A Lie About God is a Lie About Life

liesOur culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heresy’ used on your average blog or article it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It is thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m clueless. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians? Maybe frighten some physicists?)

In some quarters, heresy is sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that we entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness.

So Why Does Jesus Think Differently? So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Because they do. Very differently. A sampling:

Jesus: Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Paul: I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

John: For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter: But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we are to care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

To sum up, we might ask a final question: “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” Because He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Calvin Summarizes Chalcedonian Christology in Two Paragraphs

chalcedonAfter much controversy and struggle in the Church, the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) put out a formal definition on person of Christ, regarding his full divinity, humanity, and the union of the two natures. While not exhausting the depth and beauty of the person of Christ, it lays down important boundaries within which theologians must stay if they are to properly teach the glory of the Son who took on flesh for our salvation.

Chalcedon has stood as the bulwark of orthodox-catholic Christology across traditions for a millenia and a half, and yet, while good expositions of it are available, it still takes some time digging to find a good, clean summary of what the Definition actually says. That’s why I was pleased to find this passage in Calvin’s comments on John 1:14, “and the Speech* (Word) became flesh, and dwelt among us”, in which he briefly and clearly expounds the scriptural truth that Chalcedon teaches:

The plain meaning therefore is, that the Speech begotten by God before all ages, and who always dwelt with the Father, was made man. On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it. And, therefore as Satan has made a variety of foolish attempts to overturn sound doctrine by heretics, he has always brought forward one or another of these two errors; either that he was the Son of God and the Son of man in so confused a manner, that neither his Divinity remained entire, nor did he wear the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh, so as to be as it were double, and to have two separate persons. Thus Nestorius expressly acknowledged both natures, but imagined two Christs, one who was God, and another who was man. Eutyches, on the other hand, while he acknowledged that the one Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man, left him neither of the two natures, but imagined that they were mingled together. And in the present day, Servetus and the Anabaptists invent a Christ who is confusedly compounded of two natures, as if he were a Divine man. In words, indeed, he acknowledges that Christ is God; but if you admit his raving imaginations, the Divinity is at one time changed into human nature, and at another time, the nature of man is swallowed up by the Divinity.

The Evangelist says what is well adapted to refute both of these blasphemies. When he tells us that the Speech was made flesh, we clearly infer from this the unity of his Person; for it is impossible that he who is now a man could be any other than he who was always the true God, since it is said that God was made man. On the other hand, since he distinctly gives to the man Christ the name of the Speech, it follows that Christ, when he became man, did not cease to be what he formerly was, and that no change took place in that eternal essence of God which was clothed with flesh. In short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.

Commentary on John 1:14

The whole section is worth review as Calvin deftly comments on controversies both ancient and contemporary to his own day. Indeed, as challenges and confusions about just who Jesus is continue into our own, students and disciples of the Word would benefit from listening into the disputes of another age. While they’re framed in different ways, they are often-times structurally similar such that hearing the answer discussed in a context less immediate and personally-charged for us, can cast a clearer light for our own days.

Of course, the point of all this is not mere doctrinal correctness, but the life of doxology that follows. Christ is not properly worshipped and glorified, unless his magnificent person is properly taught and displayed according to Scripture.

Soli Deo Gloria 

*Calvin follows Erasmus in rendering the word ‘logos‘ as ‘Speech’ instead of ‘Word’. For his explanation, see his comments here.

The Theological Importance of Knowing What ‘Time’ It Is

old-clockMost of us don’t think of knowing what time it is as a significant theological issue. Beyond showing up promptly out of respect for an acquaintance, or knowing when to get to church on Sunday, how could it be? According to Athanasius it could mean difference between heresy and orthodoxy. In his First Discourse Against the Arians he sets about answering objections to the Son’s deity from Scripture, showing that the Arians’ hermeneutics were hopelessly misguided and indeed, characterized by interpretive folly.

Bringing forward texts like Hebrews 1:4 “being made so much better to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs”, they argued from this that it is clear that the Son is made ‘better’ in which case he could not be eternal, uncreated, admitting of improvement. Athanasius says that this exegetical failure is rooted in their ignorance of time.

