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Showing posts with label #Theology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #Theology. Show all posts

04 September 2018

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

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’t have a religion; I have a faith.” Meaning—to their minds—they don’t have rituals they do, but things they believe. Proper beliefs; correct beliefs; orthodoxy. And these things comprise “my faith”—and this winds up the “faith” they’re thinking of when they talk about “justification by faith.” We believe certain things about God, and God considers us all right with him based on our beliefs.

You should be able to immediately see how this can go wrong. Thing is, if you’ve been practicing faith righteousness all your life, you’ve got some pretty heavy blinders on, and your response is gonna be, “I don’t see what the big deal is. Of course we’re all right with God because our beliefs. And heretics aren’t all right with God; they’re going to hell. What, are you suggesting they’re not going to hell?”

No; I’m pointing out if you’re correct—that God determines whether we’re destined for his kingdom or hell based on our beliefs—you’re going to hell.

28 August 2018

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

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 experiences we’ve had of Jesus, most of the things we still think, believe, and practice as Christians, aren’t based on those personal God-experiences. They’re based on what our fellow Christians did and do. We go to church, see how our fellow Christians worship Jesus, and do as they do. Or we read some book about ways to worship Jesus, and do as the book suggests. Or we hear about some Christian practice, think, “I wanna try that,” and try that.

We draw from the collective experience of the Christians we know. It’s called tradition.

Yeah, there are plenty of people who are anti-tradition. Many of them are irreligious, but a number of ’em aren’t happy with the traditions they grew up with, so they’re trying to figure out better ways to follow Jesus. Which is fine if they’re authentically following Jesus! It’s just a lot of times they’re not. And a lot of other times, they’re anti-tradition because they were taught tradition is dead religion. Which it can be, and can become.

But every Christian follows one tradition or another. Because tradition isn’t just the dead doctrines of formal churches. Tradition is Mom and Dad, who taught you to pray and read your bible. Tradition is Sunday school teachers, who tell you what the bible means. Tradition is Pastor, who encourages you to follow Jesus. Tradition is your favorite Christian authors and podcasters. Tradition is me.

Tradition is anything or anyone, other than the Holy Spirit or bible or Jesus himself, who shows you how to follow Jesus. Sometimes it takes the form of customs and rituals. More often it takes the form of “This is how we do it,” or “This is how it’s always been done.” Whether these customs were passed all the way down from the first apostles, or invented last week by a clever worship pastor, they’re still tradition. Still the teachings of fellow humans on how best to follow God.

And some of these teachings are really good stuff!

And some of ’em aren’t. That’s why we gotta use our heads and figure out which of them is valid, and which aren’t. Which of them will work for us, and which won’t. How some of them might be bent, or might be getting bent, into something which really doesn’t bring us closer to Jesus at all… and how some of them which aren’t so effective might be made effective.

Don’t just assume all traditions are all good. Or all evil. Test everything. Keep the beneficial stuff. Chuck the useless stuff. 1Th 5.21 Including all the practices you invented… which are turning into your own little traditions. Don’t be too tightly wedded to them, ’cause they might not help your relationship with Jesus as much as you imagine, and might need adjusting, adapting, refining… or rejecting.

15 August 2018

Election: God did choose you, y’know.

Because you didn’t just wander into Christianity. God wants you.

ELECT /ə'lɛkt/ v. Choose for a purpose or position, like a political contest or a job.
2. n. A person (or people) chosen by God for a purpose or position. [Often “the elect.”]
[Elector /ə'lɛk.tər/ n., election /ə'lɛk.ʃən/ n.]

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 him best. In some cases Jesus even personally showed up and told them to follow him—’cause he does that.

The fact is, God wants to save everybody. Jesus died to make it possible, and everybody’s been given the invitation to come to Jesus, be adopted by God, and enter his kingdom. Everybody, without exception, is invited. He’s not turning anyone away. (Unless they clearly don’t want him, or don’t mean it; but those are other discussions.)

But. Even though God’s invitation is for anyone and everyone, there are lots of individuals whom he makes a particular effort to save. Like me, ’cause he set me up to become Christian. Like you, more than likely: When you look back on your life, chances are you can think of many situations where God was getting your attention, moving you into place, coming after you. Some of them were really obvious moves on his part. Some were more subtle. Hey, whatever got you into the kingdom. But God definitely, specifically, wanted you.

And when that’s the case we Christians call it election.

09 August 2018

When people can see God.

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 nowadays. God doesn’t have to appear in pillars of cloud and flame, or burning bushes, or thunder on a mountain, or any such thing. The form he took when he became human will do him just fine from now on.

But before he became human, God appeared in all sorts of odd ways to his people. ’Cause sometimes he felt he had to make a personal appearance… so he did.

Remember, God is spirit. Jn 4.24 So most of the time he’s gonna interact with us humans in spiritual ways. In other words, non-physical ways: Won]t see him, won’t hear him, won’t feel him, won’t smell or taste him, won’t detect him through some poorly defined sixth sense. Various Christians claim to sense him, but 99 times out of 100 they’ve confused their emotions (or the really good subwoofers in their church) with “feeling the Spirit.” Or they’ve psyched themselves into an experience.

