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

God is very different from us.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 November

Humanity has many religions. Many views on God. Some figure there’s One, some figure there’s none, some figure there’s two (a good guy and a bad guy), some three or more, some figure the universe collectively is God, and some figure there may be gods out there but they’re not relevant to what we deal with as humans.

Yeah, the Unitarians and Baha’is are gonna insist all these differences are irrelevant, so let’s just focus on what we have in common and worship that Higher Power. These two religions were developed in Christian and Muslim cultures respectively, so they’ve got a lot of bias in favor of Abrahamic monotheism, but they’re flexible… and from every other religion’s point of view, too flexible. Each religion has a lot of non-negotiables. (Even Unitarians; ask ’em sometime if they’re willing to let an unrepentant Nazi join their church.) Each religion is pretty sure they understand God best. You’re not gonna see the Unitarians and Baha’is consolidate into one church anytime soon.

Why are all these religions so different? Dark Christians are gonna insist it’s because every other religion is an invention of the devil, or wannabe prophets whom the devil has managed to lead astray. All these religions are therefore the product of power-mad humans. And yeah, that’s partly true: A lot of religious founders were only trying to get themselves worshiped, or gain power, money, and sex. Any good intentions got corrupted by human depravity. Heck, that’s true of too many Christian churches as well.

But I would insist it’s because God is awfully hard to figure out.

I know; Christian claim God is really easy to get to know. All we gotta do is crack open a bible! Or have a conversation or two with him. Or something simple like that.

But if God really was just that easy to get to know, he wouldn’t need to reveal himself in so many different ways, at so many different times. And we wouldn’t have to work at getting to know him, at listening to him, at growing his fruit, at obeying Jesus. For that matter, Jesus wouldn’t’ve had to come to earth to explain him better.

God is hard to figure out, ’cause God is significantly different from us humans. Significantly. In ways which make getting to know him, not so easy. In ways which means we’re often not gonna figure him out. And we need to be okay with that and trust him. Problem is, people aren’t okay with that, because people don’t trust him… so they come up with their own explanations, and these evolve into new religions.

God has made efforts to bridge the gap between these significant differences, and us. If we make a little effort on our part (with his help; we can’t really do it unless he empowers us), we can bridge it wholly, and can get to know him. But not enough of us care to. Much easier to presume we have him figured out already—and never realize we’re wrong.

So let’s work at bridging that gap.

“Jesus sightings” in the Old Testament.

by K.W. Leslie, 04 August

From time to time I hear Christians claim Jesus makes appearances in the Old Testament.

And he does. All the time, really—because Jesus is YHWH. When God created the universe, when the LORD singled out Abram ben Terah and renamed him Abraham and relocated him to Canaan, when the LORD had Moses lead the Hebrews out of Egypt and give ’em the Law and covenanted to be their God and they his people: This is Jesus. This isn’t just the God the Father person of the trinity doing stuff, while the Son and Holy Spirit hid in the background, and peeked out once or twice, and made minor appearances. This is the triune God. And Jesus is this God.

John spelled it out in his gospel: It wasn’t the Father, and the Father alone, who created the universe; it’s God. And Jesus is God.

John 1.1-3 KJV
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 The same was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.

Because in the beginning God created the heavens and earth, Ge 1.1 a verse all John’s readers knew quite well; and stating the Word of God created everything means Jesus created everything. But no, this doesn’t mean God the Son alone created everything, instead of God the Father: Again, this is the triune God. The LORD God created everything.

So yeah, when you read about the LORD in the Old Testament, that’s Jesus. And when you read things into the LORD’s character and motives, which are inconsistent with Jesus’s demonstrated character and motives in the gospels, you’re misinterpreting the LORD. Jesus came to earth to show us what God is really like. Jn 1.18 He’s our lens. Don’t use others.

Okay, but back to these Christians who claim they’ve sighted Jesus in the OT. Rarely, if ever, do they mean they recognize Jesus is the LORD, and recognize Jesus’s character and motives in the LORD’s actions. Nope; they’re claiming one odd figure or another in the Old Testament is Jesus.

Fr’instance that one time the LORD had lunch with Abraham. Ge 18 That’s gotta be Jesus, they figure, ’cause he appeared as a human, and Jesus is human. (Nevermind that he hadn’t become human yet.)

Or the story of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah… but since we’re gonna insist on using their slave names, okay; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Daniel 3.23-25 KJV
23 And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell down bound into the midst of the burning fiery furnace. 24 Then Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonied, and rose up in haste, and spake, and said unto his counsellors, Did not we cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered and said unto the king, True, O king. 25 He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose, walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

Oooh, we Christians respond, it was the Son of God. It’s Jesus!

Thing is, would this truly be what the pagan Nebuchadnezzar meant by his statement? The original Aramaic, בַר אֱלָהִֽין/var Elohín, can either mean “son of God” or “son of the gods,” which is how the ESV, NASB, and NIV chose to put it. The NLT has “looks like a god.” Remember, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t yet know God, much less Jesus, and had no clue what he was seeing.

But we have a clue as to what he was seeing. And let’s be fair; maybe it was God. He hadn’t yet become human, but same as he appeared to Abraham as a human, he appeared to Nebuchadnezzar as a human, ’cause he can do that of he so chooses. If it was God in the fire beside them, it’s Jesus, ’cause Jesus is God.

But more reasonably it was an angel. Same as God later sent an angel to rescue Daniel, Da 6.22 or sent an angel to rescue Simon Peter Ac 12.7 instead of showing up to the prison personally. Yeah Jesus could have done it himself, but he seems to delegate this duty to angels—all of whom were probably really eager for the job anyway. Wouldn’t you be?

Pre-existence: Did you exist before you were born?

by K.W. Leslie, 25 June

We Christians believe in Jesus’s incarnation—that Jesus wasn’t created, ’cause he’s God and has always existed. But he’s also human; at some point in time he became human. Before that point Moses could correctly say “God is not a man,” Nu 23.19 but after that point no he couldn’t. God’s a man now.

And every so often you’re gonna find some Christian who claims everybody existed before they were born. They won’t claim we’ve always existed, like God; they figure he created us at some point. Possibly at the beginning of creation. Then, one at a time, he sent all these pre-existing ghosts to earth to be embodied. Or incarnated, to use the Latin-based term.

Latter-day Saints actually believe this. They claim God makes these pre-babies in heaven, and billions and billions of ’em are sitting up there waiting to come to earth and be born Mormon. They call it premortality.

Now when you ask Mormons how God makes ’em: I’ve found their “elders” (which is what they call their kids who go door-to-door to share their version of the gospel) either get really quiet, and tell me I really oughta ask their bishop… or they blurt it right out, then quickly realize they really shouldn’t’ve done that. ’Cause Mormons believe God used to be human eons ago, and eventually became God. And back when he was human he got married, and got to take his wife to heaven with him… and they make babies like we make babies. Which usually raises a ton of new questions from both potential converts and skeptics, which is why the elders suddenly realize they really need their bishop there, to explain it in a way which doesn’t invoke outrage, mockery, and unbelief. Well, much outrage, mockery, and unbelief.

But LDS beliefs about prolific heavenly procreation aside, Christians who believe in pre-existence figure it just makes sense—to them anyway—that God created something of us before our parents and biology made our bodies. Because the scriptures say multiple times that God knew us before we were born—and how could this be true, unless we existed before we were born?

Fr’instance Jeremiah ben Hilkiah. Prolifers love to quote the following verse to prove a fetus is a person. And a fetus is a person, but this verse isn’t actually about that. Nor does it actually say that.

Jeremiah 1.4-5 NIV
4 The word of the LORD came to me, saying,
5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

The LORD didn’t tell Jeremiah, “When I formed you in the womb,” but “Before I formed you in the womb.” Before Jeremiah was conceived. The Hebrew word בְּטֶ֨רֶם/be-terém isn’t one of those loose participles like the בְּ/be- prefix at the beginning of the word, which could mean “in, on, among, over, through, against; when, whenever,” as the Kohlenberger/Mounce Hebrew-Aramaic Dictionary defines it. Terém is an adverb meaning “not yet.” Jeremiah’s body was not yet made before the LORD fully knew who he was and determined he’d be God’s prophet.

So if God knew Jeremiah before he was born, it stands to reason Jeremiah existed before he was born. Right?

