2006-03-27

On Bouffant Hair and Bad Theology: Random thoughts while watching TBN

OK, I admit it.  Sometimes I watch TBN.  For several reasons:

1. It's just flat out entertaining.  Folks with way too much makeup, gaudy sets, and crazy hair-dos with hands raised to the ceiling, praising God, pronouncin' blessing, and claimin' the anointin' of the Holy Ghost.  And, I gotta admit: Watching Rod Parsley and "Bishop" TD Jakes is incedible.  I mean, I think Rod's prosperity theology is waaaay wacked, and TD has some questionable doctrinal areas too, but the dudes are used of God, changing their communities, and bringing people to love Jesus (can I get an Amen?).  And they are just flat-out dynamic, quirky, and fun to watch.  It's all a freak show... and it reminds me that Jesus LOVES freaks!

2. Which brings me to this point: I know that at least some of the folks on TBN are there because they feel called by God and are doing their absolute best to serve the Jesus they know.  And they are willing to be ridiculous doing it.  May I- and all of us- be willing to be equally as foolish for the Lord, and do things that nice society scoffs at.  So many times I worry about catering to Christianity's "cultured despisers" and "cultivated consumers" that I loose vision of the radical demands of the Gospel.  These folks on TBN remind me, in a way, what it means to be radical.

3. These people have their fingers on the pulse of something, and people watch and listen to them by the millions.  If this were not so, they would not be on the air and (in some cases) raking in the dough.  I watch them to understand what concerns and problems they are speaking to, and what solutions and theology they are popularizing.  I firmly, FIRMLY believe that if we are going to speak to our own "flocks" we need to be able to deal with the same concerns, with the same charisma, preaching and teaching a Gospel and a theology that is MORE Biblical and well thought-out than these folks.

4. It helps me remember that God uses ALL types of folks to build His Kingdom.  I know several people who came to Christ and have become life-long disciples through watching TBN (although it is a very, very small percentage compared with the amount that I know who have done the same through involvement in a local body of believers).  We can tell the Holy Spirit that it isn't nice, proper, or doctrinally correct to use such "crass" means to reach people, but the Spirit doesn't care!  She will just use whatever means is available to bring people to be reconciled to the Father through Christ.  It's almost as if God is "no respecter of persons".  I know that is a crazy idea, but perhaps we should ponder that as we make decisions about what "types" of Christians we will work with and be associated with.  If God is willing to love and use freaks, but we are not, what does that say about us?

Now, with the TBN "love fest" out of the way, let me say that some things REALLY disturb me when I watch that station.  In particular the National preachers Creflo Dollar, Joel Olsteen and John Hagee, and a local set of (Dallas area) pastors who run a TBN spinoff station named Marcus and Toni Lamb.

I know that the catalog of errors could be immense (but couldn't all of our errors?).  Yet, I want to focus on a few that just smack me in the face:

1. We need to preach against the Prosperity Gospel found in Dollar, Olsteen, Lamb, Parsley (to a lesser extent), and Jakes (to an even lesser extent).  If this does not sell God as a means to a selfish end, I do not know what does!  I know the root of this teaching comes out of the Pentecostal and Charismatic belief that God really does want us to be healthy, healed, and whole people (cf. Luke 4:18-19; 1Th 5:23; and the healing ministry of Jesus and the Apostles).  I am basically a charismatic, and do believe that God wants us to have healthy spirits, healthy souls, and healthy bodies in that order.  But, I also believe that God will allow us to have a sick body, or even a depressed soul, if that pushes us to have a healthy spirit (cf. Paul's thorn in 2Co 12).  So, God wills the healing of our whole self, but some parts are more important to be healed than others, and some parts may not be healed until we stand in His presence after physical death.

But, the insight of God's desire for our health and blessing has been perverted by the prosperity folk to focus almost solely on the physical aspect of our existence.  And, it has turned the order and priority of healing around so that our souls and spirits are healed as the means for us to ultimately attain physical prosperity and healing.  So, prosperity folk urge us to clean up our thinking and seek God in prayer, as a means to release the physical blessings of fat retirement accounts, great houses, and new cars.  This, in turn, makes God a means to my personal fulfillment, rather than the goal of my existence.  This is very dangerous, because I hear that God will not bear to be a means to anyone's end for long.

Furthermore, it screws up the whole moral life, because we no longer give time, talent, and treasure to Church, ministry, and social justice for the sake of helping other people made in God's image.  We give it as a "seed" to reap a far greater harvest of personal wealth and prosperity.  It is no longer "love your neighbor AS yourself", but rather "love your neighbor FOR yourself".

2. It drives me up the wall how folks like Hagee wrap themselves in the flags of the US and Israel, and proclaims both of them to be sacrosanct instruments of God's Kingdom on Earth.  The mixture of the Gospel and Patriotism is as dangerous as anything could possibly be for the health of the Church.  I won't go into it here, but I have reason to believe that the "Antichrist" will actually be a system of religion that is extremely Biblical, extremely "Patriotic", extremely Prosperity oriented, and uses the Gospel as means to attain political and economic power.  I have written about this here.

This does not mean that I am against a "just war" to protect the innocent from oppression, or Christians making political choices based on Gospel ideals about justice and economics.  I support all of these things so long as they are the effects that flow from a life devoted to Christ.  However, when we treat Christ as a MEANS to a political end (in the case of Gospel = Patriotism), or to an economic end (in the case of Gospel = Prosperity), then we break the first two commandments and invite God's judgment upon us.  And, while I am at it, Liberals are no better than Conservatives on this matter.  While conservatives tend to use Christ as a means in the above two ways, Liberals tend to use Christ as a MEANS to a political end  (Gospel = Socialism) and to an economic end (Gospel = Liberation and forced redistribution of wealth).

I think that the misuse of God and the wrong priorities of both the "Left" and the "Right" can lay equal claim to being "Antichrist".

3. One thing that bugs me, but is not so much a "heresy" on TBN is this: Everything on that station is "lifechanging!", "transformational!", and will totally change you life in the next 30 minutes (or double you money back).  Someone said this morning "I am believing in God for your total transformation in the next 20 minutes".  I mean, come on!  Isn't this over-selling it a bit?  I know the Holy Spirit can and does transform people's lives radically, sometimes in very short amounts of time (I have experienced this!).  But, do we really thing that God wants to radically transform us every 30 minutes?

I think this buys into consumerism big time!  It caters to our sense of immediate gratification, and our craving for novelty for novelty's sake.  Furthermore, it sets up false expectations that can only be dealt with in one of two ways: 1. "I do not feel transformed, therefore I must be defective in my faith somehow and I need to do something to make me more acceptable to God". This puts folks on the never-ending treadmill of good works trying to earn God's favor.  I have seen it. 2. "I do not feel transformed, therefore God must be defective and not worthy of belief or worship".  I have seen this too.

