Thursday, August 14, 2008
I was recently asked by a good friend whether Christians risked creating a modern day Talmud by quoting and revering the Reformers. The Talmud is a collection of Jewish writings which give interpretation and commentary on the Old Testament Law. Many who have studied the Talmud, known as the Mishnah in its writtin form, would say that it was became stricly adhered to that it came to be viewed on equal par with the Law (as if the 613 commands in the Old Testament already wasn't enough already). Dealing with this question of whether or not we risk inadvertently adding to the Law of God through quoting the Reformers is an important one to answer; especially for those of us who are influenced by the Reformers and consider ourselves Reformed.
If comparing those who study the Reformation to those who studied the Jewish Talmud sounds absurd, the following question will make a lot more sense. Were those who erected theological systems based on the writings of the Reformers guilty of deriving such systems from the Reformers while neglecting a close investigation of God's Word? (We all know that the Five Points of Calvinism were drawn up without Calvin. He was dead! They were instead drawn up in what people believed to be an accurate sumation of Calvin's Soteriology).
We as Reformed thinkers must humbly ask, "how did I arrive at this Theological system?" If we can honestly conclude that it was from our own illumination into God's Word, then we are not just Reformed; we are biblical. However, if we arrived at this Theological system simply because it was "cool" in the circle we ran with at the time, or if we arrived at it based on our reading of the Reformers, we may be guilty of erecting what the Reformers sought to tear down. Namely, an extra-biblical authority no less severe than the Jewish Talmud.
Creating an authoritative tradition similar in extent to the Talmud was the exact opposite of the Reformer's intentions. Their intention was to decry any authoritarian voice that would claim a monopoly on truth, or executive power on interpreting Scripture.
Many people deride the fact that there are so many denominations today. But this diversity in the church is largely the result of the Reformers, who'se doctrine can be boiled down to two ideas:
1. The Priesthood of the Believer: This doctrine affirmed that each believer is
their own priest and can approach God without any human mediator but Christ
alone (I Timothy 2:5.). This was revolutionary because it did anything but set
up ecclesiastical authority. It began the long process of dismantling
ecclesiastical authority. The Catholic church today is a nominal, weak belief
system because the Reformers were successful at questioning and
challenging the authority of Rome.
2. The Perspicuity of the Scriptures: This affirmed the biblical understanding that
because each believer was indwelt by the Holy Spirit, they had the
illumination to interpret the Scriptures for themselves, without having to defer
to church tradition (I John 2:27). It was this hallmark doctrine that opened the
door to Scriptural translation. Many Reformers, such as: Jon Huss of and
William Tyndale, of England, were burned alive for believing
that each believer could be trusted with his own personal copy of the Word of
If it were not for the Reformers of the Sixteenth Century, it is almost certain that the hegemony of the Catholic church would have continued to wax stronger in quelling any freedom of thought through the ongoing Inquisition. It is also probable that there would have been no ensuing Enlightenment. This is a valid point because if it were not for the Reformation, there would have been no rebirth of literacy based on the drive multitudes had to read the Scriptures in their own tongue. There also would have been no precedent set making it acceptable to question authority as the Enlightenment did. Guttenburg's invention of the printing press was largely spurred on by the same sentiments knowing how influenced he was by this movement. The writings of the Reformers being launched into orbit by the printing press became the catalyst in teaching common men to read. If there were no rebirth of literacy, the framework would not have existed for the French philosophers to transmit their thoughts effectively via the printing press.
There is no equivalant to the Jewish Talmud today in the Protestant church. You have to understand that the Talmud dictated the Jewish way of life down to the minute detail. For example, there are twenty-four chapters in the Talmud just dealing with Sabbath laws alone, dictating what it was lawful, or unlawful to do on the Sabbath. The Reformers never came close to this type of imposition in the everyday affairs of life. Instead, they sought to do away with this form of legalism that had gradually crept into the Catholic way of life.
The question still remains, what about those who quote the Reformers today and wind up deriving their Theology from these men, rather than the Scriptures which drove these men. If such is the case; if today's teachers are guilty of erecting theological systems based on the teachings of the Reformers and not directly from the Scriptures, then one thing is certain; today's teachers have had to climb over the Reformers to erect such Theology. The Reformer's last intention was to draw the most avid adherents to themselves, they sought to point adherents to the Bible, often spilling their blood to do so.
