Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Neo-Orthodox Invasion

I am convinced there is an increasing tendency in evangelical circles to embrace neo-orthodox principles.What is neo-orthodoxy? Is it really that bad, and is it a genuine danger?  Neo-orthodoxy believes that truth is relative and there is more then one level of truth. On the objective level they are naturalists, believing God will not objectively intervene in history.  But they also believe there is another level of truth that involves "facts of faith," which become true to them subjectively through a leap of faith against reason. Therefore, these fact of faith beliefs are true only so long and to the extent that they are true for them subjectively. Unfortunately, it is easy to gradually fall into this approach, relegating faith to a sort of nether-land that is true, but not really true, or at least not in the objective sense. Or to vacillate between two conflicting opinions without feeling the need to consistently adhere to either. And this is something that can creep in gradually without our recognizing it.

The result of this is people can end up not seeing the Word of God as being objectively true. They only see those parts which speak to them as being true . Jesus was not objectively God, but becomes God as we regard Him to be God. They may believe in the resurrection, not as an actual objective historical event, but as something which is true for them because of their faith in it.  They may shy away from substitutionary atonement as an actual historical fact and emphasize more of a "transformation of life" approach to salvation. They can be strong on morality, but maintain a vague open acceptance, as opposed to any clear standards of required behavior. Further, they tend to ground their ideas in personal experience rather than objective truth. But often their views are subtly disguised or inconsistent, making them hard to identify or pin down. Sometimes those who hold to it, particularly those who are only partially influenced, will show indications of it at some times and not others, openly holding only some of the aspects of the view. Therefore, it is important for us to affirm that truth is absolute and does not change depending on who experiences it. That the Bible is fully and objectively the Word of God and not just those parts that speak to us. That it is true Jesus Christ was objectively God, paid the price for our sins, and rose from the dead in the same sense that it is true that F=ma and John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. We must base our beliefs on objective evidence and not just subjective experience. And we must oppose philosophical naturalism (as distinct from science) in all its forms. (Just because there are orderly laws by which things work does not mean there is not a God above the laws who can intervene.) Otherwise we could end up in a realm where whatever we experience is "true," regardless of its connection to actual reality. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

What Is Wrong with Organized Religion?

"I am against organized religion." This is a common statement heard today. Even many Christians state they are against religion. What is religion, and should we be for or against it? The simplest answer is that in most contexts it has no useful substantive meaning.  If you do not believe me, try to come up with one that covers the things normally classified under it. "Organized" is easier to define, but can be hard to apply.  Different beliefs  have different degrees of organization, depending on their character. But I suspect that in this context the main meaning of "organized religion" is serious religion.When people get serious about something, whether saving the environment or playing cards, they tend to organize. I suspect much of the opposition to organized religion amounts to: We don't care what you believe, but don't try to seriously promote it. What is this thing people do not want to see promoted? 

Could "religion" be belief in God? If God means any kind of deity, many "nonreligious" philosophers  have believed in a God (Plato, Aristotle, John Locke, Emmanuel Kant, and others). But some called "religious" were indifferent to the idea (Confucius and Buddha; whether Lao Tzu is included depends on whether you regard the Tao as a God or not).  Could "religion" be defined as the belief in a God who objectively intervenes in history or gives objective revelation? But those from a theologically liberal Judeo-Christian position would deny this. One could try to get around this by enlarging the definition to include purely subjective revelation from God.  But if revelation is purely subjective, how do I identify it? Is the issue whether this subjective experience has the word "God" associated with it?. But if the word "God" has no objective content, what does it really mean? Also, there are those who come from this position who use "religion" (negatively) to describe only those who hold to the objective intervention of God. Among Christians, "religion" can be seen as a practice of rules and rituals rather then the direct approach to God through grace. (I like the formulation of this that pictures "religion" as man seeking God and Christianity as God seeking man.)  But this is a specialized meaning, and while it may be useful to made a point, it does not fit as standard usage.