And, to beat a dead horse, it also makes God the means for a personal, selfish end.  I believe God so that I will be transformed.

What about concepts such as a long, steady obedience in the same direction, even when the road gets tough (or worse, gets boring)?  What about steady growth?  What about wrestling with God in periods of doubt, or drought, or "dark nights of the soul"?  Yes, I believe that the Spirit sends "latter rain" upon people and they experience renewal and transformation at critical crisis moments in their lives.  But these crisis moments are not every day.  These crisis moments, as refreshing as they are, happen only after long walks in the wilderness with God.

That's my recurring thoughts on TBN.  Enjoy.

2006-03-25

On using political-economic power to convert people to "Gospel Values"

My buddy Matt over at Two Cities Blog has written a great article on whether Christians should boycott "Brokeback Mountain" to send a "message to Hollywood" supporting Gospel Values. I think this article highlights an implicit tension and contradiction in Christian mission and social action: Christians using coercive power to "make" people change into "good" people.

Specifically, is it ever effective or right to use coercive power to make people "convert" to the values of the Gospel? Let me explain:

I think that this is not only NOT effective, it may be wrong and a contradiction of God's love revealed in Christ. It treats the adherence to the Gospel as a social requirement for citizenship in a "Christian nation", rather than as a profound rejection of worldly power and status.

But wait, you may say, this is about Christians boycotting "moral evil", as private citizens making a public statement, to get the free market to reflect "Christian values". After all, we are not talking about using police to round up and arrest non-Christian dissidents!

Agreed. Christian Cultural Boycotts (hereafter CCBs) are not a use of the governments power to achieve Gospel ends. But, CCBs are uses of coercive social and economic pressure to make people outwardly conform to the Gospel, whether or not they have had Christ formed in them by faith. It is expecting non-Christians to reflect Christian values.

This makes me ask, under what circumstances did Jesus or the Apostles use coercive social pressure, and to what ENDS was this use of social pressure a MEANS?

Jesus advocated using coercive social pressure to resolve conflicts only WITHIN the brotherhood of believers in Matthew 18. Jesus used actual physical force and coercion to drive out of the temple money changers and animal sellers who were using their "monopoly" to exploit poor worshippers. Paul, especially in his correspondence with the Corinthians, Galatians, and Timothy, advocates using coercive social pressure on those WITHIN the Church to stop people who are practicing moral choices or teaching doctrine that injures the Body of Christ.

Yet, Jesus resolutely stays away from advocating use of coercive power in greater society to achieve Gospel ends. His preaching and teaching of the Gospel (and the moral life that flows from the Gospel) appeals solely to personal choice, and the future judgment of such choices by God (cf. Mat ch. 5-7, ch. 25). Paul, likewise, refuses to allow the Corinthians to use public governmental courts to enforce moral choices within the Christian community (cf. 1Co 6). Paul's discourses on whether or not to eat "temple meat" (sacrificed to idols!!!) is wholly ambivalent about the matter. His main criteria for involvement with pagan culture at this level (or abstinence from it) seems to be whether the believer will be "built up" and drawn closer to Christ, NOT whether such involvement will coercively make Pagan culture reflect Gospel values (cf. Rom 14; 1Co ch. 8, 10).

In fact, the only social pressure that either Jesus or Paul seemed to use to convert the "Pagan world" was love and acceptance. Jesus freely fellowshipped with whores, drunks, and other social rejects, proclaiming to them a Gospel of liberation from sin. It was only the Jewish believers, those INSIDE the community, that Jesus castigated and openly threatened with hell for their hypocrisy (cf. Matt ch. 23, 25). Indeed, Paul's thesis statement on how to interact with Christian hypocrites, as well as Lost Pagans is found here:

1 Corinthians 5:9-13 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler- not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. "Purge the evil person from among you."

In the realm of social interaction, it can be confidently said that the use of social discipline to enforce Gospel values only occurs WITHIN the community of believers. It is "family discipline", reserved for the training and growth of "family" members. Those outside of the family are not treated like family. Rather, they are loved and embraced and drawn into the family, and only trained once inside the family, in the context of familial concern and love.

As a side note, it is interesting to note that when the whole Church got together to discuss the perplexing problem of what basis the Gentiles should be allowed to partake in the "new Covenant" Community (cf. Acts 15), it confined its decree to expectations of those professing to be believers. It made no sweeping statements about expectations to be put on society at large. It gave the new Gentile faith communities a list of things to "abstain" from, but this abstinence was NOT for the purpose of changing society by coercive social pressure. It was only for the purpose of making the new family members healthy and whole.

I think the logic of the New Testament is inescapable at this point. Coercive use of social pressure is reserved solely for the formation of those who have already submitted to the society of the Church. In other words, we do not discipline someone who is not our own child. Social pressure is never used as a tool to enforce conformity of non-believers to Gospel values.

But- the rebuttal goes- this is only because the New Testament was written in a "non-Christian" culture and the whole early Church existed as a minority community in a Pagan empire. This has to change in a "Christian culture" when the majority of society is made of Christians!

Wait just a minute. Compare the New Covenant with the Old Covenant. In the Old Covenant, from the beginning, while Israel was still a nomad people, before they had "taken possession" of the land, they ALREADY had a blueprint for a theocratic society in "the Torah" (the Law of Moses in the first five books of the Bible). From the inception of Israel there was a concept of a whole society of enforced belief, with social and legal punishments to enforce "Torah values". Not only this, but in actual practice over 1500 years, this concept of a theocratic society with "Torah values" enforced by social and legal coercion, FAILED miserably and consistently.

My point is this: if God had intended the "New Covenant" to function from a position of social superiority and coercive power in a "Christian society", He would have programmed this from its inception, like He did for the Old Covenant. Instead, He implanted into the deep DNA of the Church a complete disavowal of secular power as a means to accomplish Gospel values. The Gospel subverts society through love and servanthood. It does not conquer society through power.

To take this back to the CCB phenomena: I know people who do this have the best of intentions to love and serve Jesus. But, to do this as a means to make culture more "Christian" is at best wrongheaded, and at worst, buying into a demonic subversion of the Gospel itself. If someone abstains from culture because it will not build them up and bring them closer to Christ, then that is a laudable step of Christian maturity. But, if the reason for abstaining is an attempt to boycott culture and make people "act Christian" by means of coercive power, I think that they are badly deceived.

