Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is Individualism Christian?

I have wanted to do a post on individualism for a while, but only now do I have my thoughts about it in order. (At least, I think I do.) What brought my ideas into focus was an article on the website (which I highly recommend). This article is at

The article quotes Alexis De Tocqueville who wrote the book, Democracy In America, in the 1830s. He was a Frenchman whose parents were almost guillotined in the French Revolution, yet he himself grew to love American democracy. His insights and predictions are remarkable. He is clearly in favor of democracy but, surprisingly, against the individualism that generally accompanies it. Here is a quote from him:

"I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone." Powerful stuff.

Then the author of the article, Louis Beckett, states, "Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity ... with the glamorization of work and petty material comforts. He warns those of us who would make self-interest the only good: individualism is a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled with government."

This is as good as Tocqueville's quote and a great insight. When the individual only worries about himself and not his neighbor, when he ignores his responsibility to God, when he does not participate in the community in a meaningful way either in church or in a civic organization, he leaves essential needs in the community unmet. That void is increasingly being filled by government and government is usually lousy at it. Government is a blunt instrument; it does everything by force. When it gives money to those in need, it first must extract it from its citizens. All voluntarism, and therefore all virtue, is lost.

Early in the book of Acts the fledgling church shared everything in common. It met the great need of the moment and brought everyone together. The beauty of it was that it was completely voluntary. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make themselves look generous, but lied about it and were condemned. Peter made it clear that they were under no obligation. But when we allow government to do it, choice and freedom are excluded.

So what Tocqueville and Beckett describe is a bad kind of individualism. Is there a good kind of individualism, a Christian kind? I think there is. And here is where I must depart from some of the so-called progressive Christians.

Progressives sometimes want to take out of Christianity the most valid forms of individualism. Marcus Borg, who is wrong on just about everything, wrote a blog post about individualism where he said that one of the problems with evangelicals was their individualistic view of salvation. "Christian understandings of salvation are often individualistic. When Christians identify salvation with a blessed afterlife, with going to heaven, salvation becomes about the salvation of individuals." Umm ... yeah, that's about right. Salvation is by grace through faith - an individual thing. God does not save groups of people. How would He do that? I choose this church here, but not that one? Would your salvation depend on the group you belong to?

A Catholic might think that. Their religion is much more communitarian that Protestantism. In Catholicism you get saved by becoming Catholic (getting baptized). In Protestantism you become part of the (mystical) body of Christ by being born again. You join the group by being saved rather than the other way around.

Then Borg says that our individualism has caused us to consider morality to be mainly a personal thing. "For many Christians, morality is understood primarily to be about personal behavior." Yep, that's what I think. Progressives often think that individual morality is less important than vague notions like "economic fairness" and such like. Does that mean that having progressive social and political views makes one virtuous but actual personal virtue does not?

To me, individual virtue is the real virtue. If we live in an 'unjust' society (is there another kind in a fallen world?), then our individual virtue makes life good even for those at 'the bottom'. If we live in a 'just' society and have no individual virtue, I think we would be living in hell. But, of course, without individual virtue and morality there could be no just society. There is a reason that God gave us ten commandments that told the individual what to do. "Thou shalt not" is singular! (If it were plural it would have said "Ye shalt not.") When they obeyed the commands of God, they had a good and just though imperfect society. The commands to not steal, murder or commit adultery were put there for the express purpose of holding the society together. Even laws requiring the Israelites not to glean the edges of the field but leave them for the poor to glean were directed to individuals to help those in need. The government did not enforce this. Individual morality is the glue that holds a society together.

So I certainly believe that Christianity supports, and even requires, a certain kind of individualism. Yet it is not the fleshly, selfish individualism of the world but a godly dignity that places the onus for doing what is just and right on each of us. Imagine what it would be like if we always did the right thing.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Hey, Jude

I know that not everyone will recognize this as a Beatles song, but for those of my generation it is a classic. Of course, I am not posting about the Beatles, but about the Bible. The book of Jude, not the song.

