Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A Severe Critique

The very challenge of discussing heresies, ancient and modern, makes my head hurt. The debates that rage are often so rancorous and bitter that I don’t even want to read the stuff—even from people I agree with!

Hence I want to warn you in advance that there will be, here, a quite-severe critique of all of this—not self-important, I hope, but what I believe is a necessary and overdue upbraiding of the Church’s doctrines, and the cost of those doctrines, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. More later.

How to Disagree

I believe we do need to be serious in understanding what the Lord wants us to know about Him, and what isn’t true about Him. Right doctrine is important. But it never trumps love.

There will be points at which any of us will disagree. So long as we abide by the two commandments that Jesus has declared supreme, and on which our doctrine should hang, we can keep on talking to each other and loving each other. Jesus said,

“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV)

Even if we have got our doctrine “right,” if we apply it in a way that violates those two commandments, we’ve got it wrong.

This is a very hard thing for us to remember, because in the Church, people disagree—just as with politics, sports, families, and life in general. Then they get angry and bitter, and quickly dash to the violation of those two foundational commandments Jesus gave.

And when someone complains that the debate has become rancorous and mean, the charge is laid that the peacemakers value being “nice” over being in accord with God’s will, that they stick their heads in the sand or are afraid to name aloud what is seriously wrong. Those who do not approve of vicious attack are themselves attacked—accused of being wimps, or quislings, or traitors—apparently in the hope of silencing them, or justifying the hateful attacker’s words and methods.

My desire is that as we face serious issues in the Church, we approach them consistently with Jesus’ two commands. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if we are right about where we stand, because we are unholy at the roots.

A Severe Critique

You may remember back in Chapter 14, “Covenant—The Law of Moses,” I quoted Rabbi Ronald Isaacs, who said, “Judaism has always been more a religion of action and deed than belief and creed.”

This is a deep and historically profound insight, and if understood is likely to remake how Christians understand who they are, and how to live life more fully in relationship to our Creator.

Philosophers love to draw parallels and make connections across centuries and cultures. The abstractions and categories created in doing so can provide insights into how humans live, believe and behave—and there are surely deep commonalities among human communities, even when widely separated by distance or time.

But such abstraction and categorization is not universal. That is, not all cultures think this way. Oh, they do to a degree, but the real flowering of this approach to analyzing and describing human life and the world is essentially Greek in its origins, especially in the West, and especially in Christianity.

Think of it like this: The entire Old Testament is essentially a narrative story about a people, the Jews, and their robust, constant, joyful, rocky, rebellious, dedicated, awestruck and argumentative love affair with God. They are so familiar with Him that they will yell and wrestle with Him, even turn on their heels in fits of pique, and yet they are so profoundly in awe they will not even say His name aloud. In the entire Old Testament there is virtually not a word of doctrine, nor a foundational philosophical proposition.

A philosophically minded person could look at it, and impute doctrine or philosophy, just as could be done with any narrative, but neither of these are in the worldview or methods of Hebrew thought.

The Greeks, on the other hand, developed a philosophical approach to human life and the world. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, and this conviction characterizes their passion to examine and explain. They abstracted, categorized and organized what they observed, and drew parallels and distinctions. From these they were able to establish foundational propositions, and from these came doctrines: definitions of what fit or didn’t fit the foundational propositions.  Whether it was the Platonists, the Aristotelians, the Stoics, the Rhetoricians, the Epicureans, the Cynics or the Skeptics (to name a few), the approach of abstraction, categorization, organization, proposition and doctrine was essentially the same: The various schools differed primarily on what values were key, and which were not. They had many gods, some of which were icons of these points of view, others of which were a means to self-satisfaction, or defense, or spiritual mystery. The Greeks were complex and deep thinkers, as well as being sensual and pleasure-seeking.

Greek philosophy intersected Hebrew thought at several key points throughout history:

·         When Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) conquered the known world and Hellenized it. Greek became the common language of all the nations he defeated. (It’s because of this that the New Testament was written in Greek.)

·         When Rome, whose leaders were all trained by Greek teachers, conquered all the lands of Alexander, and more. Greek continued to be the common language, and Greek philosophy the way of thinking about the world. Pilate, the Roman governor, said to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38a) This was a profoundly Greek question.