My advice: Don't think that this type of social activism glorifies Christ. Instead, act like Jesus and Paul. Change the "lost" world through love, servanthood, and prayer, not through holding power over people. Speak out, in the Church, against those practices that deceive and harm Christians. Be careful and discerning about what you involve yourself and your family in, always asking the question: will this draw us closer to Christ or push us further away? But, if you abstain, do not do it to "force" people to be "good Christians". Do it because it helps form Christ in you.

The lost world will not care how much you know, until they know how much you care. And they will not know how much you care if you are trying to coercively force them to act like Christians when they are not. No one can act like a Christian unless they first freely accept Christ, and they will only do this as we act like Jesus to them: Pray for them, care for them, share life with them, and dare them to follow Christ as Lord. Only after someone accepts Christ can we expect them to live for Him.

2006-03-20

What is Truth? On the evaluation of the Truth of Doctrinal Systems

My buddy Matt, who I write on "Two Cities" Blog with recently wrote a great article on being Ecumenical. He is Church of Christ, I am Anglican, and we have a whole bunch of discussions about this kind of stuff. His article is posted here.

During the discussion, I wrote a reply about how we should evaluate the truth of doctrinal systems. I want to share that here:

1. I think we all agree that doctrine is important, yet as a MEANS not an END. It is one of many means, including spiritual and moral praxis, liturgy, relationships, sacraments, and so on, toward the means of union with God through Christ and the formation of Christ in us. I LOOOOOVE doctrine! I own and have read more systematic theologies than anyone I know of except some of my professors. I love doctrinal systems and analysis of the "Christian worldview". I could literally talk about it for days on end (and have). BUT...

AND A BIG BUT...

Doctrine in isolation from the whole structure of catechesis, or even exalted above all other tools of formation, is death dealing. We do not live in our brains. We are not disembodied minds, but embodied souls- souls that include not only a cognitive aspect, but also affective and volitional aspects (i.e. mind, heart, and will).

Whatever context we put the study and debate of doctrine in, it MUST be put in the context of the whole of spiritual formation, in the midst of the Church, for the upbuilding of God's people.

2. I know you are sick of hearing this, and I am kinda sick of saying this, but I think we have to wrestle with the thesis put forward by William J. Abraham about what is truly "canonical" (i.e. the measuring stick) for Christian doctrine, versus what is our criteria for determining what is true. For those unfamiliar with Abraham, I am speaking of the central thesis of Abraham's book "Canon and Criterion". His thesis is that the canon, or list, of genuine Scriptural books is but one canon in a whole network of Christian canonical sources. It is the canon which provides the "source data" and the most reliable witness to the "foundational events" of the Christian faith, and as such, it does have a prominent place in our theological method. And yet, it does not self-interpret, nor does it exist without other canonical sources, such as the "canon" of the ecumenical councils, the "canon" of the liturgy, the "canon" of the sacraments, the "canon" of the saints and theologians of the early Church, and a few other canons.

These canons, in his view, were given as "means of grace" for our salvation and union with God, and instead we have neglected some altogether (in the case of every other canon except Scripture), and we have elevated the canon of Scripture above all of these other canons and in addition, have made it into something it was never intended for: a book of theoretical knowledge and epistemology. A good example of this is the battle over the Creation narratives of Scripture. In the modern era, we have ceased to care what these narratives mean and what purpose they serve for our spiritual formation, and instead we spend thousands of pages and millions of websites debating whether or not it gives us a scientific theory about how God made everything.

I think we need to recover Scripture as a means of grace, a tool to give us purpose and meaning and help us do life with God, rather than a textbook of obscure knowledge.

3. Regarding metaphysics and elephants, let me unveil the rough outline of a metaphysical / epistemological theory I have been brooding over for about 2 years. Many of my friends (including Bret, I think) have heard some of this.

A while back I first came across the distinction between "centered set" theories of truth and doctrine, versus "bounded set" theories in "The Mosaic of Christian Belief" by Olson. To put it briefly, a "bounded set" views truth as embodied in propositions, which can be collected, ordered, put into lists, and then exhaustively describe all that we need to know about a reality (whether that reality is God, a frog, or a subatomic particle). Truth is thus found within the boundaries of a propositional system, and is necessarily limited and comes from a single perspective. In contrast, a centered set theory sees propositions not so much as embodiments of truth, but arrows pointing toward or away from the truth.

Thus propositions are arranged around, and centered on, something (or Someone) that is true, like planets around a star. Propositions are more or less true to the degree to which they point to Truth, and to the proximity they are to the Truth (closer or further- for instance, a road sign five miles away from a city is more "true" than a road sign pointing in the same direction that is 500 miles away).

This insight of the "centered set" was added to in an indirect way through a lecture by Peter Kreeft at St. Matthias Church in Dallas (available free on his website), where Dr. Kreeft talked about God's love as the theological gravity that holds the universe together and beckons us to Godself. I actually got to meet Dr. Kreeft there and sit and talk to him for about 15 minutes. He is incredible.

To add to this, I had already struggled through enough relativist vs. absolutist debates to determine that they are both lacking. If everything is relative, it has to be relative to a stable "Something" (or better yet, Someone). It can’t be relative to nothing. Yet, if there is an absolute Something that everything else is relative to, it is not like we can exhaustively know or describe it. Especially not in propositions. Propositions cannot convey the full meaning of the reality of "Love" which most humans have a good working knowledge of, much less the reality of "God" which we have considerably less working knowledge of.

Furthermore, the various problems with correspondence theories of truth (which always seem to have a fatal flaw that deconstructs them and overturns their firm "foundation") and coherence theories of truth (I can have a perfectly coherent worldview of a mythical world that is not real at all), lead me away from these as adequate theories of what is "truth".

And furthermore, since both Jesus and the Spirit are called "Truth" in Scripture, and since there is an apparent lack of calling symbolic systems of belief "Truth" (although God's propositional revelation of law is often called "true"), it seems to me that Truth should not be thought of as residing in propositions per se. Propositions and verbal symbols can point to truth, but are not "Truth" in themselves. Truth seems to reside in persons, or in events, as they reveal true reality.

Taking all of this (sorry I am not tying all of the strings together very well here), it seems to me that "Truth" is relational, centered on a Person, rather than found in a set of propositions, or even in a Book (no matter how divinely inspired). Truth is an "end", and Scripture and the propositional systems derived from Scripture are merely "means" to point us to that "end".

Furthermore, one is closer to Truth as one is in closer proximity, just like a planet is closer to the Sun the tighter it orbits the Sun. The closer a planet is to the Sun, the more caught it is in the Sun's gravity and the hotter it becomes by sharing in the heat of the Sun. In the same way, the closer we are to the Son, the more caught we are in His "gravity" of Love, and the more we are "on fire" with His Divine nature.

