Monday, November 28, 2011

Do I need a Theology for that?

Like many of my posts, this is about something in the church world that bothers me. What bothers me is the attempt by many to turn everything into a theology. Now I know that many of you probably do not like the term 'theology' because it seems like something done by academics who do not live on the same level as normal people. (I sometimes agree.)

I have to say, however, that we all make theologies (ideas about God and what He expects of us) all the time. As I mentioned in a previous blog, we often trot out our theology to explain why bad things happen. (They must have sinned, God is testing them, etc.) You know how much I dislike that.

However, someone near and dear to me, who also was a minister for over 60 years and had his doctorate in sacred theology, asked me a question several years ago. He asked me what my theology of helping the poor was. My initial response I did not verbalize. I thought, "I didn't know I needed one". It struck me as odd that any theology was required simply to do what God has told us to do.

That does not mean that we do not need to think about it or study the scriptures on it, but I hesitate to make a theology out of every subject. I like what James, the Lord's brother, had to say, 'be doers of the Word'. Isn't just doing the Word sufficient? Do we have to make some sort of theology out of it? When the Bible says, 'You shall not steal', is a theology necessary for us not to steal? When the Bible says 'visit the widows and orphans in their affliction', should we not simply do it? I know that God may lead us to do more, but why make a simple command more complicated than it is?

Does simple obedience fall short of what God asks of us? Think of how the Catholic Church has built a theology around the confession of one's sins. They want you to confess to a priest instead of going directly to God. Then the priest will give you some works that you must perform - Hail, Marys and all that - then you can receive absolution. More than that there is the difference between mortal and venial sins. It gets very complicated.

I am sure a faithful Catholic will tell you how it benefits them. But this is not "doing the Word" because the Word says just to confess you sins [to God] and He will forgive you. (1 John 1:9) How simple. And not just simple, but it works. He forgives us and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

Somehow we do not feel that doing the Word is enough. God somehow wants more. But is this not like what the Pharisees did? They added requirement upon requirement until their requirements even prevented them from doing the Law they were trying to uphold! "You make void the Word of God through your tradition."

There are many today who are saying that helping the needy is part of the gospel. Others disagree, saying that though helping the poor is necessary, it is not part of the gospel. My response is this: it makes no difference how you view it. It only matters that you do what the Bible says.

So my theology of helping the poor is this: just do it.

(Note: Nike did not sponsor this post)

(Note: To my Catholic friends - please do not consider this post to be some sort of Catholic bashing. You know that I take the Protestant position on matters related to salvation, the sacraments, etc. My Protestant friends are as much a target of this post as my Catholic ones. They are probably worse at developing theologies at the expense of simply doing what the Bible says.)

Friday, November 18, 2011

Divine Inspiration and a TV show

You might be wondering what a television show has to do with divine inspiration. And I am not talking about some inspiration that you and I might receive, but I refer to the divine inspiration of the scriptures. The television that I refer to is the new show "Unforgettable". It is about a woman detective who has perfect memory. She remembers absolutely everything in her life. She goes to crime scenes and remembers even the most insignificant details that later turn out to be the key to solving the case.

The show is based on a piece done by Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes. She interviewed five people who are known by scientists to have this ability. They remember every detail of their lives and can recall in vivid detail everything they have experienced. Remarkably, Lesley Stahl had a friend who she said also was like this. They tested her friend and now there are six people known to possess this ability.

Now they admit that this ability is both a blessing and a curse. Not only do they remember all the good things that have happened, but the bad as well. This can be very painful. They are unable to forget terrible things that have happened to them. The rest of us bury these things deep within to protect ourselves. They cannot do this.

While reflecting on this, I thought about what it will be like in the resurrection and we have new, perfect bodies. Will we all have this ability? I think we will. Yet I think it will be much better since "the former things", the bad things in this life, will not be remembered. We will only remember the goodness of God in increasing measure throughout eternity.

Then again, I began to think about something that Jesus said to his disciples. "The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I have said. (John 14:26) So one of the reasons that God sent His Holy Spirit was to allow the disciples to recall exactly what Jesus had said. In the light of what we now know about the possibilities of human memory, we ought to realize that the disciples would remember perfectly what Jesus said. Certainly, the Spirit of God can give a person perfect recall to anyone as well as reveal information previously unknown to that person.

By means of divine inspiration, Jesus' words could be recorded with fullness and exactness. That is what we have in the four gospels. How different this is, though, with modern theories about what we have in the gospels.

