Category Archives: church doctrine

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.

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).

The Church’s Christology Or The Real Jesus?

In the previous post we began a study of the identity of Jesus Christ. We looked at many New Testament texts that speak about Jesus’ identity. We spent most of the time examining the Gospel of Mark. We saw there and in the rest of the New Testament a very important distinction being made between the offices and functions that Jesus is said to have held and performed and his person, that is, the personal characteristics that qualified him to perform these functions. Perhaps divinely chosen and empowered human beings could hold some of these offices and perform some of these functions, for example, prophet, priest, and king. There were other lawgivers, exorcists, and miracle workers. But the New Testament makes clear that Jesus performs many of these functions by his own authority and some of the titles given to him clearly refer to his person as well as his offices. This is clearly true of the title “Lord” and “Savior” and “Word” and “Son of God.” It is impossible to imagine designating a mere human being by these titles.

Jesus’ Authority Over Kosher Laws

Before I move on to the question of the validity of the New Testament’s Christology, I want to consider one other text in the Gospel of Mark. Mark gives 23 verses to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and the teachers of the law over the disciples’ eating without observing the traditions about ritual cleansing before eating (Mark 7). Let’s take up the story at verse 14:

14 Again Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. 15 Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”

17 After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable. 18 “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? 19 For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)

Notice Mark’s extension and application of Jesus’ statement in verses 18 and 19. “Jesus declared all foods clean.” Compare Mark’s observation with the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10. Peter sees a sheet full of clean and unclean animals being lowered from heaven. A voice from heaven tells Peter to “kill and eat” (10:13). Peter protests. But the heavenly voice, whom Peter addresses as “Lord” (Jesus?) rebukes Peter, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (10:15). Because of this encounter with the Lord, Peter understands that God has opened the door of the kingdom to gentiles. Mark contends that even during his earthly ministry Jesus had implicitly declared all foods clean. Mark clearly views Jesus as having the authority to change the Old Testament kosher laws. Jesus does not need a vision and a voice heaven to give him the right to make this declaration. He already has that right because of who he is.

The Origin of Christology

The New Testament views Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, the Word of God who has taken on human nature for our sakes. The wording of the Nicene Creed (381) in reference to Christ does not differ in content to the New Testament teaching:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.

But were the first disciples, Paul, John, and the writer of Hebrews making legitimate inferences from their knowledge of what Jesus actually said, did, and what happened to him to their high Christology? Can the church’s Christology be justified by the facts about Jesus? I dealt with this question from the angle of apologetics in the January 2015 posts on the resurrection. I shall address it here briefly as the question of the origin of Christology.

Apart from their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the apostles’ embrace of such an exalted view of Jesus Christ as we find in the New Testament is inconceivable. [Note: the term “bodily resurrection” is redundant, but I use it anyway since Liberal Christianity claims Jesus was “raised” only in a spiritual or metaphorical sense, a use of the term resurrection I consider duplicitous.] It would never have occurred to anyone to see in the crucified, dead Jesus God’s triumph over sin and death. No one would have dreamed of preaching that Jesus’ death on the cross was the turning point of the history of salvation. Pursuing the question of the identity of Jesus would not have been worth the effort. Only the bodily resurrection could have provided justification for developing Christology. This much is certain.

The question I am asking, however, is not whether the bodily resurrection of Jesus provoked the origin of some type of Christology but whether or not it justifies the exalted Christology of Paul, John, Hebrews, and the Nicene Creed. For it is (superficially) conceivable that God could raise a human being from the dead for a reason other than declaring him to be the eternal Son of God. In the case of Jesus no such ambiguity was possible for at least three reasons:

(1) clearly the resurrection would be understood as God’s validation of Jesus’ teaching and activity and a declaration of his innocence of the charges that lead to his death. But as we have seen, Jesus taught and acted with unprecedented authority and his claims about his relationship with God were considered blasphemous by the Jewish rulers. By rescuing Jesus from the dead God declared Jesus’ claims to be true. Hence Jesus claims, his teaching, and his actions—as the disciples remembered them—became significant for the development of Christology.

