Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Formulas of the Magicians

There exist many magic formulas for living for God and doing the work of God. But in the final analysis, do these really work? What I have found is that they do not work nor do they fit with what Scripture really teaches. The Bible pictures growth in Christ as a long term process (Philippians 3:12-16; Ephesians 4:12-16; Colossians 2:19), and it is pictured as involving disciplined practice (1 Timothy 4:7,8; Hebrews 5:13,14; 12:1-3). This does not mean we can do things on our own, without God's work in our life to empower us. Quite the contrary; God has said He is at work in us to empower us to do what is right (2 Corinthians 3:18, Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29) and is at work through  us to accomplish His purposes in the world (Ephesians 2:10; 1 Corinthians 3:6,7; Matthew 16:18). In fact, we are told that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5; Romans 8:8; 7:18). But is there something I must do to obtain this power? The logical implication of the verses quoted is that it is for all genuine believers in Christ. We are told we have all things pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3) and that in Christ we are made complete (Colossians 2:10) and are given every spiritual blessing (Ephesians 1:3). God has also stated we are victorious in Him (1 John 5:4,5; Romans 8:37; 2 Corinthians 2:14).

There is still left a place for us to respond (Galatians 5:16; Colossians 2:6,7; Ephesians 5:18). But this is not some mysterious secret, but the simple response of obedient love to God for what He has done for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Titus 2:11-14). Now it is clearly part of that obedience to trust in God and His power rather than our own abilities (Psalms 127:1,2; Proverbs 3:5,6; 2 Corinthians 3:5,6). But it is trusting in God based on what He has stated He is doing in our life. Yet we still have to decide whether to trust and obey God in any given situation. God also provides power to meet specific circumstances or carry out specific ministries (Acts 2:4; 4:8,31; 9:17; 13:9). Note that the same people are filled more than once to meet new challenges. We are also told the Spirit gives us various gifts to enable us to do God's will (Romans 12:3-8; 1 Corinthians 12:4-10; 1 Peter 4:10). But we are told that the Spirit distributes these as He wills (1 Corinthians 12:11), that not every person  has every gift (1 Corinthians 12:29,30), and that the possession of a particular gift is not a proof of spirituality (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Therefore, I would conclude that while we are all spiritually in a growth process, there is no instant fix for spirituality that belongs to some spiritual elite. Rather, God is at work in all His people to transform them into the image of His son (Romans 8:29; Ephesians 4:23,24; Colossians 3:10,11). This is a lifelong process and there are no shortcuts.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

It Is All a Legend

There is a classic formulation on the question of who Jesus Christ is, as put forth by C. S. Lewis and Josh McDowell:  that He must be either a liar who made false claims about Himself, a lunatic who believed things about Himself that were delusional, or who He claimed to be, Lord--God come in the flesh to deliver us from our sins. But there is another option, that He was a legend that grew up slowly over time. (It should be said in defense of Lewis and McDowell that they argue against this option before presenting us with their alternatives.) Does this other option really work?

 While they were later deified by some, it is fairly clear what Buddha, Confucius, and Lao Tzu originally taught.  Few doubt Mohamed claimed to be a prophet. Yet it is claimed that the teachings of Jesus Christ were so totally distorted over a few hundred years (at most) as to be totally unrecognizable. Is this really believable? The New Testament consistently says that Jesus is God (Romans 9:5; Philippians 2:5-8; Hebrews 1:8), that He paid the price for sin (Romans 3:21-26; Colossians 2:13-15; 1 Peter 2:24,25), that He rose from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Romans 1:4; Ephesians 1:20-23), and that He is the only source of salvation (Acts 4:12; Colossians 2:8-12; Philippians 3:7-11) and the One who will ultimately bring about His rule on earth (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Philippians 3:20,21; 2 Corinthians 5:10)--none of which seems to fit an ordinary man. Nor can this problem be evaded by going to the synoptic gospels (the three other than John, which are similar). There we still see things attributed to Jesus that do not fit an ordinary man (Mark 14:62; 10:45; Matthew 7:21-23; 11:27; 23:34), and He also accepted worship (Matthew 8:2; 9:18; 14:33) and forgave sins (Mark 2:5-12). The Gospel of John, which is often dismissed as late (though there is an existing fragment of it dated between 117-138 AD) is much clearer (John 1:1-14; 8:57-59; 10:30; 14:6-9; 20:28,29). Those immediately following the New Testament, the Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and down to Tertullian (who coined the word Trinity) offer the same message. Even the pagan observers Lucian and Pliny the Younger accuse Christians of worshiping Jesus as God.

