Thursday, February 25, 2010

Who Mourns for Adonis?

One argument against Christianity is that it is derived from other religions. This claim is often based on misinformation. For instance, the worship of Mithras, a belief for which we have only scanty evidence, has been reinterpreted to appear to have greater similarity to Christianity than the facts warrant. But after all the dubious example have been dismissed, there are still similarities. Can this be explained?

It is the Christian position that God revealed Himself to human beings from the very beginning. Now, if the Christian account of the beginnings of human history is true, it is not surprising if other people have similar versions. The existence of flood stories in many cultures is not a disproof of Christianity but a vindication of it. But it is also not surprising if many of the details got garbled. Scripture says the law of God is written on the hearts of men (Romans 2:14-16), and basic moral principles were revealed in the beginning (Genesis 9:6). Also revealed were practices such as animal sacrifice (Genesis 4:3-8; 8:20,21). Also, there may have been other things revealed we are not told about. Noah knew about clean and unclean animals (Genesis 7:2).

Right after the fall of man, God promised a deliverer who would be the seed of the woman and would (though wounded in the process) crush the head of the bringer of death (Genesis 3:15). It is quite possible they were given more information on this that was not recorded. Therefore, it is not surprising that in many beliefs there is a God or hero who tries to conquer death, whether successfully or not. But these are all events that happen long before there are clear historical records. The acts of Jesus occurred in the full light of history. Now many of these dying and resurrected gods are connected to the agricultural cycle, the production of new crops in the spring after the barrenness of winter. But it was God who created the seasons, and it is reasonable to suppose, as Scripture suggests, God meant it as an illustration of death and resurrection (John 12:24; 1 Corinthians 15:36-38).

We are still left with the question of which came first. One thing that argues for the Christian position is the near universality of the similarities involved. They are found all around the world, which is what you would expect of something there from the beginning. Also, they come together in Christianity to make a clear system with a clear purpose. The whole concept of creation, fall, death, sacrifice, and resurrection shows the way we need to follow to come to God. But, whatever we conclude, the similarities simply are not a disproof of Christianity. If the whole world is waiting with bated breath for the great hero who will break the power of death, should we be surprised when He appears?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How Should We Live Life?

How should we approach life? We could live for our immediate pleasure, following every impulse. I call this approach the Party Animal, whose motto is "If it feels good, do it." Scripture puts forth this lifestyle as a contrast to the life of the converted (Ephesians 2:3: Titus 3:3; Romans 13:14). But Christians can sometimes espouse a watered-down form. We follow our own pleasure within some broad limitations. This seems like freedom, but is bondage to our own desires. For this person, the ultimate virtue is joy, which becomes momentary happiness.

The reaction to this is frequently to jump to the opposite extreme. The result is to set up self-control as the ultimate virtue, which produces a disciplined individual with strict rules. I have characterized this as the Tough Guy because it favors being strong for the sake of being strong. If the strength involves moral principles, it looks much better than the party animal from a Christian point of view. But Paul characterizes this position as will-worship and condemns it (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:2-4; Titus 1:15). Is there another alternative?

Scripture gives the chief virtue as love (Matthew 22:36-40; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3; Romans 13:8-10), love for God and one's neighbor. The result is one who is a worshiper of God and through that a lover of other people (1 Corinthians 10:31; 1 John 4:19-21; John 13:34,35). If we do this, we will rejoice in God and the good things He has done for us (1 Peter 1:8; John 15:11; Philippians 4:4). Also, we will exercise self control, that we may avoid those things that would be violations of the principle of love (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 1 Timothy 4:7-10; Hebrews 5:14). But both of these are put in perspective by the broader principle of love.