Nah. You probably figured this out right quick: God knew Jeremiah because he’s not limited by time. He’s currently present at every point in our entire eternal life. Simultaneously here right now, and 50 years from now, and centuries after we’ve been resurrected in Jesus’s kingdom, and trillions of years after that, and so on forever. And he’s present before we were ever “a gleam in your father’s eye,” as the creepy popular saying goes—knowing all that stuff about us before ever creating us. The LORD’s talking about his own infinite omnipresence-based all-knowingness, not/i> Jeremiah’s pre-existence.

But God’s state of filling time is a brain-bending idea. And we humans much prefer to adopt ideas which we can more easily grasp. Like the time-based idea Jeremiah musta existed before he was conceived and born. You know, like Jesus. Or like Mormons believe… minus 7,000,000,000 acts of heavenly coitus at least.

Jesus’s resurrection: If he wasn’t raised, we’re boned.

by K.W. Leslie, 06 April

Of Christianity’s two biggest holidays, Christmas is the easier one for pagans to swallow. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene was born. That, they won’t debate. There are a few cranks who think Jesus’s life is entirely mythological, start to finish; but for the most part everyone agrees he was born. May not believe he was miraculously born, but certainly they agree he was born.

Easter’s way harder. ’Cause Jesus the Nazarene rose from the dead. And no, he didn’t just wake up in a tomb after a two-day coma following a brutal flogging and crucifixion. Wasn’t a spectral event either, where his ghost went visiting his loved ones to tell them everything’s all right; he’s on a higher plane now; in time they’ll join him. Nor was it a “spiritual” event, where people had visions or mass hallucinations of him, or missed him so hard they psyched themselves into believing they saw him.

Christians state Jesus is alive. In a body. A human body. An extraordinary body; apparently his new body can do things our current bodies can’t. But alive in a way people recognize as fully alive. Not some walking-dead zombie, nor some phantom. Jesus physically interacted with his students, family, and followers, for nearly a month and a half before physically going to heaven.

That, pagans struggle with. ’Cause they don’t believe in resurrection. Resuscitation, sure; CPR can keep a heart going till it can beat on its own, or doctors can revive frozen people. Returning from the dead happens all the time. But permanently? In a new body? Which he took with him to heaven? They’re not buying it. They’re more likely to believe in the Easter Bunny.

But that’s the deal we Christians proclaim on Easter: Christ is risen indeed.

It’s not the central belief of Christianity; God’s kingdom is. But if Jesus didn’t literally come back from the dead on the morning of 5 April 33, it means there’s no such kingdom, and Jesus is never coming back to set it up. And nobody’s coming back from death. There’s no eternal life; at best an eternal afterlife, which ain’t life. There’s no hope for the lost. The Sadducees were right. Christianity’s a sham. There’s no point in any of us being Christians.

No I’m not being hyperbolic. This is precisely what the apostles taught.

1 Corinthians 15.12-19 KWL
12 If it’s preached Christ is risen from the dead,
how can some of you say resurrection of the dead isn’t true?
13 If resurrection of the dead isn’t true, not even Christ is risen.
14 If Christ isn’t risen, our message is worthless. Your faith is worthless.
15 Turns out we’re bearing false witness about God: We testified about God that he raised Christ!
Whom, if it’s true the dead aren’t raised, he didn’t raise.
16 If the dead aren’t raised, Christ isn’t risen either.
17 If Christ isn’t risen, your faith has no foundation.
You’re still in your sins, 18 and those who “sleep in Christ” are gone.
19 If hope in Christ only exists in this life, we’re the most pathetic of all people.

No resurrection, no kingdom, no Christianity. Period.

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

by K.W. Leslie, 10 March

Whenever I have a God-experience—i.e. when he tells me stuff during prayer time, when he confirms stuff through one of his prophets, when he cures the sick right in front of me—my usual response is humility. ’Cause it’s God, y’know. As much as I interact with him, 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 let me be around, or even get involved in, anything he does.

Of course, I say stuff like this and various other Christians respond, “Excuse me, God does what around you?”

Um… well, yeah. I’m Pentecostal, which means we aren’t just continuationist, i.e. recognize God still talks to people and does miracles. We don’t treat God-experiences like something that might potentially or theoretically happen; we treat ’em as part and parcel of the active Christian life. It’s much like the difference between saying, “Y’know we could go visit Grandma in the retirement home” and never doing it, or calling Grandma every day and planning frequent visits. And sometimes she drops by our house and brings brownies; the homemade stuff, made with the very best medical-grade cannabis. Aw yeah.

Kidding; I don’t do weed. But y’see, depending on one’s expectations, one’s Christian life in practice is gonna look mighty different. So I’m fully aware my experiences aren’t necessarily your experiences. I wasn’t always Pentecostal.

Sometimes the differences are based on higher or lower, strict or loose, iffy or false, expectations. Sometimes sin and fruitlessness. Sometimes a combination of the above. I know dark Christians whose unkind, judgmental, fearful, and ungracious practices turn Christianity into something terrifying, and God into someone to hate. I know unscrupulous Christians who bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate the scriptures so they can justify their desires and excesses. Their response to God is far from humble: If anything, they act as if why wouldn’t God endorse them. They remind me of the spoiled kids of rich people; trust fund babies who were born on third base and act as if they hit a triple. In this case their father is God, whom they totally take for granted. Humility never occurs to them.

Yeah, on TXAB I bring up these people a lot. Otherwise I very seldom dwell on them. I have better things to do. But of course they exist.

And because I seldom dwell on these guys, a few years back I found myself in a bible study, very nearly saying, “When we experience God like that, our usual response is humility…” I had to back up and correct myself: My usual response is humility.

Plenty of other Christians I know, likewise have a good sense of our relationship with God, and likewise respond with humility. But yeah, there are Christian jerks out there who aren’t humble at all. They figure God better come through for them. I can’t relate. But neither should I go around talking about my experience as if it’s the norm. I have no proof of that.

And this, folks, is how we’re supposed to do theology: Don’t go round declaring our experiences, our norms, our preferences, are true for everyone. Unless we’ve done a scientific study or have a properly-interpreted passage of scripture to back us up, we’ve no leg to stand on. We’re claiming a subjective experience is universal.

This is precisely the reason so many people automatically doubt “absolute truths”: Far too often, it turns out they’re not absolutes. They’re just the old prejudices of lazy lecturers—and there are a lot of lazy lecturers out there. Heck, I get lazy sometimes.

But it’s because people like to imagine we’re normal! We don’t wanna be unusual; many of us even fear being weird. So we try our darnedest to find a crowd which is most like us, then claim what we think and like is what everybody thinks and likes. Or what everybody oughta think and like. Our worldview oughta be everyone’s worldview—because we’re “normal” and they’re “not.”

The truth.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 March
TRUE tru adjective. In accordance with fact or reality. Genuine, real, actual, correct.
2. Precisely correct; exact.
3. Loyal, faithful, honest.
[Truer 'tru.ər adjective, truth truθ noun, truly 'tru.li adverb, truthful 'truθ.fəl adjective]

True and false are such basic, foundational concepts, most people never bother to define them; we’re just expected to know what they mean. We’ve known what true and false are ever since we were first exposed to true-or-false quizzes. True is the way things legitimately are in the universe, and false is the way things aren’t; i.e. not true. Trying to pass off a false thing as true, is lying.

You might remember (and if you don’t, your memory will be jogged when your own young children start taking these true-or-false quizzes) “truth” and “falseness” are sometimes harder to figure out than people suppose. There’s a whole branch of philosophy, called epistemology because why not give it a hard-to-remember name, which is particularly interested in whether what we know is true. Because way too many things we think we know, aren’t so. People’s opinions, or best guesses, were handed down to us as “facts,” and they’re rubbish. Conversely, people’s facts were handed down to us… and we rejected them because rubbish suits our worldview far better.

Obviously truth is very important in theology: We’re trying to get to know God as he actually is. We believe, for good reason, Christ Jesus knows God best; therefore we’re trying to understand him as Jesus describes him. Fellow Christians claim they understand where Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets meant. Sometimes we listen to them, and sometimes we don’t; sometimes we really should, and sometimes they’re not trustworthy at all. Throw into this mix the devil, who’s happy to corrupt everything we believe, the better to get us out of its way. And don’t forget the many humans who likewise distort Christianity for selfish ulterior reasons. There’s a lot of rubbish out there!

