Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Religious Concepts—Part Two

This is part 2 of my discussion on Religious Concepts. The last discussion ended on How It Began: Building Religious Concepts From Scripture I will move onto Worshiping Doctrine.

Worshiping Doctrine

One important product of Christian religious Concepts is Doctrine, essentially a set of ideas and themes drawn from a Concept, and woven together to assert a specific philosophical tenet that generally was often not explicitly present in the scriptural text, but was imputed from it by linking several verses and ideas found there. Some are fairly straightforward and provoke little controversy, while others continue to be contested.

Some of these Doctrines are labeled heresies, usually because they tended to divide the Church into factions, or because they contained elements that appeared to misrepresent God, or contradicted the dominant Doctrines of the period.

There is an old saying: “History is written by the victors.” This helps in understanding why we believe what we believe today in the Church, at least in terms of Doctrine.

The problem begins to unveil itself here: Once a Doctrine gains sufficient prominence, it tends to draw not just advocates, but worshipers. Instead of worshiping God alone, we worship Doctrines about God, and promote and defend them passionately. They are easier to understand and control than a Being Who is Holy, Wholly Other, Omnipotent and Omniscient.

Even if I believe God loves me, and desires loving relationship with me, His power and otherness frighten me—as they should.

Doctrine doesn’t scare me. As with wealth, fame, success, and possessions, I want to hold on to my doctrine and defend it. And like wealth, fame, success, and possessions, I can and do make an idol of it.

We die for and kill for idols all the time. Humans always have. We still do. Whether “honor” or position, fame or religion, nationalism or race, gender or beauty, we tend to idolize what we want or want to keep, and we fight for it, often regardless of the harm we do to other people or to our world.

We make idols and fight to defend them. We justify such battles with self-righteous explanations, and we labor to get others to bend to our will or submit to our vision. Such idolatry is not unique to Christians, or even to religion, but it is common to our humanity. This is why Scripture is so compelling, and why we must listen again to God’s first commandment:

You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind, or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. (Deuteronomy 5:7-9)

In the event that anyone thinks this passage is simply about tribal gods made of stone or wood, and not about idols like pride or fame or property or wealth—or idols of Doctrine, Ritual, even Hermeneutics—just read the Bible. It is replete with such idols and exhortations against them. We began all of those kinds of idolatry right at the beginning, and they were well-known to God and to the ancient authors of Scripture. We were warned early!

Our idolatry of Concept—especially the part called Doctrine and supposedly all about God and holy behavior—leads us to attack, disfellowship, injure and hate others who cling to different Doctrines, or to none.

Even if their Doctrines are wrong, we conduct our debates as if we are exempt from God’s commandments about loving neighbors and even enemies. We attack and belittle others. We treat them with condescension and sarcasm, full of ourselves and with self-righteousness. At our worst, we murder our opponents en masse. The partisanship for and the idolatry of our Doctrine wounds the heart of God. Our actions are wrong—even if our Doctrines are right.

The problem is rooted in our focus on Doctrines, and debate about them, rather than on loving relationship with God and neighbor.

If we want evidence that the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught, we need only consider the state of the Church—disputing not over how better to live as Jesus called us to live, or about love of God and each other, but over Concepts: doctrine, worship, authority, liturgy, baptism, gender, Communion, translation, hermeneutics, tradition, tongues, evolution, end-times, titles, music, rapture and the internal structure of God. And a thousand thousand more. We have collapsed into a heap of warring factions, followers of this Concept fighting followers of that Concept. We are obsessed.

The problem is that our foundation is not God, not even Scripture. It is instead Philosophy, and its Concepts.

We are not doing what Jesus told us to do.

We love Concepts and fight about them in the “Lectures About God” lecture halls. We avoid the door labeled “God.”

Even now, seeing this achingly clearly perhaps for the first time, we will likely return to our fights, and we will find other things to do. We will justify our sin as a defense of God.

Here is an example of the concepts we fight about and how the problem manifests:


Baptism with water in Scripture is a physical action with spiritual meaning. It signifies initiation and acceptance by God, was and is used by Jews to signify repentance and purity (both literally and figuratively), and occurs in the New Testament with John baptizing both repentant Jews, and Jesus. Later Jesus instructs His disciples to take the Good News to all nations and baptize them “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19) We later read of the disciples doing just this.

There are no rules given in Scripture regarding who can do baptism or receive it, although many rules have been formulated based upon various verses referring to baptism, as well as upon varying Concepts of God and the Church.

Nowhere in Scripture will you find a formula for only an adult making a specific and individual profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and then being fully immersed in water, with certain unfailing words, in order to be baptized and become a member of the church. But today you will find certain sects of Christians who will insist that certain specific rituals and practices about this are necessary, or not, to the true faith.

