July 17, 2009

What If We Are Wrong?

[Salvation #3]

What does it mean that our agreement on salvation appears to fall apart once we move from terms to definitions? Some of the implications are unsettling, at best:

1. That we—collectively, as the church—don't understand what the gospel is, apparently. Or particularly well, at least. Or well enough to explain it. Without contradicting or vexing other brothers and sisters who have spent just as much effort, study, and prayer to understand salvation as we have—if not more. Including those who have lived under persecution, who have sought truth with more desperation and at greater cost.

2. That there is a real possibility that many of us, individually, don't understand the gospel correctly. That we really don't know what we're talking about. Though we may think we do. Or at least act as if we do whenever we judge the salvation of those around us.

3. That those who sense these possibilities, who see the speck of error or uncertainty in our brother's eye and know what the mirror will reveal, live out their salvation with a gnawing insecurity about our apparent inability to get the story straight.

Insecurity would explain the gymnastics we require of people when we present the gospel—lest anyone fall short of the threshold due to our flawed understanding.
What if I miss a step in the recipe? What if I don't explain all necessary hoops? What if I forget the password? We act as if we fear we might be doing it all wrong—thwarting the great commission, even. As if someone's salvation was really up to us, dependent on how perfectly we make the pitch and close the deal.

Insecurity would explain our many lines in the sand, our lists of preferences, convictions, and doctrinal enemies. Our insistence on defining ourselves by our personal and denominational differences hints at a need to be recognized, approved, and proved right—or at least
more right than others. Where does the self-justification end? Splitting the church into micro-denominations, into pieces tiny enough finally that all members of our group agree with us? Would we then be content? Or is empire building necessary to buttress the worth and rightness of our opinions?

Insecurity would explain our longing for doctrinal absolutes and our passionate self-defense against ambiguity. We fear that our theological house of cards will come crashing down if we acknowledge any uncertainty. To acknowledge, even to myself, that I might have misunderstood
the gospel opens the door of possibility that I might be wrong about anything and everything. What else? How much? For how long? And what about my own salvation?

These are paralyzing questions.

July 12, 2009

Harmonizing the Scriptures

Allow me to pause in our discussion of salvation to briefly consider an interpretation issue. 

Many verses in the Bible seem to make no sense, or to be contrary to what we already believe is true, or -- worst of all -- to contradict what we thought the Bible said. Consider these examples, and how some might deal with the stickiness: 
  1. The Old Testament God seems grumpy, if not downright steamed. On the other hand, New Testament Jesus seems loving. But Jesus is God, and God is the same "yesterday, today, and forever." So, God isn't actually an angry God. 
  2. Creation took only six days. Fossils suggest that species popped out of the ooze over the course of millions of years. But "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." So, creation actually took six thousand years -- and the fossils are wrong.
  3. Jesus said "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Therefore, Jesus is not equal to God, or Jesus doesn't realize that he is God incarnate. But Jesus also said "I and the Father are one." So, Jesus is actually equal to God -- and was probably just messing with the rich young ruler. Or it was a test.
We have a moment of doubt. We find another verse that dispels our doubt. We latch onto the second verse and ignore the first verse (or assign a new harmonized interpretation to it which may be totally contradictory to the actual words in the original verse). Verse 2 trumps verse 1. Problem solved. 

We explain away the problems by "harmonizing" the scriptures, and this is seen by many as a reasonable practice -- or even the definition of "rightly dividing" the Bible, and thus evidence of one's own advanced skill. How is this different, however, from simply picking the verses that seem true to us and declaring that these ones have the correct meaning? How objective is our filter for sifting through the contradictions? Where does our filter -- our presuppositions -- come from? 

The verses that already made sense to us? Circular reasoning. 

What we were taught in Sunday School, or at mother's knee, or in seminary? Traditions of men. 

What seems right in our own eyes? Ouch. 

More on this another day.

July 6, 2009

Are You Saved If...?

[Salvation #2]

Continuing from my previous post, many would say that salvation is the central issue of Christianity, the very heart of the gospel, but agreement on the meaning of the word appears to have eluded the church throughout most -- if not all -- of its history.

Let us consider what salvation actually means at the level of the individual. Would we say that someone is saved if ...
  1. he has begged for forgiveness of sins but feels no love, only terror, towards God?
  2. she is four years old and "just loves Jesus"?
  3. he is a (choose one) bigot / child abuser / bigamist / homosexual / addict?
  4. she continues to sin (choose one) regularly / after a certain period of time following her conversion / only certain sins -- drunkenness, for example, or rock music?
  5. he died very young -- or even was aborted?
  6. she has been mentally retarded from birth?
  7. he "confessed Jesus with his mouth," but doesn't fully understand or believe in his heart that "God raised him from the dead"?
  8. she prayed a Sinner's Prayer as a child but now is apathetic about personal spiritual discipline or church participation?
  9. he commits suicide?
  10. she is (choose one) demon-possessed / mentally ill / chronically sick / poor?
  11. he believes that well-meaning people from all religions can be saved, though he believes his own salvation has something to do with Jesus?
  12. she believes she is, but never asked to be saved -- never "invited Jesus into her heart"?
  13. he isn't sure whether he is saved or not?
  14. she doesn't believe in (choose one) literal heaven and hell / inerrancy of scripture / the divinity of Jesus?
  15. he claims to be a Christian, but has no intention of giving up his sexually active lifestyle?
Do all Christians agree? All pastors and priests? All theologians and scholars?

Though no biologist (or perhaps because I am not), I am reminded of the disagreement between Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins over the mechanism of evolution. If these two keepers of the flame, examining the same "scientific record" each thought the other's model was rubbish, then their shared belief in evolution seems to be more of a consensus on a single term to call their contradictory views -- or agreement on a Platonic form. 

Maybe that seems good enough. Agree to disagree, and all. Semantics. 

But if my wife and I agree that fruit is the tastiest food on earth, and my wife is referring to mangoes while I am referring to blackberries, then our agreement is nonsensical. And if my "soon" doesn't correspond to her "soon" when I reassure her that I haven't forgotten about taking out the garbage, then it seems a bit strained to say that she and I really agree in a meaningful way on when I'm going to finish conquering the world and come downstairs. 

In like manner, if many Christians agree that salvation is key to understanding the gospel, that "you must be born again," but disagree on what salvation is, and what is required, and whether or not the person we are speaking with is already saved, then what agreement is that? If we have different definitions of salvation, then what do we actually have? Agreement on vocabulary, only?