Hymnus Deo

Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Monday, November 26, 2007

Blog blah blah

Here it is, November 26th, and my last serious blog was almost three weeks ago. And, as is to be expected in the world of blogdom, the vast number of visits I formerly was receiving on this blog has ground nearly to a halt. But who can blame you? I wouldn’t visit a blog if there were nothing on it that I wanted to read.

But I have a valid excuse, of sorts. One of these past three weeks was spent at the beach, sans computer. Okay, so I only have a valid excuse for one week. But if you count the week before as preparation, and the week after as recovery, that takes care of all three, doesn’t it?

The truth be known, this is just a busy time of year. The shoe business has been especially overwhelming this year, and I find myself most evenings recovering from the day’s labors. But I have a job, which many people don’t, so I am grateful. I had my vacation, and then covered for a co-worker who was on vacation. Then there was Thanksgiving Day, on which, actually, I was sick at home and unable to join friends and family for the customary feasting and revelries. And Christmas chaos has begun, with me having done none of my shopping yet.

Our Bible Study group is working slowly through Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, and I’ve been trying to devote most of my study and reading time to the Scriptures and books related to our study. I have still been finding time to work in other reading, mostly of a political nature. I have been reading slowly through Ron Paul’s book, A Foreign Policy of Freedom. If you are dissatisfied with the current field of candidates for president, you need to check out Ron Paul. I won’t take time now to discuss this further, other that to say no other candidate matches up to him, and I am extremely glad that we finally have somebody worth voting for. I had also begun reading Frederic Bastiat’s classic of political theory simply entitled The Law. And I had worked halfway through Anthony Flew’s book, There Is A God, which is Flew’s explanation of how he moved from being an atheist to being a theist of the Aristotelian variety.

I’m bad about not finishing books I start, and there are many others besides these that I have wanted to get back to, yet without success. But they will all have to go by the wayside for now. It looks as if I will be joining some other folks for a Bible study in which we will be studying the Book of Daniel. I haven’t even read Daniel in several years (yes, years…), and I’ve never studied it in any depth. When you grow up in Dispensationalism, as I did, and then leave it for Reformed theology, sometimes the last thing in the world that’s appealing to you is a book that your former co-theologisers majored on. But the more I’ve been trying to dive into the Old Testament, the more conspicuous it’s become to me that I need to study Daniel. So this is timely, or Providential, if you will. I just ordered this commentary, which I’m excited to dig into as soon as it arrives. And so with a Bible study on Daniel, and a Bible study on Romans, I’ll be feeling like I’m back in school, deadlines and all.

So, will blogging go entirely out of my life? No. I think what I will try to do is to blog shorter pieces, some only a few sentences in length, most of which will no doubt be related to what I’m reading. I’m constantly renewed in my amazement at how deep and complex the Scriptures are, and so I expect to have a lot to write about. And I welcome any comments that the reader might offer. I’ve had a great increase in visitors here, and I hope that will continue. But does what I’m writing make sense to you? Do you find it helpful? If so, or if not, I’d like to know. Don’t be afraid to speak out. I enjoy writing, but I want it to benefit others, too.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Idolatry takes many forms, #2: The Messianic State

Government schooling is inevitably an exercise in statist brainwashing, not genuine education; and it is hardly “moral” for a large gang (government) to (legally) rob one segment of the population, keep most of the loot, and share a little of it with various “needy” individuals.

-- Thomas J. DiLorenzo

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Interpretation is Inevitable

A few years ago, I had one of those conversations that will stick in your mind forever and keep you scratching your head long after it is over. It was with an old friend, and the topic was eldership in the local church. He had been attending an eldership training class in our church, and we were talking about the qualifications required for one to be an elder as listed in 1 Timothy 3, specifically regarding the controversial phrase “husband of one wife”. There have been many readings of the phrase, some believing it forbids polygamists from becoming elders, while other believe it forbids divorced men from becoming elders. There have been other views on the passage, but our conversation was limited to this, as I held the former view and my friend held the latter. The conversation went as such:

Friend: I don’t know why so-and-so is taking the class. He can’t become an elder.

Myself: Why not?

Friend: He’s been divorced. He hasn’t been “the husband of one wife”.

Myself: I don’t believe you’re interpreting that passage correctly. The passage is referring to polygamists, not to those who have been divorced. Someone who has been divorced and remarried only has one wife.

Friend: No, you’re interpreting the passage. I’m just reading what it says.

Once I was done picking my jaw up off the floor, the conversation continued along a slightly different path. It wasn’t that I was offended at his statement. Like I said, he’s an old friend, and I don’t think anything he could ever do would offend me. But I had never heard such a ridiculous statement in my life. My friend, God bless him, isn’t a complete idiot, but he’s not exactly a Rhodes scholar, if you get my drift. This was simply a misunderstanding of language, and meaning, and, well, truth. But I thought that would be the last time I would hear anything like that.