The Protestant movement heralded freedom of thought when studying the Scripture. In fact, the freedom we as Christians have today to apply the Scriptures to our life situations is not a freedom that any Jewish or Catholic adherent could ever celebrate. The Jews had their own doctors of the Law who dictated it's meaning. The Catholics have their own clergy who are alone bequethed with the privilege of interpreting texts.
Notice how Luther supported the use of reason when responding to dr. Jan Eyck at the Diet of Worms. Remember, Eyck demanded that Luther fall into line with the Church's doctrine and recant all of his writings. In response, Luther uttered words that would drop like a bombshell on everyone's Theological playground:
"Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of Popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other, my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe-- Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen."
Notice that Luther did just the opposite of paving the way for a new Christian Talmud or Mishnah. He dismantled any framework for defering to tradition by questioning the authority of tradition. Even in the face of death, Luther sought to strip authority from the Catholic Church and placing authority within every reasoning Christian as they are individually held captive to the Word of God.
Think about it! The freedom we have to question and critique Luther, we owe to Luther. He was ranked as one of the top ten people of the Millenium by Time Magazine because even in Liberal circles today, Luther is associated with sparking the freedom of conscience that led not only to the Protestant Reformation, but also to the Enlightenment of France in 1789.
One of the best books I have read by Luther is The Freedom of a Christian. If you read this book you will hear the heart of a man who's motives are far superior to any revisionist thinker of the Twenty-first century who would seek to impugn him. His major thesis of the book is profound as it set forth the freedom of a Christian as no one had articulated it before:
"A Christian is a perfectly free Lord of all, servant to none."
"A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, servant to all."
Luther, more than any other defended both the believer's freedom, not only from the condemnation of the law, but also from the papal hegemony of those who would strip him of the ability to think as his own free moral agent.
Bringing the Reformation home to the Twenty-first century. I don't think they would mind being quoted because they themselves began drafting the chatecisms as a means of teacing Christian doctrine. These chatecisms were meant to be memorized as didactic devices, much like the two lines I previously quoted above.
However, these same chatecisms were never meant to be viewed on par with Scripture because they themselves were written to affirm the sole authority of Scripture.
We should never assume that when somoene quotes a Reformer or a chatecism written by a Reformer that they are somehow adding to the Scripture as the Talmud did (read Mark 7:6-7, Jesus referred to this tradition when he spoke of the rabbis "teaching for doctrines of God the commandments of men.") The Talmud originated as commentary on the Law, but soon became viewed on par with the Law, setting forth its own laws. One could even say they were adding to Scripture. However, if someone quotes a Reformer or chatecism, or statement of faith, they are affirming the Reformers belief in the sole authority of Scripture.
The chatecisms and confessions then are a means of holding us accountable to the Word of God, not an addendum to the Word of God.
You cannot quote them wihout demoting them. That is, you cannot quote them without affirming the sole authority of Scripture, seeing that one of their main purposes is to teach the authority of Scripture. A good example is the Westminster Confession of Faith which opens with the following words:
"Although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men unexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God, and of his will, which is necessary unto salvation. Therefore it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his church; and afterwards, for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing: which maketh the Holy Scripture to be most necessary; those former ways of God's revealing his will unto his people being now ceased."
A better example is question number two of the Westminster Shorter Chatechism because it was intended to be memorized. In closing, I want to reproduce it here to further corroborate that even the faithful followers of the Reformers sought passionately to point people to God's Word, not merely to theological systems:
"What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him."
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
You have heard by now that Olympic gold medalist Joey Cheeck has been denied a visa to attend the Beijing Olympics this week because of his outspoken concern for the Darfur region of Sudan, which is systematically and gradually being force-converted to Islam by the Janjaweed militia. Or more humorously, you've heard of the incident where athletes arrived at the Beijing airport with black masks, purportedly to protect them from the cities' notorious air polution.
But it may surprise you to find that Christian citizens of the People's Republic of China are not only being denied any access to the Olympics, but have been forced from their own homes and expelled from Beijing by Chinese police altogether. One Christian named Shi Weihan, was recently arrested and is currently dying in police custody. His crime? He owns a Christian bookstore, and although he has registered it with the government, his mistake is that he is suspected of distributing illegal publications that they do not want to be found at the 2008 Olympics. You don't have to rack your brain long to figure out what devious publication these might be.
Another, Hua Huiqi, who is a Christian rights advocate, had the front door of his home smashed open with hammers and all of his furniture thrown onto the street as China's way of saying, "you are the dirt that must be cleaned up before for the Olympic games can begin." He and many others have been relocated elsewhere. For more recent news on these incidents, a good website is: www.compassdirect.org.
