Missionary Thought Experiment

The following thought experiment was inspired by a Facebook post by Andre van der Merwe.

*****

One day, a scantly clad dark-skinned man named Chruth (who you later find out belongs to a tribe living in the Amazon rainforest) comes knocking at your door with a translator, claiming to bring good news (actually, the way he put it was “the Good News”).

You ask Chruth what exactly this good news is. He begins to explain the nature of all that exists and how it came to be.

In the beginning, Chruth says, there was only Wonchrugad. Wonchrugad is the one true God; there is no other beside her. Wonchrugad created everything in existence out of love.

Humans were special, the crown of her creation. Unlike other creatures, Wonchrugad had designed human beings so that they could have a relationship with her. She loved humanity dearly.

In order to help humanity live the most pleasurable lives possible, Wonchrugad gave them some guidelines for life. One day, however, humanity decided to ignore her guidelines; they thought they knew better. From that point forward, humanity was on a morally downward spiral, further straying from what their consciences told them was good and right.

During this decline, Wonchrugad had reached out to humanity by speaking through shamans and performing miracles. Things only ever improved temporarily, however, and matters only became worse overall.

Thus, Wonchrugad decided to come to earth in human form and fix things directly. She showed people her love. She performed miracles. She exposed lies and explained the truth. Some people were for her; others were against her. In the end, those who were against her, unwilling to tolerate the disruption she was causing in society, succeeded in their plan to brutally murder her.

Yet Wonchrugad had seen it coming; this was part of her plan all along! Wonchrugad raised herself from the dead, appearing to her followers before leaving earth (although only in her human form). Through her death and resurrection, she was able to redeem all of humanity, if only they would repent and accept Wonchrugad into their hearts.

Her followers were given the mission of spreading this Good News. They were also endowed with the Spirit of Wonchrugad, enabling them to perform all kinds of signs and wonders. This Good News has been passed down throughout the ages, all the way to Chruth, a follower of Wonchrugad and a messenger of the Good News.

Curious, you ask Chruth how he came to believe in this story.

Chruth replies that his parents believed in this story and taught it to him growing up. He had also personally experienced the existence of Wonchrugad in various ways, such as communicating with her, feeling her presence, being healed by her, etc.

You tell Chruth that he has an interesting set of beliefs, but that, actually, you possess the true revelation and the real Good News (which, you point out, in fact has many similarities with his beliefs). You ask if you can share it with him.

Chruth, slightly surprised by your arrogant incredulity (but not too much because his scriptures predicted that such propagators of lies would show up), replies, “I see that your heart is unbelieving. I plead with you, do not reject Wonchrugad and consign yourself to eternal separation from her. Open up your heart and change your mind. Choose life, not death.”

You see that Chruth is genuine in his call to repentance, yet you struggle to find a reply because you would have liked to say exactly the same thing to Chruth. “But Chruth, you don’t yet even know the god I believe in. How can you be so confident that you are right and I am wrong?”

Chruth laughs and replies, “Whatever god you have been taught to believe in does not really exist; I guarantee you, it’s false at best and demonic at worst. For I have both experienced first-hand the reality of Wonchrugad and witnessed undeniable reasons for why my beliefs about her are correct.”

You ask Chruth whether he has any compelling evidence as to why his beliefs must be right.

“The holy writings say that the reality of Wonchrugad is evident in nature and plain for all to see. You are only stubbornly denying that which Wonchrugad has made obvious to all humanity.” Chruth then walks you through his apologetics for the historicity and validity of his holy writings, proofs for the existence of Wonchrugad, and demonstrations of the falsity of any other belief system.

You begin to give similar reasoned arguments for your own beliefs, but Chruth cuts you off. “Listen, I’m not interested in your arguments. I’m sure some of them are quite good, but that doesn’t matter to me because I already know the truth. And truth be told, so do you. Why do you keep resisting?”

Realizing that this conversation is going nowhere, you thank Chruth, tell him you’re not interested, and close the door.

*****

Now, let’s think about this thought experiment.

Firstly, that this isn’t a true story doesn’t detract from the lesson it communicates (it’s called a thought experiment for a reason…besides, there are plenty of belief systems that in fact do make competing claims to those of christianity). The point is this: what about your belief system do you have to show that distinguishes it from all others? What can you say about yours that no one else could ever say about theirs, how does that support its validity? Why should that be reason for someone to be convinced by it and agree with you?

