Jesus and the Pharisees

The Pharisees were known for standing on the street corner in sack cloth and ashes crying aloud to God so all who pass them by thought of them as righteous and devout.

Old Theology Book Spines

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

THEN SAID JESUS to the crowds and to his disciples, ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice. They bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries (1) broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues, and salutations in the market places, and being called rabbi by men” (Matt. 23:1-7, NRSV).

What is a Pharisee?

Pharisee PointingThe root meaning of the word “Pharisee is related to the Hebrew word perisayya, which means “separated.” They held themselves to be separate from and above priests and clerics. The office of Pharisee flourished during the latter part of the Second Temple period (BC 515-AD 70), and occupied the chair of Moses in the synagogue. Unfortunately, the standard rabbinic traditions have been shaped by polemics.

The Pharisaic movement’s origin is shrouded in mystery. According to Josephus (Ant. 13.288-300), the Pharisees first became a significant force in Jewish affairs during the reign of Hyrcanus I.  Essentially, they were a society of scholars who believed in resurrection, and in following legalistic traditions. But they often enforced regulations  outside the scope of Scripture, preferring instead to apply “the traditions of their fathers.” They believed Mosaic Law and the Torah established authority for the interpretation of Jewish Laws, which they enforced with a heavy hand. They used the Torah to enforce their own theology. The result was a total of 613 commandments, or “rules,” governing every aspect of Jewish life—how to dress properly, dietary laws, practices governing Temple procedures, rules for blood sacrifice, and more. The Pharisees were strongly committed to daily observance of the Law. Further, they believed in spirits and angels, the resurrection, and the Messiah’s coming.

Jesus in the Eyes of the Pharisees

Pharisaic opposition to Jesus is recorded in all four Gospel accounts. In Mark’s eyes, Jesus’ main adversaries in Galilee were the scribes, but, according to Matthew, they were the Pharisees. Luke said, “…the Pharisees began to press him hard, and to provoke him to speak of many things, lying in wait for him, to catch at something he might say” (Luke 11:53-54). Many  reacted to Jesus with hostility, chiefly the scribes and Pharisees. Luke 20:20 says, “So [the Pharisees] watched him, and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might take hold of what he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor.”

John tells us of Jesus healing a man on the Sabbath. The Pharisees took issue with Jesus telling the man, “Rise, take up your pallet, and walk” on the Sabbath. Jesus defended his actions to the Pharisees by saying, “My Father is working still, and I am working” (John 5:17). This remark infuriated the Pharisees even more. Jesus had intimated that He was the Son of God! “This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he not only broke the sabbath but also called God his Father, making himself equal with God” ( John 5:18).

Everywhere Jesus went, Jesus attracted huge crowds pressing in to listen to His every word and watch His every move. He was profoundly popular among the people. They loved Him. The Pharisees were jealous of Jesus insofar; they were far from popular given the heavy burdens they placed on the Jews. Jesus said His burden was light (see Matt. 11:28-30). The only thing the Jews felt from the Pharisees was judgment. Rather than lead the people, they looked only at their sins and faults. The Pharisees also hated Jesus because He exposed their hypocrisy. These church leaders had set a moral standard for the community that they did not necessarily adhere to, especially “to the letter.” These men sat in the highest places in the synagogue,  ornately dressed, expected nothing but honor and admiration.

The Pharisees feared Jesus, but would never admit it in public. Of main concern was the chance that Israel’s worship of Jesus as the Christ would bring the wrath of Yahweh down on their nation once again. They were quite concerned that authority over the Jews would be eliminated. Perhaps these new believers in Christ would ban together and revolt against the church. This would likely cause the Roman Empire to step in, using whatever means to bring the people back in line. Accordingly, the Pharisees plotted to arrest Jesus and remove Him from the community before He stirred up trouble.

The Pharisees in the Eyes of Jesus

Throughout His ministry, Jesus confronted the Pharisees in public, denouncing their hypocrisy, spiritual blindness, and oppressive ways. These “separate” men had been entrusted with the guardianship of the Torah, which was to be applied to everyday life. Instead, the Pharisees used the Torah to control and manipulate the people. Disregarding ethical considerations, and being devoid of mercy, they imposed an intolerable burden of legal observance upon the common people. Legal precepts invented by the Pharisees were proscribed to add excessive and oppressive laws and regulations to enslave the Jews. To this end, the Pharisees were always on alert for violations of even the simplest regulations.

The Woes of the Pharisees is a list of criticisms by Jesus against scribes and Pharisees recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Here is what Jesus said,

“Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you… you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God; these you ought to have done, without neglecting the others… you love the best seat in the synagogues and salutations in the market places… you are like graves which are not seen, and men walk over them without knowing it… you load men with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers… you have taken away the key of knowledge; you did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Matt. 11:39-44, 46, 52).

Luke ends chapter twenty of his gospel with accusing the Pharisees of lying in wait to ensnare Jesus; they looked for statements made by Jesus that contradicted the Mosaic Law. Ironically, Jesus was sent to fulfill the Law, and He referred to Scripture in virtually every lesson He taught during His ministry. Jesus compared the Pharisees to tenants of a vineyard who wanted to kill the owner’s son in order to steal his inheritance (Matthew 21:38). Finally, knowing what the consequences would be, He declared that He was the Son of God. This was too much for the Pharisees to bear. How could this man be the Son of God, a man who broke their Sabbath laws and ate with sinners? To their minds it was inconceivable. “This is blasphemy!”

A shout out to Nicodemus who, although a Pharisee, earnestly sought out Christ during His earthly ministry, ultimately shared with Joseph of Arimathea the responsibility of burying Jesus’s body. (see John 3:1-21).

Jesus indeed had much to say about pretense of virtue by pious people, and how they wrongly condemn others for transgressing rules which they themselves did not follow. The message Jesus brought forth focused on faith in God and humility. He emphatically stated that religious rules and regulations cannot save man from the wages of sin. He taught that “rules” can be set aside to meet human need when necessary (Matt. 12:1-14). In essence, He said, “I tell you, something greater than the temple is here” (Matt. 12:6). It has been said that the nearly-endless Jewish rules of conduct were extremely detailed. Rules about the Sabbath “…are as mountains hanging by a hair, for [teaching of] Scripture [thereon] is scanty and the rules many” (Tractate Hagiga: Synopsis of Subjects) (2).

Just after Jesus said, “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfil [sic] them” (John 5:17), He added, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (5:20). Matthew Henry writes, “No sinner partakes of Christ’s justifying righteousness till he repents of his evil deeds” (3). Christ’s righteousness, imputed to us by faith alone in Christ alone, is needed by every one that enters the kingdom of grace and glory.  Regeneration produces a thorough change in a man’s temper and conduct. Righteousness provides us with “right standing,” which wraps us in Christ and prepares us for sanctification and restoration.

Concluding Remarks

The Pharisees failed to recognize Jesus as the Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, the very foundation of our salvation. As a result, they could not accept the concept of putting on the righteousness of Jesus. Most Pharisees were likely “religious,” or even devout, in the Judaic beliefs. However, many were “in it” for power, recognition, privilege, and money. Jesus began attacking their hypocrisy at the start of His ministry, telling the Jewish people, “…observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice” (Matt. 23:3). Given the disconnect between the Pharisees outward appearance and religious works and what was in their hearts, “Pharisee” took on a pejorative meaning that is synonymous with hypocrite.

These men of God were adamant that the spiritual life of the people should be centered in the Torah and the Synagogue. They claimed  authority over the Mosaic Law, and established an aristocracy of learning. Pharisaic influence was  went so far as to say that he who transgressed their words deserved death (Ber. 4a). There are some biblical scholars who believe the Pharisees saw their stronghold over Israel as one of protection; building a fence around the Law. Through this oppression that the foundation was laid for rabbinic law which piled statute upon statute until often the real purpose of the Law was lost.

When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, His authority outweighed any authority wielded by the Pharisees. Initially, the Pharisees assumed that the belief of some of the crowd was due to ignorance. But the attention lavished upon Jesus tended to increase the hatred and jealousy of the church leaders. These emotions were at the root of their plot to kill the Messiah. Remarkably, the Pharisees knew nothing of their role in creating the perfect, spotless Lamb who would be sacrificed to satisfy the debt of mankind.

 

 

 

(1) A small leather box containing Hebrew texts on vellum, worn by Jewish men at morning prayer as a reminder to keep the law.

(2) One of the tractates comprising the Moed, one of six orders of the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish traditions included in the Talmud.

(3) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Matthew Henry, 1997), 865.

 

 

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right” (Ravi Zacharias).

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Ravi_Zacharias_250_291

I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak. Unfortunately, it was not “in person,” but that did not matter. His words were so captivating it was as if I were sitting in the front row. Learning of his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), I hoped to one day interview for a position on staff. I was leaning toward a ministry of apologetics before I began listening to Ravi, but I was so impressed by the clarity and passion with which he “defended the faith” that I decided to move headlong into that mission.

I was first introduced to apologetics in an undergraduate class at Colorado Christian University (“CCU”) in 2018. It was called World Views. I have been studying philosophy, psychology, comparative religion, and Christian theology for a number of years, but CCU is preparing me for a purposeful examination of these fascinating and vital disciplines. I learned that “worldview” means the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions (1). James Sire issued a caveat: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (2).

I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone, pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong? What happens to me when I die?—Ravi Zacharias.

Ravi suggested one role of apologetics is “seeing things God’s way.” The apologist must take what he or she has learned about the Christian faith (through a God’s eye view), then present it in a manner conducive to the intended audience. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV). If there is an intellectual (theoretical) barrier, start there. If there is a sensory (aesthetic) barrier, start there.

When sharing the gospel, I find it useful to start where there is common ground: In the beginning. It is better to open your Bible to Genesis 1 than John 3:16. One’s understanding of God must be rooted in origin, sovereignty, immanence, and aseity (“from self”) before the concept of “God in the flesh” and the crucifixion of Christ can be grasped.

A Christian Worldview

Amy Orr-Ewing said, “By its very nature the the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook.” (3). Postmodernists reject any clear meaning of truth, citing discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. This pervasive worldview makes it hard to engage in evangelism and apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture. However, it is not necessary to understand and evaluate other worldviews in order to have a personal faith in the gospel.

According to data published by George Barna in 2002 “…just 9% of all born again adults and just 7% of Protestants possess a biblical worldview” (4). This study notes that only half of Protestant Pastors in America possess a biblical worldview. Ronald Nash defines biblical worldview as believing “…human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (5).

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man… If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”—C.S. Lewis

A biblical worldview rests solely on the revelation of God to His creation, which is activated by the Holy Spirit to those who adopt it. A theistic worldview and a biblical worldview are not synonymous. Here’s the difference: the biblical view begins where the basic acceptance of God leaves off, compelling the Christian to seek God (“Yahweh”) through His written Word, and apply to everyday life what Scripture teaches.

Ravi’s Profession

Ravi Zacharias was indifferent to “all things religious” early in his life, and as a result had no “good options” for his misery and existential angst. He was born in southern India and raised in Delhi. He played a variety of sports growing up, including cricket and tennis. He focused too intently on sports and began failing his courses, leading to complete shame and despair. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, but was found by someone who immediately sought medical attention. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw how empty his life was at seventeen years of age; essentially, he was at a loss regarding the purpose and meaning of his life. Someone brought a Bible to him and he began reading. He came upon John 14:19: “Because I live you will live also.” At that moment Ravi’s life became defined, and Jesus Christ transformed his life.