There does not seem to be any basis in early Christianity for seeing Jesus as a Jewish rabbi, philosopher, or prophet who simply delivered a message. One way to get around this is to transport modern neo-orthodox theology back to the first century and claim Jesus being God was true for His followers even though it was not true in reality. But given there is no evidence this philosophy even existed back then, this is nothing but circular reasoning. Therefore, if Jesus' immediate followers were claiming He was God, the logical inference is they got it from Him. So the Lord, liar, lunatic choice is still the real option. The legend option does not stand up to examination.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Sheep Trading

One problem with making numbers the judge of any ministry is they frequently consist less of conversions to Christianity than of the movement of believers or professing believers from one church to the other. Is this a good thing? In my youth I believed it was wrong to leave a church except for doctrinal error or moving to another location. I have since been led to change churches for what I feel were good reasons. But I do not believe it is something that should be done lightly, without much thought and prayer. To casually move from one church to another on a regular basis is a definite problem. How can we fulfill our Biblical obligations if we have no commitment to a specific congregation (1 Corinthians 12:25-27; Hebrews 10:24-25; 13:17)? However, in some cases there may be a genuine advantage to an individual or a congregation that results from changing churches. At other times I suspect there may just be an attraction to superficial flash and being told what the person wants to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). But even in a case where such a switch is a good thing for those involved, we need to ask if it accomplishes anything to advance God's purposes in the world.

What God looks for in believers is growth in obedience to Him (Ephesians 4:12-16; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 3:12-15) and in service to others (Ephesians 2:10; Colossians 1:28-29; 2 Timothy 2:10). (In some cases this may involve people becoming genuine believers first.) It is by this kind of growth that a congregation should be measured. It is only if it contributes to this that a church switch is a benefit to the church as a whole. Any other switch may be appropriate, but it is simply rearranging the ranks. Now one result of this growth in Christ is reaching out to those on the outside (1 Peter 3:15; Colossians 4:5,6; 2 Timothy 2:24-26). Even then, sheer numbers may not be the basis of evaluation. One way to gain a large number of converts is to abolish the stumbling block of the cross (1 Corinthians 1:23-25). Now we do need to ask if we are carrying out God's commands in this area (Matthew 28:18-20), but we must also ask whether the numbers represent people genuinely coming to Christ. Now I do not want to be down on large churches. There are undoubtedly  large churches which are reaching out to unbelievers with the gospel and whose members are growing into the people God wants them to be. There may be others which are not reaching out or growing much spiritually, who gained their size through superficial attractions. There are also smaller churches in both categories. But we need to examine the situation based on the right criteria. And to make sure that the ultimate issue is whether we are serving God and not whether we are building up our own egos.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Does Scripture Require an Interpreter?

Some claim we cannot rely on Scripture alone, but need some other authority to interpret it. It is argued that the diversity of opinions among those who hold to Scripture alone proves it cannot be interpreted correctly without help. But there are serious problems with this logic.

How, other than by circular reasoning, do we decide that a specific authority is the right authority? Do we find it from Scripture? But this requires us to interpret Scripture. Even if the authority is willing to allow that we can interpret Scripture for ourselves, if we must start from Scripture, Scripture is still the ultimate authority. What about from history? But you cannot interpret history without first principles, which you cannot get from history. We can use subjective experience, but people from all different theological perspectives claim subjective experiences. How do we determine which are valid? Or we can go by tradition, but how do we decide what is a valid tradition? We can go by the church fathers, but without any standard to inform us, how do we decide who constitutes a church father? Also, all of these sources have serious problems, if not actual contradictions. They therefore require us to decide without the help of an authority which of them is reliable and to interpret them to find the correct authority in the face of these difficulties.  

Also, once we have arrived at an authority, it still must be interpreted to be understood. If the pope is the authority, we must assemble the decrees of the pope and interpret them. If tradition is the authority, I must study to determine the valid tradition and interpret what it means. It is my contention that all of these authorities have serious problems if not outright contradictions. Even if it is possible to reconcile these, it will require our interpretation to do so. If anyone thinks this is easier than trying to interpret Scripture, he does not understand the magnitude of the task involved. Also, it is simply a fact that every group has divisions, no matter what authority they claim to follow.