Now we could simply rearrange the players to fit some new definition, but what basis would we have for regarding this as the right definition? Especially since this probably would result in a major rearrangement.  Is it then surprising that "religion" has become a term useful for stereotyping whatever you like or dislike? And it becomes something that is hard to argue for or against because it is as slippery as a snake to define. I would therefore suggest that while the word will undoubtedly continue in popular usage, it is of no benefit in serious discussion. It is best to deal in terms of what you and another person really believe rather than to go off on a rabbit trail about "religion".

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Means of Grace vs The Spiritual Disciplines

There has been dispute over whether what we need as Christians are the means of grace, the spiritual disciplines, or both. One main aspect here is the individual versus the corporate approach to God.  From what I can see, Scripture demands both.  We are individually required to know, understand, and do God's word (Hebrews 5:11-14; Colossians 3:16; Psalms 1:2).  We are also required to test things by the Word of God, which implies we need to know it (Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20; Acts17:11).  Further, we are commanded to pray individually (Matthew 6:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:17,18; Philippians 4:6,7). We are also given promises and admonitions to encourage us to do so (1 John 5:14,15; Matthew 7:7-11; James 4:1-3).

But we are told God has given us leadership to instruct and watch over us (Ephesians 4:11-15; Hebrews 13:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12,13).  And they are commanded to carry out this charge (2 Timothy 4:1-4; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Acts 20:26-31).  Also, we are commanded to gather together to build up one another (Hebrew 10:24,25; 12:12,13; 1 Corinthians 14:26).  We are told we are part of the same body and need one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:4-5; Colossians 2:19).  Therefore, we are not to conclude that we can leave everything to public worship and not be involved ourselves, nor can we think we can go it ourselves without the help of others.

One important element here is the ordinances.  I see no basis in Scripture for the idea that the validity of the sacraments depends on who administers them, but rather on the faith of the recipients (Romans 4:12,13; Acts 22:16; 2:38).  But they are a proclamation, so it makes sense that they be done in public (Romans 4:11; 1 Corinthians 11:26), and it makes sense that they be done in connection with proper leadership to see they are done and understood Scripturally (1 Corinthians 14:40; 11:27).  Further, the Biblical example connects them to corporate worship (1 Corinthians 11:17; 10:16-17).  While I would not forbid private taking of the ordinances, the Scriptural emphasis is on their public celebration. The one thing that is clear is that the sacraments are required by Scripture and cannot simply be evaded (Matthew 28:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

But there is between these two views a difference in emphasis.  The means of grace view emphasizes the idea that we approach based on God's grace and His invitation (Hebrews 4:16; Romans 5:1,2). But the spiritual disciplines view emphasizes the need for our involvement (1 Timothy 4:7,8; 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).  Both of these are legitimate aspects, but either taken alone can produce a distortion. We should not see ourselves as passive recipients to the point that it negates the need of our effort for growth in Christ.  Nor should we start to see the things involved as something we do to merit something from God.  But while we need to evaluate any particular procedure to see if it is Scriptural, both concepts involve actual Biblical commands.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

In Search of the Holy Grail

One interesting story from the Middle Ages is the search for the Holy Grail. There are those who have claimed that behind it lies some mysterious, hidden brand of Christianity which is to be preferred to standard Christian orthodoxy. Is there any basis for this claim?

The Grail is part of the larger story of King Arthur. He was originally pictured as a British leader who fought the invading Anglo-Saxons. The earliest story seems fairly prosaic and straightforward, with a few embellishments, like Arthur's single-handed killing of large numbers of people and fighting with giants, and with exaggerations, such as his conquering most of Europe.  As time went on, Arthur's story accumulated various fanciful elements. Many of these seem to be derived from Celtic mythology. But while Arthur is portrayed as Christian, I see no trace in Arthur's story in general of an alternative form of Christianity.

