Monday, September 29, 2008

Interesting Scriptural Find of the Day

I'm going through the Tanakh, and I found this interesting verse Jeremiah 7:22-23 .
For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

I find this an interesting observation...that the sacrificial system was not even originally a part of "The Plan" so to speak.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

5 Myths Christians Perpetuate

It's unsettling how often Christians tell each other things that simply are not true. Here are five examples of varying import.

1. Satan was an angel who fell to Earth after a cosmic failed coup against God.

It's some consolation that most conservative theologians will readily admit that the verses that are misconstrued to support this (Isaiah 14:11-14, Ezekiel 28:13-19] have nothing to do with Satan. The first referring to the King of Babylon, the second to the Kingdom of Tyre. However, even with this admittance, the idea that Satan is an "Angel gone bad" is still clasped.

The Bible does not indicate that there was ever a time when Satan was good. We are told he has been "sinning from the beginning"[1st John 3:8] and a "murderer from the beginning"(John 8:44). [Where we have to assume "murder" is used in the enlightened sense of having hatred in his heart.]

Further, the Bible never calls Satan an Angel, nor does it indicate that Satan was thrown out of heaven before the creation of man. In fact, Satan was in heaven up until the time of Christ's resurrection. [Note in Job 1:6, the angels and Satan come to present themselves in front of the Lord and Revelation 12:7-11 is about as clear as one could hope for in terms of pinning Satan's fall to a timeline.]

Christians cling to the idea that Satan is a fallen angel for two reasons...both having to do with Human philosophy. First, it is convenient to think the only categories of rational beings are God, angels, and humans. Admitting the need for something outside these neat boxes is resisted. Secondly, saying that Satan was evil from the beginning sounds too close to saying that Satan is inherently evil. Most people are okay with that idea, but not Evangelical Theologians...for that would suggest that God created something that was inherently evil. That idea does not sit well with many it is far more convenient to just say Satan is a fallen angel...even though he is never called an angel nor is it suggested that he "fell" from being a servant to God.

2. Belief in Christ is the only way to receive forgiveness of sins.

Contrary to this, the Bible gives several ways for which forgiveness of sins might be accomplished (not even counting the sacraments):

A. By forgiving others [Matthew 6:14, and elsewhere. Note this was spoken without condition to masses of people before there was even a notion of what it meant to be a "Christian."]

B. By repenting [Luke 3:3, before Jesus was even preaching.]

C. By power of the church [John 20:23, since Jesus and Stephen both asked god to forgive those ho were killing them, this certainly extends outside the realm of believers.)

D. By having another pray for you [1st john 5:16]

E. By confessing our sin [1st John 1:9, once again something that could be done without any knowledge of Christ.]

3. God never suffers a change of mind.

Christians often feel it would suggest something unsavory regarding God's omniscience should it be suggested that a change in mind occurred. It seems God has the power to do anything except change plan.

In reality, though, it is easy to find examples of this in the Bible.

An important one is switching from sons and grandsons incurring the debt of their fathers. God proclaimed an end to this in Ezekiel 18. Compare this to the story up until then when one generation of Israel could be punished until the sins of the previous generations had been offset through suffering. [A recurring idea in Isaiah, but Exodus 20:5 clearly describes the process.]

In Jeremiah 18:5-10, God goes out of the way to be as clear as possible regarding the flexibility of divine decree.

There are many other examples, but the above is the hardest to 'get around:'
  • God regrets creation of humanity Genesis 6:6
  • God plans to destroy all Israel and start over with Moses Exodus 32:14
  • Eli's family promist renounces [1st Samual 2:30]
  • Judah/Israel are told that after God delivers them, they are never to be shamed again. It appears that their lack of acceptance of Christ robbed them of that promise.
  • Judah is to be saved from Babylon after 70 years but the promise is nullified due to their lack of repentance [Daniel chapter9]
  • Christ [and Paul] give every indication that the second coming is coming very, very soon. Paul had to write a letter to the Thessalonians just to calm their fears that they had missed out. 2000 years later, we are still waiting.
I want to clarify that I'm not accusing God of breaking promises here. The covenants of God [even the New Covenant!] have understood, implicit requirements. That is why Daniel knew Judah was in danger of not receiving her deliverance. The problem for the Calvinist (but not a problem for someone with a less chiseled view on predestination) is that this point doesn't really get them out of the fire. If God knew beforehand that these promises would have to be nullified due to Israel's not repenting, then it makes God look foolish for proclaiming them in the first place.

