Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Ghost of Plato

How should a Christian regard the physical world? Some (following the Greek philosopher Plato more than the Scriptures) have seen a human being as an immortal soul trapped in a physical body which it must escape. This leads to an other-worldly view of life. The opposite view sees the soul as having no independent existence and eternal life as a transfer of information from our current body to a more durable dwelling. This understands humans almost entirely in terms of secular psychology. But what do the Scriptures teach?

God made the physical world in its original state before the fall of Adam and declared it very good (Genesis 1:1,31). God becomes a man, taking on a physical body (John 1:14), and to deny this is false teaching (1 John 4:2). He dies, is buried, and rises again with a body (1 Corinthians 15:3,4; Luke 24:36-43; John 20:27). He then ascends to heaven in a body and promises to come again the same way (John 14:1-3; Acts 1:9-11; 3:20,21). Further, he promises that when He comes back, we too will be raised with new bodies (1 Corinthians 15:20-27; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; John 5:28,29). Therefore, while the Scripture affirms self-control (Galatians 5:23; Matthew 6:16-18), it prohibits abuse of the body (Colossians 2:20-23; 1 Timothy 4:3-5; Titus 1:15-16). We are to avoid loving, not the physical world, but the behavior of the world of people in rebellion against God (John 15:18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:21; 1 John 2:16-17). The flesh is not our physical nature, but our nature as sinners in disobedience to God (Romans 7:5-17; 8:3-13; Galatians 5:19-21). However, we do desire to escape the present state of things, not because it is physical, but because it is under sin and a curse (Philippians 3:20,21; 1:21-24; Romans 8:18-25).

In the Bible the distinction between body and soul (or spirit - for the purposes of this post I will not distinguish) is not always that of two entities. Nevertheless, the soul is the source of life for the body (Genesis 2:7; Number 27:16; Psalms 104:30), departing at death (Genesis 35:18; Matthew 27:50; Acts 5:5) and continuing in existence till the resurrection (Luke 16:19-31; 23:39-43; Philippians 1:20-26). This implies there is a distinct thing involved. Also, God is a Spirit (John 4:24), and one person of the Trinity is the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17; Acts 5:3,4; 1 Corinthians 3:16). Further, angels and demons (Psalms 104:4; Matthew 8:16; Acts 19:12-16; Hebrews 1:14) are called spirits. This implies spirit is not just an aspect of matter. There are difficult issues here not totally explained. But we should avoid the extremes or at least not hold them with great dogmatism.

There is a delicate balance between being in the world and not of the world (John 17:14-16; Romans 12:1,2; James 4:1-10; 2 Corinthians 10:2-6), but confusing it with the distinction between the physical and the immaterial makes it more complicated. And whatever conclusions we draw should be based on Scripture and not on Platonism or materialism.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Works?

It is claimed it does not matter what is true, only what works. The problem with this is that to say something works is to say it is true that it works. The fact is that relative truth virtually always ends up sneaking truth back in by the back door. That is because, if truth is really relative, it is impossible to know anything. If truth is really relative, I would not be able to know if I am sitting in my living room in front of my computer typing this post or on Waikiki beach lounging in the sun or both at the same time.

Another question it raises is: works to do what? If I stand up and then jump up and down four times, it will work. But unless it has some end in view, it will not accomplish anything useful. And in order to do this, there must be some idea of a goal we are working toward. Otherwise, while we can eliminate things that will not work, there is no way to decide between things that technically work. Even the things that do not work are hard to identify without some end in view. That flapping my arms and jumping off a cliff will not work is based on the assumption that my falling to my death is an undesirable end.

Thomas Dewey answers this by saying we should work to produce progress. But then I must ask, "what is progress?" Now progress means change for the better, which implies some idea of what is better. Now someone could try to claim that whatever happens is progress. Leaving aside if this is really correct, there is still a problem in how to apply it. Either we conclude that anything we do will contribute to what will happen and so everything not strictly impossible works. Or we will need a crystal ball to predict the future so we can know what will happen and fit in with it. All this without having any help from knowing what is true.