The Grail seems to be one of the stories that attached itself to Arthur.  In the earlier versions, Arthur appears to be incidental, and the main protagonist is Percival.  The story has Percival as a young man whose father  is a knight who has been killed and whose mother has concealed the existence of knights from him to protect him. But he finds out about knights and, against his mother's pleading, sets out to become one.  In spite his initial ignorance, by persistence and natural ability he becomes a great knight and, in some versions, avenges his father or becomes a king. This is all a nice straightforward adventure story.  Mixed in with this are what appear to be elements of Celtic mythology, particularly a quest to restore the fertility of the land. A key element in this quest is an object variously pictured as a severed head, a cup, and a stone, all of which fit in well with Celtic mythology.

The interpretation of the cup as the one at the Lord's Supper seems to be an attempt to import a Christian symbol into an otherwise pagan story. The story does involve the importance of relics and an emphasis on Christ being physically present in the Eucharist, both good Roman Catholic doctrines of the time.  In the final version, Percival--and Galahad, who eclipses him--become monks. But I see nothing of some alternate form of Christianity. The obvious alternatives at the time, the Cathars and the Waldensians, were opposed to the Roman Catholic emphasis on the Eucharist and Christ's physical presence in it and would not have been comfortable with the Arthurian legend's chivalrous worldliness.

You can always read something in by creating an allegory, but I see no evidence of any hidden theology here.  Even supposing there was one, I see no reason for giving it precedence over what the Scripture and the Christian church have historically taught.  The fact it appears this late with no proven antecedents is highly suspect.  There is an attraction to knowing some arcane truth concealed through the ages, but is this really plausible?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Therapeutic Deism

One accusation that is sometimes made is that certain individuals  are teaching therapeutic deism rather than Christianity.  What is therapeutic deism, is it a bad thing, and if so, how do we avoid it?

Now deism sees God as departing after creating the world, leaving it to run itself.  It is difficult to see how  full blown deism can be therapeutic.  But a idea approaching deism is what I call, following C. S. Lewis, a tame God.  A tame God superintends the universe, lays down some general moral and philosophical principles, may help me if I get in a real jam, but leaves me to live my life my way.  He can be therapeutic if He meets my felt needs and does not meddle much beyond that.  He is there to lift my self esteem, give me a positive attitude, save my marriage, or improve my job performance.  But is this Biblical?

The Bible states that our basic problem is that we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) and are in danger of the judgment of God (Romans 1:18; 6:23; Revelation 20:11-15).  Therefore, God intervened and sent His Son so that He could pay the price for our sins (Romans 5:6-8; Colossians 2:11-15;  1 Peter 2:24,25) if we put our faith in Him (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; John 3:16).  Therefore, we have confidence in His presence, having being declared righteous before Him by the work of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:31-34; John 3:18; Hebrews 4:14-16), but we are required, through the power of God working in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29), to grow into the people God wants us to be (Ephesians 2:10; Titus 2:11-14; Romans 12:1,2).  We are not to see ourselves as standing before God based on our performance, but we are also not to be satisfied with where we are now but to press on in Christ (Philippians 3:4-16) Also, we are not told that if we trust Christ He will eliminate all our problems, but we can trust God to bring us through them (John 16:33; Acts 14:22; Proverbs 3:5,6).

Now I think there is a place for meeting people where they are; Jesus did with the woman at the well (John 4:1-45), and Paul did with the Athenians (Acts 17:22-34).  But we need to bring everything back to the issue of forgiveness of sins.  Also, while faith in Christ may help in facing the problems in life, there is no guarantee it will make them go away, and if we tell people this we are selling them a bill of goods.  Further, if a person comes to Christ without dealing with the sin issue, they have not really come to Christ.  But most of all, God in not some distant superintendent, but intervenes in and requires our obedience in every detail of our lives. And we need to be on guard, because the wrong idea has a way of subtly creeping into our minds if we are not watchful to prevent it.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A God Who Hides

It is a common complaint, "If only God worked miracles today openly, I would believe in Him."  Now I do believe that God does miraculous things today.  But while I know of cases where people were healed when the doctors could not explain it and of strange events which I find hard to explain as coincidences, I have not seen anything like the parting of the Red Sea or the feeding of the five thousand.  And while I would not limit God from doing anything, it does seem there are periods of time when God is doing some new thing and He pours out miracles.  Why does God not do this constantly, and would He not get more converts if He did?

