Thursday, October 28, 2010

Witch Is Witch

What are witches and why were they believed in?   All answers to this question are controversial, but let's look at the history.  

From our earliest records people have seriously practiced magic and had experts who specialized in such arts.  Also, it was common to distinguish between white (well-intentioned) magic and black (evil-intentioned) magic, each with its own practitioners. While people did practice black magic, this concept more commonly resulted in identifying a scapegoat.  When something bad happened, one possible explanation was a witch had cast a spell on you.  As a result, people were labeled as witches who did not actually practice black magic.

Now Christianity held all magic was wrong and the only legitimate source of supernatural help was God.  But when Europe became nominally Christian, many of the old ways persisted.  During the Early Middle Ages, such practices were not acceptable but tended to be winked at.  When someone was caught doing it, they got off with a stiff penance.  The killing of people for black magic was done by mobs, the authorities attempting to intervene to save the victims or at least give them a Christian burial.  This was because it was believed that  demonic ability to do miracles was limited and the more blatant acts attributed to them were illusions.  They did not make people fly around at night on broomsticks, but caused them to go into a trance and believe they had done so.  Some today have also suggested a trance as a possible explanation for this kind of phenomenon.

But pagan superstition crept into the church, distorting the picture.  The picture of demonic beings became more powerful, but cruder. The demons could actually do the things attributed to them, but they were less subtle in their approach to evil.  They demanded direct worship, engaged in orgies with humans, and offered benefits to those who were willing to sell their soul.  This became a useful way to slur your enemies; the established church used it against dissenting churches, Philip VI of France used it against the Knights Templar, and it eventually became a common approach in village witchcraft accusations. The result of this was the standard stereotype of witches who sold their soul to the devil, rode around on broomsticks, and had black cat familiars.  This was furthered by the paranoia connected with the black plague and the Reformation, which forced both sides to take their beliefs seriously. Later, secular people looked at the full blown stereotype and said, "There are no witches".  They then used the witch trials as a way to argue against Christianity, often over-simplifying the issues. Afterwards, some read back in the idea of an organized witch cult to explain the stereotype. 

The moral of this is we need to beware of reading foreign ideas into Scripture.  Also, while we do not want to underestimate Satan, we need to beware of making him too powerful.  This leads to fear and discourages trust in God.   

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Spirit and Truth

When confronted with the question of where a person should worship God, Jesus said that the time was coming when these types of issues would be superseded and the issue would be whether we worship in spirit and truth (John 4:24).  Why then is it that in the Christian church, on the other side of that transition, we plagued with issues regarding worship that are as petty as the one described here.  Now Jesus did state that there was an real Old Testament basis for Jerusalem being the the correct city (John 4:22,23), but He made it clear the method of evaluation was about to be changed (John 4:21).  Why then has this failed to take place?

Now the Old Testament does give a detailed set of laws as to exactly how worship was to be carried out.  But the significant thing is there is none in the New Testament.  Scripture teaches that God commands what He intends to command (Deuteronomy 12:32). So I conclude that God has prescribed certain principles, and the rest He has left free.  There are practices that are contrary to the clear teachings of Scripture, such as prayers to saints (Matthew 4:10).  There are other things that require some answer, such as whether to baptize infants. (I am convinced if God had wanted us to baptize infants He would have given us a clear commandment and not left us to deduce it, but I question whether this is an essential issue.)  But much of what we fight over is not clearly taught in Scripture.  Take, for instance, the question of whether Christ is physically, spiritually or symbolically present in the Lord's Supper.  There is nowhere is Scripture where it directly deals with this.  I would therefore conclude that the person who partakes in faith receives the benefit of communion, whatever that is.

Now we are told that things are to be done decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).  But if we look at the context, it describes something fairly informal (1 Corinthians 14:26-33).  What they were called to avoid was complete disorder (everyone speaking at once) and things that were meaningless to the other people present (speaking in tongues without an interpreter).  I am not saying no one violates this principle today, but the boundaries are quite broad.  There is also the example of Nadab and Abihu (Leviticus 10:1-3), but they disobeyed a definite and clear-cut commandment of God (Exodus 30:34-38).  This cannot be applied to things that are not clearly commanded in Scripture.  To worship in spirit (John 4:24) means we are not to simply go through the motions, but to be sincere in our worship (Malachi 1:10; Isaiah 66:3,4; Matthew 23:23-28).  To worship in truth means we are to worship God as He really is and not some distorted view of Him (Romans 1:23; Exodus 20:2-6; 2 Corinthians 11:1-4).  But to make an issue of details of worship that. God has not commanded is wrong.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Law and Order

What should the Christian approach be to criminal justice? Should we take a strict view of upholding the law? After all, we are told to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7). But we do need to put this in perspective. We are all sinners (Romans 3:23), who are deserving of God's wrath (Romans 1:18), but the punishment due us has been taken by Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2 :24-25) on the cross. Now this should not result in condoning evil. In fact, it should result in a new pattern of life (Titus 2:11-12). But it requires a careful balance in dealing with the wrongdoing of others, even the criminal wrongdoing. Now it is important to hold criminals responsible, but we need to avoid going to the opposite extreme and requiring draconian punishments.

