Give Yourself to Others …

Posts Tagged ‘doctrine

When you have the time, you should do a little research on the history of the doctrine of the Trinity.  I’m not going to review the whole history in this post, but it’s useful history to be aware of.

The short version goes back to the First Council of Nicaea, in 325.  There were a lot of theological disputes back in those days, so Emperor Constantine pressured the leading bishops of the day to gather and resolve these.  One of the issues centered around the nature of Jesus Christ.  Ultimately related to that question was which of the writings in circulation at the time, should be considered “sacred.”

As part of the discussion, one guy promulgated what we know call “The Trinity”, God in three persons, but one God.

I don’t have any huge objection to the use of this “paradigm”, but I think we should recognize it is an attempt to explain something about God, which we cannot understand.  So, it’s more a statement about our capacity to grasp God, than it is a statement about God.

As you may know, one of the significant objections Muslims have to the way Christians talk about God, is that we have three gods (Father, Son, Spirit), while Muslims have but one God.

I think the Muslims have phrased it more properly.

God has presented himself to us in three different ways.  But that has to do with our intellectual capabilities, not the limits of God.

He presented himself as Jesus, to give us a living example of what it means to be the person he wants us to be.

He presents himself as the Spirit, because of his continuing presence and influence in our life, if we are persistent in seeking him.

But God is God.  He is sovereign.

We should acknowledge him and him alone, and admit we can’t comprehend everything there is to know about God.

Humility is a good thing.

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Like many people, I’ve probably read 1 Corinthians 13, a thousand times.  The description of “love” by Paul, is beautifully inspiring.  I often read it when I perform weddings.

On a side note, the old King James Version translation of agape as “charity” is probably a better translation than “love.”  But that’s a topic for another time.

What I’ve missed in the thousands of times I’ve read 1 Cor 13 are the first three verses (this is from The Message):

13 If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.

2 If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.

3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.

Am I the only one who missed this?

I can be the smartest person in the world.  I can understand everything … even the greatest mysteries about God … I may have so much faith that I can perform miracles … I can be the most generous person in the world.

And if all of this is true, but I’m not loving others, the way Jesus loved me, then it’s all pointless.

If we are not loving towards one another, we’ve missed the whole point from Jesus.

Think about that, the next time you argue about doctrine!

When I was younger  — I’ve passed the 60 mark — I actively engaged in what I now label as the “endless doctrinal debates.”

I won’t say they are useless, but they do get pretty close.  As I read the Text, especially the gospels, Jesus pretty steadfastly chastises the Pharisees and Sadducees for their pre-occupation with and arguments about Jewish doctrine.  Just because the issues may have changed — and not all of them have — I’m skeptical Jesus’ view would change.

Jesus seemed pre-occupied with forgiveness and charity ….

Even when individuals were obviously guilty, Jesus overlooked their guilt and showed them love.  And with his parables, he often only hinted at a better way … rarely “laying down the law.”

I cannot say I’ve done an exhaustive review to confirm the following point, but I’m pretty it’s accurate:  most of the doctrinal issues Christians argue about are based upon statements by someone other than Jesus — perhaps the writings of the Apostles, or Luke.  Rarely, if ever, do we argue over things Jesus said.

As I’ve noted before, the only time in the Text, where Jesus describes his own words as “commands” are in John 13 and John 15.  Both times, he says he’s giving them a new command, to love another the way He loved us.

Oh, how I wish we would be pre-occupied with doing that.

There are two basic approaches to view, understand and interpret the Text of the Bible, and even more specifically, the New Testament:  Legally and Spiritually.

Many people see the New Testament Text as first, the story of Jesus (which primarily encompasses the core gospel message), following by a brief history the movement of Christianity across the Roman empire and finally an lengthy exposition of the gospel into a set of commands, which we must follow literally, if we are to succeed in living a Christian life.

I have always believed that the message of the Text, as God would have us hear it, at the very least must be consistent.  That is, there is somewhere a principle, which, when applied properly, allow us to read what sometimes appears to be conflicts within the written text of the New Testament.