·         When Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, explained the God of Israel (and Jesus) to people who didn’t know how Jews thought, and didn’t know the Old Testament, but who were accustomed to thinking in Greek philosophical categories (including their beliefs about Greek and Roman gods) and listening to rhetorically sound argument. Read Acts 17:16-34 for a quick insight into this. Paul was trained in rhetoric and continues this approach throughout most of his letters to the Gentile believers.

·         When the expanding Church defined and defended itself in debate over many centuries, most of which took place between Gentile authors and leaders (starting in the second and third centuries), hence imbued with and expressed through Greek philosophical and rhetorical methods.

·         When Thomas Aquinas discovered the writings of Aristotle, which had been lost to the West for centuries, and began to explain Christian theology in Greek philosophical terms (even transubstantiation, substance and accident are concepts from Aristotle).

·         When Humanism arose, heavily dependent on Greek ideas, and began to claim values arising from human reason (in which the Greeks delighted). Remember that “man is the measure of all things” is from a contemporary of Socrates, the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who predated even Alexander the Great.

·         When science arose, contesting religion for primacy in the lives and faith of people, and showing its superior and growing ability to cure disease, tap power from the atom, and travel even into space. It remains dominant to this day. Its roots, like the Enlightenment and Humanism, are largely Greek.

Each of these intersections of Greek philosophy and Hebrew thought have affected how we understand and respond to the God of Israel, Who we Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) believe to be the One True God.

Now, you may not have thought about it this way before, but the fact is that much of the theology that we do today, and that has been done in the Church since the second or third century, has, in structure and even in content, been fundamentally a Greek philosophical debate.

It is a Herculean effort to explain God, to abstract, categorize and organize what the Jews and followers of Jesus experienced, and then to draw parallels and make distinctions. From these were established foundational propositions, and from these came doctrines: definitions of what fit or didn’t fit those propositions.

Instead of a robust, constant, joyful, rocky, rebellious, dedicated, awestruck and argumentative love affair with God, we have given our hearts to propositions. We have fallen in love with our own thoughts about God, and missed Him. I realize this is a difficult thing to hear or countenance. I myself want to jump up and defend good doctrine: Bad doctrine can lead to disaster. I know! And Paul warns us:

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NKJV)

“Doctrine” here in Paul’s quote is the Greek word didaskalia, and means “teaching, precept, proposition.” And we do want to get that right, and not be led astray by fables instead of the truth.

But the truth isn’t a concept to Jews or Christians: God is truth. So the issue fundamentally isn’t about getting the doctrine right, so much as it is about getting the relationship right. If bad doctrine can lead us away from relationship, let’s point it out and move on, seeking Him. But right doctrine can and does also lead us away from Him—when we focus on it instead of Him, and when we try to grasp and explain Him by doctrine.

We’ve now endured centuries of this approach to God, and we’ve missed the point, which is—well, God. It isn’t our intellectual assent to propositions about Him that He seeks. It is our trust. It is intimacy. It is wrestling. He offers love and covenant, marriage, not highly ordered thoughts and explanations about Him. There is no explaining Him.

This problem began early, with the Hellenization of the Mediterranean and Middle East under Alexander the Great. It affected Judaism and Pharisaic methods in the Talmud, and it continued under Paul, both in his training as a Pharisee, and later as he sought to reveal the God of Israel in terms and concepts his Hellenized Gentile audience would grasp.

I understand this and don’t even really object to it, as it is. It was a door for the Gentiles, an opening, to a new way of life and to salvation and the love of God. Paul taught them in their language, in their own modes of thought. But his goal was not to have his philosophy beat the other philosophies—it was to introduce them to their Creator and Savior.

In our day and age we have virtually abandoned the prospect of life with God, and have settled instead for debates about His nature and intentions.

Even the struggle between Humanism and Theism is almost entirely within the Greek philosophical arena. The Humanists adopt basic Greek philosophical ideals about the nature of man, from Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, from the Skeptics and others, and posit a world of human relations in which God is absent at best, and we are left to determine what we will value and what standards we will maintain.

