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Sola Two: Sola Gratia

By | Posted at 20:38

This is part two in a series considering “the five solas,” the key cries of the Reformation. You can find part one here. Please feel free to discuss, disagree and posit your own thoughts in the comments.

The solas are a series of stepping-stones. Imagine I want to get to point B from point A and a rushing stream runs between those points. Now, I could try to swim across, but the current would likely move me down the river so I'd land at point C rather than B. Let's say point A is the new Christian who wants to come to understand the key doctrines of the Church so as to be able to reach B, a point where one is giving everything that is God's to God (Matt. 22.21). The first stepping-stone to get across the stream is to understand where we ought to get our idea of God from, and we answer that Sola Scriptura, from Scripture alone.

So, we read the Bible and we are told that one must be “born anew” (John 3.3), that is, we must be “saved.” So then, how are we saved? Certainly, this is a key stepping-stone to recognizing what God is really doing, a stepping stone upon which everything afterward hinges. The answer is Sola Gratia, by grace alone.

“And if by grace, then it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace. But if it is of works, it is no longer grace; otherwise work is no longer work. “
—Romans 11.6 (WEB)

This is a difficult idea. We do not tend to like it. Salvation by grace alone. Here's the bad news: I cannot save myself! Instead, I must receive the grace provided only by Christ in order to be saved.

We don't like to be told that we cannot do something ourselves, and the idea of being told that one is only going to succeed because an authority is going to extend an exception to us would generally make us feel upset. “I'll just do it myself, thankyouverymuch.” Sure, I do not mind if a few violations are overlooked for me, but the idea that I'm dependent on someone doing me a favor to proceed at all is uncomfortable.

But here we are requiring just that kind of exception, that kind of, well, grace:
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
—Romans 6.23 (WEB)

Now that is exactly what I did not want to hear! But since we are told that no one is sinless (Romans 3.10) and the cost for my sin — even just one teeny tiny one — is death, suddenly maybe an exception sounds pretty good. I may be proud, but when I am being led to the electric chair, am I really going to refuse a pardon just so that I can say I did not need to depend on anyone's help? Clearly, I will accept it, unless I just have some kind of perverted death wish.

And so it is with Grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!”

Next time in my sola series, I shall consider the third motto, which is essential to understanding Sola Gratia: Sola Fide.

A Difference of Opinion: Foundations of Religion

Part One in a Three Part Series on C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud

By | Posted at 21:22

It is hard to imagine a fundamentally more important question than if God exists or not. Arguably, all of eternity is at stake. While this is not a good reason for belief by itself, this very issue led to Pascal’s argument for a wager on the question of God (Hick 59). If I “bet” on God, I lose relatively nothing if I am wrong, but if I bet against God, I have everything to lose. Whether true faith can come from such a pragmatic, cynical approach to belief is a topic for another day, but it does demonstrate how important belief in God is, if theists are right in their arguments.

The idea of belief, or lack thereof, by rational calculations, on the other hand, is sometimes argued as an unrealistic view of how we come to believe. In the video the Question of God, skeptic Michael Schemer argues that part of his reason for joining the camp of skeptics was that he liked the people in that “community” better, and, he asserts, theists would do well to admit that purely emotional reasons are part of the reason why we believe as we do as well (“A Transcendent Experience”).

Sola One: Sola Scriptura

By | Posted at 19:22

I decided it would be of good use for me to work my way through the five solas of the Reformation. They are too often shoved aside, and as doing the posts on denominations made me think a bit deeper about the issue of church governance, I hope that this too will prove a useful exercise. I do not even hope to create a comprehensive consideration of the five solas, nor will I claim everything I say about them is correct; I am just throwing my thoughts out on the table, and I invite you to do the same in the comments.

The five cries of the Reformation are Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus and Soli Deo Gloria. The beauty of the five solas is that they express the essence of faith in a way that is simple and easy to remember, while providing a massive depth of implications.