Of course, every belief system has things unique to it. Precisely because of this, we must recognize that merely possessing a unique characteristic doesn’t make a belief system unique (unique, that is, in the sense that it is so profound or powerful that it must be the truth). For example, christians love to tout how, in christianity, God is Trinity, three in one, and therefore only he (as compared to gods of other religions) is capable of being love itself (rather than just being loving). (Incidentally, christianity is not the only religion with a trinitarian god; in fact there were many religions before it with trinities.) Even if this were the case, so what? Possessing a unique doctrine in no way proves that christianity is true or better than any other religion.

Imagine that the story above actually happened to you. Do you think you would be convinced? Even a little? To me it seems extremely unlikely. Most people would be inclined to think the person is a little crazy. Yet religious folks do basically the same and expect to be believed (the only difference may be that they are less aggressive in their approach).

This thought experiment doesn’t show that all or any particular belief system is ridiculous or false; that isn’t the point. What it shows is that expecting other people to agree with you or become convinced once you share what you believe is utterly unrealistic, particularly in the absence of compelling evidence. Indeed, the opposite should be expected.

Despite this fact, most christians (the religion I am most familiar with) believe that unless people become convinced of certain intellectual propositions (despite the lack of any compelling evidence, at least in many people’s minds) they will eternally suffer the consequences of their choices, both now and in the afterlife.

More significantly, christians are generally exceedingly confident that what they believe is true, despite the fact that there are plenty of other people with different upbringings, experiences, logical arguments, etc. that are just as credible as those of christians yet supportive of competing claims. What if you had experienced life in their shoes, being told about a different god(s), having different religious experiences (or having the same ones but interpreting them differently because you believe differently), and hearing different logical arguments in favor of the belief system you were brought up to believe in? Do you really think you would have turned out any different from them? Would you somehow be able to escape being affected by your experience and say, “no, it’s all wrong, christianity is the one true religion!”?

But if this is the case, and whatever true god exists requires that we “get the right religion” (or else…), honestly, he’s kind of a jerk. If so much of what we come to believe in is dependent on our various experiences, many of which we cannot control or choose, how can we reasonably be expected to believe in the right things?

Such belief systems require you to conceive of people that don’t agree with your “truth” as not merely mistaken but fundamentally evil. They aren’t just intellectually convinced otherwise; they are stubbornly resisting what they actually know to be true. Because what could be wicked about not being exposed to enough experiences to become convinced, and how could that be sufficient reason to spend eternity in hell?

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Distractive Biblical Obsession (Part 5)

Studysaurus1

Part 4

Bibles are not for deriving doctrine

The way bibles have been treated over the years, and especially in modern times in which people have studied, commented, and explained every word, phrase, and expression for every possible interpretation, is enough to make one think that their purpose is to determine the right things to believe.

Yet if bibles really were purposed to tell us what is true and help us get our doctrine right, then it hasn’t done a very good job of it. Judging from the vast variety of interpretations throughout history, bibles have been the greatest source of confusion among believers since its birth.

Textual variation between accounts of apparently identical events and speeches, however, show that the purpose of the scriptures isn’t to give facts, intellectual knowledge, or historically accurate accounts.

Even assuming that the scriptures have a “purpose” at all is just that – an assumption. It assumes that “God put it together” with a purpose in mind.

So how are we to determine how to treat the scriptures? The way the authors of the NT and the believers of the early church handled them are a good place to start.

No biblical author ever emphasizes getting your beliefs right, nor do they advocate using the scriptures to derive doctrine or claim it as a source of truth. Even in the scriptures themselves we never see the NT authors exegeting their scriptures, the OT, to derive doctrine. In fact, we the opposite. The authors have something they want to say, so they take an OT passage out of context to make it say what they want to say to prove their point (I wrote about this here). They read meaning into the scriptures (eisegesis) rathe than out of it (exegesis). Ironically, this practice is widely condemned in modern biblical scholarship!

The early church considered some beliefs that the scriptures barely mention to be significant enough to put in creeds (e.g. Christ’s descent into hell; prayer for the dead, which is unheard of in Protestant circles, was a well-documented and widespread practice in the early church). Thus their thought process in determining essential beliefs wasn’t to ask “what are the clear teachings of the scriptures?” and summarize them, as many do today.

How did we end up this way anyways?

In Greek thinking, answers are good. In Hebrew thinking, questions are good. In our Western world we have inherited the Greek mindset and have used the scriptures as a tool for generating answers rather than for encountering Jesus in our questions. (See an awesome related comic here.)

Contrary to what the doctrine of sola scriptura would have us believe, the scriptures don’t contain all knowledge necessary for life. True life is knowing Jesus (John 17:3), and that is not merely knowing about Jesus factually but knowing him personally. That’s not going to happen no matter how much you read a book about him. The scriptures can help us know more about Jesus, and that’s good. They cannot, however, bring us into an intimate knowing of him. This can only take place through a direct relationship with him.