But the Theists, though they proclaim a God in intimate relation with humanity, act largely like Deists (who believe God created the world but is now uninvolved in it), and posit their own worldview in carefully structured, detailed and defended doctrines, deduced from Scripture and Tradition, and re-formed into a philosophical system of considerable breadth and compass. Their thought is dialectical: One way is right and the other wrong. The smallest deviation is cause for attack. But even if it was consistent to the nth degree, and “right” in some elemental and universal system of “truth,” it is still Greek and not Hebrew in its approach to God and to life.

Well, so what? Is God a Jew? Do we need to think like Hebrews in order to love God or be saved? Doesn’t Scripture tell us that God is the God of all nations, and that in Him we are neither Greek nor Jew?

Yes, of course. But I contend that by putting all of our effort into explaining God, arguing about God, understanding God and defending God in philosophical terms, in debates about doctrine, we have fled the door labeled “God” and packed a hall for “lectures about God,” delivered by contesting theologians.

Christian liberals and Christian conservatives alike are essentially Greek in their approach to God and life. We differ on philosophy, we align with sparring schools, we accuse each other of ineptitude and bad motives, and we fight about how we each define and explain God.

We instead need to be married to God, and let Him have His way with us. We need to be ravished, not lectured.

In Christ,

Pastor George


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Heresy Explained

Most of us don’t have occasion to use the word heresy in our daily conversations. It’s one of those highly charged words that is seldom employed except perhaps by theologians or people hotly engaged in church debate, and occasionally in the press when someone expresses an unpopular position on any topic. It is most commonly used to put down someone—on either side—who disagrees.

Haeresis, the Greek word for “heresy,” actually doesn’t mean something negative or wrong. It means an opinion, or a way, or a choice. In fact, there is an early Christian writer who talks about the “heresy of the Gospel.” As he uses it, the expression refers to the way of the Gospel. It is not a criticism of the Gospel, but simply the use of that word to mean a way or a path. So one of the confusions of this word “heresy” is that in Greek it can refer to something neutral or even positive.

Simply put, heresy refers, in a neutral way, to a choice, a way, or an opinion. When it is used negatively in Scripture, with an adjective such as “destructive,” or when it is clearly negative by context, it means to break into factions, to cause division or schism (another word for division).

“Heresy” doesn’t mean “wrong doctrine.” In the negative sense it means using something—doctrine or practice or gossip or subversive leadership—to break up the loving community of the church.

Wrong doctrine can be used for such heresy—to divide—but so can right doctrine! In fact, many of us have experienced individuals and groups within churches that have used correct doctrine in such a legalistic, self-righteous way that they have caused division and harm to others in the church. This is heresy at its finest.

One of the reasons the church constructed the creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, Apostles) was to combat wrong doctrine—that is, a misunderstanding of the basics of the faith. That is a sufficient reason in and of itself, like a good dictionary or map. But the creeds also helped to combat heresy that came from misunderstandings of the faith. A more-proper term for those misunderstandings is heterodoxy—deviating from the norm.

Heresy happened when these heterodoxies were being used by certain people to cause factions. They promoted heterodoxies to produce an isolating, self-righteous sect. Paul pointedly puts it this way:

…the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group. (Galatians 5:20, NLT First Edition)

Let’s listen again to more from this chapter of Galatians, as Paul contrasts the attitude and behavior of a sinful versus a loving life. He is writing to Christians. The italicized words specifically address the issue of doctrine, conflict, and heresy in the Church:

For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.  … When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:19-23a)

We seem to have little difficulty seeing the sinfulness of sexual immorality, idolatry, or lust, but we quickly indulge in hostility, dissension, and division to “defend the Gospel.” It’s the same as claiming that we commit adultery or worship idols to “defend the Gospel”! They are all sin, and none of them can be excused as a defense of the Good News.

As an example of heresy and heterodoxy, let’s look at an early heterodoxy called Donatism. This is especially important to us today because it is raging again worldwide in the Church, across denominations, and in many forms. The idea of the early Donatists was this: Only those living a blameless life belonged in the Church.

Their idea was the Sacraments, of which there were two key ones—Baptism and Communion—were ineffective if the person celebrating them was not sinless. Also, any ordination performed by a bishop who was not sinless had no effect and no ordination truly happened.

