January 18

Reflections: On Being a Misfitting Christian

This could quite possibly be the most misunderstood thing I’ve ever written and then posted online.  It’s not meant to be derogatory but sometimes it will take some effort not to take it that way.  It’s also not intend to sound like I consider myself as being better than others – far from it – but what I write certainly can be construed to say as much.  In essence, I’m trying to explain how I can make sense of the differences I see between myself and others.  As you will read,  I don’t take any responsibility one way or another for that difference.  It just is what it is.  Like one man being short while most others or tall.  I don’t know why God chooses some to be shepherds – I know I didn’t volunteer – but it’s probably because we’re like sheep.  And there are differences between the shepherd and the sheep.

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At some point in my past — I can’t actually remember a time but there probably was at least one — I thought I would have my life all figured out by the time I was 30.  When that mile marker came and went, I figured maybe 40 was the magic age.  Then it was 50.  And 60.

Now I’m 64 and I’m still figuring things and myself out.  I have a feeling this is not unusual — why else would Socrates’ quote1 be so popular? — but, since few people admit to as much, who knows?

Yesterday, as I was bemoaning my misfortune of being a Bible-study misfit, the swirl of words in my head seemed to revolve around one or two facts that provided clarification for me.  The first was that I’m a shepherd/pastor and am always looking for sheep to tend and feed.  I do curative or reparative work with people all week long but after-hours groups give me a chance to do some preventative work.  It’s a nice balance to the weekday work.

If the people in the Bible study don’t seem to be hungry or don’t want to be shepherded, however, I’m at a loss (at best) or angry (at worst). That people wouldn’t want to feed on the life of Christ or discover how to live more in keeping with God’s intent for us is baffling to me.

That was one thing that came to light.  Another — bigger and more awkward to explain — has to do with levels of commitment.  Before going further, it must be said that I don’t take any credit or look down on others: I didn’t orchestrate all the details and events of my life.  There are many things that happen to all of us of which we are largely unaware that become determinative and adjust the course we’re on.  I believe it is God’s superintendence of our lives and so no credit can be assigned.

I’ve long known that, having been to seminary, I was a bit different from most of the other men with whom I fellowship and associate.  These men are Christians, to be sure, but there’s something different about them.  Or about me.  Which it is doesn’t matter.

The only way I can describe it is as a difference of levels of commitment.  By way of analogy, it’s as though I’ve pushed all my chips into the pot and held nothing back: my pockets, bank accounts, assets, and everything else are on the line.  The men in the game with me have pushed their chips to the middle, too, but they’re not actually all in. They have considerable reserves awaiting them when the game is over.  They risk a considerable amount — maybe quantitatively more than I — but they’re not “all in.”  They might feel the loss but it won’t devastate them. They can feel the pain, absorb it, and get on with life.

As I thought about this, a question came to mind: if it were to somehow to be determined that Jesus Christ never did resurrect from the grave — if His bones were uncovered or a book He wrote at the age of 64 surfaced, or somebody traveled back in time and saw Him sneak out of a backdoor to the tomb — if it were proved beyond doubt, would your choices in life make sense?  Would your life make sense?  Would you not only look like a fool but in truth be a world-class idiot?

Personally, my life would be absurd.2  I made choices — and my wife has always supported me — that were based on my belief that this life was not all there was, that what we do here is important only because there is a judgment and a heaven that awaits.  If that is not the case, if there is no resurrection that awaits all of us, then I have wasted whatever years I’ve had and have yet to come.  As Paul says, I should have been eating, drinking, and being merry.  I should have continued on the two-lane highway of hedonism and nihilism.3

When I consider the lives and careers of other men, I don’t see the same level of risk or commitment.4  Again, that doesn’t make me holier than them because I didn’t actually choose this path: it was made for me and I for it by God.  But the difference is huge and explains a lot to me regarding why I so often feel like a misfit when I’m around Christians. Not all Christians, of course: others that are even more committed than I are out there and, from time to time, we stumble across one another.

I’ve often wondered why other men get so caught up in football, hunting, politics and a thousand other things that Paul says — based on his own belief in the resurrection — are destined to perish.5  Their choices have confused me.

I don’t know why there are the differences there are between believers (I’m not talking about doctrinal or any other kind of difference other than that of commitment).  I pretty sure that we don’t have a lot to do with it, though.  Or, at least for me, I don’t feel like I did: I simply couldn’t do anything else.6  If there is no resurrection, life is a short joke.  But because there is resurrection — and I’m sure there is — then life makes sense.  It has a purpose and meaning. Knowing that, how could I make any other decisions than those which I have?