This week I am teaching the book of Jude, one of the shortest in the Bible, in my Sunday School class. I have never heard anyone say that Jude was their favorite book and it is rarely quoted. The first to quote from it seems to be Peter who used it in 2 Peter, which itself is a short and not-so-popular book. Nevertheless, it is the Word of God and we must not ignore its teaching.

Jude warns us against false teachers, pronouncing judgment on them and urging the church to contend with them. But the false teaching that Jude is condemning is not some heresy about the person or work of Christ. It is about the behavior of the false teachers. They are teaching and practicing immorality and using the grace of God as an excuse. They "turn the grace of God into licentiousness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ." Notice the double use of "Lord" for both the Father and the Son. The fact that He is Lord means that we must do as He commands, and He commands that we avoid immorality. To commit immorality or to teach that it is okay is to deny His Lordship.

We may understand this but the point I wish to make is that Jude has a reaction to it that we might be surprised at. So let's ask Jude a few questions.

Questioner: Hey, Jude. Why do you tell us to contend for the faith? Doesn't Jesus call us to unity? Don't those who disagree with us just read the Bible differently? Aren't you being divisive?

Jude: I wrote about our common salvation that all true believers in Christ possess. There is to be unity among those of the one true faith. We are not called to unify with those who deny the faith by their immoral behavior. We must contend with those in the church who are denying Christ by teaching immorality. It is not a matter of a difference of opinion; it is a matter of affirming the essentials of the faith. As for divisions, they are caused by the error of the false teachers, not by those who call them out on it.

Questioner: Hey, Jude. Didn't the apostle Paul preach that we are saved by grace and not by works?

Jude: Paul did not teach grace as a covering for sin as some do today. We are saved to be free from sin not saved so that we can sin freely. Paul taught, "grace teaches us that denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age." (Titus 2:12)

Questioner: Hey, Jude. Why are you so harsh in your condemnations? Didn't Jesus tell us, "judge not that you be not judged"?

Jude: You seem to be forgetting that Jesus was my older brother. I think I know Him better than you, but if you do not take my word for it, see what Jesus taught about sin and hell. "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you; for it is more profitable that your members perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell." Yes, he is using a bit of hyperbole but that hyperbole regards the cutting off of ones own hand and not the hell part. Your hand never causes you to sin, but the impulse behind the sinning hand is what needs to be cut off. Jesus was not being "judgmental" when He told the truth. Truth spoken in love may seem hard. God disciplines those whom He loves.

Questioner: Hey, Jude. Have you ever considered that in your day God may have told an unenlightened and primitive people not to do certain things because they were just not sophisticated enough to handle them, but now the Spirit is leading us into a new progressive era? After all, it was only in the nineteenth century that Christians gave up their slaves, often reluctantly (to say the least).

Jude: The false teachers of the first century thought they were enlightened, too. They were, as Paul said, "wise in their own eyes". But they not only lack wisdom, they do not have the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is not leading them into some new freedom or so-called 'rights'. Evil spirits are leading them into moral apostasy and error.

Questioner: Hey, Jude. Are you using fear to keep people from listening to other points of view? Should we not be motivated by love and not fear? Don't fear and hate go together?

Jude: Some are saved by mercy and others by fear. This is a good fear, the fear of the Lord. Proverbs says that the fear of the Lord is to hate evil. Hating evil is a good thing. We are not trying to frighten people to submit to us. We are warning them about the real dangers of immorality and false teaching. The fate of the fallen angels and Sodom are good examples of this.

Questioner: Hey, Jude. In the UMC, some have gone ahead and blessed same sex marriage ceremonies because they believe, despite the book of Discipline, that what they are doing is right. How do you respond to those who are just obeying their own consciences?

Jude: I would say that their very consciences have been corrupted. Those who do not submit to authority have a wrong spirit. If they do not feel right about the authority then they should have the authenticity to leave the church and start their own religion or something. Remember how Korah rebelled against Moses saying that they were all God's people and that Moses had no right to rule over them. How did that work out for Korah?

