Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism


A_starry_sky_above_Death_Valley

I haven’t heard a lot about the emerging church lately. According to one source the eulogy has been given and only one hold-out pastor remains. I suspect the disaffected who identified with the emerging church have been swallowed up by Progressive Christians.

Nevertheless, the emerging church movement had an impact on traditional churches. The tell of their influence is in the buzz words that crop up in radio programs, print articles, Internet sites, and sermons—words such as truth claims, missio or missional, conversations, contextualize, and mystery. There’s a concept, also, which I’ve heard, though not necessarily stated so bluntly—ambiguity.

The thinking is, God is a mystery, life is a mystery, and there really aren’t any definitive answers.

I admit—I get a little cranky when I hear people espousing these views.

First, God is NOT a mystery. He is transcendent. The two are quite different, a topic I explored in the post “Transcendence vs. Mystery.” That God is not a mystery becomes clear when we read passages in Scripture such as Jeremiah 9:24:

“But let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (emphasis, here and throughout this post, is added)

The New Testament also affirms God’s “knowability.” For example, Paul says in Colossians 2:2b-3

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Yes, the mystery has been revealed. Paul stated this clearly in the first chapter of the same book:

that is, the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

On the other hand, that God is transcendent is also clear. Isaiah 40:12-14 sets the stage for a beautiful declaration of God’s transcendence by asking a series of questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

The conclusion is powerful. In part it reads

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One
.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

The Apostle Paul brings together God’s transcendence and his “knowability” in 1 Cor. 2:12-16:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

In that last verse, Paul quotes from Isaiah, showing that God’s transcendence is unchanged, and yet, because of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, we have the mind of Christ.

In other words, Christians can know, we do have answers, we don’t need to walk around in a cloud of doubt.

Granted, the answers may not be what people want to hear. More often than not, our “why” will be answered by God’s “I’m working out my will in the world.” For some, that’s not good enough.

For others that’s too spot on. That sin and suffering, pain and heartache, have a purpose seems too unambiguous. That God is sovereignly in charge over things we wish He would eradicate makes us uncomfortable. How can we trust a God whose answer to our questions is, Trust Me?

We want more, or we want to say, more isn’t attainable. For some reason, a segment of the religious find satisfaction in a declaration that things are ambiguous. Some readily belittle faith that claims to be the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in these critics’ way of looking at things, is actually doubt.

What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism. Essentially, the idea that we cannot know—because history changes facts and redefines terms, because we are constrained by our culture and our experiences to understand only within our own narrow framework, not that of the broader context—shatters the idea that there is an inerrant, infallible Word of God upon which we can rely for Truth.

The problem in all this is that those who say we cannot know, rule out the possibility that God did in fact give us a written record of what He wants us to know, that He preserved what He told us down through the ages, and that He gave us His Spirit to understand it apart from and beyond our own cultural constraints.

And why do they rule God’s transcendent work out?

They would rather believe in mystery, I guess, rather than transcendence. But in so doing, they are, themselves, drawing the conclusion that they KNOW God could not work in such a transcendent way. It’s another way of putting Man in God’s place.

This post first appeared here in June 2014.

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Friends with the World – A Reprise


Sower_oilSome years ago I did a little blog surfing starting with an article published in Church Salt: “Emerging from Emergents.” The trail led me to a conclusion I hadn’t expected: those identifying with the emerging church are on the decline. Unfortunately, a group self-identifying as Progressives have seemed to take their place.

Whether emergents are a growing or shrinking number, or whether Progressives are the new emergents, isn’t the issue, however. The thinking of both or either group—contrary to the facade they portray to those “outside”— is little more than warmed over liberalism; they borrow generously from Orthodox Christianity, Gnostic thought, Eastern mysticism, even from a heretical ascetic such as Pelagius. Sadly, this thinking has seeped into the Church.

One blog post claimed youth groups have espoused emerging church views for years. I wouldn’t doubt it.

But here’s the critical point. We American Christians must re-examine our hearts to see if we have left our First Love.

James, in his letter to Jewish believers scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution, gives a sobering warning:

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)

“Friendship with the world,” I would suggest, has a lot more to do with how we think than with what we do. In the previous verse, James addresses wrong motives, two verses down he speaks about pride.