“You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live.”—Ravi Zacharias

Ravi’s biblical worldview was simple and elegant. He began with “what is truth?” His evangelism and apologetics were rooted in “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.” We tend to doubt what we cannot see. Ravi said, “Truth is generally measured in three ways: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and and experiential relevance” (see above video). Also, “Truth that is not under-girded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.” Jesus plainly stated who He was with these critical remarks: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Ravi spoke many times on the impact of secularism and relativism in Western civilization, stating that the world’s religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance. Pluralism by design features a competing number of worldviews to choose from with no one viewpoint being dominant, let alone “correct.” Moral relativism completely discounts universal and ontological points of reference for right and wrong. Instead, morality is seen as contingent upon any number of variables: cultural, historical, situational. Of paramount importance is that none of these worldviews is able to solve the sin problem. Ravi said, “The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational” (6).

“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world.”—Charles Malik

With Gratitude

I close my eyes and remember. I can hear a voice from my early teens, someone I’d come to admire: confident and moving. This voice was particularly compelling one a Sunday morning in 1972 when I got up from my seat in the pew and answered the call to come down front and accept Jesus Christ as my Messiah, my Lord and Master. I was thirteen. I can also remember sitting in my room on occasion listening to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham’s voice was compelling, bold. It rose above everyone in that auditorium, above every earthly concern. He asked the audience, “What’s wrong with the world?” 

There is only one other man of God who has moved me like Billy Graham has: That man is Ravi Zacharias. Ravi opened the door to a deeper walk with Jesus. To a compassionate “living” theology. He took on the many isms of this world, graciously explaining where they miss the mark. He compared the “secular gods” (pluralism, naturalism, secularism, and moral relativism) to Christianity: the Way,  the Truth, and the Life. Ravi’s distinctive voice and emphatic apologetic pierced my heart. He confirmed God’s call on my life—evangelism and apologetics. 

I could not be more grateful to Ravi Zacharias and Billy Graham, mighty men of God, who came into my life. Each of these men impacted me at major crossroads. I must thank the living God for men such as these.

Suggested Additional Reading

The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Beyond Opinion: Living the Truth We Believe, Ravi Zacharias
The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias
Jesus Among Secular Gods, Ravi Zacharias
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey
There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew
The Universe Next Door, James Sire

Footnotes

(1) Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008), 8.
(2) James Sire, The World Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),20.
(3) Amy Orr-Ewing, “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” in  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 3.
(4) George Barna, “Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview,” (Jan. 12, 2004), Barna Research. https://www.barna.com/research/only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview/
(5) Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47.
(6) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2017), 6.

The Christian Worldview, Modern Culture, and Addiction

“The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us… And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.” —T.S. Eliot

Written by Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Lift Up Your Hands

I’VE HEARD IT SAID that in days past Christianity had an influence on culture in America; today, however, culture is having an impact on Christianity. One of my mentors at church puts it this way: “There’s too much world in the church and not enough church in the world.” This symptom comes from the relegation of all things religious to the private world, and the banning of all public expression of one’s faith. Nancy Pearcey said, “Not only have we ‘lost the culture,’ but we continue losing even our own children. It’s a familiar but tragic story that devout young people, raised in Christian homes, head off to college and abandon their faith.” (1) How does this happen? Largely because we’re sending our children off to secular education without helping them develop a Christian worldview. They can’t keep what they don’t understand.

Trevor Hart believes Christian theology must be a matter of activity, not just a subject to be studied. Today,  the hallmark of intellectual inquiry in everyday living appeals exclusively to reason and empirically established evidence as the only building block for truth. He said, “This account of things, which is widely subscribed to within our culture, can be traced back some three and a half centuries to the origins of the so-called European Enlightenment.” (2) Hart said one particular manifestation of this factor is the chasm between public and private spheres. Certainly, this view has greatly contributed to Christianity’s ineffective influence in culture. The “public” sector Hart refers to is the realm of universally-owned or agreed knowledge. If something is “public” truth, then it must be something which everyone can know to be true—a truth available to observation or self-evident to human reasoning.

Public and Private Venues

Today, we’re told to the “private” realm belong all statements or propositions which (for whatever reason) do not permit public scrutiny. Hart wrote, “The private sphere is the sphere of values, matters of opinion and beliefs; anything, in fact, the truth or falsity of which cannot in principle be demonstrated on publicly agreed terms.” (3) This phenomenon leads to comments like That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to hold it; but unless you prove it to be true I am compelled to reject it. Admittedly, the deck is stacked against faith and religion and in favor of science and “proven fact.” Hart believes the “passport” for bringing faith into the public realm is “justification by reason.” Christian faith is generally considered by our society to belong to the category of unproven and unprovable. To speak of such private beliefs in public is simply not condoned. Although faith is the usual motivation for theology, those who advocate for investigation solely on empirical evidence believe faith must remain on the sidelines, giving way to the pursuit of truth based upon reason alone.

Hart believes absolutism is born of arrogance. I concur. Many individuals today shout down any explicit expression of faith in public. It is their conclusion that the truth of the Christian story is not, nor will it ever be, demonstrable. Of course, another element of this is the opinion that truth is never something absolute or universal, but always relative to a particular context—cultural, historical, linguistic, religious, or whatever. We call this conclusion moral relativism. Relativism refers to an ethical system in which right and wrong are not absolute and unchanging but relative to one’s culture (cultural relativism) or one’s own personal preferences (moral subjectivism). Of course we see both forms widely embraced in today’s society. These concepts are directly related to the multiculturalism and pluralism rampant in Western civilization.

Worldview with Earth

How we experience and define the world and our place in it is called our worldview. Wilhelm Dilthey said, “The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life.” (4) Worldviews vary greatly, but they typically share some common elements: the certainty of death; cruelty of the natural process; general transitoriness. Accordingly, a worldview begins as a cosmic concept and then, through a complex interrelation between us and our world, develops into a more sophisticated and detailed sense of who we are and what is the nature of that which surrounds us. Coupled with a growing sense of values, a highest order of our practical behavior (comprehensive plan of life, highest good, highest norms of action, and shaping of our personal life) takes hold of and defines our thought and experience.

We are speaking of a clash of worldviews. Will Durant said, “From barbarism to civilization requires a century; from civilization to barbarism needs but a day.”

A Christian Perspective

Herman Dooyeweerd believes theoretical thought does not necessarily lie at the base of one’s worldview. More fundamental than any worldview delineated by religious faith is the orientation of one’s heart. Referring to Dooyeweerd, James Sire wrote, “All human endeavor stems not from worldview, but from the spiritual commitments of the heart.” (5) Sire believes there are only two basic commitments in Christianity, leading to two basic conditions of life: “man converted to God” and “man averted from God.” C.S. Lewis treated Christian ideas with clarity and creativity, painstakingly dissecting their importance and relation to overall philosophy and individual challenge. Lewis held the belief that we are all philosophers to some extent. It was his goal to reach philosophia perennis—ultimate and permanently true philosophy.

To this end, Lewis posited that a Christian worldview must be a hybrid of philosophy and theology. He thought this would be highly advantageous because both disciplines generate knowledge in their own distinctive ways. Philosophy employs reason, building on commonly available information, to decide the most fundamental queries about life and the world. Theology draws from Scripture, ecclesiastics, established doctrine, and the historical experiences of the community of believers to articulate knowledge about God in a systematic manner. Lewis believed the truths established by philosophy and theology were compatible. I see this as another application of “all truth is God’s truth.”

Christian apologist James Orr (1844-1913) set out to provide a complete, coherent, rationally defensible exposition of Christianity that would stand up to the intellectual and cultural challenges of his day.  Orr supported the belief that the Christian faith is a christocentric, self-authenticating system of biblical truth characterized by inner integrity, rational coherence, empirical verisimilitude, and existential power. Sire says, “Worldviews have their source deep in the constitution of human nature and involve both the intellect and the actions we perform” (italics mine). (6) Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” (7) We must live our theology, without which it is merely a collection of data.

Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) believed every worldview has a single conception from which the whole worldview flows. He supported the need for all thought to proceed from a single principle: what he called a fixed point of departure. Herman Dooyeweerd (1894-1977) believed the religious or faith orientation of the heart was more fundamental than any worldview that can be delineated by ideas and propositions. He said, “Theory and practice are a product of the will, not the intellect; of the heart, not the head.” (8) Accordingly, he believed worldviews are pretheoretical commitments that are in direct contact not so much with the mind as the heart—involving experience; the living of life. Soren Kierkegaard said Christian conversion necessarily leads to the formation of a new “life-view.” Paul wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2, NRSV) (italics mine).

Ronald Nash provides a very concise description of worldview: “In its simplest terms, a worldview is a set of beliefs about the most important issues in life… [It] is a conceptual scheme by which we consciously or unconsciously place or fit everything we believe and by which we interpret and judge reality.” (9) I’d like to present a longer comment from Nash before addressing what I hope to be a unique look at a “negative” or “bad” worldview; one I held while in active addiction. Nash wrote:

A worldview may well be defined as one’s comprehensive framework of basic beliefs about things, but our talk (confessed beliefs or cognitive claims) is one thing, and our walk (operational beliefs) is another and even more important thing. A lived worldview defines one’s basic convictions; it defines what one is ready to live and die for.

Worldview of an Addict

Hung Over

Worldview is how a person views the world. A person’s worldview consists of the values and ideals—the fundamental belief system—that determine his attitudes, beliefs and, ultimately, his behavior. Typically, this includes his view of issues such as the nature of God, man, the meaning of life, nature, death, and right and wrong. It is not difficult to imagine how the worldview of an addict might be skewed away from what most people consider proper attitude, belief, and behavior. We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. This is, at least in part, the concept of nature versus nurture.

Here are the basic questions we must answer to determine our worldview, and my responses while in active addiction:

  • Is there a god and what is he like?  Maybe. I think so, but I’m not sure. Besides, who cares if there is? He doesn’t love me or want me. I might not be “God” but I want the job. I want to be in charge of me!
  • What is the nature and origin of the universe? Who knows? Who cares? I doubt something came from nothing, but I’m not interested in finding out.
  • What is the nature and origin of man? I don’t think I came from an ape, but I sure act like one! I’m smart, so I should be able to read about this issue and make up my own mind. Some day. Not today.
  • What happens to man after death? I think the Bible has it right. There is a place for the “good” people and the “bad” people. I’ve always been a piece of crap who cannot love or respect others. Instead, I deceive and manipulate them. There probably is a Hell and I’m headed there. My “sins” are too great. Jesus saved everyone but me! I cannot be redeemed so might as well “live it up,” taking what I want.
  • Where does knowledge come from? Good question! I have an IQ of 127 but it does me absolutely no good. My father said, “If you’re so smart, why are you so dumb?” My “smarts” came from me reading, learning, doing. I make my own rules and definitions.
  • What is the basis of ethics and morality? Ethics is whatever I say it is. Morality? No one is truly moral. It’s all “relative” to the person or circumstance. If cannibalism is okay, then I am free to do whatever I deem fit for the situation. It’s “dog eat dog.” It’s all about getting what you want at any cost. And I love the idea of paybacks!
  • What is the meaning of human history? Maybe Darwin was right! Life seems to be every man for himself. I need to adapt. Be a chameleon. Be whatever it takes to get what I want and need. Our entire history has been about survival of the fittest, even from a social perspective.

