Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Separating Philosophy and Theology

The Universe

I’ve been so thankful for an amazing week’s teaching with Michael Eaton and R.T. Kendall at Cornerstone Church this week. I’ll post more about that later this week as I go through some of the things that I’ve learned, what these mean to me, and how I intend to apply these things into my practical living. The conference ends tomorrow morning (R50 entry for the day) and is also happening tonight at 6:30pm (free entry).

Eaton has been going through the doctrine of man while Kendall has been doing a commentary on James. Both have been brilliant. In Eaton’s third session he speaks a lot about how we do doctrine and talks about Augustine and where he went wrong and where he went right. That can be downloaded here.

The key point of Eaton’s talk is how Augustine was quite the philosopher, influenced (much like educated people at the time) by Plato. The influence of Greek / Platonic ideas into Christianity is a vast topic and even today we think in very Platonic ways. It’s an ongoing quest and challenge to unlearn our philosophies that we’ve been basically brought up to believe from our mothers milk, as it were, as we learn proper theology and understand the Bible correctly.

Many of those that argue about Christianity take it for granted that their modern logic is superior to the Bible but they fail to see their presuppositions that cloud them seeing the Bible correctly. Conversely, many Christian leaders / teachers / pastors mix general philosophy, cultural philosophy and traditional philosophy (the stuff we’ve inherited from Plato and Augustine etc.) into Christianity and when you challenge these they think you are challenging Christianity itself.

Let me use Eaton’s illustration to show what I mean. In about 24 minutes of his talk he says that when thinking about doctrine we should not draw parallels. What he means by this is that if we read that God chooses people to salvation we cannot assume that means that he chooses who is to be damned. The Bible does not say that people are predestined to hell, only that God predestines those he saves. There is a doctrine of predestination (to salvation) in scripture but there is no doctrine of predestination to hell. It’s simply not in there. (In my words) we should not draw a parallel that if we read X in the Bible then Y must also be true.

“We don’t believe these things because we have worked it all out. The reason why we believe it is because God has revealed himself. He has stepped into our lives and showed us the way He is, and we’re just believing what He says.

“We shouldn’t be worried about this as this is the very proof that it’s from God. If it weren’t true that would be very suspicious. You worship a God you can understand? Surely that is proof that he can’t be the real god,” says Eaton (paraphrased).

My conclusion? Well, in reading the Bible we must ensure we don’t add our own ‘therefore’. Let’s provide a quick example.

Revelation 3:5 The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

Many people have drawn a ‘therefore’ from this verse, saying that because Jesus says to those who conquer that their names will not be blotted out the book of life, then it means those who don’t conquer will have their names blotted out. But scripture doesn’t say that. In fact, in studying this scripture we’ll see it uses the figure of speech called litotes – it’s saying exactly what it’s saying only to those who conquer, making no comment at all about those that don’t. Reading it any other way means we read philosophy and logic into the scripture rather than just reading what it says.

So I come to the second conclusion that it’s important we separate philosophy and theology. Much like the separation of church and state, we need a separation of theology and philosophy in our thinking.

For example, the doctrine of predestination can lead to fatalism if people don’t check their philosophy and understand what is philosophy and what is not. The doctrine is not fatalism — it doesn’t mean everything we do is fate and we cannot make choices or that our choices are moot. To draw that parallel from the doctrine is to go further than the doctrine goes, meaning we are using philosophy on the doctrine.

Now that may be fair and well to a point as we go about building a way we should live, as long as we’re not dogmatic about our philosophy claiming that it’s “the Word of God” and that we alone “Hold the Truth”. Examples of this are countless. We have fatalistic calvinism on one hand and open theism (the belief that God chooses not to know all of the future) on another. Both raise valid points, but both take the whole doctrine too far and essentially make use of philosophical arguments and presuppositions to make their point. Then both claim they are preaching the Word when in fact they are not preaching the Word (no matter how well meaning they may be) but are in fact preaching an interpretation of the word, interpreted as such because of a kind of philosophy.

Am I making sense? I hope so. In the end, it’s no problem to build a philosophy of open theism in a philosophical way — in other words, talk and hypothesize and make theories about how the future is open (this is what philosophy is meant to be at root anyway) but don’t insist that we know how God works with the future, because we don’t and we probably never will. God hasn’t told us so we shouldn’t pretend He has.

