Do You Believe In A System, Or Do You Believe In Jesus?

I have lately been reading Paul and the Faithfulness of God by N. T. Wright.  This is a scholarly work written for a scholarly audience, yet it is written so as to be accessible to the educated layperson.  In it, Wright seeks to understand Paul and his writings by looking at the world Paul lived in and the formative influences of Jewish monotheism, classical philosophy, Greco-Roman religion, and the Roman politics of empire, and understanding how Paul spoke into and influenced his world.  Along the way, Wright lays out Paul’s worldview, making the point that a worldview is a set of glasses through which one looks at the world.  As these glasses are primarily used for looking at the world, very rarely will one actually look at the glasses themselves.  In the same way, a worldview is a set of basic ideas which are assumed in any discussion of how things are in the world at large.  It is through these assumed ideas that one typically evaluates other ideas, but very rarely will one actually question the assumed ideas themselves.

Today we are going to take the glasses off and look at some basic assumptions in the evangelical worldview.  These assumptions are:

  • The Bible, as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, reveals a readily apparent, fully coherent and comprehensive system of belief which provides answers to humanity’s most important questions.
  • Tamper with just one part of this system of belief, and the whole entire thing is laid waste.  Moral decay, chaos, and destruction will inevitably follow, in the Church and in the world at large.
  • Our job as Christians, therefore, is to protect and defend this system at all cost, come hell or high water.

These ideas are usually assumed in any discussion of issues such as human origins, human sexuality, gender roles in ministry, or any of the other hot-button issues of our day on which the Bible is presumed to speak.  A prime example is the debate over human origins and the proper understanding of the early chapters of Genesis.  The 2014 HBO documentary Questioning Darwin featured interviews with well-known proponents of young-earth creationism such as Ken Ham and pastor Joe Coffey, as well as interviews with evolutionary scientists and Darwin’s own story of his life work and what it meant for his faith journey.  The arguments made by the young-earth creationism proponents are all rooted in the above assumptions.  One minister who was interviewed went so far as to say, with a straight face:

If somewhere within the Bible I were to find a passage that said two plus two equals five, I wouldn’t question what I’m reading in the Bible, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and to understand it.

That is not faith in Jesus, or even faith in the Bible.  It is faith in a certain understanding of what the Bible is and how it speaks to us.  It sees the Bible not just as authoritative, but as the entire universe in which we live and move and breathe.  With such a view of the Bible, it is virtually impossible to see the Bible as it actually is.

Another example is the ongoing debate over gay marriage.  Those who oppose gay marriage frequently make arguments which assume the basic ideas listed above.  The Strachan posts I linked earlier this year are a prime example of this:  Complementarianism is part and parcel of the system of belief which is readily apparent from God’s inerrant Word.  Let complementarianism go, and the acceptance of homosexuality in the church as normal and even good is inevitable.  Call anything good which God has labeled an abomination, and you place yourself in severe moral jeopardy.

When you believe the assumptions listed above and allow these to shape your thinking on the issues of our day, your faith is not in Jesus Christ.  It is in a system.  Jesus Christ has a part to play in this system, to be sure.  But note the vast amounts of energy expended to defend this system of belief which is supposed to be readily apparent from a proper reading of Scripture.  Note the vast amounts of vitriol directed toward anyone who opposes or questions any part of the system, whether inside or outside the Church.  If the system goes, then Jesus goes with it.

As noted in my responses to the Strachan posts, it takes an awful lot of creative thinking to get from “Homosexuality in the church is OK” to “Jesus Christ did not die for your sins”.  But when one’s faith is in a system rather than in Jesus Christ, it is easy to see how one gets from here to there.  The Bible, and the system of belief revealed thereby, are how we know of Jesus Christ.  If any part of said system of belief is invalid, then the whole system is unreliable, and everything we know about Jesus Christ is unreliable.  Thus Christ did not die, and we are still in our sins.  If that is the inevitable ending point, then it becomes of paramount importance never to start down that road in the first place.  Thus the vast amounts of energy expended toward protecting and defending the system.  No amount of vitriol directed toward anyone who dares to question any part of the system is too much.

