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Showing posts with the label #Theology

Time wasted on bad theology—and its temptations.

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When I was a teenager I wanted an audio bible. At the time I couldn’t afford one. This was back when they were on cassette tapes, and cost about $150. No foolin’. So I decided the only alternative was to do it myself. I cracked open a six-pack of blank cassettes, cracked open my bible, and started recording. Started with the New Testament. Got as far as Acts. Definitely took more than six cassettes!Then I came across an audio New Testament for $20. (Narrated by James Earl Jones, too.) For a brief moment there I thought about not buying it. After all, I’d spent a lot of time making one on my own. I didn’t wanna consider it time (and cassettes) wasted. But what made more sense?—buy the superior product, or persist in doing it myself?Yep, I bought the audio bible. Years later I finally got the Old Testament too, ’cause someone put Alexander Scourby’s narration on the internet, and even though I only had a dial-up modem, I patiently downloaded every single tinny file. I’ve since bought pr…

We’re wrong about God, y’know.

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One of my favorite Peanuts strips goes a little something like this. (I liked it so much I used to include it in the Theology banner.)
Peanuts, 9 August 1976. Peanuts WorldwideTheology is the study of God. If we’re gonna follow God we gotta study him. Gotta find out what he wants, what he expects of us. Heck, gotta find out if he’s even a “he,” and we’re not using the wrong pronoun. (Fastest way to yank the chain of certain Christians: Use a different one. But let up after you’ve freaked them out a few minutes. Be nice.)Square One of theology is humility, the recognition of who we truly are. And who are we?Well the most common Christian response to that question is “Um… nobody really.” Which isn’t entirely true. That’s the answer we give ’cause our fellow Christians expect it of us… and it’s hypocrisy, because we don’t really have that low an opinion of ourselves. It’s false humility: Pretending to be what we deep down know we’re not. If we truly thought we were nobody, we’d figure our…

When God became human.

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INCARNATE'ɪn.kɑrn.eɪtverb. Put an immaterial thing (i.e. an abstract concept or idea) into a concrete form.2. Put a deity or spirit into a human form, i.e. Hindu gods.3.ɪn'kɑr.nətadjective. Embodied in flesh, or concrete form.[Incarnation ɪn.kɑr'neɪ.ʃənnoun, reincarnation 're.ɪn.kɑr.neɪ.ʃənnoun.]Most of our Christian theology lingo tends to come from Greek and Latin. This one too. Why? Because they sound much more formal and sanctimonious than plain English. When you literally translate ’em from Greek and Latin, they make people flinch. Incarnate is one of those words: In-carnátio is Latin for “put into meat.”Yep, put into meat. Nope, it’s not a mistranslation. It’s an accurate description of what happened to Jesus. The word of God—meaning God—became flesh. Meat.John 1.14 KWLThe word was made flesh. He encamped with us. We got a good look at his significance—the significance of a father’s only son—filled with grace and truth.Not temporarily; not for just the few decade…

Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

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Recently a friend was trying to emphasize to me how mysterious God is:SHE. “God is almighty, right? So can he create a rock so heavy, he can’t lift it?”ME. “Yes of course he could create such a rock.”SHE. [figuring she got me] “But if he can’t lift it, then is he really almighty? Is he really God?”ME. “Well first of all, God isn’t defined by his almightiness. But second of all, it’s a poor sort of almightiness that can’t create paradoxes.”Yeah, she didn’t realize this wasn’t my first go-around with this particular question. I grew up inflicting it on my Sunday school teachers, just to see whether I liked any of their answers. (Seldom did I.) Theology professors still use it to mess with the minds of their students. I came up with my own answer back in seminary, just to mess with the minds of my theology professors.But like my professors, she wanted to go back to my first comment, and object to it a little: The idea God isn’t defined by his almightiness.Yep, the belief he is defined by…

Who gets to define what heresy is?

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Not me. Nor you. It was defined long ago.HERESY'hɛr.ə.sinoun. Belief or opinion contrary to Christian orthodoxy.[Heretic 'hɛr.ə.tɪkadjective, heretical hə'rɛd.ə.kəladjective.]I’m involved in a discussion group or two. In one of them, the subject of Darbyism came up: One of the group members is Darbyist, and wanted a shout-out from all the other Darbyists in the group. Turns out a lot of us aren’t Darbyist at all, and some of us started to condemn Darbyism as faithless and unbiblical. (’Cause it is.) Not that this moved the Darbyist any; everyone in his church believes in that crap, so he’s entirely sure he’s in the right. But I’m pretty sure he was surprised, if not horrified, at the backlash.Especially once a newbie to the group decided to pitch in his two cents—and declare Darbyism is heresy.Now there, he went too far. And got a little backlash himself; some of it from the very same folks who take issue with Darbyism. ’Cause that belief system is wrong, but we don’t go t…

Evil comes from within.