Sola Scriptura
“Every writing inspired by God is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction which is in righteousness.”
—2 Timothy 3.16 (WEB)

This is probably the most often recalled of the five cries. Scripture Alone. What do we mean by this? Do we mean that the church ought to cast off everything other than the Bible as garbage? This does not seem to be what the reformers meant. The two giants of the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both produced massive amounts of works to complement the Bible. The key here is that everything should find its root in the Bible.

Now some Protestant groups have gone too far with this, in my opinion. We ought not say that we should only do what is permitted in the Bible, but rather that everything we do should not be is discord with the literal word and and spirit of the Bible. That is why I am perfectly fine with worship music and potluck dinners, despite their lack of mention in the Bible. More importantly, that is why I am fine accepting the early ecclesiastic councils' creeds, such as the Nicene Creed; I would argue that everything within them can be justified with the Bible. I also see the usefulness of newer creeds such as the Westminister Confession, and see every reason why the average believer who does not take the time to justify every nuance of the Faith themselves ought to find the creeds authoritative. At the same time, if it is found that the creed does not agree with the Scripture, then the creed should be thrown out immediately. Creeds should exegete the Bible, never ever eisegete.

Now, of course, in some areas of theology we may try to interpolate on a subject (such as the Trinity) which is not explicitly nailed down in the Bible. The important thing is that a reasonable person, given enough time, would come to the same conclusion using Scripture alone. It isn't enough that I can quote verses to support my favorite doctrine for almost anything can be justified in that way, of course. I also emphasize reasonable time here because few people are going to be able to just open a Bible and immediately come up with orthodox theology, but not everyone's purpose is to be a theologian. As such, those of us who do not have enough time to start from scratch can carefully put our trust in “authority,” but should also test the fruit of that authority constantly against Scripture.

Let's take predestination. I've struggled with this, as many of you know, because I find it hard to get predestination to fit with God's love, for if He predestined some to be saved, it logically means he predestined others to be condemned. If I have no choice in the matter of being saved, then why would God not save everyone? This is difficult. The reason I struggled with predestination and did not throw it out in favor of outright Arminianism was that it continued to be the most logical way I could read many passages. It would be nice just to forget about it and find something easier, but instead, this has lead me to my attempts to harmonize predestination with God's love and freewill (see here and answer to question 4, here).

Back to the point — it is okay to move beyond the Bible, because the Bible simply does not cover everything. From contemporary worship music, to church governance or even some of our core beliefs, we will likely find that we must combine the revelation of revealed Scriptures with the ability to reason that God has given us. This is good and proper, so long as we don't let our reason or any theologian's reason take precedence over God's revealed Word, for we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3.23) and therefore our reason is fallen reason.

In the end, adhering to Sola Scripture means merely that we place the Bible as the ultimate authority above other authorities. It is my duty as someone with a personal relationship with Christ to go directly to His Word whenever possible to insure that my beliefs are based on a good foundation. Just as I should never do something illegal because someone in a higher authority in life (such as a boss) tells me to, I should never accept something theologically wrong just because a higher authority (such as my pastor or a great theologian) says to. Ultimately, just as committing a crime for my boss will bring consequences to me, following heresy because my pastor advised me to would bring consequences to me.

Defense of the Academic Study

By | Posted at 23:58

I've been promising my defense of the Academic or Critical Study of Religion for some time now. The good news is that I wrote the post I had been planning on this. The bad news is that I realized that I really needed (or at least wanted) to write more on the subject. Before I knew it, my one piece turned into the second part of a series and I am now working on part one. I may need to write several more parts too. There is just so much to say, and like the model defense of another subject which I reference at the beginning of part one, this looks destined to grow into a long “ink wasting” project (well, byte wasting in my case).

The question is whether I should write all of the parts before posting any of it or if I should go ahead and post what I already have done. Ah, decisions, decisions!

On Congregationalism and Presbyterianism

By | Posted at 23:31

Ok, so over the last few days I've shown my criticisms of non-denominational churches and episcopal churches (defense of congregationalism, church polity overview). Now, in the interest of fairness, I shall deal with the problems of the remaining two which I am generally the most in favor of: congregationalism and presbyterianism.