What this really amounts to in practice is looking for what works to make me happy, which quickly degenerates into what works to give me pleasure. Now if there is no truth, it is difficult even to determine what brings pleasure, since that implies that it is true it brings pleasure. But we are still faced with the question of whether the only important goal in life is my selfish pleasure and how do I justify that. Also, while it seems easy in the beginning, figuring out what will give me the most pleasure can be tricky. For instance, I have the question of immediate versus long term pleasures, and what gives me pleasure may ultimately depend on my philosophy of life.

The bottom line is that while whether it will work may be one criterion for judging a course of action, as an ultimate principle for living life it simply will not work.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Who Did Christ Die For?

One of the questions involved in God choosing who will be saved is who Christ died for. Now it should be noted from the outset that the value of Christ's death is infinite. But we do find Scriptures that tell of Christ dying for the world or all men (1 Timothy 4:10; 1 John 2:2; John 3:16-18; 6:33). Other verses, though, teach that Christ died for His people (John 10:11; 15:13; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 5:23-27). I would conclude from this that Christ's death is sufficient for and offered to all people, but it is effective for those who believe, who will ultimately be those God has chosen. I would see both types of Scriptural statement as true from their own perspective.

In this I would take the offer of salvation to all who believe as a legitimate offer (Acts 16:31; Romans 4:4,5; John 6:29). But we are sinners and cannot come to God (Romans 3:11, 8:8; 1 Corinthians 2:14) unless God does a work in us (John 6:44; 1:13; Ephesians 1:4-6). In the same way, the promise of salvation to those who keep all God's commandments is a legitimate offer, but none of us live up to it, and therefore we need Christ (Galatians 3:10; Romans 7:10-12; 3:19,20). Also, the atonement is not automatically applied to anyone; it is by faith, and until we are brought to faith we are still under sin and God's wrath (Ephesians 2:1-3; Colossians 2:13, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Salvation is unmerited, but it is not unconditional; it is on the condition of faith (Romans 3:28; Philippians 3:9), but God supplies the condition (Ephesians 2:8,9; Acts 13:48). Christ died for those believe in Him, but God chooses who that will be (Romans 9:16; 2 Timothy 1:9).

Does God then choose who will not be saved? That depends on what is meant. All things that happen (Ephesians 1:11), including the fate of the unbeliever, are under the control of God (Romans 9:22,23). But in God's choosing of the elect, there is a direct intervention of God, resulting in their doing what they would not naturally do (Romans 3:11; John 6:44: 1:13). This is similar to a miracle, rather than a natural event (though both are under God's control). Therefore, God is not responsible for the sinner's sin, but is responsible for the believers faith, as He creates it directly. Not that I claim to understand this philosophically, but it is what I conclude the Scripture teaches.

But we must use caution in trying to understand the hidden counsels of God (Romans 11:33-35; Isaiah 55:8,9). As John Calvin pointed out, those who try to pry into the secret thoughts of God will become trapped in an inextricable labyrinth. What God would have us know is written in His word, Calvin continues; with that let us be content. But I have a problem with any viewpoint which must take Scripture outside its natural meaning to support itself. The right viewpoint must take all of Scripture into account.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

How Primitive Was Rome?

It is claimed that Christianity was believed because it originated in a primitive age. Now the Roman Empire did not have our technological advances. But it seems unlikely that one's level of technology protects from credulity. Looking at what is found in supermarket tabloids and certain emails, I doubt we are immune from false information. Technology seems to mean that both bad and good information is carried at a faster speed. But otherwise were the Romans more primitive than we are?

They had philosophies that claimed to explain how the world worked. One of the earliest criticisms of Christianity was by Galen, who said that miracles were contrary to natural law. Granted, their understanding of the laws was different from ours, but they had the concept. The idea that people believed in miracles because they did not know the laws of nature does not stand up to examination. The very idea of a miracle presupposes that nature is governed by orderly laws. Otherwise you cannot tell a miracle from a normal event. The real question is whether there is Someone beyond nature who can intervene to produce miracles. This issue has not changed at all since Galen. Now they had some opinions we would regard as fantastic. It is difficult to be sure now how seriously Apuleius took his stories about witches or Philostratus his about vampires, unicorns, and dragons. But today we have beliefs in ghosts, space aliens, Bigfoot, and the Loch Ness Monster. Whether there is any factual basis for any of these claims may be argued, but times have not changed much.