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Mark 7.14-16 • Matthew 15.10-11.So Jesus is lunching with some Pharisee, who has a snit about how he and his students don’t ritually wash when they enter a home, and Jesus turns round and complains how some Pharisee rituals violate the Law.Now you do recognize it’s a common weaselly debate tactic to change the subject by attacking your opponent, but you should realize Jesus is no weasel: This wasn’t changing the subject, but getting to the very heart of why the Pharisee complained about hand-washing. He wasn’t insisting on it ’cause it offended his sensibilities, his religion, his devotion. He was doing it because it didn’t look good, which is hypocrisy of course. Too much of Pharisee custom was about appearing to follow the Law, but really following custom; the Law not so much. And as for ritual cleanliness, Jesus wanted to make it obvious the ritual didn’t make anybody or anything clean. The ritual—like all rituals, including Christian rituals—only represents what it purports to do…

God our Mother.

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Our hangups about gender get in the way of understanding the Almighty. Years ago I observed a rather heated discussion between two people about which pronoun to use for the Holy Spirit.See, when people don’t know the Holy Spirit, they tend to refer to him as “it”—they think he’s a force, or God’s power, or otherwise don‘t realize he’s a person. The Greek word for spirit, πνεῦμα/néfma, isn’t much help in making this determination: In English nearly all our nouns are neuter, but in nearly every other language they’re not; they’re either masculine or feminine. Well, Greek has masculine, feminine, and neuter… and néfma is neuter. The writers of the New Testament didn’t try to masculinize it either, and turn it into πνεῦμος/néfmos or give it masculine noun-markers like ὁ πνεῦμα/o néfma, “the [he]-Spirit.” Nope, they went with the usual πνεῦμα ἅγιον/Néfma Ághion, “Holy Spirit”; τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦθεοῦ, “God’s Spirit”—both neuter. Every reference to the Spirit in the NT is neuter.But in the Old Te…

Ghosts: The human spirit.

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And of course some of the mythology about ’em. Technically “ghost“ means the very same thing as “spirit.” It’s why “Holy Spirit” and “Holy Ghost” refer to the very same person.But over the last century English-speakers have grown to think of “ghosts” as the spirits of the dead. Humans usually. Sometimes animals. Whereas “spirit” can refer to an incorporeal being of any sort. But it wasn’t so long ago the words were fully interchangeable—as y’might notice in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The “ghosts” of Christmas Past, Christmas Present, and Christmas Yet to Come, were not dead humans; the ghost of Jacob Marley was, though.So. Since everybody nowadays equates “ghost” with dead humans, in this article so do I.Humans are part spirit. In our makeup, we have a spirit; a non-material, incorporeal part of ourselves. When we die, the soul ceases to exist, but this spirit continues on. When we get resurrected, it goes back into our new body, and we once again become a living soul. This s…

What are spirits?

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And of course some of the mythology about ’em. SPIRIT'spɪ.rɪtnoun. A non-physical being; a supernatural being.2. A person’s non-physical parts (such as emotions or character), which are considered a person’s true self, survives physical death, and possibly manifests as a ghost.3. [capitalized] The Holy Spirit.4. Qualities, characteristics, or emotions of a person or thing, which are considered their defining attributes: the spirit of the plan.5. Emotion or mood, usually positive: I hope this lifts your spirits.6. True intentions or attitude: It’s the spirit of the rule, not the letter.7. Liquor or another volatile liquid.8. [verb] Taken quickly and secretly.The bible regularly refers to non-physical beings. We call ’em spirits. Our English word comes from the Latin spirare/“breathe,” and the Hebrew and Greek words for spirit ( ‏רוּחַ/ruákh, πνεῦμα/pnéfma) likewise literally mean “breath” or “wind.” The bible’s authors didn’t call it that because they literally believed spirit is t…

What Pelagius did or didn’t teach.

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Not that people aren’t gonna try to debate the idea. Last week I wrote about Pelagianism, the belief humans are inherently good. It’s a common and popular idea, but it’s heresy. The ancient Christians condemned it at the Council of Ephesus in the year 431.For good reason. If humans are fundamentally good—not profoundly corrupted by selfishness and sin—in theory it’s possible for one of us to live an uncorrupted life. Without sin. And in so doing, merit heaven all on one’s own. Without Jesus. After all, what might Jesus add to one’s inherent goodness? Nothing but a rubber stamp.Well. Once the article went live, it annoyed various Pelagians. Some of whom had no idea they were actually Pelagian! They always presumed humans are basically good, and hate the idea we’re not. Likewise they hate the idea they’re heretic, ’cause too many Christians wrongly think “heretic” means “going to hell.” So them’s fighting words.I didn’t write the article to pick a fight with Pelagians. I wrote it to inf…

Are Mormons Christian?

