Theology (Knowing God or Knowing About God?)

(Another unorganized post…)

“Where is God? Not ideas about God. Not Biblical explanations about God. Where is God? Where can we find him, feel him, see him?
To experience God with our physical senses, we need to seek him in a place that is not physical, not a building or a book, but rather in an abstract, yet divine place. That place is Love. God’s in love, and why shouldn’t he be! He IS love. Seek genuine, loving friendships and you’ll find God there. Offer others a genuine, loving friendship and you’ll reveal God to others.
God is not discovered in the theories and theologies we talk about. The technicalities perhaps. The head knowledge maybe. But the hands on, experience of God is discovered in the practical, real-life relationships we build. When we build them with love, every time we meet one another, we experience the tangible presence of God, for we feel love, and God is Love.” –  Mick Mooney

“Never let your love for theology be greater than your love for people. For without a love for people, even the best of theology is useless.” – Mick Mooney

“As the author of the Theologia Germanica says, we may come to love knowledge – our knowing – more than the thing known: to delight not in the exercise of our talents bit in the facts that they are ours, or even in the reputation they bring us.” – Lewis

Nothing you can know about God is God.

“God can’t be thought, only encountered.” – Anthony Bartlett

“Theology is not a private reserve of theologians. It is not a private affair of professors…Nor is it a private affair of pastors…Theology is a matter for the church.” – Karl Barth

Studying someone implies the relationship is either immature (in the very early stages) or dysfunctional (because relationship is reduced to knowledge).

“Roughly speaking, the word faith seems to be used by Christians in two senses or on two levels, and I will take them in turn. In the first sense it means simply belief–accepting or regarding as true the doctrines of Christianity. That is fairly simple. But what does puzzle people–at least it used to puzzle me–is the fact that Christians regard faith in this sense as a virtue. I used to ask how on Earth it can be a virtue–what is there moral or immoral about believing or not believing a set of statements? Obviously, I used to say, a sane man accepts or rejects any statement, not because he wants or does not want to, but because the evidence seems to him good or bad. If he were mistaken about the goodness or badness of the evidence, that would not mean he was a bad man, but only that he was not very clever. And if he thought the evidence bad but tried to force himself to believe in spite of it, that would be merely stupid.” – C.S. Lewis

theologybox

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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.

A Religious God? – The Abolition of Religion

religion-is-like I remember back in one of my classes at my “Christian” high school where we compared major religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and of course Christianity. “God or divinity is like this in each religion; this is how each religion understands salvation; these are the foundational principles they require you to abide by,” etc.

LOL.

Looking back, I can laugh at this way of viewing Christianity, but it also makes me very sad because it shows what most people, believers and unbelievers alike, consider Christianity to be – that it’s just another religion among many.

How dare Christianity be called a religion, as if it were even comparable to religions? It is nothing like religions. Some say, “But there are similarities, like believing in the existence of a deity or having a moral code to live by.”

Get this: Christianity is not a belief system or a way of life. And calling it a religion is tantamount to equating it to those things. Because that’s pretty much what religions are.

Here’s the first two definitions of “religion” that I came upon in my dictionary: 1. A strong belief in a supernatural power or powers that control human destiny 2. An institution to express belief in a divine power.

Once more, Christianity is not theology or an institution. Let me highlight some differences between religion and Christianity:

  • Religion tells you what you have to do to be saved, the story of the Old Covenant in which it was all about you and your own efforts to follow the Law. But Jesus tells you what he’s done for you to get you saved.
  • Religion tells you to do something so that God will respond to you. But the gospel tells you what God did for you and empowers you with the freedom to respond.
  • Religion requires you to try to earn your blessings. But Holy Spirit shows you that every spiritual blessings has already been freely given to you.
  • Religion makes you strive after an impossible standard. But the bible tells us that Jesus achieved it for us and continues to do so in and through us.
  • Religion tries to motivate you through fear. But the Father motivates you in love.
  • Religion reduces knowledge to intellectual facts. But the good news is that we can have intimacy with Jesus on a personal level.
  • Religion is bad news. But the gospel is good news.

Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion but rather to proclaim the end of all religion. – Robert Capon

This begs the question – what is Christianity?

Most of you have probably heard this before, but it’s true, so I gladly repeat it: Christianity is not a religion but a relationship, namely a relationship with Jesus. And it is a relationship that affects all our other relationships with everyone and everything in the world.

Awesome.