(2) Jesus’ resurrection was not merely a return to his former life. It was the definitive salvation into eternal life promised for the end of the age. Jesus is the bringer of salvation. In him the end of all things has appeared and the meaning of creation has been completed. Christology seeks to understand the connection between the one through whom God brings salvation to the world and the God to whom Jesus prayed.

(3) Paul and the original apostles experienced Jesus alive after the resurrection in a way that convinced them not only that Jesus was alive but also that he was united to God, permeated with the Holy Spirit, and endowed with divine authority. Hence they called him “Lord,” worshiped him, prayed to him, obeyed him, and expected salvation from him. Their experience of the resurrected Jesus made necessary the development of an account of his person and his relationship to the God of Israel and the Spirit of God.

Taking all three of these aspects into account, we begin to understand why the apostles and Paul developed the very exalted Christology we find in the New Testament. Nothing less could do justice to the facts of their experience of Jesus.

Baptism as a Prayer

Last week we examined the New Testament’s teaching about baptism “before controversies, speculations, and hypotheticals.” I endeavored to compile the texts that speak about baptism and examine them in their context without detail theological analysis and application. Today I want to present a rather modest theology of baptism in view of the questions and concerns that have arisen in the history of the church. Before I do this, let’s summarize the NT statements on baptism:

  • Jesus was baptized (Mark 1:9-11).
  • Jesus commanded his apostles to baptize (Matthew 28:18-20.
  • Baptism was the universal practice of the church (Ephesians 4:5; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • Baptism is associated with the working of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; 1 Cor 12:13).
  • We are baptized into Christ (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27).
  • Baptism brings “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38).
  • Baptism (with the Spirit) brings new birth (John 3:5-6).
  • Baptism is a washing that removes sin and makes holy (Ephesians 4:25-27; Acts 22:16).
  • Baptism is a burial and resurrection with Christ (Colossians 2:12; Romans 6:3-4).
  • Baptism “saves us” (1 Peter 3:21).

 

Baptism in the Creeds and Confessions of Faith

Given the NT teaching and practice summarized above, it should not be surprising that nearly all the creeds and confessions of faith mention baptism. Below I list representative creedal statements on baptism:

The Niceneo-Constantinopolitan Creed (Ecumenical, 381)

“…and I acknowledge one Baptism for the remission of sins.”

The Council of Trent (Roman Catholic, 1563)

“If any one saith, that baptism is free, that is, not necessary unto salvation: let him be anathema”

Longer Catechism of the Eastern Church (Moscow, 1839)

Baptism is a Sacrament, in which…[the baptized person] dies to the carnal life of sin, and is born again of the Holy Ghost to a life spiritual and holy.”

The Augsburg Confession of Faith (Lutheran, 1530)

“Of Baptism they [Lutherans] teach that it is necessary to salvation, and that by Baptism the grace of God is offered….”

The Heidelberg Catechism (Reformed, 1563)

Question 69: “How is it signified and sealed unto thee in holy Baptism that thou hast part in the one sacrifice of Christ on the cross?

Thus: that Christ has appointed this outward washing with water and has joined therewith this promise, that I am washed with his blood and Spirit from… [sin].”

The Scotch Confession of faith (Church of Scotland, [Presbyterian], 1560)

The sacraments are “Baptisme and the Supper or the Table of the Lord Jesus, called the Communion of his Body and Blude….And this we utterlie damne the vanitie of thay that affirme Sacramentes to be nathing ellis bot naked and baire signes. No, wee assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus, to be made partakers of his justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted.”

The Westminster Confession of Faith (English Puritan, 1647)

Baptism is “a sign and seal of the covenant of grace, of his engrafting into Christ, of regeneration, of remission of sins, and of his giving up unto God….Although it be a great sin to contemn or neglect the ordinance, yet grace and salvation are not so inseparably annexed unto it as that no person can be regenerated or saved without it, or that all that are baptized are undoubtedly regenerated….The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance the grace promised is not only offered, but really conferred by the Holy Ghost….”

