Thursday, July 29, 2010

Should We Embrace Mysticism?

Is mysticism a good thing? No sooner do I ask that than the question arises, what do I mean by "mysticism"? Now in this context, I am speaking of Christian mysticism.There are other types, but the Christian form is the one I am speaking of. I would define Christian mysticism as the idea that ordinary Christianity is not enough and we need to pursuit a deep inner experience of God. This is reached by applying many, not uncommonly ascetic, disciplines and going through various stages of inner experience until one reaches a state of deep inner union with and contemplation of God. Is this a good or a bad thing?

There is much to be admired in mysticism. It takes God and living for God seriously. It is not willing to settle for a superficial Christianity that goes through the motions of observing external ritual. It can take seriously the legitimate Biblical disciplines of prayer, fasting, studying, and meditating on Scripture. It encourages a love of God that is deep and personal.

However, especially in the extremes, it can lead to real problems. It produces pride, which looks down on those who do not come up to its spiritual level. It can lead to individualism that isolates its practicers from other believers and encourages withdrawal from the world. It can lead to putting inner experiences above Scripture and following them wherever they lead. It can lead to abstruse metaphysical speculations and, in extreme cases, to believing the pantheistic concept that we are all really God.

But I think often the real problem with mysticism is it avoids the real issues. In the Middle Ages the real problem was that Christianity had degenerated into a ritualistic system devoid of God's grace. It is not surprising people turned to mysticism for spiritual reality. Likewise pietism, which was a form of Protestant mysticism, grew up in state churches where everyone who did not somehow disqualify themselves was regarded as a believer. In other words, the problem with the "ordinary Christians" in both those cases was many were not Christians at all. And what needed to be fixed was an insufficient understanding of true Biblical doctrine. It can be a dangerous temptation to draw off into a search for our own spiritual perfection when there is something in the church at large that needs to be fixed.

I think there are things we can learn from at least the more moderate mystics. Things about a deep love of God and a serious pursuit of Him. But true understanding of Scripture must come from God's Word and not from inside ourselves. And our goal should not be to exalt ourselves above other professing Christians but to do what is necessary to encourage them on the way to true salvation if they are not and to a walk of greater obedience to God's commands if they are. For no Christian should settle for being an "ordinary Christian" and no one should exalt themselves above their fellow Christians as "extraordinary."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Past, Present or Future

The prophecies of the Second Coming are a major area of controversy. Everyone thought they had the First Coming figured out, and they were wrong. I suspect the Second Coming will turn out the same way. But I would like to look at the issues here.

We are told the Coming of Christ will be at a time no one knows (Matthew 24:36-51; Luke 12:35-48; Acts 1:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11). But we are also told of recognizable events connected with that coming (Matthew 24:3-28; Luke 21:25-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4; Revelation 6:15-17). How are these reconciled?

I would suggest it is the Day of the Lord, a brief catastrophic period, which comes as a thief in the night (2 Peter 3:10; 1 Thessalonians 5:2). Once it occurs, it will be obvious (Luke 17:22-24). Therefore, I take the various events connected with the Second Coming as literal judgments (see Revelation 8,9,16) to fit this. Also, taking them as symbolic and in the past leaves them open to interpretation and allows us to loosely predict the time of Christ's Coming. (This is also true of the symbolic interpretation of the letters to the churches in Revelation 2,3.)

