Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Keeping the Rules

How many rules do we need? There are those who seem to feel that those who live with the most rules are the most spiritual. But there are others who criticize everyone who has more rules then they do (however many or few that may be) as a legalist. What is the right answer? Now we are not saved by keeping the rules (Romans 3:19,20; Galatians 2:21; Titus 3:5,6), but by faith in Christ (Romans 4:4,5; Ephesians 2:8,9; John 3:16-18). Therefore, our motivation for obedience is love of God for what He has done for us (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Romans 12:1,2). Further, we are unable to keep the rules on our own (John 15:5; Romans 7:18; 8:8), but only through God's working in us (2 Corinthians 3:18; Philippians 2:13; Colossians 1:29). But we are still left with the question of more rules versus fewer rules.

The Biblical emphasis does not seem to be on more or fewer rules, but on the right rules (Deuteronomy  4:2; Revelation 22:18,19; Proverbs 30:5,6). While we are warned against thinking it is all right simply to ignore God's standards (Galatians 5:13; Romans 6:15-23; Matthew 5:17-20), we are also warned against inventing new rules to try to show we are more holy than others who do not have such rules (Colossians 2:20-23; Matthew 15:1-9; Luke 14:1-6). Underlying this is an attitude of trying to please God by doing what He actually wants us to do. Not trying to cut corners and see what we can get away with or showing that we are better than others by having more rules then they do.

Also, the emphasis in Scripture is not on a checklist of external rules, but on principles and the attitude of the heart (Matthew 15:10-20; 5:21-48; John 4:20-24), the ultimate principle being that of love (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10; James 2:8). Now there are commands that are cut-and-dried: this is precisely what God wants, and if you do not do it you are wrong.  But there are other cases where we need to apply the broad principles of Scripture to the specific situation. Far from releasing us to do whatever we want, we need to deal with the complicated issues of considering our weaknesses (1 Corinthians 10:12,13; 2 Timothy 2:22; 1 Timothy 6:11) and the effects our behavior might have on others (Romans 14:13-23; 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9). This can lead to someone avoiding things that they consider acceptable for others. However, we should not use these principles to produce categorical rules to be imposed on others. Part of the problem is we are much more comfortable with black-and-white rules. They make it easier to judge ourselves and others. But we need to be black-and-white where God is black-and-white and to allow room for judgment where this is required. We need people who can think things through for themselves, rather then just blindly follow a rulebook.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

But He Was Sincere

One common claim is that it does not matter what you believe as long as you are sincere. But does this make sense? If I jump off a cliff and sincerely believe I will not fall, I will still fall. If I know nothing about mechanics, but sincerely believe I can fix a car, will it necessarily work when I am done? Will an atomic bomb not work if I sincerely believe it will not? In the physical world, we realize that certain things are correct and other things are not and that it is possible to be sincerely wrong.

But what about the world of morality? If one man kills another, are we more likely to excuse him if he sincerely wanted to kill that man? Are we not more likely to see it as a mitigating circumstance if it was unintentional or done on the spur of the moment while he did not intend to do it beforehand? If a driver hits a pedestrian, are we mollified if we learn he sincerely meant to hit that pedestrian? Adolf Hitler seems to have been a very sincere individual; does that justify his actions?

Why, then, are we willing to take this idea, which makes no sense in any other situation and apply it to the worship of God? It is possible to imagine a God who does not care it you worship Him through chastity and respect for life or cult prostitution and the sacrifice of infants, but this does not seem obvious. It is conceivable to picture a God who does not care if you regard Him as perfectly holy and all powerful or as a hen-pecked husband who goes around seducing young women, but it does not appear inevitable this should be true. Certainly, this is not the God of the Bible (Isaiah 43:10,11; John 14:6; Acts 4:12). Also, such a God would be impossible to obey because anything you did could be construed as obedience to Him. How would you decide what to choose? And how would you sincerely believe this was the right thing if it could just as well be something else? This, when followed consistently, must lead to insincerity, because how can you be sincere about being and doing something if you think another position, sincerely held, would be just as good.  For what do we mean by sincerity if it does not mean believing that this particular view is true as opposed to some other view? The whole thing becomes a mind game that ends up justifying everyone except the person who holds it. Therefore, this viewpoint refutes itself.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

All We Need Is Love?

There are those who would argue that the only moral standard is love. This viewpoint is particularly put forth by those who hold to situation ethics, but has since spread beyond it. The only standard of right and wrong is to do the loving thing in the situation. How does this fit in with Scripture?

