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)

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The Origins and Canonicity of the Scriptures

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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.

Were the Early Church Councils Authoritative?

council-of-chalcedon

I read Wikipedia’s article on ecumenical councils (gatherings of church leaders and theological experts purposed to discuss and settle matters of doctrine and practice) because I had recently began questioning whether, as it is commonly taught, the decisions of these councils really were an expression of universal agreement within the church that was meant to be authoritative throughout all subsequent generations.

My suspicions were confirmed.

In this post I will organize and summarize the article and make some observations.

Matters Discussed at the Councils

The first recorded council, the Council of Jerusalem (around 50 A.D.), is actually recorded in the scriptures in Acts 15, and councils have been held ever since.

Some of the things discussed were various things related to the Trinity, the nature of the deity and humanity of Jesus, whether the virgin Mary gave birth to God or only to the Christ, whether particular individuals/doctrines should be declared heretics/heresies, deciding successors for positions of leadership, what documents should be included in the biblical canon, how to exercise church discipline, how to deal with icons (images of Jesus, apostles, etc.), describing the authority held by ecclesiastical leaders, transubstantiation (the idea that when you take communion the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus), attempts to reunite different denominations, and church reform.

Here I’ll be focusing on the earlier councils since many people consider them to be authoritative for us today.

Participation was Limited

Bishops belonging to what became known as the Church of the East participated in none of the councils later than the second, and further noteworthy schisms led to non-participation by other members of what had previously been considered a single christian church. Later ecumenical councils thus included bishops of only parts of the church as previously constituted and were rejected or ignored by christians not belonging to those parts.

What this tells us is that the councils cannot really be considered to be “universal” in the sense that they expressed the consensual opinion of the entire church at that time. Only people from certain regions or groups took part, and thus the councils failed to include representatives from all bodies of believers.

council-of-nicaeaI’m not aware of the details on how the councils made decisions, but they did involve voting and thus it seems to me that it did not express a genuine consensus but merely the majority opinion at that particular point in time. And history shows that the majority opinion never really was a reliable guide to good doctrine.

Besides, why should the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts have the privilege of making such weighty decisions? What about the “commoners”? Did they have inferior relationships with God or less of an ability to think through the issues that emerged? (Did they even get to choose their “representatives” (if that’s what the ecclesiastical leaders and theological experts were at all)?) Personally, I’m curious as to what they thought. Unfortunately, we do not have writings of commoners with us today (if they even wrote anything; I doubt they were even able to write at all).

The Councils were Not Free of Political Motivations

Church councils were, from the beginning, bureaucratic exercises. Written documents were circulated, speeches made and responded to, votes taken, and final documents published and distributed.

Around the time when the councils that are often considered to be the most important took place (300 to 800 A.D.), theology wasn’t merely a matter of doctrine but had significant political ramifications as well, especially after the christian religion was given a privileged position by the emperor Constantine in 313 A.D.

Councils were primarily held because of theological controversy. When significant disagreements emerged, councils were called for to settle them. Thus, conclusively settling such issues was not necessarily (and most likely was not, at least for the emperor) motivated by a desire to do “good theology” but rather to come to a superficial “agreement” to evaporate the controversy and bring “unity” to the empire. Determining dogma by which all people were required to adhere to ensured a certain level of peace within nations and kept doctrinal controversies under control.

Thus, the first seven ecumenical councils (the major ones) as well as several others were convoked by “christian” emperors (I write “christian” because although they touted the christian religion, it is highly questionable whether they actually lived in relationship with God). They also enforced the decisions of those councils within the state church of the Roman Empire. On the other end, church fathers wielded their connections with political authorities to increase their influence over the councils’ decision making.

Variation in Acceptance of Councils

The following is an overview of major denominations and the councils they accept as authoritative. I provide this list to show that there is no general agreement on which councils should be accepted as authoritative.

  • The Church of the East only accepts the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople.
  • Oriental Orthodoxy only accepts Nicaea I, Constantinople I and Ephesus I.
  • The Eastern Orthodox Church accepts the first seven ecumenical councils, with the Council in Trullo considered a continuation of the sixth.
  • The Roman Catholic Church recognizes the seven councils in the early centuries of the church as well as fourteen councils in later times called or confirmed by the Pope (and thus that there can still be more ecumenical councils to come).
  • Anglicans believe the councils may have erred and are only authoritative if their declarations can be said to be taken out of the scriptures (so they generally accept the first seven or first four).
  • Some Protestants accept the teachings of the first seven (and occasionally four) councils but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do.
  • Other Protestants claim that conformity to the decisions of the councils is purely voluntary and that they are to be considered binding only insofar as those doctrines are derived from the Scriptures; they assert that after the New Testament the doors of revelation were closed and councils can only give advice or guidance but have no authority.
  • Nontrinitarian churches do not recognize ecumenical councils, viewing them as misguided human attempts to establish doctrine, and as attempts to define dogmas by debate rather than by revelation.