Appealing to the Eunuch’s question to the apostle Philip, “of whom does the Prophet speak, of himself, or of some other man?” (Acts 7:34), he expounds the very important interpretive rule that:

…it is right and necessary, as in all divine Scripture, so here, faithfully to expound the time of which the Apostle wrote, and the person, and the point; lest the reader, from ignorance missing either these or any similar particular, may be wide of the true sense… (7.54)

Athanasius notes how persistent the disciples were about understanding these particulars, especially the time, so that they would not fall into error:

…And the disciples, wishing to learn the time of what was foretold, besought the Lord, ‘Tell us,’ said they, ‘when shall these things be? and what is the sign of Thy coming?’ And again, hearing from the Saviour the events of the end, they desired to learn the time of it, that they might be kept from error themselves, and might be able to teach others; as, for instance, when they had learned, they set right the Thessalonians. who were going wrong. When then one knows properly these points, his understanding of the faith is right and healthy; but if he mistakes any such points, forthwith he falls into heresy… (ibid.)

Scripture also gives us the negative example of what happens when one is temporally disoriented:

…Thus Hymenæus and Alexander and their fellows were beside the time, when they said that the resurrection had already been; and the Galatians were after the time, in making much of circumcision now. And to miss the person was the lot of the Jews, and is still, who think that of one of themselves is said, ‘Behold, the Virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and they shall call his Name Emmanuel, which is being interpreted, God with us;’ and that, ‘A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up to you,’ is spoken of one of the Prophets; and who, as to the words, ‘He was led as a sheep to the slaughter,’… (ibid)

Arius and his followers were making Hymenaeus and Alexander’s mistake, not noting the time with respect to the texts in dispute. If they had, they would have observed that the apostle is not referring to the Lord with respect to his pre-incarnate state, but within the economy of salvation with respect to his humanity. That is the time when God “spoke to us by His Son” (Heb. 1:2), and the Son obtained a more excellent name than the angels (Heb. 1:3, 4).  In other words, they didn’t understand the hermeneutical difference it makes that the story’s main character has a “history” that begins in eternity.

Christianity is a historical faith about things that took place in particular locations at precise times. Salvation is a dramatic reality which means that knowing which act we’re in can drastically impact the way we read the lines. While modern biblical studies have directed us to pay closer attention to the concrete socio-historical circumstances surrounding the texts, and recent narratival/canonical approaches have re-emphasized the redemptive-historical location of the text, Athanasius reminds us to keep an eye on the distinction between history and eternity.

Soli Deo Gloria

T.S. Eliot’s Definition of Heresy and the Value of Heretics

EliotT.S. Eliot is one of my favorite poets that I don’t read–at least not his poetry. When reading Scruton I found out he had a lecture series involving the notion of heresy, so of course I was intrigued.  It took some digging to track them down though, because they had been suppressed by Eliot himself due to some unfortunately anti-Semitic content. In any case, I found them and tracked down his definition of heresy and heretics:

Furthermore, the essential of any important heresy is not simply that it is wrong: it is that it is partly right. It is characteristic of the more interesting heretics, in the context in which I use the term, that they have an exceptionally acute perception, or profound insight, of some part of the truth; an insight more important often than the inferences of those who are aware of more but less acutely aware of anything. So far as we are able to redress the balance, effect the compensation, ourselves, we may find such authors of the greatest value. If we value them as they value themselves we shall go astray. And in the present state of affairs, with the low degree of education to be expected of public and of reviewers, we are more likely to go wrong than right; we must remember too, that an heresy is apt to have a seductive simplicity, to make a direct and persuasive appeal to intellect and emotions, and to be altogether more plausible than the truth.

-Eliot, T. S., 1888-1965. After Strange Gods : A Primer of Modern Heresy; London : Faber and Faber.

In other words, heretics are usually never totally wrong. In fact, they often-times grasp a vital truth more profoundly than others, but let it distort their thought when it becomes a focal point dominating all other truths. For that reason, sometimes interacting intellectually with heretics, or distorting teachers, is helpful–albeit in a negative way. One thinks of the way that Calvin’s interactions with Osiander on the issue of union with Christ which forced him to clarify his own thought on the matter. This doesn’t excuse heresy or mean we shouldn’t strive to avoid it and cling to the truth any less. It does mean that sometimes it’s good to try and understand what motivates it in order that our orthodoxy might be all the stronger. If I can understand the repugnancy of the absolutist dogmatism that drives some towards relativism, I can learn to present truth in a more gracious and understanding manner. If I can understand what would motivate a panentheistic denial of transcendence, I can know better how to communicate the beauty of a God whose transcendence is the ground for his immanence.