All the chips are in the pot; investing in other things makes no sense.  I’m just playing the hand dealt to me until the Great Croupier tells me there are no more hands left for me to play.

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1 “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
2 This does not rule out the possibility that, the resurrection being true, I’m still an idiot.
3 I was in the passing lane with the hammer down.
4 I am aware that this is simply my perspective and not absolute truth. But I am looking only at behaviors or actions or lifestyles and basing my assessment on them. If I’m wrong – and certainly history has shown that to be possible – then I’d really like someone to explain to me where and how I’m off.
5 Col 2.22: “. . . things destined to perish”
6 It was a logical compulsion: the resurrection being true, to live otherwise simply made no sense to me.

July 24

Loving God with Ease

Not to brag but I find it incredibly easy to love God.

I mean, really, it’s just not that hard to love Someone who,

  • sent His Son to die for me
  • through faith has made my salvation possible
  • assures me of a heavenly home
  • promises me rewards for simply doing the right things
  • gives me the ability, through His Spirit, to do the right things
  • is always correct
  • never lies to me
  • never deceives me
  • loves me more than I can imagine
  • things I’m worthwhile
  • listens to me without fail
  • _____________ (add your own favorites here)

Loving God?  No problem.  

But there is a related problem.  It appears in Jn 13, what is sometimes called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.  It’s good that I’m not a Greek exegete because, if I were, I’d try to find a way to make it read differently than it does.

Here’s what it says:

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (vv 34-35).

It’s a problem because John tells us that we know we love God when we love other believers.  If we say we love God and hate other Christians, we don’t – as in DO NOT – love God.  That’s 1 Jn 4.20.  You can look it up.

I get curt, impatient, and downright angry with Christians.  In fact, I get more upset with Christians than with non-Christians.  Unbelievers have a hard time doing the right thing for the right reason – they can do it at times, of course, because they do bear the image of God – but believers really have little excuse.  We have God’s revelation to tell us what the right thing is and we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to do it.

I am more forgiving and tolerant with new believers or those who have not been discipled properly.  Those who should know better, however, are at the top of my list when it comes to being objects of my dismay, disappointment, and – I’ll admit it – derision and disgust.

But that really is beside the point, isn’t it?  Jesus calls me to love other believers, i.e., to desire what is best for them and to provide it if possible.  He doesn’t qualify it with exceptions like “if they’re being obedient” or “if they’re living up to their calling” or even “if they are being loving.”  He just tells me to love them.

That doesn’t mean indulging their sinful behaviors or looking the other way.  It means I confront when confrontation is necessary and even excommunicate (formally or informally) if repentance is lacking.  It means that my purpose and goal in all my dealings with a sinning or repugnant brother is to restore them to fellowship with God and other believers.

That should come naturally for me – it’s part of the image of God that I bear and that is being renewed within me – but due to the fact that I, too, am sinful, it doesn’t happen like it should.

But that’s my calling.  And to that calling I aspire, moving toward it in the company of other believers who somehow, by God’s grace, find it possible to love someone as unlovable as me.

May 21

Al Mohler and Cerebral Evangelicalism

The tornado that killed men, women, and children yesterday in Moore, OK, and elsewhere was an horrific tragedy.  That’s how, it seems to me, we should regard it.

Al Mohler thinks about it differently.  He says, in part, “The problem of evil and suffering is undoubtedly the greatest theological challenge we face.”

Not to pick on Al but, well, he pretty much asks for it.  When you’ve positioned yourself as the leading face and voice of Evangelicals (with apologies to Joel Osteen), you accept the responsibility of representing millions of people.  With the responsibility comes accountability.

So this is the gnat calling the hippo to task.

Two things about Mohler’s response deserve rebuke or correction.  The first, which is the lesser of the two but still significant, is his use of the term “evil” to describe what happened in Moore.  Granted, he calls it “natural evil” (a curious coupling, actually: evil is natural?  Really?).  The word “evil” may personalize the forces of nature but it also tends to depersonalize the people affected by the storm.  Tragedy, I think, is a better choice.  It’s personal.

The greater point to address is his contention that such events as happened in Moore are a great theological challenge for Christians.  This is an example of one of the great blunders of the church throughout history, i.e., missing the point.

An unnatural event — whether tornado, flood, fire, or otherwise — is not a puzzle for us to solve.  It is not a lesson that our Heavenly Teacher has presented for our edification.  It is, rather, a tragedy that should result in actions instead of words about theodicy.  Words of theodicy too often resemble theo-idiocy in the ears of suffering people.