And it was – until this morning after church, as I was carrying on a conversation with an older lady in our church. She likes to refer to herself as “an Episcopalian, Charismatic, Pentecostal Fundamentalist”, and the redundancy of including both “Charismatic” and “Pentecostal” in that phrase doesn’t seem to bother her in the least. We were discussing our former president Jimmy Carter’s masquerade of traditionalism, in the realm of politics, but especially when it came to his claims to be a good old Southern Baptist stalwart. This drifted into a conversation about what true fundamentalism looks like, including the idea of taking the Bible “literally”. I should have known I was in deep water at this point, but the reality of the situation slipped past me. As the idea of “taking the Bible literally” has been used as an excuse for all sorts of shoddy Scriptural interpretations in the past two hundred years, red flags normally start flying at this point for me. Blame it on the communion wine, but I didn’t see this iceberg coming. It happened a bit like this:

Lady: Have you ever read Isaiah?

Myself, in disbelief: Uhhh, yeah.

Lady: I read it forty years ago, and I knew immediately what it was about.

Myself, with bated breath: What’s that?

Lady: Isaiah talks about all the Jews living throughout the world and God bringing them back to their land. I saw God doing that and knew that’s what Isaiah was talking about.

Myself, with much hesitancy: I actually believe that happened two thousand years ago.

Lady: No, it didn’t. That’s never happened before in the history of the world, because nobody inhabited the United States back then. Jews would have had to have been in the United States for them to come back from all over the world.

Myself, in over my head: Have any Jews ever inhabited Antarctica?

Lady: I don’t know. The point is that that’s what Isaiah was talking about.

Myself, waiting for impact: I guess what I’m getting at is that there are different interpretations of that. Yours is a very new interpretation in the history of the church.

Lady: You don’t interpret the Bible. You just read what it says.

Myself, looking for an exit: Yeah…right…

Things fizzled rather quickly after that, farewells and other pleasantries dispensed with.

It’s a rather strange bird, this whole idea that “interpreting” is a bad thing to do. What surprised me in both these conversations is that both these people thought they weren’t interpreting the meaning of a text when they read it. But that, in fact, is all that is meant by the word “interpret”. And I can’t help but wonder where this confusion came from. Whatever its origin, it is a strong characteristic of Fundamentalist types. By Fundamentalists, I’m not referring, as the secular media does, to those who have some religious belief and actually live by it, even when it stands in stark contrast to the accepted practices of mainstream culture. I’m referring to Fundamentalist Christians, of the stripe that existed in abundance during the twentieth century, who think that they are able to understand everything perfectly and don’t think that they could actually be wrong about something. But Fundamentalists aren’t the only ones guilty of this.

Though many scholars have begun to recognize the error in it, most people are still living with the notion that there is actually such a thing as objectivity – that they can look at a truth claim and judge it in a perfectly unbiased manner. But this is false. Every person who has ever been born (apart from Jesus Christ) has a limited perspective and therefore never has all the information necessary to make an infallible judgment. Along with this, we are all sinners. Our motives are never perfect, and our sin is so deep we often don’t know when and how it shapes our thinking. Another way of referring to this is as the myth of neutrality. No one is neutral in their judgment, nor should they be. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, and that is exactly the way God intends it. Our judgments, therefore, are to be biased towards what is true and good.

It’s this myth of objectivity that stands behind conversations like the ones I’ve just mentioned. These people have somehow come to believe that to “interpret” a text means to insert a meaning into a text that isn’t there – what scholars call “eisegesis”. They, however, believe they are pure in their desires and perspective (in contrast with everyone else in the world), and so they think they can perfectly understand the text apart from any outside influence, be it good or bad. The sad thing about this is that it is a subtle and devious form of pride.

But how can one break through the fog and help people see their error in this? I don’t know. These people have been shaped this way by factors in their lives that I could never determine or undo. There are aesthetic factors which, if we could pull these people away from, would cease influencing them in this direction. Polemically discursive news and talk shows, as well as Fundamentalist TV preachers, are central to this, but you can’t exactly change another person’s habits for them. When talking to people like this, I personally find I’m more on the listening end than the talking end, because it’s nearly impossible to get a word in. And certainly, God can break through to a person like this. I know my duty is to listen patiently, and to point out key errors like this as I have opportunity in such a way that the person feels respected and not rebuked or insulted. Beyond that, prayer, as well as the demonstration of a more humble approach to life, can do wonders in influencing others for the better. Change might not come as quick as we would like, but it will come as quickly as God wants, and as He is the only one who knows all, He knows what is best.

The Church is Full of Hypocrites...Or So They Say

One of the common reasons cited by people who don’t attend church as to why they don’t is, “the church is full of hypocrites”. It’s amazing how sayings like this get started and spread, just like urban legends do. I can’t help but wonder who the first person was to make this statement. And you can tell in each case that this wasn’t an original thought the person had, because it is always phrased in exactly the same way – “the church is full of hypocrites”. And to think Christians are the ones accused of being thoughtless in their adherence to certain beliefs.

There are a couple of responses I’ve found to this statement. The first is, “what better place is there for hypocrites to be?” This one might not fly with the average unbeliever, because they don’t really think the church is a good place to be, or else they’d be there themselves. Nonetheless, it’s a point well considered. If the church is the place to go if one wants to be cured of their sin, and hypocrisy really is a sin (as all sides seem to agree on), then hypocrites need to be in the church. One just can’t expect them to be cured of their hypocrisy overnight, however. Christians spend their whole lives being straightened out by God, and the thing isn’t completed until we die.