But don’t get the idea there’s so much rubbish, we’ll never find truth at all. True, plenty of pagans claim so, and have given up in despair. But there’s an infinitely powerful resource they’ve dismissed.

John 16.13-15 ESV
13 “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Yep, we got the Holy Spirit. Who will guide us into all the truth Jesus has—provided we actually follow him, and not just assume because he’s rattling around in us somewhere, we’re gonna naturally gravitate towards truth. You should know by now there are plenty of confused Christians out there (just look at politics!) who clearly aren’t following the Spirit towards truth. Let’s not be like them.

The starting point of theology is to recognize we’re wrong. But Christ Jesus is truth. Jn 14.6 We don’t have it; we gotta follow it and point to it. Not “Follow me; I know the way,” but “Follow me as I follow Christ.” 1Co 11.1

𝘗𝘳𝘪𝘮𝘢 𝘴𝘤𝘳𝘪𝘱𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘢.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 February

There are a lot of ways God reveals himself to people. Obviously there’s the fact Jesus appears to people, either in the real world or in dreams, and talks to them. Obviously there’s prophecy; the Holy Spirit will speak to a person firsthand, or speak through a prophet secondhand.

And obviously these two situations aren’t good enough for most people. Because either they don’t want Jesus to appear to them—they claim they do, or think they do, but if he ever actually showed up, they’d freak the f--- out, same as the Hebrews when the LORD did it.

Exodus 20.19 KJV
And they said unto Moses, Speak thou with us, and we will hear: but let not God speak with us, lest we die.

Same with prophecy: They either refuse to believe the Spirit’s actually speaking to them, or refuse to believe those prophets are real prophets.

Hence there are a lot of skeptics—Christians included—who insist God doesn’t speak in such ways to people. Not anymore, anyway; maybe back in bible times. Fortunately for them, we have a record of how God spoke back in bible times: The bible.

What about those folks who recognize God still communicates with us the other ways? Well, the bible’s still mighty useful.

First of all, we humans aren’t always the best at actually listening to the Spirit. Usually we don’t know the difference between the Spirit and our own inner voice, and we’ve been following and sharing that all along. Just as often it’s like a kid who never calls her mom: Some of us don’t take the time to listen. Or to comprehensively listen: We grab the first thing we’re told, “hang up” and never bother to listen to anything else the Spirit says, and run wild with the little half-message we have. Or we skip everything the Spirit says which we don’t like, and ignore him till he tells us what we want to hear—and if we don’t care to hear anything good, we might be waiting a mighty long time for that message.

So when the Spirit “isn’t talking,” we have the bible. Read it!

Secondly, when he is talking, he’s not gonna say anything inconsistent with his own bible. (The rare times he is inconsistent, it’s only because he’s checking to make sure we’re paying attention.) He inspires us; he inspired that. Same inspiration. Often the bible’s gonna confirm what he says, and often it’ll also fill in a lot of the blanks.

So this is how we know whether a “prophecy” or “revelation” or any unfamiliar doctrine is actually a God thing, or whether it’s a clever idea some scholar came up with… or whether it’s wrong, or outright heresy. We double-check against the bible. It’s our primary reference about God.

Or as Paul reminded Timothy,

2 Timothy 3.16-17 KWL
16 Every God-inspired writing is profitable;
it’s for teaching, proof, restoration, and instruction in righteousness,
17 so God’s person might be completely qualified,
equipped for every good work.

The goodness of creation: Matter bad, spirit good?

by K.W. Leslie, 04 February

There’s a really popular, common idea in our culture: Spiritual things are good, and material things are bad.

It comes from Greek philosophy, though the Greeks were hardly the first to believe it. It’s found pretty much everywhere. Plenty of pagans insist every spirit being must be an angel, and good. Therefore we must always, always take their advice, and never wonder whether any of them are evil. ’Cause why would there be any such thing as an evil spirit? They’re spirits. Duh.

Regardless of its origins, Christians have totally bought into this idea. In part because we think we see it in the bible.

Romans 8.5-8 NRSV
5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
 
Galatians 5.16-17 NRSV
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.

Flesh is material, right? Made of atoms. And in these passages flesh isn’t just shorthand for fallen human nature; it’s a reminder that matter is bad, but spirit—especially the Holy Spirit—is good. Hence Christians have overlaid this Greek idea upon Christianity since the very beginning. It’s all over gnostic literature. It’s why there was a giant fight in the early church about whether Jesus really became human, because why on earth would God demean his pure spiritual nature by becoming human? But he did. Pp 2.6-7

And he really did die, and when he was resurrected he was put back into a real human body.
1 John 4.2-3 NRSV
2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. And this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming; and now it is already in the world.

Yep, anyone who says Jesus isn’t really human, or that his resurrection put him in some weird kind of “spiritual body” 1Co 15.44 which is only the illusion of matter but actually pure spirit: They’re not just heretic, but antichrist. Jesus has a body, and I don’t just mean the metaphor of the “body of Christ.” He has a physical body. He didn’t temporarily become human; that change is permanent. He’s one of us now.

’Cause neither matter nor spirit are inherently good. Nor bad. They can be either. It all depends on whether they are as God originally made ’em. ’Cause when he originally made the cosmos, when he first created matter, he declared it, and everything he made of it, good.

Genesis 1.31 NRSV
God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

(If you wanna argue Genesis 1.31 only refers to sixth-day stuff, fine. On all the other days, God declared those creations good… so it’s all good.)

When humanity was created, God declared us good. We humans are part matter and part spirit; we’re not purely one or the other. (In fact if you split us into one and the other, you wind up with a corpse and a ghost: A dead human. It’s not an upgrade!) But when humanity went wrong, it wasn’t part of us which went wrong; ’twasn’t the material parts which got all corrupt and depraved while the spiritual parts remained intact and pure. The immaterial, spiritual parts of Adam and Eve were corrupted before they ate the wrong fruit and got materially corrupted. Their spirits did evil. ’Cause spirit can definitely be evil.

The whole point of creation.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 February

One of God’s bigger miracles is of course creation.

Genesis 1.1-3 NRSV
1 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light.
 
John 1.1-5 NRSV
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Despite the claims of young-earth creationists, the scriptures aren’t meant to give a scientific description of how creation happened. The bible’s not made up of science books: It’s theology. It’s about why God created the universe. Genesis 1 may be structured like a timeline of events, but it’s meant to tell ancient middle easterners

  • The universe didn’t exist on its own; God made it.
  • God didn’t war against other gods, or Titans, or Lucifer, so that he could conquer the world; he has no foes of equal might. And the universe is his, for he made it.
  • What God made was good. (He only makes good stuff.)
  • What God made didn’t stay good, but that’s on us, not him.
  • Humans weren’t an afterthought, or created as God’s slaves, but as his kids, meant to rule the world.
  • He did it in seven days and rested the seventh; that’s where Sabbath comes from.

There are various Christians who haven’t actually learned this. I’m mostly thinking about those Christians who insert the massive cosmic battle between Satan and Michael Rv 12.7-8 right before God made Eden. But some Christians claim not everything God made is good, or suggest humanity is still good instead of messed up by sin. Or that humans are God’s slaves, or that Sabbath is no longer relevant in this dispensation.

Lotta times we miss these points because we don’t like these points. And I suspect a lot of the reason Christians hew to young-earth creationism so strongly, is because turning Genesis 1 into a scientific text is the easiest way to avoid anything moral we’re meant to conclude from it. Instead of learning who God is and how we’re respond to him, we can instead pick fights with evolutionists; if you’re the argumentative sort, this sounds way more fun.

But the purpose of looking at creation, as the bible depicts it, is so we can learn more about our Creator.

Do you know the Holy Spirit?

by K.W. Leslie, 08 September

Years ago a pagan relative of mine asked me, “You keep saying ‘Holy Spirit’ this, ‘Holy Spirit’ that. What do you mean by that? What’s the Holy Spirit?”

“Oh,” I said—half surprised, half not-all-that-surprised, she didn’t know. And since she’s pagan, the simplest answer was best: “Holy Spirit is another name for God.”

“Oh,” she said. And our conversation moved on.