4. Profanity is Inherently Sinful

Various verses are given to legitimize this, but none of them are particularly compelling unless you are trying to read into the Scripture this cultural idea. This is rather frustrating, as I know very serious Christians who put this as one of the top things they think of when imagining a "solid" Christian. There's no clear reason why curse words in general violate the overarching commandment of love toward God and neighbor as they are simply an artifact of human philology.

Most importantly, Paul uses profanity himself. In Philippians 3:8 the word translated "filth, rubbish, refuse, dung," etc. is really just the Greek word for "shit."

5. The Pharisees were "Legalistic"

Christians heap all manner of insults upon the Pharisees. while this is not in and of itself much different from the Gospel of Luke, the problem is that we do not criticize the Pharisees for the things they were actually doing wrong.

We paint Pharisees as people who "tried to be saved by works" or put emphasis on doing ritualistic things that are not important. We use the same term to refer to ultra-conservative Christian churches who forbid drinking, dancing, watching Hollywood movies, profanity, or voting Democrat.

This is very much a false comparison.

Christ did not take the Pharisees to task because they required people to keep the law. He attacked them for not showing the Jewish people [or realizing themselves] the greater aspect of the Law that was meant to be conveyed through the written Law.

It would have been very wrong of the Pharisees to not require the Jews to keep the Sabbath or eat only clean foods, etc. These signs of Israel's holiness [which means simply "to be set apart"] were extremely important to God. The prophets put these requirements in the same category as idolatry and murder [though with less emphasis to be sure.]

The problem is not that the Pharisees were observing or requiring these things, but rather that they were not at the same time teaching others the spiritual aspects of the law such as justice, mercy, and compassion. Matthew 23:23 describes this pretty well.

For that reason, the Pharisees should not be compared to those today who simply make up requirements or ordinances that have either no basis in Scripture or rather dubious support.

On the other hand, it is certainly not wrong to specify what is required of believers. Jesus had no qualms about doing that. He tells us that no one is worthy to be His disciple unless he or she renounces worldly possessions [Luke 14:33], and faith-not-works Paul has some rather strident points to say on church discipline [1st Corinthians 5:1-7] and the danger of sin in general [Ephesians 5:5-6].

What myths do you hear other Christians say?

Odd Teachings of Christ: #1

I believe many of Christ's teachings look "odd" when compared to the beliefs generally espoused by the Christian church. They are therefore the least likely to be discussed in church, so in the interest of equal time, I'll share them occasionally.

A comment made by Thinker on an article at Between Two Worlds got me to thinking.

How do those subscribing to Orthodox Christianity understand Luke 13:23-24 or Matthew 7:13-14, both of which suggest few people are actually saved.

How does this compare with most Christian's viewpoints on Salvation? The number of evangelicals worldwide is estimated as at least 250,000,000.


Friday, September 26, 2008

What Does "Agnostic" Mean to You?

Imagine asking one scientist (Scientist A) "Which theory do you support: Neo-Darwinism or Creationism," and the scientist said he had not come to a conclusion.

Then imagine asking another scientist (Scientist B) the same question, but she answers "The question makes no sense. Neither Neo-Darwinism nor Creationism is a scientific theory. They are historical reconstructions. Science describes how the universe in general works, not what may or may not have happened on this particular rock. We call that branch of knowledge 'history.'"

Would you consider these two answers similar?

Now, imagine asking someone (we'll call her Jessica) "Jessica, do you believe in God?" And Jessica answers "Well, I read The Case for Christ and Evidence that Demands a Verdict, but in the end I think we humans just cannot know about God or if there is one...regardless of what we might have as evidence."

Now, imagine asking someone else (will call him Kevin) "Kevin, do you believe in God?" and Kevin answers. "I haven't decided what I believe." And then you ask him what he has done to investigate the question, and he says he hasn't really done anything. He has more important things to do.

Would you consider these answers similar? I wouldn't.

People use the term "Agnostic" to refer to a wide variety of belief holdings. I personally think people who are "undecided" like to call themselves "Agnostic" because it makes them feel more lets them "fill out their profile" with something other than a question mark.

The problem is that there is already a perfectly good word for not personally having made up your mind [or not personally caring one way or the other], which is the state that many are in. We already have the term "undecided."
We don't have another good word for someone who has had a more serious introspective dialogue and come to the conclusion that such things are not knowable.

Another problem is that adhering to a religion, or even claiming the theology of atheism (which is not a religion), at least is a claim. It means affirming something. Saying you are "agnostic" in the sense of "we cannot know" is also at least a philosophical affirmation, but saying "agnostic" when you really just haven't figured it out yourself, and perhaps don't care to, is not a claim about anything.