When it comes to deciding how we should live I like to stick to scripture and relationship with God. No philosophy provides me a clear and peaceful way to make decisions in all situations. What I need is a father, one who can guide me and speak to me in my context and situations. That’s what I have in God and that’s why Philosophy falls short. Theology is meant to show me more of God’s character and tell me how to live in line with that, not expose the secrets of how the universe works in all of its detail. That’s for Philosophy and Science to talk about. So long as we don’t mix the two while ensuring that we (if Christians) are Christians first and (insert philosophy here) second then we shouldn’t have a disparity between the faith we claim and the life we live. We should also not have a disparity between the doctrine we espouse and the Science we enjoy and explore.

With all this in mind it’s probably worth just mentioning that this is why I think Science can never make good theology. Don’t tell me Science is able to tell me the meaning of life. It isn’t. Don’t tell me it disproves God. It can’t. It also cannot prove Him. Because it’s not meant to do that.

Last question then: is your theology actually a philosophy? I think it’s an important question.

Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith), Sermons

Politics and Faith: Not a Good Mix

I really enjoyed a recent interview with Tim Keller at The Atlantic, especially one section that deals with politics, faith, and how Christianity flourishes when it moves away from the centre of power. It highlights, for me, how when we mix Christianity with politics we come out with something that no longer looks like Christianity but is just another idea struggling for its own place in this world. The power of Christianity is sucked out of it when it deliberately mixes with earthly power.

Here’s the excerpt:

If you think about it, Christianity was, maybe 150 years ago, very dominant in all the big cities. Peter Drucker—do you know who he is? He was a management guru. He wrote a bunch of books—he wrote The Effective Executive. Anyway, I was at a talk he did where he was talking about how the big cities of America had become more like Europe. He was saying that when he moved from Austria in the 1930s. … He was already an intellectual, he was a professor, and he got a job at NYU. And he was moving to the New York area—I think Hoboken or something like that—and he was trying to buy a house, and the banker said, “I’d like to speak to your rabbi or your priest or your minister.” And being Austrian, he was surprised, and he said, “Why?” And the banker said, “Well, we would never lend money to someone that doesn’t go to a synagogue. Why would we trust you if you weren’t a member?”

And when Drucker told that story, he was trying to say things have changed, in his own lifetime. Things have really, really changed in a place like New York. There was a time at which, you had to, essentially, profess to be an orthodox Christian, to even really be in power, to work your way up, to get a loan.

It’s the other way around now. Frankly, if you are an orthodox Christian in Manhattan right now, it’s a social problem. People are nervous about you, they feel like you’re bigoted. And so actually right now if you are a graduate of Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, and you’ve got your MBA, and you’re working on Wall Street, or being a downtown artist or something like that, and if you are an orthodox Christian, that’s very, very subversive. It’s very transgressive. And in that setting, to some degree, it’s tough to be a Christian here. But in other ways, it is the kind of soil in which Christianity does well. And that is: Christians are out of power.

I know what you’re saying is, “Yeah, but New York is a power center, and if you have an MBA from Harvard and you’re working on Wall Street, then you’re part of the power.” Well, yeah, but if you’re a Christian, at this point, that still puts you somewhat on the outs. Certainly not in my lifetime is that going to turn around. Which means, it’s not a bad soil for Christianity to grow here.

This is an interesting perspective: that the Christian faith actually does well in the kind of soil where it is not favoured. Keller seems to be right, as far as history is concerned. I think that gives us a good sign of how we should treat politics in our churches.

I explored the concept of separating faith and politics, church and state, in a series of posts last year. Here are the links to these posts:

In the World but Not of the World
In the World But Not of the World: Who is the King?
In the World But Not of the World: Not Being Sidetracked
In the World But Not of the World: Ideologies Do Not Rule Us
In the World But Not of the World: Transformation

I tend to find this a liberating concept not only in allowing me to have a clearer view of what my job as a Christian in this world is, but also has allowed me to have clearer political views since I know that my faith isn’t attached to these views (it strengthens my faith as I’m not doubting if I’m really a believer.)

Moreso, I think it helps us to see where even in our own personal lives we are mixing the philosophy of the world into our faith’s worldview.

The posts culminated in a sermon I preached at my church (Church on the Square). If you’d like to give that a listen, download it here:

19_September_2010_Being in the_World_not_of_it_ Ryan_Peter

(Right-click and choose ‘save target as’ to download the file rather than stream it).