There are  passages that state love is the sum of all the commandments of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13,14). The question then comes: What is love? Now to  love is to sacrifice oneself for the good of another (1 John 4:8-10; John 15:13; Romans 5:6-8). With this Dr. Fletcher, the founder of situation ethics, agrees, as would others who hold his opinions. But the question that then must be asked is: What is good?  In many cases I suspect his answer is the same as that of utilitarianism, which is that good is what gives the largest amount of pleasure. It is here Scripture and this viewpoint part company. In Scripture there is an absolute standard of good that supersedes our personal desires (Titus 3:3; James 1:14,15; 1 Peter 1:14). (This does not mean that all human desires are wrong, merely that they are not to be made the standard.) This disagreement arises from conflicting ideas about human nature. The Scriptures say that we, as human beings, are in rebellion against God, and our desires in many cases are the result of that rebellion (Romans 3:23; Jeremiah 17:9; Isaiah 64:6). While the modern idea is that people are basically good and therefore their desires are good unless they conflict with someone else's desires (or at least, who am I to question them). These lead to fundamentally different concepts of love.

The Biblical concept of love leads to a concept of commitment and responsibility and living according to principle. The modern cultural idea of love is a vague sentimental feeling that would not dream of questioning anyone or anything, except in the most extreme cases. A good illustration of this contrast is in the area of sexual morality. The Biblical standard in this area is one of lifetime commitment between a man and a woman, with responsibility being taken for the children produced by the union. The modern idea in this area is of following your impulses wherever they lead you, and that as long as what happens is between consenting adults it is okay, and that the children, if any, just have to learn to live with this. These are two totally different concepts of love, and if one is legitimate, the other is not. So when someone says the ultimate moral principle is love, you need to ask what they mean by love.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The End of the World

I was originally not going to say anything on this subject, but I feel compelled to make a brief comment about Mr. Harold Camping's claims that the rapture will be tomorrow. If, as I expect, things do not turn out as he claims they will, there are lessons we should learn from this.

Be careful of looking for hidden meanings in Scripture and basing things on complicated calculations as opposed to the clear meaning of Scripture. Especially if the clear teachings of Scripture say otherwise (Matthew 24:36-51; Acts 1:6,7; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3). (See my previous post on the subject.)

Be careful of exclusively following one person, especially if they are teaching that they are the sole possessor of God's truth and everyone else is wrong. There have been cases in church history when some individual had a clearer insight into God's truth than the Christian church at large (Martin Luther comes to mind), but they were not isolated cases, but were building on and followed by others. If someone says they alone have truth, as opposed to the entire rest of the Christian church, look at them very carefully indeed before following them. It is better to be informed by a variety of teachers rather than rely wholly on one man.

Be careful who you follow.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Christ of History

Christianity is based around a series of historical events. It is not just an abstract philosophy. Though it has deep implications for our understanding of the universe. It is not just a system of ethics. Though it has profound effects on the way we behave. It is not just a mystical experience. Though it forms a basis for experiencing that presence of God in our lives. It is the message of how God invaded history, became a human being, lived a human life marked with profound teaching and supernatural events, died a criminal's death to paid the penalty for our sins, and rose again the third day. The question is, Is this believable? Now no one comes to God without the Spirit of God working in their lives (John 6:44; 15:5; Acts 13:48). But it is useful to look at the evidence.

1. The first question we need to ask before we can evaluate this is whether there is such a thing as truth. If there is not, then nothing makes any sense. (see), (see), and (see).

2. We also need to ask if science somehow precludes the idea of supernatural intervention. But this is simply an assumption without foundation. (see), (see), and (see).

3. Then we need to ask whether the records upon which the Christian faith is based are reliable  or whether they have been corrupted over time. The actual evidence, apart from speculation, is in their favor. (see), (see), and (see).

4. Also, we have to deal with the idea that someone deliberately altered what Christianity is. And this does not stand up to examination. (see), (see), and (see).

5. Further, the idea that Christianity grew up slowly over time or changed from its original set of beliefs does not fit the facts or the context it appeared in. (see), (see), and (see).

6. We are then faced with dealing with the reliability of the accounts and what they maintain. (see), (see), and (see). While those who refuse to even consider such possibilities will not be convinced, I conclude there is a real basis for the Christian faith.

Ultimately, we are left face to face with the person of Christ and must ask who we believe He is (Matthew 16:15). How we answer that is the basis for deciding the truth of Christianity. How do you answer this question?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Can We Trust These People?