But in that one time in 100, God chooses to become detectable to our senses. He appears to people. We theologians call this a theophany. It’s one of the five forms of revelation (which’d be prayer, prophecy, bible, conscience, and theophany). When we’re too dense for one of those other forms to do the job, sometimes God resorts to making an appearance.

The bible begins with God-appearances. (’Cause the other forms of revelation weren’t around yet.) God made a habit of hanging around Eden with Adam and Eve. They could even hear him coming. Ge 3.8 True, he didn’t have to physically do this. He could’ve walked with the first humans the same way Jesus “walks” with most of us, answering our prayers and guiding us through life. But he didn’t wanna. Most of the reason he became human is because he still doesn’t wanna. We’re the ones who freak out over God-appearances.

Exodus 20.18-19 KWL
18 All the people saw the sound, the bright light, the trumpet’s call, the smoking mountain—
the people saw, trembled, and stood far away.
19 They told Moses, “You speak with us so we can hear.
Don’t have God speak with us, lest we die.”

As if God had any intention of destroying them. (Yet.) But that’s the problem: God’s grandeur, even in small doses, freaks us out beyond reason and understanding. Mk 9.2-6 The popular belief was, and still is, that if we actually see God as he literally is, our fragile selves can’t take it, Ex 33.20 and we’ll drop stone dead. Dt 18.16, Jn 13.22 And y’know, there’s likely something to that.

So when God appeared to people in the scriptures, he usually appeared as a man Ge 18.1-16 or angel. Jg 13.21-22 The “Angel of the LORD” may only have been a herald who represented God, but consistent with ancient practice, people addressed it as if it was God, and Christians wonder whether this angel wasn’t God in some angelic form. (Other Christians figure it was Jesus before Jesus became human… and since Jesus is God, it’s sorta the same idea.)

06 August 2018

God’s superabundant riches.

If we could only grasp how much of them there are.

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’t their fault.

On the contrary: The gentiles drove him to rejoice.

Ephesians 3.13-17 KWL
13 So I request you don’t despair over my suffering for you—which is in your honor.
14 It’s why I bend my knees to the Father, 15 for whom every “fatherland” in heaven and on earth is named.
16 So he could give you power from his glorious riches, make you strong in his Spirit in the person within,
17 and settle Christ in your hearts, planted and established through faith in love.

When Paul wrote of bending his knees to the Father, Ep 3.14 Christians miss the importance of this, ’cause it’s an old Christian custom to kneel to pray. But first-century Judeans (and Christians) didn’t pray like that. They prayed standing up, facing the sky, arms outstretched. Mk 11.25, Lk 18.13 You didn’t kneel unless you were begging God to answer your petition—like when Jesus begged not to suffer, Lk 22.41 or Simon Peter begged God to raise a dead woman. Ac 9.40 Paul was begging God for his prayer requests. Begging the Ephesians would get “power from his glorious riches,” would be “strong in his Spirit,” that God’d “settle Christ in [their] hearts.” He wanted the Ephesians to become solid Christians. (’Cause they were good Christians, Ep 1.15 but could always be better!)

Every “fatherland,” Paul pointed out, is named for the Father. This is a bit of Greek wordplay, so it’s a little tricky to translate. Paul compared patír/“father” and patriá/“homeland.” He correctly pointed out the word patriá comes from patír. Originally patriá meant “family,” and the KJV translated it that way: “Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.” Ep 3.15 KJV But a patriá wasn’t just one small little family, but a national family—the ethnic identity of an entire nation. Back then, nations figured a significant part of their national identity was in being descendants of a common ancestor. You know, like Judeans all figured they were descendants of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah: They were “the children of Israel.”

Nowadays we consider that idea racist… ’cause it is. Especially in empires like the Roman Empire, which were multinational; or nations like the United States, which are based on shared ideals and rights instead of culture and ancestry. And God’s kingdom is both of those things: It’s an empire where everyone’s adopted, Ep 1.5 where our common allegiance to Jesus and his teachings mean race should make no difference. And lest anyone forget this, Paul pointed out how every ethnic identity has its origin in God the Father. He put people-groups where he wants ’em, Ac 17.26 and now he wants ’em in his kingdom, the patriá of heaven. A one-world government, under God, indivisible.

13 July 2018

Problematic worship music.

The stuff I listen to. And don’t.

We sang a song in my church last Sunday, “Set a Fire” by Will Reagan & United Pursuit. It’s hardly the first time; we’ve worshiped with it dozens of times before. It was a popular song on the radio for a while, ’cause it’s catchy. We like the “I want more of you God” bit, and how there’s no place we’d rather be than in God’s love and presence.

But, to paraphrase Jesus, Rv 2.4 I have this against it. Here’s the relevant portion:

(So) set a fire down in my soul
That I can’t contain and I can’t control
I want more of you God
I want more of you God

What’s wrong with it? Well, that fire we can’t contain and can’t control.

The idea runs contrary to the Holy Spirit’s fruit of self-control. There should be nothing in our lives which we can’t take hold of. Yes, even things of the Spirit. For

1 Corinthians 14.32-33 KWL
32 Prophets’ spirits are in submission to the prophets,
33A for God doesn’t do disorder, but peace.