All of this is taking place as Bush hob-nobs with Chinese officials in Beijing and planning to visit the proud, state-run church this Sunday. I would love to hear the eloquent sermon preached at this Chinese approved, state-run church. Every word of which will no doubt receive praise and nodding approval from the same government that is simultaneously incarcerating thousands of Christians nationwide for no other reason than that their sermons weren't so eloquent. Probably because they included the praise of one vulgar man, Jesus Christ, who embarrassingly does not meet government approval.
As a Christian, the question you must ask is, how should I react to this? Below, you will see that I have laid out five ways a Christian should respond to this issue biblically. The easiest thing to do will be to turn on the tube and enjoy the Olympics as countless other Americans will be doing. Will it be too fanatical to speak a word of criticism? Will it be too much for you to spoil everyone else's fun by saying a word to show disgust at the fallen world stage, which by their silence in the face of blatant human rights abuses, embarrassingly reveals that they are much concerned about being liked by the fastest growing world power than they are those who are unjustly having every freedom stripped away.
Proverbs 17:15 tells us plainly that to justify those who commit ungodly acts and to condemn the just is an abomination to the Lord. To “justify” means to give “approval.” But we live in a subtle, new world that Solomon couldn’t have envisioned, don’t we? Many of us gladly listen to the name of God being blasphemed as we recline in our living rooms. Yet confusingly, we would beat our kids senseless to hear them saying the very same things and would immediately order anyone else out of our homes. Are we schizoids or is this just good ol’ Twenty-first century Christianity? A Christianity Solomon just didn’t foresee.
Many of you will feel the adrenaline rush you have always felt when watching athletes and governments from all over the world gather together in unity. Only this time they gather to pour millions into the pockets of a nation that has brutally martyred Christians, Buddhists and many other religious people groups in ways some of us are too lazy to so much as pick up a book and read about; persecution that stretches all the way back to the Boxer Rebellion more than a century ago. And yet if the same thing happened in our own neighborhood we would bravely take up arms to their defense. Or so we hope.
When Jesse Owens competed during the 1936 Olympics in Germany, few people had any knowledge of the atrocities that were already being planned against the Jews. But we Christians today do not have the same comfort of ignorance. We have an obligation not to fall into the easy road of mindless, Orwellian group-think that most other Americans have indifferently resigned themselves to.
Please hear me well. I am not saying that Christians should ostracize themselves from the 2008 Olympics. Nor am I saying that we should not watch the Olympics. (Gasp! Most would think it unconscionable).
However, if you can watch it without any discomfort; without any conviction to speak on the behalf of persecuted Christians, you are either part of China’s wild fetish with sadomasochism, or you are not a Christian at all. Actually, both choices seem to fit into the “not a Christian at all” category don’t they?
I hope that with the following words I can justify such a bold indictment.
What Should I As a Christian Do?
Let me give some biblical precedent for how I believe a Christian should respond to the mindless conformity that most Americans will adhere to during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. If we’re honest, we’ll admit that it seems to be as much discomfort for an American not to be liked as it is for a Chinese Christian to be ejected into the streets.
All of us as Christians feel this pressure and therefore the temptation is to shut-up and do nothing; to indifferently go along with the multitude when Moses commands us not to follow a multitude to do evil (Exodus 23:2; this verse speaks specifically of following the multitude in perverting justice and condemning a poor and righteous man). Hence, Christians must be willing to do something that may cause them not to be liked if they are going to separate themselves from the multitude and go against the fad of the day.
First, the Bible commands us to pray for those who are being persecuted (Hebrews 13:3). We should pray that God will give Chinese Christians boldness to speak the Word in the face of prison and death. This is what the Christians of the first church in Jerusalem did when they went door-to-door with blood dripping down their backs after being beaten, preaching the same message they were arrested for preaching in the first place, and rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for Christ’s name (Acts 4:29, 5:17-42). Yep! We would call these people fanatics.
Second, we have an obligation to rouse other Christians to “remember those who suffer bonds as being bound also ourselves with them” (Hebrews 13:3). There is no way possible we can be comfortable watching the Olympics when many Christians have been ejected from their homes in order to make Beijing a friendly place for the Olympics. Some, such as Shi Weihan, are languishing at death’s door in prison simply because they are the Christian dirt that had to be cleaned up before the games can begin.