The Romans were cynical of their religious beliefs. Many simply went through the motions without taking them seriously. They also resorted to allegorism to reinterpret their traditional stories . Lucian and Juvenal even wrote satires making fun of the Roman deities. Another early criticism of Christians, voiced by Pliny the Younger, was that they were obstinate and would not simply go along with the established observances. There were those (for example Lucretius) who held that the gods were totally indifferent to human affairs and that everything in the world came into existence by chance. Further, the Romans were known for their moral decadence and carried it to a point even beyond ours. While there were those who opposed it, they were fighting a losing battle. There were at that time certain extreme religious cults (called mystery religions). We have the same today. One suspects there is something about the naturalistic view of the world that causes people to revolt and embrace the opposite extreme.

This brings us back to the reason for the spread of Christianity. I am convinced the best explanation is that the tomb was empty. Also, the Christian message that God Himself had invaded history and paid the penalty for sin was unique, even among the religious options of the time. But whatever the explanation is, the idea that Christianity originated in a primitive time does not fit the facts.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Go and Make Disciples

Christ told us to make disciples (Matthew 28:19), but what does that mean? "Disciple" means "learner," and in the original context it referred to the follower of a teacher, someone who lived with him and learned from him. But what does it mean in a Christian context? Many of the passages in Scripture refer to the Twelve, though it is not always clear if others are included. But Scripture speaks of other disciples, too (Acts 6:1,2; 9:36; 11:29). The logical conclusion is that those who are or profess to be Christians are Christ's disciples (Acts 11:26; 9:1; 6:7). Joseph of Arimathea, who before the crucifixion was unwilling to declare himself publicly, was considered a disciple (Matthew 27:57). Even the crowd that met Jesus on His way into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were called disciples (Luke 19:37,39). Those who walked no more with Him when confronted with difficult gospel truth were called disciples (John 6:66).

However, Scripture exhorts us to consider the price of being a disciple (Matthew 8:19-21; Luke 14:26-35; Mark8:34-38). Being a disciple results in a new manner of life (John 8:31; 13:35;15:8; Matthew 28:19,20) and ultimately in becoming like Christ (John 13:13-17; Luke 6:40: Matthew 10:24,25). Therefore, we should not distinguish between those Christians who are or are not disciples , but ask whether we are living like we should as disciples. This makes a difference because it makes discipleship a process we grow in (Hebrews 5:14; 2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 2:19), rather then something we either are or are not.

The current emphasis on discipleship is right in saying that we should not just make converts but encourage them to grow in Christ (Ephesians 4:13-15; Colossians 1:28,29; Philippians 3:12-15; Hebrews 12:1,2). It also avoids putting the entire burden of ministering to others on a few leaders (Ephesians 4:12; Romans 12:6-8; 1 Peter 4:10). It can sometimes become a one-size-fits-all approach, ignoring the differences in the members of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-25; Romans 12:3-5; 1 Peter 4:11). But we especially need to avoid the tendency to judge if others are disciples (Romans 14:4; 1 Corinthians 4:3-5; James 4:11,12). We are to correct specific sins with gentleness (Galatians 6:1; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Matthew 18:15-17), but we are not the ultimate judge of another's spirituality. Also, there is a temptation to condense all the things Christ commanded us (Matthew 28:19,20; Acts 20:27; 2 Timothy 2:2; 3:16,17) into a simplified message of what is necessary to be a disciple. This results in young Christians being sent into the heat of the battle when they are not prepared. Admittedly, it is also possible to spend considerable time becoming prepared and never doing anything with it (Galatians 6:9,10; Romans 12:11; 1 John 3:18; James 1:27). The solution is being a lifelong disciple both in learning and in doing. Now obviously those in charge have to make decisions on who to train and put in leadership positions. But we should be careful not to label people spiritually.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Identifing the Church

What is the church, and how does it relate to the nation of Israel? Some see Israel as becoming the church. Others see them as two separate entities, not to be confused. Others say they are two different manifestations of one people of God. Now certain principles apply to both, such as salvation by grace through faith (Genesis 15:6;Romans 4:1-5; Psalms 32:1,2; Romans 4:6-9; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 1:17). There are also differences between the two (Hebrews 10:1-10; Colossians 2:16-17; Mark 7:19). I would maintain that what changes and what does not should be based on what Scripture says, rather than on a preconceived concept . But that does not resolve all the issues.