But there’s another response, and it gets more to the heart of what the person is implying when they make this statement. And that is to say, “There are hypocrites outside of the church, too.” What I find implied by the statement, “the church is full of hypocrites”, is two things. One is simply the idea that if Christians really believe what they say they believe, then they should live more in accordance with their beliefs than they do. This is a fair assessment. We North American Christians are doing a horrible job in the area of holiness, and the average unbeliever knows it, and has probably experienced it first hand on numerous occasions. Sometimes, this is simply that unbelievers think they know what holiness looks like, and when they see us failing to live up to what they believe our standards are, they think we are living hypocritically. This is true when it comes to things such as drinking alcohol, which, though certain Christian groups believe is sinful, actually is not. But these non-issues to the side, there are many areas in which we simply are failing to obey God, and we are failing miserably. This, despite their thoughts to the contrary, excuses no unbeliever for their failure to repent. When we all stand before God one day to give an account, all finger pointing will be dismissed outright as inadmissible. When God addresses me, he will hold me accountable for failing to demonstrate Christ to others. But He won’t dismiss anyone on that basis. All this considered, as John Calvin said, “We are all partly unbelievers until we die.” And since all sin exists because we fail to believe God, sin is inevitable. I believe God; therefore I seek to obey Him. But I struggle with unbelief, and therefore sometimes I sin.

But the other implication is that people outside of the church aren’t hypocrites. Just as everyone, both inside and outside the church, is at least partly an unbeliever, so everyone, both inside and outside of the church, is partly a hypocrite. Nobody ever lives 100% consistently with what they say they believe, and those who say they do are either self-deceived or outright liars. Inasmuch as we never know ourselves as well as we think we do, the former is probably the far more frequent occurrence. But hypocrisy is common in all people. Christian pastors preaching against adultery sometimes make the big mistake of sleeping with their secretaries (and hopefully are removed from office for it), and pagan relativists actually stop at red lights. Believers sometimes surf the web on company time when they know better, and non-Christians who believe it’s wrong to take illegal drugs sometimes give in to peer-pressure and find themselves at a party with a joint between their fingers. Hypocrisy is a common, everyday occurrence.

In conjunction to this, one gets the impression from unbelievers that those who don’t attend church are easier to get along with. I personally have found this, quite frankly, to be a load of, well, you-know-what (if you will pardon my brief departure from detached, scholarly discourse). Those who don’t attend church lie and steal. They cheat on their boyfriends, girlfriends, and spouses. They are greedy, they abuse others, and they murder. In fact, they do every sin you can think of, and, from my experience, sin much more actively and freely than most every Christian I’ve known. To top it off, all these things create disharmony in their families and communities. Thus, to pretend that there is a world of non-believers out there just doing their own thing and not hurting anybody else is dishonest.

But back to the question of hypocrisy, why is it always applied to Christians, and rarely to non-Christians? Part of the reason is that Christians are so vocal in the so-called culture wars. And the liberal media has also done such good job demonizing Evangelicals that non-Christians act like we’re armed to the teeth and ready to start raiding houses at any moment. (In case you’re wondering, we aren’t.) Non-Christians are afraid that Christians are trying to take over society and enforce their moral standards on them. This is partly true, depending on which Christian group you’re talking about (some are trying to force morality, whereas some could care less what you do) and which moral standard you’re talking about. But those interested in enforcing Christian morality, so far as I know, are interested in doing so through legal methods. The point being that in such an atmosphere as this, where the church is pointing fingers at the unbelievers in the culture and trying to get them to “shape up”, the tendency by other believers is going to be to want to fire back with accusations. I, for one, would rather bring others to our side through persuasion than through hostile engagement.

Sometimes the person has had a bad church experience, as the increasing number of child abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church has shown us in recent years. To say this is understandable is an understatement. But I think if we were to ask around, we would find most everybody has had some sort of bad experience in the church, though some are much worse than others. The solution to this isn’t to escape the church for good, but rather to embrace it and seek to change it for the better. Once again, the world outside the church is full of hypocrites and wicked people, too.

But another reason why unbelievers respond this way is simply guilt. As Paul tells us in Romans 1, God has revealed Himself to all mankind and they have refused to serve Him. They see God in creation, refuse Him, and God gives them over to their sin. And so when unbelievers say things like this, it’s a smokescreen. It’s simply a way of masking their guilt. They know God calls them to obey Him, and by bringing up the church, we are simply putting before them the thing they’ve been running desperately from, and that’s God.

So, to you believers, don’t be afraid to engage a person when you meet a response like this. If you do, you’ll do the person a disservice by allowing their resistance to Christ to continue. Sure, there are plenty of hypocrites in the church. But, as true as this is, it excuses no one from repenting and trusting in Christ.

To those of you who would offer this as an excuse, you might put off the person who would share the gospel with you. But you aren’t fooling God. He calls you to repentance, and that for your own good. You can find salvation in Him – don’t resist Him.