Donatism was considered a holiness movement in the early Church—where those who were in it strove to be holy and they excluded from their company those who they did not believe to be blameless and sinless. This still goes on today! It ranges from not allowing people to sing in the choir if they are having troubles at home, to refusing to receive Communion at the hands of a bishop, priest or pastor whose theology differs from your own—especially on hot, controversial issues.

Don’t mistake my point here: I’m not saying that differences in theology are irrelevant. They can be extremely important—can even be salvation issues—but to suggest that the minister’s own sinlessness is essential to God’s being able to be present—in Communion, Baptism, ordination or anything else—is to assert God’s powerlessness in the presence of His sinful creatures.

Can our sin get in the way of our relationship with God? Of course it can. But does God depend upon the sinlessness of His followers and pastors to be able to be present in Communion, Baptism, ordination, prayer, care, teaching, or anything else? No.

The fundamental idea of the Church is we are all sinners gathered together. Our responsibility to each other is as we should teach what we know to be true, hold each other accountable, love and edify each other, and speak with humility, love and directness when we believe that there is sin in someone’s life.

St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430) is the one who wrote convincingly about the Donatist heresy (and note that it was heresy—it intentionally divided the Church by claiming sinlessness and establishing competing Churches!)

Augustine drew the heart of the Church to understand that though filled with sinners, it was the unity of the Body that mattered, and that the division into another separate parallel Church was heresy. It was heresy because it was breaking into factions. It cut off part of the Body of Christ. That is the division that the Church contested.

Augustine followed Jesus, who said,

“I am praying not only for these disciples but also for all who will ever believe in me through their message. I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me. I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one. I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” (John 17:20-23)

If we are honest with ourselves, we have failed to listen to the prayer of Jesus for us, and have failed to be convinced by Augustine when he reminded us of it.

In Christ,

Pastor George

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Peace and Breath


Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:27 NIV)

The peace Jesus speaks of is not the absence of war, or absence of conflict with another, but an inner gift from Him of His own peace, in order that our hearts would be calm and fearless.

Consider what His peace looked like: At His most troubled moment, knowing His painful death was near, did He stew silently and alone? Did He drink away His fears (alcohol and drugs were used then as now to numb the pain of living and the fear of dying)? No, He went to the Garden of Gethsemane to talk to His heavenly Father. When He stood before Pilate, did He quake in fear? No. He was calm, fearless, resolute. When He was whipped and scourged and a crown of thorns pierced His head, He endured it unafraid. When He was mocked and spat upon, He was at peace. When He was crucified, He calmly spoke to a condemned criminal and promised him paradise that day, gave the disciple John to His mother, and forgave the soldiers and others who were killing Him.

Such was His peace!

It is this peace, His peace, that He gives freely to us, that our hearts might not be troubled or afraid. It is a peace that is not the absence of strife, conflict or pain, but of calm poise in the midst of it. Such is the peace of Christ. We obtain it by allowing Him into our lives and hearts.


As a young baby coming out of the womb cannot live on its own unless it breathes, so we cannot live in relationship to God without the Holy Spirit given to us—without the Holy Breath that we breathe.

And without the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath, we have no peace. Without the Spirit, it is like what happens when we stop breathing. We get anxious. We become frightened because that which gives us life has stopped.

The peace that we do not have in this world is because we do not have peace inside. And we do not have peace inside if we do not breathe, if we do not have the holy breath—the Holy Spirit living in us, breathing in us, giving us life.

Without it, we become anxious. Then our outer life begins to reflect that.

That isn’t what God wants for us.

For reasons beyond our comprehension, God loves us and desires relationship with us, covenant with us. For reasons beyond our comprehension, God loves us and desires to give us mercy. For reasons beyond our comprehension, God loves us and desires to save every last one of us, and give us breath, the Holy Spirit.

And so let each of us make this very personal. Pray something like this, but in your own words:

 “Lord, I seek rich relationship with You as close as my very breath—not simply a set of instructions, doctrines, or ways to behave, but You living with me and in me. I ask Your forgiveness for all the things I’ve done that have kept me from You. Come to live with me, in me, through me. Make this covenant with You full.”

Pray for that kind of covenant, that relationship, that close and that rich—now, and everyday.