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Faith, Love and Good Works — Ben-Hur

1959 movie of Ben-Hur
(The infamous chariot race in the 1959 movie adaptation of Ben-Hur, starring Charlton Heston. It won 11 Academy Awards.)

Last night while waiting for the game between South Africa and Uruguay (which we will not talk about 😉 ) I was sitting reading an old 1960 print of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, by Lew Wallace.

There are reasons why this book’s a classic. It’s written incredibly well and the dialogue is incredibly interesting — at least until where I read to.

Other than the feeling of serenity I enjoyed while reading an old hardcover book originally written in 1880 while my feet were warming at a gas fire, one quote in particular stuck out to me.

“The world [will learn] a new lesson — that Heaven may be won, not by the sword, not by human wisdom, but by Faith, Love and Good Works.”

The scene is a vivid one. Three wise men have travelled from different parts of the world because God has told them that they will meet the Redeemer of mankind. One is an Egyptian, the other is a Greek, and the last is an Indian Hindu (spelled Hindoo in those days). Each of them have rejected the religion, philosophy and gods of their culture and upbringing and have, through much persecution, come to believe that there is one God and creator of all, and that the soul is immortal.

Each has come to this realisation through the testing of their faith, their love, or their good works. Wallace does a brilliant job of resolving their stories in this quote.

God has told them to meet at this place in the desert, even though they have never known each other before, and the Spirit has guided them to meet the Redeemer. They are the Three Wise Men from the Bible who meet Jesus when He is born (Matthew 2).

I find the quote interesting because of the way Wallace has connected these three things — Faith, Love and Good Works, and said that these will win a man Heaven, not human wisdom or the sword.

I would be theologically sound, I think, to mention right off that heaven has already been won through the faith, love and good works of Jesus. That’s what I believe and that’s what Grace is. Yet heaven is not entered without faith in Jesus, and inheritance not gained without love and good works, and the bridge between faith and good works is surely love.

The Christian life is one of walking in these three things.

As an aside, this quote also perhaps makes something else clear — that faith and good works are not the same thing. The endless Calvinist / Arminian debate (for theologians reading this) centres very much around whether or not faith is a work. But faith is not a work. Faith is faith, and works are works, and love is love. They are connected in a mysterious way but they are not the same thing.

Check out Ben-Hur at Project Gutenberg or read it online here.

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Faith Like a Child

(Picture from GettyImages)

I’m sure many of us have heard of the phrase “have faith like a child” or “have childlike faith.” I think the phrase is helpful and true, although it is not said directly in the Scriptures like some think it is.

In Matthew 18 Jesus said we need to be as humble as a child, and in Luke 18 he says we must receive the Kingdom like a child. He never uses the phrase ‘faith like a child’, but talks about receiving the Kingdom like a child.

However, we can make a link between receiving and having faith, as there is certainly a link there. Also, perhaps humility can teach us something about faith. Furthermore, God is our Father, as the Scriptures say, so there is always an element of us being his children that is true.

When I was a child I used to wake up in the morning, go downstairs and have my breakfast without really worrying if tomorrow there would be breakfast on the table. Sure, my experience may be unique when we look at the thousands of street children today, but there’s still a powerful picture here in my opinion.

We ought to just know that our Father is taking care of us, like a child in a safe home knows their parents are taking care of them. If that promotion hasn’t come by yet, no worries, it will when we’re old enough and ready for it. If that increase hasn’t come yet, it will when we’re old enough and ready for it. We need to be humble and obedient to God’s instructions, so that when he says this or that we do it rather than rebel. It’s for our own good anyway. That’s being a child.

And can I tell you there’s something about getting to be a child again that is exceedingly comforting. I have a Father who will take care of me. He can bear the burdens of life while I can just enjoy my life, like I did when I was a kid, without having to worry about the nitty gritty details. God will take care of that. I don’t need to perform, I don’t need to be constantly driving for this or that; the burden is on God’s shoulders.

I think that this blogger really gets it. Have a read. It’s so encouraging.

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Suffering in Temptation

Garden of Gethsemane (courtesy of the BBC)

Hebrews 12:4-7

“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?

