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.
And to as many as continue in their love towards God, does He grant communion with Him. But communion with God is life and light, and the enjoyment of all the benefits which He has in store. But on as many as, according to their own choice, depart from God, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness; and separation from God consists in the loss of all the benefits which He has in store.
Irenaeus, 125-202 BC, Against Heresies, Book 5, Chapter XXVII, 2 (The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, Philip Schaff, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001, pp. 808-809)
Is this helpful in understanding God's judgment? In what ways?
Scripture teaches the need to help the poor, oppressed, and downtrodden (Matthew 25:31-46; Proverb 21:13; Deuteronomy 15:7,8). Further, there were special provisions made for those in need (Acts 6:1; Romans 15:26,27; 1 Timothy 5:3-16). There was also the having of all things in common, which from the rest of Scripture seems to have been a specific provision for a specific need, but it showed their attitude (Acts 4:34-37). Now this does not contradict the Biblical requirement for a work ethic (Ephesians 4:28; 2 Thessalonians 3:10; Proverbs 6:6-11). We may need to distinguish between those who refuse to and those who are unable to work. I recognize there are those who are unable to work because of their own wrong choices, but God is a God of grace and forgiveness. When possible, we ought to try to help people to a place where they can support themselves. This is a difficult thing to balance, and we may be better off giving through an organization, like a rescue mission, that is experienced in dealing with such situations.
But all this refers to the actions of the church and individuals; what place does the government have in all this? I would say from Scripture that the primary responsibility for helping the poor should not simply be wished off on the government. God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7; 8:8; Acts 5:4). I know this is frequently applied to giving to the church (and there is an application there), but the context is helping the poor in Jerusalem. We are called to give based on our available resources, but no exact amount is given (1 Corinthians 16:2; 1 Timothy 6:17,18 , Matthew 6:19-21). And the government is called to punish wrongdoing, and that is hard to do when no specific requirement is given (Romans 13:1-5; Deuteronomy 25:1; Proverbs 20:8). However, there are examples of the law making some provision for those in need (Exodus 23:11; Leviticus 19:10; Deuteronomy 14:28,29). But this seems more of a minimal provision than an attempt to meet all the needs of the poor.
Today, however, it is difficult to see who will meet the needs if the government does not do it. It is questionable that the Christian church, in its current divided state, could do it even if it decided to. But I do not think we should conclude this is the government's job and ignore our own responsibility to do what we can to help those in need. In terms of politics, I do not think we should have a knee-jerk reaction of creating a government program to meet every need. Neither can we just be indifferent to those in need. Deciding exactly what to do and what will work and what will create a worse problem than it solves is a matter of practical politics. But we must start out with a willingness to do what is best to help those in need.
One of the common ideas in Christian circles is that if you do not make exactly the right decisions, it is possible to miss God's best will for your life. This can be an enormous guilt trip. People can go through their whole lives feeling they have missed God's will and are stuck in His second best. Often this is seen as entirely turning on minor sins or even mere errors of judgment. It is often put forth connected to some complicated formula that you have to work exactly right to get the right answer. There is absolutely no basis for this in Scripture. Jonah was told to go to Nineveh and, blatantly and deliberately, went the opposite direction. God sent a storm, and God sent a sea creature, and Jonah went to Nineveh. Paul seems to have followed a complicated path before God made it clear where he was supposed to go (Acts 16:6-10). Scripture says God is in control of our lives, working things together for our good, and does not claim this is based on our figuring out what we are supposed to do (Romans 8:28; Ephesians 1:11; Isaiah 43:13). Now I do believe that persisting in blatant sin can have an adverse affect on our life (Galatians 6:7,8; 1 Corinthians 11:29-32; Hebrews 12:4-11). And certainly, it is worthwhile to ask God for wisdom when facing the important decisions of life (James 1:5; 1 Peter 5:6,7; Philippians 4:6,7). But the idea that finding the will of God is like working your way through a complex maze does not stand up to Scriptural examination.
