as applying to somebody else. There is, I think, some place for preaching against blatant sin in the hopes that there may be someone who hears it and repents. But a steady diet of nothing but that can end up only reinforcing the majority of the congregation in their complacency, while telling those it applies to things they probably already know. Or we can paint with broad strokes as carnal all those who are not part of our group or do not follow our formula for holiness. This can leave us again with a spirit of complacency. The carnal people are the people who are out there in those other groups.
The word carnal simply means fleshly. The word flesh in Scripture can have many uses and implications. It can be used simply to refer to the physical (John 1:14; Matthew 19:5; Luke 3:6) or things that are of a physical character (Romans 15:27; 9:3; 2 Corinthians 3:3). But it is commonly used to describe that part of our nature that is in rebellion against God (Romans 7:14; 13:14; Galatians 6:7,8).
Now there are cases where the contrast between flesh and spirit is between believers and unbelievers (John 3:6; Ephesians 2:3; Romans 7:5). I am convinced this is the contrast in Romans 8:2-11. In the end of the passage we are told that those who are in the spirit are those in whom the Spirit dwells, who belong to God and will be resurrected. The passage states that believers are those who, as a general practice, set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
But there are clear passages which admonish believers to avoid the carnal aspect of our nature. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 speaks of a growth process, of ceasing to be an infant and growing up in the things of God. (Hebrews 5:11-14 is a parallel passage.) It also gives, as an indication of their carnality, not their blatant sins (though they had some), but their division into factions. In Galatians 5:13-26 we are commanded to walk by the spirit, which again suggests a process, in the midst of a constant struggle between the spirit and the flesh. There is a long list of works of the flesh given, which includes both blatant and subtle sins. I would therefore conclude that we all have a carnal nature that is constantly trying to assert itself. And God is in the process of transforming us, that we may follow Him rather than the carnal aspect of ourselves (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:12-16; Hebrews 12:1,2). So the point of the Scriptural teaching on carnality is not to point fingers at others but to see our own need for being on guard against the sinfulness in our own heart and to trust in God and His power to overcome it.
Do we live as Christians as if the supernatural is real? I am not just talking about the issue of spiritual gifts, though they are part of the mix. I am asking, do we live with the idea that we are connected to a supernatural God who does supernatural things? Or do we live life based on our own wisdom and ability? Francis Schaeffer put out the challenge that if God removed from the Bible every reference to the power of the Holy Spirit and the power of prayer, would our lives be any different? Scripture says God is at work in Christians' lives to transform them (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 2:10; 2 Peter 1:3). And He is at work through us to accomplish His purposes in the world (2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Colossians 1:28,29; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7). But do we live that way?
We frequently hear the cry from certain quarters of Evangelicalism that we should end the Culture Wars. Is this a good idea? Is it even possible? It is my perception that there are forces in our society that are opposed to historic Christianity and historic Christian morals. They are at least opposed to them having any real influence in society. If we totally capitulate to these forces, what we will be left with is nothing or something so marginal that it would not make any difference. However, I am convinced we could do a much better job of picking our battles.
The first thing I think we need to recognize is we are no longer in any serious sense a nominally Christian nation. We need to let go of the past and recognize we are Christians in a Non-Christian society, and we need to rebuild from there. This means we need to get rid of the idea that we are entitled to respect and stop reacting with anger when we do not get it. It means we need to stop fighting over petty things and symbolic issues whose main purpose seems to be to try to show we are in control of the culture. We need to choose those things that are clear injustices, and we need to be involved in the long process of convincing people of our position. We must to do this with the love and gentleness that Scripture requires (Matthew 22:36-40; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 1 Peter 3:15). And we need to realize that there will never be a time when the world will truly reflect genuine Christianity (1 John 2:15-17; Romans 12:1,2; James 4:4). Part of the problem here is we are trying to go back to where we can live comfortably in the culture, and I am not convinced this is a good thing.
We need to be careful of confusing any political agenda with the truth of God. As C. S. Lewis points out, there are two aspects to politics: what is moral and what is practical. One can derive the first from Christian principles, but the second we must discover for ourselves. Also, even on a moral level I am not convinced either common political philosophy perfectly reflects Christian principles. I believe conservative politics takes too little account of the Biblical commands to be concerned about the poor and those in need (Proverbs 14:21; 1 John 3:17; Deuteronomy 15:11). But I do not believe the liberal political solution that denies the work ethic is the right one either (2 Thessalonians 3:10; Proverbs 6:6-11; Genesis 2:15). It can be difficult to know how to balance things out, but I am not convinced either side has the right solution. Therefore, we need in all areas to be careful of taking things about which Christianity does not explicitly speak and identifying them with Christian morality.
A sound mind, and one which does not expose its possessor to danger, and is devoted to piety and the love of truth, will eagerly meditate upon those things which God has placed within the power of mankind, and has subjected to our knowledge, and will make advancement in [acquaintance with] them, rendering the knowledge of them easy to him by means of daily study. These things are such as fall [plainly] under our observation, and are clearly and unambiguously in express terms set forth in the Sacred Scriptures. And therefore the parables ought not to be adapted to ambiguous expressions. For, if this be not done, both he who explains them will do so without danger, and the parables will receive a like interpretation from all, and the body of truth remains entire, with a harmonious adaptation of its members, and without any collision [of its several parts]. But to apply expressions which are not clear or evident to interpretations of the parables, such as every one discovers for himself as inclination leads him, [is absurd.] For in this way no one will possess the rule of truth; but in accordance with the number of persons who explain the parables will be found the various systems of truth, in mutual opposition to each other, and setting forth antagonistic doctrines, like the questions current among the Gentile philosophers.
Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book II, Chapter XXVII, 1 (Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm B, Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, p. 572)
Is there a danger of reading into the Biblical parables our own preconceived notions? How can we avoid this?
One of the older arguments for the existence of God asks why something rather than nothing exists. It then goes on to state that the simplest explanation is that there is something or Someone that exists simply because it is His nature to exist and that this is where everything else comes from. (The question "Who made God?" here shows that the person does not understand the argument. The point is there needs to be something whose existence is a given that explains the existence of everything else.) The idea is that the other things we know about might just as well not have existed. Therefore, there needs to be something that must by nature exist to explain their existence.
Now some who have questioned the existence of God have taken the position that things have always existed pretty much as they do now. But this means that everything that exists exists for no intelligible reason. It also would lead to an infinite series of distinct events in the past and future. Mathematicians have problems with this type of infinity. But modern science has provided a new problem for this approach. The universe as we know it will one day burn out. Though this will be in the far future, if the universe has an end, this implies it must have a beginning. Therefore, if we reject a belief in God, we are left with the idea of everything coming into existence out of nothing.
This is commonly derived from the idea that in Quantum Mechanics there exists a probability of matter coming into existence without cause. But this probability is based on an intact universe with intact physical laws. But the physical laws are merely a description of how matter-energy and time-space behave. Now can such laws exist before the things they are about exist and bring them into existence? And how can there be any probability if nothing exists yet? How can there be a coin toss with no time and no space and no coins? Now one way around this is to claim there is a multiverse from which many universes, including our own, come. But this opens up the question of what is the multiverse, and where does it come from? Now if the physical laws have an existence totally independent of the things they describe. And if they exist not as coming from anything else, but because it is their nature to exist. And if all things come into existence through them. Such a being all men call God. Therefore God exists. (Note that the same conclusion follows as regards that the multiverse if it meets the same set of criteria.) Now this quantum-mechanical God is not necessarily the same as the Christian God. But if we can believe in One, is it really such a stretch to believe in the Other? The real issue is whether God is totally arbitrary and capricious or deliberate, having purposes. And I am not sure we can resolve that scientifically.
Does God promise we will be successful in what we try to do for God? This is not quite the same question as whether God promises happiness. We can imagine a person who has a life of great struggle and hardship, but nonetheless is successful in the task they set out to accomplish. Now God does assure us that we are victorious, but that is from His perspective (2 Corinthians 2:14; Romans 8:37; 1 John 5:4). It does not necessarily guarantee success as we see it. Jeremiah preached long, with tears, to the people of Judah and met with almost no success. Rather, we should trust God that if we are honestly trying to follow Him, He will use what we do to accomplish His purposes (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6; Romans 8:28). But it may not look like what we call success.
I have spoken against quick fixes for the Christian life. But I am convinced that many of our denominational distinctives are quick fixes that have become set in concrete. We come up with something as a key to obtaining spirituality. Then we build a denomination around it. Then, even if these formulas fail to produce their desired results, they are enshrined in that group's doctrinal commitments and are unchangeable.
There are the various concepts of a second work of grace. Now I am convinced that growth in Christ is a process that happens over time (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 3:12-16; 1:6). But there is an attraction to finding a short-cut that will get you there instantly. And this becomes a quick fix. Spiritual gifts can become involved as a sign of having reached this higher level of spirituality. Now I see no basis in Scripture for saying certain spiritual gifts have passed away. But I do find that not every person is meant to possess every gift (1 Corinthians 12:11-30; Romans 12:3-8; 1 Peter 4:10,11). Therefore, having a particular gift is not a sign of spirituality.
Another common quick fix is our mode of worship. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the sacraments or ordinances. There is the idea that doing them in the right way or with the right understanding is a guarantee, if not of salvation, at least of closeness to God. Other forms of worship can also have this status. Do we use a liturgy or not? Do we sit quietly or jump up and shout hallelujah? What kind of music do we use? And there is the idea that if we do things right, we are the ones truly in touch with God. Now many of these things are not clearly commanded anywhere in Scripture. But even if it is possible to reach a definite answer on one of these issues, is there any basis for making it a formula for being close to God? Now all the commands of God are to be obeyed, but we all fall short of obeying all of them. Should we regard being correct on minor points as the key to spirituality?
Then we come to the idea of church government. Now I do not see a Scriptural basis for prescribing a particular form of church organization. But it is sometimes claimed that if we just organize correctly, it will be a magic formula for doing the work of God. While many of these ideas are modern, the older ideas of church government seem based on the same idea and are also quick fixes.
Now I do not want to discourage asking what God really commands in any of these areas. But I am convinced that serving Christ is a matter of long-term endurance and not quick fixes. And they unnecessarily divide us up and divert us from what we should be doing.