                  Some will baptize infants unfailingly, and adults only if they had not been baptized as infants. These sects will not re-baptize an adult if he or she was baptized as an infant, believing baptism can only happen once, though they normatively require someone baptized as a child to go through “confirmation” when they reach the age of reason, and then profess their faith in Jesus.

                  Others refuse to baptize infants, insisting that only an adult can make a true profession of faith, and only after this can baptism occur. If an adult was baptized as an infant, it is considered no baptism at all, and re-baptizing is required (though of course it isn’t considered “re-” because the first baptism isn’t acknowledged).

                   Some sprinkle or pour water for baptism; others call this “Satan’s counterfeit” and   require full immersion.

                   Some denominations recognize baptisms done by some other denominations. Others consider them meaningless, and insist on baptizing anyone joining their church from outside the denomination.

                   Some ritually baptize ancestors who died outside of their denomination, and even outside of the faith.

                   Some churches will allow followers of Jesus to receive Communion in their church only if they have been baptized. Others will allow anyone professing faith to receive Communion. Still others will allow anyone who desires it to receive Communion. Some will allow only members of their denomination, and who have been baptized in their denomination, to receive Communion in their church.

                   And some believe, as in the story I told back in Chapter 3, that unless you have been baptized in their single local church, you are still lost in your sins.

Every one of these positions on baptism is argued voluminously by countless authors over many centuries, and those who disagree with any of these positions have either fled or been forced out of their churches. Although today these debates consist, at best, of lengthy analysis and argument, and at worst of ad hominem accusations, sarcasm and disfellowship, over the centuries thousands of people were literally tortured and killed for choosing one side or another in this disagreement.

It was and still is a scandal.

Every one of these rituals and practices (as well as the Doctrines and Canons that accompany them) came from a religious Concept, drawn from pieces of Scripture and tradition, and reasoned out in a thoroughly analytical Greek way, and then used as a plumb line by which to judge the faith and worthiness of individuals and other Concepts.

Religious Concepts of Jesus range from believing He is actually literally also Father God and Holy Spirit (manifesting Himself as each as needed), to three Persons in One God, to belief that He was a liberal political activist (not divine at all) railroaded to death by conservative enemies. All of these, and thousands of others, are the excuse for bitter dispute, division, divorce, disfellowship, and with many, even torture and killing.

What in heaven does this have to do with loving God and neighbor?

It is attention to things, not God or people. Even if we are thoroughly convinced that our Concept is superior to the other Concepts, how sad it must make the heart of God to see us viciously attack and separate from each other for the defense of our favorites.

We elevate things above people. Even though our “things” are built with religious words, and are partly derived from Scripture, they are still Concepts, not God and not human beings! Jesus did not set aside the Law and the Prophets, but He did insist they hang upon, and are subservient to, love of God and neighbor.

We fabricate religious Concepts, worship them, and we hurt actual people while defending them. We fail to preserve the love of God and neighbor.

Do our Concepts outrank love of God and neighbor? Sadly, the answer is yes. No excuses. It is what we have come to. God forgive us. What shall we do?

In Christ,

Pastor George

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Religious Concepts - Part One

Religious Concepts

The Gospel is arguably God’s greatest revelation to us, but if we worship our Concepts about it, rather than live it, we render it worthless—and we can become dangerous.

We all have methods of thinking and feeling about things—analyzing, measuring, judging, accepting, rejecting, praising, weeping—to determine whether something is to us: true, valuable, dangerous, trite, profound, unimportant, beautiful, and so on.

These methods are partly rooted in our common humanity, and partly taught to us by our cultures, our experiences, and our educational training in the social, scientific, religious, psychological, and emotional worlds we all inhabit. These vary considerably across the world and through history.

It is a very difficult thing to try to see and feel something afresh, free of these methods, or even to realize that these methods are limiting us in how we comprehend and emotionally respond. And yet even if that assertion is granted, and the desire is present to realize and then step beyond our ingrained methods of thinking and feeling, it is really hard to do—near to impossible!

Yet essential.

Two Doors

Two doors stand before us. One is labeled “God,” and the other, “Lectures About God.”  Everyone is lined up to go through the second, because going through the first is too frightening. But if (as Scripture reveals) there is a God who is Creator of us and all that is around us—and who is Other than us and beyond our comprehension, but who desires relationship with us and reveals Himself to us (to the degree that we can receive it, which He knows)—and makes covenant with us and offers us access to Himself and reconciliation even when we have left Him … then why would we choose lectures instead?