But what I suspect people really want is to be able to trust what is said by their immediate leaders, without having to test it as Scripture requires (Galatians 1:8,9; 1 John 4:1-3; Acts 17:11). But the irony is that no system can guarantee the infallibility of every minor official. Therefore, the local leader is fallible and must be checked by higher authorities. Could the issue here be that many people are unwilling to put in the effort to properly interpret Scripture? I am not saying there are no problems involved in interpreting Scripture, and I do not want to minimize the help of good teachers who help us to understand Scripture, rather then trying to replace it. But I do believe there is an obligation to study it for ourselves and not try to get someone else to do our thinking for us. And dragging in another authority complicates, rather than simplifies, the matter. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

What Is True for Me

It is a common modern opinion to believe that what is true for me may be different then what is true for you. This, of course, is based on the denial of any type of absolute truth. But does this make sense?

The problem with the idea of relative truth is that if truth is relative it is impossible to know anything. If truth is relative, then the statements A black spider crawled up the wall and It will rain tomorrow in New Jersey are saying the same thing or at least are indistinguishable. Nothing can mean anything, and therefore nothing can be known or even thought. But to say something is true for me implies that something has meaning, that it can in fact be distinguished from other somethings that are not true for me. But if truth is relative it cannot. It further implies that there is something about me that could make that statement true for me. But if truth is relative I have no basis for knowing I exist, let alone knowing that a particular statement is true for me. I can say something being true for me is purely subjective, but this does not solve the problem. If truth is relative, how do I distinguish one subjective state from another or even decide if I am having a subjective state or not? The problem with relative truth is it is always sneaking truth back in the back door. It has to in order to say anything coherent at all.

There is is a common assumption among those who hold to relative truth that relative truth is what everyone always used to hold until someone (the most common suspect is Aristotle) came along and corrupted things by introducing  the idea of absolute truth. I see no basis for this other than circular reasoning. The truth is that  absolute truth is what every sane person, other then a few sophistical philosophers, always held before modern times. Everything written (and the fact that they had bothered to write anything) supports this. Every act we make every second of the day requires this. If I get up in the morning, it means I see getting up as a definable action and as distinguishable from not getting up. If I turn the key in the ignition of my car, it is because I understand it to be true that this will start the car, and if the car does not start I take the car to be repaired. And all of this assumes that car, ignition, turn, and start have meanings. Let us call nonsense by its name and exclude it from any meaningful discussion.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Are We the Most Spiritual Time In Church History?

Is this time in which we live the most spiritual time in the history of the Christian church? This may seem like a strange question, but think about it. There have been many groups in the past two hundred years of the church who have claimed to have discovered the secret to genuine spirituality. But if this is so, then our time should not only be more spiritual, but markedly more spiritual. Does this accord with the facts?

Now the ultimate authority is Scripture, and I am convinced it teaches the Holy Spirit is at work in all genuine believers (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Galatians 3:2). But it does seem relevant to ask whether the history supports this position. Now there are good examples and bad examples in all of church history, but it seems hard to see the present age as particularly exemplary. My initial impression is that we live in a generally fairly worldly and superficial condition of the church, but perhaps I am wrong. But it becomes even harder when I am forced to regard previous ages as totally carnal. Did all the Christian martyrs after the very early days and before recent times bravely face death, without any help from the Holy Spirit? Were Athanasius and Hilary of Poitiers able to stand against the Emperor and the whole world in defense of the Deity of Christ, without the help of the Holy Spirit? Did Patrick go back to a people who had enslaved him (that is, the Irish) to bring them the message of Christ, without the help of the Holy Spirit? Did Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin, along with their predecessors John Wycliffe and John Hus and all their followers face the power of the Catholic Church under threat of death to defend the idea of salvation by faith alone, without the help of the Holy Spirit? Did William Carey start the missionary movement, without the help of the Holy Spirit? And if they did, what have we done today that so obviously eclipses them?

There are ways to try to get around this. You can try to tie spirituality to one particular issue (all of us have blind spots) or to some superficial quality. You can try to claim the more prominent people followed your formula even if there is no record of it, perhaps without consciously realizing it. (One has to question the necessity  of a secret formula if so many can follow it unconsciously.) Now if I really believed the Scripture taught such a formula, I would be forced to accept some such explanation. But I am glad I do not have to.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How Does It All Stack Up

The ultimate appeal for those seeking to demonstrate the theory of evolution is the fossil record. But the reliability of that record depends on the chronological ordering of the fossils. How is this ordering accomplished?