What do you think Agnostic should mean? If people use "Agnostic" to mean "undecided," then what should we use to mean "no one can know"? We could use the terms "Strong Agnostic" and "Weak agnostic," but that seems a rather unfortunate option...especially since one says nothing at all and the other says something profound about epistemology.

Prophecies through Jewish Eyes

For anyone studying Scripture, I would suggest reading the Bible through Jewish eyes, in particular the Later Prophets. Our Christian translations are prone to bias based on the theology of the translator.

Believers Less Gullible, Study Shows

Scientist are probably upset now with mathematics, which has shown statistically in a recent secular study that Christians are far less likely, in general, to believe in unlikely phenomena.

Jesus Christ on the Economic Crisis (An Interview)

[Note: I had originally written this partially as an interview with Jesus. I had misgivings about that from the beginning and should have heeded them, for the resulting blog came out akin to an 8 year old trying to prepare an omelet and ending up with a "scramble." The substance might be the same but the presentation and style were certainly not what I want to put up for posterity. I've edited this and kept the title because I believe blogger uses the title to create the links.]

There are all sorts of sites offering to explain the economic crisis (if it is a crisis), and how it occurred. While politicians have been happy to blame the meltdown on greed, some Christian writers (perhaps in deference to their tendency to support free markets?) have shied away from that view (though some have not), blaming people who could not pay their loans (while pointing out most of those are minorities), or taking a page out of Jerry Fallwell's playbook and blaming gays, abortion, and other selected aspects of American culture.

It's funny how people always choose easy targets for blame. [What's also funny is this video on the Credit Crunch, but that's neither here nor there.] But what does blaming "greed" or one's enemies teach us? We already know greed causes problems. We already know democrats/republicans eat kittens. There's no lesson there.

I think if we asked Jesus about this, He would perhaps bring our attention to something no one is really discussing: the American Imperative to own your own house, even if it takes going into debt for 30 years to do so.

Christians should avoid debt in general, as Paul tells us in Romans 13:8 and God prohibits lending money at interest to your own countrymen, at high interest, or to the poor. Jesus might remind us that even when the Jews did have to borrow, it wasn't for anything as elective or massive an entire house [and American homes are more like mansions compared to what most people live in comfortably around the world.]

In particular, I think Jesus would call into question the appeal, allure, or motivation behind buying a house. Many people buy for stability or security so they do not have to worry about rising prices or their house being sold, etc. Going into massive debt just to stave off those concerns appears to contradict So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Perhaps a more common reason people buy is that they are told it makes more financial sense, the renting is just 'throwing money away." But in the end they almost always pay more in rent [for the same space/location, etc.] than they do to rent [when cost of ownership/maintenance] is assumed. Since when is craftiness toward money our desire?

When someone buys a home either by outright purchase or through paying more per month than rental costs, it seems they are putting interest in storing up and acquiring persona property, which goes against a vast raft of Christ's teachings:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal?

Not only does acquiring of personal possessions stop us from ministering to those God calls us to help, but our interest in possessions is a block against following Christ (So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple; For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God)

There's this idea that it is "reasonable" for us to enjoy the fruits of our labor, but I would point out the rather hard response Jesus gave to the Jew who made the "reasonable" request of asking Jesus to tell his brother to share his inheritance with him. ( Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.)

Some might call it "legalistic" to exhort fellow Christians to renounce their interest in worldly possession, perhaps even using that ultimate put-down, "legalistic." But Jesus, who was well aware of how hard His commands were would be exasperated at those people...just as He was exasperated by His own followers: Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Christian Buzzwords

"Faith in Christ"
"New Covenant"

What do these words mean to you? What do you think they mean when others say them? What are your favorite Christian Buzzwords?

Many of these terms manage to be just nebulous enough to allow Christian leaders to talk about things without saying anything in particular... or arousing questions or disagreement in their audience. [Because a questioning Christian is about as welcome as tuna salad accidentally left in your car over a 4-day weekend in July]

For example, if a leader says "Salvation only comes through Faith in Christ." Then you may or may not agree, but at least you have to work a little before you can object. What does he (likely a he, it is, after all, a church leader we are talking about) mean by "salvation"? What does he mean by"Faith in Christ"?

If he defines salvation as "goes to heaven" and defines "faith in Christ" as "Believes only Jesus can save me from Hell" (not the only options, of course, but somewhat common ones), then it'd be a lot easier to think about the question and decide if you agree or not.