But if you believe in Jesus Christ, you know that no system of belief is big enough to contain him.  You know that Jesus is the big idea where all of Christianity begins and ends.  The Bible was given to us by God for the purpose of pointing us toward Jesus, and it is perfectly adequate for that purpose.  You don’t feel the compulsion to go down all these crazy rabbit trails of trying to reconcile the early chapters of Genesis with modern science, or trying to reconcile the history depicted in Joshua and Judges with the archaeological record, because in the final analysis that is not what the Bible is about.  You don’t feel the compulsion to fight the battle for an inerrant Bible because in the final analysis Jesus is the object of our faith, and the decision to trust Jesus is a decision we still have to make, whether we have an inerrant Bible or not.

As Christians, our faith is not in the Bible.  It is in a person whose life, death and resurrection was documented in the Bible.  To say, as per the assumptions listed above, that the reliability of everything we know about Jesus Christ hangs on the reliability and inerrancy of the Bible, is like telling your best friend that he or she does not exist because you looked up his/her birth certificate online and found some discrepancies–when said friend is standing right there in front of you.  If Christianity were really as fragile a thing as the assumptions listed above make it out to be, do you really think it would have survived the first three centuries of its existence?  This was a time when it was incredibly dangerous to be a Christian.  Do you seriously think people would have given their very lives, many in excruciatingly horrible fashion, for something which could be proven false if inconsistencies could be found in the source documents?

Come on, people.

There are ways in which trusting the Bible and trusting Jesus come together.  Belief in the Bible as a divinely revealed system of belief, as per the assumptions listed above, is not one of them.

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Scot McKnight on Purgatory

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Scot McKnight on the doctrine of purgatory.  McKnight is reviewing a book by Jerry Walls, who is one of a very few voices in evangelicalism that are supportive of the idea of purgatory.  To clarify, purgatory is not about a second chance to choose Jesus after one has died, instead is for Christians only and, depending on your understanding, serves the purpose of sanctification or satisfaction/atonement.

McKnight walks us through Walls’ argument in support of purgatory.  Heaven is a place of total perfection, so humans must be perfect in order to enter heaven.  Most are far from perfect even at death, so humans will either enter heaven imperfect (very few believe this), be perfected instantly at death (most Protestants believe this), or be perfected gradually through a process in which they are conscious participants (Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestants believe this).  The Catholic view of purgatory sees it as a satisfaction of justice: contrition, confession, and penance for sins continue after death.  This flies in the face of salvation by grace alone.  This view of purgatory paved the way for Tetzel’s sale of indulgences (monetary gifts which essentially enabled one to bypass purgatory), which in turn drove the Protestant reformation.

But what if purgatory serves a different purpose altogether?  Walls looks to C. S. Lewis, who sees purgatory as part of a believer’s sanctification.  We are called by God to become “little Christs”, in essence, character transformation.  This quote from Lewis illustrates his view of purgatory and how it integrates with his “mere Christianity”:

Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you for these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.” “It may hurt, you know”—”Even so, sir.”

Read Scot McKnight: Purgatory: One (Solitary?) Evangelical’s Affirmation

Tim Suttle on Calling

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Tim Suttle about calling.  Suttle blogs at Paperback Theology.

Suttle is responding to an article in Relevant Magazine entitled “3 Big Myths About Calling: Ideas to avoid when figuring out what to do with your life“.  While he considers much in the Relevant article to be helpful, he pushes back against some of the major assumptions which underlie much of evangelical talk about calling.  One of these is the idea that discovering one’s calling is all about getting in touch with one’s true self.  Not so.  The true self is not some thing which dwells deep inside of you and which you have to dig out by focusing inward to get in touch with it.  Instead, the self is something which exists in community, in relation to other selves.  The self cannot be isolated from community without destroying the person.  Thus, discovering one’s calling is not about getting in touch with one’s “true self”, it is about getting involved in community and letting them walk with you through the process, and trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit along the way.

Another assumption is that calling is a place of freedom.  Not so.  Calling is a place of obligation.  Jeremiah embraced his calling as a prophet to rebellious Israel, and it cost him dearly.  Jesus sweat drops of blood while praying earnestly for a calling which did not involve a Roman cross.  Calling is not about personal fulfillment, it is about the kingdom of God and about joining in with that kingdom the same way Jesus did, through cross and resurrection.  Jesus calls us to die to ourselves, including our need to experience personal fulfillment in this life.