Verse 5 he says something translators apparently have wrestled with but have not come to a consensus about. The New King James says it this way:

Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

The ESV is a little different, but I think the intent is the same:

Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”?

In the context of “adultresses” in the previous verse, these translations seems to me to make James’s intent clearer. As a husband would be jealous for his wife, so God is jealous for His Bride. And of course He wants our lives to be pure, but He also wants our hearts to be pure—free of wrong motives, without prideful self-will.

I have to believe that “friendship with the world,” then, includes the way we think.

Pastor Ray Stedman, in his commentary, “James: The Activity of Faith” says this:

And if you stop believing what the Scriptures say, you will find yourself being drawn to the lies and the alluring illusion of the world around.

Drawn to the lies and illusion of the world seems to define the beliefs the emerging church/Progressives have introduced. Here are a few: God is not a God of judgment. He is one with his creation. Hell isn’t real and Man does not sin by nature. The Bible is mostly a myth. Salvation is universal. Jesus came not as an atoning sacrifice but to show us a better way—the road of love and peace and unity.

It doesn’t take much to find article after article after article by people professing to be Christians who espouse these “progressive” views.

Of course many claim that thinking in a fresh way about their spirituality or about God or about their religion has revitalized their spiritual life.

So … can thinking that helps people see God in a new way be bad? I mean, shouldn’t we want to know God in a fresh, exciting way?

Our thoughts about God can be new every morning, but I don’t believe we need to borrow from the world’s way of looking at Him to experience Him afresh. Just the opposite. Listening to the lies of the world will kill off true faith.

Yes, lies. The world says humans are good, not sinners in need of a Savior. The world sees Jesus as just a man, not God in the flesh. The world looks at the Bible as a bunch of man-contrived rules, not the very word of God. Whenever the views of someone professing to be a Christian align more closely with what the world says than what God says, there’s reason to believe that the thinking of the world may be killing off true faith.

In the parable of the sower, that’s what happened to the seed that fell on stony ground. The soil was too shallow for roots to take hold. So, too, with pretend Christians who deny that God is a righteous Judge, the Sovereign who does what is right.

An older version of this post first appeared here in February 2010.

Re-imaging Jesus


In_the_Synagogue005Some years ago those in the emergent church started talking about “re-imaging” God, understanding him in ways that deviated from traditional theology. One classic conversation about looking at God differently developed from an article entitled, “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” I addressed the issues brought up in the article in “Attacks On God From Within.”

But as so often happens, teaching that clearly oversteps the bounds of true Christian thought, begins to seep into the Church as if it is orthodox and normative, as if it’s what the Bible actually says and has said all along.

One such twisting of Biblical intent is the image of Jesus so many are throwing around. I’ve read more than once that if He were here today, He’d be hanging out in gay bars and with druggies and prostitutes.

This view is such a skewered picture of Jesus, it really troubles me!

First, Scripture tells us where Jesus “hung out”—His starting place when He arrived in a town—was the synagogue: “They went into Capernaum; and immediately on the Sabbath He entered the synagogue and began to teach.” (Mark 1:21)

Similar verses are all through the gospels:
“He entered again into a synagogue” (Mark 3:1)
“When the Sabbath came, He began to teach in the synagogue” (Mark 6:2)
“Departing from there, He went into their synagogue” (Matt. 12:9)
“He came to His hometown and began teaching them in their synagogue” (Matt. 13:54)
“On another Sabbath He entered the synagogue and was teaching” (Luke 6:6)

And when He went to Jerusalem, He headed for the temple. (see Matt. 21:14ff, 24:1, Mark 12:35, 13:1, Luke 19:47, 21:38). Most telling might be what He said to the chief priests and their men who came to arrest Him in the Garden: “At that time Jesus said to the crowds, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as you would against a robber? Every day I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me.’ ” (Matt. 26:55, emphasis mine)

When He needed more room to teach because the crowds grew, He hung out on hillsides and mountain tops and lake shores.

Oh, but He ate with sinners and prostitutes, those who wish to re-image Jesus will point out.