In other words, in the sovereignty of God even heretics can teach us something about the truth.

Soli Deo Gloria

Turning the King Into a Fox (Or, Irenaeus on the Silliness of Heresy)

fox

I love foxes, but still, not as good as Jesus.

Among other things I’ve been reading Irenaeus’ classic Against Heresies and loving it. His goal in the work is to describe and debunk the heretical teaching of the Valentinian gnostics who were perverting Christian teaching into their bizarre, absurd system. The most frustrating part was the way these gnostic teachers, in their attempt to fool the faithful, were twisting scriptures in order to support their teaching:

Such, then, is their system, which neither the prophets announced, nor the Lord taught, nor the apostles delivered, but of which they boast that beyond all others they have a perfect knowledge. They gather their views from other sources than the Scriptures; and, to use a common proverb, they strive to weave ropes of sand, while they endeavour to adapt with an air of probability to their own peculiar assertions the parables of the Lord, the sayings of the prophets, and the words of the apostles, in order that their scheme may not seem altogether without support. In doing so, however, they disregard the order and the connection of the Scriptures, and so far as in them lies, dismember and destroy the truth. By transferring passages, and dressing them up anew, and making one thing out of another, they succeed in deluding many through their wicked art in adapting the oracles of the Lord to their opinions. -Against Heresies, 1.7.1

Explaining the way the gnostic use of the Bible was unbiblical, he came up with a brilliant analogy for their method of scriptural interpretation:

Their manner of acting is just as if one, when a beautiful image of a king has been constructed by some skilful artist out of precious jewels, should then take this likeness of the man all to pieces, should rearrange the gems, and so fit them together as to make them into the form of a dog or of a fox, and even that but poorly executed; and should then maintain and declare that this was the beautiful image of the king which the skilful artist constructed, pointing to the jewels which had been admirably fitted together by the first artist to form the image of the king, but have been with bad effect transferred by the latter one to the shape of a dog, and by thus exhibiting the jewels, should deceive the ignorant who had no conception what a king’s form was like, and persuade them that that miserable likeness of the fox was, in fact, the beautiful image of the king. In like manner do these persons patch together old wives’ fables, and then endeavour, by violently drawing away from their proper connection, words, expressions, and parables whenever found, to adapt the oracles of God to their baseless fictions. We have already stated how far they proceed in this way with respect to the interior of the Pleroma. -ibid, 1.7.1

Basically it’s like they’ve taken the Mona Lisa, cut it up, and re-pasted it together in the shape of a toilet and called it Leonardo’s masterpiece–or rather an improvement on it. Now, the fact that this can happen with the scriptures, that people can take them, quote them, and use them to justify all sorts of doctrines is troubling to some. Many, in seeing the way scripture is used in the mouths of false teachers and heretics, might despair of them, or doubt their beauty and efficacy. Not Irenaeus. He says that for the faithful, this shouldn’t invalidate the scriptures or make them any less true and precious:

In like manner he also who retains unchangeable in his heart the rule of the truth which he received by means of baptism, will doubtless recognise the names, the expressions, and the parables taken from the Scriptures, but will by no means acknowledge the blasphemous use which these men make of them. For, though he will acknowledge the gems, he will certainly not receive the fox instead of the likeness of the king. But when he has restored every one of the expressions quoted to its proper position, and has fitted it to the body of the truth, he will lay bare, and prove to be without any foundation, the figment of these heretics. -ibid, 1.9.1

The key is taking the precious stones and restoring them to their “proper position”; contextual reading of the scriptures according to basic principles of exegesis matters. Verses need to be taken within chapters, chapters within book, books within the canon, and, yes, for those of us at the end of the 20th century, canon within the broader churchly tradition of interpretation. (Not that the tradition stands over the scriptures, but at the very least it doesn’t hurt to listen to what wise biblical teachers of other generations past have found in them.) When we do these things, instead of the fox, the beautiful picture of King Jesus emerges once more, ready for the adoration and worship God intended to lead us into through his Spirit-inspired scriptures.

Soli Deo Gloria

Ireneaus Summarizes the Faith

saint_Irenaeus_Early_Church_FatherHistorical myopia is a perennial danger to Church, especially in the area of theology. Every generation has its own particular, culturally-conditioned ways of talking about the Gospel, even when it works from the same biblical texts and recites the same creeds. In our own sin and shortsightedness, we have themes we love to highlight and those topics we’d rather not bring up in polite company. This is why every once in a while it’s good to stop, expand our vision, and listen to Christians of other generations expound or summarize the faith, especially the giants, those respected teachers known for speaking well for the Church as a whole.

