Monthly Archives: May 2016

A Message For Religious Drop Outs

Many people view religion as a distraction from real life. Religious acts are useless and religious institutions are a waste of human resources. Increasingly, younger people are dropping out of church attendance and adopting a private spirituality or becoming completely secular. What can we say to this movement? What is the meaning of Christian religious practice?

First, we need to observe that the idea that religion is useless and a distraction from real life presupposes a view of the divine and divine’s relationship to human beings that supports this view of religion. In ancient religion the gods demanded sacrifice and honor from human beings. They rewarded their favorites and punished offenders. Given this belief system, religious acts and institutions could hardly be called useless and distracting from real life! Modern religious drop outs of post-Christian, post-denominational culture no longer believe in God at all or no longer believe God desires the attention of human beings or some similar thought. In any case, they cannot see a rationale for traditional, Christian religious practice.

In the previous post, I defined religion as “human action and affection directed primarily toward God.” We examined the Christian understanding of basic human affection toward God, that is, love for God. When we come to see in the self-giving of Jesus Christ how much God loves us, we cannot help but love God in return. And when we see that God is the best, most beautiful, and truest reality, we cannot help but desire to be with God and enjoy him. As we can clearly see, loving the God revealed in Jesus Christ makes perfect sense. But what about religious acts: baptism, listening to the Scriptures, the Lord’s Supper, prayer, and praise? What about meeting together to perform these acts? What makes these things meaningful and useful?

Christianity rejects the ancient pagan view of religion. Christian religious acts are not designed to meet God’s needs. The Old Testament prophets and Paul in Acts 17 make that clear. They are not designed earn God’s favor or ward off his wrath. What then is their purpose?

The meaning of any action is revealed in its relationship to the goal to which it is directed. Acts become meaningless when we cannot see the goal at which they aim. Everyone understands that the more important the goal, the more valuable the means that helps us achieve that goal. Christian religious acts are the means by which we can achieve the goals of the Christian faith. What are those goals and how do Christian religious acts help us attain them?

As we noted in the previous essay, Christian religious acts must express our love for God or they are worthless (1 Corinthians 12:1-3). They do nothing to achieve the goal of the Christian way. In loving God, we admire his beautiful, loving character revealed in the self-giving of Jesus and we desire to participate in his goodness, beauty, and truth. In general, we want to be like what we admire and to enjoy what we desire. In loving God, our affections are directed toward becoming like him and participating in his eternal life, in its goodness, beauty, and truth. Jesus Christ reveals the true character of God and the true goal of human life; and Christian religious acts make sense only as means to this goal.

In one-time act of baptism, we imitate physically the self-giving of Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection and publicly declare our intention to imitate and become like Jesus, whom we love. In our repeated act of sharing in the Lord’s Supper, we are reminded of Jesus’ self-giving and we reaffirm our baptismal intention to be assimilated to Jesus’ sacrifice and his life.  In listening to the Scriptures, we open ourselves to God’s word of grace, guidance, and judgment for the purpose of becoming like him.

When we praise God, we express our admiration for God’s character and our desire to enjoy his perfection. In praising God, we keep before our minds and hearts the truth that God himself is the goal of all human action. To possess and be possessed by God is the greatest of all goods. In the practice of communal and private prayer, we keep our minds focused on the reality of God’s presence and the truth of his grace.

And in meeting together to perform these acts we give and receive the strength, love, friendship, help,  and kindness that the Spirit of God gives to each and all. The meeting itself is a means by which we are helped on our way toward the goal of becoming like God and enjoying him now and forever.

If the goal of human life to have as much pleasure, to gather as much wealth, to achieve as much professional success, or to garner as much fame as possible within this life, religious acts make no sense at all. They are useless and the institutions that support them are a waste of human resources. But if the goal of human life is to become like God in character and to enjoy his goodness, beauty, and truth forever, Christian religious acts are the most meaningful things we can do.

Advertisements

Religion of Love or Love of Religion?

We’ve been working our way through Christian doctrine for the last 9 months, examining Christian teachings about God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, creation, providence, sin, salvation, the atonement, the church, baptism, the Trinity, and many more. A catechism (our theme for this year) usually treats doctrines about God and God’s acts first. Afterward, it considers the appropriate human response to divine truth. The human response to divine truth can be further divided into religion and morality.

Religion concerns human action and affection directed primarily toward God. God is the object of religious acts.

Morality focuses on human action and affection directed primarily toward other human beings. Other people are the objects of moral acts.

Note: Theology is disciplined thought about God whereas religion is practical action directed to God. Ethics is disciplined thought about human moral action.