Congregationalism
Congregationalism has a key advantage: by placing the power within the body of the church there is the least amount of likelihood that there will be undue elevation of the clergy at the expense of the priesthood of all believers. The independence of the churches, as I've attested to many times, also helps individual churches escape a denomination that has lost its way. The problem is that this leaves a bit of a mess too.

The loose knit nature of this system has allowed for the formation of the Unitarian-Universalists, the United Pentecostal Church and other pseudo-Christian groups. Since the denomination cannot force its member churches to follow its creed, the only hope when local churches become heretical is to part ways with them. If the denomination could have seized the churches from the rogue ministers, the Unitarian church could have been cut off before it ever fully formed, for example.

Moreover, the very system that insures that the individual members of the congregation aren't unduly lowered below the clergy also makes it hard for the clergy to serve as even the spiritual leaders of the congregation. For example, I have a dear friend who is a pastor. He has been ousted from multiple congregations for little or no reason; he's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet but for some reason people don't appreciate him. Besides arbitrary removals, this system of polity also makes church discipline very hard. One of the most spectacular theologians in the history of these United States found this out when he was ousted from his own congregation; Jonathan Edwards was asked to leave the church he pastored since he insisted on a personal conversion experience on the part of members (as opposed to being full church members simply because the family had been there for generations). Kevin noted the problems for clergy in congregational churches in the post that set in motion my present set of posts on the subject.

Finally, the congregational system, particularly in its most independent strains, leads to frequent schisms over lesser issues. The tendency to lean toward pure democracy (i.e. mob rule) seems to have a tendency to cause congregational churches to split quite frequently, forming many little churches that will someday split again.

Presbyterianism
Presbyterianism avoids a lot of these problems. Technically, the minister should be responsible to the presbytery, not the congregation. While that still means the clergy must answer to a body composed partially of lay members, it avoids the nasty situation wherein the pastor is essentially suppose to “lead” his or her bosses. Presbyterianism, however may in the view of some, elevate the clergy too high. By making the clergy part of the ruling body, the local minister may acquire a higher level of authority than the same would acquire under an episcopal system. This is what lead to the quote of John Milton I cited a few days ago, “the episcopal arts bud again.” Milton had been a staunch supporter of presbyterianism until it actually happened in Puritan England and he saw it didn't do what he expected; instead of a few bishops, he saw the entire clergy becoming bishop-like. As a whole though, I don't think this happens.

Moreover, because the churches aren't free to leave at will, yet decisions must filter through republican governmental bodies rather than individuals, it seems harder for these churches to move to hetrodoxy. The PCUSA, from what I've gathered, has tried to do a lot of the things that the UCC (congregational) Episcopal Church (obviously episcopal) and UMC (episcopal) are busying themselves doing, but it has been much more difficult to get a consensus to do so (I don't claim to be an expert on the PCUSA, so I could be wrong, but that's the impression I have received from several key decisions over the past few years). This again reminds me of our own federal governmental theory — the government may eventually ignore the constitution on an issue, but it takes a lot of work to do so on a large scale. Conversely, having tons of hierarchal committees can also create a bureaucratic mess that doesn't fix things that it should.

In other words, I see major flaws in each of the systems. It may be that churches in different situations will have the best results with different types of systems. For example, a network of churches established by missionaries and filled with brand new Christians would probably be best run by an episcopal-like system. Of course, any system run by fallen humans will have its problems, it is just a matter of trying to find the system that seems to rein in human tendencies to the best extent possible.

The Question of God: The Conversation

By | Posted at 23:11

Starting tomorrow and running for four weeks, the Philosophy and Religion departments at Lindenwood are going to be doing a set of “coffee conversations” based on the Question of God, which I've mentioned before on asisaid (part 1, part 2). I'm really looking forward to this live version of the panel discussions from the program. It should be a lot of fun.

They offered it for course credit if you read Mere Christianity and the Future of Illusion and write on the two contrasting books/authors. I plan to do this. I've read the former book previously, but this will be my first pass at anything by the good doctor. I'll let you know how Freud goes.

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