For example, how does that relate to Christ's description that several ancient Jews [who certainly could never have "believed in Christ" in the way the term is being used here] will most definitely go to heaven:
I say to you that many will come from east and west, and recline {at the table} with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven;
[Matthew 8:11]

And how does that statement relate to Christ's advice given to the Jewish expert in Luke 10:28. It seems to me that Christ would have said something different unless He was willfully misleading the expert.

But instead of saying what we mean, we use these vague terms to keep everything fuzzy... because fuzzy things are harder to pin down or question.

So, what's your favorite Christian Buzz word?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

What is a Christian?

A lot of energy is spent by Christians trying to tell one another what a real Christian is. This is not a new phenomenon. It's eerily similar to political mouthpieces trying to say who really represents the beliefs of one party or another.

Were you to ask people What does it mean to be a Christian? or What are the minimal requirements for someone to qualify as a Christian? You could get any number of responses. Some common essential properties of being a Christian you might hear are:

A. Believes the Bible (Or some variation on in what way someone "believes the Bible.")
B. Goes to Church (For Catholics, I would enlarge this to include certain practices like eating fish on Fridays, etc.)
C. Believes "Jesus died for my sins."
D. Believes Jesus was/is God
E. Believes only Christians go to Heaven
F. Believes "You cannot make it to Heaven on your own."
G. Believes in the Resurrection
H. Is a member of my denomination
I. Believes God created the world in 6 days

(What answer would people you know give?)

It seems to me that most, if not all, the above have serious problems. For example, "E is self-referential...saying that a Christian is someone who believes that only Christians go to Heaven does nothing to define who a Christian is. If I believed I was a Christian and believed I was the only one going to Heaven, then "E" would apply to me...but yet I have done nothing to explain by that belief what it means to be a Christian.

Many of the above make no sense historically. We have to assume that the early apostles and their churches should count as "Christians," yet they did not have "The Bible," (indeed, the Church disagreed among itself for centuries as to which books belonged in the Bible and which did not) so one could hardly say that a requirement for Christianity is that you believe the Bible [though one could draw the conclusion that the Old Testament, at least, was accurate, as we see no account of Jesus suggesting otherwise.]

Similarly, the doctrine of atonement in its current state didn't even exist until the 11th century, and early believers did not have the trinitarian formulas the modern church holds so dear. Indeed, Origen, the most important Christian theologian of the 2nd century, would not even be allowed in the church today by that standard.

In addition to historical problems, significant biblical problems stand out from the above list as well. Where do we see early evangelists stressing to non-believers any of these things? If you want to see what makes a Christian a Christian, I think you should look at what the early apostles preached to non-Christians in an effort to have them join the Faith.

A study of acts can be rather revealing here. I've put together the following chart to illustrate what teachings you find in Acts regarding Christianity. I'm focusing on Acts because that is the only book where the focus is on Evangelism to non-believers and new believers.

in Acts
Jesus is
is King
Jesus will
Judge All
Repent!Believers go
to Heaven
go to Hell
2: 14-41xxx

3: 12-26xxx

4: 8-12xx

5: 30-32xxx

5: 42x

7: 1-53x

9: 22x

10: 34-43xxxx

13: 16-41xxx

14: 14-17


17: 2-4, 6-7xxx

17: 18-31

18: 5x

18: 28x

20: 20-22


22: 1-21xx

26: 1-29xx

Based on the above, I'd say that other than emphasizing the Resurrection, the church has rather struck out when it comes to defining who or what a Christian is.

It seems, at least if Paul, James, Peter, and Stephen are good sources, that a Christian is someone who has chosen to follow Christ's practices, repenting of unloving acts that God hates, and believes Jesus is the Christ (as shown by his Resurrection) who has been given power over Heaven and Earth, including the office of Judge.

While none of the above are things that most Christians would disagree with, they are also unlikely to be the first thing out of their mouths when asked What does it mean to be a Christian?

I think Christians in general do not like the idea that repentance is an absolute requirement as opposed to a goal. I would further say that merely believing Jesus is the Christ who sits in power over Heaven and Earth would strike many as "too easy," allowing too many fringe groups in. And in particular, the idea that "Christians, and only Christians, go to Heaven" is such a basic tenet to many that seeing it as not a required one just seems odd. The truth is that the word for Hell does not even show up in all of Acts. One wonders what that says about modern day evangelists and missionaries who start off their message with "Do you know where you are going when you die?"

But what do you think? What does it mean to be a Christian? Are there any passages you believe suggest there is some aspect fundamental to being a Christian that is missing from the message given by the apostles in Acts?