The Tough Guy morality sees all desire as bad; it is based on self-sufficiency. The Party Animal lifestyle follows every desire; it is based on self indulgence. Both are rooted in pride, which is the attempt to put myself first, simply because I am me. Therefore, I ultimately end up putting myself in the place of God (Proverbs 16:18; Genesis 3:4; Isaiah 14:12-14). But Scripture would have us realize we are dependent on God, both as our Creator and our Savior from sin (Acts 17:24-28; James 1:17; Romans 3:23-26). I agree with C. S. Lewis (see "The Weight of Glory;" see also John Piper's "Desiring God") that the problem is not our having desires, but willingness to settle for transient, earthly pleasures rather then pursuing eternal joy. But to do this we must be willing to give up our immediate gratification, not for an illusion of self-reliance, but the greater joy of knowing God and being with Him forever (John 12:24-26; Matthew 16:24-28; Luke 16:9-12). For the goal of a Christian is joy compared to which the joys of this world are but a dream (Psalms 16:11; Isaiah 65:18,19; Revelation 21:4).

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Enter Stage Left?

Few people have been as lauded and criticized as Emperor Constantine the Great. He has been regarded as a hero for ending the Roman persecution of Christians, but also as doing great harm to Christianity by making it official. He has also been charged by many with originating all the things they dislike about Christianity. But will this hold water historically?

Some claim Constantine originated the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea. However, Scripture teaches Jesus Christ is God (Hebrews 1:6-12; John 1:1-18; Philippians 2:5-11) and the Holy Spirit is God (2 Corinthians 3:17; 1 Corinthians 3:16; Acts 5:3,4). The early pagan observers claimed Christians worshiped Jesus as a god. The term "Trinity" was from Tertullian in his essay "Against Praxeas" about 208 A.D. (Constantine's vision endorsing Christianity was in 312 A.D.) The Council of Nicaea was simply affirming traditional Christian belief. Constantine, though he accepted the verdict of Nicaea, was indifferent and wanted everyone to just forget the whole thing and get along. His son Constantius denied the Trinity and tried to use political force to impose this on the Empire. But he failed, and the Trinity was reaffirmed as the teaching of the church because it was the logical conclusion of what Christians had always believed.

Constantine has also been blamed for changing the contents of the New Testament by rewriting it or deciding what books went into it. The problem with this is we possess many copies of the New Testament from before or near the time of Constantine. It is simply not possible for Constantine to have changed the contents of the Bible without our knowing it. As for deciding what books went into the Bible, Constantine had nothing to do with this issue. The New Testament writers refer to other parts of the New Testament as Scripture (1 Timothy 5:18; 2 Peter 3:15,16). Those who wrote immediately after the New Testament continually quote it as authoritative. Irenaeus (died 202 A.D.) said there were four gospels and affirmed many of the other books as Scripture. While there were a few books in doubt, the basic content of the New Testament was well established early on. Now, there was a council after the time of Constantine that made a final ruling on the books that were arguable, but the whole New Testament was not up for grabs. If the decision is questioned today, it needs to be over the few books in doubt.

While Constantine is an ambiguous individual (he seemed to have been more interested in monotheism with strict moral principles than the work of Christ), his real achievement was starting Christianity on its way to becoming the official religion of the Empire. One of the most difficult questions for the Christian church has been how to be in the world and not of the world (John 17:14-16). I would agree Constantine did not come up with the correct answer, but I do not think we have either.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Finding Your Spiritual Gift

How important is it in serving God to find and use our spiritual gifts? What does Scripture say about spiritual gifts?

We are told not to think ourselves better than others because we have a particular gift. This is based on the fact the gifts are distributed by God according to His will (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; Romans 12:3), so not every person has every gift (1 Corinthians 12:28-30; Romans 12:6). The whole concept of the body with its various different parts implies this (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:3-5). The possession of a particular gift does not prove the spirituality of the one who has it (1 Corinthians 13:1-3), but rather spirituality is shown by love that does not exalt itself at the expense of others (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). But the gifts are to be used to build up others (Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Corinthians 14:26). Is it then proper to seek a spiritual gift you do not have (1 Corinthians 12:31, 14:1)? The interpretation of these verses is disputed, but it is clear that while it may be acceptable to ask for a gift, God can say "no."