The Roman Catholic Church as well as most Eastern Orthodox theologians hold the doctrine that the ecumenical councils were infallible in the decisions they made, and thus the whole church must adhere to them (although, as mentioned above, they disagree as to which councils were infallible). Yet this doctrine does not claim that every aspect of every ecumenical council is infallible (in other words, they choose which parts are authoritative). On the other hand, Lutherans only accept the first four, most High Church Anglicans accept all seven as persuasive but not infallible, and most Protestants restrict infallibility to the Christological statements of the first seven councils (that Jesus is fully God and fully man, etc.).

Council-Of-NiceaDo you see what is going on? Basically, everyone considered the councils to be authoritative/ecumenical up to the point where they disagreed with their decision. LoL! People pick and choose which councils and, furthermore, which decisions of each council they will accept as authoritative by selecting criteria for what should and should not be accepted. But this choice of criteria is purely subjective. For example, the Roman Catholic Church considers recognition of a council by the Pope to be essential, the Eastern Orthodox views approval by the Bishop of Rome (the Pope) as being roughly equivalent to that of other patriarchs, and some Protestants say councils are never authoritative no matter what. And, really, the criteria is irrelevant, because it is possible to create criteria that effectively eliminates the councils you want to disqualify and retains the councils you want to qualify.

So in the end this is theological gymnastics in which people claim that what they agree with is authoritative. What it really comes down to is people saying, in essence, “what I believe is right and therefore authoritative.”

The Concept of Church Councils

As shown in the list above, there is even disagreement as to whether establishing doctrine for the entire christian faith through ecumenical councils is a legitimate practice. Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox all accept the authority of ecumenical councils in principle, but it is rejected by many Protestants.

Holding councils to determine doctrine is not necessarily of God (but not necessarily anti-God either). It certainly isn’t biblical. Sure, even in the scriptures the apostles held one such meeting, but they never say that what they decide will stand true throughout all subsequent generations. Furthermore, the council the apostles held wasn’t to determine beliefs but church practice. The scriptures simply do not give any instruction telling us to hold councils to determine doctrine. It wasn’t God but people who decided to hold that council.

The concept of an ecumenical council establishing doctrine for the entire Christian faith has to be assumed as legitimate. Moreover, even if such a practice is legitimate, that a specific council and the decisions it came to was superintended by God (the council counting as a legitimate ecumenical council) also has to be assumed.

The church did not have concrete structures of authority like the empires in which it resided. What if the councils were born out of a desire to copy the institutional organizations and systems of law around them more than they were following God’s lead?

Did God even want the theological questions that emerged to be resolved? Maybe he’s okay with continuing exploration of questions. Does God really care that we have concrete answers to such questions that most people nowadays wouldn’t even think to ask? Maybe he’s content for us to be left in the realm of mystery. Does God desire that we set forth certain doctrines as requirements for people to be considered believers? Maybe he’s not concerned about making such distinctions.

This is not to say that the councils were meaningless; they just weren’t divine (unless you would like to assume they were). They have value but not ultimate authority (unless you would like to assume they do). We can learn from them but we are not bound by them (unless you would like to assume that we are).

Conclusion

A popular rule by Vincent of Lérins states, “all possible care must be taken to hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all.” Okay. So who are the “all”? Believers. Who are believers? People who claim to hold to a certain set of beliefs (hence the term “believers”). Which beliefs qualify people as believers? Those beliefs that are “essential.” Which beliefs are essential? Those beliefs that have been “believed everywhere, always, by all.” It is circular. (Similar arguments could be made for the “everywhere” and “always” aspects of the quote as well.)

There really is no objective way of determining what is correct doctrine and what is not.

How, then, should we approach the issues discussed at the ecumenical councils if they are not authoritative for us?

The councils are not without value, but neither are they pillars of truth. We should thus feel free to question the doctrines that were discussed at them. Agreement with those doctrines should not be used as a litmus test as to whether someone is a “legitimate believer” (whatever that means lol).

