For he is the best student who does not read his thoughts into the book, but lets it reveal its own; who draws from it its sense, and does not import his own into it, nor force upon its words a meaning which he had determined was the right one before he opened its pages.
Hilary of Poitiers, 300-368; On the Trinity, Book 1, 18, (translated by Rev. E. W. Watson and Rev. L. Pullan, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol IX; Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p. 45)
How can we avoid reading in our meaning when interpreting Scripture? What steps should we take to guard against this?
What aids spiritual growth? And what hinders it? I am beginning a series of posts that looks at that question. But one thing I need to look at from the beginning is whether growth in Christ is a process that can really be aided. For sometimes it is presented as a thing easily accomplished if we have the right method. That there is a secret formula to following God, and those who adopt it will achieve immediate success in their spiritual endeavors, and those who do not can expect complete failure. If such a quick fix exists, then any series of posts like the one I am contemplating is meaningless. You simply employ the right steps and you are there. But is this how it really works?
The Bible pictures following Christ as a growth process (Ephesians 4:14-16; Colossians 2:19). As a race (Hebrews 12:1,2; Philippians 3:12-14). As a battle (Ephesians 6:10-13; 2 Timothy 2:3,4. As an exercise regimen (1 Timothy 4:7,8; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27). None of which sounds like it is describing a shortcut to spirituality. Now God has not left us to do all of this ourselves. God has given us the ability to live for Him (2 Peter 1:3; Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 2:10). He is also at work in us to change us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). But nowhere is this pictured as the possession of certain individuals who have discovered the right procedure for instant holiness, but of all believers. Now we are called to respond to that working (Galatians 5:16; Romans 12:1,2; Ephesians 5:18). But nowhere is this presented as an instantaneous solution. Nor is it clear what the right formula to accomplish this is.Further, it is my personal experience in my own life and in the lives of others who I have observed that such methods do not work. Rather, we need to experience the conjunction of two opposing truths. We are to have the humility to realize that we cannot change ourselves but need to trust in God and His power to transform us. But we are also to realize that we are in the midst of a struggle and cannot afford mere complacency or indifference. Now true humility does not cause us to hide in a corner but gives us confidence, knowing that God is at work in us. And godly determination does not lead to cockiness but recognizes that we could not accomplish anything without God's power.
When these things come together, it results in a process that covers the whole course of our lives. Therefore, we are encouraged not to regard ourselves as having obtained the spiritual life (Philippians 3:15,16, 1 John 1:8-10; Galatians 5:17), but to continue on in the path of following Christ. Through this we can avoid both the overconfidence and the discouragement that can trip us up in our spiritual life. And this makes relevant what things can help or hinder us on this journey. For the quick, easy answers will not work.
One of the oldest problems in the world is, why do people suffer, particularly those who have not done anything obvious to deserve it? It goes back to the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the book of Job (whenever you date that book). It is the really emotionally gripping part of the problem of evil. It can reasonably be claimed that people do morally evil things because they choose to. But it is the suffering of their victims or the victims of natural disasters that is heart-wrenching. The fact that this issue has been around so long shows it is a difficult question that cannot be easily resolved one way or the other to everyone's satisfaction. To increase the difficulty, it is not merely an intellectual problem but involves a fundamental emotional reaction to the world around us. That is why purely intellectual answers tend to feel so thin and inadequate when used in this context. Nor can we escape the this problem simply by becoming atheists. For if suffering is just a normal part of life, why do we feel it is so abhorrent?. And there is also with that the question of how we face these issues when we encounter them in our life. I do not claim to have all the answers. But in future posts I want to deal with various too-easy answers in hopes of getting some sort of idea on how to look at this issue.
Can theology helps us make political decisions? Now there are those who want to claim that all their political decisions derive from their theology. Others claim the two are irrelevant and neither can affect the other. I would maintain the truth is somewhere in the middle. Based on C. S. Lewis, I would make a distinction between two aspects that go unto making political choices. There are the basic moral principles that tell us how we should behave. These can and should be informed by theology. But there is also the purely practical aspect of what works. This is something based on experience and observation, and theology does not say much about it.