Therefore, I see the "signs" given in Matthew 24:4-28 as mostly not being signs. The Lord Jesus is saying there will be wars, there will be disasters, there will be persecutions, but the end is not yet. In other words, do not jump at every war or earthquake, thinking that it is the time. But the first real sign is the coming of the Abomination of Desolation (Matthew 24:15; this fits with 2 Thessalonians 2:3,4). One possible explanation is this is entirely a reference to the destruction of the Jewish temple by Titus. But in the contexts (Matthew 24:21-31; 2 Thessalonians 2:8-11), it is hard to make everything in these passages fit Titus. There is a tendency in Biblical prophecy to equate key events such as the rebuilding of the temple under Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1-7), the First Coming (Isaiah 53:1-12), and the Second Coming (Isaiah 60:1-22). In the same way, I see an equation between the defiling of the temple by Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 8:21-26), the destruction of the temple by Titus (Daniel 9:26), and some as yet future event (Matthew 24:15). (Whether this last refers to a literal Jewish temple or the church or something else is beyond the scope of this post.) While it is tempting to identify this with some known person or institution (the Roman Catholic Church, theological liberalism, various individuals), the implication is that when this happens it will be clear. Scripture says that many Antichrists have gone out into the world (1 John 2:18), but we should not too quickly conclude any one is the last one. My main point in this post is not to press my particular view but to urge caution in jumping to conclusions in this area. Too many people have done this, only to be embarrassed later.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Search of Spiritual Giants

One of the common ideas in the church today is that of a spiritual giant. Too often we put our trust in people rather than God. Now I am not saying we should have no heroes or people we admire. But idolizing people can be dangerous both to us and them. In Scripture we are commanded not to judge others ( James 4:11,12; 1 Timothy 5:24,25; Romans 14:4); Paul says he does not even judge himself (1 Corinthians 4:3-5). Judgment needs to be left to God, who knows the heart (Romans 2:16), and much that may seem impressive to us may end up being burnt (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). That is not to say we should not examine ourselves (Psalms 139:23,24) or correct those who have sinned (Galatians 6:1), but these should be over specific issues. Ultimate judgment rests with God (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10-12).

Often we can mistake a prominent gift or calling (or even a natural talent) for spiritual superiority (1 Corinthians 12:12-25; Romans 12:3-8). That is not to say the person with the high profile calling may not be a highly spiritual person, but we cannot assume this. I am convinced that when God judges, there will be obscure people who will be highly exalted and famous people who will prove unimportant. There will also undoubtedly be those who turn out to be exactly what they appear to be. We must not presume either way. Another thing we tend to measure people by is success, especially in terms of numbers. But Scripture says that success ultimately depends on the will of God (1 Corinthians 3:6-9; Psalms 127:1,2; Matthew 16:18). God is able to accomplish His purpose through men such as Jonah and Samson, who had obvious character weaknesses (see Jonah, Judges 13-16).

There is a real danger in too great a veneration of men. It can lead to division and contention, often over minor things and even over personalities (1 Corinthians 1:11-17; 3:1-5). We also need to be careful of trusting in men, for they will fail us (Psalms 146:3,4; Jeremiah 17:5). Ofttimes it is the errors of good men that are the problem. Augustine of Hippo was a strong defender of grace, but his views on the unquestioned unity of the organizational church laid the foundation of the Roman Catholic church. Also, celebrity can lead to pride, which can be hazardous for the person being idolized (Proverbs 16:18; Daniel 4:37; Matthew 23:12). This can lead them to their own destruction. Also, the failures of our heroes (real or perceived) can, if we have put them too high, result in rejecting them entirely (including their good points). Now there is a place in Scripture for being imitators of those in leadership as they follow Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1; 4:16; Hebrews 13:7). But to put anyone on too high a pedestal is hazardous for them and us.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Predestination and Psychological Determinism

In order to to compare three things, I must give them distinct definitions, even if it means using words in a specialized way. I use predestination to refer to the idea that God is in control of all things (Ephesians 1:11; Romans 8:28; Psalms 135:6) and all the events of history are determined by Him (Genesis 50:20; Daniel 2:21; Isaiah 44:28). Determinism I will use to refer to the idea that all things are determined by previous physical circumstances and human behavior is entirely the product of heredity and environment. While some have identified these two, they need not be equated. To say events are controlled by God is not the same as saying they are determined by preexisting circumstances. Another option I will call fatalism. This is the belief that events are fated to happen in spite of preexisting circumstances. If I am fated to be in an auto accident, it does not matter how I drive. It should be clear fatalism is in direct conflict with determinism. It also need not be identified with predestination, though some, again, may do so.