Read: 3 Myths About Calling: Why Relevant’s Take Falls Short

Alastair on Why Men Fail to Trust Women

Today I wish to direct your attention to another post by Alastair Roberts at Passing The Salt Shaker.  Alastair is responding to an article by Damon Young at Huffington Post which says that though men may trust women’s character, promises, and opinions on many matters, men do not trust women’s feelings.  Men instinctively assume that women who are disturbed about something are overreacting, and that assumption causes men to distrust women on more serious matters.

Alastair takes issue with Young’s narrowing of the focus to women’s feelings; the issue is bigger than that.  Also, feelings are often untrustworthy, whether men’s feelings or women’s feelings.  Feelings can lead us to react instead of respond, they can distort perceptions and overwhelm any sense of reason or proper perspective.  We should take feelings seriously, but we should not trust them.  The more fundamental issue is that men don’t give proper weight to their own feelings.  Men are taught while growing up to develop distance from their feelings (man up, take it like a man, grow a pair, don’t be so sensitive, don’t be a sissy, etc.).  The rougher interactions which are part and parcel of male socialization require a thick skin.  Women don’t usually get this when they are growing up.  Thus men and women have completely different approaches to engaging with their feelings.  Which means that men and women have different ways of subjectively processing and experiencing the world.  So, for a man to trust a woman, it requires a significant, though necessary, amount of sympathetic imagination to place oneself in the shoes of another who sees the world in ways that are significantly different.

Alastair then goes on to list several other obstacles to trust:  Women have realms of experience which do not overlap with the experience of men.  Men are frequently overconfident in their perspective while women are frequently underconfident in theirs.  Some are specific to cases of abuse:  The behavioral and psychological effects of abuse can cause victims to seem untrustworthy.  There is a profound disincentive to believe that certain people are abusers.  And even when there is no choice but to acknowledge the abuse, people want to believe that the obvious consequences should not follow for the abuser.  Finally, well-intentioned people seeking to advocate for victims of abuse have spread misinformation, thereby provoking resistance and polarization.

Alastair closes with some questions for thought and discussion:

  1. Can you think of any additional reasons why men fail to trust women?
  2. What are some of the ways that men can change their behaviour and attitudes in order to trust women more?
  3. What are some systemic and institutional changes that will encourage a greater trust of women, especially in instances of abuse?
  4. How can we be the best advocates for survivors of abuse and raise the profile of these issues in an effective and principled way?

Read Alastair’s Why Do Men Fail To Trust Women?

Alastair on Singleness and the Vocational Character of Marriage

Today I wish to direct your attention to a post by Alastair Roberts at Passing The Salt Shaker.  In present day American evangelicalism, marriage is an automatic part of the cultural script, meaning that it’s just something you do.  At some point in your life, you will meet someone, get married, move out to the suburbs and start raising a family.  That’s just what you do.  The question then becomes not whether to marry, but whom to marry.  And if the marriage thing doesn’t work out for you, then expect all manner of reassurances from well-meaning individuals about how God has the perfect spouse for you and you just have to trust His timing.  And when evangelicals do talk about God’s plans and purposes for singleness, it almost always sounds like a consolation prize for the kids who didn’t get picked to be on the class team.

Yet in the Gospels, Jesus said things about marriage which caused his disciples to say that if that is the case, then it is better not to marry at all (Matthew 19:10).  That should give us pause.  Certainly it should cause us to rethink the cultural script where marriage is automatic.  Instead we need to think of marriage as one possible Christian vocation among many others.

Alastair gives the example of his grandparents, who were career missionaries in Africa and strongly committed to remaining single in order to serve God.  Through God’s leading, each in turn overcame their reluctance and became open to the possibility of marriage.  Their decision to marry, and the process by which they arrived at that decision, shows that they viewed marriage as a vocation and not as an automatic next step in their lives.

A view of marriage as one possible mode of Christian discipleship rather than the automatic and expected script would serve as a powerful counter to a culture where people enter into marriage thinking only of how it can enhance their own personal fulfillment, or because marriage is what is expected of them.

When the Church and society becomes forgetful of unmarried vocations, it risks losing sight of marriage itself. People walk blindly into marriage in pursuit of personal satisfaction or because everyone is expected to get married, without ever being prompted to reflect deeply upon just how awesome a vocation they have committed themselves to. The pause that a strong doctrine of unmarried vocations can give us—is it ‘better not to marry’ or what reason do we have to believe that God would have us marry?—may help people to understand marriage in a way that they never would have done otherwise.