The prayer, “God, would you please just take me over and make me do [thing we lack the self-control to do],” is a really popular one. But it’s not one God wants to say yes to. He’s trying to develop self-control in us; he shouldn’t have to take such matters into his hands. (And y’might notice whenever he does, people really don’t like it as much as we imagined we would.)

So Christians might like the idea of more zeal. More “fire down in my soul” which we claim is beyond our ability to contain. Problem is, zealous Christians have consistently used that zeal as an excuse for unkind, unchristian, fruitless, godless behavior. An out-of-control Christian is always a harmful Christian. When have you ever seen someone who loves others (following the proper definition of love, of course) out of control? Well you don’t, ’cause love behaves itself.

Problem is, in many a church Christians are more familiar with the worship song than the bible. True of most worship songs. We quote them. We follow them. Less so Jesus.

I guarantee you this song’s fans, as soon as they hear this critique, will immediately swoop in to defend the song. “Oh that’s not what the songwriter meant to say.” Fair enough; it may not be what he meant. But it is what he said, and is how Christians are gonna interpret it. Good intentions don’t redeem a song. Better lyrics, better aligned with the scriptures, do.

But people don’t determine our favorite songs by the lyrics. We like the music.

03 July 2018

Pagans and theology.

When pagans wanna do theology, they’re gonna do it wrong.

People who aren’t Christian regularly critique Christianity: What we believe, what our churches teach, how we practice. I regularly lump ’em into three categories:

  1. Antichrists who offer no constructive criticism, and don’t care whether their complaints are valid or not: They just wanna bash Christians.
  2. The clueless, who overheard the antichrists’ complaints and think they’re valid. They honestly don’t know any better.
  3. Those with valid complaints, who take us to task when we truly are inconsistent or hypocritical.

There’s not a lot we can do with the antichrists, much as Christian apologists might foolishly try. (Pearls before pigs, guys. Mt 7.6) The clueless can be reasoned with, but when they’re not merely clueless but downright anti-Christianity, shake the dust off and leave them be.

But the valid critics must be taken seriously. Because they’re right. We Christians do teach one thing and do another. We preach forgiveness and grace and mercy when it comes to evangelism… then we turn round and preach eye-for-eye karma when it comes to our criminal justice system. We preach we’re to love everyone, including enemies, but as soon as a person in our churches commits a sin we consider beyond the pale (like vote for the opposition party) we ostracize them like they’re leprous. We preach against nonmarital sexual activity, but our stats on cohabitation, unwed pregnancy, and abortion are the same or greater than the national average. We’re all kinds of inconsistent—and I haven’t even touched on hypocrisy yet. Probably don’t need to; we know better.

When the valid critics are right, don’t defend our bad behavior. Agree with them. We’re sinners too. But please don’t use that rubbish line, “We’re not perfect; just forgiven.” We’re supposed to work on being perfect. We’re expected to stop sinning, stop being hypocrites, stop taking God’s grace for granted, and be good. We don’t; we aren’t; we suck. Admit it and repent.

However. Sometimes we’re gonna come across the complaint, “Y’know what your real problem is: Your religion needs to be updated. You need to get with the times and get rid of those out-of-date beliefs.” They suggest we stop believing certain things are sins, or quit believing in miracles, or stop believing in mysterious hard-to-fathom stuff. They want us to change our theology—and can’t understand why it’s not as easy as all that.

It’s a particular sort of cluelessness.

22 May 2018

Saved exclusively through Jesus.

It’s the exclusivity that bugs people.

One of the things about Christianity that offends people most is how we claim we can only be saved through Christ Jesus.

We do have bible to back up the idea, y’know.

Acts 4.8-12 KWL
8 Then Simon Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, told them, “Leaders of the people and elders:
9 If we’re investigated today about a good deed to a disabled man—how was he cured?—
10 it must be made known to you all, and all Israel’s people:
In the name of Messiah Jesus the Nazarene—whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—
by this Jesus, this disabled man stands before you, cured.
11 This Jesus is ‘the stone dismissed by you builders, who became the head cornerstone.’ Ps 118.22
12 Salvation isn’t found in anyone else, nor is there given to people
another name under heaven by whom it’s necessary for us to be saved.”

Jesus is the only way by which people have access to God:

John 14.5-7 KWL
5 Thomas told Jesus, “Master, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?”
6 Jesus told Thomas, I’m the way. And truth, and life. Nobody comes to the Father unless through me.
7 If you knew me, you’ll also know my Father.
From now on you know him. You’ve seen him.”

These absolute statements make Christianity exclusive: You gotta have a relationship with Jesus if you want to get to God. There’s no getting around Jesus. He is how God chose to reveal himself, so if we reject Jesus, we’re rejecting what God’s trying to tell us. Bluntly, we’d be rejecting God.

Now if you’re of another organized religion… big deal. Your religion already has its own claims of exclusivity. Muslims figure there’s no god but God—and Muhammad’s his messenger, so if you wanna know God you gotta embrace Muhammad’s revelations. Buddhists don’t even care about Jesus; he’s a nice guy, but they prioritize the Buddha’s teachings. And so forth.

