whytheology

For the Intersection of the Everyday and the Sacred

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

More than Trust, and just Trust (Faith part 2: Foundational Doctrines)

This week I’m talking about how faith is trust, but in a way more than what we typically think of trust, and what this means on a daily basis. This is part of a series of “foundational doctrines” where I am looking at the six foundational doctrines from Hebrews 6. Last week, I talked about how faith has to be more than just intellectual assent. Ascribing to a set of doctrines won’t get you saved, we saw last week, because the demons have impeccable theology. So it must be something else.

Faith as Trust

If you’ve been involved in a church for more than a few months, you have likely heard this at some point. If you grew up in the church, and especially church youth groups, you likely heard it a lot. Faith is trust. In the same way I have faith in the chair that is holding me up that it can continue to hold me up (and so relax upon it), so we trust in God. This certainly seems to be moving in the right direction. After all, the key distinction between us and the demons is that the demons refuse to rely upon God, believing they are self-sufficient somehow. They lack the basic element of trust.

Yet, it seems, that the kind of trust we usually talk about is pretty mild stuff. We usually end up couching it in terms of (again) belief. Trust is believing God can help me, we say. Trust is believing that God is for me. Trust is accepting my status as elect (ok just the Calvinists on that one). But by phrasing it in these terms we are just again putting it in terms of belief, intellectual assent. Faith has to be more than a mental state, though. If it were only about saving our minds, why would Christ need to take one flesh? No faith must be transformative of our whole being, not just our minds.

Plato’s to blame

For a long time we seem to have accepted the idea that faith is simply intellectual assent in the church. If we get our doctrines in a row, we’re good. This, it seems, was the position of Augustine. It was all about believing in the right God and believing in the right sort of things. (Except when you read the conversion story in his Confessions it seems like a lot more was involved). Similarly Luther, following Augustine, in his emphasis on justification by faith alone (a correct one I would say) disdained books like James because, as he saw it, they weren’t doing justice to faith. But his mistake was, again, conflating belief and faith.

I think we have Plato to blame for that. Plato argued that our mind was all that really mattered. He introduced a sort of dualism into our consciousness that devalued the body and elevated an ephemeral spirit that was were our identity supposedly lay. For Plato, also, knowing something, that is believing something that was also true, was as good as doing it. So if he just could make himself genuinely know the right things, his actions would follow. If his actions didn’t follow, he reasoned, he didn’t really know it because, at the moment of his wrong actions, he had managed to convince himself otherwise and thus didn’t believe it. Thus, subtly over the years, Platonism entered the Christian consciousness. And the focus was upon the immaterial and belief (which is also descriptive of Western culture on the whole).

The problem is, that’s not the message of the bible. The bible declares that the physical “stuff” of the universe is, fundamentally good (see Genesis 1). God came to redeem that world, to purify and refine it. Jesus was raised bodily because the body matters. What is more, believing something intellectually was not the same as having actions in line with it. The prophets of Israel were effective (sometimes) precisely because the people did believe, they just didn’t trust.

Full Trust

My “faith” in the chair is useless if I don’t go and sit in it. I don’t really have faith in it to hold me up if I stand the entire time. Faith requires a genuine acquaintance. A close relationship. A fully giving of our full selves. James is concerned with actions as evidence of faith because the two are no divorced. Faith as trust is relying upon God and following him. To follow him is no simple task, either. Jesus continually talks about “counting the cost” before following him. He talks about taking up your cross to follow him. In the context of trust that makes sense. We trust God because when he calls us to follow and we follow, knowing he has our best at heart, even when it is a road marked by suffering and death. As Deitrich Bonhoeffer put it “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That’s trust. Trust of your whole being. Trust with your life. That’s what it means to confess that Jesus is Lord. To trust him completely.

Fundamentally, though, faith is about grace. Apart from grace we have no basis for trust because we know that our actions deserve the same fate as the demons. It is only because of grace that our trust is possible and ends in hope. Next week I’ll talk about the relationship between faith and grace, which is important for beginning to grasp what faith is.

Advertisements

James 2:5-7 (Lent Readings)

Text

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

Hearken, my beloved brethren, Hath not God chosen the poor of this world rich in faith, and heirs of the kingdom which he hath promised to them that love him?