The was a rustic from the outskirts of the kingdom who came to the big city to see if he could learn how to properly do service for the King. Now he knew, even in his far-off home, that there was a special meal that the King invited His servants to. But he had seen it done only crudely and was hoping to see it performed correctly in the city. When he arrived there were a number of booths set up, offering the meal, and they were all different.
One booth had an ornate beauty, with candles and incense and stained glass windows. "The thing to remember," said the man in the booth, "is that the King is physically present in the meal. We must recognize Him there in order to receive the benefits of the meal."
The next booth had more of an austere dignity. The man at the booth said, "The King is not physically present in the meal. But He is spiritually present. We must be careful to distinguish this."
The next booth had a more common, ordinary look, like somebody's house. The man there said, "You must ignore the extravagances of those other two. The King is symbolically present in the meal. These other complicated notions are thoroughly unnecessary."
As the rustic walked away scratching his head, a young man without a booth came toward him. "Don't worry your head about it," he said. "We need to do this because the King commanded it, but it isn't that important. What the King really wants is those who serve Him from the heart."
Then walking a short distance away, the rustic lifted up his voice and declared, "What are these things you are fighting about? What the King commands is certainly important. But He says it is to remember and declare what He has done for us. You have taken what is meant as a celebration of His goodness and changed it into a battle over things He said nothing about." Then he turned and walked away.
Of course the real truth is that science has introduced no new principle into the matter at all. A man can be a Christian to the end of the world, for the simple reason that a man could have been an Atheist from the beginning of it. The materialism of things is on the face of things; it does not require any science to find it out. A man who has lived and loved falls down dead and the worms eat him. That is Materialism if you like. That is Atheism if you like. If mankind has believed in spite of that, it can believe in spite of anything. But why our human lot is made any more hopeless because we know the names of all the worms who eat him, or the names of all the parts of him that they eat, is to a thoughtful mind somewhat difficult to discover.
G. K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, All Things Considered, Science and Religion, (Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.net, 2004)
Is there a tendency to assume that because science can explain the details of a thing, it makes a difference in the certainty of the thing itself? Is this a reasonable assumption?
Are we progressing? What does it mean to progress? How would we know? Progress, in the most basic sense, means to become better. And there is the rub. What do we mean by better? Now for something to get better, there needs to be a clearly defined standard of good. And if there is a clearly defined standard of good, then it is at least hypothetically possible to become worse. Then we have to ask, how can we be sure things are getting better? And the place to start is by affirming a clearly articulated standard of good. One thing that stands out immediately is that we, as a culture, are marked by strong, and often violent, disagreements over what good is. Further, the concept of what is good changes over time. And this is a problem. As G. K. Chesterton points out, the best way to prevent real progress is to be constantly moving the standard. For if the standard is stable, then any genuine movement toward it, no matter how feeble, is an advance. But if the standard is moved, then any movement in that direction, no matter how great, can become meaningless when the standard moves. Now someone could try to say what is good is whatever happens. But there is no real basis for this.And it reduces good to something that is totally undefinable.
Also, if good is something that is determinable, then it may be possible to progress in one area and degenerate in another. A person may progress in intellectual pursuits and neglect their physical fitness. Or excel in athletics and neglect their academic education. In fact, it is hard to make balanced and meaningful progress in all areas. It takes considerable effort. It is my opinion that our culture excels in the areas of basic science and technology and has degenerated in the moral and spiritual areas of life. Now I am not in favor of rejecting basic science and technology. I have no desire to go back to the horse-drawn carriage and the quill pen (or even that instrument of torture called a typewriter). But I also do not think that progress in these areas proves we are progressing in others or that progress is a universal principle. I am convinced that if we want real progress, we have to carefully evaluate what is good in any given case and pursue it. Otherwise, we are in danger of running as quickly as possible when we do not know where we are going. And becoming victims of whatever fad happens to come down the pike. For it is only by knowing what is good that we can promote it.