What these absolute statements tend to annoy most, are those pagans who are trying to claim all religions are the same, or just as valid as one another, or that it’s okay if people have a hodgepodge of beliefs from every religion. Namely it’s okay if they make up an eclectic religion, where they get to pick ’n choose their favorite beliefs from here, there, and everywhere. But if there’s no getting to the Father apart from Jesus, and they’re trying to get to the Father every which way, it kinda reveals they don’t know what they’re doing.

A lot of Christians claim what these bible quotes mean is we must become Christians or we’re going to hell. And that’s not actually what they say. They say—no more, no less—that salvation comes exclusively through Jesus. Not that we gotta first become Christians. Not that we gotta first embrace Christian doctrines. These aren’t statements about the steps anyone has to take. They’re only statements about how God works: Through Jesus.

So if God chooses to save someone from one of those other religions, be they Muslim, Buddhist, pagan, even atheist: He’s only gonna do it through Jesus. Regardless of how they—or we—imagine salvation works.

Yeah, here’s where I start to confuse and lose people.

30 April 2018

Is Allah the same as God?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Read the article.

Back when I was growing up Fundamentalist, I went to a Sunday school class on “cults”—by which they meant heretic churches. They use that word ’cause of Walter Martin’s book The Kingdom of the Cults, in which he discussed various heretic churches, their history, and how they depart from orthodox Christianity. He used the word “cult” to describe these churches—’cause a number of them did try to curtail their members’ free will and free speech, in their early days. (Frankly, a lot of Fundies are pretty darn cultlike themselves, so it stands to reason they’d be happy to have “cult” mean anyone but them. But I digress.)

Anyway, in the “cults” class, the teacher was in the practice of referring to the heretic churches’ beliefs about God as “their God,” and beliefs about Jesus as “their Jesus.” So there was a Mormon God, a Jehovah’s Witness God, a Christian Science God, a Unitarian God, and so forth. Using this kind of language gave you the idea each of these groups had their very own god. Who certainly wasn’t our God, the LORD, the God of Abraham and Moses, the Father of Christ Jesus. These’d be other gods.

Oh, the teachers totally meant to give us that idea. Because that’s how they believed. They didn’t simply believe these heretics were wrong about God: They believed these heretics were worshiping a whole other god. A devil who was pretending to be God, who borrowed God’s title, but wasn’t really God. And if these heretics believed in Jesus, it wasn’t our Jesus whom they followed but—again—a devil pretending to be Jesus. And so on.

Where’d they come up with this idea? They loosely got it from the bible.

1 Corinthians 10.19-20 KWL
19 Then what am I implying?—that idol-sacrifice is real, or that idols are real? No.
20 Instead that they sacrifice to lesser gods. They don’t sacrifice to God.
I don’t want you to enter a relationship with lesser gods.
21 You can’t drink from the Master’s cup and from lesser gods’ cup.
You can’t eat at the Master’s table and from lesser gods’ table.
22 Or do we want the Master to be jealous?—we’re not stronger than him.

Pagans don’t worship real gods, but lesser gods, creatures which are in charge of various things in God’s creation, but obviously aren’t the God, the one true God. Daimónion, as they’re called in Greek—a word we’ve translated demons, and think of devils. Which they aren’t necessarily. Because we’re lesser gods. Ps 82.6, Jn 10.34 (God put us in charge of the planet, remember?) Lesser gods were never meant to be worshiped; that’s where we humans go wrong. And a lot of the things the pagan Greeks identified as “gods” were actual beings, actual lesser gods; but the Greeks worshiped them, and shouldn’t’ve.

Anyway, what the Fundies are doing is claiming, first of all, that heretic Christians aren’t actually Christian—they’re pagan. And as pagans, the God they believe in and worship can’t possibly be the real God. It’s gotta be some other god—one of those lesser gods, like Paul and Sosthenes pointed out in 1 Corinthians. A demon. They’re worshiping a demon.

Yikes.

Now let’s get to where the scriptures indicate that belief is entirely wrong.

15 March 2018

Heavily investing time in bad theology.

Don’t make an idol out of time misspent!

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, ’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 proper audio bibles.

What’s the point of this story? To single out the reason I almost didn’t buy that first audio bible: I put a lot of time into my do-it-yourself audio bible. Time gave value to that piece of junk. Oh let’s be honest; it was junk. But it was my junk.

In the very same way, probably the most common reason Christians cling to our incorrect beliefs, bad theology, and heresy, is a rather simple one: We too put an awful lot of time into our wrong ideas.

Some of us spent years on those ideas. Went to school and studied ’em for years. Wrote articles and books. Taught ’em in class after class, Sunday school after Sunday school. Defended doctoral theses on the subject. Kinda made it our subject, the idea we’re best known for.

We really don’t want all the time and effort to turn out a giant waste. And for some of us, there’s a great deal of professional pride wrapped up in them. So, better to defend the bad idea, than drop it and embrace the better one.

And if the Holy Spirit himself is trying to get us to doubt our misbegotten certainty? Easiest to block him out and pretend he’s not talking. Worse, to reject him and claim that’s not him talking; it’s the devil. Claim it’s Satan when it’s really God. You know, blasphemy.

Yeesh.

12 March 2018

Miracles: Actual acts of God.

As opposed to what insurance companies call “acts of God.”