“People all over the world are demanding an answer to the question of evil,” Mohler writes.  I’ll allow that Al certainly knows a lot more people than I, but I still suspect that — if we were to ask the people who were in the path of the tornado if that’s what they wanted most — they would disagree.  Empty words of theo-idiotic comfort just don’t cut it at times like this.

They want physical, practical help. They don’t need a cerebral Evangelicalism swooping in to fill their heads with logical defenses of God; they need a visceral, loving Evangelicalism that will demonstrate its love for mankind by being there, doing what it can, and just being there when there’s nothing to be done.

Sadly, like most of us, Mohler doesn’t see the people of Moore.  He sees victims, perhaps, or evil, or a combination of the two.  He sees representatives or examples of theological categories that “need” an explanation.

I broke down at one point while watching the televised aftermath of the tragedy.  A local reporter was talking about the elementary school that had taken the full brunt of the tornadic winds.  But he didn’t make it.  He began to cry and couldn’t go on.  At that point, the reporter saw not victims but people — the young, lifeless people who were and then suddenly were not; they had ceased to be victims in his eyes.  At that point, the reporter became a person, too.

I’ve been that guy, although never at a tragedy of such scale.  But back when I was a newspaper reporter I saw death and destruction up close.  I heard it.  Smelled it.  And it was horribly and hauntingly personal.  I saw dead people, not just victims of evil.

What the suffering people need – what I needed – is not a theological treatise on God and evil.  They don’t need to make sense of things, not at that moment.  When everything you thought was reliable and stable is suddenly gone with the wind, nothing makes sense.  The most cogent argument bounces off ears deafened by horror and incomprehensibility.

People need something else.  They need a shoulder to cry on, someone to lean on, another human being to help carry the crushing burden that follows in the wake of tragedies.  They need love, not education.  They need God in a human form.  Someone who cares.

They need a Christianity or an Evangelicalism that is visceral and cerebral, both feeling and thinking. People who will cry with them, help them, and do for them what they can no longer do for themselves.

We do need to be mindful in our loving, doing things for the right reasons.  But the feeling and loving must always come first.  Otherwise we’re just adding to the noise and confusion that has already overwhelmed them.  Clanging cymbals.  Tinkling brass.  Cold, impersonal, unloving.

Three things remain: faith (which has a cognitive aspect), hope (which is similarly cognitive), and love.

But the greatest of these is . . .

 

March 6

In Praise of Two Local Pastors: Fisher and Osborne

Say what you might about Pastors Brian Fisher of Grace Bible Church and Chris Osborne of Central Baptist Church, there is one area in which they are above criticism and thus deserving of both respect and praise.

It may be that you do not particularly like this or that about one or the other – maybe it’s their personality, preaching style, leadership, governance, or whatever (all of which say as much about the critic as the pastor).  These two men, although quite different from one another, stand shoulder to shoulder on at least one issue.

I’ve been re-reading Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics and find myself drawing to the end of his chapter “Accommodation.”  This chapter (and “Resistance,” the one that follows it) describes the response of many denominations and churches to the cultural changes and challenges of the past several decades.

Accommodation, according to Douthat, seeks “to forge a new Christianity more consonant with the spirit of the age, one better adapted to the trends that [are] undercutting orthodoxy.”

Led by men such as Teilhard de Chardin (albeit posthumously), Harvey Cox (The Secular City), and John Shelby Spong, the movement sought to present a diluted, denuded, and deluded Christianity that would appeal to a more cultured, modern audience.  The idea that powered these changes was inclusion and tolerance.

In following chapters Douthat goes on to identify a number of false gospels that are becoming culturally acceptable in our day.  Among these heresies are those that seek to weaken the authority of the Bible by undermining the texts of the New Testament and by bringing in alternative, so-called “lost” accounts of the life – and the meaning thereof – of Jesus Christ.  The strategy is simple: destroy the backbone of the New Testament and it is easy to change the heart of Christianity.

A second heresy is found in Douthat’s chapter “Pray and Grow Rich,” the most popular purveyor of the view being Joel Osteen.  Comparing Osteen to Billy Graham, he writes,

Graham’s persona was warm and inclusive, but theologically he preached a stark, stripped-down gospel – a series of altar calls, with eternity hanging in the balance and Christianity distilled to a yes or no for Christ. Osteen’s message is considerably more upbeat. His God gives without demanding, forgives without  threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than in the next.