“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”

It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”

We all have certain temptations and struggles that come to us again and again and again, and just never seem to go away. They could be anything – sexual temptation, the temptation to get angry, the temptation to drink, the temptation to be lazy, or anything else.

At least, I do – in particular there is one kind of temptation I struggle with constantly. It just never goes away. I just never grow out of this weakness. No matter what line of thought I subscribe to, how much I read the Bible or pray, where I hang out, what I do and say — nothing seems to take away this temptation. It’s a weakness I’ve got that I have to struggle with almost every day. I have to overcome it almost every day. I have to prepare myself to face it the next day, almost every day.

This constant struggle is a great suffering. I’m sure that many reading this – or all – have something similar. I imagine Paul’s ‘thorn in his side’ (2 Cor 12:7-10) might have been some sort of temptation that God would never take away from him. He had to endure it, for God’s grace was sufficient to endure it, and God’s joy is far more abundant when we endure it and overcome it.

I’m sure Jesus was tempted when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane (pictured above), praying that perhaps the cup of His suffering would pass from Him. Then, of course, He prays that God’s will be done and not His own will (Luke 22:42), and by doing so He goes to the cross willingly.

What is being shown to us here? It appears God will not always take away temptation and suffering. He may let it stay – for the rest of our lives even – and we may have to bear this cross, this suffering, for the rest of our lives.

Is that encouraging? Well, the Lord is treating us as sons. He is disciplining us, He is creating the fruit of self-control within us. Secondly, He promises all over the Scriptures that there will be great reward. (Self-control is also a reward, and I believe there are other rewards too.) See the promises given to those who overcome in Revelation 2 and 3. God is not unjust – he will pour out His joy and rewards now and later to those who overcome. But we must overcome.

This turns overcoming into an opportunity as much as a suffering. And, of course, His grace is sufficient and we have the Holy Spirit who enables us to overcome. As hard as the suffering under the temptation is, the rewards for overcoming far outweigh whatever the actual sin may be and the brief period of suffering we endure.

“We live in a unique culture….We are the first culture to be surprised by suffering.” -Tim Keller. (Thanks to AntRist for that quote.)

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Faith is of the Heart

In a previous post I outlined my struggle with ‘faith-healing’ teachings and how Jesus commended certain people for having faith in the Bible.

I said that his commendation wasn’t so much a commendation to them as a rebuke to others – that, it may be, the thing is that faith is actually an easy thing to do. Putting our trust in God is something that isn’t difficult to actually do – anyone can do it – yet so many in Israel couldn’t do it. Perhaps one of the points of those stories in the Scriptures is to show how the ordinary people could trust in God yet many of the scribes, Pharisees, and all those who should have found it easy to trust in Him found it difficult.

Since then I’ve come to realise something more and that is that faith comes from the heart, not the head. But in all my life I guess I’ve kept trying to get the head to believe, when the head is only there to help the heart to believe.

And it’s the heart that God wants, isn’t it? That’s why faith can be hard – while it isn’t difficult to place our trust in Jesus it is difficult for the trust to remain when things go wrong. Yet faith means we continue to believe despite that. Faith means we continue to believe even when our heads tell us we shouldn’t.

That’s why faith is a relational thing; not an agreement to certain beliefs of statement, but a trust in a person called Jesus. A trust that says, ‘Yes, you are good,’ despite whatever is happening around us.

Beliefs of statement can help us to get our trust aligned correctly, but doctrine must drop from our heads into our hearts – if it stays in our heads it’s actually no good, really.

Doubt and unbelief in the Bible are an issue of the heart, not the head. Faith is a thing of the heart, not the head. The promise from God is that He will change our hearts (Ez 36:26).

Our part is to take the risk with him that He will — and that too is faith.

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Happy Beyond Description

Thanks to a tweet from John Piper, I picked this up at Ray Ortland’s blog and had to share. I really liked it.

In 1851 a group of British missionaries to Tierra del Fuego was forced to winter in the bitter cold while they waited for their supply ship to arrive. It came too late. They all died of cold and starvation. On Good Friday, April 18th, Richard Williams, a surgeon and Methodist lay preacher, wrote in his journal, “Poor and weak though we are, our abode is a very Bethel to our souls [Genesis 28:10-19], and God we feel and know is here.” On Wednesday, May 7th, he wrote, “Should anything prevent my ever adding to this, let all my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy beyond description when I wrote these lines and would not have changed situations with any man living.”