On that note, here’s St. Irenaeus, the first great church theologian of the post-Apostolic period, laying out the Church’s faith in contrast to the convoluted Valentinian Gnostic system:

The Church, though dispersed through our the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: [She believes] in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the dispensations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His [future] manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Saviour, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all; that He may send “spiritual wickednesses,” and the angels who transgressed and became apostates, together with the ungodly, and unrighteous, and wicked, and profane among men, into everlasting fire; but may, in the exercise of His grace, confer immortality on the righteous, and holy, and those who have kept His commandments, and have persevered in His love, some from the beginning [of their Christian course], and others from [the date of] their repentance, and may surround them with everlasting glory. -St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 1.10.1

Soli Deo Gloria

So Rob Bell Wrote Another Book About God — Some Thoughts Before Actually Reading It

Rob BellA couple of years ago Rob Bell wrote a little book about Heaven, Hell, and all that God stuff. You might have heard of it. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it–he didn’t say anything new. (Or necessarily very good. I’ll be honest, even though I was a Bell fan in college, I was pretty disappointed with that last one.)  In any case, it kicked off a little bit of a crap-storm in the Evangelical world. Well, actually, it was the online theological storm of the century. There were pre-emptive tweets by Evangelical megastars, negative reviews, glowing recommendations, counter-reviews, charges of heresy, charges of heresy-hunting, gangs roaming the internet with clubs watching for signs of dissent or support, refugee camps, and basically all that is unholy in the blogosphere.

At the same time, some good conversations and decent theology got out too.

Now, thankfully this all went down before I had a blog up and running. Given the amount of Facebook conversations I was involved in during that whole imbroglio, I praise God that in his providence that he spared me from my own immaturity. It seems though, that Rob Bell has written another book. It’s about God, or at least, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. Well, here’s the trailer:

Before I read it, or anybody else reads it, or writes a review, or tweets some 140-character gem and the whole blogging world explodes with outrage and applause, I have a few thoughts to offer up to the online world, both within my own Reformedish tribe, as well as those outside it:

1. Calm Down – First things first–calm down. Whoever you are, turn it down a notch. If you’re a Bell fan, slow your roll. No, he’s not going to unveil the secrets of the universe. It’s not revolutionary or visionary. He’s probably just written down something somebody else has written in a printed blog format

with

oddly-spaced lines that

emphasize some

point

that you’ve never heard of because you’re not reading

academically-hip

theological literature

like he

does.

If you’re a Bell critic, especially if you’re Reformed, calm down. Realize that if you really believe the confessions, none of what he writes means God isn’t actually sovereign, won’t take care of his church, or that the whole church will drift into heresy and death because of it. Yes, given the last book, you will probably not like a lot of this one. Yes, many people will read it and agree to propositions about and perceptions of God you find to be unworthy and un-scriptural. Yes, you might have plenty of correcting to do. But once again, this has been the situation of the Church for the last 2,000 years. It will survive one book.

In fact, just take a minute to recover by reading Romans 9 or some of the Institutes. There. Feel better?

Okay, let’s move on.

2. Read First, Shoot Later (Or, Don’t Shoot, Pray Before You Write) – This one’s mostly for critics–read the book before you say anything super-critical about it. Seriously. It doesn’t help to declaim something as full of heresy and beyond the pale if you’ve never read the dang thing. Also, when you do read it, do it with the spirit of generosity, trying your best to love your neighbor as yourself, reading as sympathetically as you’d like to be read. Don’t caricature or misquote, or uncharitably misrepresent. You might still find a whole bunch of stuff you don’t like–stuff that troubles and disturbs you so that you feel the need to correct in print. That’s fine. I believe firmly that any publicly-promulgated doctrine or false teaching needs to be corrected publicly for the health and life the church. Jesus and the apostles hated heresy, so if there is any, by all means, declaim away. That said, remember that it needs to be done in a spirit of love and with the integrity that flows from the Gospel. Our polemics may be passionate, but they should always be principled and never be putrid.  Truth cannot be championed by dishonesty, and especially if you’re a pastor, remember that you’re setting an example for your hearer/readers. The way you react often sets the tone for your people, as well as the watching world. As the old hymn goes, they will know us by our love. Love doesn’t exclude disagreement and confrontation, but it should change the way it goes down. Pray before you hit ‘publish’ on that blog.