The Baptist Confession of 1688; also known as the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (Calvinist Baptists)

”Baptism is an ordinance…to be unto the party baptized a sign of his fellowship with Christ…of being engrafted into him; of the remission of sins….”

Confession of Free Will-Baptists (1834, 1868)

“This is the immersion of believers in water…in which are represented the burial and resurrection of Christ, the death of Christian to the world, the washing of their souls from the pollution of sin…”

A Modest Theology of Baptism

I might as well acknowledge that there have been debates and disagreement among believers in Christ about the mode of baptism, its purpose or effect, its proper candidates, who is qualified to administer it, and other aspects of baptismal practice. Today, I shall ignore all of these debates except one: does baptism, properly performed—whatever that means—really effect the gifts and promises to which the New Testament connects it? In answering this question, we need first to be reminded of how strong and realistic the New Testament language about the effect of baptism is. On the face of it, it asserts that God, the Spirit and Christ really act in and through baptism to bestow the gifts associated with it. The Nicene Creed and all Roman Catholic and Orthodox creeds maintain this same realism of divine action through baptism. Among Protestants, Lutherans also continue the realism. But the Reformed side of the Protestant Reformation weakened and eventually dropped the realistic language and began to use the language of metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, and seal to describe the connection between the “external” rite of baptism and the “spiritual” promises associated with it.

The reasons why Reformed Protestants and those churches that derive from this tradition shifted from realism to symbolism in their understanding of baptism are more complicated than I can explain in this post. But two reasons stand out as relevant to today. (1) The Roman Catholic Church seemed to Protestants of that era to claim in its view of the sacraments to control where and when God acted for human salvation. And this idea is an offense to the freedom and sovereignty of God. (2) To some Reformed theologians—Zwingli, for example—the realistic view of divine action in the sacraments seemed superstitious and magical. The Reformed solution to these two problems was to shift from a realistic to a symbolic understanding of baptism and the other sacraments. God cannot be manipulated to act simply by our performance of a rite such as baptism. So, the human act of performing and receiving the rite of baptism is dissociated from God’s act of forgiving, giving the Spirit, the new birth, union with Christ, washing away sins, saving, etc. And this view is very popular among contemporary evangelical Christians.

Must we simply choose one side or the other, the purely symbolic or the manipulative and magical view of baptism? I don’t think so. The realistic tone of the New Testament drives me to seek another way to preserve the freedom and sovereignty of God and the realistic connection between the human performance of the rite and God’s action of grace.

Baptism as a Prayer

What if we considered baptism a prayer? Protestants usually believe that Jesus’ commanded us to pray and gave us a model prayer, that we are to pray always, that we are to petition the Father in Jesus’ name, that we are to pray according to the will of God, and that prayer is effective. Perhaps some people treat prayer as manipulative and magical. But most Protestants understand that God invites us to pray and sometimes wishes to give his gifts in response to prayer. I don’t know of a theology of prayer that completely dissociates our prayers from God’s hearing and acting to answer our prayers the way some theologies of baptism dissociate the human act of baptism from God’s action. Not many people refuse to pray for fear of offending divine sovereignty. Few view the connection between a sincere prayer and God’s act in answer to that prayer as “metaphor, symbol, sign, representation, or seal.” Instead, we view prayer as a precious gift God gives to his children that enables us to partner with God in this world.

Why not view baptism in the same way? The church, in performing the rite of baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the candidate for baptism, by asking for baptism and submitting to it, offer this act to God as a prayer to God requesting the gifts he has promised to give when we ask. Sincere prayer is not manipulative or magical. It is not a work meriting anything from God. It is an obedient act that appeals to the gracious God for blessings that he has promised to give those who love him. In the same way, baptism is a beautiful prayer embodied in a physical action in response to a divine command and invitation. It seeks the blessings God has promised to those who trust in Jesus Christ. And we know that the prayer of baptism will receive a positive answer because God is faithful to his promises!

 

 

 

God’s Merciless Love, Or Why God Does Not Love Us As (Isolated) Individuals

 

“I believe in a loving God.”