One can start by looking at the order of the rock layers the fossils are found in.  But the rock layers are not normally all neatly exposed in one place, but are found in various outcroppings. As William Smith, who made the first geological map of England, noticed, there are similar types of rock in different places in the geological sequence. How do you know which layer a particular rock outcropping belongs to if there are identical types? Smith's solution was to distinguish them by the fossils in them, an approach that was ultimately generally adopted. Now this makes sense when applied over a limited area. But it creates questions when applied in general, especially when fossils are used to correlate different types of rock. How do we know that the same plants and animals did not flourish at different times in different localities or happen to be preserved by some accident that did not have any connection to the time they lived in?

But Smith, who appears to have been mainly a pragmatist who did not particularly hold any set theory, was followed by those with a philosophical axe to grind. Charles Lyell and Rodrick Murchison, who followed James Hutton in believing in the development of the earth by gradual processes, rejected the existence of coal deposits in rock layers they regarded as too early for coal before they even examined the evidence. Geologists have since then continued to develop methods to  get around the fact that the fossils are not necessarily found in the order that fits their theory. If there are rock layers found with the expected layers between them missing, it is claimed that during this time period the area was above water. But after supposedly large numbers of years of erosion, what is left looks deceptively like a bedding plane. Or if the layers are found out of order, it is assumed there was a thrust fault (a major earth movement that would normally be expected to leave things like slickened surfaces and metamorphized rock) even if there is no or only marginal evidence for its existence.

In this system, the fossils are dated by the rocks and the rocks are dated by the fossils. Which makes sense if the system as a whole has been established, but is a problem if the system itself is in question. But what about radioactive dating? Radioactive samples associated with rocks laid down by water are frequently not a closed system, and whether they are a closed system is commonly determined by whether they match the geologic ages already concluded for the rock layers. One is left with the feeling the fossils are being dated to fit the theory rather than the theory being based on the existing order of the fossils.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

How Risky Is Grace?

Is the grace of God dangerous thing, and must it be downplayed or qualified to avoid making us complacent in our Christian lives? And is the problem with the Christian church today too much teaching of grace? Now there will always be marginal Christians, who want to live as they wish and will produce any excuse (including grace) to support their actions. The problem is they never really took the whole thing seriously in the first place. But is the knowledge of grace preventing average Christians from being the Christians they really should be? My opinion is exactly the opposite. Our real problem is that we think we are upright people and do not need to improve. (The modern psychological, accept-yourself, philosophy is merely the same thing at a lower level.) Instead of seeing ourselves as sinners who have a long way to go to be the people God wants us to be, we believe we are morally acceptable.  And when, as often happens, we doubt this, we suppress it or at least try to hide it from others. What we need is not less knowledge of grace but more.  We need to learn we are not plaster saints, but wretched sinners who need the forgiveness of a loving God.

With this the Scripture agrees. It says that the motivation for our obeying God is our love for Him because of what He has done for us (1 John 4:19; Romans 12:1,2; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). We are told that if we are not growing in Christ, it is because we have forgotten what God has done to forgive us (2 Peter 1:5-9). It is the individual who understands the greatness of what they have been forgiven of who truly loves God (Luke 7:36-50). But the Law increases sin (Romans 5:20), not because there is anything wrong with the Law (Romans 7:12), but because we are sinners who naturally rebel against it (Romans 7:18). Therefore, anyone who seeks to approach God based on good works will end up with a superficial moral character (Matthew 23:23-28). What we need is not less grace, but more grace. We need to make it clear to people that to become a Christian, we should recognize we are sinners (Romans 3:23; Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9), who must trust wholly in the work Another has performed on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:13,14; Ephesians 2:8,9). They are being called to something more radical than turning over a new leaf or to a vague mystical experience. This faith, if it is genuine, will lead to a life of obedience to God (Titus 2:11-14; Ephesians 2:10; James 1:22-25), resulting from God sending His Spirit to transform us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 1:29; Philippians 2:13). Now we should not fail to exhort and encourage one another to a life of obedience to God (Colossians 1:28; Hebrews 10:24,25; Ephesians 4:14-16) or even, when it is required, to call on people to consider whether they are real believers (2 Corinthians 13:5; James 2:14-26; Matthew 7:15-20). But the problem is not grace.