I maintain predestination should not be equated with determinism or fatalism. The problem with determinism is that it makes all human thinking the result of irrational forces. In this situation, human thought is meaningless because it is the of result of past circumstances and cannot be a genuine pursuit of truth. The same does not follow from predestination, which says we are controlled by God, but allows our thoughts, knowledge, and choices to be legitimate. If I am reading a book, the thoughts and choices of the people in the book are real from their perspective. But they are what the author made them to be. This is possible because the author is personal and can produce characters who are personal. A purely mechanistic source cannot do that. Now it is clear that our actions are affected by preceding circumstances, but there is a difference between affected and wholly determined.

But fatalism makes meaningful action impossible. If everything is fated, then nothing I do will change it. I might as well not bother. But God, as a good author, controls both means and ends to make them work together for His purpose. Therefore, while God controls all things, our actions produce real results and have meaning.

Now I have no illusions that I can by these clarifications overcome the strong antipathy many have toward predestination. But I do believe we can eliminate some of the misunderstandings on both sides. For instance, to say predestination makes evangelism unnecessary is to confuse it with fatalism. Also, determinism helps reinforce the idea that predestination makes us robots. Further, those who hold to predestination need to consider whether they are really want to identify it with the other two. This far from solves all the problems, but it does help to be clear on what we are disagreeing over.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

What About the Rules?

There is a tendency to define legalism by how many rules you have. I am forced to disagree with this. Legalism in its strictest sense is the belief we can be saved by our good works rather than faith in Christ (Titus 3:5,6; Romans 4:4,5, 11:6; Ephesians 2:8,9). Now this does not do away with the need to do what God commands (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11,12; James 2:20; Romans 12:1,2). But it does require we do it with a new attitude, from love for God rather than to earn something from Him (1 John 4:19; Romans 8:15; Galatians 5:13-15; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15). Therefore, the issue in legalism is not the number of rules, but the attitude you have toward those rules. We must remember we stand before God based on His grace (Romans 5:1,2; 2 Peter 1:9; Luke 7:36-50) and not be puffed up from self-righteousness (Proverbs 16:18; Philippians 3:12-16; Luke 16:15).

God is not interested in how many rules you have, but whether they are His rules (Deuteronomy 4:2; Matthew 15:7-9; Colossians 2:20-23). Nor are we allowed to ignore what God says because it is inconvenient or interferes with our lifestyle (Romans 6:12-14; John 14:21; James 1:21-25). But the bottom line is we are commanded to follow God's rules, no more and no less. Whether having more rules shows a legalistic attitude or a less worldly one must be determined by looking at the particular case.

There are commandments of God that are clear and repeated continuously throughout Scripture. There are other issues that are more debatable. One reason for issues being debatable is the question of what carries over from the Old Testament to the New. Needless to say, there is disagreement over what is clear or debatable, but the standard here is Scripture. Whatever is definitively and repeatedly commanded in Scripture is clear; whatever is not is debatable.

Scripture gives us instructions for dealing with the debatable. Do not judge or despise your brother (Romans 14:1-12; 1 Corinthians 8:1-6; James 4:11,12). Consider the weaker brother (Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 8:7-12); note, there is a difference between a weaker brother and a self-righteous multiplier of rules (Matthew 15:1-14; Luke 13:10-17; Colossians 2:16,17). Be concerned on how to reach those outside the faith (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). And be careful of overestimating your ability to stand up to temptation (1 Corinthians 10:12-22; 2 Timothy 2:22).

But I am convinced the most important instruction is the first one. This should not stop us from using appropriate correction in the clear areas that warrant it (Galatians 6:1; Matthew 18:15-20; Hebrews 12:12,13). But it should give us pause before sitting in self-righteous judgment on those with fewer rules than us. And give us even more pause before ridiculing and insulting those who have more rules. The Christian church throughout its history has had many kinds of (often contradictory) rules. Perhaps a sense of perspective and a reasonable sense of humor would help us in dealing with these.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Binding and Loosing

What did Jesus mean when He said, first to Peter and then to the disciples, that whatever they bound on earth should be bound in heaven and whatever they loosed on earth should be loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19; 18:18). How does this apply today?