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” John 14:23

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Your Faith Has Made You Well

I’ve often been quite confused about certain verses in Scripture where Jesus tells those he has healed “Your faith has made you well.”

Why it has confused me is because of all the faith-healing teachings I’ve received in my life. Most of faith-healing teaching revolves around faith being the secret ingredient to see you well, and if you’re sick and someone prays for you and you DON’T get well, you’re told “You don’t have enough faith.”

This has confused me. Just how much faith am I supposed to have to receive a healing? How do I know when I’ve got the ‘right amount’ of faith? I’m pretty sure I believe, I’m pretty sure I trust God to heal, and now you tell me I don’t have ‘enough’ trust? It doesn’t make sense – it’s impossible to have more ‘trust’ than just plain simple trust.

Jesus’ words “Your faith has made you well,” seen in Mark 5:34 to the women with the issue of blood (who just touched his garment and was made well); Mark 10:52 to a blind man who was persisting for Jesus to heal him; and Luke 17:19 to the leper who came back to thank Jesus for healing him (and many other places), have all been used to validate this kind of doctrine.

Plus, Jesus’ commendation to the centurion who had ‘great faith’ in Matt 8:5-13, where Jesus also says to the man “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed,” is used to further illustrate the point.

I’ve really battled with this as it doesn’t make sense. It makes ‘faith’ to be the power to see you healed, not God. If you have enough ‘faith’ (who knows when you do?) then you’re healed. Otherwise God is powerless?

I’ve been battling again with this yesterday, especially as I’ve been doing a study on Acts 3:16 where Peter has healed a cripple and says it was neither by their power or their piety (holiness) that it happened, but by the authority of Jesus. As I said above, I’ve often even heard people speak about faith being the ‘power’ to heal. That makes no sense whatsoever – how could trusting someone (a relational dynamic) be a ‘power’? This isn’t magic we’re dealing with.

But, lying in bed last night I think Jesus showed me something that really opened my mind and heart.

All of these people above didn’t really have any special ‘faith’. Jesus says their faith (which means ‘trust’, a believing that also incorporates some action) has made them well. The point was that they were ordinary people trusting as much as ordinary people can and do. They did nothing special except act on that trust, by going to Jesus, touching his robe, pleading to him, etc. They had as much faith as any normal person in the history of the world and today has ever had or can have.

When Jesus commends the Centurion for having great faith in Matthew 8, notice what he says in verse 10 – “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Was Jesus commending the centurion as much as he was rebuking Israel? Sometimes we may miss the clear rebuke to Israel – Jesus is saying not even God’s people could do something as simple as the Centurion did. There was nothing special about his faith. The marvel is that Israel couldn’t even just trust in such a simple way – Israel was unable to do the simplest of things, because of the state of their hearts.

These are written down for our edification. There is nothing special about any of the people Jesus made well. They possessed no more faith than ordinary people — they were ordinary people! That’s the point. That’s what Jesus is illustrating..

In Luke 17 the disciples ask for Jesus to ‘increase their faith’ in vs 5. He answers by saying they need faith like a grain of mustard seed. We all know it’s small, and we also know that it can grow. But to trust God for healing is not difficult and it requires no major effort. You just have to do it – but it’s in the ‘doing it’, in the actual trusting, that we struggle. But if we believe, we believe, we don’t have to believe ‘more’ to see ourselves healed. There is no measure of ‘more believing’ – we can all believe as much as the next person, and that believing is enough.

Immediately after the disciples ask for their faith to be increased Jesus talks about unworthy servants – is he saying that trust (faith) is more than just doing what you’re told? Then it goes straight into the story of the lepers, where Jesus says to one of them ‘your faith has made you well’.

He didn’t do anything special, he came back and thanked Jesus when the others didn’t. But he did nothing ultimately special. He did something every single one of us has the ability to do. Every one of us have the ability to trust Jesus. Jesus keeps harping on people’s faith to show how simple it is, not to give us some ridiculous bar we must measure up to.

I think this makes a heck of a lot of more sense than what I’ve been taught previously. The only thing is, it needs to be put into practice, and that’s where I struggle. I need to risk it with Jesus and pray for others to be healed, trusting they will be. Is that easy? No. But it doesn’t require a great amount of faith – it requires the amount of trust in God that any human being has the ability to have – it just requires I do it.