One of the problems that arises out of this is that it is easy to confuse the moral principle with the method. You can say, anyone who is for this principle must endorse this program. To make things more complicated, we find that politics can be broken up into into various agendas endorsed by different political parties. It is often difficult to disentangle a particular issue from these broader agendas. It is therefore possible to confuse the principle with the program and then feel forced to defend an entire political agenda because it advocates a particular program. And it is quite possible to end up advocating positions as necessary that you picked up as part of the larger package of the agenda.
For example, I am opposed in principle to our present societal stance of abortion on demand. I am then faced with what what political steps I should take based on this, which has quickly led me into the second area of practical politics. One of the obvious questions I have to ask is which political candidates and political parties I should support in order to further this issue. And I am also faced with the question of whether I can accept the other items on their agendas. Often it is easy to simply swallow a particular agenda in its entirety if it endorses some of the key issues I support. And for the Christian, it is sometimes possible to lift up the whole agenda as a moral requirement, when in fact there may be very few things on the list that are clearly required from a Christian perspective. Therefore, I am convinced that we need to evaluate each issue individually and to ask what, if anything, is required from a Christian perspective. So, in future posts I intend to look at various important political issues and ask how the Christian faith impacts them. My hope is to look at what Christianity really does teach on these types of issues. And then to ask whether we should endorse any particular political agenda in its entirety. For I think we need to be careful not to end up affirming things we do not really wish to adopt in order to find someone to support us on other issues.
For Christ is of those who are humble-minded, and not of those who exalt themselves over His flock. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Sceptre of the majesty of God, did not come in the pomp of pride or arrogance, although He might have done so, but in a lowly condition, as the Holy Spirit had declared regarding Him.
Clement of Rome, d. 99, First Epistle of Clement, Chapter XVI, (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, p. 15)
How can we acquire this humility? How do we develop it in our lives?
What are the issues that Christians divide over? Which ones are important? Which are unimportant? I wish here to begin a series dealing with those issues. One of the most basic affirmations about God, going back into Judaism, is that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10-13; James 2:19). Does this really make a difference?
One of the problems with any idea of more than one god is that we have not reached ultimate reality. If there are a number of gods running around, there needs to be some higher principle that explains them. Who are they, and how do they relate to one another? The distinctiveness of Christianity, and Judaism before it, is that it cuts out the middle men. The conclusion is that there is only one God, who is exclusively to be worshiped (Deuteronomy 4:33-39; Isaiah 44:6-8; Matthew 4:9-10). This leads to the idea of Jesus being the only way to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5). Now this kind of exclusivity flies in the face of our modern attitudes. But is it really surprising? In the physical realm, things work in certain, often narrow, ways. Should we be surprised if the same principle applies in the spiritual realm? And it must be remembered that this one God offers salvation through free grace (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Titus 3:5,6). If someone offers to give me ten million dollars, is it unreasonable if they require me to accept it from their hand rather than obtain it through the person of my choice? Jesus says for all who are weary and heavy-laden to come to Him, and He will give them rest (Matthew 11:28-30). Is it surprising He will not let us come in the name of Zeus?
But the problem with belief in a multitude of gods is that it drags God down to our level (Romans 1:22,23; Acts 17:24-29; Isaiah:44:9-20). We can start to believe in gods we can negotiate with or manipulate or who are simply capricious. We can start to believe we can somehow manage to rise up to God's level (Genesis 3:5; Isaiah 14:12-14; Ezekiel 28:2-6). This also can cause us to ignore the danger of putting something other than God in the center of our lives (Colossians 3:5; Matthew 6:24; Deuteronomy 6:5). Therefore, the implications of the unity of God are that He alone should be put in the place of God and that we should approach Him in His way and on His terms. It may be asked if God is selfish for demanding this. But if God is God, then we, as His creations, cannot expect to function properly without putting Him in His rightful place. To put something or someone else (including a major distortion of who God is) in the center leads to us totally misunderstand the universe and who we are made to be. Which is always destructive.
More basic than the outward manifestation of the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22,23), the character traits that God is trying to work in our lives. We are told that if we have all the gifts and do great things but do not have love, we are nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Therefore, it is appropriate to start a discussion of the fruit of the Spirit with this basic one: love.