3. Try to Understand the Other Team – I hate to call them teams, but yes, in issues like this, realistically the theological spectrum ends up splitting into opposing teams who drive the conversation, with some people trying to occupy the center but usually leaning one way more than the other. I’ll just say that both sides need to strive to understand the other’s concerns. For instance, if you read Love Wins and you didn’t for an instant sympathize with the criticisms that Bell was launching against some traditional doctrines, I’m just going hazard a guess that you’re probably not an effective evangelist, because he was hitting at legitimate (or at least common) theological and cultural concerns. I’m not saying he gave the right answers, but if you can’t understand why those answers resonated with so many in our culture, then you’re not going to be able to thoughtfully and compassionately provide the answers you deem to be the biblical ones with any kind of charity or grace to those without as clear of a theological vision as you. At the other end of things, if you were a Bell fan and you absolutely loved the book, and were unable to see the criticisms as anything more than insecure heresy-hunting conducted by narrow-minded gate-keepers, then I’d hazard a guess that you might be suffering from a sort of reverse-theological boundary keeping, which immediately privileges anything deemed to be “unorthodox” by the Evangelical majority. If you can’t see why more thoughtful, sensitive believers of a more “conservative” bent might have felt attacked or caricatured in that book, you probably won’t be someone who can graciously and thoughtfully correct them on what you deem to be their theological deficiencies.

4. Criticism Is Not Inherently Narrow-minded Oppression – Expanding on that last point, realize that we wouldn’t have half of the New Testament if the apostles like Paul, John, or Peter weren’t passionate about correcting errors both in doctrine and practice. Colossians is an attack on syncretistic theology of a Jewish-Hellenistic sort that threatened to lead the Colossian believers back into a beggarly superstition, trusting in various intermediaries instead of the supremacy of Christ. Galatians combats the Judaizing failure to recognize the eschatological shift in redemptive-history brought about by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection due to nationalistic self-righteousness, which threatened to split the community between Gentiles and Jews. John combats love-denying proto-Gnosticism that, again, tears at community. The list could easily go on. The NT authors pursued public false teaching with passion because they knew that there was a real link-up between sound doctrine and a life-giving love of God in their flocks. The point is, Bell fans need to realize that when he writes a book publicly expounding a theological position that sets itself in direct, or even tacit, opposition to a large portion of the theological populace, criticizing and writing it off, it is not unreasonable to expect some push-back–not because his theology is necessarily heretical. It might not be. But even if it is merely perceived as such, understand that it might be very real, pastoral concern that drives the criticism, not personal animosity or jealousy. Because he’s a teacher, even if he’s just “asking questions”, (there’s a way of “asking questions” that’s really answering them), every public word is held to account. (James 3) My point is, not every criticism is narrow-minded oppression of theological diversity, but might be real pastoral accountability being exercised, even if you think it’s mistaken.

5. Cling to What is Good, Hate What is Evil – Depending on which translation you use, Romans 12:9 might place the “hate what is evil” or the “cling to what is good” first. In this case, as a word to the initially apprehensive, I would say go in with an attitude that seeks to learn or discern whatever good you can from the book before you find the less-than-good. Of course, be like the Bereans and test everything against the scriptures. (Acts 17:11) If you find something in there that doesn’t line up, reject it. That’s a given. Still, it bears repeating that before you go hunting for everything that’s wrong with it, try to find the good you can affirm on the basis of God’s self-revelation in Christ and the scriptures. If for no other reason than to be able to have a fruitful conversation with someone who actually enjoyed the book, you need to be able to affirm the good before you move to critique the bad.

I don’t expect that this is the only thing I’ll say on the whole issue. I might even write one of those critical or, I wish, glowing reviews. (I’d love to love this book.) But for now, before I’ve read a single word, here’s what I’ve got to say. I pray it blesses God’s church, bringing more light than heat.

