February 17, 2010

Noah Webster & God

[Salvation #6] 
Having established that salvation may be knowable, even when we are unable to clearly define salvation or unable to agree upon such a definition, we turn to the question of why we have been left to write our own definition. If our own definition writing requires that we wade in the oft-murky waters of scripture interpretation, then why has God failed to clearly provide such crucial information? Why didn't God just give us a dictionary if he knew the mess we would make of this? Why did he give us the Bible, filled with poetry, riddles, proverbs, songs, correspondence, code, and lots and lots of stories and parables, instead? Understand that these are types of writing not normally used to dictate precise definitions, or genres from which we expect to extract them. And why use Hebrew of all languages for the majority of this, a language known for its ambiguity?

Maybe neat, theological definitions don't exist. Maybe God isn't at all eager to spoon-feed them to us if they do. Maybe they are as nonsensical as mathematical equations written to explain color. Maybe God is less interested in developing our knowledge than our character, our humility, or our relationship with him. Maybe God knows that definitions create the illusion of mastery, certainty, and control; and maybe he is less interested in being defined or understood than being known, obeyed, and loved. 

What definition of "God" do we find in Scripture, for that matter, and shouldn't that be even more important than understanding salvation? "God is love;" "God is spirit;" "God is a consuming fire;" "God is light." How's that for a single and clear definition of what God is? And what about Jesus? How eager was he to give key definitions? The gospels record his question, "What shall we say the kingdom of God is like?" and multiple different answersyeast, a farmer, a landlord, seeds, etc.but no instances of "What is the exact definition of God's kingdom?" Really, if he wanted to communicate definitions, he picked an odd way to do it.

The obvious answer is that God's purpose, both for his inspiration of the Scriptures and in his glorious performance on the stage of history, was not and has never been to give us definitions, or to satisfy our desire for propositional certainty. Or, as Karl Barth reportedly said, "Jesus does not give recipes that show the way to God. [...] He is Himself the way." His purpose is that we might come to know the guide himself, rather than a map. As a result, much of our theological definition writing distracts us from God's real message and intent. And, perhaps, is as misguided and inappropriate as reading love poems for a technical understanding of how the heart works. To put it another way, the point and priority of neither God nor the Scriptures is to give us a definition of salvation that we can memorize, recite, and stick on our bumpers. 

Noah Webster's contribution to the English-speaking world was a book of words and definitions. What God the Father has given to all of us instead is Jesus, the Word of God. He has spoken to us directly through his Son, that we might know him. And this is eternal life. This is salvation.

February 11, 2010

Ecumenical Catechism: DOA?

John Armstrong's comments on and quotations of conservative Catholic opposition to Cardinal Kasper's call for an ecumenical catechism should come as no surprise to anyone, and suggest a few questions for our exploration. And I had to use the same photo of Cardinal K with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew -- both to show off the patriarch's cool head covering and to work in the phrase, "Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew." Now there's a title worthy of a nameplate on the desk!

In celebration of the time-honored catechism format, then, let's begin with the first question:

Q.1: Why should nobody be surprised by opposition to Christian unity?
A: Because ecumenism is technically defined by many as, "a Satanic compromise with those who lack our spiritual correctness and perfection" or perhaps, "proof that the Antichrist has already begun his diabolical work in the church." And, as Armstrong notes,
Sadly, this spirit is not limited to Protestants or Catholics. Only the grace of God and the fresh breeze of the Holy Spirit will alter people who fear so deeply loving and respecting those who are not in our communion. 
Q.2: Why would it be so difficult to accept an ecumenical catechism? Is there really so little scriptural support for basic doctrines that all of Christiandom could agree on?
A: I believe that there is sufficient support, though the very question reveals my Protestant bias in favor of the written scriptures and ignores the reality of church tradition's role in all our denominations. However, such a project could quickly become a political wrangle in which questions of "What scriptures?" and "What doctrines?" reveal the root issues of "Who has the power to force this decision upon the rest of us?" and "By what authority do you do these things?" Questions of power and authority, while critical to all of us, are threatening to many.

Moreover, changes to or sacrifices from our own self-defining lists of beliefs, necessary for the creation of a shared catechism of essentials, could call into question the validity of our own "second tier" beliefs, and the validity of our self-definition, as a result. Leave out dispensationalism? Baptism by immersion only? Transubstantiation? Without that, there would be no difference between us and ... that church down the road! Better to draw our own lines in the sand and cherish the golden calves that pop out of the fire of our disobedience than do the hard work of love, of keeping the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace -- with our own brothers and sisters for whom Christ died, mind you.

As for me and mine, our local church uses no formal creed or catechism, so we have been working our way though the Westminster Shorter Catechism at home. All of us have gained from discussing the questions, the answers, and our disagreements with some of the answers. Perhaps even more importantly, we have had the opportunity to start the broader conversation with our kids about how we know anything, why we believe what we do, and what to do with the inevitable disagreements we have with those we love.

Q.3: Could an ecumenical catechism include questions about why faithful Christians disagree with each other on matters of doctrine, exactly how disappointed Jesus is with us about that, and whether our diversity heralds the arrival of the beast? And could such a catechism help us learn to live with one another in humility and obedience as the body of Christ?
A: Hmmmm.... Perhaps I'll write that catechism myself.

February 10, 2010

I Wish We'd All Been Ready

For those of you who missed it, the rapture has already taken place, and, according to the Lark News story, "took both people on the planet whose theology was exactly correct."

What I'm looking forward to is the scene at the pearly gates -- the one where, from time to time, we'll see the arrival of those from the one denomination that actually had all their doctrines correct. I can almost hear the hearty congratulations that Jesus will lavish upon them. As for the rest of us ... "saved, but only as one escaping through the flames," at least we'll finally know who gets the prize for being right. So, we'll have that satisfaction to soften the disappointment of our Lord.

How does that saying go, the one about wishing on their deathbed that they'd invested more time in their careers? How many of us will meet Jesus and wish we'd spent more time polishing our doctrinal idols?

February 5, 2010

Nanga Sadhu

I saw this photo today and was inspired to begin a new category of fascinating and thought-provoking content here on the Soapbox: Awesome Facial Hair! Click here for the full-sized image, part of a Big Picture series called Colorful India. Enjoy.