Love is the sum of what God requires, the root from which true Christian character grows (Matthew 22:36-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). But if this is true, why bother with any other commandments? Why not just command us to love God and others and leave it at that. But the problem is that we have all sorts of distorted ideas of what love is. Therefore, we need the specifics in order to really understand what genuine love is. But there is also the danger of simply having a legalistic checklist while lacking the basic inner motivation. to make this more than mindless duties.
Now the basic example of love in Scripture is the love of God in giving His Son to save us (1 John 4:7-21; John 3:14-18; Romans 5:6-8) and the love of the Son in carrying this out (John 15:12-15; 13:1; 10:11-18). The main idea here is not primarily of an experience or a sentimental emotion but a deliberate decision to put the welfare of others before our own. Love, therefore, is a principled thing that involves responsibility and commitment, and not just some passing good feeling ( 1 John 3:14-16; Ephesians 5:25-33; Titus 2:3-5). Now there is nothing wrong with powerful experiences and overwhelming emotions. But we cannot live there. Real love is more workaday and involves how we treat one another in the mundane things of life. For the real test is how we behave when the emotional peak is gone and we must trust God to produce in us the right behavior when we do not really feel like it (2 Corinthians 3:18; Galatians 5:16; Philippians 2:13).
I would like to begin here a series of posts about the key people in church history.
Clement of Rome is an individual we know only a little about. He was a leader (Irenaeus claims he was the bishop) in the Christian church at Rome. He may be the one mentioned in passing in Philippians 4:3. He wrote a letter to the church of Corinth, which was suffering from problems of division similar to those it struggled with at the time of Paul. (The second letter of Clement is generally agreed not to be his.) There were quarrels, and they had evidently removed some or their leaders from office. Clement writes to encourage the Corinthians to humility and avoidance of envy and dissension. He uses examples from the Old and New Testaments and exhorts the Corinthians to repent.
Clement is significant in being close to the time of the apostles. He writes an epistle following the same pattern found in the New Testament. He mentions the idea of justification by faith, apart from works, based on Christ's death and resurrection. He also affirms Christ's coming again as judge and our own resurrection resulting from it. While he does not say in so many words that Jesus is God, it is clear that He is more than a mere man. He quotes from the Old Testament more than the New, and many of his quotes are fairly paraphrastic, but he does clearly allude to New Testament books. He also specifically mentions Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and calls it inspired. While he does not go into detail, he describes the lives and deaths of Peter and Paul. He basically takes up where the New Testament leaves off, reaffirming its themes and context.
It has been argued that he overemphasized subjection to leaders. But he was dealing with people who, in his perspective, were arbitrarily removing worthy people from leadership. (I do not claim to know who was right here, but I
see every reason to believe Clement was sincere.) Given the situation as
he saw it, it is not clear that Clement was out of line. Further, I see
nothing to indicate that Clement (though bishop of Rome) saw himself as an authority. Rather, he took
his stand based on Scripture.
Clement bears witness to the fact that the New Testament was what it said it was at the time it said it was. This letter is the logical continuation of the apostles' teachings and ministry. But the very ordinariness of the letter and his situation tells against it being something concocted. He does not have any particular axe to grind; he is an ordinary pastor doing his job. What I see in Clement is exactly what I would expect to find if the apostles were real people who did what they were said to do and wrote what they were said to write. I do not want to make too big a deal of this, but it is worth noting.
On the other hand, I did not proceed to Ireland of my own accord until I was almost giving up, but through this I was corrected by the Lord, and he prepared me so that today I should be what was once far from me, in order that I should have the care of—or rather, I should be concerned for—the salvation of others, when at that time, still, I was only concerned for myself.
This is the first of a series of posts looking at the basic issues of how we should approach the question of whether Christianity is true. I have dealt with most of these before, but I would like to tackle them on a systematic basis.
Is there really such a thing as truth? Now there is a certain attraction to the idea of relative truth, even for the Christian. It can make what I hold unchallengeable by making it safe from any logical refutation. But by making it irrefutable, it drains it of all meaning. If what I believe is simply a nice story that I believe because I feel like it, how can it make any real difference in my life or challenge my previously held notions?
Further, if truth is relative, then any thought I think could easily be something else entirely. Under this condition, every word on this page is meaningless. And so is everything else. Further, any action presupposes truth. If I flip the light switch, I expect the light to go on. And if not, I try to find a way fix it. But if truth is relative, I am left paralyzed, unable to to do anything. And attempts to supply something else to replace truth only end up presuming truth. To say something works or is true for me is to say it is true that it works or is true for me. No one really believes in relative truth. They only use to evade certain truth claims they find inconvenient. But they live the rest their lives based on the assumption that truth exists and can be known.