Yeah, I could’ve given her the full-on theological explanation of what spirit is, how Jesus revealed him, who he is in the trinity, what he does, how he lives in Christians, and how he’s a he instead of an it. But that’s the introduction we really oughta save for new Christians. Mostly because they’ll want to know all this stuff. Pagans don’t always care.

But basically the Holy Spirit (KJV “Holy Ghost”) is God. “Holy Spirit is another name for God” is a quick-’n-dirty explanation which points people in the right direction.

As opposed to the wrong direction, which is all too common: Too many people think the Holy Spirit is a force, a power: God’s might, by which he gets stuff done. When God creates stuff, he does it using his spirit. When God heals people, he uses his spirit on ’em. When God saves people from sin and death, he dumps some of his spirit into them. When God drives out evil spirits, he knocks ’em back by throwing some of his spirit at them.

People call him “the spirit of God,” and think of that “of” as a possessive: A thing God has. Not someone whom God is. After all, the Spirit does so many things for God, and for us, it’s easy to get the idea he’s nothing but an instrument or tool. Kinda like the way certain bosses treat their assistants and employees, or children treat their mom: Like they’re servants or machines, not people. Same way with certain Christians and the Holy Spirit: We ungrateful humans treat him like a refrigerator full of treats, instead of the one who spiritually feeds and nourishes us.

The Holy Spirit is a person. He has a mind of his own, Ac 13.2, 16.6 even though he, same as Jesus, agrees with and does as the Father wants. Jn 16.13 He’s not the Father, because he comes from the Father. He’s not Jesus either, because Jesus sent him to us. Jn 15.26 He’s his own person. And he’s God, Ac 5.3-4 same as the Father is God.

In fact, he’s the God we interact with on a far more regular basis than we do the Father. Because he’s the God who lives within us, who actually saves us.

The faith statement. (And mine too.)

by K.W. Leslie, 30 March

Typically when Christians talk about what’s orthodox Christianity and what’s heresy, we usually mean what we consider orthodox and heretic. Not what Christianity as a whole considers orthodox and heretic. We don’t think about the whole; honestly, too many of us suspect most of our fellow Christians aren’t real Christians.

But when you talk to individual Christians, we tend to not have all our Christian essentials, our “mere Christianity,” sorted out all that well. What’s the minimum requirements for Christianity?—well, for a lot of us it’s usually these.

  • Gotta believe in Jesus: That he’s real, was literally born, literally died, literally rose from the dead, and is literally coming back—to do what, varies. And his teachings are important… though how well we literally follow him also varies.
  • Gotta believe in the trinity. Though whether we actually understand trinity well enough, also varies. (Too many Christians don’t really understand what the Holy Spirit does, so they’ve largely replaced him with the Holy Bible.)
  • Gotta believe in the bible. Sometimes so much so, they make sure to prioritize bible before believing in Jesus. (Which they rationalize by saying, “Well, everything we believe about Jesus comes from the bible, so if you don’t believe in bible, you don’t really believe in Jesus.” But this only proves they don’t personally know Jesus; they’ve only read about him.) Also gotta interpret the bible literally… when convenient.
  • Gotta pray. Whether they recognize God talks back, varies.
  • Gotta go to church. Not necessarily so the church can be your support system; largely it’s just a demonstration of public piety, regardless of whether you follow Jesus the rest of the week. You know, hypocrisy; though they don’t always realize this is what they’ve demanded. Oh, it’s also gotta be a church much like theirs. And you should tithe.
  • Gotta believe as they do about water baptism and holy communion. Exactly as they do. Christians have killed one another over this, y’know, and it’s still not something most of us are willing to be gracious about.
  • Gotta be ready, at any given moment, to publicly declare you’re Christian. Because if you don’t, Jesus won’t recognize you as his, Lk 12.9 and you’re going to hell. We should probably be sharing the gospel with other people too.
  • Must’ve said the sinner’s prayer at some point. Or confessed with our mouth Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts God raised him from the dead. Ro 10.9 Or some other introductory act which guarantees we’re born again.
  • Gotta share their politics. Not produce the Spirit’s fruit; you can fake that. Vote like they do, and support the same candidates and causes. Till you do, you’re suspect.

Whether they’ve actually sat down and sorted things through, or loosely glom onto these beliefs, that’s what most Christians have as their personal definition of Christianity. Some have more. Certain doctrinaires have tons of requirements. I know a number of Calvinists who are entirely convinced if you don’t believe in their six points as they do, you’re not Christian. Likewise a number of Roman Catholics who think if you’ve never been baptized into their church, you’re doomed.

Whereas if you asked these Calvinists and Catholics what their church’s official beliefs are… well, they don’t entirely know. Some of ’em will insist, “I believe what my church believes,” or “My church believes what I do.” But then you go check out the Roman Catholic Catechism, or their Calvinist church’s faith statement on their website… and you find out no, they really don’t. In fact sometimes they believe entirely different things.

The statement of faith, or faith statement, is a church or Christian organization’s official stance on Christianity. Often it’s loosely based on the ancient Christian creeds, like the Apostles Creed, plus a statement about believing the bible thrown in. Unlike the individual Christian, they have thought it through, and decided this is what they’ll declare to the world: “Here is what we believe. Here’s where we stand.”

Churches construct faith statements for various reasons; some valid, some not.

  • They’re just repeating their denomination’s official faith statement. They want it clear they’re on the same page as the other churches in their network.
  • They’ve read the creeds, and like some parts, and don’t like other parts. So they’ve rewritten things to suit themselves.
  • They don’t know the creeds at all; they’re suspicious of them because they fear the creeds are “too Catholic.” So they’ve reinvented the wheel. (Religious bigotry aside, if they wind up matching the creeds, they’re likely following the same Holy Spirit as the other churches, so relax.)
  • There was a massive disagreement in their church at one point, and leaders no longer felt Christians were free to disagree on this one, so they got specific and put it in their faith statement. The more legalistic the church, the more of these issues they’ll include. Some control-freak churches have huge faith statements for this very reason.
  • They’ve had to deal with a lot of suspicious visitors who demand to know what they believe. So their faith statement is more of a frequently-asked questions page: “Q. What do you believe about the trinity? A. One God, three persons.”

I once applied for a job whose faith statement insisted the millennial reign of Christ Jesus is a literal thousand years, and all prospective employees must believe that. Now, this was a soup kitchen: Exactly why do you need to take this stance if all you’re gonna do is hand out sandwiches? Well, the leaders used their particular view of the End Times to scare the needy into turning to Jesus. So if I wound up speaking to one of those folks and telling them any alternate view of the End (like the one I hold), I’d undo all their hard work.

And this is why we gotta check out people’s faith statements. Sometimes they’re big red warning flags relevant.

What does your church believe?

Do you know your own church’s faith statement? Didn’t think so. Unless you’re in leadership (and sometimes not even then), most Christians won’t.

You’d better read it then. Hop on their website and look it up. It’ll be on their “About us” page, or attached to a link on it. They’ll title it “Doctrinal statement” or “What we believe” or “Truths which define us” or some other synonym.

Didja read it? Good. Do you agree with it?

’Cause it’s gonna come up. Always does. Every time I formally joined a church, and went to their membership class, the leaders sat all us prospective members down and gave us the skinny:

  • A little history of the church. And its denomination.
  • How they govern it.
  • Their mission, their goals, what they’re doing in your city.
  • What they expect of their members (i.e. cooperation, participation, and financial support).
  • Their statement of faith.

We were asked to accept the whole package, sign a paper, and we’re members.

Here’s the problem: Sometimes Christians don’t agree with the whole package. Yet they sign the paper anyway, ’cause they want in. Invariably this leads to trouble: Their real beliefs are gonna butt heads with the church’s official beliefs. They always do.

Some of these new members don’t care about theology, and just figure, “Yeah sure, I guess I believe this stuff. Well, I have my doubts about this bit here. But I guess I can sign it.” What’re the chances “this bit here” which they doubt, is gonna become a major issue? Better than average. Especially when they want to get into positions of church leadership… and either hypocritically pretend they believe it, or privately admit they don’t to anyone who’ll listen, and in so doing undermine the leadership.

And often this comes up because God brings it up. See, when you sign a paper, you’ve basically made an oath before God, and he holds us to our oaths. Especially when we didn’t really mean it.