Can we trust the writers of the New Testament? Now the identities of the authors are attested by many early sources. Further, it does not seem reasonable that the real originators of Christianity should leave us no evidence and that all we would have preserved would be forgeries made long after the fact. Or that none of the numerous critics of Christianity noticed this. Also, one test for acceptance of a book by Christians was whether the author was who he claimed to be.

Now one argument against the gospel accounts is the similarity of those accounts. But in the ancient world it was considered proper to repeat a story as it was generally told. We see this in the similarities of Samuel and Kings with Chronicles in the Old Testament. The Roman historians followed the same sort of pattern. But the gospels were not simply copied, but show many differences in details. This argues that they had a definite degree of independence. There is also archeological and historical evidence from the time confirming the accounts. Further, the accounts frequently portray the later "heroes" of the church in an uncomplimentary light.

According to the New Testament and tradition, the original founders of Christianity suffered severely, to the point of being put to death. Even if you discount these, within about thirty years of the founding of the Christianity people were being put to death by Nero for being Christians. Now this does not prove that Christianity is true, but it does show that the people involved believed what they were saying. It tells against any kind of conspiracy theory. Particularly since it is unclear what the conspirators thought they would get out of it. Even if the apostles somehow escaped, how did they manage to convince other people in such a short period of time to die for this belief? Also relevant here is Chuck Colson's objection. He was involved in the Watergate scandal, and he asked the question: If a small group of people with all the power of the presidency, in no danger of their lives, could not keep the Watergate break-in secret, how could these powerless people, in constant danger of death, manage it?

Some have claimed the gospels were originally novels. But would anyone get so confused as to die for a novel? Or if written after the persecution started, would anyone write a novel, knowing it could get them and anyone who read it killed? It could be claimed that the whole thing was based on the wishful thinking of the immediate followers of Jesus, similar to appearances of Elvis. This might work for the disciples, but how would they convince others? Can you imagine belief in Elvis becoming a major faith and ultimately taking over our society? We are then left with the conclusion that the writers of the New Testament were honest men, reporting what they saw or what they heard from others who saw. And we need to decide how we will respond to this.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Putting the Cookies on the Lower Shelf

Sometimes it is easy to make things more difficult than they need to be. This can be particularly true in theology. We can take the simple statements of Scripture and make them unnecessarily complicated. The Bible was written by and for ordinary people. In fact, one of my most basic principles of interpretation is to read it like a Galilean fisherman. That is, to ask, What would it mean to the ordinary person who read it? But there are difficulties involved in Biblical teaching. We must understand that God as God is beyond human comprehension (Romans 11:33; Isaiah 55:8,9; 1 Corinthians 3:18). Also, many of the Bible's teachings have become foreign or objectionable to our present culture's way of thinking (1 Corinthians 1:18-25; Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17). None of this is really helped by making it more technical than it needs to be. Now for these reasons there will be a certain number of specialized terms that are helpful in explaining Biblical teaching. But these should be explained to people so they understand them. We need to be very careful of watering down God's truth so it makes sense to us. But we do need to make it clear.

A teacher is required to communicate all of God's truth to his hearers (Acts 20:27; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Matthew 28:18-20). But there is a tendency to limit ourselves to what is regarded as practical. This ends up emphasizing our works rather than God's grace. Now these may be rigid, legalistic works or kind, loving works but they are still works. Works have a place in the Christian life (Titus 2:11-14; Ephesians 2:10; John 14:21). But they need to be seen within the context of God's grace and love for us (Romans 5:1,2; 8:15; 1 John 4:9,10). Who God is and what He has done fall into the area normally classified as doctrine. But this is important in order that Christianity may maintain its real identity and not degenerate into simplistic moralism. Christianity is not about a bigger, better Law, but the fact that God intervened in history to destroy sin and death (Romans 5:6-8; Colossians 2:13-15; Ephesians 2:8,9). Now when we deal with doctrine, there are a number of disputes that have arisen over more minor issues. In my opinion, many of these have been blown out of proportion and need to be put in perspective. But whatever their importance, they should be taught clearly. They should not be made the province of scholars, but taught to all believers. I do not in any way want to minimize the contribution of the great teachers and scholars of God's Word, whether past or present. But the calling of a teacher is to pass on what he knows, not to hoard it. There is not one truth for the layman and another for the scholar. The total truth of God should be taught to all.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Question Authority?

"Question authority" was the watchword of the 1960s in the United States. How is the Christian to respond to this? We cannot embrace it wholeheartedly, but should we jump to the opposite extreme of unquestioning obedience to any authority? Where is the proper balance?