Properly defined a miracle is anything God does or enables. If a human performs a miracle, it’s not legitimate—it’s trickery—if the Holy Spirit doesn’t empower it.

Improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as a violation of the laws of nature. Blame 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume for that one. Hume didn’t believe in miracles, but he did believe in science, and decided to set the two of them at odds with one another: If you believe in one, what’re you doing believing in the other? As a result, today we have a lot of Christians who don’t believe in science—and don’t think we’re allowed to believe in it. Likewise a lot of people who do trust science, but are under the misbelief they’re fools if they also trust God—and as a result they hide their religious beliefs from their colleagues. All for no good reason; over a false rivalry between apples and oranges.

Also improperly but popularly, a miracle is defined as anything which looks awesome, or really works out in our favor. So a newborn baby is a “miracle.” Our sports team beating the odds to win is a “miracle.” Figuring out how to land on the moon was a “miracle.” A stretch where we manage to avoid red lights while driving, a pretty sunset, a really good Reuben sandwich—all these things are “miracles.” We use the word for everything. Kinda ruins its impact.

But back to the proper definition: If God does it, it’s a miracle. So, newborn babies and sunsets sorta count, since God did create all the conditions for nature to form sunsets and babies. Less so with sporting events, cooking, lunar landings, and meaningless coincidences. We might think God’s involved ’cause we’re not so sure about human effort or coincidence. But if he’s not, it’s not.

19 February 2018

Yahweh. (Or Jehovah. Either way.)

The primary name of God… and its English translation.

Because our culture is largely monotheist, even when we refer to the lowercase-G “god,” we nearly always mean the One God, the Creator, the Almighty. Other gods, like Baal or Thor, haven’t even crossed our minds; if we do mean them, we have to spell out they’re who we meant. Most of the time, if you say “god,” you aren’t even thinking about them. (Nor thinking of the One God either, but that’s another issue for another day.)

Totally wasn’t the case 3,400 years ago, when “god” was more of a generic word for any being who was mightier than mere humanity. Heck, some kings even claimed they were gods. So when you said “god,” you had to spell out which god, and that was the issue when God sent Moses to go rescue the Hebrews from Egypt. Which god was sending Moses?

Exodus 3.13-15 KWL
13 Moses told God, “Look, I go to Israel’s sons and tell them, ‘Your ancestors’ god sends me to you.’
They’ll tell me, ‘What’s his name?’ What do I tell them?”
14 God told Moses, “EHYÉH ASHÉR EHYÉH.”
He said, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘EHYÉH sent me to you.’ ”
15 God further told Moses, “You’ll tell Israel’s sons this: ‘The LORD is your ancestors’ god.
Abraham’s god, Isaac’s god, Jacob’s god. He sent me to you.’
This is my name forever, to remember me by from generation to generation.”

Ehyéh/“I’m being” was a familiar word to the Hebrews, although it’s more a word you use with an adjective to describe yourself: “I’m being silly,” or “I’m being aggressive.” God went with “I’m being what I’m being” because the names and titles we choose for ourselves tend to define us—and God reserves the right to define himself any way he chooses. God is who he is. We don’t get to decide what he is.

The related word YHWH also means “I’m being,” but you’ll notice the bible never, ever uses it in that generic way. It’s only used to identify the One God. That’s his name. That’s the one he chose for himself, until he became human and chose to go by the Aramaic name Yeshúa/“YHWH saves” in the New Testament. Different name, but same being.

The reason I spell YHWH in all capitals is because we don’t actually know how to pronounce it. “Yahwéh” is an educated guess, based on the word ehyéh. And you might notice most Americans don’t even pronounce “Yahweh” correctly: We put the accent on the first syllable, American-style, and make it “Yáhweh.” We’re supposed to pronounce it like in the U2 song.

Of course the usual English translation of YHWH is “Jehovah,” which doesn’t even try to pronounce it correctly. Although originally it did.

09 January 2018

Wrongly defining God by his almightiness.

Humans worship power. Stands to reason they’d follow a powerful God.

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, that’s what people think, ’cause that’s what we were taught to think as children. Even pagan kids, when they’re taught what a “god” is, are taught it’s an almighty being, or at least an extremely powerful one. And Christians are taught God is, by definition, the Almighty. The Creator. The Prime Mover. The only one who can do absolutely anything. Omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. It’s what makes him God, innit? If he’s not almighty, he can’t really be God, right?

Wrong. That’s human thinking. That’s how we define gods, but it’s not how God defines himself. You wanna know how God defines himself, you look at Jesus. ’Cause Jesus is God.

Yet when he was walking around on the earth during his first coming, Jesus wasn’t almighty. He gave that up. Deliberately. On purpose.

28 December 2017

The Apostles Creed.

Orthodox Christianity, in a smaller nutshell.

My translation from the Latin—and as far as I can tell, the Latin’s the original.

I believe in God,
the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master.
He was conceived by the Holy Spirit; born from the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the afterlife.
The third day, he was resurrected from the dead.
He ascended to heaven; he sits at the almighty Father’s right hand.
From there he will come; he is judging the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church, communion of saints, forgiveness of sins,
bodily resurrection, and eternal life. Amen.

Whenever I bring up the Apostles Creed to Christians, I tend to get one of two reactions: Positive and negative.