As such, the scriptures do not give us a blueprint for living or a comprehensive view of correct doctrine. All it can do is point us to the person of Christ. God’s not in the bible; signs don’t contain that which they point to. The scriptures just say “hey look, Jesus!”

Contrary to popular belief, the Bible is not a manual for Christian behavior and church practice. It’s a revelation of Emmanuel—the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It’s all too common for preachers and teachers today to extract from the New Testament rules, commands, abstract ideas, theories, concepts, and inspiring thoughts, yet fail to present the glorious Person of Jesus Christ. – Frank Viola

But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as The Word, The Way, The Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ ‘in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,’ not the Bible, save as leading to Him. – George MacDonald

Knowing the scriptures does not equal knowing God. If that were so, the pharisees would have known Jesus.

The scriptures were not intended to present a rational system about God but a relational story about Jesus. – Steve Hill

Don’t read bibles to get to know Jesus; read it because you do.

I love my Bible and I love searching and studying it out. But if all the Bibles in the entire world had to be burned tomorrow my relationship with Jesus would not even skip a beat. It will go on as normal. My relationship with Jesus is not based on book knowledge. – Cornel Marais

(End of series)

The Origins and Canonicity of the Scriptures

actually

Were the scriptures really handed to humanity by God on a silver platter as a divine book to help us get our theology straight? Considering the way most christians describe bibles as the “word of God,” infallible, inspired, authoritative, etc., as well as the way they spend enormous amounts of time meticulously studying them, you might have been led to think so, although that may have only been so on a subconscious level.

Yet history seems to tell us otherwise.

In this post I explore the origin and canonization of the scriptures and what they can tell us about what the scriptures are (especially what they are not) for us today.

Disclaimer/Clarification

Let me state at the outset some things I am not saying.

Throw away your bibles.

Don’t read the scriptures.

The scriptures have nothing to teach us.

God doesn’t care about the scriptures.

The scriptures are no different than any other book.

With that said, I may be questioning some commonly-held beliefs about the scriptures. So get ready to be challenged, and perhaps surprised, by the information I present and its implications.

*****

Belief in any doctrine related to sacred texts is not included in any of the earliest creeds

The creeds, such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, were summaries of the most fundamental beliefs of the early church. In essence, they communicated what the believers of that time considered to be essential. They included beliefs about the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit, their natures and relationships with each other, the life, death, resurrection, descent, and ascension of Jesus, the Church, eternal life, etc.

Interestingly, however, not a single one of the early creeds (or if I am simply unaware of some, certainly not the major creeds) contain any reference to sacred writings, let alone to the collection of writings that are now referred to as the scriptures. What this tells us is that, regardless of whatever significance they may have attached to the scriptures, the early church did not consider a certain view of the scriptures to be indispensable.

Some might say that this is irrelevant because the New Testament canon had not yet been formed. That no mention of sacred writings is made in the early creeds is true, however, of creeds written after the canonization of the scriptures at the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) as well (for example, the Nicene Creed (381 A.D.) and the Athanasian Creed (500 A.D.)). Further, the early church did have the Old Testament. If it was as important as it is made out to be today (the so-called “word of God”), why didn’t the early church at least include a statement of the importance of the Old Testament in the creeds? Probably because it really wasn’t that important, at least in the way people nowadays often consider it to be important.

Thus, beliefs about sacred writings, such as inspiration, infallibility, or authority (if they even existed at all) were not essential to the early church.

That the canonization of the scriptures was a God-inspired event has to be assumed

Neither God nor the scriptures ever claimed that the Council of Nicaea would be THE council to decide the authoritative writings. Thus it is not necessarily true that God superintend the council or its decisions.

If you would like to assume that God did indeed superintend the councils and its decisions, that’s fine. But recognize that it is also fine to reject such an assumption. Indeed, everyone chooses which councils and which decisions of which councils to accept as authoritative for themselves, and, concerning this topic, there is great variety among believers. I have written about this in detail here.

Some might object that the matters concerning the scriptures were a collective decision, not the opinions of individuals. But since when has majority vote been a reliable guide for the church? Never, really. There are plenty of points in history where the majority of believers believed doctrines that are now commonly considered to be heretical.

Some might also appeal to the biblical canon being a long-held tradition. But acceptance by many over a long period of time doesn’t validate anything; there are plenty of mistaken doctrines and beliefs that were and still are like that. It’s merely an appeal to the majority opinion and the duration of that opinion across history. If people had always faithfully adhered to such ways of thinking, slavery would still be a worldwide reality.

