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Spiritual Thoughts, Spiritual Words

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

The fundamental question of our faith is whether the Bible is the inspired word of God.  If it is, we can rely on its contents.  If it isn’t, everything we believe in, from the creation to the resurrection, is built on a foundation of sand instead of rock. 

Not surprisingly, then, those who are opposed to the Scripture often either deny its inspiration or attempt to limit inspiration’s scope.  Those who adopt the latter approach will say that the Bible is inspired in its broad outlines, but its details are the product of human understanding and reflect the wisdom of the time in which its authors wrote.  This position seems to be much like ours, but in practice it leads to very different results.  We insist on obedience even to the commandments that we don’t particularly care for (Matthew 19:9, anyone?) because we believe they express the will of God. 

However, if we believe instead that not everything in Scripture is necessarily inspired, that gives us freedom to reject the hard sayings as anachronisms.  Surely Paul’s comments about women in 1 Timothy 2 and the practice of homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6 are echoes from an unenlightened, barbaric past, mere expressions of the apostle’s own human prejudices!  Surely our wisdom has evolved beyond such things!

This perspective allows us to have our cake and eat it too.  We get to celebrate the risen Lord and cherish the hope of eternal life while also rejecting every commandment that we find difficult or inconvenient.  Only the ones that are amenable to the spirit of our own time need remain.

As convenient as this would be, though, it simply doesn’t align with what the Bible itself says about inspiration.  In particular, we must take into account Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2:10-13.  Here, he makes two strong claims about the involvement of the Holy Spirit in his work.  First, the Spirit has revealed truth to him.  Second, he expresses that truth in words taught by the Spirit.

This does not mean that Paul was a Scripture-writing robot.  If inspiration deprived human authors of their authorial voices, every book of the Bible would sound alike.  This is not the case.  The Pauline epistles don’t sound like the Johannine epistles, and neither sounds like the Petrine epistles.  All reflect the personalities of the apostles who wrote them.

Instead, it describes a subtler process.  In some way, the Spirit of God worked with the spirits of the prophets, allowing scope for human individuality yet precisely expressing what God wanted to be said.  Because inspiration operated at the word level, nothing that the inspired writers recorded strays from the will of God.

Thus, we can have great certainty about what we read in the Bible.  We don’t have to wonder whether any miracle or commandment is a human invention.  None of them are.  However, it also imposes a weighty responsibility on us.  If God has said it all, we must obey it all.  To do otherwise represents a failure to honor Him.

Justification by Works in James

Friday, October 29, 2021

Earlier this week, I posted about Paul’s discussion of justification by works in the first four chapters of Romans.  In it, he says that justification by works requires perfect obedience to God, which no one but Jesus has achieved.  Thus, Christians must seek salvation by faith apart from works.  Similarly, baptism for forgiveness of sins is an expression of faith, not an attempt to justify oneself by works.

In response, I received a question about justification by works in James.  In his epistle, James appears to directly contradict Paul.  After all, in Romans 3:28, Paul says that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the Law.  In James 2:24, James says that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

What gives?  How can it be that two inspired writers would say such different things?

The key to resolving the question is to recognize that Paul and James don’t mean the same thing either by “works” or by “faith”.  In context, this is obvious.  Throughout Romans, Paul uses “works” as shorthand for perfect Law-keeping (or perfect righteousness by a Gentile).  In Paul’s terms, justification by works requires a lifetime of perfection.

James, however, doesn’t use “works” to mean a lifetime of perfection.  Instead, he uses it to refer to specific righteous actions.  In his discussion of the issue, he cites two examples of justification by works:  Abraham offering up Isaac (James 2:21) and Rahab saving the spies (James 2:25). 

Neither of those people was justified by works in a Pauline sense.  Abraham lied because his faith was weak.  Rahab also lied, and she was a prostitute besides.  Both sinned and therefore fall short of the glory of God.  However, both also revealed their faith through their behavior, and by those faith-filled works, they were justified.

Interestingly, James’ definition of justification by works is quite similar to Paul’s definition of justification by faith.  Paul’s two examples, Abraham and David, were justified by faith (David being fully as imperfect as Abraham was), but neither was a spiritual do-nothing.  Both believed the promises of God and acted in accordance with those promises.  Indeed, Paul goes on to make the point in Romans 6 that our receipt of grace through faith requires us to transform our lives.  Pauline faith works.

Not so with Jamesian “faith”.  His two examples of faith without works are the Christian who doesn’t help a brother or sister in need (James 2:15-16) and the demons (James 2:19).  Both acknowledge that God exists; neither honors Him as King through obedience. 