One of the contexts in which the Bible approaches suffering is to put it in perspective. It points out that it is temporary and that the sufferings of this present world are simply a prelude to a future one (2 Corinthians 4:17,18; Romans 8:18; John 16:33). This does not make the sufferings of this time go away or make them automatically easy. But it does put them in perspective for those who trust in Christ and hope for a time when such sufferings will be no more (Revelation 21:4; Philippians 1:21; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5). If we consider this life as all there is and think that happiness in this life is the only goal, then it is difficult on any basis to reconcile ourselves to the existence of present suffering. But if we consider this life as the preliminary to something better, we see our sufferings in the light of eternity.
One of the questions that becomes exceedingly divisive in the church is the use of rituals. Some are strongly for them, some strongly against, and others fall in the middle. There are those who claim that if we do not approach God with the right rituals, we cannot reach Him. Others would claim that if we indulge in any rituals at all, or any ones other than the narrowly prescribed ones, we endanger our close relationship with God. Where should we really stand?
Scripture teaches us that we relate to God on the basis of grace (Romans 5:1,2; Hebrews 4:16; 2 Thessalonians 2:16,17). We are therefore told to beware of making judgments of other believers based on the details of what they observe (Romans 14:1-9; Colossians 2:16,17; James 4:11,12) or what group they are a part of (1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:21-23; 4:6,7). This cuts both ways. It prevents us from making a big issue of things being done exactly a certain way. Particularly on matters that are never clearly taught in Scripture. But it also discourages the idea that we need to be opposed to all physical acts. And we cannot take this to the ultimate extreme without eliminating the ordinances that God clearly commands. Also, if God is at work in all His church, it makes no sense to limit that work to those who do things exactly right (Matthew 16:18; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 2:19).
Let us face facts. We all have certain ways of doing things, and this includes in the area of worship. Is it a mistake to try to think them through and make them the best they can be? But are we forever to be locked into a rigid practice with no room for creativity or spontaneity? However, that being said, I am not necessarily convinced that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to worship that works for everyone. I believe that many of the different approaches to worship represent different personalities. And I have no problem with this. The problem comes when one group or the other claims theirs is the only right way. I would like to see services that try to incorporate the best elements of all the traditions. But I am not necessarily convinced that this would result in one optimal way of doing things. Rather, I suspect it would result in even more variety, as different congregations picked different styles to fit the personalities and talents of their people. But the key thing is for the different groups to stop looking down on each other.
It therefore follows, that every one of those who undertakes to promote the good of their neighbours, ought to consider whether he has betaken himself to teaching rashly and out of rivalry to any; if his communication of the word is out of vainglory; if the only reward he reaps is the salvation of those who hear, and if he speaks not in order to win favour: if so, he who speaks by writings escapes the reproach of mercenary motives
Clement of Alexandria, 150-215 AD, The Stromata or Miscellanies, Book 1, Chapter 1, (translated by Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Fathers of the Second Century, Philip Schaff, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004, p. 424)
What are the right motives for preaching and teaching God's Word? How do we avoid the wrong ones?
Clement of Alexander was an advocate of integrating Christian teaching and philosophical knowledge. He was a teacher in the school of Alexandria. He has left us various, not very systematic, writings dealing with assorted subjects, but focusing on the need for a broad knowledge in many disciplines. He is useful in preserving a number of interesting details on a variety of subjects. He represents a clear contrast to Tertullian, who looked askance at philosophical learning, seeing it as the source of false Christian teaching. Clement worked to bring the various sources of knowledge together.
This is a controversy that has raged down the ages of the church until today. And it is a difficult one. It is undesirable to live in an intellectual ghetto and not interact with the secular thought of our time. But it is also undesirable to bend or twist our own thought to fit in with that of our age. And if we have nothing to say but what our age already says, why bother? The truly ironic thing is when you come upon a theology that went to great trouble to conform itself to a secular mindset that no longer exists and that no one would take seriously today. On this, I have a certain respect for those on both sides of the controversy. For Clement for trying to put together all knowledge and for Tertullian for trying to protect Christian truth from contamination. But while I lean a little more in the direction of Tertullian, both are needed, and both are dangerous if taken to the extreme. It is important to make our way between the two extremes.