Questioner: Hey, Jude. What advice do you have for the true church?

Jude: Build yourself up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Christianity and Science and Fiction

It does not bother me a bit that Christians have differing views on creation. I know Young Earth Creationists, Old Earth (Gap Theory) Creationists, Intelligent Design advocates, and Theistic Evolutionists. All of them deserve a fair hearing and rather than fuss with each other, they ought to seriously consider each others claims. Most of all, if we examine each of their arguments they have interesting things to say.

But that is not what this post is about. I want to say, first of all, I am not going to pick on theistic evolutionists today, but rather criticize what some them have said about related matters. It seems that, for some of them, their scientific views are determining, to a large degree, their doctrine.

I responded to a post on the Jesus Creed blog about Adam and Eve as "special creations". It may now be common terminology, but not too long ago it was taken for granted that Adam and Eve were historical figures, created from dust and a rib, falling into sin, bringing a flood of corruption and death into the world. And, of course, they are the parents of all mankind.

Now we are told that the hypothesis of evolution will not allow us to be descended from a single set of humans. We would have to come out of a large set of prehuman apelike creatures. (I am truly trying to not sound mocking as I write this.) Hence, the discussion on the blog has been about whether or not Adam was a historical figure or a fictional one made up to teach a spiritual truth.

I asserted that Adam was indeed a historical figure and that any other view was unbiblical. You might imagine that I got an immediate response. I did. In fact, both Scot McKnight and RJS who wrote the piece had objections to what I said. Scot pointed out that the Bible contains both history and fiction (parables, etc) that teach spiritual truth. RJS said that we need to focus on the fact that the Big Story of the Bible is not about Adam but about Jesus.

I simply pointed out the fact that the Bible does not treat the story of Adam as fiction, but is part of the historical narrative of Genesis. There is an introduction (Genesis 1:1 - 2:3) followed by ten narrative sections beginning with the story of Adam and Eve. They insist on treating the first eleven chapters of Genesis as fiction and the rest as history. Why? Each of these sections begins similarly ("These are the generations of ...") followed by historical narrative. Same genre.

I noted as well that Paul treated Adam as a historical figure as does Luke. Luke shows that Jesus is a descendant of Adam! Jesus, while not mentioning Adam, does mention his son Abel. He said that His generation would be held liable for the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah. Jesus seems to think that Abel was a real, not fictional, person. The author of Hebrews used Abel as an example of faith. It is clear that Luke, Paul, the author of Hebrews and Jesus all thought of these OT characters as real historical people. That does not matter to some who put science above the Bible. One even said that he did not think that Gen 2-3 was about Adam. If that is not a revealing statement, I don't know what is.

Here is what I think is even worse than saying that Jesus did not know that Abel was not a historical person (or that if He did He indicated otherwise). They think that there was not a Fall of Man at all. They think that God created us as we are today - sinful creatures destined to die. Sin is built into us by God. Why would they say such a thing? Because their scientific idea tells them that it could be no other way. Death, as they say, is simply a part of life and the way that God created us. It is not the result of sin.

So there goes the doctrine of original sin right out the window. It's not because they have carefully examined the Bible and found that it teaches otherwise. No, it's because their scientific belief (that's what it really is) tells them what they must believe.

They now have no desire to reconcile apparent contradictions in the Bible. To them the historical portions of Scripture are unreliable. They act as if they are the first to notice differences in the gospels. It is now easy for them to treat the Bible as less than the inerrant, infallible Word of God. I do not think that God takes that lightly. I do not. It is not just another opinion to me. It is borderline heresy.

They do not want us to focus on "irrelevant" details but on the big picture, the Big Story, of the Bible. I want to focus on that, too, but I will not compromise the Word to satisfy my need to reconcile scientific claims with the Bible. I will not let even scientific extrapolation (that's what it is) determine my theology or my view of the Bible.

Even if we can agree that the most important thing is the Big Story of the Bible, as they say, and holding to the faith of the creeds, I think we need to remember that, according to the old saying, "God is in the details".