The canonization of the scriptures is a tradition of man, and to take it to be anything more than that is a personal choice. If you believe God intended the councils, their decisions, and the whole event of canonization to take place, that’s fine. But please be intellectually honest enough to say that that is an assumption that you hold to, and it makes sense and is okay for other people to not hold that same assumption.

There have always been different groups of believers with different canons

At the most basic level, there is variation as to which books are considered to be a part of the biblical canon. You can check out a number of different canons among different christian traditions here and here.

Yet that is not all.

It is also uncertain whether certain parts of books should be included. For example, Mark 16:9-20 is believed by some to be a later addition to the original gospel written by Mark and thus believe it should be excluded from the canon, while others believe it was part of the original and should thus be included.

There is also the question of which manuscripts should be translated. For example, the Eastern church (the Greek and Russian Orthodox) believes that the Septuagint is the inspired version of the Old Testament, unlike Protestants who consider the Hebrew version to be inspired.

There has always been diversity, even in Judaism before and during Jesus’ time on earth, as to how the scriptures were inspired, what constituted the canon, what was considered authoritative, and methods of interpretation. Should we really think that it should be any different now?

The canon was created not to determine what writings people should exegete truth from but to combat heresy

Contrary to what is commonly stated in ignorance, the Council of Nicaea did not focus on the New Testament canon.

Creating a canon was the idea of the heretic Marcion. He was the first christian in recorded history to propose and delineate a uniquely christian canon (c. 140 A.D.). Other christians created different canons to combat heresies that Marcion was promoting. But the battle against Marcionism within christianity ended long ago. This calls into question the necessity and purposefulness of the current biblical canon.

The purpose demonstrated by the early church for canonization was to choose writings that promoted what they considered to be good theology and, in addition, to counter what they considered to be heresy. Yet the canon is nowadays used in the opposite way; instead of deriving a canon from good theology, theology is derived from a canon.

This is a chicken and egg problem – which comes first, a canon or theology? I won’t attempt to answer this question here.

I will mention, however, that theology has undergone significant developments since the times of the early church. Is it too much of stretch, then, to suggest that we, following in their footsteps, can choose a canon that suits our own theological paradigms?

The people who chose what writings would be canonized did not necessarily choose them with the intention of giving them the status that is nowadays commonly attributed to the scriptures

The early church fathers did choose and accept books, but as what? As writings that are infallible, inspired, and authoritative? Hardly.

As was mentioned in the previous section, the purpose of selecting certain writings was first and foremost to promote good doctrine and combat heresy. This can be done without ascribing lofty characteristics such as infallibility, inspiration, and authority to them.

Further, there’s a difference between “authoritatively truthful” and “not heretical.” Was the canonization a divinization of a few writings for all subsequent times, or a rejection of the others that were promoting heresy at that particular time in history? Perhaps it was neither. It could have only meant, “these are the books we will use for public reading in our gatherings.” It could have only meant, “these are the books that are not blatantly heretical.”

It certainly wasn’t, however, to choose writings from which everybody from that point on would look to to exegete truth and figure out what to believe.

I don’t know enough to say be able to confidently say exactly what the early church fathers were declaring in choosing the texts that they did, but it does seem clear what they were not claiming, which, ironically, is what indeed is claimed in our time.

The canon of scripture was never universally set in stone

I have commonly heard an argument in favor of the canonization of the scriptures that goes something like the following:

“The church councils did not choose a canon. Church leaders simply acknowledged what the church had already come to accept.”

In that case, if the general church populace ever comes to think differently, leaders should acknowledge that. In other words, the canonization status of scriptures is not, and indeed never is, set in stone.

The canon of scripture was decided by majority vote, a method which has historically been demonstrated to be unreliable

The majority vote of the early church councils acts as christianity’s “democratic pope.”

But the opinion of the majority is not and never has been a reliable guide to truth. Jesus and the early christians held minority opinions during their times, and there are plenty of examples throughout history in which the “majority of the church” believed heretical doctrines.

Some will be quick to say that what was expressed was not the majority opinion but a consensus. I debunk this idea here.

Even if it was consensus, the consensus of the church is always changing. Thus, we could have a different consensus than what they had back in the day. Why should we think that their consensus is more reliable?

Full dogmatic articulations of the canons of christian traditions were not made until the 1500s or later

It was not always believed that defining a canon was necessary. Some early church fathers were practically unconcerned about canonicity and made use of open canons. The eastern churches in particular generally had weaker feelings compared to those in the west about the necessity of making sharp delineations regarding a canon.

This is even more significant than that different believers had and still have different canons, as mentioned above, because it calls into question whether the idea of even creating a canon is necessary or even something God wills.

Until the Protestant Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church had never officially drawn the boundaries of the biblical canon. Doing so had not been considered necessary because the authority of the scriptures was not considered to be much higher than that of tradition, papal bulls, and ecumenical councils.