Christianity distinguishes these two kinds of human acts but does not separate them. It embraces them along with all other Christian teachings within our overall relationship to God. Jesus considered the duty to love God the most basic human responsibility and the obligation to love our neighbors as second in priority (Matthew 22:34-40). The character of our relationship to others is determined by our relationship to God. And the quality of our relationship to God is revealed by the way we treat others (1 John 4:7-21). Held in their proper relationship there can never be a contradiction between loving God and loving others, between being religious and being moral. The need to fulfill a religious duty can never excuse evil acts or enmity toward another human being. Nor should we neglect the love of God in the name of helping other people. Morality must not be reduced to religion or religion reduced to morality.

The Christian’s Religion

As we move into the practical teachings of our “catechism,” let’s first consider religion, that is, our acts and affections in relation to God. Today I want us to think about what it means to love God. It’s already clear in the Old Testament and it’s central to Jesus’ teaching that right outward actions, whether religious or moral, must be motivated by proper affections. Jesus cited the duties of loving God and neighbor as “the greatest” commandments. They are the “greatest” because they concern the root and foundation of all human action, the heart or the inner person or the will that determines the true worth of all our outward acts. However praiseworthy or helpful our religious and moral acts may seem to be from an external point of view, they are worthless before God if not motivated by love (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).

What does it mean to love God? As far as I can tell there are two basic Christian models: (1) profound gratitude for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ and (2) passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good. Most often, New Testament writers follow Model (1) and ground our motivation for loving God in God’s demonstration of his love for us in Jesus’ sacrifice. Paul emphasizes God’s love for us more than he does our love for God. He exercises caution about professing the purity of his love for God. That’s a matter for God to judge. But he is deeply moved by God’s love for sinners, enemies, and the godless (Romans 5:1-11). We are full of hope because “God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (verse 5). Nevertheless, he is clear that our fitting response to God’s love for us is our love for God (Romans 8:28, 1 Corinthians 2:9 and 8:3).

John, in 1 John 4:9-19, grounds our ability and motivation to love God and others in God’s love for us:

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins…. 19 We love because he first loved us.”

According to model (1), then, to love God is to experience the unexpected, undeserved, and unfathomable love of God for us in the self-giving of Jesus Christ and to feel an overwhelming desire to give in return our whole being in service to God. I say “desire” but perhaps Paul’s expression “compulsion” is a better word:

“For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died (2 Corinthians 5:14).

If you’ve seen what Paul saw you know something of what he felt.

Model (2)—the love of God as “the passionate desire to experience and enjoy God as the highest good”—is a subordinate but still important theme in the Bible. God is the Source of every good gift. He is beautiful, praiseworthy, great, glorious, and perfect. If each of God’s gifts are “good” and all of them together are “very good” (Genesis 1), the Giver must be surpassingly good. However, the love of God as desire for the highest good became prominent only in the patristic era under the influence of Platonic thought. Perhaps the most famous expression of the love of God as desire is Augustine’s Confessions, especially that often quoted line in the first paragraph:

“Nevertheless, to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”

Every healthy, enjoyable, beautiful, truthful, and excellent thing in creation possesses those qualities because it participates in the highest of all goods, eternal perfection itself. Created goods were not designed to satisfy us completely. Their goodness evokes desire but their imperfections disappoint and drive us higher, beyond all creatures to the perfect Good from which all things flow.

According to model (2), then, to love God is to have experienced the amazing goodness and beauty of creation as a mere foretaste of the infinite perfection of God and to be set ablaze with desire to see and experience directly that divine perfection.

I think we can see that within a Christian framework these two models are perfectly compatible. Model (1) focuses on the generous, merciful, and kind acts of God in creation and salvation. In these acts we experience the undeserved love of God and are compelled to love God in return. In Model (2), we also experience the goodness of God in creation, but the emphasis falls on the perfection of God’s being rather than on the loving character of his actions. In Model (1) we experience the kindness and in Model (2) we experience the excellence of God. Model (1) is Model (2) articulated in personal terms. Apart from the biblical revelation, we might think of God’s perfection in impersonal terms, that is, as a distant ideal or an unattainable state. But in Jesus Christ we see the perfect being of Model (2) turn toward us and freely invite us weak and sinful creatures to share in his perfect life. Profound gratitude is combined with passionate desire in a perfect union!