“God loves you.”

“God is love” (1 John 4:8).

“For God so loved the world….” (John 3:16).

We hear these words so often that we become hardened to their significance. They no longer strike us as surprising and profound. Voltaire is reported to have said, “God forgives because it’s his business.” We may also grow to take God’s love, mercy, and grace for granted. Or just as bad, we may think we understand God’s love when we have only the most superficial grasp.

We have heard that love is a divine attribute and a divine action. Good. But what does that mean, and how do we know? In fact, it is not at all clear that the concept of God necessarily entails that God loves. The followers of Plato considered the highest reality to be absolutely perfect and self-sufficient. God is “Goodness” itself, but this does not mean that God is actually good to anyone. It means that God is the most perfect object of desire. For Aristotle, God thinks only of the highest reality, that is, his own being. God is “self-thinking Thought.” All beings desire God because they desire perfection, but God desires nothing and takes no thought for the world. In ancient polytheism, a particular god may favor a particular human being, but the conviction that “God is love” seems never to have entered the human imagination before Jesus Christ came into the world. The Old Testament asserts that the one God of Israel alone is God. And God loves Israel and favors some people, such as Abraham and David, above others. Still, the Old Testament does not clearly teach the radical love of God the way it is taught in the New Testament.

Unless we give serious thought to the New Testament teaching on divine love we tend to think of God’s love in too close analogy to human love. Let’s think about the differences. (1) God’s love is not an emotion in the way we experience emotion. Our emotions are moved by the characteristics or situation of object toward which we act. God’s love is God own being and is always active, constant, and perfect. God always loves in every act because God is love. And God does what God is. (2) That God loves means that God wills the perfect good for himself and his creation. Indeed, God himself is the perfect good that he wills for himself and creation. Hence the aim of God’s love is to give himself to the object of his love. When we love, we also will something good for the object of our love. But our love is not guided by perfect understanding of what the highest good is for the person we love. Nor do we know the perfect means of attaining that good or have the power to give that good to others. Our love can be blinded by our short-sighted desires or by the momentary feelings of the one we love. But God knows the highest good for everyone and the perfect way of attaining it for each; and God will not be distracted from that aim by his needs or by our misguided desires. The Christian teaching that God is love and loves us does not imply that God will “go soft” on us. God is not indulgent; nor does he exercise a false compassion that concerns itself only with relief of immediate distress but neglects our highest good. As Augustine says in his Confessions, God exercises a “severe mercy” in bringing us to him, our highest good. We could also speak of it as a “merciless love.”

(3) God does not love us as individuals, that is, as isolated individuals. Shocking? Perhaps so, but the reason we are shocked by this is that God’s love is often sentimentalized, sweetened, and personalized to meet our own preferences. God wills, as I said above, our highest good. But we cannot attain our highest good as isolated individuals. We exist in relation to God primarily, and secondarily we depend on the whole creation and other human beings for our lives and personal identities. And we can experience the highest good [perfect fellowship with God] only in fellowship with the whole creation. Each of us plays a part in God’s story with the world. Some of those parts are short, some long, some painful, some mostly happy, some relative easy, and some very hard. From within life and from the perspective of the individual, life does not seem fair and God seems to love some more than others. But from the perspective of the end and the whole history of creation, God loves each person perfectly—and equally. God loves the whole world in each person, that is, God blesses the whole world by using each individual to bring something to the whole that makes it complete. And God loves each person by loving the whole world, that is, each individual will experience the good God makes of the whole. And in the end, all converge and each gets what has been given to all.

To be continued…

As you may have noticed, I asserted the thoughts in this essay without much proof. If you are interested in hearing more evidence for them, see my book, Great is the Lord, pp. 164-221.