It needs to be stated from the outset that God is not interested in a purely intellectual faith.  The demons have that (James 2:19).  Nor is God interested in a faith that is only concerned in the immediate benefits it can obtain from Him (John 6:26,27).  God is not a heavenly Candy Man whose main goal is to cater to our whims.  What God wants is for us to trust Him for salvation (Ephesians 2:8,9; Romans 4:4,5; Acts 16:31) and to love Him (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Matthew 22:36-40) and to live our lives in obedience to Him (Romans 12:1,2; Titus 2:11-14; James 1:22-25).  Further, God desires that those who do these things will do them even if they do not immediately see the benefits involved (Romans 4:18-22; 2 Corinthians 5:7; John 20:26-28).  Also, though the critics will undoubtedly reject it, it is the position of the Bible that God has tried this and it did not work.  At the time of the exodus from Egypt, God poured out the miracles, but the Israelites grumbled and complained and disobeyed, consistently refusing to obey God, until He sentenced them to wander forty years in the wilderness.  Jesus Christ came doing blatant miracles and was told He had a demon and was crucified. Simply seeing does not necessarily produce genuine faith.

Also, the more blatant the miracles seen, the deeper the judgment (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 11:29-32). Therefore the hiddenness of God may be the best gift He can give an unbelieving world.  But He says that those who seek Him in His way and on His terms will find Him (Matthew 7:7-12; John 7:17; Luke 16:29-31), though no one can truly seek God unless God is doing a work in his heart (John 6:44; 1:12,13; Romans 3:11).  But the bottom line is that God is not a performing dog that we can make jump through our hoops.  If we are not willing to come to Him on His grounds, based on the evidence He gives, He is not willing to meet our demands.  He is God, and He requires that we meet Him where He is.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Good Moral People

We live in a world that believes people are basically good.  It also says our failings ("sins" seems too harsh a word) are the result of our environment and upbringing.  Therefore, except perhaps for the extreme examples, the Hitlers and Stalins, we are all good moral people.  Sometimes, even without quite admitting it to ourselves, Christians can start to fall into this mindset.  Even though we profess we are sinners saved by grace, we can start to feel we are good people and our Christianity has made us just a bit better.  Even if we manage to keep this attitude at bay as regards salvation, it can try to sneak its way back in as regards our living for Christ:  we needed God to save us, but now we can proceed to live as good moral people on our own.  This is an attitude that relentlessly tries to sneak its way into our lives if we are not on guard against it.

The Bible makes it clear that far from being basically good people, we are people with deceitful hearts whose righteous deeds are as filthy rags before God (Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:10,11). We are further told that without a work of God in our life we can do nothing toward truly obeying Him (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; 7:18). Nor are we encouraged to believe that even after we are saved, we have become good people (Philippians 3:12-16; 1 John 1:8-10; Galatians 5:17).  The last part of Romans 7 (7:14-25) is one of the more debated passages of Scripture.  But given that the passage is in the present tense and that the conclusion in verse 25 leaves Paul in the situation described, I would conclude that this was Paul's then-current experience as a person who genuinely wanted to follow God.  (Also, the question this passage is trying to answer, Why can I not be saved by the Law? (see verses 7:7,13), is best answered by saying that even after I am saved I cannot fully keep God's Law.) Not that the believer cannot do anything good, but we always fall short of the good we wish to do. This leaves me with the conclusion that we must trust in God's work in us to live for God (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29).

This is important because if we believe we are good moral people, we will be tempted to accept our current condition as adequate rather than pressing on to follow Christ.  Also, we can come to trust in our ability to do what is right rather than in the power of God. And it can encourage us to look down on those who are seen as falling below our standards of morality.   But if we recognize that we are sinners saved by the grace of God and if we see ourselves as being changed, but not being completely holy until we stand before God, we will have a different attitude.