We are baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), which is the church (Colossians 1:18). Now in Galatians 3:27, it says that those who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Philippians 3:9 speaks of our being found in Him, having not our own righteousness but Christ's, which is the basis of our salvation (Romans 3:21-24). Therefore, the church is the assembly of those who are saved. But there are passages of Scripture which mention both the church (Matthew 16:18) and baptism by the Spirit as yet future (Acts 1:5). Now there is a change in the working of the Spirit between the Old and New Testaments (John 7:39; 14:17). But Scripture makes it clear that no one can be saved (John 3:5) or genuinely obey God (John15:7) without a work of God in their life. Nevertheless, there is a change, and the logical conclusion is that this change relates to salvation promised versus salvation accomplished (Romans 3:25, 26). If so, it must ultimately be applied to all who are promised salvation. I would therefore conclude that the church is the assembly of all believers of all ages after the time of Pentecost.

What, then, is the place of Israel? Now the initial response may be that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, as all are one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28-29). However, in this same passage it says there is neither male nor female, but elsewhere in Scripture there are distinctions made (Ephesians 5:21-33). Therefore, I conclude that unity in Christ does not obliterate temporal distinctions. Consequently, there could still be specific temporal promises to the nation of Israel. Now I would hold that there is a Scriptural basis for a restoration of the Jewish people (Romans 11) and that the references to being set aside can be referred to the specific generation of Christ's time (Matthew 21:43). This fits better with the grace of God, whose callings are not revocable (Romans 11:29). But others disagree, and I would write this off as a minor interpretative issue if it did not impact the more complicated issue of how to understand the prophecies of the Second Coming. It is beyond my purpose to deal with these details here, but they should be argued on their own merits, not on how they fit into a presupposed system.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Finding the Balance

Human beings follow different paths to try to deal with their world. Our initial reaction to the world is that something is wrong with it. Pain and suffering are rampant. (Some philosophies may try to prove this is normal, but it needs proof.) Also, we see something is wrong with ourselves. We have definite goals for our behavior, and we come short. (Again, this may be explained away, but it requires explanation.) What is the solution?

Some see the solution in reason. If we figure it out, we can solve our problems. This is an uncommon approach today, perhaps because we have sought and failed to find our answers here. But there are intellectuals who persevere in this. It results in thinking the human mind is the measure of all things and can solve our problems without God's help. While it is rare today, some understand Christianity in light of this. They hold to their own ideas rather than what God said.

An alternative approach is to seek answers in experience. This can range from following immediate impulses to looking for a deep mystical experience. This results in making our experiences the test for everything and finding God (or whatever we put in His place) inside ourselves. But if we depend on experience, we can never be sure if we are experiencing God, the devil, or our own psychological quirks. Also, experience is notoriously fickle; it can come and go or require more and more to produce it. Christians can get involved in this, too, and can build their faith on experience.

Another option is living by the rules. If we find the right rules and enforce them, it will solve our difficulties. These rules need not involve morality; some professedly non-moral people adhere to a strict code of behavior. This results in being self-sufficient and believing we do not need help from anyone, including God. The problem is we fail to keep even our own rules. Also, apart from reason or experience it is difficult to know which rules to enforce. Christians, too, can follow this approach, becoming self-righteous and independent.

The real solution is found in Scripture and ultimately in the cross. It is here we find truth which is beyond our limited human reason (1 Corinthians 3:18). We learn we are sinners (Romans 3:23), living in a world under a curse (Romans 8:19-23). We also learn that God has sent His Son to pay the price for sin (Ephesians 1:7) so that we might be saved by trusting in Him (Romans 4:4,5). Based on this we can begin to understand truth (John 17:17). We can also experience God's peace and joy, which are rooted in knowing about God and His love for us (Romans 14:17). We can live disciplined lives in light of the grace of God (Hebrews 5:14). All of these are kept in balance by Scripture and the cross, where grace and righteousness meet (Psalms 85:10). But trusting in ourselves is destructive.