“I Don’t Want to Live On The Moon” (I’m Talking to Myself, But You Can Listen, If You Like)

When our two sons were small we’d watch Sesame Street with them almost every day. My favorite song from Sesame Street is “I Don’t Want to Live On The Moon,” written by Jeff Moss in 1978. Ernie sits on a crescent Moon and sings,

“Though I’d like to look down at the Earth from above,

I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

When I hear the song today I think first, wistfully, of those little blond-haired boys I used hold in my lap. (You can listen to it on YouTube. It has a haunting, wistful, nostalgic sound.) But I also think about my own ambivalence about public life, about being intimately involved in an institution of higher education and a local church. When I was in graduate school I read a three-volume work on the history of preaching. As I read the story of Gregory of Nazianzus, I thought, “That’s me!” Gregory wanted nothing more than to study, write, think, pray, and lead a quiet life. But the politically astute Basil of Caesarea manipulated him into becoming bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory was enlisted by Basil to engage in the most significant doctrinal battle in all of church history, the Arian controversy. And Gregory’s writings, especially his Five Theological Orations, are considered some of the finest theological writings of all time. Gregory was elected Patriarch of Constantinople and presided over the First Council of Constantinople, from which came the ecumenical Nicene Creed (381). But during the Council, the political maneuvering, conniving, and ambition became so rank in Gregory’s nostrils that he resigned in disgust and retreated into the countryside to write poetry for the rest of his life.

Like Gregory, I hate crowds, church politics, college politics, local politics, county politics, state politics, and national politics. I can’t stand any of it. I don’t want power over anyone. I want to think about my faith, seek truth, write down my thoughts, and be alone with myself and God. I identify with Kierkegaard and even Nietzsche, neither of whom fit into their age and wrote for only a few individuals or for those not yet born. Kierkegaard wrote for “the individual” and Nietzsche wrote for “my reader.” Sometimes, I feel like an alien or a resurrected member of an extinct species when interacting with institutions of modern culture. American churches have become more like businesses than communities created by the Spirit. Being a clergyman or clergywoman in an American church is a position for which one can be ambitious for reasons having nothing to do with a divine call. It takes lots of employees and volunteers just to keep the books, write the checks, and put on a “service” in the average church. And because they are businesses, own property, and wish to have non-profit tax status, they become as enmeshed with and subservient to the government as the Constantinian church that Gregory abandoned, the Danish church Kierkegaard attacked, and the German church Nietzsche scorned. None of it is necessary, of course—money, clergy, property or government entanglement. Perhaps these things are even detrimental to real Christian community. And Christian educational institutions are even more bound by government regulations and accrediting agencies’ views of morality and the purpose of education.

And when I am at my wits end in frustration with these things, I say to my wife, “I want to live on the moon! Let them have it, let them have it all. I don’t want it.” But I never actually do it, because,

“I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

Sometimes I think to myself “why do I write and teach and blog? No one cares, no one reads it, or, if they do read it, no one understands. Or, if they understand, they will soon forget.” And the words of Ecclesiastes come to mind (1:2-3; 11):

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”     says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!     Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

at which they toil under the sun?

11No one remembers the former generations,

and even those yet to come will not be remembered

by those who follow them.

But then I think about the people and books that have influenced me, many of whom died long ago. Where would I be if they had gone to “live on the Moon”? I am very glad Gregory wrote the Five Theological Orations before he left for the country. I am so thankful that Thomas Aquinas, Pascal, Kierkegaard, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis and so many others cared enough to work so hard and love so much for people not yet born. To keep writing and teaching and putting up with various types of politics, I have to keep thinking about the “individual” that might be helped or “my reader” who might remember and not forget.

And to you “my reader” I say this: we must allow our inability to see all the fruit of our labor to discourage us from faithfully carrying out the assignment we have been given. And as hard as it is for me to be satisfied with it, this is the true measure of success—that we are doing the task we have been given to do. We must release our labor into God’s hands to do with as he wishes. It will enough to hear the Lord say, “You have done well the work I gave you to do.”

Yes, sometimes I want to live on the Moon, but…

“I would miss all the places and people I love,

So although I might like it for one afternoon,

I don’t want to live on the moon.”

And I would be abandoning my post before God gives me leave.

When Did “Doctrine” Become a Four Letter Word?