Also, we should use the gifts we know we have in the proper way (Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10,11.) This rises the question of whether some of the gifts have passed away. This does not have a solid basis in Scripture. (1 Corinthians 13:8-13 in context does not prove this.) A case can be made that the original apostles were unique (Revelation 21:14; Ephesians 2:20), but the implications of this is may be argued. The one thing that is clear is if someone claims to speak the truth of God, they must be checked against Scripture (Acts 17:11; Isaiah 8:20; Galatians 1:8,9). This seems to me a better protection against false teaching than the more debatable position that some gifts have passed away. But if God distributes the gifts as He wills, I see no basis for holding one is required to have some particular gift. Scriptures used to support this merely say God provides these gifts in general, but not necessarily that all these gifts are operating at every time and place (1 Corinthians 13:8-12; Ephesians 4:11,12; Mark 16:17,18). Therefore, we should be cautious about rejecting or demanding a particular gift.

What I would conclude, then, is that Scripture calls upon us to use our abilities to serve God and to be satisfied with who we are in God's service, neither envying nor looking down on others. But Scripture has surprisingly little to say about the need to find or how to find your spiritual gift. What I have to conclude is, if we choose to serve God, He will lead us to find the gifts we have. But while spiritual gifts have their place, I see no basis for regarding the understanding and using of spiritual gifts as the key to being able to serve God. If we follow Christ and do what He wants us to do, other things will fit into place.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Crossing the Line

How do we fit together the Old and New Testaments from a Christian point of view? Many differ over what does and does not still apply to the Christian church today. How should we approach this question?

Various groups deal with this issue by building up complex systems. However, these systems are read into Scripture rather than taught in Scripture. It is true that it is appropriate to coin words to describe things taught in Scripture (for example "Trinity"). But we must be sure they are there in Scripture. Scripture has key transition points, such as the Fall (Genesis 3) or the call of Abraham (Genesis 12), and there are specific covenants like the Noahic (Genesis 9) or the Davidic (2 Samuel 7). Also, Scripture has universal themes like the sanctity of life (Genesis 9:6) and the balance of law and grace (Romans 6:14). But nowhere in Scripture are these brought together to make a system. If someone sees some proposed pattern of ages or covenants, they are welcome to hold it as a theory. But to divide over it or interpret Scripture by it is a problem. Scripture should be interpreted by what Scripture says, not forced into our system.

Then what about the transition from the Old to the New Testament? I would like to propose a somewhat simplistic solution. Those things which the New Testament says still apply, still apply, and those which it says do not, do not. As the commandments against murder and adultery (Romans 13:9) and the way of salvation (Romans 4:1-8) are reaffirmed, they remain. If commandments about foods (Mark 7:19) and various days (Colossians 2:16) and the Temple ceremonies (Hebrews 8:13) are said to have passed away, they have. There are a few odd commandments left, such as plowing with two types of beasts (Deuteronomy 22:10) or taking a mother bird with the chicks (Deuteronomy 22:6). These I take as no longer applying, though they may be illustrative of some principle (like not muzzling the ox when he treads out grain; see 1 Corinthians 9:9).

There is also the issue of the ordinances. While there is continuity between the Old and New Testament ordinances, this does not justify transferring whatever applies in the Old Testament to the New. There is a connection between the Lord's Supper and the Passover. This does not mean we should only serve communion on the 14th of Nisan or serve it with bitter herbs. Any attempt to establish something regarding a New Testament ordinance based on the Old Testament needs to be demonstrated.

In the final analysis, what does and does not carry over from the Old Testament must be argued on its merits. Sometimes things in the New Testament which are thought to be a conflict with things in the Old Testament can be reconciled when carefully studied. But we should resist the temptation to explain the Scripture by our theories rather than the other way around.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Unbroken Chain of Logic

Does science prove there is no such thing as miracles? Does it make God a mere superintendent of the world He created? Part of this depends on what we mean by science. Are we talking about the science people wanted or the science they actually found?