Soli Deo Gloria

12 Lies Orthodox Christians Can Still Believe About Jesus

Jesus eyesOrthodoxy on the person of Christ isn’t a guarantee of true, biblical fidelity. You can sign off on Nicea and the Chalcedonian definition, publicly denounce the biggie heresies like Docetism (Jesus wasn’t really human) and Ebionitism (Jesus wasn’t really God), and still miss the Jesus of the Gospels. In his very helpful book on spiritual warfare, Clinton Arnold lists 12 versions of Jesus we’re prone to fall for in the “conservative” North American church, which distort our thinking and rob us a full and vital life of discipleship with Jesus Christ:

  1. The Jesus without a body: there are plenty of Christian individualists who feel no need to be connected or accountable to the body of Christ. These are people who are “fingers” or “eyeballs” and prefer floating about doing their thing in a disembodied state.
  2. The Jesus who is far, far away: this is the view held by Christians who practically conceive of Christ as so remote from their life issues that they focus only on sharing their griefs and discussing their problems without any meaningful attempt to draw on Christ’s strength.
  3. The Jesus superseded by angels: Jesus is so austere, demanding and inaccessible that it is better to get in contact with our guardian angels. They watch out for us and are right there to help us if we should call on them.
  4. The Rambo Jesus: Jesus is blowing away the devil all over the place right now in his victorious church. All we have to do is use his name to tear down anything that gets in our way. This “commando Christology” sees the devil behind every bush.
  5. The healthy, wealthy Jesus: Jesus wants us all to kick back and enjoy all this life has to offer. With enough faith, we can claim for ourselves enormous wealth and freedom from illness. I will never forget when my wife was becoming acquainted with a new co-worker at the time when I was finishing seminary. When my wife mentioned to this lady that I was preparing for ministry, the young lady retorted, “Wow, you guys are gonna be rich. My pastor has two Mercedes and…”
  6. The Jesus who is my pal: Jesus is a cool friend who makes me feel real good about myself. This view ignores the fact that the Spirit of Jesus comes to bring conviction about patterns of sinful behavior and to promote holiness and integrity in our lives. It also minimizes Jesus’ identity as the transcendent God, Creator of heaven and earth, worthy of worship, honor, and profound respect.
  7. The Jesus who did not suffer: Although the New Testament says that “since Christ suffered, arm yourselves also with the same attitude” (1 Peter 4:1), there is a great segment of Christianity that thinks all suffering is from the devil. We must remember that we live in the present evil age. Suffering and evil are awful facts of life until  Christ returns and once and for all deals decisively with the problem of evil and brings his people into the full experience of the kingdom of God. Until then, we do not seek suffering. Ye when we encounter hardships, we have access to the strength, peace, and joy of Christ can give even in the midst of suffering.
  8. The Jesus with no mission: this is the view of Jesus that holds that he entrusted his people with no task around which to unite themselves, commit their resources, and work. Jesus essentially came to provide forgiveness of sins, for which we are to be grateful and get on with our lives.
  9. The Jesus with no heart: Jesus had no social conscience and was unmoved by the plight of the poor, the oppressed, and the outcasts of society.
  10. The Jesus who did not die for all our sins: there are some Christians who believe that they will definitely pay for some of the bad things they have done. I have had more than one person tell me, “Clint, you just don’t know some of the things I’ve done. Jesus could not possibly forgive me for that. I’ll pay for it.” Satan wants nothing more than make Christians believe this lie. Unfortunately, I am convinced that many Christians do secretly believe it. This awful stronghold needs to be torn down with the truth of Colossians 2:14 “He forgave us all our sins.”
  11. The unforgiving Jesus: Jesus is so stern and severe that he does not easily forgive. When he looks at me, he recoils at the sight of my filth.
  12. The Jesus who does not discipline: at the other end of the spectrum are those who believe they can entangle themselves in sin with minimal consequences. They emphasize the love and grace of the Lord Jesus to the exclusion of his discipline of believers who err and fall into sin. Jesus counseled the mediocre church of Laodicea, “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent” (Rev. 3:19)

-Clinton Arnold, 3 Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare, pp. 67-68

We need to be on guard against these distortions, any of which will seriously harm our ability to know, love, and follow Jesus.