So if you can’t agree with your church’s faith statement, don’t join! Don’t sign anything. You’re not ready. Either you still have some things to learn (as we all do)… or you probably shouldn’t be in that church, ’cause they believe some inappropriate things. Either way, work out your differences before you commit.

TXAB’s faith statement.

So what do I believe? Well, the ancient Christian creeds. So I refer you to them.

APOSTLES’ CREED. I believe in God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth. And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our master. He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He was born from the virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate. He was crucified. He 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.

NICENE/CONSTANTINOPOLITAN CREED. I believe in one God, the almighty Father, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. I believe in one master, Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages, God from God, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us humans and for our salvation, he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate from the virgin Mary, and became human. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father (and the Son), who with the Father and Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. I confess one baptism for the forgiveness of sins, and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

The historic ancient creeds define Christian orthodoxy. Period. Nothing else does.

Every other Christian belief, whether I believe it or not, whether you believe it or not, is debatable. I may totally disagree with you on every single one of those secondary things. But if we agree on the creeds, I can’t legitimately call you heretic. I may call you wrong (and it’s certainly not impossible I’m the one who’s wrong) but not heretic.

Now, as for the debatable stuff I also hold to:

PROTESTANTISM. (Which is not anti-Catholicism.) Salvation isn’t based on church membership or good karma, but is entirely based on God’s grace. Justification isn’t based on good deeds, but is entirely based on faith in God through Jesus. And Jesus only has one body, and therefore founded and established only one church—but no single earthly institution comprises that one church, no matter what they claim. Not the Orthodox, not the Catholics, not the Fundamentalists; none of ’em. The body of Christ transcends our organizations. Granted, Jesus wants us Christians to be one, so we have to work together and iron out our differences—without compromising the scriptures nor the creeds.

EVANGELICALISM. Though Jesus died for all of humanity, it’s the individual, not the group, who turns to Jesus and is saved. Individuals must be encouraged to come to Jesus and declare him Lord. We must also hold to the authority of the scriptures (all of which were inspired by God and teach of Christ), and live as Jesus would have us live.

ARMINIANISM. God is almighty and sovereign, but because self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and the Spirit’s fruit reflects God’s character, God is self-controlled: Jesus’s atonement applies to everyone, and God’s grace is available for everyone. But because we humans are totally depraved and self-willed, we can reject his salvation, resist his will, refuse his free gift of eternal life, and even quit Jesus if we don’t want his grace anymore. I don’t reject his grace, and definitely recommend you don’t. But still: Arminians reject the Calvinist idea God needs, and therefore practices, no self-control; that sovereignty means he controls everything and everyone in the universe… which therefore makes God the secret mastermind behind sin, evil, and death. (Not the cause, they insist, but they gotta do some serious wordplay explaining in order to absolve God of suborning evil, at least.)

PENTECOSTALISM. Miracles, prophecy, tongues, and healing, have happened throughout Christian history, and still do. Every Christian is entitled to the Father’s promise of the baptism of the Holy Spirit and fire. It’s what the ancient Christians normally experienced, and with it comes the power to serve others and grow in Christian maturity. It’s not the same as salvation; it can take place at the same time, but might not. It’s marked by the physical sign of speaking in tongues. All empowered believers, Jew and gentile alike, men and women alike, can minister.

There’s lots more I believe, as you can tell from the many, many other things I’ve written on this blog. But that’ll give you the gist of it.

Orthodoxy: Getting our theological ducks in a row.

by K.W. Leslie, 09 February
ORTHODOX 'ɔr.θə.dɑks adjective. Correct; conforms to what’s commonly or traditionally believed true; generally accepted as right.
2. Usual, conventional, normal, customary.
3. [capitalized] Of the ancient churches originating in the eastern Roman Empire, which formally split from the Roman Catholics in 1054.
[Orthodoxy 'ɔr.θə.dɑks.i noun.]

Christianity is primarily about trusting and following Christ Jesus. We read what he taught, agree with him, and do as he said; we join his kingdom, with him as our king.

An important secondary thing (and you just know people miss the point and turn it into the primary thing) is what we believe about Jesus. How we understand him, and who we understand him to be, are mighty important things. ’Cause when we misunderstand who Jesus is, we follow him wrong. Aren’t even following him at all, in many cases: We’re following an imaginary Jesus who looks a lot more like us, and our biases and prejudices… or who looks more like the cult leaders who got us to believe in their imaginary Jesuses.

Obviously people had wrong ideas about Jesus while he was still walking the earth. Definitely didn’t stop after he left: There were Pharisees who were pretty sure his kingdom couldn’t include gentiles, or Greeks who were pretty sure Jesus can’t have come to earth in a physical body, ’cause animal matter is icky and gross. There were Egyptians who objected to the idea Jesus is God, and said he’s gotta be a lesser god, not the God. Don’t forget all the con artists inventing new religions, who decided to throw bits and pieces of this new middle eastern religion into their mixtures to make themselves sound more exotic. (Nope, it’s not a new practice. Humans have always been doing that.)

So… what’s correct and what isn’t?

Who decides orthodoxy?

Well, here’s where things get tricky. How do we determine which Christians, and Christian beliefs, are orthodox, and which of ’em are wrong, heretic, or even evil? How do we sort the wheat from the weeds, the good from the dumb, the gold from fool’s gold, the kosher hot dogs from the pure pink slime?

Well, every church in Christendom claims they have the solution: They’re orthodox. Believe ye in their doctrines, and ye shall be saved. Believe ye not in their doctrines, and out you go. Either they’ll kindly ask you to go elsewhere, or they’ll formally excommunicate you, and hand you over to Satan, 1Ti 1.20 ’cause they’re pretty sure God won’t have you.

I agree every church’s leadership has the ability to decide for themselves what they believe, and how firm they’re gonna emphasize those beliefs. Fr’instance one of my previous churches believed Christians shouldn’t drink. No, the bible mandates no such thing; it only recommends we don’t get drunk. Ep 5.18 But that church ministered to a lot of alcoholics, and the leaders felt those who could drink might mislead those who can’t. So it’s more important to protect weaker believers. Ro 14 Makes sense, right? But is this a make-or-break issue, where you’re going to hell if you drink? Absolutely not.

…Except one of the church’s leaders believed strongly and vocally that if you drank, you probably were going to hell. Drinking meant you thought so little of your fellow Christians, you were so selfish as to do your own thing without taking other people into consideration, that you were essentially an antichrist. He doubted thoughtless people like that were even saved. To his mind, people whom God truly saved people would never, ever do that. To him this was a make-or-break issue. Drink, and you’re heretic.

Now who died and made him God?

But that’s how it works when individuals get to decide what’s orthodox and what’s not. All of us have our favorite beliefs, and most of us will turn ’em into priorities and absolutes—and not just for us personally, but for everyone. Every Christian has to think and believe as we do.

Or we’ll go the opposite extreme: We’ll dismiss and permit all sorts of things. We’ll call it “generous orthodoxy.” But our liberalism will allow things we really shouldn’t. Paul had to rebuke the church of Corinth for not just including a guy who was banging his stepmother, but for being proud of how inclusive they were. 1Co 5 Look, we gotta be gracious and embrace sinners, and forgive them everything, same as God forgives us. But Jesus expects us to turn from such sins, and stop doing ’em, not make accommodations. A church which doesn’t teach likewise isn’t following Jesus.

So while churches are free to set a standard—and really oughta—do they set a universal standard, true for every Christian everywhere? Well, some of us think we do. Fundamentalists in particular. Disagree with their doctrines and they’ll insist you’re not a real Christian. In fact some of ’em are mighty sure they’re the only real Christians, and when the rapture happens the only ones we’ll find in heaven are Fundies, the first apostles, and Ronald Reagan.

But realistically though: Who sets the ultimate standard? Who gets the final word?

I say Christ Jesus. Should be Jesus, right? I mean, why’re we calling ourselves “Christians” otherwise? If we’re gonna be judged in the End by him, obviously he determines what’s correct and what isn’t. That’s the whole point of his teaching, “You’ve heard it said… but I tell you” Mt 5.38-39he defines Christianity. Not me. Nor my favorite Christians. Nor my favorite church. Nor my favorite beliefs, faith statements, creeds, or anything else. We don’t get to the Father except through Jesus, Jn 14.6 and that’s true of our beliefs as well: We don’t “get” God unless Jesus interprets him for us. He sets the standard—and he forgives us when we fall short of it, as we will.