What It’s Like Now

God has given me a great gift. It starts with life itself. There are numerous situations which, by odds, should have ended in my death. I overdosed on an opiate one afternoon and needed emergency care. I do not remember the event—going unresponsive; the neighbor coming over to try reviving me; the ambulance ride to the trauma center; yelling horrible obscenities at my mother and begging to go home; pulling my IV out, blood everywhere; being transferred to my hospital room. I became aware of my surroundings the next morning when I woke up in a hospital bed. I’ve driven while under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol countless times but never crashed, killed myself, killed others, or ended up in a wheelchair. I’ve been homeless. I’ve put myself in dangerous circumstances just to score drugs. I continued drinking a fifth of vodka a day despite ulcers, elevated liver enzymes, and pancreatitis. I’ve operated a vehicle at speeds in excess of 100 miles-per-hour. Being a “garbage head,” I snorted, swallowed, smoked, and huffed nearly anything that would “do the trick.”

I went from hating myself for 59 years to finally loving myself. Today, I have forgiven myself for the harmful and twisted way I lived for over 40 years, no longer regretting my past or pretending it never happened; instead, I see it now as an asset for helping others. I am motivated today to teach to others the lessons I had to learn the hard way. Loving myself has made it possible to love others. It has also shown me what true unconditional love looks like (1 Cor. 13). I have forgiven all those (whether real or imagined) who treated me badly, no longer using it as an excuse to behave badly. I understand original sin and fully comprehend the “struggle” Paul wrote about in Romans 7. I have forgiven others for their unforgiving attitude toward me, seeing me through their eyes.

I have finally come to accept my powerlessness over drugs and alcohol, as well as pornography, emotional eating, and spending money to “feel good.” Paul put powerlessness into perspective:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I of myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (Rom. 7:15-20, 24-25).

I used to have a very chaotic and unsettled lifestyle. My “default mode” or my “center” was anxiety. I had no peace; no quite moments. I couldn’t sit still. My mind wandered every time I read a book, and I was prone to daydreaming during a movie. My nights were filled with restless worrying and insomnia. As my health and well being began to suffer, I was wracked with depression, anxiety, and chronic physical pain. My degenerative disc disease made it harder to stay away from opiates and cannabis. The great lie I told myself is that I used oxy and weed to escape pain and anxiety. I was not an addict. I needed drugs. I was so very wrong. Despite attending my first 12-step meeting in 2001, I am only sober from booze since 2008 and free of cannabis and opiates for ten months.

Yes, I am powerless. Over many things. But that’s okay. I don’t need to overcome anything by myself. John wrote, “For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God” (1 John 5:4-5). I spent decades doing whatever I wanted. When circumstances got bad, I tried to fix things by myself. Quitting is actually easy for me; the hard part is staying quit! No worries. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13). And so can you. When we admit our faults, confess them to one another and to God, and take the next right step to move away from deliberate sin, we exponentially increase the odds we will keep on moving and growing.

Footnotes

(1) Nancy Pearsey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, LI: Crossway Publishing, 2005), 19.

(2) Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995), 12.

(3) Hart, 13.

(4) Wilhelm Dilthey, Gesammelte Schriften, in Introduction to the Human Sciences: An Attempt to Lay a Foundation for the Study of Society and History, (Detroit, IL: Wayne State University Press, 1988), 291.

(5) James Sire, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 35.

(6) Sire, 33.

(7) Martin Luther, Operations in Psalmos, quoted by Kelly M. Kapic in A Little Book for New Theologians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 41.

(8) In Naugle, Worldview, 27.

(9) Ronald Nash, Worldviews in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1922), 12.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Constantine and the Church

The following summary is from my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Engage the perennial question: Was Constantine good or bad for the church of Jesus Christ? In making your case, note (and cite from Gonzalez, and other sources, if you would like) the ways in which Constantine affected the church’s doctrine and practice. Answer these questions as parts of your overarching answer:

  • Which effects were good, and which were bad?
  • What have been the long-term results—good and bad— of those effective changes?

Just when I thought I was already having enough fun studying theology, we were given another fascinating assignment. Beginning with the conversion of Constantine, Christianity began to move from persecution to dominance. In AD 392, the emperor Theodosius I outlawed pagan worship—Christianity effectively became the “official” religion of the Roman Empire. Constantine said, “The eternal, holy and unfathomable goodness of God does not allow us to wander in darkness, but shows us the way of salvation… This I have seen in others as well as myself” (in Gonzalez, 2010, 131). At first blush, this statement rings like a true profession of faith in the One True God, but is it? We’re asked to consider whether Constantine was good or bad for Christianity. In part, this must include consideration of whether the above statement equates to public profession of faith in Jesus as the Christ. It is interesting to note that Constantine did not refer to Christ as the only god. Accordingly, the veritas of Constantine’s confession has been the subject of many discussions. Some believed it was merely a shrewd political maneuver. Constantine referred to the Christian God as “the greatest god,” the summa deus (Stephenson, 2009,169), yet he adorned the city with pagan statues from around the empire. Ravi Zacharias (2007, 10) said some scholars believe Constantine wanted to assert control over his “chosen religion” to the benefit of his empire and so insisted on the convening of a group of men to determine the content of the Bible (Council of Nicaea, AD 325). However, this was not the purpose of the Council.

Gonzalez believes it is important to determine the impact Constantine’s conversion and rule had on the Church. He states, “The truth is probably that Constantine was a sincere believer in the power of Christ” (139). He failed to place himself under the instruction of church leaders, yet he felt authorized to intervene in ecclesiastical matters. Gonzalez said Constantine considered himself “bishop of bishops” (138). Christian leaders thought that although inclined to become a believer, Constantine was not “one of the faithful” (139). Constantine was a sincere man, but he held a meager grasp of the Christian faith. For example, he thought the Christian God and the god “Unconquered Sun” were compatible. In his mind, there was room for serving other gods. He frequently took part in numerous pagan ceremonies without a thought that he was betraying the Christian God. Regardless of whether his conversion was genuine, Constantine’s beliefs and practices had a definite impact on Christianity.

Bad Effects

Paganism was still considered the “official” religion of the empire. As head of the empire, Constantine took the title of Supreme Pontiff or High Priest of that belief system. Gonzalez notes, “[A]lmost to his dying day, Constantine continued functioning as the High Priest of paganism” (141). His influence caused a drop in catechism prior to baptism. Because the ancient gods were still a part of everyday life, Constantine’s desire to “serve two masters” perpetuated pagan worship in the empire. Gonzalez states despite having done much to the detriment of paganism, Constantine “became one of the pagan gods… the Eastern church considers him a saint, thus resulting in a saint who is also a pagan god” (141). Spiritual ambiguity caused persistent violence against pagans by Christians, resulting in their rejection of Christianity. Power and prestige among church leaders caused increased arrogance and corruption in the church. Gonzalez notes that Lucius “bought” his position as bishop of Alexandria—a practice eventually known as simony. Moreover, as bishops were permitted increasing judicial powers, bribery became an issue. Perhaps this was a secular foreshadowing of priests selling “indulgences” for sins in the Catholic Church.

The laity began to see conversion as less critical or dramatic. Syncretism and superstition were on the increase as a result of merging Christianity and paganism. Many believers were buried with both Christian and pagan artifacts and symbols. Constantine’s conversion led to imperial impact on Christian worship. Incense, which was initially used to venerate emperors, began to be used in Christian services. We can see the influence of this today in Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist, Orthodox Christian, and some Lutheran services. Ministers started wearing fancy or luxurious garments when officiating, and the church started calling ministers “priests” as in paganism. Kneeling seems to have originated with bowing before the emperor.

Ancient artifacts and bodies of martyrs were dug up, relocated, or venerated—perhaps a form of idolatry? As church membership grew exponentially, limitation on time and space led to many “new converts” not being baptized. Additionally, pre-baptismal instruction was shortened or eliminated. This is something the early church would have deemed unacceptable. Churches, worship services, and other aspects grew complex in contrast to a simpler and humbler time. An “official theology” developed, likely as a means for paying homage to Constantine for outlawing persecution of the faithful. Many believed Constantine was “chosen” by God to facilitate the merging of church and empire. This was something Christ vehemently discouraged (No doubt the congregations became inundated with “so-called” Christians. Gonzalez notes an exodus from “the imperial church” which many believed had become sinful and apostate.

Good Effects

The conversion of Constantine had several positive effects on the Christian church. Prior to this, Christians lived under the unpredictable threat of persecution. Stephenson notes that Constantine may not have been a Christian at this point (AD 312), but he began showing sympathy and concern for its followers (169). Accordingly, he forbade persecution of the Christian faith. Constantine also wanted to end factionalism within the community of Christian believers (Stephenson, 169). Under Constantine, Lactantius wrote an early apologetic titled On the Deaths of the Persecutors wherein he stated that monotheism was Rome’s “original religion, and the idea of many gods was introduced in error.” Monotheism was said to be superior to polytheism, and Christianity was expressed as the only means through which wisdom was attainable (Stephenson, 170). It is interesting to note the likely origin for celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25. Sol Invictus (the personification of the Sun) was worshiped as the “greatest god” that was acceptable to all (177). Initially, December 25 was the “Day of the Sun.” According to Stephenson, on December 25, 323 Constantine declared the date as the dies natalis of Christ and exempted all Christians from having to participate in the veneration of Sol (178).

Constantine used imperial edicts to establish privileges for churches and their leadership. For example, churches were allowed tax exempt status for properties and their ministers. Further, members and others were permitted the legal right to pass property on to the church. We see this practice in operation today, allowing some denominations to amass a vast amount of assets. According to Church and State, the Roman Catholic Church is likely the wealthiest non-business entity in the world, with assets ranging from $10 billion to $15 billion and an operation budget of approximately $170 billion in the United States alone (Network for Church Monitoring, 2020). Of course, whenever accumulation of wealth become more important than seeking God’s kingdom and storing up treasures in heaven, such developments can be detrimental for Christianity

IN CONCLUSION, clearly Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is in question. First, although he made a public profession of faith, he did not undergo water baptism until on his deathbed in 337. Moreover, many of his attitudes and actions seemed to belie true dedication to Christ. He continued to participate in pagan ceremonies at times and functioned as its high priest. Constantine’s serving two masters caused the prolonging of pagan worship. Negative effects included ongoing violence against pagans by Christians, ecclesiastical and judicial corruption, early practices that mimic the selling of indulgences by the Catholic Church, syncretism, a lack of catechism teachings before water baptism, and at least a temporary diluting of Christianity. Constantine did, however, outlaw persecution of Christians, helped to cause a slow increase in observing monotheism over polytheism, and establishment of December 25 as Christmas Day.

I am impressed by the impact of Christian ecclesiastical history on grasping the many nuances of the Christian faith.

References

Church and State (London, England: Network for Church Monitoring), 2020.

Gonzalez, J.L., The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperOne), 2010.

Stephenson, P. Constantine: Roman Emperor, Christian Victor (New York, NY: The Overlook Press), 2010.

Zacharias, R., Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith we Defend (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2007.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: What is the Church?