For example, Paul and others write that the law has been done away with.  The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself in love. And yet, we can also delineate within the NT Text, numerous examples of where Paul or other epistle writers give what seem to be very specific instructions on what we should or should not do.  Many see these instructions as commands, or laws, to be followed. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

So, is the New Testament a rule book?  Or, not?

Here’s my answer:  If all you do is keep the rules, you may miss the point of Jesus’ message.

I provide two points to support this conclusion:

First is a combination of Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.  Hebrews 10:16 actually quotes Jeremiah 31:33.  Here is the critical piece of text:

Hebrews 10:16 (New International Version)

16 This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord.  I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.

Hebrews 10:16 (The Message)

This new plan I’m making with Israel isn’t going to be written on paper, isn’t going to be chiseled in stone; This time “I’m writing out the plan in them, carving it on the lining of their hearts.

Hebrews 10:16 (English Standard Version)

16 This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,

Under the law, which God gave to Moses, it was in writing.  You didn’t have to doubt it, interpret it, it was written.  And if you have any doubt, just read Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Numbers, where you will find pages of explicit instructions, often followed by a “thus saith the Lord” in the KJV.

But now, Jeremiah comes along and quote God as saying he will eventually make a new deal with us.  And in contrast with the tablets of stone, he says he will write it on our hearts and minds.

Maybe my reading of this passage is too simplistic, but it says to me there is a major contrast between the old covenant and the new covenant.  The implications of this contrast are laid out most simply in Paul’s quote above: But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.

Seems pretty clear.

Second is the Parable of the Good Samaritan, taken in full text, especially as presented in Luke 10:25-37.

Luke 10:25-37 (English Standard Version)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan

25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” 26 He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” 27 And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

29 But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 Jesus replied, “A man(I) was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. 31 Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. 32 So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. 34 He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’

36 Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” 37 He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

The first part of this passage presents the well known Q and A about the Greatest Commands, which Matthew also reported.  Equally known is that the first command is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second a quote from Leviticus 19:18.

Let’s examine the fuller context of Leviticus.  Almost the entire chapter 19 is a litany of individual commands of the law.  And verse 18 reads as follows:

Leviticus 19:18 (New International Version)

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.

Leviticus 19:18 (The Message)

Don’t seek revenge or carry a grudge against any of your people.  Love your neighbor as yourself. I am God.

Leviticus 19:18 (English Standard Version)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

What jumps out to me is that in this context, it is clear, that God was telling the Jews that the definition of neighbor is limited by the scope of the Jewish people.  That is, Samaritans (and other Gentiles) are not our neighbors.

How does this affect our view of the parable Jesus then relates?

Could it be that Jesus is not trying to condemn the Levite and the Priest?  After all, might it be that the Levite and the Priest were actually following the law?  I think they were.

No, the point Jesus was making was that the definition of neighbor is much broader than the law said it was.  If you just keep the rules, you miss the larger point and the more important command.

When the Jews heard the parable of the Good Samaritan, they did not hear a condemnation of the Priest and Levite — they heard a completely new view of God’s message.  We are not bound to love just other Jews, but to love anyone and everyone.

That’s a much more important message, than the message of condemnation.

It is the contrast of law verses spirit.  The spirit takes us farther than the law.  The law limits our responsibilities to just keeping the rules (although, I grant that we can’t even do that).  The spirit requires that we remove those limits, and follow Jesus to the unlimited scope of unconditional love — which goes way beyond anything the law would ever demand.

Does the law demand that we give up our lives?  No.

Does the law demand that we forgive all the bad things people do to us and treat them with love?  No.

Does the law demand that we ignore our heritage and the differences between us and treat others better than ourselves?  No.

That is the central flaw of turning the New Testament into a rule book.  It places limits on our obligation to God — and there are none.  It places limits on what we must do on God’s behalf — and there are none.

If all I must do is keep the rules, then I don’t have to think.  I don’t have to struggle with the hard questions of how I give my life to the people around me.

If all I have to do is keep the rules, I miss the point Jesus was trying to make.

I should have added a subtitle:  the trouble with bible study.

That’s probably a little misleading — intended to get your attention.  In my view, there are a couple of problems with most bible study.