Beyond Jesus, we got the ancient creeds. And this part gets controversial for Fundamentalists, who insist they get to define orthodoxy; not some ancient “Catholics.” (Even though the creeds were written long before the Roman Catholic Church came into existence.) Whenever heresy became a serious issue in the Roman Empire, the emperor would call a council of every leading Christian and have ’em sort it out. I believe their conclusions are consistent with the scriptures, and so has nearly every Christian since. Their conclusions aren’t comprehensive—there are still a lot of wrong ideas they never got round to addressing!—but they got to all the important ones, all the Christianity-defining ones. So they defined orthodoxy too.

Misusing orthodoxy.

Two common mistakes Christians make about orthodoxy.

First, faith righteousness: Many Christians think we’re only saved when we believe all the right things. That if we get any of our beliefs wrong, Jesus’ll say, “Whoops, you didn’t pass the orthodoxy test,” and it’s off to hell. This is what they mean by “saved by faith”: If you put your faith in the wrong beliefs, it doesn’t save! It condemns.

It’s absolutely wrong, of course. We’re saved by God’s grace alone. The Protestant slogan sola fide, “faith alone,” refers to how we’re justified, not how we’re saved. We trust Jesus, Ga 2.16 the one whom the Father sent us, Jn 6.29 and it’s through this faith God grants us grace. Ep 2.8 Not through our individual orthodox beliefs; it’s through trusting Jesus.

The reason Christians teach faith righteousness is pretty simple: They don’t understand grace. As we can tell by how utterly graceless they get, and how quick they are to condemn. Much as they correctly point out we’re not saved by works, they somehow wanna slip into the mix, without anyone really noticing, the hard work of sorting out our beliefs and becoming orthodox Christians. And convince us if we don’t do it, we’re not really saved—because they don’t believe, can’t believe, God might extend his grace to heretics. They’re not gracious, so they wanna remake God so he’s ungracious too.

Second, the idea since orthodoxy doesn’t save, it’s not important. Or not that important. Hence many a Christian figures we can believe as we like, since all roads lead to God anyway, and God’ll forgive everything and sort us all out.

Look, the reason God saves us is so we can do good works. Ep 2.10 Not so we can sit on our growing behinds and bask in his salvation. Now that we’re saved, we got work to do! And just so we get cracking on the stuff God actually wants us to do, instead of the busywork our Christianist culture does instead, it just makes sense to get to know the actual God, instead of the Christianist interpretations which con us into doing anything and everything else—preferably things which get their candidates elected. Stand back and look at what they expect us to do. Now, if Jesus is just gonna overthrow all these works once he returns, stands to reason it’s a colossal waste of our time, effort, money, and passion.

If we want a growing relationship with God—heck, if we want a relationship with him period, instead of just taking him for granted—it only makes sense we’ll try to get to know him as he really is, and not just embrace whichever interpretation of him is most convenient. We’ll trust him enough to actually tackle the things he tells us to do, instead of preemptively assuming they’re impossible, unfathomable, too righteous for unrighteous humans to approach (sola fide notwithstanding), too perfect for imperfect humans to do without ruining everything. We’ll embrace God instead of embracing cop-outs.

After all, Jesus came to earth to reveal God to us. Jn 1.18 Dismissing Jesus’s mission as irrelevant doesn’t strike you as the most Christian of behaviors, does it?

Bad theology: When it’s not based on revelation.

by K.W. Leslie, 03 February

The starting point of theology is revelation, the stuff God reveals to us.

Problem is, not everybody agrees. They think the starting point is us: We have questions about God, the universe, whether we can have a relationship with God (or at least get stuff out of him), death and the afterlife, good and evil and karma, and salvation. And people figure theology is when we seek answers to these questions, and get wise-sounding answers from the smartest gurus. Or even become a guru ourselves, ’cause guruing doesn’t look all that hard.

Yep, even Christians do it. Years ago, at another church, my pastors began to invite a lot of clever guest speakers to come preach to us. These guys would regularly tell us what they think they’ve figured out about God. Some ideas were based on actual personal experiences with God—which I’m not knocking, but I wanna remind you our God-experiences need to be confirmed long before we start developing ’em into theology. These guys were not so scrupulous. They felt these God-experiences were so profound, so emotional, they didn’t bother to ask the usual questions we oughta pose when such things happen. “God showed me,” they figured; they believed it, and that settles it.

Me, I know enough bible to seriously doubt God showed them a thing.

Problem is, most Christians don’t. And when they have their own God-experiences, they do the same thing as these preachers: They never have ’em properly confirmed. They’re so sure their personal insights are revelations; they certainly feel like revelations! And when someone else stands up, claims to have an insight, and present ’em with something which feels right to them… well, they had religion questions, here’s someone who purports to have answers, and the answers sound like stuff they oughta believe. Stuff they wanna believe. So they do.

But is this because the Holy Spirit tells ’em, “Yep, that came from me,” or because their flesh tells ’em, “Oh that sounds so much easier than holiness”? And should we really trust our inner impulses, urges, and desires when it comes to theological ideas? Most of us are pretty darned selfish, and that’s the deciding factor in our lives, not the Spirit. That’s what makes us feel these ideas are correct, not a lifestyle of actively following Jesus. We might imagine it’s the Spirit, but we still don’t know the difference between him, and the way the surprise ending of a clever mystery novel makes us feel.

So that’s how we practice bad theology: We’re not getting it from revelation, and therefore not getting it from God.

Not just bad ideas. Nor heresy.

Now yeah, some folks define bad theology as bad ideas: When we come to selfish and evil conclusions. Like sexists, who claim the bible is the entire basis for turning women into second-class Christians, not to mention second-class citizens. Like racists who do the same thing, or Mammonists. True, these are terrible ideas, evil practices, and bad theology. But they’re not bad theology because they produce bad fruit; we might have totally valid beliefs, properly deduced from bible, but in the hands of a fruitless person all their goodness can be nullified, 1Co 13.2 or even twisted into evil.

Nope, they’re bad theology ’cause the process by which we come to these conclusions was wrong from the get-go. Sexists didn’t begin with bible; they began as sexists already. They wanted to justify their sexism with bible verses, so they found some passages where ancient Hebrews were being sexist, and claim, “This proves it’s a biblical principle.” Or they found passages which mean one thing, distort ’em to mean what they wish, and teach that. Their starting point isn’t revelation. It’s their own evil, disguised as revelation.

And a lot of us start theology with our own biases. I confess: I do it too. “I think [harebrained idea] is so. Isn’t it taught in the bible?” So I’ll go a-looking. But I know better than to trust myself: I’m wrong. Jesus is right. So I’ll look for what Jesus, his prophets, or his apostles actually teach on the subject, and not just presume Jesus agrees with me. Often he doesn’t! But I follow him, not the other way round. So when I find we disagree, I gotta change my opinion to his. Not bend his opinion till it sounds like mine, then claim we think alike. Not project my beliefs upon him. That’s bad theology.

Loads of Christians also figure bad theology and heresy are the same thing. Nope. Bad theology can certainly result in heresy, but doesn’t always. Most of the time bad theology only produces bad ideas and false teachings, like the claims God doesn’t wanna save everybody, or everything happens for a reason. These aren’t harmless ideas; they can seriously mess with our understanding of God, and the ways we treat our fellow humans and Christians. But they’re not heresy.

Yeah, there are Christians who insist every wrong idea is heresy. That’s because they think they get to define what heresy is. They don’t. Properly heresy is an idea contrary to historically orthodox Christian beliefs, as defined by ancient Christians in our creeds. They deal with core Christian beliefs about God and salvation, and the grave errors which cropped up almost immediately after Jesus was raptured. You get these beliefs wrong, and you’re clearly not listening to the Spirit’s corrections. In fact there’s a better than average chance you’re not following God at all, and your salvation’s in serious doubt. Heresy’s a big deal.

And heresy’s definitely the product of bad theology. Ancient heretics imagined Jesus isn’t properly God, and obviously this idea didn’t come from bible; it came from people who felt trinity sounds too much like polytheism for their comfort. Today’s heretics think the very same thing, and make the very same error. But trinity is how the scriptures describe God. It’s how he legitimately revealed himself to be. It’s valid, orthodox theology. If you don’t like it, or wanna redefine it, because it’s too weird or mysterious and you think you’ve come up with a better way to describe him, that’s your hangup, your bad theology, and eventually your heresy.

