Theology Matters

In my last post I made what some might consider a rather harsh statement: that certain books that speak of a god and spirituality are not worth the paper they are written on. A kind reader asked why I should think thus. It was a fair question and a good one. I felt a brief answer was not enough, so here, in an extended response, are my thoughts as to why I have such visceral responses to theological pablum.

In a phrase: theology matters. Good theology, healthy theology, sound theology – all of these are critical for a sound, healthy, spiritual life. If you eat healthy food chances are you will remain healthy. Eat garbage every day, all day long, and sooner or later you will get sick or die. My issue with certain books that are huge best sellers but contain only theological junk is that their very popularity masks their emptiness. Everybody loves Twinkies (and so do I!), but Twinkies are not health food. In the United States we have been inundated with such products lately, from Heaven is for Real and God is Not Dead and most recently, The Shack. Bad theology is not a recent invention, however, as Joseph Smith (no relation, as far as I know) duped millions with his work of theological fiction, The Book of Mormon.

Since that latest buzz focuses on The Shack I will make a few comments here specifically related to that book, but the fundamental flaws of that book are common to many, if not all, of the recent attempts at popular theology.

First, The Shack purports to be a parable, that is, a picture to describe an attribute (or attributes) of God that are not otherwise seen. The problem is the author does not know the difference between a parable and a caricature. The Shack is NOT a parable – it is a caricature in which one aspect of God’s being is so grossly distorted as to make it a farce. When Jesus told a parable about God’s forgiveness or mercy, it was just that – a parable. God remained a God of justice, a God who will make things right through the punishment of sin.

The god of The Shack has done away with punishment of sin. The god of The Shack is all about everyone going to heaven. Like a grandmother who loves all her grandchildren and refuses to punish any, the god of The Shack is basically unable to confront, and is utterly powerless to overcome, evil. Just think of the basic premise – why would any god not punish the killer of a small child (the whole background story of “the shack,” the place where the little girl was murdered)?

The character that represents Jesus in The Shack says that he is the best way to get to this god, but the Jesus of the gospels is the ONLY way to the real God. If you live in the universe of The Shack, it matters not if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, or even a basically moral atheist. All roads lead to “papa,” although if you are willing to accept the Jesus figure you might get to “her” sooner.

Why does this matter? Why can’t I say (as so many have said in so many different venues) “If reading The Shack brings you closer to God, then good for you, and good for The Shack.” Very simply, if you think you have come closer to god through The Shack, you have only come closer to a god of your own making – a false god, an idol. It is not the God of Mt. Sinai, nor of the manger in Bethlehem, and absolutely not the God of calvary.

As evidence, I share two stories from the Old Testament: Exodus 32:1-6 and 1 Kings 12:25-33. In both stories images of calves are formed for the purpose of worshiping God. You have to understand this – the images were used in the worship of YHWH. The context makes this clear. And in both stories the principle architects of the images (Aaron and Jeroboam) are soundly punished for their creation of these “guides to worship.”

Why did God not say, “Well, if the calves bring you closer to me, good on you and good on the calves”? Why punish Aaron, Jeroboam, and all the people who worshiped the calves, especially since they were ostensibly worshiping God? The reason is the calves were NOT God, and by pointing away from the true God, the calves were objects of spiritual sickness. They were symbols of rebellion – of rejecting the one true God.

Why do I object to theological fictions such as The Shack, God is Not Dead, and Heaven is for Real? Because at their core they are golden calves. The authors (and the millions of people who are mesmerized by them) may have good intentions, but their theology is base, it is corrupt, and it is corrupting.

If a person thinks that he or she is coming closer to God by reading any of these books (or seeing the movies), what happens when he or she reads of the true God in Scripture? What happens when the person reads that God hates sin, that God is a just judge, and will punish those who rebel against him, and especially those who kill little girls? What happens when the person discovers that God hates charlatans and those who seek to build wealth and fame from peddling false ideas about Him and his creation? At that point the person will either have to reject the comfortable, impotent, beggarly god of these works of fiction, or he or she will have to reject the God of Scripture. The two are not inches apart – they are light years apart.

There are great works of fictional literature which point to the God of Scripture. C.S. Lewis comes immediately to mind. I am not against fictional works that praise and glorify God. I would not even object to a caricature of God if the work is clearly identified as such (George Burns in O God comes to mind – no one thought THAT was serious theology, but the story did have a good point).

In some ways I hate to be so negative. I would be much more popular if I preached what these books claim to say about God. I just have one problem in doing so.

It’s not good theology – and theology matters.

