Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Jesus for Dummies?

Man, these guys are smart. The blog-o-sphere abounds with bulging theological biceps, and torrents of erudite scribblings about Christian faith. Some are professors, and some are ordinary guys like me. Their intellect is sometimes dizzying. And since I fancy myself the world’s smartest man, I enjoy reading and sometimes even daring to question their conclusions.

But one particularly smart and admirable internet sage really left me scratching my head with this, which I excerpted below, from his blog Parchment and Pen. He says:

“God cares more about what you believe than what you do. Belief, truth, doctrine, theology, and, yes, being correct, is more important than all the good works one can ever do. It is God’s first desire that we believe correctly...Think of the incarnation, hypostatic union, the Trinity, the eternality of God. These are the context in which right worship, the most important deed of all, can take place.”

His blog fans loved this: “It’s about time someone stood up for Truth”, and so on. I did not love it. Does that make me weird?

Does the ability to make subtle theological discourse, or the capacity to evaluate and embrace something like “hypostatic union” mean a man is more able to know and worship and obey God? If that were true, it seems inescapable that God takes more pleasure in the more “accurate” worship of smart people than the “fuzzy” worship of the unintelligent. As your children might phrase it, "God loves smarties better than dummies."

So here is a couple of questions:

How conceptually correct must a man be before his worship counts to God? Is a theology professor better able to warm the heart of God than his dyslexic janitor?

If you and I hold a different belief about God (say predestination versus free will), does that mean one of us is worshipping a different God, a false God?

What would Jesus say?

(By the way, I rearranged Patton’s words from the article and comments for brevity and clarity. Go read the article and all 67 comments for yourself. It really is a pretty good thread for theologs.)


Brian said...

If your salvation is considered to depend on what exactly you know, and how much you know...then it's about works, and not the sovereign work of God.

The guy dying in the hospital doesn't have time to read and consent to the Nicene Creed, or Grudem's Systematic Theology. Fortunately for him, and for us, God doesn't require that. When I got saved, I walked the aisle out of obedience to what I believe to be the prompting of the Holy Spirit; He told me to go up front to the altar, not seek out a proper understand of theology before I went up.

(One of the biggest surprises for me regarding evangelicalism is that the Reformed camp hasn't accused the Arminian/"semi-Pelagian" camp of being a false religion. But this is a rabbit trail)

scott said...

Geez, I thought perhaps you were joking in that quote from the article. I hope there is some context around that, because when I first read it, I just assumed you were being sarcastic. "Being correct" in every matter of theology is more important than loving our neighbor and serving the poor?

I should probably go read all those comments, but it would just put me in an argumentative mood again, wouldn't it? :-)

Joe B said...

Brian, I tried that argument but I was slapped down by "The Wise".

It seems that attaining salvation by coming to Christ is an altogether different matter than pleasing God as his disciple.

God gets a rush from us deciphering him with our theological decoder rings (which, if I am not mistaken, comes free inside your box of Creedal Crunch cereal or Perspicuous Pebbles.)

Joe B said...

All scathing aside, there is an interesting question in here:

If my conception of God is different, or deficient, or even I worshipping a different God?

Christopher said...

How conceptually correct must a man be before his worship counts to God? Is a theology professor better able to warm the heart of God than his dyslexic janitor?
Richard Hooker, the seventeenth century Anglican leader, defended his claim that some of their Fathers, trapped in Popish superstitions were nevertheless probably saved. I would encourage you to read the whole sermon, since Hooker draws several useful nuances that these pull quotes will seem to flatten.

=0 D
Wherein then do we disagree? We disagree about the nature of the very essence of the medicine whereby Christ cureth our disease; about the manner of applying it; about the number and the power of means, which God requireth in us for the effectual applying thereof to our soul's comfort….

We must therefore put a difference between them who err of ignorance, retaining nevertheless a mind desirous to be instructed in the truth, and them who, after the truth is laid open, persist in stubborn defence of their blindness. Heretical defenders, froward and stiffnecked teachers of circumcision, the blessed Apostle calleth dogs. [Phil 3:2] Silly men, that were seduced to think they taught the truth, he pitieth, he taketh up in his arms, he lovingly embraceth, he kisseth, and with more than fatherly tenderness doth so temper, qualify, and correct the speech he useth towards them, that a man cannot easily discern whether did most abound, the love which he bare to their godly affection or the grief which the danger of their opinion bred him. Their opinion was dangerous; was not so likewise theirs who thought that the kingdom of Christ should be earthly? was not theirs who thought that the Gospel should be preached only to the Jews? What more opposite to prophetical doctrine concerning the coming of Christ than the one, concerning the Catholic Church than the other? Yet they who had these fancies, even when they had them, were not the worst men in the world. The heresy of freewill was a millstone about the Pelagians' neck: shall we therefore give sentence of death inevitable against all those fathers in the Greek church who, being mispersuaded, died in the error of freewill?

