Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Decisive Issue

Practice has made us perfect at evading the decisive issue in almost every decision we make, in every action we take, and in every word we say. The decisive question we must answer is not “How does this action make me appear to others?” It’s not “Do I feel strongly about what I am saying?” Nor is it “Can I find some justification for this decision?” It’s not even “Will this act accomplish something good or is this word true?”

The most important question for me at every point is this: “How does it stand between me and God?” “What is God’s judgment about me?” It’s not “How does it stand between my brother or sister or my enemy or this or that public figure and God?” It’s not “How does my group or nation or other groups and nations stand in relation to God?” I answer to God for what I am and do. You answer to God for what you are and do. And the moment I begin making judgments about how it stands between you and God, I have already begun evading the decisive issue in my life, which is God’s assessment of me.

Perhaps the most familiar and misused of Jesus’ sayings is found in Matthew 7:1-2:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

This saying is often misinterpreted to mean that since everyone is their own judge and gets to determine what is good and right for them, no one else has the right to make that determination. This interpretation is doubly wrong. First, we are not our own judges. Jesus does not forbid judging others because it violates others’ right judge their own case. God is the judge—everyone’s judge—and that is why Jesus forbids judging each other. To pretend to make a judgment only God’s has the right and knowledge to make and the power to enforce, is to place ourselves in God’s judgment seat. And no one who truly recognizes God as their judge can at the same time substitute their own judgment for God’s judgment.

There is a second problem with the popular misinterpretation of Jesus’ command not to judge. In verse 1, “to judge” means to pronounce a verdict on someone’s person. (This is obvious from what Jesus says in verse 2 about the measure or standard used. His warning assumes that in our judgments we usually hold others to a higher standard than the one to which we wish to be held.) Jesus speaks of a judgment about the ultimate disposition of an individual, a judgment that should take into account every factor that touches the case. That is to say, it is a judgment only God can make. It is not mere recognition that someone broke a law to which they were subject. Jesus does not deny that some actions are wrong for everyone or that we can know what those actions are and recognize when another person does them. You are not “judging” someone when you recognize or even inform them that they are breaking a law. It becomes a forbidden judgment only when you try to speak for God, as if you knew the “sinner” as well as God does or understood completely the extent of God’s mercy or depth of his justice.

How does it stand between me and God? This is the question I should remember when I am tempted to contrast other people’s weaknesses and sins to my strengths and good deeds and excellent motives. When I feel the urge to vent my anger or unleash a sarcastic or insulting word, remembering that God is my judge will give me pause. I don’t get to judge myself. Nor am I allowed to inflict the punishment of anger and insult and violence on others. When someone expresses a “stupid,” “benighted,” or “biased” opinion about religion, politics, or morality, if you must respond at all, respond with the consciousness that God alone knows the human heart, and that God alone determines how others stand before him. Be as merciful to others as you want God to be to you. When I think of Matthew 7:2, my friends, it scares me to death; for I need maximum mercy! Don’t we all?

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Book Release: A Course in Christianity

Dear friends, readers, and supporters:

Today, I received my author copy of  A Course in Christianity for an Unchurched Church. This is the third book I have written in installments on this blog. I hope that by collecting, revising, and making these 51 essays available in print form and on Kindle I can provide some small service to the church. I have pasted the link to the book’s Amazon.com page below. Perhaps you know of someone who could benefit from reading these essays. May the book find its way to those few or many whom it can help on their journey toward God. I have reprinted the Preface to the published book below.

coursebookcover2

[You can see the table of contents and the first three chapters by looking at the Kindle version. The Kindle version does not yet show the book cover, but you can still “look inside.”]

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1539070581/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1477091498&sr=8-6&keywords=ron+highfield