 

 

 

The Doctrine of the Trinity Is Not About A Word

A few years ago I gave a talk to a popular audience on the doctrine of God. During the question and answer period a questioner ask, “Would you explain the Trinity?” The audience laughed. I replied that I find the doctrine of the Trinity quite simple and would be happy to answer his question. For today’s post I will share my understanding of this simple doctrine. Let me begin with two preliminary qualifications.

(1) The doctrine of the Trinity is not about a word. The Greek word “Trinity” (trias) was first used to refer to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the late 2nd Century. The word “Trinity” was not used in the New Testament, and some people turn this absence into an argument against the substance of the doctrine that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They seem to think that the whole issue turns on what word you use. If the word “Trinity” were that important to the doctrine, surely the Nicene Creed (381), the definitive statement of the Trinitarian faith for nearly all Christian churches, would have used it. It did not. The debate about the Trinity addresses the question, who is God? Or more precisely who is the God we meet in Jesus Christ and the Spirit who raised him from the dead? The name “Trinity” is simply a shorter way of saying the name “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19), into which we are baptized.

The real question of the Trinity is this: is it proper for Christians to believe and confess that the word “God” means Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Gregory Nazianzus (A.D. 329-89), Patriarch of Constantinople and one of the chief defenders of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity says it this way:

But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a mob of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of deity, either Judaizing to save the monarchia, or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions.  This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription to the title Lord and God (Oration 38, 8).

(2) The doctrine of the Trinity is not a speculative doctrine that claims intellectual comprehension of God’s essential being. The church fathers who articulated the Nicene Creed were well aware that God dwells in unapproachable light and that no one has seen God. God’s essence is incomprehensible by any being other than God. The orthodox doctrine of the Trinity is a protective formula whose only claim to truth is that it faithfully summarizes the revelation of God made in Jesus Christ. Only God knows God. Hence only God can reveal God. The Son knows God and can reveal God (Matthew 11:27). The Spirit knows “the deep things of God” and can reveal the “thoughts” of God (1 Corinthians 2:11-12). In sum, the doctrine of the Trinity aims not to comprehend “the deep things of God” but to restate the truth of divine revelation in a compressed formula that protects the faithful from one-sided interpretations of the scriptures.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose in three stages. First, Jesus and his disciples confessed the one God and the Christian church never revoked this confession. There is only one God. However once Jesus had risen from the dead and was confessed as Savior and Lord and the Spirit had been poured out on the church, it became obvious that the one God acts for our salvation through his Son Jesus Christ and in his Holy Spirit. Jesus Christ is the revealer of God and the Spirit sanctifies us and unites us to God. The Christian experience of salvation and communion with God involves three who act as one. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father through the Son, in the power of the Spirit. Everywhere you turn in the Christian faith, ritual, and practice we find the three united in one. Thomas Torrance calls this stage “the evangelical Trinity” (The Christian Doctrine of God).

Second, Christian experience and faith raise questions that demand explanation. At this stage, the church recognizes that the work of Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and Revealer and the work of the Spirit as Revealer, Sanctifier, and Giver of life can be accomplished only by God. God acts in the economy of salvation and revelation as Father, Son, and Spirit. In relating to Jesus and the Spirit, we are relating to the true God. When we are united to Christ we are united to God. When we are touched by the Spirit, we are touched by God. In the economy of salvation and revelation we relate to the Father as God, to Jesus Christ as God, and to the Holy Spirit as God. Torrance calls this stage “the Economic Trinity.”

The third stage moves to the ontological or immanent Trinity. The truth of Christian faith and practice depends on the saving and revealing work of Jesus Christ and the sanctifying and life-giving work of the Spirit (the first stage). And the validity of the work of Christ and the Spirit depends on the divine character of that work (the second stage). The final stage asserts that God is triune not only in the economy of revelation and salvation but in God’s own eternal life. Unless God really is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we could not receive the revelation and salvation in Christ and the Spirit as a real revelation of the Christ-character of God, of the love of God, of the real presence of God. There might be a different God hidden behind the masks of Christ and the Spirit. The doctrine of the immanent Trinity simply states that what God reveals himself to be for us in the economy, God is in his own eternal life. It is not speculative, and it’s not complicated.

The three stages stand or fall together. If we think God might not really be Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal truth, we would have cause to doubt that God is really at work or genuinely revealed in Christ and the Spirit; and if we doubt that God is really at work and revealed in Christ and the Spirit, would have cause to doubt our salvation, our union with God and our sanctification.

John dealt with similar doubts in his own context in the First Century. And his answer is similar to the one the church eventually gave in the doctrine of the Trinity:

We know also that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true. And we are in him who is true by being in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life (1 John 5:20).