In Christ

Pastor George

Tuesday, November 6, 2012


I’d like to encourage you to read Hebrews 11. Much as Psalm 119 is a tribute to God’s teaching and counsel (the Law), this chapter of Hebrews is a sweeping, exuberant, compelling paean to faith. It begins:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
It is followed, verse by verse, like this:
By faith we understand…
By faith Abel offered to God…
By faith Enoch was taken away…
But without faith it is impossible to please Him…
By faith Noah…
By faith Abraham…
By faith he dwelt…
By faith Sarah…
These all died in faith…
By faith Isaac…
By faith Jacob…
By faith Joseph…
By faith Moses…
By faith he forsook Egypt…
By faith he kept the Passover…
By faith they passed through the Red Sea…
By faith the walls of Jericho fell down…
By faith the harlot Rahab did not perish…
And then concludes:
And what more shall I say? For the time would fail me to tell of Gideon and Barak and Samson and Jephthah, also of David and Samuel and the prophets: who through faith subdued kingdoms, worked righteousness, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, out of weakness were made strong, became valiant in battle, turned to fight the armies of the aliens.
Women received their dead raised to life again.
Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection.
Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword.
They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy.
They wandered in deserts and mountains, in dens and caves of the earth.
And all these, having obtained a good testimony through faith, did not receive the promise, God having provided something better for us, that they should not be made perfect apart from us.
Hebrews 11 is an intense and sweeping depiction of faith, and the testimony to faith’s centrality to life in God. It speaks both of the immediate results of faith, and also of delayed results—where God’s higher purposes subsumed faith until a greater result would be revealed.
Faith is key to life in God.
There is a kind of door into the eternal that is not opened by a rational progression of thought. It comes from two directions:
          from our believing, we see, and
          from the power being seen, we believe.
Look at how freely the experience of God appears in Scripture. It is depicted as normative, and normative of belief:
Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1-3, NIV)
If someone makes a purely rational decision to believe in Jesus and accept His offer of salvation, of course He will say, “Amen, welcome into the Kingdom.”
But few people are ever argued logically into the Kingdom, and even at the end of a compelling, logical argument, they must still take that step of faith.
Pascal said, “The heart has its reasons that reason does not know.” (From Pensees)
Thus, instead of being convinced by argument, most recognize their own frailty, their own sinfulness, and their hearts respond to the offer Jesus makes to forgive and accept them. All this requires is that we accept the gift.
In this world we Christians are looked upon as aliens. We are viewed as people with an odd belief system, a strange religion to which we cling. We are often scorned as not really fitting the culture in which we live—and the truth is, we don’t.
Don’t apologize for your faith. Don’t be ashamed of the Gospel. Be willing to take the ridicule. Be willing to be considered an intellectual lightweight, because your faith does not conform to the logic that a skeptic requires of you. Never mind the fact that the skeptic’s faith is built on less.
You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family—calling him “Father, dear Father.” For his Holy Spirit speaks to us deep in our hearts and tells us that we are God’s children. And since we are his children, we will share his treasures—for everything God gives to his Son, Christ, is ours, too. (Romans 8:15b-17a, NLT. First Edition)
Faith and belief are very odd things in this day, but the truth is that there isn’t anyone, skeptic or believer, who doesn’t live on faith, who doesn’t live by belief. I can choose, if I want, to believe that the universe began without purpose and without a creator. I can choose to believe, if I wish, that the aggregations of atoms and molecules came together and made life happen purely by accident.
I can’t prove that, however. It is a statement of faith. And as a statement of faith, it does nothing to change how I live or how I behave, how I treat other people, or how I treat my enemies.
And so, in that sense, as much as I might want rationally and skeptically to cling to the accidental-creation theory, I find it of little value. As Kurt Gödel would point out, there are questions, problems, challenges in this system that cannot be solved within this system.
But when I look at Jesus, and I hear what Jesus said about loving God, loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and loving even our enemies, I find there a truth, a wisdom, a presence and a power that transcends all the rest—that goes beyond it.
God breaks open the physical world in which we are confined, and drives into it an entirely new dimension of life and reality. If we taste it, we find that it is good.
C.S. Lewis said:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else. (From “Is Theology Poetry?”  1945)
If I have to choose one or the other, skepticism or faith, accident or intentional creation, deduction or presence, then though I will fail again and again in so many ways, nevertheless:
I choose to believe so that I might see.
In Christ,
Pastor George