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I’ve written more than once that we’re saved by God’s grace—which means we’re not saved by our orthodoxy. There are a lot of Evangelical Christians who’ve got it into our heads that we’re saved only once we have all the correct beliefs; a situation I call faith righteousness.Faith righteousness is easily disproven by the fact God saves new Christians. Does any newbie hold all the correct beliefs about God? Of course not; they don’t know anything yet! None of us did. (Some of us still don’t.) But we’re pursuing a relationship with God, and as we screw up time and again, God graciously forgives our deficiencies. Might be moral deficiencies; might be doctrinal deficiencies. Makes no difference. Grace covers all.Of course, when I teach this, people occasionally wanna know just how far they can push God’s grace. They wanna know just how egregiously they can sin before God finally says, “Nope; you’ve gone too far; you’re going to hell.” Not necessarily because they wanna sin (although let’s…

Pelagianism: “Humanity’s not all that bad.”

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When Christians imagine we’re good enough for heaven.PELAGIANpə'leɪ.dʒi.ənadjective. Denies the Christian doctrines of original sin and total depravity: Believes humans are inherently good, able to make unselfish choices, and can be worthy of heaven on our own merits.SEMI-PELAGIANsɛm.aɪ.pə'leɪ.dʒi.ənadjective. A Pelagian whom we kinda like.Every once in a while somebody, usually a theology nerd like me, is gonna fling around the terms Pelagian and semi-Pelagian. Hopefully they know what they’re talking about. Many don’t, and are just using those words to mean heretic. ’Cause in the year 431, the Council of Ephesus declared Pelagianism to be heresy—so whether critics understand Pelagianism, councils, or heresy, what they’re really trying to say is the person’s wrong, and any label will do.So let’s back up a bunch. A Pelagian, like I said in the definition, believes humans are inherently good. Children are born innocent, and if nothing upends that natural innocence, stay good an…

I am not the baseline. (Neither are you.)

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Which, as a follower of Jesus, I’m not allowed to presume. He should be our baseline. Whenever I have God-experiences, ranging from when he tells me stuff during prayer time, to watching him cure the sick, my usual response is humility. ’Cause it’s God, you know. Even though Christians who live a life of faith oughta see miracles on a regular basis, and oughta have the Holy Spirit empower us to do all sorts of supernatural things, I can’t imagine growing indifferent or jaded to the fact God’s doing stuff. He’s still awesome, and it’s incredibly gracious of him to include and involve us in everything he’s doing.Fells this way to me, anyway.To others… well yeah, their bad behavior and bad fruit kinda indicate they do take God’s presence and power for granted. I’m thinking in certain pastors and Christian ministers in particular; some I know personally. They tend to be unkind, judgmental, fearful, and ungracious. Their financial practices are suspect at best, conniving at worst. I needn’…

“Faith-righteousness”: Saved by what you believe.

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Christians who think having the right beliefs saves them—and don’t realize orthodoxy is simply a good work. FAITH RIGHTEOUSNESS /'feɪθ raɪ.tʃəs.nəs/ n. A right standing (with God or others) achieved through orthodox beliefs.I coined the term “faith righteousness” some years ago. It’s a common American belief, based on several false ideas.First of all misdefined faith. Properly faith means trust; and Christian faith means trust in God. When we Christians talk about “justification by faith,” what this properly means is we trust God, and God considers us all right with him based on that trust. Y’know, like when Abraham trusted God, Ge 15.6 which was the foundation of their relationship. (And the foundation for Paul’s teachings on justification. Ro 4.3)But in popular American culture, faith means one’s belief system. It’s a definition we find all over Christianity too, especially among Christians who don’t care for the word “religion,” and like to use the word “faith” instead: “I don’…

Tradition: Customs which (should) help us follow Jesus.

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Some of it good, some of it bad, all of it debatable—and those who don’t wanna debate a thing. TRADITION /trə'dɪ.ʃən/ n. Beliefs and customs passed down from generation to generation.[Traditional /trə'dɪ.ʃən.əl/ adj.]CHRISTIAN TRADITION /'krɪs.ʃcən trə'dɪ.ʃən/ n. Someone other than the Holy Spirit, or something other than the bible, which taught you Christianity.The first time we were introduced to Jesus, for most of us it wasn’t a personal introduction. He didn’t appear to us personally, like he did Stephen or Paul or Ananias.Nope. We learned of him secondhand, through other Christians—parents, relatives, friends, evangelists, preachers, writers, and so on. We interacted with those other Christians, heard their stories, heard of their own God-experiences, put our faith in these people, and followed the Jesus they shared with us till we eventually had our own experiences of him. (You have had your own experiences, right? I would hope so.)But despite those personal expe…

Election: God did choose you, y’know.