Sola Scriptura or Sola Jesus?

Ring on Bible

You may have never heard of the term “sola scriptura,” but I bet you are familiar with the concept.

It’s the idea that the scriptures contain all knowledge necessary for salvation and is the only final authority in matters of faith and practice. Consequently, sola scriptura demands that only  doctrines that are found directly within the scriptures or indirectly by using valid deductive reasoning from them are to be admitted or confessed. Sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it demands that all other authorities are subordinate to and are to be corrected by the scriptures (paraphrased from Wikipedia).

This doctrine first made its appearance during the 16th century in the Reformation, in which Martin Luther initiated a reaction against the ignorance of the Catholic Church regarding some significant issues relating to the scriptures. One such issue was the Catholic doctrine of ex cathedra. This is the doctrine that states that the Pope can choose to “define a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church” (First Vatican Council). In other words, if the Pope says something is true, then it must be accepted as true. A similar idea was probably at work on a practical level as well; only those who were “qualified” could interpret the scriptures. Thus, the declaration of ultimate truth rested within their power of those who were ordained by the ecclesiastical authorities such as bishops.

Seeing the corruption within the religious institutions of their time, the Protestants (those who protested against the practices of the Catholic Church) swung to the other side of the pendulum and decided to place absolute authority within the scriptures and the scriptures alone. The key implication of this move was that interpretations of the scriptures were not given the same authority as the scriptures themselves, no matter who the interpreter was. Hence, the ecclesiastical authority came to be viewed as subject to correction by the scriptures.

This idea was taken further when people began to hold that not only is the bible the Word of God but every part of it too in and of itself, irrespective of context, setting the stage for the idea that individual verses lifted out of the scriptures are true in their own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or practice (“proof texting”). This practice was started around 1600 by Protestant scholastics who took the teachings of the Reformers and systematized them according to the rules of Aristotelian logic (i.e. they relied on Greek philosophy).

Although claiming, as the Catholic church had done, that an “ecclesiastical authority” could declare truth for everyone was silly, claiming that a book could do the same was just as ridiculous. Think about it. A book cannot tell you what is true because it cannot interpret itself for you. Regardless of whether interpretation is done for one’s self or for others, the reader themselves must necessarily do the interpreting. Further, bibles cannot exercise authority over people; they are lifeless books (by the way, if my calling bibles “lifeless” made you think of Hebrews 4:12, it might benefit you to know that it’s talking about Jesus, not bibles).

Selecting a group of individuals or a collection of writings to tell us what is true can never be made an absolutely objective endeavor. We cannot escape subjectivity.

To put it plainly, sola scriptura is a man-made doctrine of the 16th century that was created in reaction to bad church politics. This doesn’t conclusively demonstrate that it’s wrong. But that this idea wasn’t believed for the first 1500 years after Jesus’ time on earth should cause you to seriously question its validity.

Further, although many people claim sola scriptura as a foundational doctrine, it is certainly not universally held among believers and is even rejected by entire believing institutions (for example, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches equally uphold the value of the tradition that was started by the apostles).

So I would like to propose another option: sola Jesus. (I don’t mean the solus Christus of the Reformation.)

What I basically mean by that is that everything that people have claimed that the ecclesiastical authorities or the scriptures are (as they pertain to truth and authority), Jesus and Jesus alone is.

Such a concept is unpopular because, unlike physical people and books we can feel, hear, and see, Jesus is not always objectively tangible. If we say Jesus gets the final word on everything, the application of authority necessarily works subjectively because people hear and interpret what Jesus communicates to us differently.

That’s fine by me.

The Catholic Church has its pope with his ex cathedra, and Protestants have their bibles with its sola scriptura. Both systems ultimately replace the person of Jesus with something else as the final authority. I accept the man Jesus as the subjective basis for truth, and indeed as Truth itself.

Some might say that this is all fine in theory but that it cannot work practically. What could having Jesus as the ultimate authority possibly look like?

In response I would first point out that lacking experience and a conception of how it could work doesn’t invalidate it. Second, sola scriptura (or having ecclesiastical authorities for that matter) is just as “impractical” because it is just as subjective as having a person as the ultimate standard.

I understand that there is for many a significant fear of deception when it comes to being “led by the Spirit.” There are plenty of cults out there that began because somebody “got a revelation.” Yet I can say with honesty that I have no fear of the like because I trust Jesus’ ability to correct me more than I fear my potential to be led astray. Cults are obvious as such because they cease to be centered on Jesus and accordingly cease to look like Jesus.