St. Augustine hath said, "Errare possum, haereticus esse nolo." [I may be mistaken, but I have not the will to be heretical.] And except we put a difference between them that err an d them that obstinately persist in error, how is it possible that ever any man should hope to be saved?

Hooker makes a distinction in two directions. First, he clarifies that it is on the basis of God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrifice that these errors of conception are passed over. In other words, Jesus suffered for the ignorance of his people. He was pained for the janitor and the professor you mention, and that is not small thing. Therefore, the fact that God is merciful is not a reason to persist in error or refuse to be teachable and strive for greater understanding. (Romans 6.1) Second, Hooker tries to elaborate on the dangers of error depending on whether these errors relate to the foundation of faith or are additions to the foundation, or whether a false view overthrows the faith directly or only by consequent. In shorthand, the church has used things like the ecumenical creeds to define the foundation pieces of the faith, and while we may add some others or lay aside the mention of Pontius Pilate, the confession that Jesus is Lord assumes all sorts of knowledge of the words Jesus, Lord and it matters what the definition of is, is.

While you may be hesitant to import the creeds and theological reflections of flawed and imperfect earlier iterations of Christian disciples, the issue Hooker mentions remains pertinent. Hooker does not say, “Those folks have elaborate theological constructions and summaries of the Bible’s teaching that we wonder about and we respond by saying that our own conception of the truth is under-defined to adequately answer their summaries.”

If you and I hold a different belief about God (say predestination versus free will), does that mean one of us is worshipping a different God, a false God? If my conception of God is different, or deficient, or even I worshipping a different God?

It depends on what we disagree about. And to approach the question in this minimalist way seems to undermine the approach you encourage so passionately on your blog. Christian doctrine is always intended to result in doxology or praise. And that praise is not offered to logical rigor, but to the person of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It matters that we understand God because it matters that we understand our spouses and friends and relatives. To ask how little we have to know to be okay would be a weird way to selectively listen to our kids daily summary of school, or our wife’s desires for a summer vacation. It is surely a strange way to approach the most enduring and important relationship a creature will have. To put it differently, how many of the “one another” passages does a person have to do before they are ok?

Is your best friend a “different person” to a stranger? In some ways, of course not. The person has their own integrity regardless of how the conceptions of people around them are described. But in another sense, of course they are different, because if I misjudge yo ur best friend, and then interact with them and with you and with others on the basis of my misperception, consequences follow. And they can be trivial or catastrophic. Job’s wife thought she knew God to be capricious and worthy of cursing. God didn’t change, but her understanding of God, based on her limited perspective and circumstances led to a damnable view.

"God loves smarties better than dummies."
God loves people who seek Him and seek to know him. God commands his people to draw near to Him, which includes more than emotional sincerity. It involves holding firm to the hope given them, and reminds us that if people in the Old Testament were judged for infidelity in their life, worship or theology, how much more will we be judged if we tread underfoot Christ. (Heb 10:15-39 NIV)

God gets a rush from us deciphering him with our theological decoder rings (which, if I am not mistaken, comes free inside your box of Creedal Crunch cereal or Perspicuous Pebbles.)
That's not what we say when we remember that the anniversary of our friend's divorce is coming up, or the fact thatour kid's litle league championship starts at 5.30 or that our pastor is passionate about adoption=2 0because He was adopted from a terrible orphanage. These things aren;t decoder rings. They are the sort of attention and commitment that comes with relationship, and we are needlessly separating relationship from theology in these sorts of comments. Saying that having a Christmas present for our grandmother in her favorite color is only about being "right" is a jaundiced way of describing that action. And asuming that people who want to be right in their theology aren't incuding things like devotion, care and desire to know their Lord better to please HIm throuhg their service to him and hallow his name through their proclamation is uncharitable.

What would Jesus say?
37 And the Father who sent me has himself testified concerning me. You have never heard his voice nor seen his form, 38 nor does his word dwell in you, for you do not believe the one he sent.
(Joh 5:37-38 NIV)

When the Jewish people rejected Jesus as Messiah and refused to accept the personal revelation of God to them, Jesus did not say that were 75% on track or that it did not matter. He said that they were cut off. Why? Because once it is clear that Jesus is Divine, to worship God without reference to Father and Son, and finally Spirit is to worship a God that does not exist in fact and no longer exists under the clouds of unrevealed truth. Both fact and ignorance are removed, and the culpability of the audience was obvious. Similar moments exist in the lives of individual followers of Christ as well.

grace and certain hope,
Christopher +

Redacticus said...