Read Alastair’s How the Unmarried can Reveal the Vocational Character of Marriage

Good Friday: Satan Is Finished

lent06We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do).  This word translates into English as “It is finished”.

But what is finished?  Several things, which we have been in the process of unpacking.  This is by no means an exhaustive listing; I am only hitting on a few.  If you’ve just joined us this week, you’re coming in at the end of the movie.  I won’t try to catch you up on all of the earlier posts in the series now; they are in the archives and will be there for ever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet, so you can do that for yourselves.

Last week we talked about how the world’s way of doing things is finished.  The world’s way of doing things is all about power, all about trying to get ahead and stay ahead, all about trying to project a big image of yourself so that others see you as important, all about impressing others and chasing extraordinary.  But when your king is a wandering rabbi who got himself killed in the most violent and horrific way imaginable, all of that goes out the window.

Within the past week we have seen a prime example of this.  The state of Indiana has just passed a Religious Freedom bill, which basically prohibits government from forcing business owners to act in ways contrary to their religious beliefs.  A similar measure failed in Arizona last year; you may have heard about that in the news.

Conservative evangelicals are all geeked up about this.  Why?  Because it is clear, to them at least, that they are losing the culture war, especially on the issue of gay marriage.  With so many states now legalizing gay marriage, the Religious Freedom bill in Indiana guards against the nightmare scenario that a Christian photographer might be forced to photograph a gay wedding, or that a Christian caterer might be forced to serve at a gay wedding.  (What ever happened to the idea of serving in love and keeping one’s political opinions to oneself?)  It reassures conservative evangelicals that all is still well in their world, to a certain extent at least.

Why?  Because the supporters of this measure are about transforming the culture through legislation and the political process.  As if we can seize control of the political and cultural apparatus of our nation and force things into effect which are pleasing to God, or at least in accord with the parts of God’s agenda that we like the best, and in that way build the kingdom of God and move the Gospel forward.

When your king is a crucified Messiah, a wandering rabbi who got himself killed in the most violent and horrific way imaginable, all of that goes flying out the window.

Now we conclude our Lenten journey by looking at one more thing:  Satan is finished.

We go to Hebrews 10.  Now Hebrews is written primarily for a Jewish audience, or at least for an audience of believers who had come from a Jewish background, and it makes the case that Jesus is the reality toward which the Temple, the sacrifices, and many other aspects of Jewish tradition and practice pointed.  The author of Hebrews contrasts Jesus with the Jewish high priest who year after year must make the same sacrifices, which are a reminder of sin but are powerless to actually take it away–if they could take away sin then there would be no need for the same sacrifices to be made year after year–but Christ as high priest made his sacrifice and then sat down, because his sacrifice had done what it was supposed to do and there was no need for any further sacrifices.  Tucked away in the middle of this passage we find verse 13-14:

Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.

There it is.  Satan’s destiny in life is to be made a footstool for Christ, and we are on a countdown to the day when that happens.

When Jesus spoke the word “Tetelestai” on the cross, all the forces of hell were circling.  This was the moment they were waiting for, when the Son of God would breathe his last.  They were cueing the music in 3…2…1…but when it got to 0 they learned the horrible truth:  that in killing the Son of God they had sealed their own fate, that in what they thought was Christ’s defeat they had guaranteed their own ultimate defeat.

In the book of Revelation John has a vision of the resurrected Jesus which overwhelms him so profoundly that he falls down as if he were dead.  Jesus encourages him as follows:  “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive forever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  (Revelation 2:17-18)

Satan had his keys, the keys to death and hell, taken away from him in the moment that Jesus died.  Jesus now has the keys to let us into heaven and out of hell.

The Eastern Orthodox tradition does Lent a little differently from the rest of Christianity.  One of the things they do differently is Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death on Good Friday and resurrection on Easter.  In the Orthodox tradition, Holy Saturday takes on something of a celebratory tone.  They call it the “Harrowing of Hell”:  Jesus, having won the victory over death and hell by his death on the cross, now descends to hell, busts it open, and leads out all those whom Satan had held captive.

And when darkness fell on Saturday night (in the Jewish way of reckoning such things, a day does not begin in the morning, it begins at sunset of the previous day), Jesus rose from the dead and liberated all of us.  Because God can die, but he won’t stay dead.