Now belief in absolute truth does not mean I have all the answers. Nor does it mean I can never question anything or cannot make mistakes. The existence of dreams and mirages does not prove you cannot know anything. As long as it is possible to determine what is true and what is false, it is possible to know truth.
But one can ask, what if there is something that distorts our perception which we are unable to recognize or correct for? It is difficult to disprove such a distortion, not because it is plausible, but because it undermines the basic premises that make proof possible. It is also impossible to prove, because if our thinking is distorted in some undiscoverable way, all our proofs are meaningless. But while we cannot absolutely disprove this bogey, it is impossible to live five seconds based on it. And to live my life based on something unproved and unprovable and that I cannot live by anyway seems nonsensical. Also, I have to ask how this nonsensical world has come to have the appearance of making sense. For it does at least seem we can know things and act on them. And it is futile to live our lives based the idea that there is an invisible, intangible, inaudible, unsmellable, nonallergic cat in the chair across the room, just because we cannot prove it is not true.
There was a man who wanted to do service for his King. So he went to the city of Pneumatikos to enlist in the King's army. He was handed over to an experienced knight for training. This knight was in bronze armor and rode a powerful reddish horse.
"So you want to do service for the King," the knight stated in a clear, ringing voice. "First, you must find your gift."
"My gift?" replied the man.
"Yes, each of the King's citizens has their own special gift, and until they identify it they are useless in His service. Here is a basic list of gifts taken from the King's manual, with a description of each. Once you have studied it, we will give you a few simple tests to determine your gift."
The man meandered toward his quarters, studying the list, and almost ran into a knight in silver armor who was riding on a white horse. This knight wore work boots and carried a meat cleaver.
"I see you are studying a list of gifts," said the knight.
"Yes," answered the man, "and it is hard keeping them all straight."
"Maybe I can help," suggested the knight. "There is a simpler way to look at it. Not everything listed in the King's manual are gifts. Some are gifts, some are combat positions, and some are actions. Now once you determine your gift, you can use it in various combat positions to perform various actions. Here is a list of the gifts properly divided."
As the man stood, wondering if the silver knight's scheme really was simpler, another knight came up. He was in golden armor on a golden horse. His armor and trappings were covered with colored lights, which gave him a festive appearance.
"What are you doing?" the knight asked.
"Trying to discover my gift," the man replied.
"That is the wrong approach," the knight said. "If you ask the King long and hard for a gift, He will give it to you. But you should particularly ask for the miraculous gifts, especially the gift of language. Now here is a list so you will know what to ask for."
As the man walked away, he noticed that the three lists often gave different descriptions for the same gifts.
The next morning the man ran into the three knights, standing in the courtyard.
"Is it really necessary to know your gift to serve the King?" the man asked.
"Why certainly," said the bronze knight. "Otherwise, you have people doing things they are not really gifted for."
"Besides," said the gold knight, "before we knew about the gifts, only the officers would fight, and everyone else would sit around on wooden benches cheering them on. Many battalions are still organized that way."
Just then a sentry came running in. "The enemy is approaching, and we need someone to go scout out their position," he shouted.
"I do not have the gift of scouting," said the bronze knight.
"I have never asked for that gift," said the gold knight.
"It's not my gift," stated a number of bystanders in chorus.
An esquire stood up and spoke. "I have been reading the King's manual, and it does not say we have to know our gift to serve the King or that you cannot do what you are not gifted for. Let's just get the army together and do what needs to be done and let the gifts work themselves out in the process."
For those who prosper in what they desire in temporal matters are to be admonished, when all things answer to their wishes, lest, through fixing their heart on what is given, they neglect to seek the giver; lest they love their pilgrimage instead of their country; lest they turn the supplies for their journey into hindrances to their arrival at its end; lest delighted with the light of the moon by night, they shrink from beholding the clearness of the sun.
Gregory the Great, 540-604 AD, Pastoral Rule, Part III, Chapter XXVI (translated by Rev. James Barmby, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. XII, Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, T & T Clark and Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing, 1997, p.55)
Is there a danger of ignoring God in times of prosperity? How can that be avoided?