And as background, let me describe my upbringing and education.  I was raised in a religious family.  We attended worship every Sunday, and until well into my 40’s, I probably attended some kind of Sunday morning bible class 50 our of 52 weeks a year.  In college, I had a minor concentration in Bible, which included two-years of Greek study.

I learned a lot over those years.  And in the broad scheme of things, I know the Text of the bible as well as or better than most.  But that’s beside the point.

Something no one ever said to me — straight out — is that studying an English translation of the bible is, by definition, studying someone’s opinion of what it says.  Because translating any text is a judgement.  Sure there are a lot of passages, where the meaning in pretty clear.  But if the meaning of a passage is controversial in anyway, then you can bet the translator is expressing an opinion.  That’s one reason why most translations are done by groups — so the groups have to argue and compromise on how the controversial passages translate from Greek to English.

Just a couple of examples:  baptism is a really poor translation of the Greek word, baptizo.  It should be translated “immersion” or “submersion.”  But the originally King James translators couldn’t translate it that way, because the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church were already baptizing by pouring and sprinkling.  So, they transliterated the Greek word to make a new English word, that they could define their own way.

Ekklesia is the Greek word generally translated “church.”  It really means “assemble.”  It was used to describe the assembly of the citizens of Athens when they gathered to vote on public issues.  Those Athenians were certainly not at “church.”  Church comes from the German word, kirche, which translates as cathedral.  By translating ekklesia as church, the King James translators kept the people coming to the cathedrals.

Next, have you ever tried to analyze the meaning of something your wrote 10 years ago?  Not likely.  We kind of know what we meant.  And most writing is not intended for granular dissection and analysis.  The Supreme Court often seeks to determine “Congressional Intent” when evaluating the cases before them.  They often find that while the language of a given statute is poor, the Congressional Intent is very clear.

I got so tired of the debates of the minutiae of biblical exegesis that I started looking for the big picture — what was God trying to tell me?  What was his intent.  I try to read long passages of the Text and then reflect on what it seems to be saying.  I think that gives me a clearer picture of what the writer was trying to get across.

In addition, like anyone who reads the Text, there are some passages that seem to be saying things that conflict with each other.  Rather than say that’s a huge problem, I thought there must be some more fundamental premise that allowed one writer to make one statement and a different writer to write something that, on the surface, conflicted with the first writer.

So that became my quest — what is the fundamental premise of the Text?

Isn’t that a great question!

And it applies whether, you’re a life long believer or a young skeptic.  The question also has the power to change the nature and substance of a conversation.  For a big part of my life, I was easily engaged in what I know see as pointless debates over doctrine or interpretation of some myopic detail in the Text of the Bible.  Did it really matter?  No

Next time you get into a heated conversation or debate, be sure to ask what really matters.

Jesus said that what really matters is loving one another the way he loved us.  After that, most other things pale into insignificance.

I don’t want you to misunderstand the point I’m about to make.  I agree there is value is discussion about the meaning to the Text.  It’s an important part of growing in understanding and maturity of our faith.

But, I also believe there is a limit to such value.  Often this limitation becomes even stronger as the vigor of any given position increases.  Here’s why:

In an ultimate sense, when we debate/discuss what the Text means, we are debating what the proper doctrine should be.  Another way to say that is “we’re debating what is right and what is wrong.”  In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that, but such discussions often lead us to judge the faith of other believers.

And the Text itself says we should not be judging the faith of other believers, only God is their judge.

After all, to condemn someone with whom I disagree on some doctrinal matter is to disregard two things:

  1. it is tantamount to imposing a new law on someone, when Jesus repeated said he came to do away with Law as an approach to finding righteousness before God.
  2. by implication, it says what God has forgiven me of is less significant than what he has forgiven you of — which is an absurd position.
After all, “we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  So, it is irrelevant that God may have forgiven me of different things than he’s forgiven you of.
We are both forgiven.  And we’ve both been forgiven a lot.
And that forgiveness is evidence of how much God loves us.  And Jesus said we’re to love the way he loved us.  If that is the standard, then what doctrinal view is it that you might hold that would make me not love you and try to treat you with as much love as Jesus did?
There should be nothing that can separate you from me — because there is nothing that can separate you from the love of God.
That is the limit of doctrinal debates.

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