More often, bad theology simply produces bad ideas. Like looking for other proofs of Christianity than good fruit. Like legalism, sexism, racism, various forms of dark Christianity, and various cults which lost sight of the Spirit’s fruit long ago.

And those who practice bad theology, love coming up with bad ideas. Because they’re not so much looking for truth, for a better understanding of who God is, nor a closer relationship with Jesus. They’re looking to become gurus. They wanna be the wise dispenser of brilliant proverbs, and for people to listen to these sayings and say, “Amen, pastor.” They want followers. They covet worship.

The appeal of bad theology.

Humans tend to be a little paranoid: We think we have a right to truth and power, but other people are greedily hiding it or keeping it from us. And yeah, in many cases that’s true; politics is an obvious example. In Christianity it’s also true, ’cause our churches are run by humans, and some of us haven’t entirely got rid of our dysfunctional behavior when we were put in charge. (Hopefully we’re working on it!) But the all-too-common assumption is our churches are keeping the real truths of the bible from us. So, certain Christians go on a search for the “real truths”—and because they’ve not learned how to properly do theology, of course they dive right into the bad stuff.

Humans also like new things. Not old. (It’s why we regularly misinterpret Jesus’s teaching on new wine in old skins.) True, a number of people love antiques, but that’s only because these antiques are new to them—and while they might have a house full of antiques, they’re still mighty jazzed when they acquire a new find. Humans like novelty. So sometimes it’s simply not enough for Christians to describe ancient ideas in new ways: Some of us covet entirely new ideas, same as the rest of the world. (Even though many of these “new ideas” are likewise very, very old.)

Hence you’ll find bad theology everywhere in Christendom. Out of context scriptures, obviously. Connect-the-dots reasoning, instead of logic. Meditation on the people of the bible, including Jesus, which turns ’em into sock puppets. Tons of projection, as we imagine God shares our biases, and Jesus thinks exactly like we do. None of it comes from revelation. But it sounds good, so Christians spread it widely, like rats do plague.

How do we resist it? Good theology, obviously. Make sure our ideas originate with God. Confirm ’em. Be skeptical of anything new we hear: Does that really come from God?—can we think of scriptures which confirm it, or scriptures which counter it? Is it consistent with God’s character, or does it more resemble or justify our own fruitless behavior? What fruit is it likely to produce?

It’s become my habitual response to anything I hear. And yeah, self-anointed gurus get really annoyed with me about this: Why do I have to be so contrary? Why can’t I just swallow their eggs of wisdom whole, like all their other followers do? Well, because I wanna know whether their eggs are actually rotten, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on the metaphorical toilet. I’m trying to follow Jesus, not them. I would hope they want the same thing. Some of ’em actually do! But too many really, honestly, don’t.

Revelation: The starting point of theology.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 January
REVELATION rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃən noun. A previously unknown fact (about God), often surprising or dramatic.
2. (God’s) act of making the unknown known.
3. [capitalized] the last book of the New Testament; Christ Jesus’s apocalypses of the future, given to John of Patmos.
[Reveal rə'vil verb, revelator 'rɛ.vəl.eɪt.ər noun, revelatory 'rə.vɛl.ə.tɔ.ri adjective, revelational rɛv.ə'leɪ.ʃ(ə)n.(ə)l adjective.]

When I first taught theology, I found whenever I talk about revelation, Christians nearly always assume I’m talking about the book. (And half the time they think it’s Revelations, with an -s. And half that time, when they write it out, they put an apostrophe on the -s for no reason. Don’t get me started about the overuse of apostrophes.)

Revelation, no -s, is anything God reveals to us humans. That’s all it is. If God tells you to put a sweater on ’cause it’s gonna be chilly outside, that’s revelation. God revealed it to you. Simple, right?

And of course we humans overcomplicate the idea. We assume revelation is always a big profound mind-scrambling experience. With lights, visions, seizures, euphoria, and Hollywood-style special effects. This is why people assume God’s never given ’em a revelation, or doesn’t do this sort of thing anymore: They’re still waiting for the light show. They expect to have Isaiah- or Ezekiel- or John-style visions of God’s throne room. Or see Jesus in glory like Simon Peter, James, John, Stephen, and Paul did. Or at least have some glowing angels or burning bushes or something like that.

Nah. Most of the time, revelation is so ordinary-looking, you’d never realize it’s God talking till he tells you it’s him. Kinda like what happened to the prophet Samuel. He kept pestering his guardian, the head priest Eli, like any other little kid who “just wants a drink of water,” i.e. won’t go to sleep.

1 Samuel 3.1-10 KWL
1 The boy Samuel ministered to the LORD before Eli’s face.
The LORD’s word was valuable. In those days, there was no breakthrough vision.
2 In that day Eli laid down in his room. His eyes began to dim, unable to see.
3 Samuel laid down in the LORD’s sanctuary, where God’s ark was, before God’s lamp was put out.
4 The LORD called Samuel, saying, “Heed me.”
5 Samuel ran to Eli, saying, “Heed me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call. Go back. Lie down.”
Samuel walked back and laid down.
6 The LORD called yet again: “Samuel.”
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli said, “I didn’t call, my son. Go back. Lie down.”
7 Samuel hadn’t yet met the LORD, who hadn’t yet revealed the LORD’s word to him.
8 The LORD called Samuel again a third time.
Samuel stood and walked to Eli, saying, “Look at me; you called me.”
Eli realized the LORD called the boy, 9 and Eli told Samuel, “Go lie down.
If he happens to call you, say, ‘Speak, LORD: Your slave hears you.’ ”
Samuel walked back and laid down in the LORD’s room.
10 The LORD came, stood there, and did as he did before: “Samuel. Samuel.”
Samuel said, “Speak: Your slave hears you.”

Quite a few stories in the bible consist of God showing up to talk to someone, and their first reaction is, “Wait… is that… God? Holy crap, am I talking to God?” Frequently followed by sheer terror, ’cause most people assume if you encounter God, he’s too holy to abide sin, and you’re gonna die. Ge 32.30, Dt 5.24, Jg 13.22 Or you’re already dead.

But no: God wants you to know him, so he’s making contact. Don’t listen to the cessationists: He does this. A lot.

He has to. How else are we gonna get to know him?

The reason cessationists, and other anti-supernaturalists, balk at the idea of God talking to people or otherwise revealing himself to people, is because their concepts of God (or their lack of belief in him) can’t permit the idea. God’s too different. Or too holy. Or just doesn’t work like that. Or doesn’t work like that anymore; he used to, but chose a cut-off point where he no longer will, so we’re on our own.

If God doesn’t talk, then how on earth are we expected to find out about him? Well, here these folks present us with all sorts of unsatisfactory, problematic answers.

  • We’re never gonna find out. We’ll die wondering.
  • Back in ancient times when God did talk, holy scriptures were recorded, and we’re gonna have to make do with them. Good luck figuring out which of them are valid. We Christians point to our bible, but we still debate how many books are in it, or or which translation’s best, and these things tend to alienate people who are obsessive-compulsive about their scriptures, or bore people who don’t read. Plus the Jews say we Christians have one testament too many, the Mormons say one testament too few, the Muslims say ditch it in favor of the Quran, and the Hindus and Buddhists also have their own scriptures.
  • We might finally make contact with God in the afterlife. Till then, all our questions are gonna have to wait till we’re dead. (And maybe we can make contact with ghosts. They might know something. Bust out that Ouija board!)
  • There are other spirits. Like angels, or beings on other celestial planes, or nature gods, or spirit animals. Talk to them.
  • If we look at nature, or study science, maybe we can deduce God, or figure out what he’s like. Fr’instance, animals in our biosphere fight each other for supremacy and survival, and nature is unforgiving and harsh. Maybe that’s what God’s like, right? He doesn’t want us to work together in peace and harmony; he’s a war God who wants us to fight to the death and come out on top in this cold, cruel world.
  • Various gurus think they have God figured out. Which one do we wanna follow? How about that church in Hollywood all the celebrities are into? …Too expensive and cultlike? Okay, how about that temple all the other celebrities are into? Maybe the church whose beliefs already match ours; that’d be convenient, ’cause we won’t have to change our lives much, if at all.
  • Turn off our doubts and our brains, and just cling to happiness as best we can.