This heresy is not new with Osteen, of course.  “Already in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville noted the difficulty of ascertaining from American sermons ‘whether the principal object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the other world or prosperity in this.'”  It was adopted by Mary Baker Eddy (Church of Christ, Scientist), Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn, and others.

Evangelicals like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez), Rick Warren (The Purpose Driven Life), and financial guru Larry Burkett also drift into Douthat’s crosshairs.  Though their message have different emphases than those previously mentioned, some of the strategies and goals are nevertheless similar to the prosperity heresy.

A third heretical gospel is the God Within movement, reflected in books such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia and in Oprah’s incessant preaching through her media empire.  The essence of the God Within gospel is captured by Gilbert: “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.”  Oprah, not to be bettered, says,

Our mission is to use television to transform people’s live . . . I am talking about each individual coming to the awareness that, ‘I am Creation’s son, I am Creation’s daughter . . . ultimately I am Spirit come from the greatest Spirit. I am Spirit.’

Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and veritably every atheist subscribes to this notion, although they would certainly deny anything divine about any of it.  Still, the center of the universe and the source of everything is found in the self.

Sadly, the typical Evangelical church has been infiltrated by this belief to some extent.  Philip Rieff, in his 1966 (!) book The Triumph of the Therapeutic: The Uses of Faith After Freud, saw it coming.  In referring to the book, Douthat writes,

Religious man was giving way to ‘psychological man,’ not ideological man.  In place of a secularized Christianity building the kingdom of God on earth, Rieff foresaw an age of therapy, in which the pursuit of well-being would replace the quest for either justice or salvation.

‘Religious man was born to be saved,’ he wrote, but ‘psychological man is born to be pleased.’

The final heresy to be called out in Douthat’s work is what he labels “the heresy of American nationalism.”  It rests upon the false belief that corporately the United States is now God’s Chosen People.  A few quotes will suffice to describe what he means by it:

[I]f the lack of a blood-and-soil tradition has weakened the temptation toward imagining one’s own tribe as God’s real Chosen People, the obvious resemblance between America and the Christian Church – both pan-ethnic, universalizing bodies that promise to create a new man out of the old one, and redeem a fallen and corrupted world – has tempted many Americans to regard the United States as a whole as a new Israel, a holy nation, a people set apart . . .

In 2010, a survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 60 percent of Americans believed that ‘God has granted America a special role in human history.’ The view was strongest among white Evangelicals, upwards of 80 percent of whom agreed with the exceptionalist credo.’

“In the right hands,” Douthat says, “the idea of American exceptionalism can reflect a healthy union of patriotism and piety. But in the wrong hands, it can be a source of dangerous theological temptations.

One such temptation is messianism. Not content with the possibility that God has particularly favored the United States, the messianic view holds that American democracy call actually fulfill God’s purposes on earth – whether by building a New Jerusalem at home, or by spreading the blessings of liberty to every race and people overseas . . . messianic Americanism turns liberal democracy into a religion unto itself, capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his Church . . .

The other heresy of nationalsim, messianism’s mirror image, is doom-laden and apocalyptic . . . the apocalyptic view suggests that the American founding was literally a covenanted event, akin to the biblical establishment of Israel . . .

As messianism inspires an unwarranted optimism about human perfectability, apocalyptism inspires an unwarranted paranoia about foes abroad and enemies within, and invents vast anti-American conspiracies – Catholic in the nineteenth century, Jewish and then Communist in the twentieth, and nowadays a dark combination of the United Nations and the global Caliphate – to explain whatever ills beset the United States.

_________________

By now – assuming that you’re still there – you might be wondering what all this information from Douthat has to do with two local pastors, i.e., Chris Osborne and Brian Fisher.  Well, it has a lot to do with them

In the face of forces that tempt even the most pious to succumb to this or that heresy, these two men (and undoubtedly others in the community) have not sold out.  They have remained true to their individual visions of what is truth, who Jesus Christ is, and what the mission of the church is to be.

More importantly, their respective visions are drawn from a careful and correct reading of the Bible.  They have resisted the sirens of the spirit of the age.  This is no small thing for, as Anglican Ralph Inge observed, “He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower.”

Neither has played to crowd for the purposes of church growth or financial well-being.  They have consistently preached the truth of the gospel and what they believe to be true about how the Christian life is to be lived.  You may disagree with them on some things regarding the latter – they are not fallible, as both would be quick to admit – but not the former.  At their churches you will hear the gospel as defined and described in the twenty-seven canonical books of the Christian New Testament.