Reinterpreting Scripture – An Interesting Parallel

 

While meditating on a totally unrelated subject recently, a fascinating line of thought occurred to me. There is an obvious (if one takes the time to think about it) process that is followed if and when Scripture needs to be “reinterpreted” or “reimagined” to fit a particular need. My example includes the process of introducing, and then accepting, the practice of infant baptism; and the current process of introducing, and therefore accepting, women into larger and more influential roles of leadership within the church. Notice how this plays out in innocuous, and seemingly innocent ways.

First, there is an existential crisis – a challenge to the “status quo” of accepted orthodoxy. In regard to infant baptism, it was the death of infants and children first considered too young to be candidates for baptism. What of their eternal destiny? If the door to eternal life hinged on baptism, and they died unbaptized, how could anyone be certain of their eternal rest with God? With the current question of women’s role in the church, the issue has been joined with the role that women have in secular society. Women serve with distinction in every level of life, from governmental to financial to education to public service. Why, then, deny them leadership roles in the church?

Second, the Scriptures are scoured to find and answer that permits a “reinterpretation” or a “re-imagining” of the previously held standard. Ergo, stories of entire “households” being converted and baptized are viewed as evidence that quite possibly, and even probably, children and infants were baptized because virtually every “household” includes children. Similarly, passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and Galatians 3:27-28 are suddenly transformed not only to allow, but to mandate, a role of leadership for women in the church. These passages then become proof-texts (passages lifted from their context to prove a point that is tangential to their original meaning, at best), and passages that conflict with the “new” interpretation are dismissed if not entirely excised from the discussion.

Third, a new theology then develops from the first two steps. History is revised to emphasize aberrations from the norm, and the greater part of church history is repudiated with emotionally or theologically laden terms which amount to ad hominem attacks or straw-man arguments. This is not to argue that there were not groups in the first few centuries that baptized infants, nor that there were no groups that had women in influential roles. It is simply to argue that these fringe groups are re-cast as models of orthodoxy, and the larger practice of the church is re-cast as aberrant.

The final step is then not only logical, but inescapable. Those sympathetic to the “new orthodoxy” are described in the most glowing terms, and those who object to the “re-interpretation” or “re-imagining” are vilified. The only true Christians are those who accept infant baptism (because, who would want to send thousands of deceased infants and children to hell?) and those who accept women, or even demand that women serve, in leadership roles (woe to those barbaric, knuckle-dragging troglodytes who revel in their macho, male chauvinism!).

Christians of every age must live in tension with their cultural standards. Some of those standards may be closer to biblical teaching than others. Some may be virtually indistinguishable from biblical standards, while some may be at the opposite end of the spectrum from God’s intent. Ascending to faith through a descent through submission to God’s word demands that we examine each question and each crisis with our eyes (and intellects) wide open, and that we exercise a willingness to reject what the world dictates as something that must be accepted. Christians do not receive our worldview from the pages of the morning paper, but rather from both a broad and deep reading of the inspired Scriptures.

Be careful whose voice you listen to . . . Satan did not stop with his deceptions in the Garden of Eden. His most powerful question is still, “Did God really say . . . ?”

Is it Elitist to Challenge a Defective Theology?

A discerning eye will notice that I am writing from a clearly announced position: the life of Christian discipleship is an upside-down life. We win by losing, ascend by going lower. Some will agree energetically in regard to only one facet of the Christian life: evaluating the worth of differing, and in some cases diametrically opposed, theological positions. In this view to challenge a conclusion, or to disagree with someone, is wrong-headed. It is impolite and smacks of elitism. Apparently you can only hold a position to be in error if you are a theological stuff-shirt.

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I must plead ignorance here, as I simply do not know how this conclusion can be reached if a person reads the Bible with any kind of open mind. From Genesis 3 until the last echoes of the words of Revelation have died down, God is constantly and directly challenging bad theology. No one, from Adam to the apostle Paul (just to name a couple) is immune from adding 2 + 2 and coming up with some form of heterodoxy (if not outright heresy). Often the correction is gentle, sometimes it is severe, occasionally the correction is ironic or sarcastic. But God, and his inspired speakers/authors, never allow bad theology to go unchallenged and uncorrected.

Perhaps one of the most memorable moments in my undergraduate program came at the conclusion of a rather energetic discussion of some fine point of exegesis. A student (not me, I am not that smart) asked the professor “What do we do when someone teaches something that is clearly not true to the text?” After a moment’s pause, the professor said something like this: “We must be very careful in pointing out the mistakes of others. But bad theology must always be confronted and corrected or the text of the Bible becomes meaningless.”