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

After reading in Grudem and McGrath, and any appropriate Elwell articles, critique Grudem’s definition of the church. Here are your guiding questions: Is this definition adequate for what the church is, in its essence? If so, why? If not, what else should be written for a proper definition of the church? Is there more detail or are there some biblical images which would make for a better, more appropriate definition of the church?

Grudem’s definition: The church is the community of all true believers for all time.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Indeed, Matthew 18:20 is a perfect starting point for examining the essence of the “church.” Many have quoted this verse throughout church history. Jesus says whenever two or more gather in His Name “[T]here am I among them.” A great secular example of this concept is stated in AA literature, indicating all that’s required to hold a “meeting” is two or more alcoholics coming together to discuss recovery. I am particularly impressed with Miroslav Volf’s statement regarding appearance of the Spirit of Christ (in an “ecclesially constitutive” way) when two or more believers gather. “Constitutive” generally indicates having the power to establish or give organized existence to something. Many theologians throughout church history have started with this concept when defining the essence of the church. Volf warned about the tendency toward individualism in Protestant ecclesiology, saying constitutive is instrumental in understanding what Matthew 18:20 truly means. Volf wrote “there is no reign of God without the church.”[1] He further claims there is no church without the reign of God. This indicates “church” is not merely an institution, location, or building.

Community of Believers Hands Raised

Grudem identifies the basic definition of church as “the community of all true  believers for all time,”[2] aligning the Old Testament and New Testament context of “church.” The Septuagint often uses the term qāhal to identify church as “congregation” or “assembly,” which can also be used to indicate a summon to assembly. Dispensational theologians hold divergent views on the relationship between Israel and the church. For example, Grudem notes that Lewis Chafer believes God has two distinct plans for His people: (i) Israel for earthly blessings, and (ii) the church for heavenly blessings. The rub here is that God does not have separate purposes for Israel (OT) and the church (NT), rather a single intent—establishment of His kingdom in which Israel and the NT church will share in all His blessings. Grudem says many NT verses describe the church as the new Israel. Stanley Hauerwas addresses the aspect of the church as a community, separate from the world. Emphasis is placed on discourse and interpretation and the sharing of the Christian message with the world. Hauerwas believes “the whole body of believers therefore cannot be limited to any one historical paradigm or contained by any one institutional form.”[3]

Ephesians tells us that Christ loves “the church” and gave Himself up for her (5:25). Obviously, Christ did not suffer and die to protect a building. Paul provides a non-dispensational definition of the “old” and “new” church in Romans 2:28-29, stating, “For he is not a real Jew who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. He is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart, spiritual and not literal. His praise is not from men but from God” (NRSV). God’s promises to Abraham apply to the entire church or community of believers regardless of historical period or dispensation. The only distinction is “forward looking” faith under the OT and “backward looking” faith under the NT. In support, Paul wrote, “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28-29).

The essence of church is not merely institutional or physical; it is spiritual—a continuation of God’s overall plan for salvation and adoption for those who believe in Christ Jesus. As Grudem states, “Abraham is not only to be considered the father of the Jewish people in a physical sense,” but He is also “the father of all who believe.”[4] P.L. Metzger says the church is, “The community of the Triune God, serving as the concrete manifestation of God’s eschatological kingdom in the world.”[5] It is fair to consider “church” to mean a gathering. It is chiefly the “community” of believers gathered in a pattern somewhat similar to political and other gatherings. However, this is not the only meaning of church in the Judeo-Christian religion. Jesus did not reveal a new God but a new way of worshiping the same God. For example, Paul describes the church as a whole and as each local church body. Despite dispensation, denomination, or geographic locale, wherever and however the church meets, it is the whole church. It is holy, in that it is sanctified by God, set apart for a specific purpose; however, it is never to “withdraw into a religious ghetto no longer concerned to save the world.”[6]  The church is catholic in that it is full, complete, and lacking nothing. It is apostolic relative to being entrusted with ecumenical teachings of its apostles and establishment of a global set of doctrines that are taught and handed down in a consistent manner. Metzger expresses the importance of “the whole church’s true oneness, holiness, and catholicity, not as an end in itself.”[7] It is responsible for determining proper church governance and for globally mediating the ministry of Christ.

Be Well Grounded and Rooted

Grudem delineates various metaphors for the church. It is a family—we are brothers and sisters in Christ (1 Tim. 5:1-2); it is branches on a vine—and we are grafted in (Jn. 15:5); it is the bride of Christ (Eph. 5:32); it is an olive tree (Rom. 11:17-24); it is referred to as a field of crops (1 Cor. 3:6-9); it is a new type of temple, not build from stone but comprised of believers who are living stones (1 Pet. 2:5); it is a new group of priests (1 Pet. 2:5); believers are referred to as God’s house (Heb. 3:6); it is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12-17). Christ is the head, and the community of believers is the rest of the body (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:15-16). The church is witness to the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12). Grudem notes, “The church is the custodian of the kingdom (for the church has been given the keys of the kingdom of heaven: Matt. 16:19).” In fact, John Calvin states that the church must possess the “marks,” i.e., the true and accurate Word of God and observance of the sacraments.

In conclusion, I believe the descriptions provided by Grudem are adequate for defining the essence of the church. Grudem provides well-delineated aspects of the church: form, regardless of dispensation; the nature of its ecclesiastic duties; metaphors for the various “operations” of the church; its function under the Old and New Covenants. The apostle Paul smartly explains why the entire church consists of believers under both covenants. Calvin identifies the main “marks” to be demonstrated by the church. Volf warns of the risk of “individualizing” Protestantism if the church is bifurcated in any manner. Jesus assures us that when two or more gather in His Name, He is present among them. Finally, there is no reign of God without the church, and there is no church without the reign of God. [8] The church is, in every way, a demonstration of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

One of my classmates raised an interesting question: Do you believe that some of our Churches have strayed waway from the message of Christ? By this I mean unifying and doing the work commanded for us to do or do you believe that Christ is the head of all churches no matter how they perform as a community?

My response:

You’ve raised an interesting question. My first reaction is simply this: I agree that many churches have strayed from the systematically assembled doctrines of Christianity. This is more a failure of human proportions, of course, that it is a chink in the armor of God’s church. When “churches” stray from doctrine and Scripture, it is the people themselves who stray, and not the Body of Christ. “Church” is the manifestation of God’s kingdom, centered in Christ. The Greek word for church does refer to “assembly,” or “sacred gathering.” Services include liturgy and ritual, grounded in sound doctrine. In its missional capacity, it celebrates and participates in sharing the salvation of Jesus Christ

Chosen Generation

The Church is a temple, a “chosen people,” a “royal priesthood,” a “holy nation.” We read in the Nicene Creed that the church is one, holy, catholic (universal), and apostolic (formed and grown according to the teachings of Christ as handed down through the apostles). Perhaps any congregation that fails on a number or, sadly maybe, all of these levels is not part of the church—the Body of Christ. P.L. Metzger said, “For preserving unity, growing in holiness, and accomplishing its mission, the church has drawn from episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational forms of government. No matter the version, most important is determining how the form of church government highlights and mediates Christ’s authority as head of the church to the entire body.”

Because of the foregoing, I do not believe Jesus could be considered the “head” of any body of believers that has drastically strayed from mission, ministry, Scripture, canon, and proper church governance and operation. If it could be (or, worse, had to be) said that Jesus Christ is the head of all churches, even ones that are simply not fulfilling the Great Commission, edifying one another, following church canon that has been systematically developed throughout the history of the church from the Day of Pentecost to today, as handed down through the apostles, then no, I do not believe such a church or congregation is truly a part of the Body of Christ no matter what it says on the lighted sign in the front yard.

Footnotes

[1] Miroslav Volf, After our Likeness (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), x.
[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 853.
[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” in The Christian Theology Reader (Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2017), 436.
[4] Grudem. 861.
[5]Stanley Hauerwas, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 436.
[6] P.L. Metzger, inThe Christian Theology Reader,Ibid, 183.
[7] John Calvin, “On the Marks of the Church,” inThe Christian Theology Reader, Ibid, 416.

References

Calvin, J., “On the Marks of the Church,” in The Christian Theology Reader, 5th ed.    (Chichester, West Sussex, UK), 2017Grudem, W., Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Hauerwas, S., “On the Church and the Story of Faith,” Ibid.

Metzger, P. “Church,” Ibid.

Volf, M., After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing), 1998.

I’m an Overcomer

Who is it that overcomes the world but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:5)

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

I BELIEVE EACH OF US, regardless of our temperament, personality type, coping skills (or lack thereof), cultural background, upbringing, worldview, race, or nationality, come to a specific point in our lives when we decide everything is going to change. We’re done lying—covering up our hidden agenda, weaknesses, failures, bad habits, addictions, mistreatment of those we claim to love, or, maybe for some reading this, our criminal actions, aggression, hatred, manipulation, projecting blame, escaping consequences, and dwelling on our sin-ridden past. No one truly likes admitting complete defeat. But we cannot hold on to a false reality about who we are because of the terrible things we’ve done—we can’t say, “It is too horrible and painful to face.” This is not an option if we truly want to get unstuck.

Many of us decide on more than one occasion that this is the moment we are willing to admit every hidden crutch, falsehood, regression, fall from grace, relapse, slip, or harmful action. An addictions counselor told me years ago why we lie. It’s simple, really: To hide the truth about some feeling we’re having or something we’ve done. I faced a judge several years ago after yet another relapse that ended in criminal behavior and made the following statement: The definition of character is how we behave when we think no one is watching. I could tell by the look on the judge’s face that he was impressed. Unfortunately, I likely said this to avoid jail time and receive probation. I don’t mean this is not a truism for me, or something I don’t want to live by; it was not necessarily true when I said it in court. Not surprisingly, there was yet another relapse and a court appearance down the road.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with whether I ever meant anything I’ve said to family, my two ex-wives, friends, employers, judges, even God. How many times did I say what needed to be presented on the surface without meaning it inside my heart? Were there times when I said it and meant it at the time, only to slip months or years later? Probably, but those times were fewer than I care to admit. Of course, failing to confess this internal struggle and the masquerade I was putting on only served to put an ace wrap on my sprained soul. I continued to believe in something just because I said it out loud without looking within to see if it were true.

I just came off of a horrible weekend this Sunday. It started with extreme physical pain, which is pretty much chronic for me anymore. Severe low back pain due to a collapsed disc, bad neck pain and stiffness (same reason, unfortunately), headaches, severe arthritic pain in my right wrist and thumb, and unrelenting fibromyalgia. No, I am not looking for sympathy. Millions of Americans suffer from chronic pain every day. Nor am I trying to blame my bad choices on pain. I need to stay away from opiates, but it’s not easy. I get incredibly discouraged. My underlying mental illness (Bipolar Disorder, in remission; Depression, Anxiety) has caused added problems. This is what treatment professionals refer to as “double-trouble.” Co-occuring addiction and mental illness, coupled with chronic pain, makes it more likely I will decide to relapse and get high, especially on a narcotic painkiller.