It was not until the Protestant Reformers began to insist upon the supreme authority of scripture alone (the doctrine of sola scriptura) that it became necessary to establish a definitive canon. So was the establishment of such a definitive canon really necessary? Only if one holds to the doctrine of sola scriptura, a man-made doctrine of the 16th century.

There are books included in the biblical canon that, based on modern scholarship and information that the early church did not possess, would not be included in the canon of scripture according to the criteria set forth by the early church fathers. On the other hand, there exist writings that, although are not included in the biblical canon, would be included according to the criteria

Many point to the following four “criteria for canonicity” to justify the selection of the books that have been included in the New Testament.

  1. Apostolic origin – attributed to and based upon the preaching/teaching of the first-generation apostles (or their close companions).
  2. Universal acceptance – acknowledged by all major christian communities in the ancient world (by the end of the 4th century) as well as accepted canon by Jewish authorities (for the Old Testament).
  3. Liturgical use – read publicly when early christian communities gathered for their weekly worship services.
  4. Consistent message – contains a theological outlook similar to or complementary to other accepted christian writings.

Yet it is sometimes difficult to apply these criteria to all of the books in the accepted canon, and one can point to writings that are outside current canons that would fulfill these requirements.

For example, Hebrews was only accepted after Paul was adopted as the author (in order to fulfill the criteria for “apostolic origin”). Modern scholarship, however, largely agrees that Paul is not the author of Hebrews. Thus, its apostolic origin is put into question and thus does not necessarily fulfill the criteria for canonicity. Should we therefore remove Hebrews from the canon?

On the other hand, if we found another authentic letter written by Paul, could we in our right minds exclude it from the canon? It cannot pass all the tests of canonicity (because it would have had to be known by the early church fathers to fulfill the criteria for “universal acceptance” and “liturgical use”), but that is only because it wasn’t known about when the canon was formed. Is the ignorance of the early church really a good enough reason to reject such a letter?

In fact, such a letter (although there is disagreement as to its authenticity) actually exists: the epistle to the Laodiceans. It bears striking similarities to the epistle to the Philippians, and it is mentioned in Paul’s epistle to the Colossians: “When this letter is read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and you, for your part read my letter that is coming from Laodicea” (Colossians 4:16). You can read it here. (There may be other writings we have now that are of apostolic origin that I am not aware of.)

Putting the issue of fulfilling these criteria aside, how do we even know that these are the “right” criteria? They are, after all, criteria chosen by human beings, not divinely pointed out by God.

Further, how do we know that these criteria weren’t chosen after the books were chosen? Through such a scheme, people could effectively choose which books they wanted to stay in, and make enough criteria to keep any other book out. This would have probably seemed like an acceptable thing to do to the early church fathers since their motivation for canonization was the promotion of what they considered to be good doctrine anyways.

Most people who support the legitimate canonicity of the scriptures have never even read any apocryphal books – they simply believe what they do because that’s what they’ve always been told. If you are one of those people, I would encourage you to expand your reading horizon.

Specifying a canon places an artificial limit on what (we believe) God can and will do

Declaring a canon is basically saying, “God no longer divinely inspires christian writers” (it at least puts a limit on the degree to which God can inspire people). God never said that, not even in the scriptures. Saying that the “canon is closed” is primarily not a claim about sacred writings but a claim about God himself – what he can and can’t do. It is putting him in a box that says “he can’t give authoritative revelation to anyone anymore like he used to.”

It also places a limit on church authority. If another council of church leaders was formed from all around the world and chose a different canon, why shouldn’t that become authoritative? Why is it assumed that the older and the closer to the time of Christ (for writings as well as people), the better? The 12 apostles didn’t have great theology as we know of at least one case where Paul had to correct them on a basic yet significant issue (the inclusion of Gentiles in salvation), and Paul got his revelation directly from Jesus. Are we “less led” by Holy Spirit than the people back then? I don’t think so. They did not have anything that we do not, and our relationship with God is in no way inferior.

Objection: You just need to have more faith in the workings of God in bringing about the scriptures in history

I bring up this objection because someone actually said it to me.

It’s not that I don’t have faith that God could do that; it’s just that I don’t have any compelling reason to believe that he indeed did. On the contrary, I have reasons to believe that the bible isn’t God-ordained. For example, it and its interpretations are the greatest source of division in the body of Christ today and throughout history.

Here’s another one I hear a lot.

But the Bible is the book that has had the hugest impact on the world throughout history.

That’s like saying, “I drove this car and it went 100km/hr; therefore it must be the fastest car on the planet!” This is silly because every car in the world needs to be tested before anyone can make that kind of claim.