These are the many problems with trying to learn what God is like, without ever actually talking to the Big Guy himself. We gotta deal with a whole lot of guesses. Doesn’t matter how educated these guesses are: If God is in fact significantly different than we are (and it turns out he is!) the very best of these guesses, pitched by the very smartest of our people, is gonna be riddled with flaws. Speaking for myself, I think Siddhartha Gautama came up with a downright clever philosophy, and is probably the very best we can do apart from God’s revelation.

But with God’s revelation, you’re gonna make contact with God himself. And if that’s a real option, it’d be downright stupid of us to ignore it.

Of course, there’s no shortage of stupid on earth. But I would encourage you to ignore all that and ask God for revelation. He invites you to.

Luke 11.9-10 KWL
9 “And I tell you all: Ask!—it’ll be given you. Look!—you’ll find it. Knock!—it’ll be unlocked for you.
10 For all who ask receive, who seek find, who knock God’ll unlock for.”
 
Acts 17.26-28 KWL
26 “Out of one human, God made every human ethnicity dwelling upon all the face of the earth,
marking out placements, times, and borders of their nation,
27 to get them to seek God: Perhaps they’d sense him, and find him.
Really, he exists not far from every one of us.
28 ‘We live, move, and exist in him,’ Epimenides, Kritiká as one of your poets even said.
‘We’re his descendants too.’ ” Aratus, Fainómena
 
Hebrews 11.5-6 KWL
5 In faith Enoch was transformed:
He didn’t see death, and wasn’t found because God transformed him.
Before his transformation, he’d testified to God,
pleasing him, 6 and without faith one can’t please God:
One has to have faith—come to God because he exists, and earnestly search for him.
He becomes the one who pays your salary.

Special revelation.

There are all sorts of things we humans call revelation, but when theologians wanna talk about God revealing himself to us, we use the term special revelation: God specially telling us about himself.

I find people tend to assume special revelation only consists of God directly telling us about himself. But God indirectly telling us about himself, through prophets and bible, tends to get included in “special revelation” as well. These other sources count. They’re definitely important too: They help confirm all the stuff we get directly. Don’t dismiss them!

We reduce special revelation to five types. They are:

  1. GOD-APPEARANCES. Where Jesus (or God in some other representational form) makes a personal appearance in some visible form. No, not as a toasted pattern on a tortilla, or a neat cloud formation; it’s not an inert appearance. He’ll talk, or otherwise do stuff.
  2. MIRACLES. Stuff which can only happen if the Holy Spirit did or empowered it, ’cause there’s no other reasonable explanation. Not that skeptics won’t struggle to find one.
  3. PRAYER. When we talk with God; namely the part where he talks back.
  4. PROPHECY. When another person legitimately hears from God, and shares that message.
  5. SCRIPTURE. The writings of ancient prophets and apostles who recorded their God-experiences and special revelations.

Some Christians claim there’s a sixth type, general revelation, humanity’s built-in knowledge that God exists. I discuss that topic in more detail elsewhere, but I’ll briefly say this: It doesn’t provide us enough useful information to count as special revelation.

Pretty much every form of God revealing himself you can think of, falls under these five types. The Old and New Testaments count as scripture. Meditation is a form of prayer. So’s speaking in tongues, most of the time. Dreams and visions are forms of prophecy.

And yeah, some of these types overlap. If you have the ability to supernaturally translate one language into another, it’s both a miracle (it can only be done by the Holy Spirit’s power) and a form of prophecy (God wanted this message shared). Really, all of these types are kinda miraculous.

True, two of them can appear to not be miracles. If you’re one of those Christians who believe prayer only communicates in one direction, you’re barely gonna get any revelation out of it. If you figure the bible is just an old thick book, and don’t figure God teaches you anything out of it, same problem.

Each of these types of revelation merits a whole article—and I wrote ’em, so click on the appropriate links for more info.

Time wasted on bad theology—and its temptations.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 January

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 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 put an awful lot of time into our wrong ideas.

Some of us spent years on these ideas. Went to school and studied ’em in depth. 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.

Expecting credit for wasted hours.

On occasion a student of mine wouldn’t read the directions, and wound up doing their assignment wrong. Sometimes a little wrong, sometimes entirely wrong. Either way, they weren’t getting an A. Really frustrated them too. I know the feeling; I’ve made that mistake myself once or twice.

Every so often, despite going so wrong, one of these students would try to talk me into giving ’em a good grade regardless. Because, they argued, at least they put in the time. That should count for something, right?

Um, no.

I taught bible, science, algebra, grammar, and history; not P.E. (True, some P.E. teachers actually grade their kids for achievement instead of participation… but I haven’t worked with any.) Yes there are plenty of situations in life—and plenty of jobs—where they pay you regardless of how productive you are with your time. But that’s not true in every arena, and y’better learn that. Make hay while the sun shines.

Still, there are a lot of kids—and just as many adults—who still think this way. They put in the time, so they should get something for it. Some sort of karma, recognition, respect, even praise, for all their hard work—even when it honestly wasn’t all that hard. They want us to highlight the few things they got right and inflate their importance, and ignore all the stuff they got wrong, even if most of what they did was wrong.

I’ve seen many a Christian produce an error-filled bible study. To keep others from going astray, I’ve been obligated to point out the errors. And these mistaken teachers regularly, foolishly excuse themselves with, “You gotta give me some credit for putting all this stuff together.” Same as my wrong-headed students.

No I don’t gotta give you credit. Didn’t give my students credit either.

I do have to be kind. I gotta forgive you. I’m Christian; I believe in grace. I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you didn’t mean to teach error. (Well, usually I will. Certain fruitless souls deserve our skepticism.) But when you study wrong, you waste your time. And when you present the results of your wrongly-done study as if it’s true, you waste everyone’s time. Nobody, not even God, gives us credit for wasting time on error and evil, Calvinist beliefs notwithstanding.

But this mindset of “I put in the time, so it must count for something” gets applied to way too many things in Christianity. Like time spent in a ministry which accomplishes nothing, but Christians justify the wasted time by imagining God’ll turn it into something. Like time spent trying to preach to antichrists, and this practice of throwing pearls to pigs Mt 7.6 is defended by saying, “I’m planting seeds” or “God’s word won’t return void.”

Bad theology. But time was invested, and God would never let our investment wholly go to waste, right?

Time and idolatry.

At its core the reason we believe we should get something for misspent time, or figure there should be some credit and value we can gain despite misspent time… is idolatry.

Yep, idolatry. Time is valuable. “Time is money,” as Benjamin Franklin aptly put it, and many people see the two as interchangeable. We won’t always agree on the exchange rate, but we generally agree there is one. If I put time into something, I put value into it.

And if I put that value ahead of God? That’s the very definition of idolatry.

Yep. So just as money is something we need to be wary of, so is time. If I put a lot of time into a wrong idea, it’s still a wrong idea. Time contributed nothing. Time redeemed nothing. Time justifies nothing. Wrong is wrong.

I’ve wasted lots of time on bad ideas before. Businesses which went nowhere. Books and articles which weren’t accepted. Relationships which went bust. It’s frustrating… but it’s life. Things don’t always work out. Hey, we don’t know any better; we’ve gotta learn better. Time is a teacher, provided we treat it like one.

And the same is true of theology. We can spend an awful lot of time studying a theological idea, getting really familiar with it, making it a part of our understanding of God… only to have the Holy Spirit undo it with a few well-placed words. So we gotta determine right now how we’re gonna respond to his correction: Faith? Or a massive crisis of faith, followed by years of a hobbled relationship because we don’t wanna listen to him tell us we’ve misused our time?—and that we’re still misusing our time?

I find it helps when we keep in mind the first principle of theology: “I’m wrong. Jesus is right.” I expect to find I’m wrong. Even if we’re talking the beliefs I’ve held for a good long time, and invested loads of time in: Maybe I have the wording right, but I’ve mixed up something about the concepts. Or maybe I’m prioritizing them when Jesus wants me to prioritize something else. (Or maybe he’s okay with my prioritizing them for now, but he wants me to grow out of it.) Hey, I’m following his lead; however he wants to correct me, I’m game. He’s the only one I cling to tightly.

If that’s not stable enough for you, may I submit you’re perhaps putting your faith in more shaky things than you realize. Time spent should not be one of them.