And, also, the closer a planet is to the Sun, the harder it is to see it from different perspectives. It may well see the Sun from the X axis, but there is a Y and Z axis that is has no ability to see, except for the few times the X intersects Y and Z. I think this is a metaphor for how various Christians in various traditions can be in a tight relationship- a tight orbit- with Jesus and yet see Him so differently. Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, Baptists, Calvinists, Emergents, Charismatics, Pentecostals, and even Liberals are tightly in Love with the same Jesus, and yet there is so much Jesus and so many perspectives that we cannot grasp it all at once. And instead of sharing our perspectives, we have this foundationalist truth theory that causes us to argue instead... Like the three blind men who were taken to the Elephant, and instead of combining their perspectives, one argued that an elephant was a hose because he felt the trunk, one argued that it was a fan, because he felt the ear, and one argued that it was a tree, because he felt the leg.

This is not to say that anything goes. There is one Sun, one Son, one center of gravity. Jesus is not Buddha is not Muhammed is not Socrates is not Marx. The blind men argued about one Elephant, not about a car, a faucet, and a cat. Everything is relative... but to Jesus... not to nothing. Another way to say this is that Truth is polyvalent in its orbit around the Source of "gravity" that is Reality (a Triune relational reality of Divine Love, of which Christ is the outward visible "surface" of). Truth is not omnivalent (anything goes), nor is it univalent (single perspective).

This relational, orbital theory of Truth which can be described in terms of a "centered set" has the strengths of correspondence theories, because it does posit a solid, central, immovable absolute upon which all else revolves. But, it has the flexibility and multiple-perspective nature of coherence theories, along with affirming the insights of relativism without going to its absurd lengths. Furthermore, it does have a place for propositions, in that propositions are signs that point us to, and orient us around, what is really Real.

This theory of truth can co-opt the insights of other theories of truth, but as tests or pointers to probability, rather than as the definition of what is true. I generally think of four "tests" for Truth, which demonstrate greater or lesser probability that a set of propositions is true, which combine the insights of other "Truth theories" without being constricted to them. These tests can help us understand the PROXIMITY of a proposition to Truth (how close it is), and the ORIENTATION of a proposition in relation to Truth (whether it is pointing toward or away from what is Real).

Test 1: Is it conceptually clear? Does it clearly define and use terms in a consistent, non-ambiguous way? Does it define terms tightly enough to exclude what needs to be excluded, while also defining them openly enough to include all relevant data?

Test 2: Is it correspondent with reality? Do the propositions actually mirror the best data that we can gather about the reality under consideration? The closer to the event or reality the data is- in proximity, in time- the higher probability it is good data. Although, all of this is more or less probable, because absolute certainty and exhaustive knowledge of historical occurrences cannot be gained in this life.

Test 3: Is the symbolic system coherent? Does it contradict itself? Is it logical? The less logical flaws it has, the more probable it is.

Test 4: Is this system constructive? Does it construct a lifestyle or worldview that "works" and actually does what the system predicts will happen? Does it account for an incorporate new data and experience as we existentially encounter it?

This combines the best insights of bounded propositional theories of truth (test 1, 3), foundationalist / correspondence theories of truth (test 2), coherence theories of truth (test 3), and pragmatic theories of truth (test 4). These tests give us a more or less probable rating about the propositional system under consideration, and can help indicate how close in proximity and orientation a symbolic system is to what is Real.

This is a broad outline... with much to fill in... but I think there has to be a way out of the metaphysical impasse we have stuck ourselves in during modernity, without denying the great strides forward that the modern era has brought us in knowledge.

I do not know what to call it yet. A relational theory of truth? An orbital model of truth? Probability theory?

Comments are appreciated.
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Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian

2006-03-10

New Wineskins and New Cloth

I got a good question from Lori I thought I would share:

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Today, I was reading the lessons for today, and I have always been confused by these 2 verses (21-22).  I don't understand how they go with the previous verses. Do you know how they go together?

Mark 2:18-22  
Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting. Some people came and asked Jesus, "How is it that John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees are fasting, but yours are not?"  Jesus answered, "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them.  But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast.  

"No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment. If he does, the new piece will pull away from the old, making the tear worse.  And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins."
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There are a couple of different takes on those verses, but I don't have time to tell you all of them... So I will just tell you my take :-)

Jesus is contrasting new and old, and how they do not go together:

- New cloth will shrink and rip the old cloth it gets sewn to.
- New wine cannot go into old, dried skins.  The old skins are too brittle and will crack with the new, wet wine.

He is using illustrations that everyone would have understood to illustrate why accepting him as Lord requires surrendering to a radically new life.  Jesus is the New Covenant, or "New Contract", or "New System" with mankind.  The Old Contract required circumcision, changing one's ethnicity and nationality, and accepting a whole system of kosher laws to be one of God's chosen people.  Furthermore, the Old Contract required following a God that no one had ever really seen or talked to, at least not in the last 1000 years!

The New Contract is for God's chosen people to be from every tribe and tongue, and to be united by faith and Baptism into a new Body, the Church.  This new Body, or Family, is called to live a totally new kind of life, and enter into a New Kingdom by following a totally new kind of King: a Dead-yet-Risen God-Man.  One cannot follow Him without radically rejecting the Lordship of all other old Lords, and submitting them totally to the new King to be done with as He pleases.

This requires us to radically abandon all that is old and give it over to Jesus as our King.  He may give some of it back and say "this is useful to serve me", or He may throw it all away and make us start over.  We hold no ownership rights over our old life.  If we try to hold on to the old and the new without giving EVERYTHING over to Jesus, it will rip us apart like a unshrunk patch rips old clothes, or new wine rips apart old wineskins.

Also, right before these verses Jesus talks about the wedding and the bridegroom.  What does the bride have to do before being married?  She must reject any old romances and give herself TOTALLY to her husband!  One cannot have a new marriage and an old flame!  These two parables go together because they show us how we cannot have two masters, two husbands, nor a mind divided between new and old.  We have to totally, utterly choose Jesus and His New Covenant, or else our lives will be torn apart by being "double minded" (see James ch. 1).

A modern version of this parable might be:
"So!  You want to get married to Jesus, but you also want to keep doing all the same things you did before?  You want to try and mix his new life with "the best" of your old life, huh?  You want to give Jesus everything you don't like, but hold on to everything you do like?