It’s true that Scripture does record Jesus eating with Matthew the tax collector and those he invited to his house. But Mark gives the complete picture:

As He passed by, He saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting in the tax booth, and He said to him, “Follow Me!” And he got up and followed Him.

And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. (Mark 2:14-15, emphasis mine)

In other words, these men called sinners were now disciples of Christ.

In truth, it was the Pharisees who accused Jesus of eating with sinners.

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ (Luke 7:34, ESV)

Jesus responded to the criticism by saying the sick need a physician and that He came to call sinners to repentance.

And yet those re-imaging Jesus have apparently chosen to believe the Pharisees, though Jesus identified them as sons of their father the devil who was a liar from the beginning and the father of lies (John 8:44)—a clear indication that Jesus knew them to be liars.

This new view of Jesus claims that He told stories and didn’t actually give directives. In fact, some say He loved people by first being with them, them being committed to them and showing Himself for them. Only later did He direct them toward truth and holiness out of His love.

Well, yes and no.

Jesus didn’t always show that he was committed to or for certain people—most notably the Pharisees, but also the Syrophoenician woman who wanted Him to heal her daughter. He flat out told her He’d come to the Jews. Some might even find His response racist and offensive:

He answered and said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and began to bow down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me!”

And He answered and said, “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” (Matt. 15:24-26)

Not quite the politically correct Jesus we’re shown so often these days, the one who loves everyone. He did heal her daughter and even praised her for her faith. But where was that “love for everyone”?

We seem to forget that “everyone” would include the Pharisees, and Jesus did not treat them in a loving way. In fact, He was quite directive with them, hence the whip in the temple. Yes, those were most likely Pharisees He was going after when He overturned tables and drove out money changers—the sinners wouldn’t have been allowed in to do the work. They were presumably tagged sinners because they didn’t adhere to the Mosaic Law.

At the same time, Jesus was very directive in His teaching. He said if you look at a woman with lust, you’ve committed adultery. He told the rich young ruler to sell all he owned and follow Jesus. He said those who wanted to follow Him had to deny themselves and take up their cross daily. And each one of His stories had a point, a directive that was to guide action or expose truth. He was not trying to entertain.

Jesus also didn’t hang with prostitutes. The adulterous woman was brought to Him and He told her to stop sinning. The woman at the well who had had many husbands went into her village to tell the people she’d found the Messiah. The woman who the Pharisee Simon identified as a sinner and who poured perfume on Jesus was actually a disciple of Christ. Luke tells the whole story (7:36ff) and ends with Jesus reproving His host for his self-righteousness. In the process He clarifies the facts about her: “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for [this reason] she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

In the same way that the re-imagers want to make out that Christians are the new Pharisees, they want to hand Jesus the winebibber and glutton tag—only that’s now apparently a positive on his resumé.

But it’s not who Jesus was when He walked on earth. He came to teach, and that’s what He did, along with healing so many people there were days He didn’t even have time to eat. If sinners came to Him, He never turned them away. That’s who He came to save, but He wasn’t out trolling for the sinner hot spots.

It’s time we stopped rewriting the pages of Scripture to create this view of Jesus we think fits what our culture might like—Jesus, the anti-church, pro-gay guy who told cool stories.

The Pharisees weren’t “Church” and Jesus came to call sinners to repentance, not to tell them how much He’s for them.

Ambiguity, Thy Cousin Is Relativism


A_starry_sky_above_Death_Valley

I haven’t heard a lot about the emerging church lately. According to one source the eulogy has been given and only one hold-out pastor remains. I suspect the disaffected who identified with the emerging church have been swallowed up by Progressive Christians.

Nevertheless, the emerging church movement had an impact on traditional churches. The tell of their influence is in the buzz words that crop up in radio programs, print articles, Internet sites, and sermons—words such as truth claims, missio or missional, conversations, contextualize, and mystery. There’s a concept, also, which I’ve heard, though not necessarily stated so bluntly—ambiguity.

The thinking is, God is a mystery, life is a mystery, and there really aren’t any definitive answers.

I admit—I get a little cranky when I hear people espousing these views.