The testimony of Scripture, which is the testimony of generations of people He created and led and loved, is just this: He desires and makes available to us a loving, chastening, and deepening relationship with Himself, a covenant. He offers counsel on what makes this possible and what hinders it. He chases after us even when we rebel. He desires us to be with Him so much that He willingly suffered death to demonstrate it. He cares for us and tells us to care for each other.

We find other things to do instead.

We ignore Him. Or deny He exists. For agnostics and atheists, at least they can claim no obligation to follow His commands, or His teaching on love. Instead they must construct their own systems of relationships, justice, and organization. And these stand or fall based on efficacy, or power, or inattention.

But for those who claim to believe in God, we seem largely to fail often, and often miserably, at living out what He called us to do as our part of the covenant. As His creations, you’d think following His lead would be our heart’s desire.

We find other things to do instead.


These “other things” include the obvious: work, entertainment, hobbies, food, sports, and other distractions. These are not ungodly in and of themselves; they are an issue only when they consume us and diminish or replace love of God and each other.

But there is another class of “other things” that is innately ungodly, though it has the guise of godliness: when we elevate “things” over love of God or people.

Here I do not just mean the conspicuous “things” of ambition: wealth, fame, success, possessions. These can easily replace God on the throne of our hearts, and our pursuit of any of them can run roughshod over people who get in our way.

Wealth, fame, success, and possessions can be handled with humility and caring, but they carry obvious danger both in their pursuit, and in reliance upon them once obtained.

But this is all well and often proclaimed. It is not my focus here. Rather it is our willing idolatry of religious things, and our vicious defense of them.


What is most insidious among those who claim belief in God is the idolatry of religious doctrine, worship, polity and culture, and the use of disagreement on these as an excuse to mistreat others. This ranges from disregard to shunning to verbal attack to physical assault to murder to genocide. All in an alleged defense of God, who is omnipotent and needs no defenders. It would seem silly were it not so profoundly tragic.

There is a reason Jesus spoke of two great commandments rather than just the one to love God. He saw that those who claimed to love God were using it as an excuse for all manner of ungodly behavior toward other people. (See Mark 7:6-13 and John 8:1-11)  He said, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”(Matthew 22:40, NIV)  Then He immediately illustrated the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” by describing to His listeners a neighbor who was a Samaritan—a despised outsider whose religious beliefs were flawed. (See Luke 10:25-37 and John 4:20-22)

Jesus eliminated the loophole of claiming “neighbor” to be someone like us who we love anyway (or who has religious beliefs we approve of). And on the outside chance that someone might claim that an “enemy” fell outside even the broadest category of neighbor, He said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

He didn’t leave any loopholes.

Let me first spell out explicitly how we have violated Jesus’ commandments in seeming to be His followers, and then propose a heart-understanding He has given us that can act as a corrective to this misapprehension and misapplication of His teachings and sacrifice—so that His love for us may no longer be wasted. Or worse, that He does not even recognize us as one of His own.

We Christians have a serious problem, and we need to see it and confess it before we can be redeemed from it. So I will be blunt and thorough in describing it, and I will pray for God’s grace in its solution.

Once more: Much of what has seemed, over the centuries, like a vital defense of God, or of Jesus, or of the Christian faith, has in fact been a battle of concepts within a philosophical framework that is ultimately foreign to the God who reveals Himself in the Bible.

Different denominations have different philosophical structures (of doctrines, worship styles, etc). Different theologians and movements within and outside of denominations also have different philosophical structures they defend.

The followers of these many structures constantly and fiercely attack one another, and are praised for doing so by their fellow adherents. The overarching battle of concepts rewards and promotes this ungodly behavior, because this battle of concepts is founded on “defending God” by means of attacking those who do not share their beliefs. In the process of “defending God,” they violate Jesus’ command to love God, neighbor and enemy.

It is a very serious issue for the Body of Christ, and it has gone largely unnoticed or intentionally ignored, with far-reaching consequences.

There have been battles over small parts of it, but the larger issue has been missed. I believe God is afoot in bringing us to a realization of the problem, and intends to redeem us and it to His good purposes, but we have to face this disorder and call it out.

How It Began: Building Religious Concepts From Scripture

Our modern age and the whole Western world owes its foundation to ancient Greece. In the several hundred years before the birth of Christ, Greece produced some of the greatest minds of all time, and from them whole schools of philosophy, geometry, science, and more.

In most cases those schools of thought encompassed all of these topics as an integrated whole: The universe was seen by many of these gifted thinkers with the beauty of pure geometric forms expressed in the symmetry of nature, in the planets and their motions, in the mathematical means to build great buildings and temples with extraordinary precision, or simply to think through the pure discipline of geometry and the proofs that could be deduced from simple premises.