I have always remembered that moment – and not because I have always followed my professors advice. Far too often I have chosen to remain silent and allowed flawed conclusions to be made, mostly with the excuse that I did not want to offend someone’s dignity. But, sad to say, I just did not want to come off as elitist. I did not want the teacher to think I was “putting him in his place” or that I was somehow superior to him.

No, I have always remembered that comment from my professor as a goad pricking my conscience.

There are times when silence IS truly golden. We do not need to correct every jot and tittle of someone’s class or sermon. We do not need to be the pronunciation police to make sure that every shibboleth is pronounced faultlessly. And, certainly, there is a huge argument to be made that any such correction needs to be done gently, and in private if at all possible.

But, theologically speaking, it is no more elitist to correct bad doctrine than it is to promote good doctrine. In fact, it is one of the main duties that Paul assigned to Timothy and Titus.

The only elitist, the only snob when it comes to preaching or teaching, is the one who will not listen to correction or a well-worded challenge. Do not be afraid to challenge when and where it is necessary – but always remember this –

The path to the heights of glory winds down the depths of service. We ascend by going lower!

Three Scriptures Christians Hate (III and summary)

So far in this series we have seen how Moses eliminates our ability to boast in our numbers. We cannot be proud to have the most numbers or that we can claim to have popular or “influential” members, nor is boasting that we are the ‘righteous remnant’ any safer. Our only security is in having a loving relationship with God. Moving just a little closer to the heart, Moses attacks our reliance on our self-reliance, our ability to “pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.” If we are able to accomplish anything, it is because God has empowered us to do so. Many times all he asks is that we have faith, and he will do the heavy lifting.

Today Moses cuts to the core; he hits us where it really hurts. Today Moses kills our inflated, and erroneous, view of our own righteousness.

Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land,’ whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you . . . Know, therefore, that the LORD your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” (Deuteronomy 9:4, 6, ESV)

Before anyone rises to smite me, yes, I know. Moses is not literally speaking to “us.” He was speaking to the Israelites who had gathered to cross the Jordan and to take possession of the promised land. But I see in these three challenges, or rebukes if you will, a sermon that is as relevant today as it ever was. If there ever was a nation – or a church! – that prided itself on its numbers, its ability to create its own success, and that was overbearingly satisfied with its own righteousness, it is the United States and the populist American church. That is why I titled this series of posts “Three Scriptures Christians Hate.” It is not that genuine disciples of Christ hate these passages (although, to be honest, I am uncomfortable with them, because they cut to my own pride and self-reliance). No, what I am saying is that in the eyes of the populist American “church,” these passages would be anathema.

Moses was confronting the Israelites with three very real human sins. All of God’s people have at one time or another been tempted to rely on “group think,” or the tendency to trust in their numbers and their popularity. God’s people have been tempted to view their own strength as unstoppable. And God’s people have been seduced to think that success is the result of their righteousness. Moses told the Israelites they were wrong on all three counts. I think Moses is still right. I think we look at our numbers, at the size of our buildings, at the popular or “important” people who attend our services, and at our impeccable adherence to arcane doctrines as proof that God is blessing us.

I firmly believe God wants his church to grow. I can find no Scripture that says, “Follow me and become a loser.” The precise plans for the beautiful tabernacle and later the temple lets me know that God does take pleasure when we honor him with our wealth instead of hoarding it for ourselves, or wasting it on frivolous pleasures. And, lest we forget, it was God who said, “Be Holy as I am Holy.” Holiness is a good thing, and much to be sought after.

Its just that we can never boast of our numbers (or lack thereof!). We can never boast of our success. We can never boast of our righteousness. We can, and should, give thanks that God has blessed us, that God has given us the ability to grow and succeed, and that God has purified us and made us holy.

In other words, God wants us to succeed, to be blessed, to climb higher. But we ascend by going lower. We win by losing. We live by dying. It is all up-side-down. And that, I believe, is exactly what Moses was trying to say.

Give Me the “Christian Combo,” but Hold the Cross

“I have been crucified with Christ . . . ” (Galatians 2:20a, ESV)

I cannot tell you how many times I have read that passage, heard that passage, even sung that passage. But something just dawned on me the other day that put this verse in an entirely new context. To make a potentially long post much shorter, let me cut to the bullet points –

  • The apostle Paul here clearly identified himself as a crucified Christian.
  • The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen, and used that citizenship to avoid certain mistreatments. (Ref. Acts 22:22-29)
  • Rome did not crucify its citizens. Foreigners could be crucified, but not Roman citizens.
  • The apostle Paul was a Roman citizen.
  • The apostle Paul clearly identified himself as a crucified Christian.