I Corinthians 12:26 confirms this attitude of solidarity by telling us that if one member of the body of Christ suffers, all the members should suffer with it. Can we belt a shout of “go go go” to the American runner with all the gusto we can muster when we know the unjust suffering Christians have sustained paving the way for it to take place?
Third, Don not wear a political agenda as a fashion statement. We cannot be so deluded as to think that because we put a bumper sticker on our car that says “FREE TIBET” we are somehow helping to free Tibet, especially when we cannot even point to it on the map as many in this category have ironically proven to be the case. What this scenario reveals is that many Americans find it fashionable to sport a political view that is the current rave. They often cannot tell you any details to prove they even know what they are talking about. But it’s popular in Hollywood to jump on a cause such as, “Free Tibet” when Buddhists in Tibet are still being converted into fertilizer. We must be careful not to insult Christians in China by wearing their cause as a fashion statement in order to be thought “cool” or “smart.”
Fourth, Study! That’s right! Study up on the issues confronting Christians all over the world so that you can properly pray for them, and so you can properly inform others on how to pray for the persecuted church as well as raise awareness on their behalf.
Remember the sons of Issachar in the Old Testament. They were praised because they were men who understood the culture and political currents of the time in which they lived and were faithful to keep Israel informed (I Chronicles 12:32). Oh, how we need the sons of Issachar today who will be willing to think, and overcome the blind-spots that everyone else is unaware of.
Fifth, be angry as God is angry. Wait a minute! Christians are supposed to have a huge smile pasted on their faces at all times, right? You might be surprised to find that the Bible presents God as angry at the wicked every day (Psalm 7:11). Nothing repulses the heart of God more than our rebellion and sin. Revelation 3:14-17 even pictures God as so nauseated by our sin that it causes Him to vomit. This is hardly a fat, dump and happy smile isn’t it?
What about the Christian? Psalm 15:4 says that the one who dwells with God is one who is angry at evil doers just as God is angry, and is one who honors those that fear the Lord. This should cause us to question who we set up for our children as role-models. Do you respect those that fear the Lord or are you instead excited by those that blaspheme?
Do not misunderstand God’s anger against evil-doers. This does not mean you do not love evil doers, as we all were ourselves. We should remember that we too are sinners and must pray that God will have mercy on other sinners just as He had mercy on us (Lamentations 3:22-23).
This anger simply means that you have a heart for God; you despise the sin of evil doers even as God Himself despises such evil. Fellowship with God cannot go unbroken when His law is so shamelessly broken by all men (Psalm 5:3-5).
We live in an age when everything no matter how sacred, is stripped of any sacred meaning and reduced to a joke or a skit to be laughed at on our favorite variety show. Christians have to see this blind-spot of de-sacralization in American culture and be counted as separate (II Corinthians 6:14-17).
By all means, we should laugh at entertainment that is honoring to God, although we may have a hard time finding it. But we can no longer laugh at evildoers as we have been so used to doing almost every time we have turned on the television set. We must be those who will join the heart of God in rejoicing not at iniquity, but who will instead rejoice at the truth (I Corinthians 13:6).
People will know what you care about not based on some dry, dusty belief that you rarely, if ever talk about. They can only know what you care about based on your passion. They know what subjects cause your face to light up like a child’s. They also know what subjects cause your brow to furrow in disgust.
In short, you must rejoice at what is good and be repulsed by what is evil for good and evil to have any meaning at all (Hebrews 1:9, this is Christ’s example). In fact, when people see that you rejoice at what is good and are repulsed by what is evil, you will accurately reveal to them the heart of Christ because He does the same. By expressing disgust at evil, you will reveal His heart more accurately than you ever could by simply pasting that huge greasy grin on your face like so many Christians do in order not to offend. If we are not repulsed by evil how can we expect sinners to be convicted of evil? (I’ve been accused of having a greasy grin myself so don’t feel so bad).
Please do not misunderstand what this admonition is about. These thoughts are not intended to ban the Olympics. You can watch the Olympics and celebrate the athlete without celebrating the country that is hosting the athlete. However, you cannot watch it and be silent, and for you to choose not to watch it may be such a willing alteration of plans on your part that those around you will know you are serious.
Are you going to follow Christ’s example during the 2008 Olympics or will you mindlessly follow the multitude? Will you to call China out as being the fox that it is even as Christ did to the ruling king of His own day for his debauchery (Luke 12:32)?
Pray for God’s grace! Pray for His grace because you can only follow this bold example if it is Christ who animates you (Hebrews 6:3).