One of the assumptions of the early advocates of science was that science would find a deducible universe. That is, one could start with a few basic intellectually obvious premises and from that deduce the rest of the system. The obvious analogy to this is mathematics. You start with certain basic mathematical premises and from that deduce the rest of mathematics as far as algebra and calculus. The idea is nature's laws work the same way. Now nothing can stop God, if there is a God, from miraculously interfering, but this does produce difficulties regarding God's providential control of the world. I am not saying this could not be reconciled with the Christian idea of God, but there are problems. But is it true?

We have not yet found the basic premises from which all scientific laws are deducible, but they look to be extremely complex rather than intellectually obvious. We have to take into account things like Einstein's theory of relativity, which, while it does not say all things are relative, does say that the world is more complicated than we expect from our normal experiences. But trying to deduce all events from those premises involves difficulties. There is quantum mechanics, which says that light is both a wave and a stream of particles (something which is beyond human understanding), and that at a certain level of smallness we can only know the behavior of particles in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. Then there is chaos theory, which says, when things are sufficiently complex, a minor difference in initial behavior can cause a huge effect later on. (The flapping of a butterfly's wings in Kansas can cause a tornado in Brazil.) While there are, in my opinion, huge holes in Neo-Darwinian Evolution, if it is true it says that living creatures are what they are because of chance mutations which happened to be advantageous in the particular environment the creature lived in.

The bottom line is the deducible universe does not fit modern scientific knowledge. It looks unlikely we will ever make it back to that concept. Therefore the universe is either the result of a intelligent creator or a sophisticated game of chance. Perhaps a better analogy than mathematics is language. As in mathematics, you start with certain basic premises and work from them in an orderly manner. But there is not the precise, necessary, logical connection you find in mathematics. You cannot start with the alphabet and deduce Milton's "Paradise Lost" or Mark Twain's "Adventure's of Tom Sawyer." Which at least suggests the idea of an intelligent creator behind it all. Maybe God is not primarily a mathematician; perhaps He is an artist.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Wall of Separation

The phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the U. S. constitution. Further, "separation of church and state" has come to mean different things to different people. More helpful is the actual statement of the first amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . ." That is, no religion (a word lacking clear definition, but hard to avoid in this context) is to be made the state religion. Also, that everyone should be able to hold to and practice the religion they choose.

May we then establish a non-religious belief? This is contrary to the free exercise clause. The first amendment singles out religion because established religion was the issue at the time, but that does not mean some other belief should be established in its place. This seems to be trading one bondage for another. Also, it is unclear why a religious person should consider this just.

How should a Christian look at this? One principle here is freedom of conscience. True Christianity is uncoerced, an act of genuine faith in God on the part of the individual (Hebrews 11:6). We cannot make people Christians by passing laws, which can compel outward observance but not change the heart. This is as likely to make them think themselves Christians when they are not or to rebel as to come to faith.

Also, whenever the church has been run by the state or tries to run the state, it has become corrupted. And because of this, it loses its ability to correct the state. Scripture gives examples of spiritual leaders who rebuked the misbehavior of rulers (2 Samuel 12:1-15; 1 Kings 17:1; 2 Chronicles 16:7-10; 20:37). This is difficult if the church and state are too closely identified.

But what a Christian should stand for is freedom to exercise his belief. This includes telling others about Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Peter 3:15). It also includes promoting justice in this world (Deuteronomy 16:18-20; Psalms 82:1-4; Proverbs 14:34). Now a Christian should do this in a loving manner (2 Timothy 2:24-26; Colossians 4:5,6), but we must do it even if it means choosing to obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29).

But often an act seen by one person as establishment of religion is another person's free exercise. This is made more difficult because many people on both sides are nitpickers. Perhaps both put too much importance on the issues involved. I am sure there is someone somewhere who was converted to Christianity by a school prayer or a Christmas creche, but I doubt it is a common occurrence. The idea that if we simply impose such things it will restore adherence to Christianity or Christian morals seems improbable. Therefore, while we need to stand for Biblical truth in a hostile culture, we must carefully pick the issues we support. We should oppose the establishment of non-religion, but not be caught up in a fight over trivia.