Well, that is as stupid as hooking up a new power line to an old house that isn't even wired for electricity!  The whole house will burn to the ground!  That's even as dumb as trying to use new software in a 10 year old computer!  The whole system will crash and give you the blue screen of death!  No, silly: you hook up electricity to new wiring, and you put new software on a new computer!  The new life of Jesus is just like that.  You have got to surrender to him totally, and allow Him to make you a radically new creation, then He can fill you with His new life!"

2006-03-09

Just what was the philosophical justification of splitting the Church in the Reformation?

In response to my last post, Matt asks a great question:

I have one question: You mentioned that if the Catholic Church would have listened to Aquinas, Augustine and others the Reformation may have been avoided. However, many Protestants believe that a major part of what sparked the Reformation was the scholastic synthesis of faith and reason achieved by Aquinas and exaggerated by Averroes and Ockam. Some believe that the problem of the Reformation was caused by Aquinas's "secularization" of faith. What would you say about that? Just curious.

In response to Matt:

Actually, my friend, I strongly disagree with the analysis that Aquinas' scholastic theology as a cause of the Reformation.  Here's the reasons:

Averroës (d. 1198) was the Islamic philosopher who sought to combine Aristotle with Islamic theology, and thus forge a route between theology, science, and politics in the golden age of Islamic civilization.  In the west, we like to think of Averroës as doing something totally new, but he really wasn't.  The Eastern Church NEVER lost the Greek philosophical tradition like the West did.  The East was doing theology in light of the contributions of both Plato, the various Neo-Platonic schools, and Aristotle the entire time.  Averroës got his information about Aristotle from the Islamic conquest of Alexandria and other centers of Eastern learning.

When Aquinas (d. 1274) reclaimed Aristotle (via Islamic sources, coming mainly through Moorish Spain and ports in Italy) for use in Christian theology, it was radically new to the largely Platonic West, but nothing new in the East.  His synthesis of faith and reason, using Aristotle as a tool was nothing new to the Eastern Church, who had been reading Aristotle in Greek the entire time that the West was bogged down in barbarians and had forgotten all about their classical heritage (all except the Irish, but that is another story). The use of Aristotle in the West eventually led to the twin developments of the experimental / scientific method on one hand, and nominalism on the other hand.  This then provided the philosophical underpinnings of the reformation.  yet, none of these developed in the East, which, ironically, had been using Aristotle for centuries. Why?

It all starts with Plato.  Plato had created a thought system where everything was reasoned from the top-down, by deduction from universal principles to specific applications.  In an over-simplification of Plato's system, it is not necessary to consult empirical data to draw conclusions.  Reasoning from universals is all that is needed to gain valid conclusions.  Aristotle represented a mediating position, that still had room for universals, but also required inducing universal principals by examining specific data.  Yet, universals were still a real entity toward which specific data pointed to in Aristotles scheme. The clear weakness in Plato's system was that it had no real use for the specific, concrete facts of daily existence, except as mirrors of universals.  Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists took this to its logical extreme and declared that matter is bad and is to be discounted altogether.  We should strive for pure spiritual existence in the world of the forms.  This got transmuted into the manifold forms of Gnosticism, which all had the central theme that humans were trapped spiritual essences that had to flee evil matter by understanding esoteric spiritual knowledge.

Aristotle was an attempt to mediate between the importance of matter and spirit, universal and particular.  Yet, the West's greatest early theologian, Augustine, was not Aristotelian.  He was a convert to Christianity from Manichean dualism, which was basically a variety of Neo-Platonic thought.  Augustine's default metaphysics then was a Christianized version of Platonism. As a believer in the Incarnation and the goodness of creation, Augustine rejects those aspects of Platonism that demean material existence.  Yet, there is still a great tendency in Augustine and all other Western theology up to the modern era to rank "spirit" above "matter", put "faith" above "reason", and have a somewhat negative view of embodied life, including sexuality.

Aristotle, seeing the advances of Islamic society, and the opportunities offered by Aristotle's philosophical framework, chose to exploit it.  And, he put the role of philosophy in a very wise place: as handmaiden, or servant, to theology.  Not an equal partnership.  This is wise, because it does not let the philosophy dominate the theology (as in later folks like Kant, Hegel, Schleiermacher, Bultmann, and such).  Neither does it deny philosophy altogether and pretend it doesn't exist, only to have it silently infiltrate the Christian worldview (like how American individualism and pluralism has infected so many of our church bodies in the USA). Aquinas chose to use a philosophy which allowed for full value to be given to both spirit and matter, both universal and particular.

In the West, the positive development of this was the rise of modern science. Those who followed him led by stages to a group of thinkers who studied the natural world to understand the universal physical laws that governed the interaction of matter.  But, negatively, folks like Occam (d. 1349) took this emphasis on particular, specific evidence and ran it into the ground. In Occam's philosophy of nominalism, universals became merely "names" (Latin nominus) granted to groups or categories of individual things.  Also, nominalism likewise streamlined the concept of "cause".  For Aquinas and others, causality was multifaceted.  There was a material cause (the physical stuff involved), the formal cause (that form or pattern which makes the matter what it is), the efficient cause (the agent that acts), and the final cause (the purpose or goal of the activity). For nominalists the cause is whatever could be reduced to the simplest answer, without "multiplying causes". Usually this meant only acknowledging a material cause, and possibly an efficient cause.

Thus, for Platonists, a chair is a chair because it participates in the universal form of "chairness" that exists in the world of forms. The specific chair is not near as "real" as the spiritual form of "chair". For Aristotle and Aquinas, a chair is a chair because it participates in universal laws (formal cause) that govern the interaction of matter and energy (material cause), formed by an intelligent designer (efficient cause), who makes it for the goal of handling the human posterior (final cause).  For nominalism, a chair is merely a name assigned to a bunch of things that are similar in being able to hold human butts. It is a helpful fiction to make sense of the world (like all language). Its only real cause is the interaction of matter and energy.  Attempts to reach for a cause greater than that is either borrowing (wrongly) from Aristotle, or can be (rightly) reduced to matter and energy interacting.

In my estimation, Aristotle is the rightful mediating position between over-emphasizing the spiritual world of universal forms on one hand, and the material world of bare particulars on the other:

--------------------------
Universal - Spiritual
|
- - Plato - Neo-Platonism - Plotinus
|
- - Aristotle - Aquinas
|
- - Occam - Nominalism
|
Particular - Material
--------------------------

Early nominalists had a place for minds and spiritual particulars in their scheme of things.  But it was only time until the nominalist questioning of causes and universals turned on itself, and decided that invisible minds and invisible spirits were both un-needed hypotheses to explain the causality of the natural world (hence the famous Enlightenment statement: "God? I have no need of that hypothesis."). In my way-too-simplified schema of Western Intellectual history, Medieval Nominalism leads to Reformation Memorialism. For instance, Eucharist becomes a memorial meal rather than a participation in the Universal essence of Christ. Justification becomes a legal name pronounced on sinners as "not guilty", instead of an actual ontological transformation from sinner into new creation. The Church is no longer an ontological unity as "the Body of Christ", but merely a Name to denote a collection of like-minded individuals with the same faith. Thus, it becomes easy to split the Church because the Church is nothing but a helpful name to call things.