Now there is a red herring here that needs to be dealt with. It is the current opinion of our culture that a person's behavior comes not from their responsible choices but their psychological condition. There is therefore a desire to replace the idea of punishment with that of rehabilitation. This sounds more humane and merciful, but it has dubious results. It means dealing with the person, not as a responsible individual, but as an automaton to be adjusted. It can result in inappropriate leniency. But as C. S. Lewis points out in his essay "The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment," it can also result in a person being imprisoned until they are cured, even if it is well beyond what they deserve. Also, it is easier to reinterpret psychological normalcy than moral dessert, allowing society to punish whoever they want to punish. Now I am in favor of trying to rehabilitate criminals whenever possible (though I believe the best source of rehabilitation is the gospel), but making rehabilitation the main issue distorts the process.

However, we can replace this view with the idea of punishment as a deterrent, or as protecting society. While these are appropriate elements in the process, if seen as the sole goals they become radically unjust. If the only purpose is to deter, then the most severe punishment, even if it is disproportionate to the crime, becomes appropriate. And if our only goal is to protect society, then anything that removes the criminal from society for as long a time as possible is to be encouraged, whatever the criminal really merits. In the end, I do not believe there is anything that balances the rights of both the criminal and society so well as traditional retributive punishment, properly tempered with mercy. And I feel this is important, because the way we treat the extreme cases of our society tends to affect how we approach the more commonplace forms of human conflict.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blueprint for the Christian Life

The blueprint for the Christian life is the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16,17; John 17:17; Psalms 119:105). But too often we interpret it by the Linus Van Pelt method (from Peanuts, by Charles Schultz). We look for a verse of Scripture to back up our preconceived notions.But Scripture should be the standard from which everything else is judged (Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20; Jude 3). Now I am speaking to those who believe the Bible is the Word of God. But if we do believe it is, then it becomes the basis for determining truth. However, even those who claim to hold to the truth of Scripture can read into it their traditions, including their doctrinal statements, respected teachers, or denominational distinctives (Matthew 15:7-14; Galatians 1:10; Proverbs 29:25). Now God does provide teachers in His church to instruct us (Ephesians 4:11-16; Hebrews 13:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13), and we ignore them at our peril. But even good teachers need to be checked against Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 2:11-14; 1 Thessalonians 5:21,22). We also need to avoid interpreting Scripture based on our own understanding, including our thinking, common sense, and subjective experiences (1 Corinthians 3:18; Proverbs 3:5,6; Colossians 2:8). Now we do need to be diligent in studying Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15; Hebrews 5:12-14; Psalms 119:1,2), but Scripture is the authority.

If the Bible is the authority, the emphasis as well as the words of Scripture becomes significant. We should avoid the inverted pyramid approach, which builds up a crucial teaching on one or a few verses. We should particularly avoid interpretations based on clever reading between the lines of the text. We are given the impression God values our obedience, rather than our ability to come up with clever answers (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). Also, we are admonished not to add to or take away from God's commands (Deuteronomy 12:32). Now there are legitimate applications of commands to specific situations, but we must be very careful of adding anything God did not command to His Word.

Now part of the problem is that we want answers to questions we think we need answers to, and we want to emphasize the things we think are important. It is therefore easy to read in things to give us the answers we want. But we need to consider the possibility that we are asking the wrong question or that our valued opinion is not as important as we want to make it. There are issues that I wonder why God was not clearer on. But I would rather trust God -- that He had a reason for what He did or did not say -- than read my ideas into Scripture when they are not there. I am convinced the best interpretation of Scripture is the simple, direct interpretation, even if the passage is symbolic. It is when we try to read in our clever ideas that we get into trouble.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Limits of Science

Science is very useful for doing the things that it does well. The principal thing science does well is to make generalizations about repeatable events. This is especially true if those events can be repeated under laboratory conditions. There are, however, events with which science can not deal well. That is, events that are unique and not repeatable. Whether it is Washington crossing the Delaware or the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., these things cannot be dealt with by science. While I am dubious, there are those who would claim that all these events will one day ultimately be reduced to scientific generalizations. But until they are explained that way, we must deal with them as unique incidents. This is not a criticism of science; it is not a criticism of a spoon to say it is not a knife. But partly because of the popularity of science, there is a tendency to apply it in ways it should not be applied. It is like reenacting Washington's crossing of the Delaware to prove it happened. The truth is that a scientific experiment done this way does not prove what did happen, but what can happen.

This can be made complicated by trying to reach conclusions that go beyond the facts of the observation. It is an unquestionable fact that people in general can jump. It is also clear that some people can jump higher than others. It is also true that if we practice we can increase the height of our jumps. It is also true that human beings have gone to the moon. However, if we were to conclude that people simply jumped higher and higher until they reached the moon, we would be very much mistaken.