Please notice that I did not say and understand that I have no intention of saying, “let’s throw out the scriptures!” There may be other things that people think I am saying that I did not explicitly assert. Please refrain from jumping to conclusions about what I believe about the scriptures based on this blog post because that is something that I have not expounded on here. If that’s something you would like to know, I’d love to talk with you about it. Just let me know 🙂

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.

A Simple Solution to the Predestination vs. Free Will Debate/”Paradox”

calvin-and-hobbes-on-predestination

Here’s a hot topic for ya.

Has God determined everything that has and will come to pass (predestination) or do people have the ability to make genuinely free choices that are not determined by God (free will)?

You might consider this to be irrelevant, but it is at least a big deal for many atheists, because they find it impossible to call a God who makes everything happen, including things like the holocaust, truly good. For many, that’s the only “Christian God” they’ve ever heard of, so they reject the idea. And If that’s all I knew I would do the same. So if people are hindered from having a relationship with Jesus because of a false doctrine, methinks that’s kind of a big deal.

The reason for disagreement between people is that there seem to be bible passages that imply both ideas. For example, “Those whom He foreknew, He also predestined…” (Romans 8:29) is used to support predestination, and “…Choose today whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15) is used to support free will (emphasis in both verses mine).

It’s a good idea to look at the history of ideas claimed to be grounded in the bible in order to examine their legitimacy. If we see early church fathers writing positively about some idea, that should increase its credibility since many of them spoke the language the bible was originally written in, knew the authors personally and the circumstances of the recipients of letters, understood cultural factors naturally without having to study them like we do, etc. On the other hand, if there is no mention of an idea until hundreds of years after Jesus, that doesn’t automatically disqualify the idea, but it is a good reason to be suspicious.

Such is the case with predestination.

The idea only first emerged around 400 A.D. with Augustine and only became popular in the 17th century with the theologian John Calvin (the common notion of predestination is fairly synonymous with what is popularly called “Calvinism,” and I use the terms interchangably). On the contrary, all the early church fathers consistently upheld the freedom of human choice. That was their interpretation of the bible as a whole, including all the passages that people use to support predestination.

So we at least have grounds to suspect that Calvinism is merely a man-made doctrine.

Looking at the Greek of bible passages that are cited to support a doctrine is also a good idea. Thanks to the internet, to some degree everybody can do this themselves for free at websites like blueletterbible.org and biblestudytools.com.

The solution to this particular issue of seemingly contradictory bible passages turns out to be simple. It has to do with the English word “you.” This word can be used to refer to both individuals and more than one person. I can tell a friend “I love you” and I can also address all the readers of this post by saying “you are awesome!” In Greek, on the other hand, there is always a distinction between the “singular you” and the “plural you.” Potentially, we could do this in English too – just say “you” for individuals and “you all” for more than one person. Unfortunately, most popular translations of the bible consistently use “you” for both tenses of the Greek.

Every verse in the bible speaking of predestination doesn’t refer to individuals but to the Church. The idea of individuals being predestined does not exist in the bible. God has not determined every move you will make. Such ideas only became popular when Christianity began to become individualistic.

Incidentally, Augustine didn’t know Greek and even said he hated it. He only read the Latin translations of the bible, which had plenty of their own errors. He also came to believe in Jesus later in life, and his theology was heavily influenced by the pagan philosophy he was priorly steeped in for many years. It’s not surprising that he would veer from the consensus of the early church fathers and create his own new doctrine.

When I first heard this in college I thought, “well what if it’s not you all, collectively as a group, but each one of you all, individually. I asked one of my professors about this and he responded that the expressesion of such a concept in Greek using that word was nonexistent. In other words, when it says “you all” in the Greek, it always means “you all, collectively as a group.” There are other Greek words that would allow one to say things like “each one of you,” but the biblical authors never used them in reference to predestination.

Interestingly, you won’t find the doctrines of Calvinism in other parts of the world. The fact that it is predominantly a phenomenon of English speaking countries (especially North America) is telling. Its ideas are rooted neither in the bible nor in the history of the early Church but rather in speculations based on mistranslations.

So be at peace. Whom the son sets free is free indeed. You are free.

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Note: I avoided using scholarly terminology in this post for better readability (or rather used scholarly terminology but incorrectly, i.e. the way most people use the terms in conversation). Wikipedia has a pretty nice article giving an overview of all the different nuances in the term “predestination,” its history, etc. You can check it out here.

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