In our fault-finding and discontent, it is sometimes easy to overlook so critical a fact.  Again, they may be wrong about some peripheral matters but, when it comes to the gospel of Jesus Christ, they have remained true to the words of truth as revealed by God.

For that steadfastness they should and must be applauded.  If you are fortunate to be in either of their churches – or in any church where the pastor has done the same – you would do well to tell them that you have noticed it.  Like all of us, they need affirmation; unlike most of us, they don’t always get as much as they deserve.

February 23

Delusions and Devotion to Doctrinal Positions

What is true of delusional people tends to be true of all of us, just not so much.

One of the first things that is taught clinicians who will be working with delusion disorders is critical: do not argue with people about their delusions: it only causes them to become more committed to and invested in the delusion.

So-called normal people are prone to such defensive commitment, too, but not to the point of psychosis.  For Christians, the threat is not a loss of touch with reality but a loss of touch with truth.  Or at least the loss of the possibility of discerning a different perspective on truth.  Think Occam’s Razor.

Like the delusional person, the more we argue in defense of our own position – and the more we argue against the opposing positions of others – the more emotionally invested we become in our position.  The more persecuted we feel, the more convinced we are of the truth of our stance.  And, sometimes, the more superior we feel to the Neanderthals who stand against us.

The questions surrounding Gen 1-2 have brought this to mind.  My discussion post – now dying and suffering the indignity of nary a comment – was an attempt to see if people would change their own position if they were to find that a different, even more satisfying position were available.  The different perspective or approach would preserve the essence of each of the existing positions.

Some might say I’m too negative about the nature of man but sixty-three years of life, thirty-eight years of being a believer, and twenty-eight years of doing clinical work with believers and unbelievers alike – has led me to a position I call realism.

Christians are good about the “list” sins but not always so good about the subtle and insidious sins that attach themselves to our best intentions.  This happens with doctrinal beliefs.  Like hobbits, we enjoy books and articles clearly laid out that tell us what we already know and believe.  Arguments and beliefs that are contrary to our own are usually brushed aside with some type of ad hominem fallacy: s/he is a Calvinist or not a Calvinist, a Dispensationalist or not, Orthodox or not.  This allows us to dismiss the arguments without giving them a fair and open-minded hearing first.

I sometimes tell people that when I first went to seminary, I held my beliefs and positions in a clenched fist. When I finished, however, I held the same beliefs in an open hand.  I was still firmly committed but I had also learned to entertain – daily – the very real possibility that I could be mistaken.

Not exactly wrong but mistaken.  I was right but I didn’t have all the information that might allow me to come to a similar but broader conclusion.  I’ve spent years studying in order to understand the arguments of other positions – e.g., Covenant Theology or Young Earth Creationism – and respect those who have studied the matter and come to a reasoned conclusion that is different than my own.  I also understand the weaknesses of my own beliefs and the arguments that can be brought against them.

Personally, I hold to a literal reading and interpretation of Gen 1-2 but also accept and incorporate findings from the sciences that posit a very old earth and an expanding (or is it contracting now?) universe.  I did this through a lot of reading but primarily I was able to do it because I wasn’t married to my understanding of any particular position – even though I had thought some of my earlier positions were “God’s Truth.”  With a capital “T.”

There could be a lot more peace and harmony, a lot less conflict and division, if we would accept positions that are tenable from both a literal reading of Scripture as well as the findings of science at its current state. It would require some humility and backtracking, perhaps, along with some apologies where needed, but it would also allow us to be done with peripheral and tangential disputes and to get on with the business of making disciples and spreading shalom throughout the earth.

February 18

Thinking about Morality

I read Robert Pirsig (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance; Lila) for mainly heuristic purposes: he makes me think.  While I thoroughly enjoy his analyses of various subjects, I stop short when it comes to his attempts to come up with his own philosophical solution to life’s problems and enigmas. 

Gleaning from his arguments in Lila, I have been thinking about morality: its facets and bases.  His construct is something he calls “The Metaphysics of Quality,” a concept that I find less than compelling or adequate.  (It borrows heavily from Plato’s notions of the “Good” and “Forms.”)  My own belief is that the Christian scriptures are both sufficient and necessary for a comprehensible, comprehensive, and practical governance of life.

 _______________

What is morality?  Robert Pirsig sees it as multifaceted, consisting of four unrelated types.  The first and most basic is Inorganic Morality, which is largely made up of what we call the “laws of nature.”  The patterns of inorganic nature – weather, plate tectonics, gravity, physics in general – make up this category.

A second and higher form is Biological Morality, which Pirsig likens to the “law of the jungle.”  This includes the survival of the fittest, reproduction of both fauna and flora, and life and death.