But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats?

Do not they blaspheme that worthy name by the which ye are called?

Comment

The first verse is very likely referring back to the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, or, possibly, the relate “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke (where the poor are blessed and rich are cursed, with no mention of “in spirit”). There seems to be a particular issue here, though. It’s not just that they are rich, it’s that the rich people who are being honored are the ones who are attacking Christians. Suddenly the last verse of chapter 1 is brought into greater clarity (where is says to keep ourselves pure from the world). In the choice between demonstrating love to those who could never repay it and seeking the favor of those who are wealthy, but not only wealthy but actively working against Christ (and his love), many have failed. The compromise with the world has been absolute, and this is a problem.

Question

Have you sometimes sided with the popular or rich people who were not acting from Christian love because you thought it would benefit you? Has it worked out in your favor in the long run? Why do you think the materially poor are called “rich in faith”?

Basil is not a spice (Church History Minute)

This is the first of three Church history Minutes on the Cappadocian Fathers, this week “Basil the Great” (aka Basil of Caesarea)

Russian Icon of Basil of unknown date.

Who was he? An early Christian bishop who, together with Gregory of Nyssa (his little brother) and Gregory Nazianzus, made up the Cappadocian fathers, a set of early defenders of Nicene Christianity. Nicene Christianity predominantly defended the full deity of Christ (as God, not just a creation of God) against the Arians. Eventually it would also come to represent Trinitarian Faith. While it remained in part due to Athanasius, it developed and lasted, largely, due to the efforts of the Cappadocian fathers. Since they existed prior to the East/West split, almost all Christians can consider them as part of their heritage.

Why was he important? The Trinitarian faith you have now was systematized by the Cappadocians. This is not to say that it is not biblical, but the arguments for it from the bible (and elsewhere) were first made by these men. Basil was known more for his political savvy, but he did write an important defense of the Holy Spirit as the third member of the Trinity (that is equally God). Many of the debates directly with Arians were done by Basil.

Fun Fact: When a rival defender of Arianism was sent to Basil to debate the issue by the, then Arian, emperor, Basil was so firmly against Arianism that the emissary from the emporer remarked on how he had never been spoken to in such a manner. Basil replied “then you must not have spoken to a Bishop before.” The emissary was enraged and suggested war, but the emperor declined.

Where might I have heard of him? Outside of being a Cappadocian Father, he is also one of the key figures in establishing communal monasticism (as opposed to the then dominate dessert monasticism that was done in isolation).

James 2:1-4 (Lent Readings)

Passage

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

My brethren, have not the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with respect of persons.

For if there come unto your assembly a man with a gold ring, in goodly apparel, and there come in also a poor man in vile raiment;

And ye have respect to him that weareth the gay clothing, and say unto him, Sit thou here in a good place; and say to the poor, Stand thou there, or sit here under my footstool:

Are ye not then partial in yourselves, and are become judges of evil thoughts?

Comment

Lest we begin to think that James is advocating a faith based purely on externals, he warns us to avoid showing favoritism to people. On the one hand this is a continuation of the verse immediately preceding chapter 2, that is we should seek to love everyone, but particularly those who can’t repay us for the help. On the other hand, this is simply an affirmation of the incredible leveling effect of Grace. No one is better or worse because of Grace, and all should be treated the same. The implication, of course, is that Christians who are better off should make more of an effort to demonstrate the equality of those who (externally at least) aren’t as well off. Do not become a judge.

Question

How often do we look at externals? Are you more concerned with the career someone has, the clothes they wear, the car they drive, the type of smartphone they do (or don’t) have, or are you more concerned with who they are as a person? Judging by externals is often the opposite of how God works throughout the bible. Often those who seemed weakest were actually winning, and the richest were on the verge of losing it all.

Social Media Conference

A friend of a friend is hosting a virtual book tour next week on social media and ministry. He’s the webpastor at Community Bible Church in San Antonio. He has a book coming up entitled The Social Media Guide for Ministry and, since it is about having a web presence, he is hosting an online virtual book tour. It is free to attend, but registration is required (and there are three options each day for a time). For details click below:

http://nilssmith.com/tour/

 

James 1:26-27 (Lent Readings)

Passage

Here’s the KJV (Link to NIV)

26 If any man among you seem to be religious, and bridleth not his tongue, but deceiveth his own heart, this man’s religion is vain.