James’ most telling comment about them appears in James 2:14, where he observes that such a one “says he has faith”.  Though he’s not going to debate the point, James doesn’t really think that the non-worker has faith either.  The Pauline analog, as per Romans 6:15, is the one who sins because he is under grace, not law.

As we would expect, there is no contradiction between Romans and James.  The two epistles address two different problems.  The former is concerned with Judaizing teachers who bind circumcision even though doing so only makes sense as part of an attempt to justify oneself by works.  The latter is concerned with Christians who don’t think they have to follow Christ.  Additionally, both epistles have the same bottom line.  We must seek salvation through faith, but we also must live lives of obedience that show that our faith is genuine.

Natural Relations

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Though the battle is over these days (at least as far as wider American society is concerned), the past couple of decades saw a great deal of strife over the practice of homosexuality.  In their ultimately successful assault on Biblical morality, gay-rights proponents adopted three main strategies:  rejecting the authority of the Bible altogether, redefining Biblical ethics to make same-sex relations acceptable, and critiquing the Biblical arguments against the same.

In the third category, critics liked to attack Paul’s claim in Romans 1:26-27 that homosexual intimacy was unnatural.  They pointed out, correctly, that various animals, from our supposed cousins the bonobos on down, engage in male/male or female/female sex.  Still other animals are hermaphroditic or able to change their sex.  Because these things exist in nature, they reveal that same-sex sexual behavior is natural and that Paul is just a big dumb ignoramus.

As satisfying as such a conclusion is to opponents of traditional morality, it fails to reckon with Paul’s argument or what he means by “natural”.  Romans 1:26-27 is far from a prooftext.  Instead, it is part of his famous description of the degradation of the Gentiles that takes up the back half of Romans 1.

According to Paul, this decline began with the failure of the Gentiles to honor God.  As per Romans 1:19-20, this failure is their fault, not God’s.  In the physical creation, He gave them all the evidence they needed to see His power and divine nature.  They saw and recognized the truth, but they put it out of their minds because they didn’t want to thank and glorify Him.  They chose the gods they had made over the God who made them.

Similar logic is at work in vs. 26-27.  The women who burn for women and the men who burn for men aren’t operating in the absence of evidence of divine intent.  Instead, just like the idolaters of the preceding verses should be reasoning from the evidence of the creation but have refused to do so, those engaged in unnatural relations should be reasoning from the evidence of natural relations but also have refused.

We are the handiwork of a wise, intentional God who expects us to honor His intent for us.  That intent isn’t evident in bonobos or oysters or any other members of the animal kingdom.  We don’t live like animals live or eat like they eat; why should we take our guidance in sexual matters from them either?

Rather, we learn what is natural for us by reasoning from the evidence of our own bodies.  The body of the man is clearly made to complement the body of the woman, and vice versa.  That is the sexual union for which we have been created.  It is equally clear that women aren’t meant to go with women or men with men.  It is not our natural purpose, and it is not what God wants us to do.  If He had wanted us to behave differently, He would have created us differently.

It is possible to endorse same-sex relations, and it is possible to submit to the will of God as revealed in His creation and His word.  It is not possible to do both.  The world around us has made its choice, sure enough, but before we decide to walk the same path, we ought to remember what God has said about where it leads.

You--Yes, You!--Are Responsible for Caring for the Needy

Friday, October 01, 2021

The older I get, the more I appreciate the law of unintended consequences.  It posits that every time you act, there will be a result that you anticipated and a result that you didn’t anticipate.  The members of the human race tend to focus so hard on what they want to accomplish that they don’t see what they will accomplish without intending to.

I think this principle has been at work in the non-institutional churches of Christ ever since the brotherhood controversies of the 1950s and ‘60s.  In that time, many preachers argued—correctly, I think—that churches are not authorized to provide for the needs of the world’s poor.  As the saying goes, general benevolence is to be a work of individuals, not a work of the church.

In many churches, this preaching and teaching accomplished its end.  Even now, I am part of a congregation that does not go beyond what has been written in the way it spends the Lord’s money.  However, I believe it also accomplished something its adherents did not intend—a neglect of the individual Christian’s responsibility to care for the poor.

When I was growing up, I heard countless sermons on “the issues”.  These sermons relied on texts ranging from the familiar (“Let not the church be burdened!” in 1 Timothy 5:16) to the obscure (“Hock their horses!” in Joshua 11:6).  I learned that James 1:27 does not authorize the church to act, but I heard much less about what it meant for my actions.  When it came to the poor, “If a man does not work, neither should he eat,” received much more play.  I wonder if, even as brethren were careful to separate the work of the church from the work of the individual, they conflated the work of the individual and political activism.