Whenever I have a bad weekend like this one, I also tend to sink into a sad, self-pitying state of mind. If I stew in my “crap” long enough, I start yelling at God. I’ve been known to say to God, “Either cure me or kill me!” Interestingly, I don’t really want to die. I want to live. But here’s the rub: I want to live under my terms, which is happy, peppy, pain-free, a wive I am truly bonded to, plenty of friends, complete acceptance, total forgiveness, and a great job. Oh, and a car, which I have not been able to afford for over a year. I don’t want to feel stressed, unhappy, unloved, lonely, or “damaged.” I want the past to be gone from my memory. On really bad days, I want my past to completely disappear. I want social media and background checks to reveal nothing sordid from my past. I have wondered how to go about getting a new birth certificate, social security number, and a passport, and just go somewhere new and start completely over. (Thankfully, it’s been a number of years since I contemplated that nonsense!) Besides, there are no mulligans in life are there?

How Do We Overcome?

I finally watched the Christian film Overcomer. I don’t think I’ve cried as much during any movie I’ve watched. I have a number of favorite faith-based movies, including the God’s Not Dead trilogy, Breakthrough, Courageous, Fireproof, 90 Minutes in Heaven, War Room, and The Passion of the Christ. Each of these movies have meant a great deal to me. I usually end up watching a film just at the right moment in my life, and invariably take something away I can use. I always end up feeling guilty for how I’ve been living my life. I feel “damaged,” or “less than.” Not until Overcomer did a film hit on this very nerve and set in motion a complete acceptance of who I was, how I unfortunately behave at times, and who I am in God’s eyes. In a nutshell, this movie told my story, only with different names and circumstances.

Several characters in the film were struggling to varying depths with their walk with God and their individual commitment. When a blind man in a hospital bed asked the main character visiting patients, “Who are you John?” John answered, “I’m a basketball coach.” The bedridden patient asked who John would be if his basketball team was taken from him. He said he was a history teacher, a sort-of cross-country coach (you have to see the movie to get that reference), a husband, etc. The man then asked John, “No, John, I mean who are you? Who would you be if all that was stripped away?” John said, “Well, I am a Christian.” This intrigued the man in the bed. He said, “If you’re a Christian, John, why was that the last thing you listed?” He told John, “You are whoever you put at the top of your list.” John asked if the man was saying John was a bad Christian. Of course, that was for John to answer for himself. Thankfully, he was able to address the question and began to put God first.

No one likes to hear this, but we simply cannot “overcome” under our own power. Most people take offense at this. I did! But no matter what we’re doing and not doing according to our Christian walk, we’re not able to handle everything that comes along. We cannot overcome our sin nature. Addicts and alcoholics cannot stop using on their own. Sexual predators often re-offend years later. Christian men and women have fallen into the sinful practice of watching pornography. Jimmy Swaggart got caught having sex with prostitutes. Many people, including Christians, gossip incessantly. Many judge others. For me, this was a way to take the focus off my glaring defects of character and my habitual sin. It is simply not possible to stop sinning just because we believe in “a god,” or the God of Abraham and Isaac, or Jesus Christ . We can become “saved” and see Christ as our Messiah, but fail to make Him LORD of our lives. We can go to church every week yet continue sinning. This is what the Bible considers “practicing” sin. The initial step to overcoming is to honestly and willingly admitting to Christ that we are broken. If we don’t, there is virtually no chance of defeating the bondage over us. How can we ask for help if we cannot admit there is something broken and in need of fixing?

The Battle Begins in Our Mind

Paul wrote, “We are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37, NRSV). The Greek word commonly translated “overcome” in Scripture carries no surprising meaning. It simply means “to win a victory,” or “to stand victorious over an enemy.” To overcome in the biblical sense means to live in the victory that Jesus Christ purchased for us through His atoning death. It means victory over our old nature and winning under our new nature. We cannot make the mistake that “salvation” means “overcoming.” It does not. Salvation does involve being set free, but salvation is the vehicle for our deliverance; the means through which we can become victorious; the power needed to defeat the enemy. The word most frequently used for “salvation” in the New Testament is Greek, sôtêria, meaning “deliverance.”

Overcoming, by definition, involves warfare. The battlefield for this warfare is, as Joyce Meyer notes, our mind. In her seminal book Battlefield of the Mind, Meyer explains the importance of thought. She writes, “The mind is the leader or forerunner of all actions. Romans 8:5 makes it clear: For those who are according to the flesh and are controlled by its unholy desires set their minds on and pursue those things which gratify the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit and are controlled by the desires of the Spirit set their minds on and seek those things which gratify the Holy Spirit.”[1] 

Our actions are a direct result of our thoughts. How important is this tenet? Consider the following axiom:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.

Paul smartly describes this battle we face: “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Satan begins each attack by bombarding our minds with a twisted false reality—nagging thoughts, suspicions, doubts, fears, and character assassination. This attack starts as a trickle. Satan knows us better than we’d like, and he knows where the chinks are in our armor. As this attack enters into overdrive, the devil causes “strongholds.” Second Corinthians 10:3-5 says, “For though we live in the world we are not carrying on a worldly war, for the weapons of our warfare are not worldly but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle to the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

Matthew Henry writes, “The work of the ministry is a spiritual warfare with spiritual enemies, and for spiritual purposes. Outward force is not the method of the gospel, but strong persuasions, by the power of truth and the meekness of wisdom.”[2] Some may argue that this passage specifically refers to the mission of effectively spreading the gospel. Consider, however, that as believers our theology must be a living one. Martin Luther said, “It is through living, indeed through dying and being damned, that one becomes a theologian, not through understanding, reading, or speculation.” Believers learn doctrine in order to participate more deeply, passionately, and truthfully in the drama of redemption. Intellectual apprehension of the gospel alone, without the appropriation of heart and hand—what we believe in our heart and what we do as a result of that belief—leads only to hypocrisy. This is what is meant by needing to get God out of our heads and into our hearts. Otherwise, our theological studies amount to nothing more than accumulation of “data.”

Truly, our theology must quicken the conscience and soften the heart, or it will surely harden them as we learn only a fraction of the truth or, worse, learn what we need in order to find loopholes and manipulate the gospel. (Read my post Do You Look for Loopholes as a Christian?) In subtle ways, we begin to confuse ourselves with God. We think our words, our understanding, our convictions, our conclusions, perfectly reflect the Word of God. This can eventually lead to a trip down the rabbit hole of self-will run riot. If we are compromising our Christian walk, and dare take a close, honest inventory, we just might see signs of a corrupted theology, marked with fits of anger, prideful debate, jealousy, division, and strife. Our witness becomes far less than what it must be in order for us to display Jesus. This is bad for us, for those we confuse or push away, and bad for Jesus. It develops subtly into hypocrisy. Genuine theology, inversely, contains marks of grace, humility, truth, gentleness, unity, peace, patience, and love (see Gal. 5:22-26). This comes only from putting Christ before us. Humility does not mean thinking less of ourselves, rather thinking of ourselves less often.

No matter the depth and quality of our walk with Christ, we have moments where we fall short. One minute we’re walking in the Spirit, basking in joy and peace, and the next we’re ambushed by some inner thought, a difficult situation, or the hurtful remarks of someone in our lives. Paul clearly expressed this critical difficulty. He said, “For we do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Why, we felt that we had received the sentence of death; but that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril, and he will deliver us; on him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again” (2 Cor. 1:8-10).

It is very important to catch these moments of negative ruminations as quickly as possible. If we fail at this, we miss the opportunity to recognize what should only be a fleeting thought, not the establishing of a stronghold. I learned a term in my undergraduate course in psychology that I try to use regularly. It is called metacognition: thinking about what we’re thinking about! Because the prime battlefield is in our mind, this concept dovetails with being vigilant. First Peter 5:8 says, “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour.” We are waged in a war with our enemy, Satan, who is a liar and the father of them. He works subtly at first, then ramps up his attack. If we fail to “kick him out of our mind,” he will establish powerful strongholds. He is in no hurry. He’ll hang around, chipping away bit by bit, until he has convinced us of our “hopeless” situation. Worse, he may eventually get us to doubt our salvation.

Our “defense,” similar to football, soccer, or basketball, must be to see the “ball coming,” then reach out and swat it done before it lands in our mind. We cannot let the devil score. The Bible provides many weapons for our defense. Most importantly is hiding the Word of God in our hearts so that we might not sin. This is not memorizing Scriptures for the sake of “knowing them.” That is not a proper strategy for defense. It refers to knowing in our hearts what the Bible says about who we are in Christ, and what Jesus accomplished on the cross. The very next defense is to properly “suit up.” We need to put on the whole armor of God (see Ephesians 6:11-18). Many believers have heard this verse a thousand times. Few know what the “entire” armor entails. Worse, many Christians think we put it on to do battle—during each skirmish with Satan—then take it off. Funny how the imagination works; we consider “armor” to be heavy or restricting, so we take it off. We must “wear” this armor during our time in this world.

Praise and prayer are also effective for battle. Praise defeats Satan fairly quickly, and it tends to brighten our outlook and mood. Whenever we choose praise, which helps create in us a sense of gratitude no matter the situation, it’s as though we took off dirty, scratched, dark glasses and put on a clear pair. Prayer, of course, is the primary means of talking to God. We need to acknowledge our predicament (vigilance) and ask God to grant us courage, discernment, and wisdom. Further, if we practice continuous and diligent prayer, we spend time daily in the Father’s presence building a relationship; we find ourselves thanking Jesus for the horrific death he experienced as our proxy, and we start regularly tapping into the power in the Name of Jesus.

Let me close with this key Scripture from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor. 10:13).

I believe this is a critical topic worthy of consideration. I therefore encourage feedback from my blog readers in order to dialog on overcoming troubles and temptations in the Christian faith.  Please leave a comment or question in the box below. Thanks for reading. God bless.

Footnotes

[1] Henry, M., Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), p. 1129.

[2] Meyer, J., Battlefield of the Mind: Winning the Battle in Your Mind (Fenton, MO: Time Warner, 1995), p. 11.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Salvation

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my master’s in theology at Colorado Christian University.

By Steven Barto, B.S., Psy.

Based on what we read in Grudem’s Systematic Theology and what Scripture says about the topics discussed in Chapter 31 (on salvation), and any other source(s), we were told to identify as specifically as we could where God is responsible (i.e., what God is doing) and where humans are responsible (i.e., what humans are doing) in the following aspects of salvation: election, regeneration, and conversion.

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, RSV).

I found this week’s discussion prompt to be very engaging. Perhaps the most wonderous aspect of the life and death of Jesus on the cross is this thing called “salvation.” As I noted in last week’s discussion, salvation is a rather complex concept. At its simplest definition, it is “deliverance, especially of humanity, from sin’s power and effects.” [1] From a biblical perspective, its root-meaning encompasses “width,” “spaciousness,” “freedom from constraint,” and “deliverance.” The Exodus of the Jews from Egypt is considered “salvation.”

Relative to NT references, salvation (sȏtēria) also indicates deliverance or preservation, with hints of wholeness, soundness, and health. It is clear that much of God’s grace is ongoing and touches on many areas of daily existence, from restraint over runaway evil to inspiring and life-saving creativity; from governmental and other institutions in human society to numerous examples of love and kindness; from the selfless actions of our emergency first-responders to the soldiers who stand between us and our mortal enemies. It is the endless and unmerited grace of God that fuels each of these interventions and benevolent actions. To me, this is definitive proof that He wishes all to prosper and to come to forgiveness.