This statement was made to Peter, not based on his office, but his profession of faith (Matthew 16:13-17). It was later promised to the disciples in general (Matthew 18:1). The logical conclusion is this is promised to the true disciples of Christ, those who have genuine faith in Christ. There are those who see this promise as passed down mechanically by an unbroken chain of ordination. But there is no Scriptural basis for the idea that any authority or privilege is passed down to an individual based on who they were ordained by.

This promise is given in a context of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17). It is followed by statements saying if two agree together, it shall be done by God, and where two or three are gathered together, Christ is in their midst (Matthew 18:18,20). This is used in regard to prayer and may have an application there, but in context it speaks of doing the work of the church. Therefore, whenever true believers gather together and agree, they have the authority to do the work of the church. (This can be a tacit agreement and does not necessary involve voting, which is based on a ambiguous word in Acts 14:23. Perhaps God intended to leave it ambiguous.)

But church discipline involves more then removing a name from the church roll; 1 Corinthians 5:5 speaks of turning the person over to Satan. Also, Matthew 12:29 speaks of binding the strong man (Satan) to rob his house. Could it be that binding and loosing involves a spiritual transaction? This means that the decisions of the church bind or loose spiritual forces. If we allocate money for missions, we also release spiritual power with it. If we refuse to minister to poor people, God's power is not released in this area. Now God is building His church, and His purposes will be accomplished (Matthew 16:18), but He has allowed us to participate in the carrying-out of these purposes.

I find this a little scary. It is easy to believe spiritual power is involved when the word is preached and the sacraments administered and prayer and worship are offered to God. But there is nothing that so easily degenerates into silliness as a church meeting. Are we like children playing with spiritual hand grenades? The only remedy is to carry out such meetings with a conscious realization of the divine presence in our midst (Matthew 18:20) and to do things based on His word and the principles and attitudes He requires. For our decisions have far reaching effects.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Where No One Has Gone Before

One argument used against Christianity is the smallness of the earth with regard to the size of the universe. This is ironic because, in the Middle Ages, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, they knew that the earth resembled a mathematical point in comparison to the size of the fixed stars. Nor does the equation of size to importance seem to be obvious. Is a star, for all its size, more important then smaller creatures that are capable of independent thought and action? But I suspect the real issue is not so much size as centrality. Earth has gone from being the center of the universe to an obscure planet orbiting an obscure sun, and the question comes why God should care about us enough to become a human being to redeem us.

With some help from C. S. Lewis, I would like to look at this issue. Is there intelligent life anywhere else in the universe? If not, we would ask why God created this vast expanse to create intelligent life on only one planet. But there are many mysteries in the ways of God. If there is no other intelligent life, it is not surprising God would treat us in a special way. (Lewis speculates on whether we would be able to distinguish a genuinely spiritual being from a highly intelligent animal or recognize one if they had a low level of intelligence or manufacturing ability. I would not go as far as he does on this, but it is a question to consider.)

If intelligent life exists, we must ask if it has fallen into sin. The Bible says human beings were created upright and fell by disobeying God's command. If there are other races, it is possible they never rebelled against God and do not need to be redeemed. The distinction of the human race may consist in our being the ones that need redemption. Also, there are those in the spiritual realm who are so hardened in sin they are irredeemable. Could there be other races in the same state? Could we necessarily distinguish between races in various conditions? If there are races who can be and need redeeming, has God done so? This could be a problem for Christianity if He has not, but it is something we do not know. (I am reluctant to follow Lewis in suggesting the possibility of a different mode of redemption from the one we are familiar with or believing that our redemption could apply to another race. But I cannot claim to know all the answers on this.)

I agree with Lewis in suspecting the cosmic distances may be God's quarantine precautions to prevent us, as fallen beings, from doing to other races what we have done to less technologically equipped members of our own. But our questions about what God is doing in the rest of the universe must wait until we know more about what is really out there.