Sure, perhaps the scriptures have had the greatest impact out of all known books. But that doesn’t prove that it is God-ordained. What about a canon that includes all the books of the Bible minus the book of Hebrews plus the letter to the Laodiceans? What if that canon has a greater impact? Well, we don’t know, and we can’t know. We would have to test that out over 1000+ years.

In fact, the argument is circular. If the largest religious group at some point in history claims that a certain book is divinely chosen and perpetuates that idea as correct doctrine (which is exactly what happened), of course that book is going to have the greatest impact! But the argument was that because the scriptures had a great impact, surely they must be divinely chosen (while the truth is that the church chose them).

Conclusion

I hope to have made it clear that the canonicity of the scriptures is not a simple matter that is easily settled by merely referencing the Council of Nicaea, as is commonly done today.

I encourage you to think about these things, talk about it with Jesus, and decide for yourself what you believe.

Belief, Heresy, and Orthodoxy

heresy

Since there’s been some controversy over this blog concerning some particular doctrines, I felt like expressing some of my general thoughts on belief, heresy, and orthodoxy.

Beliefs can be categorized as dogma, doctrine, and opinion (there may be other ways of categorizing, but I think this categorization is fairly common). Dogma are nonnegotiable, essential beliefs, often considered to be the separating line between whether someone can be considered a believer or not. Doctrines are beliefs that are important and significantly affect how one lives, but variety is allowed, at least within certain boundaries. Opinions are beliefs that carry the least weight and for which the greatest variety is allowed.

The funny thing is, even among believers there is no consensus as to what should be considered dogma, doctrine, and opinion. So the distinctions aren’t useful, really – ultimately, it is subjective. People can determine certain criteria for what should be in what category, such as how often it is discussed in the scriptures, what early church fathers wrote about them, whether they exist in the early creeds, what church councils decided, if there has been a historical consensus, etc. But the criteria people choose and the weight they give to each (as well as their interpretations of them) are, again, subjective and there is no universal agreement.

“Orthodoxy” is a myth.

There is no single set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, even if it is limited to “essentials.” Evangelicals have their own orthodoxy and Catholics have theirs, to name just two major streams.

Nevertheless, some will claim that there is a general consensus. But if I ask what about me and others like me who don’t agree about some issue for which they claim there is consensus, I can think of two answers that might be given.

One response is that I am not counted among those whose opinions are taken into consideration. If I pressed further and asked why that is, I would probably get the answer that it is because I don’t believe the minimum requirement beliefs to be considered one of them. But then the “consensus” is really no consensus at all; it is just picking people who are in general agreement and saying, “among these people, there is a consensus.” Well sure! If you only choose people who agree, then of course there is a “consensus.”

The other response is that my position is too much of a minority to be able to illegitimize consensus. But this reduces the meaning of consensus to majority opinion. And when in the history of the Church, I would ask, has the majority opinion ever been a reliable guide to truth?

If we want to say that there is one set of true and correctly articulated beliefs, we have to assume that spiritual realities can in fact be articulated verbally, and perfectly at that. But what if stories, for example, more accurately communicated the spiritual realities they portray compared to philosophical discourse or systematic theology? What if they are so beyond words that they must be spoken of in analogy? I’m not saying that is necessarily the case. But can we really know that it’s not? I don’t think so. But even if a perfect set of beliefs existed, it’s linguistic formulation would have to continually change, because languages change. People’s understandings of the meaning of words do not remain the same over time, and languages are not independent of their surrounding cultures, which also change.

Am I saying that truth is itself subjective? Nope.

There is only one true reality. But our perceptions of it are necessarily subjective. Consequently, our verbal articulations of what reality is are also subjective. We have no sure-fire way of determining whether a belief is true or not. So although truth is objective, our experiences and explanations of it are inevitably and inescapably subjective.

Of course, some beliefs are true, and others are false.

Heresy is real.

And there is a time and a place to address heresy.

But inasmuch as heresy refers to a false belief, we are all heretics to some degree since no one has a perfect set of beliefs. And no matter what we believe, there will always be someone who will consider us to be a heretic. Shucks.

Some people judge a person’s heart by their beliefs or vice versa. The assumption is that the rightness of people’s hearts is directly correlated to the rightness of their beliefs. I understand that the two are not completely unrelated, but no fair conclusion can be drawn about one just by looking at the other. There are people who have good hearts and are genuinely convinced of some ideas that are false. There are also people whose beliefs are very accurate and yet have bad hearts.

Am I saying that your beliefs don’t matter so go ahead and believe whatever you feel like believing? Far from it!