Grudem says, “Grace restrains sin but does not change anyone’s foundational disposition to sin, nor does it in any significant manner purify fallen human nature or negate the consequences of sin.” [2] So why does God pour out His common grace on undeserving sinners? Perhaps He is demonstrating at least an approximation of the grace that is available through true repentance, wishing that no one should suffer eternal death and damnation. His patient sufferance of our obstinate disobedience serves to give all mankind the opportunity to repent. God wishes to demonstrate His goodness and mercy through the many blessings He bestows to the undeserving. David recognized the compassion God has shown over all He has made. Grudem believes God’s forbearance of judgment testifies to the fact that, clearly, He takes no pleasure in doling out punishment. Ezekiel 33:11: “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (italics added).

God wishes man to comprehend His justice. Paul notes that those who consistently resist God’s call to salvation are simply storing up more wrath for themselves, noting that on the day of judgment “every mouth will be stopped” (Rom. 2:5). No one will be able to rightly claim that God has been unfair. Instead, we must recognize the many blessings in the world as evidence of God’s power and wisdom—a continual expression of His abundant grace.

Relative to the order and operation of “salvation,” we are asked this week to look at election, regeneration, and conversion. Specifically, what is God’s responsibility (His “doing”) and what is man’s responsibility (his “function”) in each of these elements of salvation? Of course, I have already delineated some of this above. God is the author and finisher of our salvation. It is His plan (which He ordained before the foundation of the universe) that puts the element of salvation in motion. He fashioned a perfect plan for redemption and provided the incredibly efficacious means for underwriting that plan: the death of His Son Jesus. He remained faithful to that plan and provided opportunities through many institutions for man to recognize the degree of His grace and His love for mankind. Further, His plan and the underlying graciousness that fuels it remained constant. Not once did He change His mind and decide mankind was worthless and without purpose despite the pervasiveness of evil manifested throughout creation. His instructions were simple and concrete. He elected those whom He would save, and He set forth the method for salvation at great cost to Himself—the death of His only begotten Son.

It is at this point that the responsibility changes hands. Man becomes answerable to God relative to the plan of salvation. J.I. Packer describes regeneration (i.e., “new birth”) as an inner recreation of fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. This new birth necessarily involves renewal effective enough to change a person’s disposition from sin and lawlessness to one of obedience, trust, and love. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, when there is a repentance (a “turning away from”) past rebelliousness, unbelief, and abject disobedience. Regeneration in its simplest definition is when someone moves from the state of being dead in trespasses and sins to being made alive in Christ unto righteousness. God, being rich in mercy and possessing great love for us, makes us “alive” together with Christ, to the extent that He shows us the immeasurable riches of His grace and kindness in Christ (Eph. 2:4-7).

Of course, we have a part in this. There is a decisiveness in our putting on this “new birth.” Assuming we have admitted to our lost state, we must now choose renewal of our spirit. This involves our coming to understand that we’re buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly also be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin (Rom. 6:4-6). J.I. Packer notes the perfect tense of the verb genan, meaning both “to beget” and “to bear,” which allows us to see our part in responding to God’s saving revelation in Christ. [3]

We can now look at the aspect of conversion and our role in how it works in our lives as new Christians. Admittedly, I once held the opinion that I was “converted” by the Holy Spirit the moment I accepted Christ as my “personal Lord and Savior.” Grudem is clear about what conversion truly entails, stating it is “our willing response to the gospel call, in which we sincerely repent of sins and place our trust in Christ for salvation” (italics added). [4] It involves a spiritual “turn” toward Christ. There is considerable emphasis placed on us relative to conversion. Our will is involved. In other words, it is not simply a “zapping” of our spirit by the Holy Spirit following recitation of a prayer. Conversion is the point at which we consciously repent from our sinful ways. It is here that we make a “180” and walk away from sin as part of our regeneration. This regeneration is made possible through God’s election. All of which, doctrinally, stems from God’s plan for redemption which He ordained before the foundation of the universe.

Specific to conversion, it is critical to realize none of this is based upon simply knowing about it. Grudem states, “Personal saving faith, in the way Scripture understands it, involves more than mere knowledge.” [5] We can know “facts” about God and His Son, but this is simply data. Conversion must be based upon knowing God, not knowing about Him. It entails trusting Jesus as a living person for forgiveness of sins and for eternal life. D.G.Bloesch notes that in evangelical theology, conversion has two elements: it is both divine and human, involving incursion of divine grace and a conscious decision to change our behavior. [6] In fact, Bloesch says we are active in conversion (we become willing) while passive in regeneration. Remember, regeneration is an inner recreation of our fallen human nature through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason we do not merely latch on to salvation; rather, we decide for salvation once our eyes have been opened by God’s grace. Lastly, of course, true conversion includes making Christ Lord over our life.

[1] R.E.O. White, “Salvation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 768.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 663.

[3] J.I.Packer, “Regeneration,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 734-35.

[4] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[5] Wayne Grudem, 709.

[6] D.G. Bloesch, “Conversion,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology ((Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 212-13.

Scientism: Is it a “Religion” or is it Science?

Our children are growing up in a post-Christian culture in which the public often views people of faith as irrelevant or even, in some cases, extremist. In his book Scientism and Secularism, J.P. Moreland articulates a way of friendly engagement with the prevailing worldview of Scientism.

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psych.

IN HIS BLOG POST Be Careful, Your Love of Science Looks a Lot Like Religion, Jamie Holmes writes, “Science is usually equated by proponents of this view with empiricism or, in many fields, with a method of inquiry that employs controls, blinding, and randomization. Now, a small group of contemporary psychologists have published a series of provocative experiments showing that faith in science can serve the same mentally-stabilizing function as religious beliefs.” What is this thing called “Scientism?” It is said to be an excessive or exclusive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. It names science as the best or only objective means by which society should determine normative and epistemological values.

Okay. But what does that mean? The claim that scientific judgement is akin to value judgement is often accompanied by the normative claim that scientific judgment should be guided by so-called epistemic or cognitive values. Epistemology refers to the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. We can immediately recognize the “religious” language in the above definition: e.g., justified belief. The problem with such a viewpoint is this: Justified by whom and against what ultimate truth?

Much of this worldview, which is actually a secularization of nature and existence, is rooted in the Enlightenment, during which time philosophers decided that reason and individualism should prevail rather than tradition. It was heavily influenced by seventeenth-century philosophers such as Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and its prominent promoters include Kant, Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. We must remember that worldview means a set of presuppositions (assumptions that may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world. Scientism is, accordingly, a worldview. Admittedly, Christianity is also a worldview.

A presupposition is something assumed or supposed in advance of the evidence. Generally, a presupposition is a core belief—a belief that one holds as “self-evident” and not requiring proof for its validity. A presupposition is something that is assumed to be true and is taken for granted. Of course, there is a pejorative quality to this term. Synonyms include prejudice, forejudgment, preconceived opinion, fixed conclusion, based upon a priori knowledge. To be fair to this concept, a priori knowledge simply means knowledge possessed independent of experience—that knowledge which we cannot help but bring to our experience in order to make sense of the world. Some philosophers, such as Locke, believe all our knowledge is a posteriori—that the mind begins as a “blank slate.” In order to level the playing field, we must all come to realize that every worldview, whether secular or Christian, contains a degree of presupposition. Christianity, however, has been coming up true and accurate more and more as science and archaeology uncovers empirical proof of the accuracy of the Bible.

Charles Colson, in his book How Now Shall We Live, writes, “We must show the world that Christianity is more than a private belief, more than personal salvation. We must show that it is a comprehensive life system that answers all of humanity’s age-old questions: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Does life have any meaning and purpose?” (Colson and Pearcy, 1999, xi) [italics mine]. The Christian worldview breaks these huge questions down to three distinct categories:

  • Creation. Where did we come from, and who are we?
  • Fall. What has gone wrong with the world?
  • Redemption. What can we do to fix it?

Christianity is a Worldview

Colson believes the way we see the world can change the world. As believers, in every action we take, we are doing one of two things: we are either helping to create a hell on earth or helping to bring down a foretaste of heaven. We are either contributing to the broken condition of the world (part of the problem) or participating with God, through his Son and us, to transform the world to reflect His righteousness and grace (part of the solution). This requires us to see reality through the lens of divine revelation. Arguably, the term worldview may sound abstract or “philosophical” (indeed, it may even sound like a “head in the clouds” perspective); a topic that must be relegated to college professors and students in the halls of academia. Keep in mind, however, that understanding and acknowledging one’s worldview is tremendously productive.

Christianity cannot sit back and consider itself a mere belief system, reduced to little more than a private feeling or “experience,” completely devoid of objective facts or physical evidence. In their book Evidence That Demands a Verdict, Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell consider evidence for matters such as the reliability of the Bible, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the historical (actual) resurrection of Jesus from the dead, revealing strong historical evidence that confirms the Christian worldview. If we have the authentic words of Jesus claiming to be God, evidence that He genuinely performed miracles, and confirmation that Jesus rose from the grave, then Christianity is undeniably true.

Naturalism, the other side of the coin, permeates Western culture, claiming that only physical things exist and that all phenomena can ultimately be explained by the combination of chance and natural laws. This worldview underlies much rejection of metaphysical causes or origins. The New Atheists take particular aim at intelligent design and the deity of Christ. Interestingly, naturalism has absolutely no explanation for the origin of matter or life, the existence of consciousness, the nature of free will, or objective morality. This quest is  true regardless of geopolitical position. All of mankind asks these basic questions. In any event, Anthony Flew (in Licona, 2010, p. 115), a former atheist, said “The occurrence of the resurrection [has] become enormously more likely.”

Scientism as Religion

In 2013, a study published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology​ found that when subjects were stressed, they were more likely to agree to statements typifying science such as, “the scientific method is the only reliable path to knowledge.” When people felt anxious, they esteemed science more highly than calmer subjects did, just as previous experiments have shown to be the case with religious ideals. Therefore, beliefs about science are often defended emotionally, even when they’re wrong, as long as they provide a reassuring sense of order. That is to say, beliefs about science may be defended thoughtlessly—even unscientifically. Scientism, accordingly, seems to both religious and scientific outlooks as a soothing balm to our existential anxieties. What we believe, the parallel implies, can sometimes be less important than h​ow ​we believe it. This would indicate that a deep faith in science as the only means for explanation of the origin of matter and life, and the meaning existence, is a form of irrational extremism.

