Monday, March 29, 2010

Avoiding '-ism's'

A large part of my Christian life, especially since starting college, has been focused on what 'camps' I fall into. It seems that ever since I realized that there was more than one perspective on most issues, I have been trying to figure out which ones were right, or more often, which ones fit best with what I already thought.

This happened in lots of areas.

Philosophy. Am I an empiricist, a rationalist, a monist, an idealist, a realist, a constructivist, a dualist, a materialist, a determinist, a compatibilist, a positivist, a verificationist, a foundationalist, a fallibilist, a perspectivalist, a platonist, a modern, a postmodern...the list is nearly endless.

Theology. Am I a Calvinist, an Arminian, a charismatic, a cessationist, a dispensationalist, a supersessionist, a fundamentalist, a presuppositionalist, a humanist, a kenoticist, an open theist, a satisfactionist, a substitutionist, a millenialist, a preterist, a literalist, an annihilationist, a universalist, a sacramentalist, an Augustinian, a Thomist, an egalitarian, a complementarian, and on and on ad nauseum.

I'll spare you the areas of ethics, Christian living, denominational disputes, history, politics, science, etc.

The point is this: I tried very hard for quite a while to see which 'ism's' were compatible with my Christian beliefs and my view of the world and which were not, and I took a fair amount of pride in deciding which one I was closest to, thereby adopting my new title and learning to defend my new position. Sometimes, it almost gave me a sense of belonging.

Looking back, this was a very foolish thing to do.

In attempting to 'take sides' on some debate or other, I often ended up either imposing the presuppositions of that particular view on the Scriptures and interpreting them accordingly or else missing what they had to say entirely.

If I am to be totally honest, this is still something that I struggle with. When asked about my position on some topic, I am still often tempted to respond with one or another of the above titles, and sometimes for convenience I still will. But this is something I have recently started trying to get away from. No matter how bad I might want to make it, Christianity is not an 'ism.' And it just refuses to fit easily into any pre-existing categories.

These categories existed in Jesus' day, too. Remember the Pharisees and Sadducees? They were divided, among other things, regarding their views of resurrection. And Jesus criticized both.

Now don't get me wrong, categories and titles can be useful. But when we try to fit Jesus and His teachings into them, we inevitably come up short somewhere.

Jesus did not come to give another competing interpretation of the truth. He claimed to be the Truth. As Christians, we have unique and respectable ways of answering life's questions and explaining the world. These are not just our best guesses. They are the truth. And there is no reason to prefer other titles over 'Christian' or to be ashamed of the answers Christianity gives. After all, we have them on good authority.

* The following is for technical blog stuff. You may ignore it.   YT4T522P39BD

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why denominational affiliation is generally a good idea.

How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?

None. Lights will go on and off at predestined times.

How many Fundamentalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one. Any more than that would be considered ecumenical.

How many Calvinists does it take to change a light bulb?

Calvinists do not change light bulbs. They simply read out the instructions and pray that the light bulb will decide to change itself.*

How many Arminians does it take to change a light bulb? 

Only one, but the bulb must want to be changed. 

How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb? 


And my personal favorite (since I am):

How many Pentecostals/Charismatics does it take to change a light bulb?

Five. One to change the bulb and four to bind the spirit of darkness in the room.

Ahh, denominations. It seems you're either in one or you hate them, or sometimes both. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people--non-Christians and Christians alike--say something like, "There are just so many denominations out there..." and apparently intend it to be a criticism. To be fair, their point is probably something about how denominations are often formed (or at least changed) for seemingly the wrong reasons and how this creates unnecessary division within the Church. For the present, I'll grant this. What I want to discuss, however, is the fairly recent trend of 'non-denominationalism' and the idea that it somehow solves the above problems while being true (indeed, truer) to the historic Christian faith. 1

Once in a conversation with a thoughtful Catholic friend of mine, I asked him which of the Protestant denominations he had the least respect for. His answer surprised me. Without really having to think about it he said, "Non-denominationalism."

I'll admit that I didn't really understand what he meant at the time, but the more I have thought about it, the more I think he was probably right. Now, please don't misunderstand: there are many very effective non-denominational churches. And if you happen to attend one of those, then I do not think you are in any way an inferior Christian (or even an inferior Protestant), nor do I have little respect for you. Non-denominationalism as an idea, however, doesn't hold too much water in my book. There are several reasons for this.