The school of Alexandria went on to educate Christians in the truth of God and defend it against those who opposed it. It also produced individuals like Origen (who I intend to deal with next), who had rather off-the-wall theological opinions. It also advocated a more allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture, which remains a matter of contention. But it did make a real contribution to the teaching of Christianity, and Clement was an important part of that. Even if the legacy is not totally unmixed.
Almost everybody wants love, joy, and peace. After all, who would not? But some of the other fruits of the Spirit seem less desirable, or at least more difficult. One of them is long-suffering, or patience. (It should be noted that there are two types of patience, both of which are commended in Scripture. The one I am dealing with here is patience with people, while the other is patience with circumstances). Now long-suffering is what God is with us (Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:15,16; 2 Peter 3:15). And it is what God calls us to be (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 1:11; 3:12). But such an attitude is often looked down on in the world at large. We are told we need to assert ourselves, stand up for what we want. Even if we do not hold this view, there is a natural tendency to retaliate and get our own back (Romans 12:17-21; Matthew 5:43-48; Proverbs 20:22). Now it should be noted that the picture here is not that of a person who is a doormat. Rather, it is being willing to stand up firmly to evil without retaliating, based on trust in God (Proverbs 3:5,6; Psalms 37:1-6; Romans 8:28). The ultimate example of this is, of course, Jesus Christ, who though He was God in the flesh, suffered greatly for our salvation (Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Hebrews 12:2). But it is only by trusting in His Spirit to work this in us that we see this attitude developed in ourselves (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Galatians 5:16).
As Christians we need to check our rugged individualism at the door. This is hard for those who have grown up in the United States. Our individualism is something we are proud of. Often even if we recognize the need to work together, we can do it in an individualistic way. We can see church as something we do on Sunday, and perhaps on other days of the week, and then put it aside to live our own life. We can think of our ministry as something we do, that belongs to us and where others may help out incidentally. It is easy to become ships passing in the night, our spiritual masks firmly in place. But one of the key things Scripture says about the spiritual life is that we do not do it alone.
The Scripture pictures a church as a body made up of different parts to build one another up (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-5; Ephesians 4:15,16). The idea of a body is significant because it speaks against individualism; one part cannot exist without the other but would die on its own. It also speaks against conformity; each part is different and it is through each carrying out their own different purposes that they build one another up. The result of this should be a community that helps and encourages one another (Hebrews 10:24,25; 12:12,13; James 5:13-20).
But there is a problem that we do not necessarily see this kind of community in our congregations. While some of this may be due to unrealistic expectations, another part is the very individualism we are trying to escape. Instead of a body working together, we become a group of individuals, each wanting their own way. But we should not try to fix it simply by turning our backs on other Christians. I am not saying a person should not use some care in choosing a congregation to be part of. But I believe we need to work to help make our congregation into the thing it should be, rather than complaining because it is not there yet. And that means being willing to put aside our own individualism and reaching out to others. God wants to put to death the individualist inside each of us, but it is often a difficult thing to accomplish. But the one thing that is clear is that the Christian life is not meant to be lived alone.
While all the godly with one consent will admit this, because it is sufficiently attested by the word of God, they will, on the other hand, avoid perplexing questions which they feel to be a hindrance in their way, and thus keep within the prescribed limits. In regard to myself, I not only individually refrain from a superfluous investigation of useless matters, but also think myself bound to take care that I do not encourage the levity of others by answering them.
John Calvin, 1509-1564, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, Chapter XXV, 11 (translated by Henry Beveridge, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1975, Vol 2, p.274)
Is this the right attitude toward such things? What things might fall under that category?