First, God is NOT a mystery. He is transcendent. The two are quite different, a topic I explored in the post “Transcendence vs. Mystery.” That God is not a mystery becomes clear when we read passages in Scripture such as Jeremiah 9:24:

“But let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. (emphasis, here and throughout this post, is added)

The New Testament also affirms God’s “knowability.” For example, Paul says in Colossians 2:2b-3

attaining to all the wealth that comes from the full assurance of understanding, resulting in a true knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ Himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Yes, the mystery has been revealed. Paul stated this clearly in the first chapter of the same book:

that is, the mystery which had been hidden from past ages and generations, but has now been revealed to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

On the other hand, that God is transcendent is also clear. Isaiah 40:12-14 sets the stage for a beautiful declaration of God’s transcendence by asking a series of questions:

Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

The conclusion is powerful. In part it reads

Do you not know? Have you not heard?
Has it not been declared to you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is He who sits above the circle of the earth,
And its inhabitants are like grasshoppers,
Who stretches out the heavens like a curtain
And spreads them out like a tent to dwell in.
He it is who reduces rulers to nothing,
Who makes the judges of the earth meaningless.
Scarcely have they been planted,
Scarcely have they been sown,
Scarcely has their stock taken root in the earth,
But He merely blows on them, and they wither,
And the storm carries them away like stubble.
“To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?” says the Holy One
.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

The Apostle Paul brings together God’s transcendence and his “knowability” in 1 Cor. 2:12-16:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ.

In that last verse, Paul quotes from Isaiah, showing that God’s transcendence is unchanged, and yet, because of Christ’s work on the cross and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, we have the mind of Christ.

In other words, Christians can know, we do have answers, we don’t need to walk around in a cloud of doubt.

Granted, the answers may not be what people want to hear. More often than not, our “why” will be answered by God’s “I’m working out my will in the world.” For some, that’s not good enough.

For others that’s too spot on. That sin and suffering, pain and heartache, have a purpose seems too unambiguous. That God is sovereignly in charge over things we wish He would eradicate makes us uncomfortable. How can we trust a God whose answer to our questions is, Trust Me?

We want more, or we want to say, more isn’t attainable. For some reason, a segment of the religious find satisfaction in a declaration that things are ambiguous. Some readily belittle faith that claims to be the assurance of things hoped for. Faith, in these critics’ way of looking at things, is actually doubt.

What I find interesting is that this embracement of doubt, of uncertainty, of ambiguity, seems to mirror the rise of postmodernism’s version of relativism. Essentially, the idea that we cannot know—because history changes facts and redefines terms, because we are constrained by our culture and our experiences to understand only within our own narrow framework, not that of the broader context—shatters the idea that there is an inerrant, infallible Word of God upon which we can rely for Truth.

The problem in all this is that those who say we cannot know, rule out the possibility that God did in fact give us a written record of what He wants us to know, that He preserved what He told us down through the ages, and that He gave us His Spirit to understand it apart from and beyond our own cultural constraints.

And why do they rule God’s transcendent work out?

They would rather believe in mystery, I guess, rather than transcendence. But in so doing, they are, themselves, drawing the conclusion that they KNOW God could not work in such a transcendent way. It’s another way of putting Man in God’s place.

Taking God At His Word


bibleA number of years ago, a group of professing Christians started talking about “re-imaging Jesus.” Having done that, the discussion has now moved to how this new model of Jesus is the imaging of God. One thing seems to surface from people identifying as Christian while spurning the long-held tenants of the faith–they believe “that whatever ‘God’ is,” he, she, or it is peace and love.

Why they’ve settled on these attributes, of course, is a reflection of what they believe to be most valuable. Therefore, despite the fact that God self-identifies as jealous, a Consuming Fire, Judge, even vengeful, such ideas are shoved aside as a construct of humans who wanted to wield power, or some such explanation.

Honestly, I find it shocking that people want to identify with a God they find so repugnant they have to remake Him into their own fanciful version of what they believe a god should be. In the same way that Joel Osteen and other health-and-wealth preachers see God as the Great Santa giving bountiful bling, these emergers/progressives/angry reactionaries see God as the dispenser of peace and harmony and oneness and community.