I tend to get the positive response from Christians who grew up in formal, liturgical churches. Most of ’em can recite the creed right along with me… though the version I memorized is the Book of Common Prayer version, and most of ’em tend to know one of the Roman Missal versions. Minor wording differences.

If they didn’t grow up in such churches, or their churches never taught it to ’em, they might still know it. ’Cause they learned it as lyrics from a Rich Mullins song. Or someone else’s cover of that song. Or John Michael Talbot’s song, though that’s lesser-known.


Third Day and Brandon Heath perform Rich Mullins’ “Creed.” YouTube

05 December 2017

Humility, and the “cage-stage” Christian.

When we’re willing to toss fruit aside, and fight for our beliefs.

The first principle of theology is humility—knowing who and what you are, and not claiming you’re anything more. Or, as we so often see in false humility, less.

That means we’re fully aware we’re wrong, and Jesus is right. The purpose of theology isn’t to believe we’ve “arrived,” and defend our newly-acquired high ground. It’s to correct our beliefs, poor character, and bad attitudes. Because they’re misbegotten and wayward. We may be redeemed, but they’re not. Bearing this in mind, with the Holy Spirit’s help and power, the goal is to get those traits to match Jesus’s.

The problem? A lot of Christians have utterly skipped that first theology lesson. Or weren’t paying attention, ’cause they were too busy staring at the syllabus. Or promptly forgot all about it, ’cause all their new knowledge puffed ’em up. However it happened.

Hence they imagine theology’s first principle is, “I was wrong—but now I’m not. Jesus fixed me.” When he gave us new life, supposedly he gave us a new nature—his nature—so now we have the mind of Christ. 1Co 2.16 We think like Jesus does… or he thinks like we do; it’s all the same. We have arrived.


As Calvinist cartoonist Adam Ford depicts it. They don’t always foam at the mouth though. Adam 4d

I run into Christians with this mindset all the time. They’d be the folks who email me to explain, patiently or not, why I’m completely wrong. Or who show up on discussion boards to loudly, angrily correct everybody who varies ever so slightly with their infallible doctrines. Back when they were pagan, they’d get this way about plenty of other subjects, like politics and Star Wars. Now they do it with doctrine. Or apologetics.

There’s a term the Calvinists use when their young, overzealous theologians get like this—when they’re so enthusiastic about “the doctrines of grace,” they forget to be gracious altogether. Calvinists call it “the cage stage.”

The cage-stager is as eager to defend their theological territory as a junkyard dog. They’ll fight anyone. Even friends: You might believe precisely the same as they, but if (God forbid) you misstate the slightest idea, the cage-stager will tear your throat out. Best to lock ’em in a cage till they calm the heck down. Hence “cage stage”: Lots of knowledge, very little love.

Calvinists may have coined the term, and may be notorious for the behavior. But lemme tell ya, by no means do they have a monopoly on it. I’ve met cage-stage Fundamentalists, Catholics, people in my own denomination, people in heretic denominations. I’ve encountered cage-stage Jews and Muslims too. The phenomenon’s all over Christendom.

It’s a pitfall many Christians (myself included) fall right into during our early days of following Jesus. The devil’d love every Christian to fall into it, ’cause it nullifies much of the work we do for God’s kingdom. We’re too busy denouncing ideas, sins, and people we hate, to ever get round to loving people, and winning them to Jesus through our kindness and love. ’Cause screw kindness and love; there are doctrines to defend!

22 November 2017

The bible: An inspired anthology.

God got people to write ’em. And God gets people to understand ’em.

Inspire /ɪn.spaɪ(.ə)r/ v. Breathe in (air); inhale.
2. Fill with a positive, creative feeling; encourage.
3. Fill with the urge or ability to do or feel something; provoke.
[Inspiration /ɪn.spə'reɪ.ʃən/ n.]

Whenever we Christians talk about inspiration—inspired prophets, teachings, and writings—it’s assumed God did the inspiring. He’s the one who breathed into us. One word we regularly translate “inspired” is theó-pnefstos/“God-breathed,” which is how the NIV prefers to treat “God-inspired” in this verse:

2 Timothy 3.16 KWL
Every God-inspired scripture is also useful for teaching,
for disproving, for correcting, for instruction in rightness.

It’s more than just “I was so excited about my thoughts of God, I decided to create this for him.” It’s God involved with, and behind, this creation process. The Holy Spirit, living within the teacher, prophet, or author, pointed ’em God-ward. Got ’em to describe God with infallible accuracy.

This is what Christians tend to believe about the books and letters which make up the bible: It’s inspired. The Holy Spirit got its authors to describe God with infallible accuracy.

Some of us believe it’s not true of anything else: God inspired the bible, but he’s not inspired anything or anyone since. Which is bunk; of course he has. But Christians aren’t universally agreed about anything other than the bible. (And not all that universally on the bible.) God inspired the bible… but whether he inspired anyone since, is kinda left up to our best judgment… which ain’t all that consistent.

In any event, those who think the bible is inspired, but nothing and no one else is, tend to wander into bibliolatry, which is a whole ’nother problem. And it’s downright weird to hear continuationists, Christians who believe God still speaks to his people directly or through prophets, unthinkingly repeat the claim nothing but the bible is inspired. It stuns ’em when I point out how their beliefs contradict one another. (People aren’t always aware of how much bad theology they have floating around in ’em.)