The reason we cannot embrace it wholeheartedly is that if we do, sooner or later we get to the question of the authority of Scripture (John 17:17; 2 Timothy 3:16,17; Psalms 12:6,7). Further, if we throw out the authority of Scripture we are left with a vague, watered-down Christianity which is practically meaningless. But if we go to Scripture, we find it advocates other authorities (Hebrews 13:17; Romans 13:1-7; Ephesians 5:22-24; 6:1-3). However, it also puts limitations and restrictions on these authorities (1 Peter 5:1-4; Proverbs 14:34; Ephesians 5:25-31; 6:4). More importantly, Scripture states that there is a point where we must serve God rather than men (Acts 4:19; 5:29; Daniel 3:17,18) and that we must test all things by Scripture (Acts 17:11; Galatians 1:8,9; Isaiah 8:20). Further, Scripture provides a basis for correcting those in authority if they are out of line (2 Samuel 12:1-14; 1 Kings 21:17-26; Galatians 2:11-16).

Now to reject all authority leads to anarchy, which the most superficial observation of history shows is always destructive. It also leads to tyranny, because when you are living in anarchy you are willing to accept any dictator who will restore order. Nor does this work out much better in our personal lives. You see, it really is not possible for every person to be totally original. In fact, I suspect there are only a small number of basic approaches to life that are endlessly recycled. Therefore, if people throw out all reasonable authorities they are left to follow trendsetters (celebrities, entertainers, merchandisers, and the like) whose distinctions tend to be superficial at best. But behind these, there is normally  some philosophical or scientific theory which, to be consistent, should also be questioned. The irony is that to really rebel against an authority you need another authority to base it on. Therefore, you are merely trading one authority for another. In the 1960s, that new authority was most often Marxism, one of the most authoritarian forms of government on the planet.

The question then is not whether we will have an authority (we will), but what authority. In this I would advocate Christianity as a concept that provides authority, but also provides a basis by which the particular authorities can be questioned if they are out of line. There are other possible authorities that would also make such claims, and they need to be evaluated as to whether they are true. But the most dangerous authority is one that works behind the scenes and does not show its true colors and so cannot be questioned. Therefore, we need to question authority, not to throw out every form but to decide which is best. Otherwise we could be saddled with whatever sneaks in the back door.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Baffle Them with Big Words

There is an appropriate place for long words and technical language. There are some things which are difficult or laborious to say in ordinary language. Also, such words can add precision to the discussion of a specialized subject. But they can also be used to confuse and confound rather than to clarify. This is especially true of words that lack any clear definition (or perhaps have more than one, and the speaker can easily slip from one to another). It does not help here that there can be words that have a definite meaning but are difficult to define (for instance "democracy"). But it is also possible for people to use questionable words in a sort of conjuring game which enables them to palm the ace in an argument.

Another similar trick is to change the meanings of words from their ordinary meaning to a specialized one. Now again, there can be an appropriate place for this. There can be contexts in which giving a word a specialized meaning to serve a special purpose can clarify things. (For instance, the word "saved" has a specialized meaning in a Christian context, but it is useful if understood.) But this procedure can also be used to confuse the issue. Take the current use of the word "tolerant" in a way different from, and  even in conflict with, its tradition meaning. "Toleration" has traditionally meant trying to get along with people you disagree with. Today it has become a basis for suppressing those who have differing opinions.

Even better as a veil is the use of words, often even simple words, in a vague mystical fashion that avoids any precise meaning. Broad  words such as "life," "love," and "freedom" can often be used in this way. When a word eludes all attempts to pin it down, it often fits in this category. Sometimes these vague ideas can be personified to almost imply a real purpose involved (such as life fighting its way up from amoeba  to man) when there is none.

The conclusion here is: Be careful of being impressed or swayed by complicated words and fancy rhetoric. A good question to ask is, "What does that mean in plain English?" If it cannot be put into simple language, it could be it is because it has no real meaning. If it sounds like it makes no sense, it could be because it does not. One thing I have always found helpful here is teaching children. If you cannot explain your theology to a 3rd or 4th grader, you do not really understand your theology. Or perhaps it does not make that much sense in the first place. Also, as Christians we are commanded to observe straightforward honesty (1 Thessalonians 2:4,5; Ephesians 4:14,15; Matthew 5:33-37), so we should speak the truth of God in its simplicity (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). And we should use care not to be taken in by the outward appearances of words.