To put it another way, the one form of capital punishment that the apostle Paul did not have to fear was the one that he willingly chose to identify himself. It was not just Jesus that suffered the ignominy of crucifixion, but it was the apostle as well.

 

How different it is in our highly cultured and sanitized Christianity today. Everybody wants to be a Christian, but nobody wants the cross. Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die. We all want to sing about how many stars will be in our crown. Jesus’s crown did not have stars; it had thorns.

It is hard to critique something that you are a part of, and yet that is exactly what I feel like I am doing. I do not really want that cross any more than anyone else. I am utterly a child of my time. I want the “Christian Combo” but please hold the side order of the cross.

The apostle Paul would later write to another group of people, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 3:20, ESV) That helps to put Galatians 2:20 into focus for me. As a citizen of Rome, Paul did not have to fear crucifixion. To be a citizen of the Kingdom of God he had to welcome it.

Therein lies the heart of the matter. What matters is, where is our heart?

Needed Words from an Ancient Prophet

 

The prophet Jeremiah struggled with being who God called him to be. Mind you, he was a great prophet, and some of the most beautiful words in the English language come from his pen. But, he was not afraid of complaining to God about his lot in life.

God was pretty direct in responding to Jeremiah:

If you have raced with men on foot, and they have wearied you, how will you compete with horses? (Jeremiah 12:5a ESV)

Now, if God had disciplined me in this way, I don’t think I would have recorded those words for all generations to read. Probably would have filed them away under “Unfair job review.”

Jeremiah, however his weak moments, did have the strength of his convictions, and this record of God’s rebuke demonstrates that strength, as well as his humility.

Thus says the LORD: ‘Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the LORD who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight’ declares the LORD. (Jer. 9:23-24 ESV)

 

Notice God did not say there were no wise men, no mighty men, no rich men. All things considered, I would much rather be wise, strong, and rich as opposed to stupid, weak, and poor. But wisdom, strength, and wealth are not to be our refuge. God is our strength, our refuge. And what God is concerned about is love, justice, and righteousness.

One of my favorite verses from a country and western song comes from an album by Charley Pride. The second verse of the song, “I’m Just Me” begins, “When people say that life is rough, I wonder: Compared to what?”

Maybe, just maybe, when we get tired enough of tilting at windmills, at trying to make ourselves look big and smart and impressive and rich, maybe at that point we can take a step down and accept what God has called us to be in the first place: heirs with his son Jesus the Messiah of the coming Kingdom.

Is it any wonder, then, that the apostle Paul wrote, “I [want to] know him, and the power of his resurrection, and may share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…” (Philippians 3:10 ESV)

The apostle Paul, just like the prophet Jeremiah before him, ascended much higher than he ever would have on his own, by descending lower into the strength and power of knowing his God. May we have the courage to share in their ascension!

The Struggle of the Crucified Life

 

“Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Anyone who has tried to live the Christian life, who has really tried to follow Jesus, knows the truth of that statement. It is just really hard to live a life when you are called to die. The apostles had a hard time getting it, the apostle Paul had to sit blind for three days to get it, the Constantinian church flatly rejected the idea. We just recoil at the thought that we might be called to die in order to live.

And, yet, the great examples of our faith did eventually understand the message. Paul prayed that he might become like Christ in his death, so that he might receive the “upward call” of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:8-14). Peter, too, exhorted his readers to accept a life of suffering for Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25).

The form of Christ on earth is the form of the death [Todesgestalt] of the crucified one. The image of God is the image of Jesus Christ on the cross. It is into this image that the disciples life must be transformed. It is a life in the image and likeness of Christ’s death (Phil. 3:10; Rom. 6:4f). It is a crucified life (Gal. 2:19). (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English edition, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001, p. 285).

The problem for Christians in the democratic and capitalistic West is that we have no paradigm, no blueprint, for what a crucified life should look like. We know success – boy do we love and honor success! Humility, meekness, turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, forgiving “70 x 7” – these are all obscure, even opaque, concepts. Why, we might as well even be called on to die.

And, that is exactly what Jesus called on us to do. “Take up your cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 10:38, 39; 16:24).

Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. (Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, p. 87)

Living the crucified life is a struggle. Anyone who would argue otherwise is either a fool or has never attempted to do it. Everything within our human nature rebels against it. And that is why our fallen human nature must die. We must die so that God can send his Spirit within us and make us new creations (Romans 6:1-14 again).

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10, ESV)

I can’t do it on my own. Only God can make me ascend lower. This I must learn. This I must accept. To this I must surrender myself.

God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13, ESV)