27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

Comment

For James, there are too many “religious” in name only. As far as he’s concerned, true religion has very little to do with beliefs in isolation. If you think you are going to be saved because if God gave you a theology exam you’d ace it, you’re in trouble. True religion is active. The thing that really pleases God is not what we think, but what we do (and don’t do). Do we just try to get ours, to look out for our own interests, and leave everyone else to theirs? Or do we look after others, particularly those who are least able to return the favor (orphans, widows). It is helping others without thought of ever being paid back.

Question

Do you think of others first or yourself? Do you help others because you think that someday someone might help you if you need it, or because of some other reward, or do you help others out of genuine self-sacrificing love?

What do I mean by “apocalyptic”? Revelation (Difficult Passages)

Quick Review

Last week, I stated that the book of Revelation (like other Christian Apocalyptic literature, which is not in the biblical canon) is actually an attempt, in many ways, to imitate the earlier Jewish form of apocalyptic. The reason I am taking the time to talk about the genre of Revelation is that it can too easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted if we don’t take that into account. To be sure there are other examples of Jewish Apocalyptic, also non-canonical, that help us to see the characteristics of the genre. Next week I’ll talk about the uniquely Christian contribution to the genre, but this week I want to focus on the characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic, most of which we find in Daniel and Revelation. (Well, not the first one)

The Characteristics

  1. Pseudonymous: This one really doesn’t apply to either Revelation or Daniel in my opinion (I explain in a sec). Most Apocalyptic literature is written under an assumed name (such as “The book of Enoch” for Jewish literature, or “The Apocalypse of Peter” for Christian Literature). Usually the idea was that it had been written long ago and was only just now being discovered. Because it deals with events at the end of the world, this gives it an additional sense of urgency because the end could be closer at hand. The fact that the authorship was false (and usually known to be false) is likely why other examples were excluded from the canon. However, usually there is a phrase where the writer is supposedly told to “seal these things up” until the time is much closer. No such phrase appears in either Daniel or Revelation. In fact, John is specifically told not to seal them up because they will soon take place.
  2. It is something hidden now revealed: This is accomplished by some of the rejected apocalyptic literature by claiming the message was sealed until now (while in Revelation it’s very heavily against “sealing” things, often breaking seals). The point is that the message is so beyond the speaker/author it could only come by supernatural means. One could not look around and see that this was the case (while other prophets often condemn the people for not already knowing the content of their message from what God had previously told them).
  3. Future orientation: Isn’t this just prophecy? Well yes and no. Prophecy technically refers to someone with a message for a people right then and there, and the prophet is just the person who relays the message from God. Sometimes this includes a future element, but usually there isn’t one at all. (For instance, in Jonah where is the future element?). Even when there is a future element, though, it is usually very vague and can easily be applied to the present situation of the author/prophet as well. The one exception is Isaiah who, after chapter 40 delivers a message to Israel in exile (though it applied to his audience then), and eventually gives a specific message relaying the identity of the historical redeemer (Cyrus/Darius). However, his reason for doing so is not to give a message about the future. Rather, he is demonstrating how the God of Israel (Yahweh) is the only genuine god and that other gods and idols are silly. Thus the specific future is offered as evidence (because only the true God could do that). Contrast that with Daniel and Revelation, though, who talk about future events, for the sake of talking about future events. They want to relay what will happen.
  4. The future is set: While the intervening history may be a little more open, in both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic there is a sense that certain key events, particularly those at the end of the world, are set in stone. They are going to happen. God, Yahweh, is going to come back and establish his throne. It is inescapable.
  5. The message is mediated: In contrast to the prophets who receive their message direct from Yahweh, the writer of Apocalyptic literature receives his message indirectly. While this may come in the form of a vision, it also occurs via an Angel, something not previously seen as a bearer of a lengthy message. While Ezekiel, in particular, utilizes the concept of vision, in the book it is clear that the vision is direct from God (and other times, Yahweh speaks directly to Ezekiel). On the other hand Daniel either receives his vision from an Angel or just says he had a vision, without relaying the source.
  6. Use of fantastical imagery: There is imagery that seems to clearly not belong to this world. Animals of a kind never seen before. Statues too massive to be real. This is common place in apocalyptic literature. Again Ezekiel shares some of this (which has led some to argue sections of Ezekiel should be apocalyptic not prophetic), but on the whole it doesn’t fit the genre.
  7. Contrasting “Present” with “The End”: There is a sense of a huge disparity between now and then (the end of the world). What is happening now will be destroyed (often violently) and give way to what happens at the end, usually God acting as King in a more explicit visual than is seen throughout the rest of the bible.
  8. Intentional obscuring of the message: The use of symbolism is not meant to convey multiple connotations necessarily (though it may do that), as in other biblical literature, but is intentionally done to obscure the meaning. There are a few reasons for this: 1) To intentionally give a sense of uncertainty to the reader so they don’t rely exclusively on that writing, but look to other literature (Gospels and Torah). 2) To add to the otherworldly sense of the writing. 3) To ensure it could only be completely understood by those who were part of the “in crowd.” That is, only the community to which it was intended would have the necessary information to understand what was being written. This was important because…
  9. It is written from the perspective of the oppressed: The writers are generally writing from a position of powerlessness, and speaking to a time when God will reign in power. There is coming a great upheaval. This perspective of oppression is likely the most important feature. Think about Daniel, which was written from those in the exile. Revelation was written either in the reign of Nero (early date) or Domitian (later date) both of whom began a massive campaign against Christians. This will also play into the unique features of Christian Apocalyptic I’ll get into next week.