Preface

 A Course in Christianity is third in a series of books I’ve written in weekly installments on my blog ifaqtheology (Infrequently Asked Questions in Theology). It contains in revised form 51 essays I wrote between August 2015 and September 2016. My original plan projected writing a “catechism of mere Christianity for a post-denominational church living in a post-Christian culture.”  As the year progressed I realized that the word “catechism” did not accurately describe the product I was producing. A catechism needs to cover all the basics of a church’s teachings in elementary form. I found this task too large to accomplish in one year. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church contains 800 pages and was written by scores of theologians and bishops. Martin Luther wrote a small and a larger catechism and Zacharius Ursinus, in consultation with the faculty of theology at the University of Heidelberg, wrote the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). But I am no Luther or Ursinus.  I’ve had to content myself with writing on many but not all of the basic teachings of Christianity. Despite its deficiencies as a catechism, I hope that by reading this collection of essays individuals will be motivated to establish a program of self-education in Christianity. I have called it A Course of Christianity For An Unchurched Church because I believe the contemporary church is neglecting its duty of teaching the whole faith to the whole church. And many contemporary Christians are neglecting their education in Christian truth to such an extent that they need to begin at the beginning and traverse the course again. Perhaps the church of today finds itself in a situation similar to the one the author of Hebrews addressed in his day:

We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! (Hebrews 5:11-12).

I divided the book into five parts. Part One contains four chapters that introduce the problem of the unchurched church and issue an urgent call for renewal of its teaching ministry. I argue that “churching” people involves more than making sure they come to church a few times a month to witness what goes on stage. They need to be formed intellectually, spiritually, and morally to maturity in Christ. Part Two examines such central theological topics as God, Christ, Holy Spirit, Trinity, creation, sin, and salvation. In these chapters I consider what is revealed in the scriptures about God’s nature, identity, character, and activity in the world. Part Three includes studies of the church, worship, faith, baptism, and Christian ethics. These essays explore the appropriate human response to what God has done in creating and taking care of the world and in his saving action for us in Jesus Christ. In Part Four, I examine issues that arise in thinking about the soul, the resurrection of body, heaven, and hell. Part Five contains three chapters of theology in the form of autobiography.

WE HAVE MET THE WORLD, AND IT IS US

As I announced a few days ago, my theme for this year is “love not the world.” The first thing we need to do is get clear on what John, in 1 John 2:15-17, means by the “world.”

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

The first mistake to correct is the notion that “the world” is a sphere outside and in contrast to us. The world is not a group of really bad sinners: murders, swindlers, thieves, and fornicators. Indeed “the world” does not refer to any particular group of people or institutions. The world is a way of thinking, desiring, feeling, and acting that finds its origin in the heart of every man, woman, and child. And in you and me!

The “world” is sin in its organizing mode. Or, to put it another way, it is the way our lives become ordered when we let sin work out its logic. The Greek word translated world is kosmos, which emphasizes the orderliness of the whole universe or any other sphere to which it is applied. John asks us not to love the order (the kosmos) that is organized by the three perverted loves: lust, lust of the eye (or greed) and pride. These loves find their origin in the sinful and self-centered human heart. Everyone desires pleasure, possessions, and honor. And when these desires become the force that organizes our thoughts, desires, feelings, and deeds, we have become guilty of loving the world. Hence “the world” is a way of loving, ordering, and prioritizing our lives that fails to make God the determinative ordering force. It orders the created world as if it were the best and highest of all things possible. It excludes God from its list of priorities. God, who is highest good and should be the ordering principle of our world, is replaced by our own private lusts.

The alternative John envisions is making the Father the ordering principle of our lives. We organize our thoughts, feelings, desires, and deeds so that they serve the highest and best possible thing, which is God. God is to be desired and honored and worshiped above all things. Everything else in creation must serve this end, that is, to know, please, and honor the Father. Our love of the Father orders and unifies and beautifies our lives. The “order” of the world is really disorder and chaos, because lust, greed, and pride pull us in different directions and cause dissension and war among those dominate by them.

The way of the world and its perverted order is ever ready to assert its re-organizing force in our lives. The moment we lose sight of the glory, goodness, and love of the Father, the perverted kosmos again asserts its control over our lives. Hence John urges us not to love the “world” but to keep our highest love for God alone.

Theme for Year Four: “Love Not the World”

My theme for year four of ifaqtheology will be “Love Not the World.” Christians always face challenges from without and temptations from within. But the ever-changing form of those challenges makes them even more dangerous. We seem always to be one step behind, fighting the last battle, bursting through open doors, reacting to past abuses, and correcting yesterday’s errors. In this series, I want to help us discern and examine the challenges to Christian faith and practice that we face today and are likely to face in the near future. The theme text for this year is 1 John 2:-15-17

15 Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them. 16 For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 17 The world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever.