Never mind that at least one person in this group admits where he’s at: “It seems to me that we still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” Rather he feels “the ache of longing for connection, for communion.” He directs this desire toward his family, toward old and new friends, even toward strangers and ultimately toward enemies. But he never identifies this longing for connection to be the fault of a broken relationship with God.

If God had not spoken, if His Son had not come to disclose the Father to us, I could understand this persistence in making God to be whatever we imagine him. People have been doing that since shortly after the Fall, so why should our generation be different?

Because we have a written record that tells us what God has said about Himself.

Imagine the CEO of a large corporation hiring you, then giving you this caution: “Punctuality is important to me. I am punctual and I expect my employees to be punctual. No exceptions.”

Instead of making plans to be on time the next morning, however, this new employee thinks, “It’s all well and good that the boss says he values punctuality, but I don’t think it’s important at all. What matters is that you get your work done, no matter when you start or when you finish. Why would I want to live under the tyranny of the clock? Consequently, I’ll think of my boss as indifferent to punctuality and all about completed assignments. That way it won’t matter when I go in to work.”

As it turns out, the CEO did care about completed assignments, but He also cared about punctuality. Guess what happened to the employee who had decided to re-image his boss according to his own standards.

Sadly, those who try to give God a make-over will be sorely disappointed. They’re saying now, they can’t really know God, certainly not the way he explains himself in the Bible. At the day of judgment, God will respond in like kind: I never knew you.

If only people everywhere would take God at His word!

Published in: on October 16, 2013 at 6:57 pm  Comments Off on Taking God At His Word  
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Stop Me If This Sounds Familiar


Escape from orthodoxy by a theory of language, to wit

Language was an imprecise instrument. Words are but “faded metaphors” which cannot be transferred from mind to mind with their meaning clear and transparent. Each word is organically related to its own history, to the history of the one who uses it and of the one who hears it, and to the situation in which it is used. With these variables, all creedal statements and even the words of Scripture must be understood in a “spirit of accommodation,” for they are but linguistic and hence poetic attempts to speak the unspeakable. Christian truth was something which lay behind doctrinal propositions…

Sound familiar? I suspect any person identifying himself as an emergent Christian or even as a postmodernist would adhere to that sentiment. It’s this wishy-washy understanding of language that opens the door for their re-imaging of Jesus.

Consequently, to some this “new” understanding means, our Lord and Savior is divorced from the Father as He revealed Himself in the Old Testament. No longer do we have to believe in a God who would act as a judge of a people-group and sentence them to death. That’s the work of a tyrant. So said Christopher Hitchens uh, Mike Morrell. (Well, in all fairness, so said they both.)

What this view of language, at least when it is applied to Scripture, leaves out, is the Holy Spirit. If God could breathe His Word into written form using the mind and skill of human instruments, can He not insure that people reading different language versions, living in different countries, having different cultures and vastly different personal histories—can He not insure that those people will understand His intent?

Oh, wait. There are such people—some studying theology in a seminary in Guatemala, some attending a Bible college in Kenya, some involved in churches in Cypress, some suffering for this faith in Southeast Asia. Regardless of the all the differences, the Holy Spirit brings the necessary understanding and binds those who believe as Abraham did into a united body called the Church.

I wonder if the emergents, known for shucking off the traditional forms of religion in favor of “conversations,” would consider themselves to be a part of this Christ-ordained organization, of which Jesus is the head.

Oh, and the quote above? It’s from Religion in America (first edition) by Winthrop S. Hudson and written about a nineteenth century Yale graduate and Congregational church pastor named Horace Bushnell. Nothing new under the sun, the writer of Ecclesiastes said. Oh. Right. That would be God.

That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.
– Ecc. 1:9

Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 3


As a reminder, I’m responding to a September 2009 article in Christianity Today, “Reveling in the Mystery” by D. H. Williams. Relying on a little-known book by Gregory of Nyssa, Professor Williams paints a speculative view of growth in the Christian life while embracing the distance between creature and Creator as something that does not need to be “overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle.”