James 1:22-25 (Lent Readings)

Passage

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

22 But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving your own selves.

23 For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:

24 For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was.

25 But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

Comment

This is one of my favorite passages in this book (and I always hear it in the KJV in my head). It’s like James was saying, oh and speaking of listening, let me give you an example of what genuine listening is like. The kind of person who looks in the mirror and immediately forgets what they look like is the kind of person who wasn’t really paying attention. That’s not what God’s word is like. God’s word is transformative, and of course we would want to live it out once we see the perfection of its liberty. Rather than a list of rules that restricts us, it is a covenant that liberates us. Our action, then, is out of response to the liberty, not a means to obtain it. By studying the word of God, he concludes, we are much more likely to be able to succeed at it.

Question

Which category do you place yourself in (hearer or doer)? Remembering Jesus’ parable of the two sons, with one who says he won’t do the work his father asks and does it while the other brother says he will do the work and doesn’t, what does this say about following Christ? Which is more important: hearing the right things or doing the right things? Is there a difference?

James 1:19-21 (Lent Readings)

Passage

KJV Below (Link to NIV)

19 Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath:

20 For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.

21 Wherefore lay apart all filthiness and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.

Comment

They say the key to communication is when your desire to understand exceeds your desire to be understood. Said more colloquially, God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason. The point of the passage is not that we never get angry, but that there is a difference between holy anger (exhibited by Jesus in the temple) and selfish anger. If it is centered on you and your desires, it’s probably not the right kind of anger. In generally our behavior should focus on the other people around us more than on ourselves. Instead we should humbly accept God’s word (and the abuse that likely accompanies that in a world full of “filth”) because it will have a lasting effect.

Question

In a conversation, how often do you find yourself genuinely trying to listen and how often are you merely waiting your turn to talk? How often do you excuse your anger as somehow “justified”? Is this how the bible talks about your anger?

Creation from nothing (part 1): What’s the big deal?

The next few posts in Science and Religion Friday will focus on why Christian Theology insists on a doctrine of creation out of nothing, what this means both philosophically and scientifically, and what it necessarily cannot mean theologically. Please note that the following posts are a little bit technical (though I’ve tried to ease out some of the technicality).

Why make it a big deal?