As I have written before , it is difficult to know how to apply the law of Christ in the voting booth.  It is simple to know how Christians should care for the poor and vulnerable.  James 1:27 is a good start.  So is Luke 12:33.  So is everything that the Bible says about mercy.

Honestly, this is a struggle for me, as I think it is for many Christians.  I don’t want to get played by a con artist.  I struggle with the extent to which many poor people are responsible for their own problems, and therefore may not deserve help (Note:  if you are giving something to someone who deserves it, that is justice, not mercy).  By God’s grace, though, I think I’m making progress.

I assemble with many Christians who are better at this than I am, but I think we all have room to grow here.  We have to be more concerned with showing compassion and less concerned about looking foolish.  We must learn to see more clearly the value that Christ places on everyone. 

This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with His call to discipleship.  No, general benevolence is not a work of the church, but it has to be our work as individuals—filling the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of everyone we encounter.  There are lots of ways for us to do this, but every one of us needs to be doing something.  When God has been so merciful to us, we must show mercy to others.

Christianity and Asceticism

Friday, September 24, 2021

The other day, I got a text from my brother.  It read in part, “If you want a mental exercise, compare and contrast Christianity, Stoicism, and the “Dokkōdō”.  See any commonalities?”  I’ve read my Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, so I have a handle on Stoicism, but I’d never heard of the “Dokkōdō”.  Turns out it’s a set of 21 life precepts written down by the Japanese master swordsman Miyamoto Musashi shortly before he died.  It’s basically Buddhist in outlook.

There certainly are similarities between Stoicism and the “Dokkōdō”.  Both are suspicious of earthly pleasure, indeed of earthly attachment of any sort, and warn that it leads people astray.  Marcus Aurelius counseled that when you put your children to bed at night, you should tell yourself that they will be dead by morning.  Similarly, the fifth precept of the “Dokkōdō” reads, “Be detached from desire your whole life long.”  Both are essentially ascetic philosophies.

However, despite many ascetic outgrowths of Christianity through the centuries, Biblical Christianity itself is not ascetic.  Instead, its perspective on both fear and desire is much more nuanced.  This begins with Christianity’s understanding of the physical universe as the good creation of a good God.  Though creation has been broken and marred by sin, it has not become fundamentally evil.

To the Christian, physical enjoyment is basically good as well.  Every good thing given comes from God.  He satisfies our hearts with food and gladness.  He has provided these things so that they can be gratefully shared in by those who know and believe the truth. 

Similarly, the Bible celebrates the joys of human love and relationships.  Your family, friends, and brethren are supposed to matter to you.  If they don’t, that’s not wisdom.  It’s a spiritual problem. 

This is true even of the supposed bugbear of Christianity, sexual pleasure.  An entire book of the Bible, Song of Solomon, is a frankly erotic celebration of married sexuality.  Sex is a good gift too!

Problems arise when these pleasures, basically good as they are, begin to lead us away from God.  Sin is never an invention but rather a corruption and a distortion.  Sex is a blessing in marriage, but outside of marriage it becomes an expression of selfishness that harms all involved.  It’s good to enjoy the fruits of our labors, but when we forget God and are unwilling to help others, those gifts have become a trap.

More fundamentally, any blessing becomes a trap when we set it up as our god.  This distinction is most apparent in Ecclesiastes.  The Preacher spends the last ten chapters of the book encouraging his readers to enjoy themselves:  let your clothes be white, don’t let oil be lacking on your head, and so forth.  However, in the first two chapters, he describes all earthly pursuits as the height of vanity. 

The problem is not pleasure.  It’s trying to make your life about pleasure.  In the end, such efforts will prove to be empty.

Interestingly, the Bible says the same thing about human wisdom.  It too has its place (the Preacher notes that all proverbs are given by one Shepherd), but it doesn’t provide the answers to existence either.  Death proves human wisdom to be vain (Is dead Musashi any better off than a dead medieval peasant?), and such wisdom also is likely to dismiss the spiritual wisdom of the gospel as foolishness.  Biblically speaking, asceticism is no better than pleasure-seeking because it too is focused on the wrong things.

Rather than focusing on severe treatment of the body, Christianity focuses on Christ.  He is the lens through which we see everything else.  With His help, we can savor what is good and shun what is not.  However, our hope is not in the savoring or the shunning but in His promise and His mercy.  We look for new heavens and a new earth, set free from this present corruption, and we anticipate the resurrection of our bodies into conformity with the body of His glory.  Once all these have been purified from sin and its consequences, only what is holy will remain.

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