This text is raises so many questions we need to address and is overflowing with implications for the way we live in relation to the world. What is the “world”? Does it mean the created world or the human world, that is, human culture? Or, does it mean the usual “way of the world” dominated by the devil, sin, and corruption? What does it mean to “love the world”? Surely, John is not condemning loving the people of the world, because the Gospel of John proclaims, “For God so loved the world that he gave…his Son… (John 3:16). What would it mean to love the “way of the world”? And what are the two lusts and the pride of which he speaks? Do these three misdirected loves cover everything it means to “love the world”?

In what ways and for what reasons do the love of the world and the love of the Father exclude each other? And what does it mean to love the Father in contrast to loving the world? John gives us two reasons not to love the world. (1) Its loves do not originate with the Father, and (2) they “pass away.” What happens to the one who loves only things that die and cease to be?

But what does it mean to love the world today, in our setting? In what ways does the culture we live in conform to the “world” John speaks about? How do the three misdirected loves take shape in our society? And in what forms to they pose the greatest threat to our practice of the Christian faith? How would purifying our loves from the three worldly loves and focusing our love on the Father, change our lives? How would it change the way we work, play, and relate to others? How would it change the way the church organizes and conducts its corporate life? How would it change the way we educate our children, spend our money, and relate to the political order? How would it affect our hopes and values?

I look forward to addressing these questions during the next year.

Why The Doctrine Of The Trinity Cannot Be Used To Support Egalitarianism Or Complementarianism Or Any Other Ethical Teaching

In the contemporary debate about the relationship between men and women, in church, home, and society, disputants on all sides appeal to the doctrine of the Trinity for support. In this post, I will argue that the doctrine of the Trinity is the wrong ground on which to fight this battle. Any theological argument made on this issue must be based the economy of salvation and not on the inner mystery of God’s being. The doctrine of the Trinity points toward that mystery but it does not make it clear to the eye of reason. Hence it cannot be used for further deductions.

The doctrine of the Trinity asserts that God’s eternal being is one essence in three persons. This assertion is the terminus of a line of reasoning that moves from God’s saving action in the economy of salvation to God’s eternal being. In a post on the Trinity from May 7, 2016, I outlined this process:

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. For it does not explain the how and why of the Trinity, only the that.

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.

The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a metaphysical theory of God or of the nature of being derived from the idea of God or being. It is a Christian teaching only because and insofar as it is implied in the way God worked in Jesus Christ. It should be confessed because it is implied in the act of faith in Jesus as savior and lord, which is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus. But the doctrine of the ontological Trinity is not comprehensible by reason. It’s not like a logical or mathematical truth in that once you understand its terms, you can see its inner and absolute necessity. Even when you understand its terms and see that it follows logically from a combination of two or more truths of faith, you cannot see its inherent necessity and meaning. Hence this doctrine cannot become the foundation for another line of reasoning that attempts to draw out ethical or ontological truths that were not present in the original faith assertions.

The controversy about whether the doctrine of the Trinity supports an egalitarian or a complementarian or a hierarchical view of the relationship between men and women can never be settled. The disputants always argue in a circle by using their conclusions as interpretive lenses through which to “see” their views in the doctrine. And the reason for this futility is simple: the doctrine of the ontological Trinity points beyond our reach into the incomprehensible mystery of God. I find myself sympathetic to Vladimir Lossky, who in his The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church objects to such thinkers as John Zizioulous (Being as Communion) and Juergen Moltmann (The Trinity and the Kingdom) who want to see in the doctrine of the Trinity an ontology of being or ethical truths that could become bases for further insights into the nature of the church or the ethics of society and interpersonal relationships. Lossky argues that the assertion of the ontological Trinity is designed to drive us to encounter the mystery of God. I advise taking Lossky’s cautious approach rather than the bolder approach of Moltmann.

So, if you want to construct a theological ethics of male/female relations, look to what Jesus taught and suffered, to what he did and what happened to him, and to the apostolic teaching about what his suffering and resurrection means for the way we live at home, society, and church. But don’t try to squeeze something out of the doctrine of the Trinity that you cannot find already present in economy of salvation enacted in Jesus Christ. Such speculations give the impression of being ungrounded and arbitrary. They persuade only those who need no persuasion. And they do an injustice to the doctrine of the Trinity and risk missing the encounter with the divine mystery.