I’m saying that God is only concerned about our beliefs to the degree that they affect our Christ-likeness. First and foremost he wants right living, not right belief. He desires not that we have the perfect concept of love but rather that we become a perfect expression of love. If you had false beliefs but were loving everyone around you perfectly, would God really care?

Of course, our beliefs affect how we live and love and properly understanding love does help us express it. So I understand that the scenario I just gave isn’t realistic. I am simply illustrating that there is something that is infinitely more valuable than getting your beliefs right.

Correct beliefs are only a means to the end of correct action.

Have you ever noticed how getting your beliefs right is not emphasized in the scriptures? The focus of the scriptures is not “what do you believe in?” but “what is your faith in?” Further, it exhorts us to place our faith in the person of Jesus Christ, not in a book or a certain set of beliefs. In fact, a focus on correct belief borders on gnosticism. Our beliefs don’t save us; Jesus does.

If we equate our faith with our beliefs, then changing our beliefs will mean having to throw out our faith. Our beliefs will be continually changing throughout our lives, but our faith in Jesus can remain constant. We can continue to trust him while changing how and what we think.

Diana Butler-Bass points out that the word ‘doctrine’ comes from the word ‘doctor’ and that doctrines were meant to be healing. Doctrine isn’t something we’re supposed to try to “get right.” Rather, doctrine is a means of grace by which we come to change our minds about something (repentance), thereby gaining a new perspective followed by a new way of living. What it really comes down to is us knowing God for who he is through his perfect revelation, Jesus Christ. He crushes our illusions and false beliefs and gives us good doctrine, the truth about what he is like.

I like Frank Viola’s insight on heresy:

The popular understanding of heresy is that it refers to false doctrine. But this is not entirely correct. While heresy certainly includes the teaching of false doctrine, the Greek word translated “heresies” in the New Testament actually refers to creating a sect. That is, it’s the act of dividing a body of believers by persuading them to rally around a certain idea or practice . . . even if that idea or practice happens to be true. Consequently, a person can be a heretic with the truth.

Let’s not divide ourselves over beliefs. It is inevitable that there will always be disagreement. But what’s great about true love is that it is not hindered by disagreement.

Jesus said we would be known not by doctrinal positions or consensus but by our love for each other. Let’s commit ourselves to valuing our connections with one another above agreement. Let’s not rally around particular beliefs but around the living person of Jesus Christ.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 2)

Read part 1.

Before discussing the significance of beliefs as it relates to denominationalism, I will first make some observations about the nature of belief itself.

Perfect certainty of anything is impossible. Even if truth is objective, as humankind we have no universally agreed-upon way of determining whether something is true or not. In other words, proof of truth is subjective. We choose our own ways of being convinced.

Ultimately, we choose to believe whatever makes the most sense to us. Thus we can’t tie people’s beliefs to their character. Just because someone believes something mistaken doesn’t mean they have evil intentions or a bad heart.

Beliefs are things we choose; they aren’t something that just comes to us and we can’t help but accept. Nor are they merely something we arrive at through a pure act of intellect; they are not independent of our desires. No two people believe exactly the same things because they have had different experiences and their minds work differently.

Beliefs are things you try out, like food or clothing. Good beliefs will cause you to live well, and bad beliefs will cause you to live poorly.

Beliefs aren’t something that we have to “get right.” They are a gift from God to help us relate with him. For example, if you think God is angry with you, your relationship with him will be unnecessarily strained. But if you know he is always in a good mood, you will approach him in a completely different manner.

Jesus nor the apostles never stressed theology (although many modern theologians have used the bible to stress theology). This is because it is possible to love God while holding wrong beliefs. They recognized that theology is only significant to the degree that it affects your living. And in the end, that’s all that really matters. Loving Jesus. As we daily encounter God, our beliefs will naturally align with his as he reveals himself, Truth, to us. He may want us to change a belief we have, but ultimately that’s so that our actions will change for our own benefit.

In light of this, it isn’t biblical to expect everyone to believe the exact same things. Why assume that there is a body of “correct beliefs” that God wants everyone everywhere to believe? What if God leads different people to “understand” the same things in different ways – ways which we would interpret as “different beliefs”? What if he gives people different wordings of the same concept? What if different understandings benefit different people to different degrees?

I’m not claiming there is no absolute truth. I’m saying since we can’t fully know or understand absolute truth anyways, trying to get everyone to agree isn’t as important as it has been made out to be. Yes, heresies are real and they are destructive. But we don’t need to go heresy hunting because lies will be made evident in the lives of those who believe them. Heresies will hunt themselves.

Alright. Now let’s see how this relates to denominationalism.

To reiterate, denominationalism separates people according to beliefs. This is done on two levels. The first is to distinguish your own belief system as the best compared to all others among christians. The second is to define a minimum set of beliefs necessary to be considered a christian.