First, every Christian is in a denomination. "How is non-denominationalism even possible then?" you ask. To answer this, let's look at what we mean by 'denomination.' What is it that separates denominations, that keeps small towns full of churches and makes jokes like the above possible? Obviously, the answer is the particular beliefs of any one denomination and how they differ from all the others. More precisely, it's the way each denomination interprets the Bible and how it answers various questions that Christians have asked over the years regarding our faith. Generally, different interpretation/answers = different denomination. 2

My point is this: every Christian, whether a member of a denominational church or not, has opinions about those issues. More importantly, every church, whether 'independent' or not, will itself inevitably take a stance on many of them as well. So if declaring some sort of theological position (even if that position is, "We don't talk about those things...") is the basis for a denomination, then every church is a member of one. Even if they happen to be the only one. Calling it 'non-denominational' doesn't make the questions go away.

But it does often do something else, which is my next point. It removes one from the cover and accountability of tradition. Now I know that 'tradition' is a four-letter word for us Protestants, but the fact is Christians have been grappling with basically the same questions for over two thousand years now, and it would serve us well to pay attention to the answers that have been offered. The attitude inherent in the non-denominational ideology is that we--a single congregation--can be autonomous. That we don't need history or tradition or liturgy or (sometimes even) creeds; we can answer these questions satisfactorily on our own. Or worse, we'll just ignore them. This is, if I may say so, rather arrogant.

Thirdly, there is a semantic issue. Often what the term 'non-denominational' really means is 'contemporary music.' Chances are, even at these churches, whatever training the pastor/leadership received came with some kind of denominational bias. If you ask them a controversial question, you are likely to get one of a small number of responses, which will likely correspond to the way the question has been answered in the denominational leaders. Music does not make a denomination. Let's call it what it is.

There's an old proverb about finding out why a fence was put up before removing it. Maybe this is a warning more Christians should heed.

* To all my Calvinist friends, I am very sorry. I know this is a mean caricature, but I just couldn't help it.

1 'Non-denominationalism' is not the same as 'inter-denominationalism,' and I do not want to confuse the two. There are very good reasons a given organization might be inter-denominational.

2 I should note that there may be non-theological reasons that denominations could be formed, such as leadership/administrative reasons. The Anglican/Roman Catholic churches might be a fair example of this. The criticisms I give here would of course not apply to these cases.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Apologetics As Offense

Another primary function of apologetics is what some have called 'offense.' 1

By this they mean that the task of the Christian apologist is often to attack other belief systems. Of course, by attack I do not mean to insult or belittle, but rather to develop arguments against these belief systems with the purpose of showing them to be false or at least highly dubious.

I realize how arrogant this sounds. Really, I do. One of the biggest things that I dislike about my own faith (and yes, it is okay to be honest about these things) is its exclusive nature. I'm really not a mean guy. I love people. 2 I wish that everyone could be right. That somehow, every religion could be a valid path to God. That as a Christian, I did not have to tell sincere believers of other faiths that what they think they know is wrong. If I may say so, I hate this. But unfortunately, my feelings about it don't make it any less true.

That said, this rather bold practice is one of the main tasks of the apologist. The hard fact is, there are many opinions about who God is and what He is like, and most of them have to be wrong. And if I believe that I have been granted access to the truth, and that I am also obligated to share this truth with others, then an inevitable part of that process will be dealing with contrary claims to truth. In order to share the genuine, it is sometimes necessary to expose counterfeits.

This can be done in several ways, as occasion warrants. Sometimes it is through philosophical argument intended to show a particular worldview to be internally incoherent. Sometimes it is more empirical, highlighting various inconsistencies in a system with a realistic picture of the world.

But whatever the specific method, the most important thing is that it be done in love. Some of the best advice I have ever received was that often one's words can be neutral, but it is the attitude in which they are said that makes the difference. People can usually tell what your motives really are.

Think about it. I have been given some pretty hard news on several occasions. And I have no trouble at all picking out the occasions in which the person gave the news in love. The news itself was the same, but the attitude made all the difference.

I have not yet engaged in this type of apologetics in this blog, but I do plan to. When that happens, I will do my best to do it with an attitude of humility, remembering that my coming to know the truth had nothing to do with me. Rather, just like every other Christian, God revealed it to me out of His abundant grace. 3

I should also note that this task of apologetics, though often necessary, is by no means its primary function. Nor should it ever be undertaken by anyone who has not honestly dealt with the position she is attacking.

Next time: denominationalism. (!)

1 Faith Has Its Reasons. Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman. Pt. 4.
2 Though I must admit this is a fairly recent development. God, however, is persistent.
3 See my post on revelation here.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Apologetics As Defense

For the next few posts, I'd like to begin discussing the various purposes of and approaches to apologetics. The fact that Blogger just highlighted that word as one that it doesn't recognize only confirms to me that this is necessary.