Various groups and individuals have pulled from the scriptural narrative various themes and ideas, fabricated them into a philosophical structure, a religious Concept, have used this to guide the production of Doctrine, Ritual, Polity and more—as well as to interpret other themes and ideas in Scripture and in the world—and have given the Conceptual structure an independent status and reputation of its own.

Saying that various religious groups fabricated them is not meant to imply fraud, but rather an extended and complex process of analysis, extraction, abstraction, categorization, comparison, critique, deduction, induction, and careful fabrication—piece by piece, category by category, syllogism by syllogism, reference by reference—until whole Concepts emerged from this pulling of themes and ideas from the scriptural narrative.

As these major religious Concepts evolved, they generated layers of sub concepts, including doctrines and practices, patterns of worship, methods of authority and organization (polity) forms of both promotion and defense, and more. This produced vast warehouses of Concepts, often each headed by a religious genius.

The whole fabrication process of Christian religious Concepts is simply Greek in its origins and methods. As noted, all of the Mediterranean world and the Middle East had been under the deep influence of Greek philosophical teaching, methods and culture for centuries before the first New Testament book was written. Even the Old Testament itself had been rewritten in Greek (the Septuagint) because it was a language most Jews spoke—like nearly everyone else in that day and place.

This Concept-building process, at least in its early stages, may not even have been an intrinsically bad thing. In humble hands such Concepts could help to share God’s love with others.

One might even say that this is just what Paul did in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles. He “contextualized” the God of Israel into concepts that his hearers would understand, so that they might accept the invitation of forgiveness and salvation, the covenant that Jesus shared and embodied.

However, the key point is that much of early Christian writing and debate—as well as the establishment of the Church after Constantine, the complete integration of the Church into the Roman Empire’s political structures, the energetic establishment of Doctrine and Creed, Rituals, Practices, forms of Worship, Polity, Hermeneutical methods, the development of Systematic Theology, and then the division of the Church into countless denominations (tens of thousands at this point)—all owe their foundations to Greek philosophical methods and culture.

These produced Concepts about God and man, and these Concepts multiplied and gained independent recognition and authority. They were about God, and about Scripture (the Story of Life with God: both Old and New Testament), and they contained vocabulary from Scripture (as well as Greek philosophy), but they were neither God nor Scripture. They were Concepts.

The Church was steeped in things Greek even from its first moment, because the culture of the Middle East had already been Greek for more than three centuries. As the Church matured, this influence of Greek philosophical methods—of thinking, analyzing, categorizing and describing—only deepened. In the centuries after Jesus, it changed the Church from a Greek-influenced Jewish movement in and about Judea, to a largely Greek-culture religious institution throughout the Mediterranean, with a Roman governmental structure and Roman norms of authority and hierarchy.

But again: Long before Thomas Aquinas “rediscovered” the Greeks and their methods of reasoning, their ways of doing philosophy, their ways of fabricating philosophical structures, Greek philosophy was already the foundation of the Christian Church’s religious Concepts. It was in the DNA of the Church, though the Church seemed unaware of it, or unaware that it had been so thoroughly infiltrated and overtaken.

This is not a new revelation or big secret. It is the analytical and creative thought process by which Christian religious Concepts, and their subsequent doctrines, dogma, creeds, rituals, liturgy, worship, practices, polities, canons, and even hermeneutics were formulated. (And this is not to deny the work of the Holy Spirit in any of this, but as we will see shortly, the products of the process take on a life of their own.)

Further, these Concepts have more in common with scientific hypotheses than they do with settled truth, yet over time they are treated as if they have arrived fully revealed from the pen of the Almighty.

This is sometimes called a “Protestant problem” is because Scripture is held in high esteem by many Protestants (i.e., Sola Scriptura—“Scripture Alone” is the authority), and Church Tradition is held to be nonessential, or at least less essential. Roman Catholics (and some Protestants, including Anglicans and Lutherans) on the other hand, hold Church Tradition very high, along with Reason. But what is so highly esteemed in this theological trinity (Scripture, Tradition and Reason) is also its weakness: The way in which Greek philosophy provided the framework of Tradition and Reason led to Concepts that were fundamentally analyses, not laws; they may have been well-thought-through, but they were not proofs and not revelations from God—and though the Holy Spirit is invoked looking back at the process, His presence is not so self-evident as the proponents claim. These Concepts may have seemed important and valuable in the growth of the Church, but they were elevated beyond their function and station, and the Greek origin of the process was largely considered of no great matter. But it was key to this entire development.

I will continue this discussing next week.

In Christ,

Pastor George