There is a problem with both of these.

The first, viewing your beliefs as the “best theological system,” is plain arrogance. Most beliefs of people who claim to be christians come from their interpretation of the bible. It needs to be accepted that people will always have different interpretations and that no one has it all right. We are all heretics to some degree. Nobody can fully intuit or articulate what is true.

The second has historically been espoused by many. Augustine wrote, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Vincent of Lerins stated, “Christianity is what has been held always, everywhere, and by all.” C. S. Lewis called it Mere Christianity – “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”

But say we want to define such a minimum set of beliefs. How could people ever come to an agreement? Indeed, although this has been attempted many times historically, it has never been accomplished. There will never be full agreement among all people.

The quotes I gave are pointless because they are self-referential by containing the word “christian.” How do we historically determine who was a “christian” so that we can know what is essential, what has been held always, what has been common to all? Most would do so by examining what they believed. But what beliefs are required for them to be considered a christian? We are back to the original problem. Some might switch the criteria to whoever claimed to be a christian, but this is equally useless.

The reason denominationalism places so high a value on beliefs is because it insists that beliefs are an integral part of one’s identity. This is why some people get offended when you refute their beliefs – since they identify themselves with their beliefs, they take the refutation personally. Denominationalism says that beliefs speak louder of who we are than the Christ who lives in us.

In the end it isn’t our job to make judgments on who is and isn’t a part of the church; we still love all people the same, albeit in different ways.

In part 3 we’ll take a closer look at the denominational mindset to see why denominations are merely an illusion.

Beliefs, Unity, and the Illusion of Denominations (Part 1)

This is the 1st part of a 3 part series. In part 1 we take a look at the history of denominationalism and how it has affected the body of Christ.

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Last summer I was a leader of a Q&A discussion group at a christian camp for high schoolers. One high schooler asked a question that many would do well to consider themselves:

“What’s with all the different denominations? I mean, they’re not even in the bible.”

In essence this high schooler was asking why denominations exist, whether they are legitimate, and if they are then which one is the right denomination. To answer these questions, let’s take a look at the history of denominationalism.

(Note: I use “denomination” according to its modern usage, to refer to a people who denominate based on agreement on a body of doctrines.)

The first known hint of denominations appeared in the church at Corinth. Paul wrote to them:

Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. For I have been informed concerning you, my brethren, by Chloe’s people, that there are quarrels among you. Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, “I am of Paul,” and “I of Apollos,” and “I of Cephas,” and “I of Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? – 1 Corinthians 1:10-13

The Corinthians tried to separate themselves according to different leaders. Paul responds with rhetorical questions that point back to what should be everybody’s common denominator – Jesus. So denominations were almost established, but Paul did not allow them to.

Denominationalism in its modern form began to emerge a couple hundred years after Christ when people began to create various theological schools based on the teachings of certain well-known men. People separated themselves according to the teachings they favored and the teachers that taught them.

People further segregated around this time by holding councils to determine the majority vote on what they believed to be right doctrines and thereby declare anyone who believed otherwise to be a heretic.

(Note: Although some would claim that whatever the councils decided must be right, assuming that their meeting and decision making were infallibly inspired by Holy Spirit is just that, an assumption, not to mention an unbiblical assumption.)

But it was during the 16th century that denominationalism gained momentum and became firmly grounded, accompanying the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther and his followers rightly pointed out mistakes such as the practice of indulgences and the teaching of salvation by works, but they separated themselves from Catholics by demonizing them.

Protestants are called Protestants because they were born in a doctrinal protest, and it continues to this day. They are identified by what they placed their highest value on – beliefs. This is why denominations identify themselves primarily by their beliefs, often along with some person who originated that way of thinking (Wesleyan, Methodist, Lutheran, Baptist, Catholic, etc., each of which, if one is familiar with them, conjure up certain doctrinal dispositions).

As time passed, people placed more and more value on getting beliefs right, and as a result the number of issues to disagree over increased. A new denomination emerged with each new disputed doctrine that was considered important enough to split over. Accordingly, separation in the church increased alongside the increase in doctrinal precision.

Contrary to the denominational method of identification, the members of the early church were called “christians” because it was evident to those around them that the person of Christ was most important to them. And if people wanted to describe a group of believers back in the day they didn’t identify them by beliefs but only by physical location (e.g. Paul writes to the church of God at Corinth, to the saints in Ephesus, etc.).

Even within denominations people recognize that they don’t believe all the same things (i.e. they may disagree on what is not included in their particular body of doctrine). This raises the question – how significant are beliefs?

We’ll take a look at this question in part 2.