Using Moses’s journey to the top of Mount Sinai as a model, Professor Williams identifies three stages of growth, the last being entrance into darkness. What follows next is … disturbing on many levels. Perhaps the best way to expose the error is to begin by quoting a paragraph from the article that explains the heart of the matter:

Here is where Gregory of Nyssa makes his most noteworthy contribution to Christian theology: that the Christian life must first be defined by seeking God without end, and “that true satisfaction of the soul’s desire consists in constantly going on with this quest and never ceasing in the ascent to God.” This is a joyful conclusion, since it ensures that one can always progress in holiness because spiritual progress is one of infinite growth. For the Platonist, all change is regarded as a defect or loss; in Gregory’s system, the process of changing may be redeemed by perpetual growth in the good. It is this sort of movement that describes our transformation “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3:18, ESV). However much the Christian is transformed into the likeness of God, God remains ever beyond, so that the soul must always push forward in anticipation in this life and in the one to come.

I’ll take the problems one point at a time.

1. Seeking God without end is contradictory to Scripture, starting with Matthew 7:7 – “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (emphasis mine). Here’s the crucial point, I believe: We can know God because He has revealed Himself.

that I may gain Christ, and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead (Phil. 3:8b-11, emphasis mine).

2. The idea that “ascent to God” is something I accomplish belittles Christ’s work. It is Christ’s righteousness that reconciles me to God. My sanctification is a growth process, but not all up to me. Here’s the key point: We can be like Him only because He conforms us to His son.

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren (Rom. 8:28)

3. Professor Williams assumes something about “traditional” understanding of Scripture that is not true. He implies that a view other than what he is presenting is based on Platonist thinking in which “all change is regarded as a defect or loss.” Certainly this view does not square with Scripture, nor does it square with the Protestant evangelical doctrine with which I’m familiar.

However, “growth in the good” implies something within the individual as opposed to the conformity to the image of the Son which God brings about as He works all things in a person’s life to that end.

4. The never-ending push up after an unattainable God seems to me to be a quest for that which God has put off limits. He is transcendent. He is beyond. Yet He has chosen through Jesus to show us Himself. Should I then be dissatisfied with looking at Jesus to pursue further understanding, deeper knowledge? This seems to me akin to Satan’s thirst to be like God.

5. All this striving after God supposedly happens in darkness. From Professor Williams’s article: “In fact, the closer that God comes to the soul, the more intense the darkness becomes.” His idea is that the darkness blocks out things that distract us from God. But how contrary this is to Scripture in which Jesus says He is the Light of the world.

God reveals Himself as a Consuming Fire in the Old Testament, and in Revelations He says there will be no need for the sun and moon because He will be the light.

John says in his first epistle, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:6-7).

God is not in the darkness. Earlier in his gospel, John says men love darkness because their deeds are evil. Darkness is the place where God is not. Whoever someone finds in the darkness, I suggest he is not God but a pretender, one who wishes to be like God.

God is found in the Light—that of His Son and that of His Word (“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” – Psalm 119:105.) Reaching some kind of spiritual ascension in darkness is speculation at best and diabolical at worst.

Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2


Yesterday I started a response to a Christianity Today article by D. H. Williams entitled “Reveling in the Mystery.” My first concern was that Professor Williams declares God a mystery though He makes it clear in Scripture He wants to be known.

I didn’t elaborate on this point as much as I should have perhaps. From the beginning, God talked and walked with Adam and Eve in the garden. In their sinless state, they seemed to have no trouble communicating with their Creator. Even after their sin, they are the ones who hid while God is the One who sought them out.

That latter is a metaphor for the rest of history. Yet Professor Williams and others of like thinking conclude God is the mystery, rather than that our sin obscures Him from our understanding.

The second point I discussed was Professor William’s idea that the distance between us and God should not be seen as a problem to our spiritual growth. Again, in pointing out what Scripture says about God’s people drawing near to Him, I neglected an important part of the equation.

Right after James gives the command for believers to draw near to God, he wrote that we are to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts. In essence, he is providing us with the means by which we draw near to God. By dealing with sin in action and intent we are approaching God because the barrier to our fellowship with Him has been removed.

This brings me to the point where I left off yesterday. Professor Williams spends most of the rest of the article walking through a book by Gregory of Nyssa entitled The Life of Moses. The idea espoused here is that we grow by emulating “great holy men in the Old Testament and in the Christian past.”