Reformation Memorialism becomes Enlightenment Rationalism. All natural phenomena can be understood as cause and effect by rational minds. Reason is exalted over all, and is supposedly universally available to all people who will objectively look at the evidence.  Furthermore, the mass destruction caused by the wars of Religion between Christian and Christian lead to the practical conclusions that: (a) If there is a spiritual reality, it has little power to stop human suffering at the least, and at the most it is positively dangerous; (b) Spirituality must be confined to the private sphere, because in the public sphere it wreaks havoc.

Enlightenment Rationalism becomes Modern Empiricism. Cause and effect are no longer so much understood by reason, as by our bare senses and technical skill, replicating experiments on sensible matter over and over until we master natural processes. The other difference between Enlightenment Rationalism and Modern Empiricism is that in the Enlightenment, the hypothesis of the human soul as some type of entity distinct from the matter of the body was still generally accepted. But, in modern empiricism the nominalist tendency even negates the need for the soul, and the rational self itself becomes just a part of the process of cause and effect.

Modern Empiricism leads the hyper-modern deconstruction.  Minds don’t mean anything.  Words don't mean anything. Everything is just a bunch of particulars, with no overarching reason, purpose, metanarrative, or mind governing it.  All that is left is power and manipulation of the particulars. Words are just games and legal fiction to manipulate people and gain power over situations.  In the words of Valdomort in the Sorcerer's Stone: "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it". The philosophy of hell, the abolition of man.

All this means is that it was not Aquinas' use of Aristotle that led to the Reformation, because the use of Aristotle in the East never led to anything like Nominalism, nor to a Church-splitting reformation.  Granted, the East never went through the type of scientific revolution that the West went through (although Islamic society had a small scientific revolution). But, apparently it is possible to use Aristotle as a metaphysical mediating position without falling into the errors of Nominalism and her children.

So, what accounts for the rise of Nominalism, which formed the philosophy that metaphysically validated the Reformation?  

It think it is the Western lust for power and control.  The West has been pre-occupied with power for 1500 years, largely as a hangover from the early middle ages.  In the early middle ages (the fall of Rome- 400-600 AD), the Church of Rome had a unique position in Western civilization, namely that the Western Church, her Pope, and her monasteries basically held the West together during the conquests of the Barbarian tribes. For centuries, the Pope and his bishops had to function as political kings to protect citizens, negotiate treaties, and even wage wars, to keep civilization intact.  The Western Church came to own and govern huge tracts of land, and the citizens who lived in it. After this, the Western Church went into the King-making business, acting as the divine guarantor of secular power, reaching a high point when the Pope crowned (and validated) Charlemagne as the new Holy Roman Emperor around 800 AD. The political power of the Western Church reached its zenith in the Crusades, when the Pope was able to unite all Europe in open warfare.

The Eastern Church, while not immune to intense struggles over political power, never was able to gain the same type of power the Roman Church did.  For one thing, until the 1400's there was always an effective governmental structure to protect the people, so that the Eastern Church never had the opportunity nor ability to get into the ruling business.  Even when Islam took over much of the Eastern sphere, the Eastern Church was still largely able to function as a tolerated, yet politically powerless, minority group.  Thus, the Eastern Church became either the "religious arm" of the governmental complex of Christendom (as in the Byzantine Empire), or it became a tolerated minority (as in Islamic societies).  The power grabs of the Eastern Church were mainly religious in nature, except for the occasional plot to overthrow an emperor here and there.  Contrast this with the Papacy, who actually had several Popes make the claim that ALL religious and secular power on Earth flows from the throne of Peter.

All of this is to say that what started out as something good became something very, very bad.  Power corrupted the deep DNA of the Western Church.  Near 1054 this led the Pope to try and add the phrase "and the Son" (filioque) to the ecumenical Nicene Creed on his own authority.  In this move, theological rationale for such a change was second to the political move, which was basically to say that if the Pope could successfully change the Creed itself on his own power, then he effectively proved his right to rule as monarch over the entire Church.  This led to the mutual excommunication of Eastern and Western Churches in 1054. Later, in the fourth crusade, the Pope added insult to injury by allowing Western Christians to pillage and burn the Byzantine Empire, and the seat of the Eastern Church in Constantinople.

The spiritual DNA of power and control flowed down for centuries from the Popes into the bishops and hierarchy of the Church, and into the early universities.  On the university level, theology started to cease being a tool for spiritual formation (as it always was in the East), and started to be a kind of game or contest of one-upmanship.  The debate format became institutionalized in the forms of Western scholastic theology.  Theology became a way of asserting one group's dominance over the other, one mind's dominance over many.  Faith seeking understanding began to yield way to understanding seeking power.

The western desire for power, control, and rebellion was a movement looking for a theology / philosophy to back it up.  As long as one truly holds the metaphysical underpinnings of a Platonic or Aristotelian system, then one cannot break up the Church and/or leave Her without doing damage to a real universal entity.  In those systems, if one departs from the visible Church, one ontologically breaks themselves off from the Body of Christ.  Furthermore, such a thought system makes it harder to break up any corporate entity, because any corporate entity (such as a marriage, a family, or a nation) is a real ontological entity.  But, if one ascribes to nominalism (or any of its progeny), one does not actually break up an entity if one leaves the Church, or breaks up a corporate entity.  All one has done is re-group a set of particulars into a new group and given them a name.

To bring it all back to the initial question: I view the synthesis of Aristotle by Aquinas as one of the wisest mediating positions between the extremes of Platonism (and its progeny) and Nominalism (and its progeny).  Aquinas in many ways (but not all) represents a good way to get the West back on track.  What caused the Reformation was, in my opinion:

1. The drive for power, control, and rebellion by the Western Church (final cause)
2. Nominalist metaphysics (formal cause)
3. A Church badly abused by excesses of clericalism, lack of catechesis and formation, and an insane theology of salvation (material cause)
4. A series of Church leaders bold enough to speak out, and a bunch of local barons and kings willing to use the reformation for a land grab (efficient cause)

So, thanks for listening... and sorry, this was supposed to be 500 words.