Does this view merely negate scientism, or does it also indict Christianity? This is not meant to be a cop-out, but the answer depends on individual worldviews. In other words, if a believer in Christ refuses to consider science at all, stating it has no explanation for the natural world, he or she is viewing the world with eyes closed, misunderstanding all they see. Moreover, such an individual is ignoring the numerous scientific discoveries proposed by Christians and theists over the centuries; please note the wide range of scientific fields represented below (philosophy of science; botany; astronomy; physics; mathematics; chemistry; electricity and electromagnetism; biology, microbiology, and neurobiology; subatomic theory; psychiatry; neuropsychiatry; genetics; information theory):

  • Robert Grosseteste, patron saint of scientists, Oxford, founder of scientific thought, wrote texts on optics, astronomy, and geometry.
  • William Turner, father of English botany.
  • Francis Bacon, established inductive “scientific method.”
  • Galileo Galilei, revolutionary astronomer, physicist, philosopher, mathematician.
  • Blaise Pascal, known for Pascal’s Law (physics), Pascal’s Theorem (math), and Pascal’s Wager (theology).
  • Robert Boyle, scientist, theologian, Christian apologist, who said science can improve glorification of God.
  • Isaac Newton, discovered the properties of gravity.
  • Johannes Kepler, astronomer, discovered planetary motion.
  • Joseph Priestly, clergyman and scientist, discovered oxygen.
  • Michael Faraday, established electromagnetic theory and electrolysis.
  • Charles Babbage, information theorist, mathematician, pioneer in computer programming.
  • Louis Pasteur, biologist, microbiologist and chemist renowned for his discoveries of the principles of vaccination, microbial fermentation and pasteurization.
  • Lord Kelvin, mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. 
  • J.J. Thompson, credited with the discovery and identification of the electron and discovery of the first subatomic particle.
  • Johannes Reinke, phycologist and naturalist who strongly opposed Darwin.
  • George Washington Carver, American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor who believed he could have faith both in God and science and integrated them into his life.  
  • Max Born, German physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics. 
  • Michael Polanyi, appointed to a Chemistry chair in Berlin, but in 1933 when Hitler came to power he accepted a Chemistry chair (and then in 1948 a Social Sciences chair) at the University of Manchester. Wrote Science, Faith, and Society.
  • Rod Davies, professor of radio astronomy at the University of Manchester, known for his research on the cosmic microwave background in the universe.
  • Peter Dodson, American paleontologist who has published many papers and written and collaborated on books about dinosaurs.
  • Charles Foster, science writer on natural history, evolutionary biology, and theology.
  • John Gurdon, British developmental biologist, discovered that mature cells can be converted to stem cells. 
  • Paul R. McHugh, American psychiatrist whose research has focused on the neuroscientific foundations of motivated behaviors, psychiatric genetics, epidemiology, and neuropsychiatry. 
  • Kenneth R. Miller, molecular biologist, wrote Finding Darwin’s God.
  • John D. Barrow, English cosmologist based at the University of Cambridge who did notable writing on the implications of the Anthropic principle.

J.P. Moreland

In his book Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, Moreland (2018, p. 16) writes, “As the ideas that constitute scientism have become more pervasive in our culture, the Western world has turned increasingly secular and the centers of culture (the universities, the media and entertainment industry, the Supreme Court) have come increasingly to regard religion as a private superstition. It is no surprise, then, that when our children go to college, more and more of them are just giving up on Christianity.” Scientism claims that only the “hard” sciences can discover and explain reality. It also believes everything else is based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing. Moreover, scientism believes reliance on religious explanation for the origin of matter and life has yielded no reality at all. Simply put, theology and philosophy offer no truth whatsoever and, accordingly, are of no repute.

I find it fascinating that Christian theology does not make the same stinging conclusion about science. As we saw above, many great scientists, inventors, and discoverers throughout history (including many contemporary pioneers in science) were or are Christians or theists. Each of them believe God’s general revelation (that is, the natural order of things and the origin of matter and life) speak loudly of God as our intelligent designer. I, too, hold this view. Nanoscientist James Tour said, “Only a rookie who knows nothing about science would say science takes away from faith. If you really study science, it will bring you closer to God.” This is the basis for the Teleological Argument that (i) every design has a designer, (ii) the universe has a highly complex design, therefore (iii) the universe had a designer.

Atheism Requires More Faith Than Not Believing!

Postmodern culture has made every attempt to destroy truth. It teaches that the idea of truth and morality are “relative” to the circumstance, person, or era; that there is no such thing as absolute truth. This zeitgeist is prevalent in academia today in our public schools and most (if not all) secular universities. The postmodernist thinks not believing in ultimate truth or metaphysical explanations regarding the universe means one is “enlightened” and, therefore, not reliant on “dogmatic thought.” Interestingly, despite the postmodern belief that there is no absolute truth or morality, society seems to behave as though it exists. Yet these supposedly bright and enlightened ones insist that “truth” is merely a social contract defined and maintained by the powerful to remain “in power.” Admittedly, truth has fallen victim to modern culture. The modern ideas of tolerance and pluralism are a direct result of taking God out of the equation.

The term “university” is actually a composite of the words “unity” and “diversity.” Our universities should allow for the pursuit of knowledge and truth through such unity.

I find it curious that liberal secularists insist on tolerance, yet they have absolutely no tolerance for non-secular worldviews. This is non-tolerance! Perhaps they see “tolerance” differently than the rest of us; they seem to think it does not simply mean treating those with different ideas respectfully and civilly. If you think they are not using disrespect and intolerance to defend their “religion” of naturalism and scientism, then log on to YouTube and find a couple of debates to watch between believers (such as Dinesh D’Souza, Ravi Zacharias, Ken Ham) and the so-called New (or “militant”) Atheists (which includes Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins). In nearly every instance, and despite some atheists with a background in science, they attack Christ, Christianity, and, more typically, the believer rather than providing a convincing argument against intelligent design.

It is rather easy for the postmodern secularist to avoid confronting or defending the notion of intelligent design and creation science because he or she rejects the idea of absolute truth and the Law of Non-contradiction at the start. Rather than engaging in an intelligent point/counterpoint debate, the postmodernist goes about town moralizing to everyone about the importance of tolerance without having to explain the inherent contradiction presented by his or her closed mind regarding all things spiritual or metaphysical. This smacks of intellectual fraud. They simply do not practice what they preach—especially toward Christians. Why is this? One thought is because Christianity is truth, and Jesus knew the world would reject his followers in the same manner they rejected Him. Truth, on one hand, sets us free. But it also confounds and convicts those who reject it and peddle a counterfeit reality.

There is a degree of “political correctness” in this attitude. Even many churches have been corrupted and misguided by the unsustainable notion that pluralism allows for tolerance. Many have allowed their theology to be watered down and have permitted the authority of Scripture to be undermined in favor of society’s “evolved” or “advanced” ideas on morality. Unfortunately, many Christians and their church leaders have become an accomplice to the denigration of truth. This is a conscious and deliberate disobedience of the Great Commission presented to the body of believers by Christ before his ascension (see Matt. 28:16-20).

A Dangerous Division

Harvard paleontologist Stephen J. Gould, though a prominent critic of intelligent design, has claimed he is not atheistic. Science and religion cannot conflict, he believes, because they deal with different subject matter: science is about empirical facts, whereas religion is about meaning and morality. Unfortunately, many of today’s Christians are falling for this rather dangerous division of science and theology. As a result, they are ill-prepared to give an answer for the faith they have in the gospel. A negative side-effect of this lack of preparedness is the tendency to either shy away from defending the gospel or doing so from a militant or insulting position. Neither of these reactions are within the scope of 1 Peter 3:15:

But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (NIV).

We cannot allow the surgical division of science and Christianity to persist. As noted above, many Christians have made groundbreaking scientific discoveries over the centuries. In fact, the list I provided is incomplete. Space does not allow the listing of all scientists who were Christians or theists. It is also important to note that because all truth is God’s truth, the Bible and science are not diametrically opposed. The means by which the New Atheists make this claim is unfair. It is literally a comparison of apples to oranges. To say that science can explain every aspect of creation is to misuse applied or experimental science when the proper tool is “historical” science. We cannot test the past to see if certain empirical theories are possible. We do not have a time machine.

Further, no one has been able to “create” the building blocks of life (the necessary enzymes, proteins, and genetic code) in a laboratory. No one has an explanation for the origin of biological information needed to establish Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species. Modern science knows full-well that, ultimately, life is a molecular phenomenon. All organisms are made of molecules that act as the very building blocks required for origin and operation. Living cells require a constant supply of energy to generate and maintain the biological order that keeps them alive. This energy is derived from the chemical bond energy in food molecules. The proteins, lipids, and polysaccharides that make up most of the food we eat must be broken down into smaller molecules before our cells can use them—either as a source of energy or as building blocks for other molecules. The breakdown processes must act on food taken in from outside, but not on the macromolecules inside our own cells. It’s as if we have tiny nuts and bolts, gears and pulleys, of biological “equipment” inside us. How brilliant is that? We are like the pocket watch found on the ground in the woods by a hiker; we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, with highly intricate biochemical and physical operations, that can come only from a “watchmaker.”

Although it contains one, Christianity is not merely a worldview. Nor is it simply “a religion.” If it were, then it might deserve the reputation of being a narrowly pious view of the world. Thankfully, Christianity is an objective perspective on all reality, a complete worldview, that consistently stands up to the test of practical living. Additionally, it is about our relationship with the Creator. We become one with Christ when we choose to make Him Lord and Savior. This is a great litmus test for deciding whether a particular “branch” or “sect” of Christianity is genuine. Accordingly, we can admit that “false prophets” have arisen. I’m reminded of Jim Jones and David Koresh. Today’s atheists love to talk about all the people murdered over the centuries in the name of Christ. They don’t respond well to the rebuttal that millions were murdered by people who were not followers of Christ, typically in the interest of genocide: Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin, Ho Chi Mihn, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Mullah Omar, Leonid Brezhnev, Kim Il-Sung, Augusto Pinochet, and (drum roll please) the worst, Mao Ze Dung.

References

Colson, Charles, and Pearcy, N. How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House), 1999.

Licona, Michael, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press), 2010.

McDowell, J. and McDowell, S., Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson), 2017.

Moreland, J.P., Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway), 2018.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Calvin vs. Arminius

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University. 

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

For the purposes of this exercise, and not necessarily as a reflection of what you really believe, assume the stance of either an Arminian or a Calvinist. From the point of view of your chosen perspective, present and develop two ideas: (1) the one which is most convincing to you about the Calvinist or Arminian perspective and (2) the one with which you struggle the most regarding that perspective.

Concerning the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, we must remember these schools of thought address two distinct issues: (1) free will and ability to choose one’s actions; and (2) election, or God’s choice, as to whom He saves. Calvinism and Arminianism both support the idea of the total depravity of man, to include an inability to choose how to behave. We cannot be saved by the Law. Rather, the Law merely informs us of our inability to “behave” ourselves into righteousness. Arminianism supports universal redemption (general atonement) and conditional election, whereas Calvinism believes in limited (definite) atonement and unconditional election. Calvin is best noted, of course, for adherence to “predestination.” After the Fall, man stood condemned before God. God chose and called “some” who would be saved.

Arminians believe God’s election depends on man’s free will because it is based on His foreknowledge. God does, in fact, see all time at the same time as noted by Grudem. [1] The apostle Peter said we are “chosen and destined by God the Father and sanctified by the Spirit for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood” (1 Pet. 1:2, RSV). Paul wrote, “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29). Arminians are clear that individuals must accept God’s calling to be saved. It is not a matter of being predestined or chosen “ahead of time.” It is interesting to note, however, that this doctrine (universal salvation) is not necessarily supported by Scripture. Since Jesus died for all, Arminians argue that all will be saved. First Corinthians 6:9-11 says the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God; further, only those who are washed (sanctified, justified) by the blood of Jesus will be saved.