Certainly the history of Old Testament figures is to be part of the doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction Scripture gives. But what Gregory, and Williams in his summation, is saying is built on speculation and imagination, not fact.

The two writers take Moses’s life and claim he grew spiritually (“from an Egyptian secular ruler to God’s exemplar of virtue”) in three phases—in the light, in clouds, and in darkness. Gregory claims that Moses was “mystically transformed into the likeness of God” atop Mount Sinai. (Never mind that he later sinned and receive censure from the Promised Land as a result).

Supposedly Moses’s “ascent to God” came first in light. This is a purification stage which Professor Williams links with the beatitude in Matthew “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”

I have no problem with this idea, especially because it aligns with what James says. I do question the idea that Moses achieved some kind of purification on his way up the mountain. After all, he’d already had his burning bush experience, and God had used him to bring about the miraculous salvation of His people from slavery, all the while communicating with him closely.

But on to Professor Williams/Gregory’s next stage. Here Moses supposedly moved into the cloud, blocking out all else so that he could “look withing” where he found “the image of God and thereby a knowledge of God. But we must not confuse this knowledge of God with knowledge of God as he is. There is only an awareness of God’s presence.”

Did I mention speculation and imagination earlier? What Scripture would lead someone to think this was Moses’s experience? I see none.

Stage three seems worse, however. Now, according to Professor Williams/Gregory Moses entered darkness and saw God in it. “When Moses climbed higher and became more perfected, he saw God in the darkness.” And later, “This darkness expresses that the divine nature remains inaccessible because God is infinite.”

Setting aside the unfounded assumption that Moses “was becoming more perfected,” I can agree that, yes, God is infinite. However, Moses’s encounter with God was not with some inaccessible being. At this time God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel. I’m not sure Moses was even at the top of the mountain at this point since the people were begging him to intercede for them and speak for God because what they were experiencing was too terrible. Check out Exodus 19 and 20 for yourself.

In light of this context, how can we conclude that God is beyond knowing? Yet this is precisely what Professor Williams says: “It should be obvious, then, that no finite mind can plumb the depths of God.”

Well, true enough, but cannot a finite mind grasp what the infinite has deigned to tell of Himself?

There’s more. I’ll aim to wrap this up tomorrow.

Published in: on February 17, 2010 at 12:39 pm  Comments Off on Draw Near to God … for What End? Part 2  
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Draw Near to God … for What End?


I thought I was done with my posts about emerging thinkers and false teachers, at least for a while, but then a friend of mine passed along an old edition of Christianity Today. In that September 2009 issue was an article entitled “Reveling in the Mystery,” by D. H. Williams.

“Mystery” happens to be one of the things the people who engage in the “emerging conversation” believe (though they also refute the idea that they hold to any set of prescribed tenets.) Interestingly, last October I wrote an article entitled “Transcendence vs. Mystery” to examine some of the emerging ideas about the mystery of God. As I look at it now, I realize I missed some of the main points.

It’s clear to me after reading the CT article that emergent thinkers would have no trouble embracing the transcendence of God. However, in examining Scripture Professor Williams takes the word “mystery” in a verse like I Timothy 3:16 along with the ideas of “ancient writers” like Ambrose of Milan and Gregory of Nyssa, and reaches the conclusion that “God himself is mystery.”

It’s ironic that he uses the scripture he does (especially considering what follows about deceitful spirits):

By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.

But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron …

– I Tim. 3:16-4:2 (emphasis mine)

Rather than expounding on the mystery of God, verse 16 seems to be declaring the revelation of God. (This is not uncommon throughout the New Testament. See for example Eph. 3:8-9: “To me [Paul], the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things” [emphasis mine]).

Nevertheless, having reached the conclusion that God is mystery, Professor Williams gives the heart of his premise:

The distance between creature and Creator is not something to be overcome or removed as if it were an obstacle to growth in the Christian life.

I had to do a double-take and read that line over. As I understand Scripture, the “distance between creature and Creator” is most definitely something to overcome or remove. Except we can’t, try as we will.