2006-03-06

We fixed the wedding, now let's work on the marriage

Copyright © 2006 Nathan L. Bostian

Isaiah 62:5 ...As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

After a decade of self-study in historical and systematic theology, a year of graduate study of Christian history, and another year of graduate study in the history of doctrine, a thought has crystallized in my mind: The Protestant reformation largely fixed the problems of our "wedding" with Christ, but it is not sufficient to fix the marriage.  Let me explain...

All of us who have been married- whether in a good marriage or a bad marriage- know that the engagemnet and the wedding are not like the day-in, day-out life of being married to our spouses.  The quality of the marriage may be a natural outgrowth of the quality of the engagement, but it is also qualitatively different.  My wife is the most incredible woman on the face of the earth, and I would not trade my life with her for life with anyone else, nor would I trade her for a lifetime of incredible "first dates" with the most beautiful women on earth (of which, my wife is one!).  First dates and "falling in love" have an emotional umph and excitement that is rarely, if ever, duplicated later in marriage.  But this emotional "outpouring" of falling in love is later replaced by the "deep sea" of committed love in marriage. An outpouring may last for a few days at most.  A deep sea will never run dry.

All of this is to say that engagement and marriage are both as similar, and as different, as the similarities and differences between when I saw my wife dressed in white for our wedding (and later on our honeymoon night!), and when I now see my wife as we wake up at 3am to feed and care for our daughter.  The same two people are there.  The same love bonds them together.  But the experience of that love, the depth of that love, the situation of that love, and the responsibilities of that love are totally different.

How does this deal with the Reformation and historical theology? The Reformation was largely a protest against seriously defective forms of theology and practice (mainly practice) that were keeping people from knowing and loving the true God revealed in Jesus Christ.  With the late-medieval corruption of the clergy, and the practice of indulgences, people were worshipping a "god" whom one could "buy off" with silver and gold, a "god" who only loved us if we could pay through the nose and earn his love.  In short, they were "marrying" the wrong god, or at least "marrying" the real God for the wrong reasons.

This was the experience of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli in Northern Europe.  It seems, for some reason, that this experience was blunted if not absent in Spain, Eastern Europe and the Orthodox National Churches.  It would be worth studying why this is the case.  It is also worth noting that the things which the Reformers crusaded against were largely popular misinterpretations of the Catholic faith.  If the Catholic Church had truly followed the theology of their guiding lights- people such as Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Francis, and Thomas Aquinas- I wonder if there would have been a need for a Church-shattering reformation. This line of argument is well defended in the writings of Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft, especially in his fictional conversation between CS Lewis, Martin Luther, and Thomas Aquinas, found at http://www.peterkreeft.com.

Nevertheless, in Northern Europe, a spiritual, doctrinal (and military) war was waged about how we come to enter into a relationship with the living God through Christ Jesus.  In short, the battle was largely about the wedding, not the marriage.  This battle crystallized into the five "solas" of the reformation:

First, Sola Scriptura- "Scripture Alone": Scripture is the source and norm of the Christian faith, which all other tradition and doctrinal development must be checked by.  We cannot have a true knowledge of God, or what God has done for us in Christ, apart from the data we have in Scripture.  Furthermore, anything else claiming to be information about God must cohere to, and logically flow from, the data found in Scripture.

This is a sure guard against clergy who were giving partial, or false, information about God-in-Christ based on their own authority. It was intended to force people to go back to Scripture and ground their relationship with God in the data found there. It is also intended to make us realize that if we are to really know God, it must be based on God's self-revelation recorded in Scripture, and not based on what we feel or what others tells us they think God is.

This is a sure part of being "married" to God: If we want to know Him, we need to base our knowledge on what He tells us about Himself.

But, somewhere the wheels came off the Scripture cart: Suddenly, Scripture was declared to be both self-interpreting and authoritative in itself.  This would be like claiming the US Constitution was self-interpreting and authoritative in itself.  The Constitution does not hop up on two legs, tell you how to interpret it, and go around rebuking judges who try to legislate from the bench by going around the Constitution.  The Bible doesn’t do that either.  The Bible requires people and communities to interpret, use, and apply it.  It doesn't do it on its own.  Also, it is not "plainly clear" how to interpret it apart from an historic community of interpretation.  If the Bible was as self-interpreting and clear as many Protestants claim, then everyone who interprets it would come to the same basic conclusions, and there would not be over 20,000 Protestant sects today.  It is the community that interprets, and it is the community that acts as the authority to decide which interpretations are in and out of bounds.  The question is: what community- what Family of Faith- is most faithful to the data found in Scripture and has the best claim to be the authoritative interpreter of it.  I will not answer that here.

I just want to note that Sola Scriptura is a necessary reform to get us into an initial right relationship with God.  Once we are in that right relationship- after the marriage- more daunting and deep questions arise about the interpretation of Scripture that "Sola Scriptura" simply cannot answer.

Second: Soli Deo Gloria- "Glory to God alone": The glory for our salvation ultimately belongs to God and to God alone.  He is the animating power and love that reaches out, finds us, and brings us to know and love him.  No glory goes to us, for we are utterly and totally lost in sin without God. If it were not for God helping us desire Him and desire salvation, we would not even want it.  Thus, even the desire for God is the result of God working though our environment, our society, our community, our experiences, and even our genetics, to bring us to desire him.

This is a safeguard from anyone (like the famous heretic Pelagius) saying that we desire God and can find God on our own, so that we are ultimately responsible and glorified for our own salvation.  This is a recognition that however we are saved, it is the result of God using manifold means to bring us home to Him. This is essential for our "wedding" with God: we have to know that it is not because we are inherently good or lovable that God chose us, but because He makes us good and lovable.  All the glory goes to Him.

But, this logic does not hold after the "wedding", after we are renewed and made new creations, regenerated, transformed, and filled with the Spirit of God.  There is a qualitative difference between who we are before we are justified and enter into a relationship with God-in-Christ, and after.  Before, we have nothing.  We are enemies of God.  After, we are children, growing as children in ability, wisdom, and love, into the fullness of Christ.  After, we are co-workers, co-operators with God for the salvation of the world (cf. 1Co 3:9; 2Co 5:18-20; 1Th 3:2; Col 4:11; 3Jo 1:8). Indeed, after we are "married" to God through Christ, Christ Himself tells His faithful "well done, good and faithful servant" (cf. Mat 25:21). Granted, the only way we can work with God is if God works through us, but AFTER we are married to Him, God does not keep His glory to Himself , but helps US become transformed "from one degree of glory to another" as we become conformed to the image of Christ (2Co 3:18).