One more good reason to read your Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Complex Beauty of the Orthodox Jesus (Or, Why Heresy is too Simple)

My pastor’s sermon this week on Christ reminded me why Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics is easily one of the top 5 books I’ve read this year. Amidst the incisive analysis of recent American, religious history and sagacious social commentary he found and quoted one of those passages brimming with spiritual insight into the beauty of the Orthodox faith that Roman Catholics like Douthat seem particularly gifted at expressing. With great paradox and pathos, Douthat lays out the key to understanding the peculiar character of the Christian faith: the perplexing figure of Jesus Christ himself:

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus. He’s a celibate ascetic who enjoys dining with publicans and changing water into wine at weddings. He’s an apocalyptic prophet one moment, a wise ethicist the next. He’s a fierce critic of Jewish religious law who insists that he’s actually fulfilling rather than subverting it. He preaches a reversal of every social hierarchy while deliberately avoiding explicitly political claims. He promises to set parents against children and then disallows divorce; he consorts with prostitutes while denouncing even lustful thoughts. He makes wild claims about his own relationship with God, and perhaps his own divinity, without displaying any of the usual signs of megalomania or madness. He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners. He blesses the peacemakers and then promises that he’s brought not peace but the sword. He’s superhuman one moment; the next he’s weeping. And of course the accounts of his resurrection only heighten these paradoxes, by introducing a post-crucifixion Jesus who is somehow neither a resuscitated body nor a flitting ghost but something even stranger still–a being at once fleshly and supernatural, recognizable and transfigured, bearing the wounds of the crucifixion even as he passes easily through walls.

The boast of Christian orthodoxy, as codified by the councils of the early Church and expounded in the Creeds, has always been its fidelity to the whole of Jesus. Its dogmas and definitions seek to encompass the seeming contradictions in the gospel narratives rather than evading them. Was he God or was he man? Both, says orthodoxy. Is the kingdom he preached something to be lived out in this world or something to be expected in the next? Both. Did he offer a blueprint for moral conduct or a call to spiritual enlightenment? Both. Did he mean to fulfill Judaism among the Jews, or to convert the Gentile world? Both. Was he the bloodied Man of Sorrows of Mel Gibson; the hippie, lilies of the field Jesus of Godspell; or the wise moralist beloved of Victorian liberals? All of these and more…

He goes on to explain how that paradoxicality gives rise to classic (and modern) heresies–they are sad, misbegotten attempts to handle the tension, usually by subtraction or suppression.

The goal of the great heresies, on the other hand, has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, stream-lined, and non-contradictory Jesus. For the Marcionites in the second century, this meant a merciful Jesus with no connection to the vengeful Hebrew God; for their rivals the Ebionites, it meant a Jesus whose Judaism required would-be followers to be come observant Jews themselves. For the various apocalyptic sects that have dotted Christian history, this has meant a Jesus whose only real concern was the imminent end-times; for modern  Christians seeking a more secular, this-worldly religion, it’s meant a Jesus who was mainly a moralist and social critic, with no real interest in eschatology.

These simplifications have usually required telling a somewhat different story about Jesus than the one told across the New Testament. Sometimes this retelling has involved thinning out the Christian canon, eliminating tensions by subtracting them. Sometimes it’s been achieved by combining the four gospels into one, smoothing out their seeming contradictions in the process. More often, though, it’s been achieved by straightforwardly rewriting or even inventing crucial portions of the New Testament account, as the Gospel of Judas’ authors did, to make them offer up a smoother, more palatable, and more straightforward theology.

-Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, pp. 154-155

This is why, ultimately, heresies are usually too simple, or rather, simplistic, to be the truth about Jesus. They treat Jesus like a high school kid treats a Charles Dickens novel–they get an abridged version. When it comes to Jesus, though, dealing with the abridged version isn’t good enough. As soon as you start chopping off, or ignoring bits, or harmonizing the tension away, you lose the beauty of the Gospel because you lose Jesus, the complex, comprehensive savior. He is God and man; he saves body and soul; he is loving and just; he is something completely new that can only be understood as fulfillment of all that comes before. Again, as Douthat puts it, “He is all these things and more…”

Take some time this week to read the Gospels and think about the paradoxical Jew of Nazareth, the Lion who appears as the Lamb that was slain, the Jesus you love and the Jesus who makes you uncomfortable–the wisdom of creeds and councils, of the Gospels themselves, was to know that you need him in all of his complex beauty.

Soli Deo Gloria

Why Jesus Hates Heresy (And So Should You)

I’d like to take a moment to point something out that may have escaped your attention last time you went to church or watched  a Nooma: Jesus and the rest of the New Testament authors don’t like false teaching, or heresy. I mean, they really hate it. It doesn’t take long reading through the thing to see the forceful way they spoke of “false teachers/prophets” and “false teaching” about God and the Gospel.  Don’t believe me? Here are just a few quotes. See for yourself.