The higher criticism, as it is called, claims that we do not always have Jesus' exact words, but we have altered versions of what actually took place. Supposedly, the gospel writers had traditions passed down and edited them according to the theological point they wanted to make. But in order to accept this, one must accept the notion that the gospel writers were neither the disciples of Jesus nor those who had done careful interviews of those same disciples.

The historical evidence passed down from the church fathers and accepted by biblical scholars until modern times is that two of the gospels writers were among the twelve disciples and that two were close followers of the Twelve. Matthew and John were disciples of Jesus, and Mark wrote based upon Peter's teaching. Luke explicitly says that he wrote what eyewitnesses to Jesus' ministry told him. And since we know that Luke is considered by even secular historians as the most accurate of ancient historians, we have no reason to disbelieve him.

Now I want to say that I do believe that the gospel writers had a theological purpose in what they selected to include their respective gospels. John himself said, "There are also many other things that Jesus did; which, indeed, were written one by one, I supposed that not even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written." (John 22:25) So instead on one really long gospel, we have four gospels that tell us all we need to know about Jesus' ministry and teaching.

A further note about who the gospel writers were: If we believe in divine inspiration (at least of some kind), it seems hard to believe that God would not use the Twelve or their immediate followers to write the New Testament. Why would God use someone who used oral traditions and secondary sources? Were the disciples theologically challenged or something? Could only later generations truly interpret Christ?

NO! When we read even the undisputed writings of the apostles, we see that they were quite able to interpret these things. Jesus told them that the Holy Spirit would lead them into ALL the truth. I think He did so. Later generations just followed the apostles the best that they could.

Absolutely, the Holy Spirit can bring to remembrance whatever Jesus has said to us. I believe this promise even in my own life.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Trials - how we should react to them

It is unusual for me to blog twice within a week, but I feel compelled to comment on something that has come up in two consecutive bible studies. And that is the subject of 'trials'. We all go through trials yet there seems to be little good Bible teaching about how to approach them.

What most of us have seemed to develop is sort of a 'blanket theology' that seeks to explain each and every situation, but leaves us no better off. Let me put forth two approaches that fall well short of what the Bible says concerning the trials of life.

The first originates in the book of Job where Job's "comforters" tell him that his afflictions must be the result of sin in his life. They reason that God is just and that He would not allow bad things to happen to the righteous. Bad things come about because of sin. This is nothing more than a 'blanket theology' that seeks an intellectually satisfying explanation for all bad things that happen.

What Job, and his friends, did not know is what we know from the first chapter: he has an Adversary, Satan, who is testing Job and trying to get Job to blaspheme God.

Aren't you glad that the church today has left this old theology behind? I wish. This past Friday I was speaking to someone who has recently gone through cancer treatments and told me about a fellow patient whose church told her that her cancer was the result of an unforgiven sin. (I would have found a new church.) Now most of us are appalled and disgusted by this, especially since Jesus clearly taught that not all sickness or infirmity is the result of a particular sin. (See John 9) However, some of our theology regarding trials is not much better.

Yesterday, I heard someone discuss an approach to trials which is common today. Once again, it is a blanket theology where one can lump all trials together and approach them all the same way. I am sure you have heard it before. It is "God will not put more on us than we can bear". Now I have heard this for a long time but I now realize that this is more than just a way of explaining all trials; it is a wholesale manner of dealing with trials. It is used to not in conjunction with other scriptures that deal with trials, but a substitute for anything else the Bible says about them.

For the record, the Bible does say something like this in 1 Corinthians 10:13 "No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it." There are two things that we should notice here. First of all, it may not be talking about 'trials' at all, but about temptations to sin, although it is true that the Greek word for trials and temptations is the same. Second, we leave out the part about God 'making a way of escape'.

What we have done is taken a partial scripture, lifted it out of its context and made it say something it does not say. It does not say, as my friend suggested, that God does not put more on us than we are able to bear. First of all, God does not put this stuff on us in the first place. "Every good gift and every perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights above, with whom is no variation or shadow of turning." (James 1:17) God never varies from that which is good and perfect. James directly says that God tempts, or tries, nobody. (1:13) Jesus said, "The thief (Devil) comes not, but that he may steal, kill and destroy; I came that you may have Life, and that you may have it abundantly". (John 10:10) Also, "God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, who went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Devil." (Acts 10:38)

In Sunday School, we are studying the book of James. It contains general principles about how to handle any kind of trial. James tells us what to do when faced with any kind of difficulty. "Count it all joy, my brethren, when you fall into various trials." (1:2) This means all kinds of trials. The main key to our approach to trials of any kind is in verse 5. "If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally." (1:5)

Wisdom! That is what we need in the trials of life. We do not approach them all the same. If we could, then we would not need this advice. We would simply apply some blanket theology or formula given to us. But there is not a single approach or 'good explanation' of the trials we face.