The point and purpose of the Incarnation was to remove the distance sin had created. (A passage like Psalm 66:18 shows the effect sin has on our relationship with God: “If I regard wickedness in my heart, The Lord will not hear”).

Of equal importance, Scripture is filled from beginning to end with references about God’s people drawing near to Him: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you” (James 4:8a).

Like so much false teaching, this concept of the mystery of God is not undiluted error. There is a measure of truth.

While God isn’t unknown because Jesus showed us the Father, we have the mind of Christ, and the Holy Spirit lives within each believer, we still look through a darkened glass.

In addition, God is greater than we can grasp. His ways are not our ways, His thoughts, not our thoughts. He is higher than we, without need of our counsel or, for that matter, anything we can give to Him. In other words, He is transcendent.

Rather than making God more inaccessible, however, His transcendence coupled with His incarnation and work of redemption, demonstrate His great love and grace: “Although [Christ Jesus] existed in the form of God, [He] did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, {and} being made in the likeness of men … He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Phil. 2:6-8.

The God of the universe, Highest of the high, stooped to save me! While He has no need of it, He most definitely wants relationship with those He created in His likeness.

Which leads to the next troubling aspect of Professor Williams’s article. But I’ll have to save that for next time.

– – –

Other passages of Scripture about drawing near to God include the following: Deut. 4:7; II Chron. 15:2; Psalm 34:18, 119:151, 145:18; Lam. 3:57; Zech. 1:3; Mal. 3:7; Heb. 4:16, 7:19, 7:25, 10:1, 10:25.

Friends with the World


I’ve done a little blog surfing this morning, starting with Church Salt’s “Emerging from Emergents.” The trail led me to a conclusion I hadn’t expected: those identifying with the emerging church are on the decline.

Whether that conclusion is right or wrong, however, isn’t the issue. The thinking the emerging church re-instituted—contrary to the facade they portray to those “outside,” their thinking is little more than warmed over liberalism; they borrow generously from Orthodox Christianity, Gnostic thought, Eastern mysticism, even from a heretical ascetic such as Pelagius—this thinking has seeped into the Church.

One blog post claimed youth groups have espoused emerging church views for years. I wouldn’t doubt it.

But here’s the critical point. We American Christians must re-examine our hearts to see if we have left our First Love.

James, in his letter to Jewish believers scattered from Jerusalem because of persecution, gives a sobering warning:

You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

– James 4:4

“Friendship with the world,” I would suggest, has a lot more to do with how we think than with what we do. In the previous verse, James addresses wrong motives, two verses down he speaks about pride.

Verse 5 he says something translators apparently have wrestled with without coming to a consensus. The New King James says it this way:

Or do you think that the Scripture says in vain, “The Spirit who dwells in us yearns jealously”?

In the context of “adultresses” in the last verse, this translation seems to me to make James’s intent clearest. As a husband would be jealous for his wife, so God is jealous for His Bride. And of course He wants our lives to be pure, but He also wants our hearts to be pure—free of wrong motives, without prideful self-will.

I have to believe that “friendship with the world,” then, includes the way we think.

Pastor Ray Stedman, in his commentary “James: The Activity of Faith” says this:

And if you stop believing what the Scriptures say, you will find yourself being drawn to the lies and the alluring illusion of the world around.

Drawn to the lies and illusion of the world seems to define the beliefs the emerging church has introduced. God is not a God of judgment. He is one with his creation. Hell isn’t real and Man does not sin by nature. Salvation is universal. Jesus came not as an atoning sacrifice but to show us a better way—the road of love and peace and unity.

How can I say these false teachings are in our churches? For one thing, I know these same views appear throughout The Shack, and its author, Paul Young, has spoken in the pulpit of any number of churches. I also know that Christians (as well as non-Christians) have raved about the book and its influence on their spiritual lives.

So … can a book, or a way of thinking, that helps people see God in a new way be bad? I mean, shouldn’t we want to know God in a fresh, exciting way?

Our thoughts about God can be new every morning, but I don’t believe we need to borrow from the world’s way of looking at Him to experience Him afresh. Just the opposite. Listening to the lies of the world will kill off true faith.

In the parable of the sower, that’s what happened to the seed that fell on stony ground. The soil was too shallow for roots to take hold.