Gentle Jesus

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (Matthew 7:15-20)

Not so Gentle Paul

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. (Romans 16:17)

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5)

O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called “knowledge,” for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you. (1 Timothy 6:20-21)

Old-Man John

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1 John 4:1)

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. (1 John 4:1-3)

For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist. Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works. (2 John 1:7-11)

Peter “the Rock” Bar-Jonah

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep. (2 Peter 2:1-3)

This is Weird to Us

These quotes can seem disturbing to people of our age.

Our culture likes the idea of heresy. Whenever you see the word ‘heretic’ used on your average blog, news article, etc. it’s synonymous with bold, controversial, and creative thinking. It’s thought not confined with dogma and church controls. It’s ideas that scare the “theologians”, and break out of the traditional mold. (As to why scaring theologians has become a valued activity, I’m somewhat puzzled. Is there similar trend elsewhere? Should I want to perplex philosophers? Or, mystify mathematicians?)

It’s sexy.

Alister McGrath has even gone so far as to talk about our “love affair with heresy.” It epitomizes all that us entrepreneurial, free-thinking, radically individualistic Americans believe about religion. It’s up to us to figure out and nobody has a right to lay down a “correct” or “right” way to think about spirituality and God.

In this context, anybody trying to talk about orthodoxy or heresy immediately calls to mind images of nefarious, medieval church councils, trials, and other wickedness. (Which, incidentally were the result of false teaching about the nature of the church.)

So, why do they think different?

So why do Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John seem to approach the problem of false teaching differently than we do? Their attitude seems so intolerant and harsh. What about freedom of thought? Independence of mind?  What accounts for the difference? Is it just that we are more enlightened and cosmopolitan than these backwards dogmatists?

Eugene Petersen, my favorite pastoral theologian and theological pastor, cuts to the heart of the matter when discussing John’s attitude towards false teaching:

“Our age has developed a kind of loose geniality about what people say they believe. We are especially tolerant in matters of religion. But much of the vaunted tolerance is only indifference. We don’t care because we don’t think it matters. My tolerance disappears quickly if a person’s belief interferes with my life. I am not tolerant of persons who believe that they have as much right to my possessions as I do and proceed to help themselves… I am not tolerant of businesses that believe that their only obligation is to make a profit and that pollute our environment and deliver poorly made products in the process. And [John] is not tolerant when people he loves are being told lies about God, because he knows that such lies will reduce their lives, impair the vitality of their spirits, imprison them in old guilts, and cripple them with anxieties and fears…

That is [John’s] position: a lie about God becomes a lie about life, and he will not have it. Nothing counts more in the way we live than what we believe about God. A failure to get it right in our minds becomes a failure to get it right in our lives. A wrong idea of God translates into sloppiness and cowardice, fearful minds and sickly emotions.

One of the wickedest things one person can do [is] to tell a person that God is an angry tyrant, [because the person who believes it will] defensively avoid him if he can… It is wicked to tell a person that God is a senile grandfather [because the person who believes it will] live carelessly and trivially with no sense of transcendent purpose… It is wicked to tell a person a lie about God because, if we come to believe the wrong things about God, we will think wrong things about ourselves, and we will live meanly or badly. Telling a person a lie about God distorts reality, perverts life and damages all the processes of living.”, Traveling Light: Reflections on the Free Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1982), pp. 33-35.

We don’t care about false teaching and heresy because we don’t see what it does. We don’t see that “A lie about God becomes a lie about life.” Jesus is intensely opposed heresy because he doesn’t miss the connection between what we believe about God and every inch of our lives. Paul opposes it with every fiber of his being because he is passionately for the church. John is not simply out to control his “beloved”, but rather make sure that they remain free, truly free to live the life God has called his children to.

Good theology is not just an academic exercise for “theologians” in seminaries. It’s not just for pastors in their studies. It’s for everyday Christians for everyday living. This is why we care about these things. This is why we preach, teach, and correct in light of the Word of God.

So again, “Why does Jesus hate heresy?” He loves you too much to have you believe lies about God.

Soli Deo Gloria

Resources for avoiding Heresy:

1. Any good systematic theology. (Classic Christianity by Thomas Oden, The Christian Faith by Michael Horton)
2. Heresies and How to Avoid Them by Ben Quash and Michael Ward
3. Heresy: A History of Defending Truth by Alister McGrath
4. Free article by Craig Blomberg “The New Testament Definition of Heresy (Or When do Jesus and the Apostles Really Get Mad?)