So why the big fuss over this one word? For the people who don’t know that it’s a relationship. The fact that unbelievers perceive Christianity as a religion rather than a relationship with Jesus is a symptom of an underlying problem among those who claim to be Christians, namely that they themselves do not truly understand the nature of their relationship with Christ. Calling Christianity a religion only perpetuates their misunderstanding. We end up with a bunch of self-proclaimed Christians that in fact do not have a living breathing relationship with Jesus. For most of my life, I was one of those people. And churches tolerate this, acting as if “Christian” is a title anyone can give themselves (instead, in the bible, unbelievers called believers “Christians”; Acts 11:26).

Unbelievers see this toleration and conclude that anyone who says they are a Christian is in fact a Christian. Because it all comes down to having the same set of beliefs, right (cough, sarcasm, cough)?

god has no religionWhat people claim to believe is not always what they really believe. You can only truly know what someone believes by how they live. You will know a tree by its fruit. As John Crowder puts it, “Religion kills, but Jesus thrills.” The world knows and understands the first part of that phrase, but they haven’t got a clue about the second. And it’s about time we show it – not just talk about it – to the point where it’s so obvious that Christianity is not a religion but a relationship that it doesn’t need to be stated.

I am allergic to the “Christian” religion and I have two symptoms: anger and hostility toward its lies, and love and compassion toward those who believe them. I encourage you to do yourself and everyone else a favor and never call Christianity a religion again, and to not let other people call it that either.

Religion is not the solution; religion is the problem. There was no religion in the Garden and there will be none in the City. Jesus is the end of religion. – Paul Ellis

By the way, Jesus was the greatest anti-religion dude of his day (and since he never changes, he still is). You can read all about it in the bible. Sometimes you have to upset established religious orders to bring the Truth to light. Ian Thomas sums it up well:

There are few things quite so boring as being religious, but there is nothing quite so exciting as being a Christian!…Most folks have never discovered the difference between the one and the other, so that there are those who sincerely try to live a life they do not have, substituting religion for God, Christianity for Christ, and their own noble endeavors for the energy, joy, and power of the Holy Spirit. In the absence of reality, they can only grasp at rituals, stubbornly defending the latter in the absence of the former, lest they be found with neither!

Here’s a video most of you are probably familiar with, but worth posting:

And finally, for those who, like me, like long but meaningful quotes:

The entire human race is profoundly and desperately religious. From the dim beginnings of our history right up to the present day, there is not a man, woman, or child of us who has ever been immune to the temptation to think that the relationship between God and humanity can be repaired from our side, by our efforts. Whether those efforts involve creedal correctness, cultic performances, or ethical achievements-or whether they amount to little more than crassly superstitious behavior-we are all, at some deep level, committed to them. If we are not convinced that God can be conned into being favorable to us by dint of our doctrinal orthodoxy, or chicken sacrifices, or the gritting of our moral teeth, we still have a hard time shaking the belief that stepping over sidewalk cracks, or hanging up the bath towel so the label won’t show, will somehow render the Ruler of the Universe kindhearted, softheaded, or both…The point is, we haven’t got a card in our hand that can take even a single trick against God. Religion, therefore-despite the correctness of its insistence that something needs to be done about our relationship with God-remains unqualified bad news: it traps us in a game we will always and everywhere lose. But the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is precisely Good News. It is the announcement, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, that God has simply called off the game. – Robert Capon

I’m tired of religion – and to be entirely honest I know of nothing quite so boring as Christianity without Christ.  Have you ever tried to start a car without fuel, and there wasn’t a spark left in the battery?  Then you will know exactly what I mean, for there a few things more frustrating than the car that will not go. Everything is nicely greased and in its rightful place, and all the working parts move dutifully, but try as you may, there isn’t the suspicion of a kick, the tiniest evidence of life in the engine.  You might just as well dump the thing, for the chance you have of getting it to move!…Countless people have stopped going to a place of worship simply because they are sick of going through the motions of a dead religion.  They are tired of trying to start the car on an empty tank!  What a pity that is that there are not a few more people around to tell them that Jesus Christ is alive.  I spoke of nothing more boring than Christianity without Christ, but I know of nothing so utterly exciting as being a Christian – sharing the very life of Jesus Christ on earth right here and now, and been caught up with Him into the relentless, invincible purposes of an almighty God, and with all the limitless resources of deity available for the job. – Ian Thomas

Yay for the end of religion!