Doctrine has fallen on hard times among mainstream Christian churches. Liberal churches have disparaged doctrine for at least a hundred years. By “doctrine” they meant the traditional orthodox doctrines that asserted miracles, original sin, the incarnation and atonement, the resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, and others. According to Liberal churches, modern people schooled in natural science and critical history can no longer believe these teachings, and such controversial teachings distract attention from the liberal agenda of progressive moral advance in society. (For more on the idea of Liberal Christianity, see my essays on Liberal Christianity posted on August 01 and 08, 2015). In the first half of the Twentieth Century Liberalism was opposed by traditional believers who defended the orthodox doctrines mentioned above. But even within conservative Christian circles in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries there were revival and evangelistic movements that down played “denominational” doctrines so that they could more effectively evangelize the unchurched. That is to say, the practical concerns of evangelism and church growth nudged evangelists and pastors toward minimizing doctrines that were not directly related to conversion and salvation. Requiring prospective church members to consider and adopt many doctrines would distract them from making a “decision for Christ.” Hence in their own way many conservative opponents of Liberal Christianity down played doctrine.

We can see many of these same forces at work in 2015. Liberal churches still reject orthodoxy and continue to pursue a mission of social change according to progressive philosophy. Many evangelical churches continue to put a high priority on church growth and churching the unchurched. Of course the methods of attracting people into churches have changed. Over the last years I have noticed an increase in two areas: offers of social support and exciting “worship experiences.” Instead of evangelistic “crusades” or revival meetings churches provide a full spectrum of social programs that appeal to young families with children, singles and other affinity groups. And they spend huge amounts of money and energy to provide moving experiences of worship and uplifting messages from the pastor. Doctrine does not fit well into this picture. And it’s not hard to imagine the consequences of years of doctrinal neglect. People may eventually begin asking themselves, “Why are we here?”

So, what is doctrine? The English word “doctrine” derives from a Latin-based word that means “teaching.” Jesus taught his disciples and the crowds. In his “great commission” recorded in Matthew 28, Jesus commanded his disciples to go to the nations, baptizing people and “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (v. 20). The apostles remembered Jesus’ teaching and passed it on. They also taught about what happened to Jesus on the cross and his resurrection. They explained how his death and resurrection affect us and how we are to relate to the Lord Jesus Christ. The church “devoted” itself the “the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). The New Testament is the record of the apostles’ teaching and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ teaching. Preaching is simply a particular way of teaching. The gospel is not opposed to doctrine. The gospel is the first and the most important thing that must be taught.

Doctrine, that is, Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching, informs us about certain historical events and their meaning, about the right way to live in the world, and about God’s promises. The Bible teaches about God’s nature and identity, about the identity and work of Jesus Christ, about sin and salvation, about the church and her sacraments. Christian doctrine instructs us about whom to trust, for what to hope and how to love. It teaches us how to use our bodies and souls and tongues. The task of the church is to continue to teach and live the full range of Jesus’ and the apostles’ teaching. We do not have the right to limit teaching only to areas that are consistent with progressive culture, as do Liberal churches. Nor do we have a right to focus only on the “exciting” “affirming” and “uplifting” teachings as do many evangelical churches. To church the unchurched should not mean simply getting them in a worship assembly three or four times a month. It means to work toward re-forming them in the image of Jesus Christ. It means to help them to know and rely on all the promises of God, to engage them in the practices Jesus and the apostles taught us: prayer, the supper of the Lord, baptism, listening to the Word of God and confession.

But doctrine is boring, some say. No! Some teachers of doctrine are boring. But everything Jesus’ and the apostles’ taught is exciting, revolutionary and challenging! When various teachings get separated from the heart of the good news of how much God loves us and has done for us in Jesus Christ, then, yes, they are onerous and boring. But if we keep clearly and steadily in mind that doctrine—every doctrine!—is about who God is or what God has done for us or how God’s love can become a real power in our lives or how we can live in this world in faith and hope and love, then each and every morsel of teaching (doctrine) will be like honey in our mouths, wisdom for our minds, and energy for our souls!