One place we see this fallacy being practiced repeatedly is in a certain class of arguments used to support evolution. It is concluded that because amino acids can be produced in the controlled conditions of the laboratory, this proves that it happened at some earlier period in the history of the earth and is the explanation for the existence of life here. A considerable stretch. Or it is claimed that minor instances of natural selection with finches and moths prove that this process is capable of producing complex structures like eyes and wings and that this is, in fact, where they did come from. (And this is in the face of repeated experiments with fruit flies which have failed to produce a new species.) But the cause seems woefully inadequate to the effect. The truth is that if someone were able to start from a batch of chemicals and somehow recreate in a laboratory the evolutionary process and end up with a human being, while it would give considerable credence to evolution, it would not prove that it did happen, only it could have happened. But the very limited cases that are generally put forth in this area really prove nothing at all.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010


One of the key principles of our culture in the United States is equality. Sometimes I think it is the only principle. How does this fit into a Christian understanding of the world?

The Biblical ideal, as evidenced by the character of the church, is unity in diversity (1 Corinthians 12:12-27). The picture given here is of different people with different gifts coming together to contribute to the whole. And all the members are honored, regardless of their function. It may be questioned how far this can be applied to society as a whole, but if this is God's ideal we would not expect His goals for the rest of society to totally conflict with it. Now one of the key things we are told about all human beings is they are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and this is to affect how we behave toward them (Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). But on the analogy of the body of Christ, being valued by God does not depend on being indistinguishable, but is true in spite of the differences. Equality does not equal interchangeability.

But equality from a Christian perspective also does not represent total individuality. This view of equality is rooted in total self-centeredness. The idea is that I must look for my personal fulfillment regardless of how it affects those people I have a responsibility toward (let alone right and wrong). It can involve leaving one's spouse, killing one's unborn child, rebelling against one's parents, if it somehow allows a person to actualize themselves. The Christian viewpoint is that we are all sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) and that our real identity is not who we are but who God is transforming us into (2 Corinthians 3:18; Ephesians 4:13-16; Romans 8:29). The result of this is putting the welfare of others and our commitments to them before ourselves (Philippians 2:3-11; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 7:12). Therefore, all forms of behavior must be evaluated according to God's commandments and cannot all be regarded as equal (Titus 2:11-14; Romans 1:18; 1 Peter 1:14-17). Now one of the complaints that has been made (particularly regarding men and women) is the existence of a double standard. In the past there not uncommonly existed such a double standard. But there are two ways to correct a double standard. All people should live based on a standard of responsibility and concern for others, rather than selfishness.

Therefore, Christians need to be clear on what genuine equality is in order to be able to deal with the world's view and avoid falling into it. True equality is an equality of the value of all human beings that does not negate differences in individuals or roles (which should be seen as complimentary, not a matter of differences of value). Nor does it imply the equality of all behavior or lifestyles. For it is only by striking the correct balance here that we can avoid the extremes of false uniformity or total individualism.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Problems of the Past

"What about all the evil things Christians have done?" This is an argument frequently brought against Christianity. What can be said in answer to it?

While many of the accusations brought against Christians' past behavior have been distorted, there are still a number of things that need to be responded to. In doing so, I do not want to justify particular evil deeds or the perpetrators of those deeds. But I do believe there are some things to say about their reflection on Christianity. Christians have claimed from the beginning that all people are sinners (Romans 3:23) and are saved by the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8,9). Not all who call themselves Christians (even leaving aside genuine doctrinal issues) necessarily are (Matthew 7:21-23), and even those who are have not yet reached perfection (Philippians 3:13-16). Therefore, it is not surprising if there are those called Christians who fall short of being the people they should be. But there is more that can be said on the issue.

Most of the crimes charged against Christianity revolve around one basic issue. Is it right to use force to impose your beliefs on others? This is not an issue unique to Christianity or "religion." The Communists attempted to impose their atheism on people. The Roman Emperors did the same with their watered-down paganism. And both persecuted Christians. If nothing else, atheism has shown itself fully capable of excelling at this type of atrocity. The real issue here is whether we can reach a point where everyone from every viewpoint can decide to refuse to behave in this way. It is not until we stop blaming others and look in the mirror that we will be able to avoid this type of incident in the future.

When a belief system is the dominant one in a culture, there is a strong pull to use political power to suppress competing views. If the adherents of a particular philosophy believe it is true, they normally believe that following that view is best for society. Therefore, to allow competing views is to endanger what they are trying to do to make their society a better place. To make things worse, after a group has been in power for some time, the people in charge see the belief system as the basis of their power and tend to enforce it to keep that power. Also, when something is respected as the basis of society, people tend to use it as the justification for carrying out their selfish desires. If you want to enslave people and steal their gold, you do it in the name of whatever your culture thinks valuable.

A temptation to use coercion is not a problem peculiar to Christianity, but a number of individuals and groups within it have opposed this. However, Christians have not generally been able to overcome the temptation to follow the normal impulse in this area. But this is a general problem faced by all belief systems and not unique to Christianity.