Third, Sola Gratia- "By grace alone": This is a natural and logical outgrowth of the second sola. If we are saved, it is by God's grace alone, and not anything we "add" to our salvation.  Grace is to be understood in two ways: First, as a concept, grace is undeserved favor and gift, given to someone who cannot earn or deserve it. Second, as a Person, grace is the presence of the Holy Spirit, giving us the gift of grace and making us like Christ. By grace we are created, and by grace our existence is sustained.  If the presence and grace of the Spirit was removed, all reality would cease to be. By grace, and nothing we can do to "merit" it, we are elected by God and adopted into God's family.  By grace, we are called to know Christ, and given understanding to know who He is and what the Gospel is.  We could not even understand the Gospel without the Spirit giving us grace to understand.  By grace, we are made into new creations and filled with the presence of Christ when we receive Christ as our Lord.  We cannot become partakers of God without God Himself entering us through the grace of the Spirit. We cannot reach up to heaven and grab God and stuff Him into our lives.  He has to come graciously, freely.

Sola Gratia reminds us that our marriage with God only happens because God initiates the relationship and we respond. To somehow think that we initiate the relationship with God badly distorts who God is and who we are as His creatures. Grace, in this is initial sense, is something alien and foreign to us, which we cannot have on our own merit.  But, once we are "married" to God through Christ, this once alien grace becomes a part of us, and makes us a new creation. As a new creation, this grace is no longer alien, but natural, no longer outside, but inside, no longer something we must beg for as a slave, but something that we possess as a child.

Yes, even as "new creations" we realize that the source of this grace is not from ourselves.  It is sourced in the eternal God.  We do not "own" it, but we do possess it on "permanent loan" from our Father.  Sola Gratia may remind us of something crucial to entering into a relationship with God, but once we are in the "marriage" with God, sola gratia takes on a very different perspective.

Fourth, Solo Christo- "By Christ alone": This is an important reminder that when we are saved, it is not because of any so-called "gods" or "idols" or "messiahs" of other religions, but only through Him who is "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). We are not saved through our own best efforts, or even through the efforts of anointed ministers or super-holy saints.  It is only by the atonement of Christ that we are made at-one with God.  For there is only one God and one mediator between man and God, the man Christ Jesus, who gave His life as a ransom at the proper time (cf. 1Ti 2:5).

To think that we come into the presence of God, or that God enters into our lives, by any other route than through the person and work of Christ absolutely destroys our relationship with God. Jesus is God incarnate, and to know Jesus is to know God. But, no Jesus, no God.  Period.  End of story.

And yet, once we are "married" to God, we become vehicles through which Christ reaches out to the world.  We become His Body, His hands, and His feet (cf. Rom 12; 1Co 12).  God makes His appeal for reconciliation through us (2Co 5:18-20).  Those who accept us accept Him (i.e. Christ) who sends us (Mat 10:40).  Our role in sharing Christ with the world is so very real that the Apostle Paul, after being "married" to God for years, has the audacity to claim that "in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col 1:24).  This is our audacity too.

Once married to God, we become agents and incarnations of Christ to bring the world to know, love, and follow Him who is our head, that is, Jesus Christ. We are not the "end" in ourselves.  We are not the "savior" of anyone else.  But we do know who IS the End and the Savior, and like beggars leading other beggars to food, we bring the world to Christ.

Finally, Sola Fide- "By faith alone": This is the logical outgrowth of all of the other solas. This recognizes that we cannot earn salvation by doing "good works" to merit our salvation from Christ.  We can only trust in Him alone and the grace He gives us and allow Him to save us and transform us.  The Apostle Paul makes it clear when it says:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

However, curiously, the Apostle immediately adds:

"For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." (Ephesians 2:10)

As a reversal of this, we find the same Apostle writing:

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling!" (Philippians 2:12)

Then, somewhat ironically adding:

"For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." (Philippians 2:13)

And we should not even confuse the matter by adding what James, the bishop of Jerusalem and the brother of Jesus said.  But we just can't help ourselves:

"What good is it... if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? ...Faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead... a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." (James 2:14-24 edited)

This last passage is, ironically, the only one in Scripture in which the phrase "faith alone" is used.  What are we to make of this?  Faith is the necessary and only "first step" in becoming married to God.  When a woman is proposed to, she does not have to work to accept that proposal.  She merely has to have faith in her boyfriend and accept his offer in faith.  When she is eventually wedded, she does not have to first work to earn her vows, she merely says "I do" in faith that her fiancée really means the vows he is saying.  Faith remains a necessary part of a healthy relationship.  We cannot love someone we do not trust.  But faith just opens the door, it does not walk through it.  Faith lays the foundation, it does not build the house.

To put it another way: We are saved by faith alone, but faith is never alone. It gives birth to the thoughts, words, and deeds of a transformed life.  It is like a plant. Grace is the soil of the Christian life, faith is the root, and good works are the fruit. The root does not exist for itself and stay just a root (or else it dies).  It exists to create a plant. To put it yet another way, faith is a means, not an end (just as the wedding vows are not an end, but the means to join a man and a woman together for a life of love).  Faith is the means to bring us to know, love, and follow Jesus Christ as a child of God. Just as a wedding is supposed to result in the entire changed lifestyle of a marriage, so also faith is supposed to result in the changed lifestyle of a child of God.

Faith and works are two sides of the same coin, but faith is primary.  Faith comes first.  And "sola fide" is the necessary reminder of this crucial fact.

This post is not to "hate on" or "demean" the Reformation at all.  Simply to point out its limitations. The conclusion to the matter is this: The Reformation was necessary.  Five centuries and the five solas have ingrained into us what is truly necessary to enter into a relationship with God.  And we need the constant reminder of the five solas to remember what it means to be "saved". But, the problem with most conservative Protestant and Reformed theology (of which Evangelicalism is the foremost example) is that they confuse the wedding with the marriage.  They preach and teach as if the five solas were the end-all be-all of the Christian life.

In fact, the five solas, as incredibly helpful as they are, are woefully inadequate categories to squeeze the rest of the Christian life into.  The redeemed, transformed individual and communal life of those who are married to God simply requires more categories than the five solas, which are designed to describe those who are coming into a new relationship with God through Christ. To gain the insights we need for what our "marriage" should look like, we will have to look at what the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have to say.  We will have to consult the experiences and theology of Pentecostals, Charismatics, Saints, and Mystics through Church history.  We will have to listen cautiously to the best insights of some of our "liberal" brothers and sisters when they speak of social justice, economic liberation, and ecology. We will have to read the Bible with new eyes.  Not just the eyes of those preaching salvation to a lost world, but also the eyes of those walking with God as the bride of Christ.

Thank you deeply, Reformation, for helping to fix the wedding. Now let's work on the marriage!
This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.