As most of the readers of this blog are probably aware, the word 'apologetics' comes from the Greek apologia (ἀπολογία), which is usually translated 'defense.' It is used in this sense, for example, in 1 Peter 3:15, the verse that has sort-of become the credo of Christian intellectualism.

Apologetics as a discipline, however, is more nuanced than a simple word-study implies. It has various uses, defense being only one among them. However, it is this one with which I will begin.

Apologetics as defense is the function of apologetics that responds to the various criticisms that are leveled against the Christian faith. When employed in this way, the job of apologetics is not to show that Christianity is true, per se, but only that it is not unreasonable.

In fact, the first three posts of this blog were written with this very purpose in mind (along with the first video). This is important because it is easy to mistake the intention of the apologist from time to time and critique a defense that he gives as though it were meant to be a persuasive argument. 1

When using apologetics as defense, we are not attempting to persuade anyone to convert to Christianity, although this is still an important step in that process. What we are doing is clearing away the major objections that keep people from even seriously considering Christianity in the first place. As such, we should not expect arguments offered to this end to be ultimately persuasive regarding Christianity itself.

For example, if someone refuses to even consider the claims of Christ because she believes that Christianity is at bottom irrational (e.g. because the doctrine of the Trinity is logically incoherent), then the first step in talking with this person might be to deal with this objection first.

I've heard it said like this: "The heart cannot delight in what the mind rejects as false." 2 Our friend will have a very hard time trusting in Christ's promises if she is still convinced that His nature is contradictory. But it would also be wrong to expect a clear understanding of what Christians think about God's nature to lead this person to repentance.

Another use of apologetics as defense is clarification of Christian doctrine. Often, the unbeliever (and sadly, many times even the believer) has wrong ideas about what Christians believe. In these cases, it might be best to simply share what we actually believe, and more often than not, merely seeing our true position does the job itself. For example, if the person above believed that Christians thought that God was both one and three in the same sense, then a clear explanation of the real doctrine of the Trinity should clear this up. 3

But defense is not the only purpose of apologetics, nor is it always the best route to take in dealing with an unbeliever. I'll move on to another primary use of apologetics next time.

1 In fact, this happened in the comments that followed those first posts.
2 I have had some trouble tracking down this quote, although it may belong to Clark Pinnock, Set Forth Your Case (The Craig Press, 1967), p. 3.
3 I'll try to post on this soon.

* Be sure to check out the new video in the 'Featured Video' section.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Silly Things to Say..."I just want to have a childlike faith."

I don't know about you, but I am excited to begin a new series today that I have been wanting to do for some time: Silly Things To Say. Here I will periodically showcase various sayings, clichés, proverbs, memes, etc. that people--Christians and skeptics alike--throw around like they were things worth saying. Regrettably, the idea for such a series is not original to me; I borrowed it from a similar one over at Parchment and Pen called "...and Other Stupid Statements." I recommend checking it out. I also plan to start a closely related series soon called "Questions That Don't Make Sense." Stay tuned.

"But I just want a childlike faith..." Ever hear anybody use that one? Usually it comes in response to a challenge to educate oneself about his faith in a way that would require more than just reading the Bible straight through. When he discovers that this will require (gasp) work, the recourse seems to often be to this 'childlike faith' stuff.

As best I can tell, this dangerous idea is taken from Mark 10:13-15:

"People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.'" (NIV)

It sure seems like Jesus is advocating a childlike faith here, doesn't it? Unfortunately, when most people use this line, they don't mean that they want a childlike faith in this sense. What they really mean is that they want a childish faith. Suffixes can make all the difference.

A childlike faith says, "I trust you even though I don't understand." A childish faith says, "I don't want to understand." A childlike faith says, "I'll depend totally on You for my sustenance." A childish faith says, "What I already think I know is enough." A childlike faith says, "I will worship You in spirit and in truth." A childish faith says, "Bring out the snakes." A childlike faith says, "I believe your love will bring me through my sanctification." A childish faith says, "What's sanctification?"

Paul says it this way:

"Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature." 1

A truly childlike faith will be interested in learning more about the Father and in going deeper in our understanding of His word. It will see challenges as an opportunity for this. A childish faith is content merely with what feels good or seems right, seeing no use for things like education, theology, hermeneutics, or apologetics. A childlike faith will allow one to receive the kingdom of God. A childish faith will only gain rebukes like the following:

"...though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God's word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil." 2

I am reminded of Luke's story of the young Jesus: "After three days they [his parents] found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers." 3

Moral of the story: Jesus didn't want a childish faith. Neither should we.

Let's grow up.

1 1 Cor. 14:20 (NASB)
2 Hebrews 5:12-14 (NIV)
3 Luke 2:46-47 (NIV)