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Does each of us have a "divine spark"?

In my Sunday School class last week I made an offhand comment that ignited a big discussion. I noted that one of our nation's politicians (always a resource for bad theology) had said that "we all have a divine spark" and therefore we should support her political ideology. (I promise to leave the politics out of it.) It seems that some in my class believed in this idea of some sort of "divine spark". Sometimes I forget that Christians pick up phrases from the world that sound real good but are contrary to biblical teaching. I mean, doesn't it sound real good and spiritual and uplifting to say that we all have a divine spark. It seems spiritual and egalitarian and uplifting all at the same time.

Before we can discuss any subject we must define what we are talking about. If we have different definitions of the same word or expression, then we will end up talking past one another. If we ask five people what is meant by the expression ‘divine spark’ we will likely end up with five definitions. However, it seems to me that most people who believe that we all have a ‘divine spark’ would be hard-pressed to give a definition of it at all. The concept is rather vague.

Part of the problem of defining it is that it could mean quite different things to different people depending on one’s own religious thinking and background. To a Christian it might sound something like being created in the image of God. To someone who does not believe in a Creator, it might mean that God is not out there somewhere with a distinct personality and existence but simply a part of each of us. That would mean that we all have the possibility of godhood. I am not worried about most of the church because Christians do not aspire to ‘godhood’ and would reject any such thing as idolatrous and blasphemous. Perhaps it is best that we examine how the term has been used and how it is used today.

The origins of the concept of a ‘divine spark’ in each of us goes back to an ancient Greek philosophy called “Gnosticism”. Here is a quotation: “The idea of a divine spark, most common in Gnostic and mystical religions, is that every human being possesses either a connection with God or a "part" of God. The goal of life, then, is to allow the divine spark to influence us toward love, peace, and harmony.”

Today, the concept is often divorced from any sort of religious rituals but is instead an undefined form of spirituality that anyone can achieve. And people ‘ignite the spark’ of divinity in various ways. It might be a Christian experience or not. Some of those who believe in this talk about “being spiritual, but not religious”. They will also criticize Christians who insist that one must receive Christ in order to be saved. They say that we are narrow and intolerant because we do not recognize that different people and cultures might follow a different path to God. If one has a ‘divine spark’, is it not possible to ignite that spark in different ways? Part of the problem with this is that it is man-centered. It is we that ignite the spark rather than God freely offering His grace through the redemption accomplished by Christ.

Let’s look at what scripture teaches:

“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient … Like the rest, we were by nature children of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:1-5)

Notice how Paul says that by nature we were “children of wrath”. It was our spiritual nature that was wrong. When Adam sinned, he died spiritually. He was cut off from the presence of God. His nature changed. His relationship with God was broken. God did not reignite some spark. He would provide a sacrifice for his sin.

Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:44) Jesus called these very religious people “children of the devil”. They did not have ‘part of God in them’, they had the devil in them. (I mean their spiritual natures were wrong. Their spiritual natures was like the devil’s – sinful. They were not demon-possessed.)

John later explains that not all are children of God. “We know who the children of God are and who the children of the devil are.” (1 John 3:10) Jesus told Nicodemus, a good Pharisee who supported Jesus, “You must be born again.”

Ezekiel 36:26 explains the new birth this way: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.” If we each had a ‘divine spark’ why does God need to give us a new spirit? The old one would do just fine.

We are all created in the image of God, but that image has been corrupted through sin. That is why Peter said that when we become “partakers of the divine nature” that we “escape the corruption that is in the world.” (2 Peter 1:4)

Perhaps you would say that by the ‘divine spark’ you mean the ‘divine image’, but we have shown these to be very different concepts. Being made in the divine image means that you have the capacity to be either a child of God or a child of the Devil. Jesus did not die on the cross to ignite a spark. He came to seek and save those who were lost.

Conclusion: We are all created in the divine image. Jesus came to make those who receive Him partakers of the divine nature. There is no such thing as a divine spark. It is important to use biblical language to properly express biblical truths.