Third is Social Morality.  This involves the norms determined by each society, the laws that maintain a semblance of order and productivity necessary for the functioning of the culture.

Fourth, there is Intellectual Morality.  This involves what “should be” rather than just what is or what works.  Its basis may be in the philosophical conclusions of intellectuals or the sacred writings of various cultures.  Intellectual Morality, ideally, trumps all other forms of morality.

Pirsig, who is spiritual but not Christian, states that Intellectual Morality “still struggles in its attempts to control society.”  I would argue to the contrary that Intellectual Morality has governed various societies in the past but is now being abandoned for a lesser morality (in terms of universal application and what is true to human existence).  The lesser forms may be philosophical (i.e., an inadequate Intellectual Morality), based on esoteric or fantasized belief, or societal morality.  The latter is especially true in the United States where the sole contribution to the sphere of philosophy – Pragmatism – guides and directs us far too frequently.

Applying his own version of Intellectual Morality – for which he uses the synonymous phrase “evolutionary morality” – to the issue of capital punishment, Pirsig writes:

[I]f an established social structure is not seriously threatened by a criminal, then an evolutionary morality would argue that there is no moral justification for killing him.

What makes killing him immoral is that a criminal is not just a biological organism.  He is not even just a defective unit of society.  Whenever you kill a human being you are killing a source of thought too.  A human being is a collection of ideas, and these ideas take moral precedence over a society.  Ideas are patterns of value.  They are at a higher level of evolution than social patterns of value.  Just as it is more moral for a doctor to kill a germ than a patient, so it is more moral for an idea to kill a society than it is for a society to kill an idea.

What Pirsig does not explain is just how “serious” a threat would have to be to warrant killing the criminal.  How is that determined?  More critically, who decides what constitutes sufficient warrant?  Lacking an absolute standard or explanation of morality and values, Intellectually Morality becomes a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of those who possess sufficient power.

It is at this point that the value of God’s revelation of his moral will – given in the Bible – becomes supra-moral or supra-valuable: Scripture is the Ultimate Metaphysic, resting as it does on the character and nature of God.  An unassailable, external determination and foundation for moral decision making is required if Intellectual Morality is to be anything other than a standard that changes according to the ebb and flow of the intellectual elite – i.e., those who are either in power (as with Plato’s philosopher kings) or have the ears and imaginations of those who wield power (as with Hitler’s utilization of Nietzsche for his pogroms).

In the case of what warrants capital punishment, the Christian Scriptures are essentially clear.  The principles of the Old Testament as expanded and tempered by the teachings of the New Testament provide sufficient and necessary standards that can be followed and applied to the issue of capital punishment as well as all others.  And the same standard that governs capital punishment also provides instruction on related matters such as abortion: if the individual presents an actual (not merely potential) threat to the biological life of another, then capital punishment is warranted.

If Christianity is going to be once again considered as a viable basis for morality and ethics, however, it will first need to be made intellectually acceptable to those who are not believers.  The intrinsic superiority of a Christian Intellectual Morality will have to be argued and demonstrated on various fronts.  Preceding that, though, is the necessary elimination or significant reduction of the present campaigns, crusades, and foci that tend to make Christianity appear irrelevant, archaic, punitive, and distasteful.  I think the former will be far easier to accomplish than the latter.

But that is another post for another time.

February 10

Finding Freedom in Unacceptable Places

Freedom has always been a big deal for me, going back to when I was a boy and sought a quiet freedom along riverbanks and in deep woods.  Freedom was escape for me then; it remains so even today, though half a century or more has passed.  I don’t mean a freedom to do wrong things but simply a freedom to be who I am.  Or who I was meant to become.

One of the first verses that I latched onto after my salvation is Jn 8.32: “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  Jesus, whose words these are, is talking to believing Jews at this point, telling that them if they continue in his word, they will made free.

Becoming a Christian and seizing upon this verse, I believed that at long last I had found real and true freedom. And I had.  I did not realize how difficult it would be to remain free, however, and would find myself imprisoned time and time again.

To say I was naive when I believed is to say too little:  I had been naive most of my life prior to my conversion and remained so for decades after.  My idealism or romanticism or whatever shielded my sight led me to believe that everyone else would be as enthralled to find and practice freedom as I was.  Who would want to return to some sort of bondage or imprisonment after freedom came?

As I said, I was naive.