Fact is, if human beings can’t or couldn’t be inspired, we wouldn’t even have a bible. ’Cause inspired people wrote it, inspired Christians compiled it, and inspired Christians uphold it. True, these inspired people were and are fallible humans. But as people follow the Holy Spirit, he guides us to truth, Jn 16.13 and steers us clear of sin and error. In the moment, we can (and do) write and prophesy infallible stuff. Once done, we might (heck, do) slip up, sin, and make mistakes, and fall right back into fallibility. But the stuff done by the Spirit’s power is still good. The writings in the bible are still authoritative. So we kept ’em.

09 November 2017

The ungracious “doctrines of grace.”

Calvinist soteriology, which they call “grace”—which isn’t really.

DOCTRINES OF GRACE /'dɒk.trɪnz əv greɪs/ n. The six points of Calvinist soteriology: Deterministic sovereignty, human depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, efficacious grace, and certainty in one’s eternal destiny.

A number of Calvinists aren’t all that comfortable with the title “Calvinist.”

For various reasons. Some of ’em don’t like being part of an “-ism.” They consider their theology part of a long, noble, five-century tradition. (Some of ’em try for longer, and claim the ancient Christians also believed just as they do. But good luck finding anyone other than St. Augustine who’s comfortable with determinism.) In any event they want their tradition defined by something grander and longer than the reign and teachings of a solitary Genevan bishop, no matter how clever he was.

Others concede not everything John Calvin taught is right on the money. They won’t go so far as I do, and insist Calvin’s fixation on God’s sovereignty undermines God’s character. But obviously they’ve a problem with other ideas which undermine God’s character. Like double predestination, the belief God created people whom he never intends to save, whose only purpose is to burn forever in hell. Calvin figured it’s a logical conclusion of his system. But understandably a lot of Calvinists hate this idea, and have tried their darnedest to get out of it—with varying degrees of failure.

Regardless the reason, these Calvinists prefer to call themselves “reform Christians.” I first learned the term from my theology professors, who much preferred it. It reminds everyone they’re part of the Protestant reformation. As far as some of Calvinists are concerned, it’s the only truly reformed part of the reformation: The other movements capitulate to Roman Catholicism too much for their taste.

The problem with relabeling? Yep, not every reform Christian is Calvinist. Lutherans and Molinists aren’t necessarily. Arminians (like me) and Anabaptists sure aren’t. If you’re Protestant, reform means your movement and theology goes back to the 1500s reformers, and embraces the ideas of scriptural authority (prima/sola scriptura), salvation by grace (sola gratia), justification by faith (sola fide), and atonement by our sole mediator Christ Jesus (solus Christus). You know, stuff just about every Protestant believes—plus many a Catholic and Orthodox Christian, even though their church leadership might insist otherwise.

The other label both “reform Christians,” and Calvinists who don’t mind their title, like to use is “the doctrines of grace” to describe their central beliefs about how God saves people—or as we theologians call this branch of theology, soteriology. They’re called “doctrines of grace” because God saves us by his grace, right? What else might you call ’em?

But like I said, Calvin’s fixation on sovereignty undermines God’s character. And in so doing, they undermine much of the grace in this system. Grace is God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people. But when Calvinism describes salvation, you’ll find not only is it not gracious: It’s coerced, involuntary, hollow, and sorta evil.

31 October 2017

God reveals himself through prayer.

Why does God listen to our prayers? For the same reason he reveals himself to us.

Prayer is of course talking with God. We talk to him and he talks back. It’s not a complicated idea, though we might, and do, complicate it.

Prayer is therefore the most common, most usual way God communicates with his people. Yeah, we can…

Christians list all these things as forms of revelation, though I would object to the last two. But nearly all of us pray, and nearly all of us hear God when we pray, so that’s how nearly all of us get revelation.

Now yes, there are those Christians who insist they don’t hear anything. To their minds, prayer is unidirectional: We talk, God hears, but God says nothing, ’cause he doesn’t need to say anything, ’cause he said everything he cares to say in the scriptures. This belief is largely based on cessationism, the belief God turned off the miracles—and in so doing, functionally abandoned his people—till the End Times. If you’re surrounded by cessationists, you’re gonna get the idea most Christians think like that. You’d be entirely wrong. Most of us hear God. (Not necessarily well, but I’ll discuss that in the next several prayer articles.)

Hearing God is demonstrated all over the scriptures. ’Cause the scriptures were written by prophets, and how’d they get their information? Yes, some Christians imagine they opened their mouths and God’s words came out of them like they were meat puppets. But in more cases they went to God with questions—with prayers—and during those prayers God responded, and that became their prophecies.

This is why prayer and prophecy are so closely connected. That’s usually how God gives prophets his messages for other people: He’ll say, “Tell them this.” You wanna see more prophecy in our church? Then y’all need to pray more often. You don’t get one without the other. (And if you do, those “prophecies” are usually messed up.)

12 October 2017

Pantheism: God is everything, and everything is God.

On those who believe God is the universe.