Good points. Most of the readers here are working people who can't attentively read such a long item. Would you mind to keep them shorter? That way people can read and discuss without having to click out a book on their Blackberry.


Redacticus said...

And thank you for commenting!

fiber_tech said...

So how come God entrusted a bunch of "dumb" fishermen and other assorted non-theologian losers with spreading the Good News?
If I were to believe their logic about how to please Him, it seems like it was all a flawed plan from the get-go.

Christopher said...

"So how come God entrusted a bunch of "dumb" fishermen and other assorted non-theologian losers with spreading the Good News?"

Actually, God used a range of people to spread his good news, both then (in both OT and NT) and now.

Unschooled and dumb are not synonyms, and neither the Apostle Matthew or the Apostle Paul were slouches.

In fact, the reason the original apostles and the sent out 70 and the Pentecostal 120 and several thousand converts in the early church were such successful evangelists because they were attentive to the Lord and to the Lord's designated servants, enabled by the illuminating work of the H Spirit. The same phenomenon works in the church today. People of all sorts are made fruitful disciples by knowing Christ by faith and becoming like Christ through the witness of the Holy Spirit by the words of Jesus and his designated messengers, and by the illuminating work of the Spirit as his later disciples in the church have applied the truth of the infallible scriptures to the issues of their day. Overall, it seems like a pretty great plan.

God's plan often seems less wise when we try to summarize it in ways that leaves out important pieces of the whole. Or pit important pieces unnecessarily against one another, like warmness of devotion with rigorous thinking, or right doctrine and right practice, or love for God and love for neighbor.

Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

I appreciate the chance to interact.

grace and certain hope,
Christopher +

Craig said...

Hi; first-time commenter here (Scott gave me the URL; blame him if you don't like me)

A few 'About-Me's', just to sort-of level-set:

I'm a 53-yr-old Catholic, convert from UCC when I was in college. Member of an ecumenical, charismatic covenant community.

I agree that the article you cite invites ridicule. To say that 'theological correctness' trumps worship or love of neighbor is ludicrous. 'If I know all Truth, such as to penetrate the deep mysteries of the Godhead, but have not love. . .' (loosely paraphrased, but you get the idea). And I have known a few Catholics (and probably Orthodox and Protestants, if I think about it hard enough) who are so smitten by the beauty of theology that they way too easily lose track of the whole 'loving my neighbor' (or heck, members of their own families) thing. So yes - point taken.

But I also agree with a lot of what Christopher says, above. There is a reason why theology is important. It makes a difference that God is Trinity, for example, or that Christ is both fully God, and fully man. Many of the ancient heresies that led to the definitions of those particular doctrines were identified as heresies, usually because, over the course of some time, their deleterious effects on faith became evident. The Nicene Creed came about as a sort-of 'Two-Minute Compendium of Christian Theology', precisely in response to erroneous conceptions of God that threatened Christian faith.

I would also point out that 'loving our neighbor' and 'serving the poor' can lead just as inexorably to a 'works righteousness', and in fact, often have, in the past.

As re - "If my conception of God is different, or deficient, or even I worshipping a different God?" - I would simply say that, if your conception of God is different, or deficient, or distorted, then. . . your conception of God is different, or deficient, or distorted. And you should want to know God, and worship Him as He is, insofar as you're able, and not merely according to your own conception of Him, or your own experience of Him - that way lies subjectivism, and 'God as I understand Him to be. . .'

And I'll stop there for now. . .

Joe B said...

Fiber_Tech: A great point well-said.

Chris: If you'd written the Pen & Parchment article it would have been a better article! But I fear your steady, balanced view of it would mean you wouldn't have written it at all. In some odd way you seem to be defending the article against a variety of strange notions you seem you be attributing If you wonder what I think about something you are free to ask.

Craig: Covenant Community guy!! I love it! Thanks for coming by. Great thoughts, great heart.

Brian: Great comment. Are you Brian D?

The flaw in the Parchment & Pen article, my post, and in all our comments, is summed up by Christopher when he says "we try to summarize in ways that leave out important pieces of the whole. Or pit important pieces unnecessarily against one another."

God, in contrast, has balled up everything--right living, all truth, life now & evermore--and thrown it at us in one incomprehensible, beautiful Jesus. To those who received him he gave power to become sons of God. He dwells dynamically in us by the Holy Spirit who leads, convinces, and teaches us all things.