People seem to like rules and restrictions.  I don’t mean the kind of rules and restrictions that are for our own good – like no adultery, no lying, to gossiping.  I mean the kind that keeps us from doing, saying, believing, or thinking things that are permissible within the realm of God.  Good things.  Things that have their ultimate source in God.

I have realized only recently that I have been walking a spiritual tightrope for most of my Christian life, ever fearful of falling off to what could only be my final ruin. The threat for me has never been primarily behavior (although I certainly struggle with behavioral sins just like everyone else).  My chief threat has always been in the sphere of thinking or believing things that don’t necessarily fall within the limitations of the evangelical, orthodox subculture.

I read a lot of books and have a lot of thoughts about things.  Some, if not most, of those thoughts are within the pale of biblical truth, if not always within orthodoxy.  But that last phrase begs the question by assuming a universal agreement on what constitutes orthodoxy.  What exactly is this assumed orthodox standard to which we are compelled to follow?

That depends not so much on who’s asking but on who’s answering.  A Methodist will give a different answer than a Baptist, and a Reformed individual will be at odds with a Charismatic Christian.  Orthodoxy, it seems, is drawn from Scripture but then specifically trimmed and tailored to whatever group you’re in.  To be seen as orthodox requires you to know what is expected and then to become (or to pretend as though you’re) firmly committed to that standard.

My reading has taken me far afield at times but never to the point of having the essence of my faith and belief challenged.  I think Martin Buber is on to something with his view on I-Thou and I-It relationships.  But I don’t drink the Kool-Aid.  And I find quantum physics and mechanics very interesting, but it doesn’t shake my faith in Jesus Christ as the Creator and Sustainer of all things.  I’ve always believed that Christian truth can not just withstand close scrutiny but actually grow and deepen when carefully examined.

But most people are having a tough enough time staying on the evangelically-defined tightrope and don’t like anyone to come along who might create a gust of wind or somehow shake the rope – which is what I tend to do.  My creed for life is, “Comforting the disturbed; disturbing the comfortable.”

That usually results in being marginalized within evangelical groups that produce and maintain the tightropes.  They too often assume that I’ve fallen off and am now hoping to pull down as many as possible as I go, much like the Balrog pulled Gandalf into Khazad-Dûm.  That’s wrong.  Completely wrong.

I have indeed left the tightrope, not so much having fallen as simply stepped off.  And I discovered, to my sheer joy, that I have not fallen but have been able to fly.  Not literally, of course, but intellectually and emotionally.  Finally I have found the freedom Jesus was describing in Jn 8.32.  It is exhilarating.  It is grace and truth; truth and love.  “10 Unfailing love and truth have met together. Righteousness and peace have kissed!”

It is not a freedom to sin – or even to be completely free from sin – but rather a freedom to explore all of God’s creation and truth without fear of losing Him, my faith, or anything else.  With the exception of most guardians of the evangelical church.  Like the Pharisees of old, although certainly not with the same dire consequences, too many church shepherds have burdened their flock with unnecessary burdens.  They unintentionally – am I being naive again? – cripple the sheep to keep them from straying.

At some point, it is no longer necessary to guard the flock so closely.  Make no mistake: churches do need to “make disciples,” i.e., to teach Christians what they need to know to become independently dependent on Christ.  Not to the exclusion of needing  fellowship and Christian community, but to the point where walking a tightrope is no longer thought of as following Christ.

Freedom is meant for all Christians, not just a select few.  It does not take years and years of seminary to be free; it does take sufficient training in all things true.  But, to borrow from Pink Floyd, pastors do not need to forever keep people under their wings, where they won’t let you fly but they might let you sing.

More importantly, people don’t have to stay there.  They need to be prepared but, at some point, they need just to step off the tightrope.  Or maybe be pushed.

January 29

Assuredly Uncertain of Assurance

Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Patton has offered his understanding of faith from both natural and supernatural perspectives.  It appears that he is writing to Christians, i.e., those who have exercised the type of faith he believes to be biblical, but the word faith does not change in Scripture depending upon whether faith is being talked about in the context of believers or unbelievers.  When we talk about faith, then, the meaning does not change whether we are talking about saving faith or sanctifying faith.

In short, Patton presents four kinds of faith that people can participate in:  blind faith, irrational faith, warranted faith, and biblical faith.  While the first three involve an act of will on the part of the individual, the fourth is an act of the Holy Spirit.  Whether the issue is initial, saving faith or the daily faith of Christian living, He who is the Holy Spirit is the Person who produces the ability for such faith.  I would encourage you to read his article – which is uncharacteristically brief for him – for a far better treatment of the subject.