Taking the position of Calvinism, I would have to believe the “call” of God on our lives is resistible—we can reject Jesus or accept Him. However, once we accept Jesus as Messiah and Lord, the internal leading of the Holy Spirit is all-powerful, achieving God’s purpose in our lives and giving us a measure of grace to be able to choose. We can stand on the belief that God works out everything for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28). We’re made “spiritually alive” with a new ability to see God’s plan for our redemption and the place of Jesus in that plan. This call is so wonderful and appealing that it becomes impossible to say no to God. This is not a violation of our free will because we didn’t really have it in the first place; our will was corrupted by original sin. Martin Luther believed even the most excellent of men—endowed with the Law, righteousness, wisdom, and all virtues—is nonetheless ungodly and unrighteous. Due to the innate nature of sin, man cannot consistently choose to act righteously, if at all. [2]

Paul gave the example that many Jews were without faith who were most wise, most religious, and most upright. He said they had a “zeal” for God yet were transgressors of the Law. He wrote in Romans 3:9-10 that the Jew was no better than the Gentile; both are under the power of sin. No one is righteous on their own. This fits well with Paul’s remark that we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but with powers and principalities; rulers of the darkness of this world (Eph. 6:12). Because we all are Adam, we need salvation. Adam’s offense comes to us not by imitation, nor necessarily by anything we do (although we do sin, sometimes habitually); rather, we receive our sin nature by birth. Luther believed original sin “does not allow ‘free-will’ any power at all except to sin and incur condemnation.” [3] Therefore, he rejected the notion of free will. He believed this conclusion is well supported by Scripture, especially in the writings of John and Paul.

Grudem quotes Peter, who called Jesus, “a stone that will make men stumble, a rock that will make them fall; for they stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do” (1 Pet. 2:8, emphasis added). Peter says in verse 10, “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.” Grudem says in a footnote related to verse 8, “The ‘destining’ in this verse is best taken to refer to both the stumbling and the disobedience. It is incorrect to say that God only destined the fact that those who disobey would stumble.” [4] Grudem notes that Calvin gives some room for man’s “free” acts and choices. Calvin admitted, however, that this statement is a bit confusing, causing him to avoid using it. Instead, man has “this sort of free decision, not because he has free choice equally of good and evil, but because he acts wickedly by will, not by compulsion.” [5]

For me, this idea of “will” can mean only one thing: man acts wickedly by deciding to reject the Light of Christ and remain in darkness. He is compelled by his sin nature to act the only way he can—in an ungodly and unrighteous manner. Admittedly, some men choose to act justly or “God-like” at times, but no man is capable of decidedly obeying the Law and acting righteously in a consistent manner. He is not compelled or tempted to do so by God. James said, “When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed” (James 1:13-14, NIV, emphasis added).

Grudem notes that God has made us responsible for our actions, reminding us that our actions have real and eternal consequences. He notes that Adam blamed Eve for his own disobedience, saying, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate” (Gen. 3:12). Scripture, as Grudem notes, never blames God for sin. Regardless, He accomplishes all things (no matter their impetus) according to the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11). In the case of Job, God pulled back and allowed Satan to attack Job in any manner He chose (including wiping out his livestock, killing his wife and children), but He would not allow the devil to kill Job. This type of issue gives me pause. It is easy, at least in my human intellectual capacity, to think God willed (therefore, caused) evil on Job’s animals and his family. Innocent people died for God’s point to be made. However, when I consider the horror and evil inflicted upon Jesus during the last twelve hours of His life (what we consider the “passion”), and when I play it out to the end, seeing that mankind could only be redeemed through the shedding of the blood of Jesus, I have an easier time understanding what is meant by God using whatever happens to accomplish His will.

Grudem says, “In response to the claim that choices ordained by God cannot be real choices, it must be said that this is simply an assumption based once again on human experience and intuition, not on specific texts of Scripture.” [6] Note that Grudem uses the term “ordained by God,” and does not say God performed the evil act itself. This speaks of the means through which He achieves His intended result. We are fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). We’re made in such a way, however, that God ordains all we do. The Calvinist would endorse the theory that God does not sin but brings about His will through secondary causes, including the immorality of others. We should accept that whatever God ordains is within His purview and His authority.

Calvin distinguishes between “necessity” and “compulsion.” He notes that unbelievers necessarily sin. Scripture supports this, as does Martin Luther. There is, however, no “Godly compulsion” to sin. There is simply God’s ability to use whatever happens to further His will and promote His glory. What I find most difficult to grasp regarding Calvinism is the idea that God “predetermined” who will be saved and who will not. Perhaps this is a gross misinterpretation of “predeterminism.” The concept that, before the foundation of the world, God predestined a plan of redemption is about the plan and not a prior decision who He will accept and who He will reject. In addition, because God sees the past, the present, and the future all at once, He already knows who will be saved. The responsibility still remains with each individual to either accept or reject the sacrificial death of Jesus as the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world.

Bibliography

Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan), 1994.

Luther, Martin, The Bondage of the Will, trans. By James I. Packer(Old Tappan, NJ:       Fleming H. Revell Co.), 1957.

 


[1] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), p. 168.

[2] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. (Old Tappan: Fleming H. Revell, 1957), p. 275.

[3] Ibid, p. 298.

[4] Grudem, p. 327.

[5] P. 330.

[6] P. 343.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Basic Tools of Doing Systematic Theology

The following is a summary of my most recent class in pursuit of my Master’s in Theology at Colorado Christian University.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy.

IT’S ONE THING TO pick up a book and read about theology. And that’s okay. It’s how I got interested in taking the subject on as a graduate student. It all starts with contemplation. We “think” about what it means to be alive, to have purpose. We wonder how we might make a difference in society. We question the “logic” of believing in God. Armed with such a burning desire to know, I enrolled in a master’s program in theology and started out on what so far has proved to be an amazing, breathtaking journey.

In week four of my theology class we considered the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action. Further, we discussed the type of character most conducive to theological insight, and how the systematic study of theology should impact one’s character. Generic “theological” study does not necessarily require any degree of sanctification. Many people choose to study theology or philosophy without any sense of what is meant by redemption or sanctification. These concepts are, however, imperative in Christian theology.

What is the proper relationship between theological study, sanctification, contemplation, prayer, and action?

I was amazed how little I understood about sanctification over the years. I thought it “just happened” when I “got saved.” Considering the decades of sinful behavior and active addiction I went through after accepting Christ (at age 13), I was far from sanctified. Of course, it does start with salvation. When we become redeemed, we are expected to “repent” of our old life. Then sanctification can begin. According to R.E.O. White, sanctification means “to make holy.” [1] It’s not uncommon for a new Christian to think this means he or she is made holy (shazam!) all at once. White further explains that to be sanctified is to be “set apart” from common or secular use.

First Corinthians 1:2 says we are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. R.E.O. White writes that sanctification is not merely justification’s endgame; rather, it is justifying faith at work. The new believer is declared to be acquitted and clothed in the righteousness of Christ. Through sanctification, God begins to accomplish His will in us. This is often called becoming spiritually mature. We are not saved by good works, but there is little hope of sanctification without submitting to the will of God.

Thomas Aquinas says in the Summa Theologiae [2] that four of the gifts of the Spirit of the Lord are wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel, and that these gifts have a direct impact on the intellect. Isaiah 11:2 says. “And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD” (RSV). David Jeremiah explains that the coming king “will be endowed with the Spirit of the Lord, who provides the wisdom, ability, and allegiance to God that are necessary to accomplish a challenging task.” [3] Proverbs 2:6 says, “For the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding.” James reminds us that if we lack wisdom in any circumstance, we are to ask God and He will give it (James 1:5). Thomas Aquinas said any discourse of reason always begins from an understanding. It is critical, therefore, that we never attempt theology while lacking understanding. Although the work of the Spirit is already completed relative to the compiling of Scripture, His work regarding “illumination” is ongoing.

Prayer is the means by which we gain access to God. Just as we speak to the Father, and call upon Jesus, we must request from the Holy Spirit the guidance, understanding, knowledge, illumination, and discernment needed to effectively and accurately undertake systematic theology. It is equally important to pray for guidance regarding God’s call on our lives. When I decided to change my major from the master’s in counseling program to the master’s in theology, I spent weeks in prayer. I consulted with my pastor, several lay ministry friends, family members, my CCU student advisor, two professors, and several elders at my church. I cannot fathom undertaking a systematic study of Christian theology without prayer.

What type of character is most conducive to theological insight, and how should it change as the result of undertaking theological study?

In any theological undertaking, one would expect there to be a change of character. I think of Nabeel Qureshi (1983-2017), author, speaker, lecturer, and apologist, who converted to Christianity from Islam after spending nearly two years conducting an exegetical study of the Holy Bible. His character, if you will, was that of a loving, dedicated, well-behaved young man who had been raised in a religious home. In fact, no one in his immediate or extended family were extremists or jihadists. He loved the Qur’an, Allah, and his messenger Muhammad. This “character” coupled with a sharp intellect likely contributed to his willingness to examine the theology of Islam, and, ultimately, compare it to Christianity.

Tradition injects a lot into character, and, when that character matures, one becomes curious about tradition, religion, politics, culture, the meaning of life, and so on. Qureshi said one of the greatest hardships he faced was having to inform his parents he had become a Christian. He was, after all, part of a “community of believers” that were bonded together by solid theological principles and deep-seated tradition. He believed in Islam. He revered Muhammad. Regardless, once he met Jesus Christ, he could no longer reject Him than he could make himself stop breathing. This is precisely the type of character it requires to begin a theological study.

Insight comes from honest, rigorous, open-minded, and thorough study. We’ve been told that theology is in its simplest form “the study of God.” For me, the desire to know God stems from my burning desire to know why my earthly father seemed to hate me so much and, more frighteningly, whether my Heavenly Father was as mean-spirited, vindictive, nasty, judging, and punishing. (Incidentally, I eventually learned that my dad did not hate me, and he did the best he could to keep me from running off the rails and into the gutter.)

If God were to be “the same as” my dad, I would have no time for Him. Regardless, somewhere deep inside, I wanted to know several things. First, exactly who or what was this Christian God I’d heard of at church? Second, was He authoritative—leading from a position of authority and strength, love and longsuffering—or authoritarian—ruling over everyone with a heavenly despotic fist, ready to accuse and condemn? Third, was it true, as my father said many times, that I was worthless, or was there hope that my life had some greater meaning?

As to what type of character should result from theological study, Trevor Hart said, “Faith is not a natural progression from knowledge or experiences available to all, but results from a special dispensation which sets us in the perspective from which the truth may be seen, and demands a response” [4] [italics mine]. In other words, deciding to systematically study Christian theology is both a soulful drive or ambition and a rigorous discipline. I have gone through numerous personal changes as an undergraduate student of psychology at Colorado Christian University. I believe those changes set the stage for my choosing to take on a master’s level study of theology. There is a progression at play. Had I not first chosen to return to college, I would not have discovered CCU; had I not enrolled at CCU, I would not be the Christian I am today; and, had I not grown more mature in Christ as an undergraduate, I would not have undergone the requisite changes conducive to undertaking a master’s degree in theology.

This is the fourth week of my first theology class, and already I feel tectonic shifts within me. My personality has brightened, and my mind has cleared. I am ravenous for information about theology, Christology, eschatology, and apologetics. I see people as God sees them, and I’ve begun to feel a heartache for those who will never see the truth about the life, love, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I have started to keep my promises more consistently than I used to, and I exercise greater control over my tongue (which was no easy task!). I even noticed a major change in the amount of television I watch. All of that notwithstanding, I find myself asking God every morning to put a task before me; to lead me where He needs me to go; to break my heart for what breaks His.

Footnotes

[1] R.E.O. White. “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 770

[2] Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae, I.II, q. 68, a1

[3] David Jeremiah. The Jeremiah Study Bible. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2013), 893-94.

[4] Trevor Hart. Faith Thinking. (Eugene:Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1995), 75.