Wisdom can mean two things. First, it means the 'big picture' or overall understanding of what is happening to us. Since we know that Satan, and not God, is the source of our problem, we know that God will make a 'way of escape' for us. Then we need to know what to do in the midst of the trial. Sometimes we think we know what to do when we don't. We need to humble ourselves and seek his wisdom. If we are overwhelmed by the situation, then we should seek the aid of others who can pray with us.

Another thing: you might have to go through a trial without an adequate explanation or understanding of what is going on. After God rebuked Job and Job repented for blaming God, God still did not explain to him what had happened to him. We will not always know in this life why certain things have taken place. There is, however, some wisdom from God that we can use that might shorten, lessen the effects of, or deliver us from the trial.

God is not the source of your trial, but He is the solution.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Myths That I Used To Believe

One of the reasons that we should study history is to explode the myths that so many of us have. We tend to think of myths as something believed by less educated and enlightened people, especially if they lived long ago. But I have found that although we do have better scientific and historical knowledge than people in earlier times had, we seem to acquire new myths - especially regarding the past.

I would say that the most persistent historical myth (actually found in many science textbooks) is the idea that people in Europe in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat and that if one went too far out into the Atlantic that he would fall off the edge of the world. I read it in textbooks in school, heard it from teachers and discussed it with friends. There is only one problem with this notion: it is not true.

You cannot find a half dozen authors in the Middle Ages who thought that the earth is flat. In fact, scholars in the Middle Ages followed the Greeks who believed that the earth was round. Now you might want to tell me that people opposed Columbus's trip across the Atlantic because they believed that he would fall off the edge of the earth. But the historical record is quite different. Columbus claimed that the earth was much smaller than others said. Those opponents of Columbus followed the calculations of Eratosthenes, the Greek who calculated the circumference of the earth within 2 percent. They said that Columbus and his men would die before they reached the Far East. And if there had not been two continents in between Europe and the Far East, he would have. (You can read up on this in Wikipedia's article on Columbus.) [Some of you have realized by now that this myth is actually about what myths that Medieval people were supposed to have had, but did not.]

There is another myth that I used to believe about old age. It came up in Sunday School recently. We were talking about how Abraham, Isaac and Jacob lived a very long time. (They lived 175, 180 and 147 years, respectively) One of my students had a confused look on his face and asked 'didn't people die at about age 25 in this time?' The answer to this question is unequivocally, no!

The idea that people in past ages died much earlier than we do comes from what we call 'life expectancy'. Life expectancy means that a person born today on average lives 'x' number of years. We know that in the Middle Ages people had a life expectancy of 35 to 45 years. In fact, two hundred years ago, it was about 45. We have misunderstood, however, what life expectancy means. It does not mean that people die of old age at this time. It means that many people die well before they reach old age. They died of diseases that we can cure now. They died of infections obtained through wounds, accidents, poor environmental conditions, and illnesses. Once we had antibiotics and better sanitation we began to live much longer. Many more people reach old age today.

Historical records clearly indicate that in all times and places there were some who reached the same age we can expect to live. In early biblical times, they lived even longer. One of the reasons for this is probably a higher oxygen content in the atmosphere. Scientists have found ancient air bubbles trapped in hardened liquids that show that in dinosaur days there was a lot more oxygen in the atmosphere than there is today. The higher oxygen levels allowed dinosaurs to grow to great sizes. It would cause us to live much longer and to be able to do greater things. (Build pyramids?) Before Noah's flood, people lived for hundreds of years. After the flood, people began to die sooner and sooner. It may have been because the oxygen levels were dropping over the whole world after the Flood(evidence that it was a worldwide catastrophe). By the time we reach Moses' day, old age sets in earlier and life expectancy is 70 to 80 (except for the early deaths that I mentioned above - sickness and accidents).

People during the Middle Ages in Europe lived shorter lives than they did in antiquity because health conditions were so bad. We should be careful about extrapolating. What is extrapolating? It means to reason like this: If people today live about 75 years and if they lived about 45 years in previous centuries, then people who lived in ancient times lived even shorter lives. So, the reasoning would be that the longer ago you lived, the shorter the average life span was. That is extrapolation. It generally does not work well. It leads to a poor understanding of things in the past.

So do not believe everything you hear. It is a modern error to always think that we are smarter or better off than in any time in the past.

One thing is not a myth: I am thankful for my wife just like she is thankful for me as she wrote on her Facebook wall.