What does it matter if the world was created out of nothing or not? There are creation myths that do not require that the world was made from nothing. For instance, many of the ancient cultures more or less believed the the universe was the result of a great cosmic battle (or perhaps some sort of sexual encounter) and the world formed from the blood or as the offspring of a god or gods. Some of the early Greek philosophers argued that there was a divine craftsman who carved the earth out of already present stuff. In fact, the first unambiguous promotion of the idea of creation out of nothing (or Creatio ex nihilo in the Latin) in a religious text occurs in one of the Maccabees (those books rejected by Protestants as unauthoritative, and considered by Roman Catholics as only secondarily authoritative).  Clearly there is a way to talk about the universe as if it were not made out of nothing.

Well, in a way. Once one accepts monotheism as the best description of God (which, for these posts, we are assuming), the scope of possibilities becomes severely limited. Now one cannot speak of the physical universe as if it is the leftover bits of a god who lost or something along those lines. We are ultimately left with one of two options: either matter always existed, or at some point matter began to exist. Both are compatible with monotheism, but only the latter works with Christian monotheism.

Why contingency matters

Defining Terms (Contingency and Necessity)

Contingency, if you are unfamiliar with the term, does not apply solely to funds or plans. It is simply the opposite of necessity, closely related to determinism, but not the same. One must be careful here, because it does not mean “indeterminate.” Indeterminate means unpurposed. Similarly Undefined means not known or in a state of flux (or similar things). Contingent things do have a definite existence, and may actually be purposed or have a purpose (though not necessarily), but are nevertheless not fixed in the means to an end, or even on the exact particulars of an end. Often contingency is used in terms of free will or, in physics, to speak of sub atomic particles and their interactions (and often in physics contingency is used interchangeably with indeterminism, but the terms are distinct, and there is a small debate about whether particles are just contingent or also indeterminate when in superposition).

For the purposes of this post, then, the question is whether material stuff is contingent or necessary. If something is necessary, then it is eternal, that is it must always have existed. The reason for this is that if there was a time when it was not (or will not be), then it is not, by virtue of that, a necessary entity. For those who have had intro to philosophy, the ontological argument for God’s existence presented by Anselm essentially argues that God is a necessary being (and thus must always exist). To be clear, though, one can reject the ontological argument for the existence of God as valid while nevertheless affirming that God is necessary. In short, necessary things must always exist. The converse is also true: if something always exists (that is, it is eternal), then it must be necessary. I should make one further clarification that I am not using eternal in the technical philosophical sense and so it is (for this post) interchangeable with everlasting.

Contrast that with contingency, which means that something is necessarily dependent upon something else. If it were necessary, it would have always existed and thus it would not be dependent upon some other being. However, if it is contingent, then there must have been some time (or will be some time) when it will not exist. It is not eternal, and thus its existence is dependent (or we might say contingent, based upon the existence and/or causal interaction of) some other thing.

This leaves us with two options, then, if the physical/material universe is eternal (always existed) it is necessary. If, however, it is not necessary it must be contingent, which means it had to have come into being.

Picking contingency

If we are to say something was created, yet also claim that it is eternal, then it must be necessarily created. The problem with this kind of language in talking about God is that it suggests that God is somehow required to create the physical world. That is a genuine restriction upon God that we cannot have if we assume, as we are, that God is omnipotent. So may we affirm that the material universe just was, and wasn’t created?

Leaving aside the biblical argument (that is that the bible says God created), let’s examine this purely philosophically. If the universe is necessary, then that means it must always be. It cannot be destroyed (modern physics calls this the law of conservation of mass, matter cannot be created or destroyed). I’ll get to the scientific issues another day. For the moment, what would this mean with respect to our picture of God? Yet again, it would mean that something exists which a) is non-dependent upon God (which could compromise our view of sovereignty) and, perhaps more importantly at present, b) acts as another barrier to the power, omnipotence, of God. Unlike “square circles” and “rocks so big God can’t lift it” this would present a genuine problem. This is not a self-contradictory limitation (as the others are). However, there is no reason to assume that we are required to choose that.

Thus, for Christian theology, we cannot say that the physical universe is either necessary or eternal. This means that it is contingent, and it’s existence is based upon God’s action to create. Thus the universe had a beginning (and could, conceivably, have an end). In order for it to have a beginning, then, we say it was created. Since there was no prior material “stuff” for it to be created from, we say it was created from nothing (or ex nihilo). Next week I’ll go through some of the other implications of this.

Post Navigation