Pantheist /'pæn.θi.ɪst/ adj. Identifies God as the universe, or recognizes the universe as a manifestation of God.
2. Identifies all gods as forms, manifestations, avatars, or persons of the One God.
[Pantheism /'pæn.θi.ɪz.əm/ n.]

Popular culture believes Hinduism to consist of the worship of thousands of gods. That’s not quite accurate. Hindus themselves tell me that they tend to worship maybe one or two gods themselves… but the “thousands of gods,” as westerners call ’em, are really just different faces of the One God.

So they’re monotheist? Still not quite accurate. It’s not that there’s one God with thousands of faces. It’s that God consists of every face. Everything is God. God is the universe.

Whenever you meet a pagan who talks about “the universe,” and speaks of the universe as if it has an intelligence—“The universe wants me to do such-and-so,” or “The universe is sending me a message”—that’s the mindset we’re talking about. “The universe” is the sum total of everything and everyone, and collectively that’s God. And all of us are part of him.

Nope, not even close to monotheism. But when people don’t know any better, that’s what they assume Hindus or Hinduism-based spiritual teachers are talking about. When they say “God,” they mean the universe. Everything, collectively. Which may or may not be conscious, know what it’s doing, have a plan for us, or offer us guidance—it kinda depends on the teacher.

It’s what we call pantheism. And under this idea, of course Jesus is God. Pantheists have no problem with that idea. The catch is, they figure everyone else is God too, and Jesus just happened to be more connected to his godhood than anyone else. And Jesus isn’t the only avatar, or incarnation, of God, either. There’ve been others, like Krishna. Some of them are alive today. (Some of these spiritual teachers wouldn’t much mind if we thought of them that way either. It’d sure help their book sales.)

So if you come across any of these eastern-style teachers who have some really interesting things to say about God, bear in mind this is how they imagine God to be. He’s not a being who fills the universe; he is the universe.

Why’s that a problematic idea? Well you do recall there’s a lot of evil in the universe. But if God is everything, that evil would also be a part of God. And God doesn’t do evil. 1Jn 1.5

21 September 2017

Modalism: The illusion of three persons in one God.

On those who believe God is sometimes Holy Spirit, and sometimes Jesus.

Modalist /'mod.əl.ɪst/ adj. Believes God has multiple personas, approaches, functions, or aspects of his nature—which other Christians confuse with trinity.
[Modalism /'mod.əl.ɪz.əm/ n.]

When Christians don’t believe God’s a trinity, either they fully embrace unitarianism and insist Jesus isn’t God, or they kinda embrace unitarianism and insist Jesus is God… but God still isn’t three. He’s one. But he looks three, from our limited human point of view.

Why’s he look three? Time travel.

No, seriously. Time travel. I know; time travel hasn’t been scientifically documented. It’s still just theory. But we’re all familiar with science fiction, so we have a general idea of how it works.

If you don’t: Imagine a man, whom we’ll call Doc Brown. (I know; real original of me.) Brown has a time machine. He hops into it and travels 30 years into the past. There, he encounters himself from 30 years ago—the younger version of Doc Brown. If you were to stand there and observe this, it looks like there are two Doc Browns, interacting with one another. In fact they’re both the same guy: Brown got his personal timeline to loop around, and one segment of it overlaps another segment of it.

Well, says the modalist, this is kinda what God does. God exists outside of spacetime, which they’ll call “eternity.” This was a theory St. Augustine of Hippo originally pitched—and it’s bogus, ’cause it violates the idea God’s omnipresent. But a lot of Christians buy the whole outside-spacetime idea, ’cause they grew up hearing it, and it sounds clever and intelligent, and repeating it makes them sound clever and intelligent. Anyway, bear with me, ’cause modalists kinda need it to be true. It’s the basis of their theory.

Okay. So in this “eternity,” time’s a zero-dimensional point. There’s no past nor present nor future. It’s all now—all an eternal present instant to whoever’s in there. God lives in there; it’s where heaven’s located. (Somehow there’s music, which is entirely based on time, in heaven regardless. Sorry; had to digress to point out the logical inconsistency. Back to it.)

God decided to step outside this zero-dimensional point, enter our one-dimensional timeline, and become human. This’d be Jesus. But when Jesus (and we) look back at “eternity”… it’s not vacant. Because God’s still in there. He’s always in there. There’s no timeline, and no stretch in this timeline where God stepped out of it. It’s a zero-dimensional point, remember?

It’s like Doc Brown and his overlapping timelines. Looks like God’s in two places at once, but that’s an illusion, based on our lack of understanding about “eternity.” That is, unless we’re clever enough to figure it out—and modalists figure they’re just that clever.

Anyway, that’s why Jesus always had a Father to pray to: The Father was still, and is always still, back in “eternity.” But there never were two persons; just one person with a bendy timeline.

Same deal with the Holy Spirit: Whenever God steps out of “eternity” in the present day to do stuff—and doesn’t do it in Jesus’s human body—that’d be the Holy Spirit. And sometimes the Spirit overlapped Jesus’s timeline. But God wasn’t really in three places at once; it only looks it.

So this time-travel explanation is the most common way I’ve heard modalists explain the trinity. I don’t know who invented it, but it’s pretty clever. It’s rubbish, but it’s clever rubbish.