One of G. K. Chesterton's creations is the fictional detective, Father Brown. This unprepossessing sleuth shows himself consistently able to solve perplexing mysteries that baffle those around him. When badgered by an American acquaintance, Mr. Chace, he ends up revealing his secret. Father Brown says he solves crimes by putting himself in the state of mind of the one who committed them. And by doing so, he identifies the culprit. This method shocks the healthy-minded Chace, who wants to see criminals as a breed apart and completely different from normal people. These represent two opposite ways to avoid criminal behavior. Chace's viewpoint convinces people to shun criminal behavior because it is so horrible the upright citizen would not even consider it. But Father Brown's view sees criminality as something we are all capable of and therefore must be constantly on our guard to avoid.
Father Brown's approach fits the Christian perspective on sin in general. Scripture says that we are all sinners and should be aware of our own weakness in this respect (Romans 3:23; 7:14-25; 1 John 1:8-10). Therefore, we must use caution to avoid being dragged down by our propensity to sin (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Timothy 2:22). But in Evangelicalism we have too often adopted Chace's approach. We have tried to get people not to sin by emphasizing how heinous and abnormal certain sins are. And I am convinced this is a serious error. Because once you encounter those who are doing the thing in question and find they are otherwise normal, it undermines your resolve to avoid such actions. Therefore, there is a tendency that whenever a thing becomes popular, it becomes acceptable. Also, this viewpoint makes it difficult to reach out to those involved in or struggling with the behavior involved. Or to admit you are struggling with such desires yourself. It reinforces the idea that this could never happen to me, leaving people unprepared and more likely to yield when faced with temptation. Therefore, in attempting to scare people away from sin, we can make them more likely to succumb to it.
But Scripture takes a different approach. Jesus, the only perfect man, reaches out to crooked tax collectors, women with questionable pasts, and other sinners (Matthew 9:9-13; John 4:7-18; Luke 19:1-10). For sinners are offered forgiveness through the work of Christ (Ephesians 2:1-10; Philippians 3:3-11; 1 Timothy 1:8-16). But those who regard themselves as fundamentally distinct from sinners are rebuked (Luke 18:9-14; 7:36-50; Romans 2:1). Therefore, we should not see ourselves as those who are somehow immune to sin, but be on guard against our natural tendency to do wrong. And teach others to approach the issue in the same way.
One of the problems with the present divided state of the church is that it makes it easy, when we encounter problems, just to leave. And it can encourage us not to even bother trying to work things out. And churches can come to take the same attitude. If you do not like the way we do things here, there is another church down the street. Now I am convinced there is a point where it is necessary to leave a particular congregation and go to another. But I am also convinced that the kind of unity Christ requires (Philippians 2:1-11; Ephesians 4:1-3; Colossians 3:12-14) involves real commitment and a genuine attempt to work things out (Romans 12:18; Matthew 5:23,24; 18:15). We need to remember that whether or not we are part of the same congregation with someone, we are still part of the universal church, which is Christ's body (Romans 12:3-8; Ephesians 4:4-6; Colossians 3:10,11). Therefore, even if we are leaving a particular congregation, this does not nullify the obligation to make the effort to be reconciled with the people we are at odds with. There is a point when someone should leave a congregation. But it should only be when an effort has been made by both sides to settle their differences, if there are any.
For this 1000th post,I would like to recap the ones that deal with the question of whether there exists a God who can intervene in history. Now the existence of such a God does not prove Christianity is true. But if there is such a God, the obvious place to look for Him is where it is claimed He has revealed Himself. And if we believe that evidence indicates there is such a God, we will examine the claims of these faiths in a different way than we would if we start with the conclusion there is no God.
1. We must avoid certain too simple counter arguments. (see, see, see)
2. Science does not prove there is not a God who intervenes in the world.(see, see, see)
3. The idea that there is no such thing as truth does not make sense.(see, see, see)
4. The natural world cannot be explained without God.(see, see, see)
5. Meaningful thought requires that there is something which transcends the mere physical universe. (see, see, see)
6. The existence of morality requires a Lawgiver. (see, see, see)
7. The existence of Christianity requires more than just a naturalistic explanation. (see)