Speaking perhaps only for myself, I find the final type of faith that Patton puts forth – biblical faith – to leave me in a dilemma.  If Patton’s categories are true, then assurance of salvation is tenuous, if not impossible.

Here’s what I mean:  biblical faith, according to his understanding, is not something I do but rather something the Holy Spirit does in and for me.  It is He who enables me to have faith.  But the problem is that, experientially, I cannot tell the difference between warranted faith (that does not include the Holy Spirit) and biblical faith (that does).

Patton is careful in his explanation of what the Holy Spirit does.  He writes, “In order to have true faith, the power of the Holy Spirit must move within us, releasing us from the bondage of our will.”  This is a biblical understanding of saving faith:  God’s Spirit frees us from (what Luther called) the bondage of the will.  Thus, we are free to choose according to our nature.  Or are we?  In matters of salvation, what is our nature prior to our belief in Christ?

Our pre-regenerate nature is, as Patton says, “antagonistic to spiritual truths.”  Our nature is unredeemed, fallen, sinful, broken, ungodly, and opposed to God.  It must be, then, that the Holy Spirit does not merely release us from the bondage of our wills but actually causes us to choose according to God’s elective purposes.  We do nothing; He does everything.  If we were only freed to choose according to our nature, we most definitely would not choose God.

The Holy Spirit’s actions in my life – lacking the demonstrable, visible manifestations claimed by some charismatics – are outside my conscious awareness.  He works at a level or in a sphere that my consciousness is unable to fathom or detect.  I do not know if He is prompting me but am only aware of what He would prefer I do or not do – and this only because of the written word of God that is, as the Psalmist says, a lamp unto my feet.

But perhaps I am, as Patton suggests is possible, doing this only because of warranted belief, relying “on naked intellect or personal effort alone.”  That is, my “faith is a step according to rational evidence and inquiry. In other words, we believe because it makes sense . . . We make our decisions precisely because the evidence supports it, but this is still faith.”  This falls short, however, of biblical faith, i.e., faith as a product of the Holy Spirit’s activity within me.

According to this scheme, I don’t know that I can know whether I exercised merely warranted belief when I trusted Christ some 38 years ago or if it was truly biblical faith.  And every action, decision, or thought that has followed is also dubious: was it me or was it the Holy Spirit?  Was it just warranted faith or was it truly biblical faith?

This leads to a serious problem: if warranted belief and biblical belief are separate, then I can have no assurance of my salvation.  It doesn’t mean that I’m not saved; it means that I cannot know with any assurance if I exercised warranted or biblical belief.  Like Muslims and the Truly Reformed, I cannot know the eternal fate of my soul until the moment of death, when it is too late to alter.  I am assuredly uncertain of assurance.

The dilemma is resolved, I think, by eliminating a category and combining warranted and biblical belief.  My experience of my salvation is that I willfully and freely chose to believe in the claims of Christ; that is, my faith was warranted.  That is my experience.  Was it accompanied by the work of the Holy Spirit?  I believe it was simply because such a choice would have been impossible had I not, just nanoseconds before, been regenerated by the Spirit of God and been able to choose from a new nature rather than an old, sinful one.

Again, I would not have believed that the claims of Christ warranted belief without the Holy Spirit having already accomplished my being born again.  But while my faith is intellectually based on what the Holy Spirit has done, my experience is that I have exercised warranted belief.  Having been convinced of the warrant of faith in Christ, my assurance is based on what Scripture teaches me to be the case.  Experientially, I had warranted faith; theologically, my warranted faith was made possible by the Holy Spirit.

The categories, I think, are three rather than four, with the third containing both biblical and warranted faith.  A person can have a blind faith (non-salvific), an irrational faith (non-salvific), or a biblical faith (salvific) that in turn produces warranted faith.  Biblical faith is the sin qua non of warranted faith in matters of salvation and sanctification.

As is often the case, faith is not either-or.  Saving faith is warranted belief as facilitated and created by biblical faith.  My experiential expression of faith is preceded by an act or acts of the Holy Spirit that are outside my conscious awareness.  Fortunately, I do not have to be consciously aware of the Spirit’s activity for Him to first save me, then sanctify me, and ultimately glorify me one day.

January 2

Back from the Abyss

After months of languishing with my account suspended – I got hacked because I didn’t upgrade WordPress – the site is up again!

That’s the good news.  The bad news is that I lost all my content from both this site and Lord of the Kingdom (which has not been restored yet).  But I have a backup so I’m trying to figure out how to retrieve the lost content.  In the meantime, I’ll try to write some new things.