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Because you didn’t just wander into Christianity. God wants you. ELECTə'lɛktverb Choose for a purpose or position, like a political contest or a job.2.noun. A person (or people) chosen by God for a purpose or position. [Often “the elect.”][Elector ə'lɛk.tərnoun, election ə'lɛk.ʃənnoun.]I grew up with a Christian mom, a Christian upbringing, and lots of relationships with people who happened to be Christian. Whole lot of opportunities to have God-experiences. It’s kinda like I was set up: Stuff was deliberately stuck in my path to influence me to become Christian.Other Christians didn’t grow up the same way, of course. Things were a lot less Christian, a lot more pagan—or they grew up with another religion altogether. But at one point in their lives they were obviously nudged in Christ Jesus’s direction. Maybe they had a rough patch and Christians showed up to point ’em to Jesus. Maybe a miracle happened and they realized, not just that God’s here, but that Jesus defines hi…

When people can see God.

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Or to use the theologians’ term for it, theophanies. THEOPHANY /θi'ɑ.fə.ni/ n. An experience where God is visible; often hearable and touchable.Recently a member of a discussion group I’m in was talking about apostles: One of his definitions of apostle is someone who’s seen Jesus. You know, like the Twelve—and Paul of Tarsus, whom he figures was a special case, because Jesus doesn’t do that sort of thing anymore.There I entirely disagree. Jesus appears to people all the time. Poll the people of your church sometime. Assuming they’re not afraid to admit it (either because your church doesn’t believe in miracles, and in so doing has kinda banned them; or they’re afraid you’ll think them nuts) you might be startled to discover at least one of them has seen Jesus. And no, not a painting of him, nor a Jesus movie: Seen Jesus.I went into more detail about this in my article on the subject. Jesus can and does appear to people, still. This is the usual form a God-sighting will take place …

God’s superabundant riches.

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Ephesians 3.13-21.God’s great mystery, now revealed to the world through Paul, was God’s kingdom now includes gentiles. Previous generations didn’t realize this, despite plenty of hints in the Old Testament; it’s why Pharisees were regularly so dismissive of gentiles. But God now wants his church to make it crystal clear: The good news is for everyone. No exceptions. Jesus is Lord of all.This was why he was in chains, Paul explained. Ep 3.1 In Acts he proclaimed Jesus had sent him to the gentiles—in temple, of all places. Ac 22.21 The resulting riot got the Romans to arrest him, Ac 22.22-24 originally to flog him and silence him, but Paul’s citizenship meant it quickly turned into protective custody, as the Judean leadership sought to get him killed. At the time he wrote Ephesians, we figure he was awaiting trial in Rome. His legal woes were entirely provoked by the very idea of including gentiles in God’s kingdom. But Paul wasn’t so petty as to blame gentiles for his situation. Wasn’…

Adoption in the Roman Empire—and God’s kingdom.

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Ephesians 1.11-14.Last time I focused on predestination, God’s great plan to save the world, which Paul spelled out for everyone who read his letter to the Ephesians. We get redemption, forgiveness, goodwill, God’s riches, etc. Ep 1.7-10We get this through adoption. The plan was for God to adopt us as his kids.Ephesians 1.4-6 KWL4 Namely how God chose us in Christ to be holy—spotless before his presence—before the world’s foundation!In love, 5 through Christ Jesus, God predestined us for adoption to himself—according to the goodwill of his will,6 in glorious praise of God’s grace, which he poured out on us in love.The problem is adoption nowadays, doesn’t look all that much like adoption back in the first-century Roman Empire. So this passage makes less of an impact than it should. Lemme fix that.In every culture there are kids without parents. They had biological parents, but those parents are unable, unfit, or unwilling to raise children. So their children are on their own… unless s…

Predestination and the Ephesians.

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Ephesians 1.1-10.Eleven years ago I led a year-long bible study on Ephesians.Seriously, a year. Every Sunday I took about two or three verses and analyzed the pants off ’em. Some of the participants in our group loved it, ’cause they’d never dug into the scriptures to such depth. Others figured I could’ve whipped through that letter in four weeks, ’cause every other bible study they’d been to had done so. Taking 50 weeks (’cause you gotta take a week or two off, y’know) felt to them like overkill.Meh; maybe. I will say I’ll take considerably less than a year in this go-around. So let’s start.Ephesians 1.1-3 KWL1 Paul, by God’s will an apostle of Christ Jesus, to those in Ephesus who are holy and trusting Christ Jesus.2 Grace to you. Peace from God our Father, and master Christ Jesus—3 blessed God, and Father of our master Christ Jesus!God’s the one who blesses us,in every supernatural blessing in the high heavens, in Christ!The “to Ephesus” in verse 1 was blank in the original. That’s…