Yet a little child can come to him without a hitch. Can we?

(That sounds like a closing thought, but that's just how I talk. Let the conversation rage on!)

Craig said...

A couple follow-on thoughts to yesterday's comments; I hope I don't become tedious. . .

First, it's worth saying that, this side of Heaven, none of us really gets to know God as He is - we're all just trying to know and love Him as best we're able, and on some level, we're all 'making do' with incomplete knowledge. Back in my Jesus-freak days, we used to say that the church was 'one beggar helping another to find bread', and there's a lot of truth to that, I think. . .

As re 'a deficient view of God' vs 'worshipping a different God', I think of Jews and Muslims. At least as we Christians understand the matter, Jews have a 'deficient' concept of God. And yet, I think it's also quite clear that they worship the same God we do, albeit with a 'less-than-complete' understanding of His nature. Muslims, I'm less confident of saying that they worship the same god we do - the god they describe just seems very different from the God we know, however incompletely - he doesn't relate to humans personally, and to call him 'Father' is utterly nonsensical, as Muslims understand God to be. So, I suppose that 'different/deficient/distorted' views of God could fall either way, as to whether it constituted 'less-than' worship of the True God, or worship of a false god.

I don't really suppose anyone here is unclear on the concept, but it's worth saying that Love of God and Love of Neighbor aren't meant to be separate concepts. I think that it's significant that, when Jesus is asked, in Mark 12:28-31, which is the greatest commandment, He answers with two - Love God and Love your Neighbor, and 'there is no other commandment greater than these'. And I John 4:20 is pretty clear that our love for our neighbor has a lot to say about the quality of our love for God. But they aren't cleanly separable - 'you can't have one without the other', as the old song goes. . .

Eutychus said...

Excellent Craig. I'll see your comment and raise you one: Jesus, speaking of the greatest command, also said "...and the second is like unto it, 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.'"

Joe B said...

Matthew 22:36-40
Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Joe B said...

Re: Craig's last comment:
I knew the subject ultimately had to shift from "morons" to "Mormons". The Patton article bore strong implications for both.

We disqualify the faith of others based on doctrinal differences (I once had a guy weeping for my soul over Chinese food because I wasn't sure that the "L" belongs in T.U.L.I.P., the five points of Calvinism. No I am not exaggerating! :-D,) Catholics killed Calvinists who killed Anabaptists who killed...well, they were the end of the food chain I guess.)

My take on it? There is only one God. Who do the Muslims worship? They worship the eternal creator and judge. They say all kinds of wrong things about him, and construct a false religion based on those things. So let us be humble; "Beware when you think you stand, lest you fall!"

Let us simply confess and follow Jesus Christ. God's future does not depend upon whom we overpower. In Jesus there is no killing to be done that he cannot take care of himself!

I am 100% committed to teaching the truth as revealed in Jesus and passed down through his humble servants, the apostles. I am 100% content to let God sit on his own throne and judge his own people, without me shouting advice from behind my lectern.

Craig said...

For the record. . . I tried hard not to say, in any definitive way, that Muslims don't worship the True God, only that I'm less comfortable saying that about them than I am about Jews. And that it's possible that a 'distorted' view of God could end up in worship of a false god. Perhaps I reached too far. . .

On a fundamental level, I agree - God is God, and we can leave the 'sorting out' to Him. Peter Kreeft (my favorite living author; I highly recommend him to anyone who hasn't read him) is fond of saying that whoever is saved, is saved thru Jesus Christ, and we don't necessarily know HOW He does it; only that anyone who's saved, is saved by Him. Which seems to be about what can be said with certainty. . .

Tonya said...

Knowing is good, but doing based on the knowing is better.
If you spend your time knowing more instead of doing more, who have you helped? Only you.

I wanted to cause you to scratch your head in fewer words than everyone else.

Joe B said...

Bingo, Tonya.

When we enter the kingdom of God, we become "fellow workers with God" in the redemption of his beloved creation.

(Hey, I thought women were to remain silent in the chur... oh, yeah, this is an UNchurch!)

Joe B said...

No wonder you like Kreef! What should I read first?

Craig said...

Peter Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College (probably retired by now). He's written dozens of books, both popular and more scholarly (of which I might have read half).

The book of his that most directly treats the topic I cited here is 'Ecumenical Jihad'. My personal favorite of his books is 'Love Is Stronger Than Death'. You could start with either of them, I suppose. . .

scott said...

I just really like the phrase "Ecumenical Jihad." I'm going to start using that at church just to get some strange looks.