Now that I have written fivethousandwords about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?” Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not. But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration? Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice? Does this Trinitarian theology matter?
I think it does matter, and it matters a lot. Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine. But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)
My last post suggested that part of the difficulty in adjudicating the debate whether or not Muslims and Christians worship the same God is that we mean so many different things when we say “worship.” But there is another problem: how do we know what someone worships? In grammatical terms, “worship” is a transitive verb; it takes a direct object. But how do we know what the actual direct object is of any particular act of worship? The first answer would seem to be that someone is worshiping whom or what they claim to be worshiping. And in cases of frank idolatry, that is undoubtedly sufficient. When an ancient Greek claimed to be worshiping Aphrodite, or a modern Vaishnava Hindu worships Vishnu, there is no reason to doubt them. The greater difficulty is determining the object of worship when people of different religions claim to be worshiping simply “God,” or even “the God.” This question takes us to the center of some tricky problems about meaning and language, especially the meaning of language describing non-physical realities. (more…)
My last post mentioned the dispute as to whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God, and suggested some reasons why the answer is not obvious. These in particular have to do with the range of meanings given to the verb “to worship,” and the difficulty of determining precisely the object of worship when that object is unseen. I think the result is that Christians who believe the same theology may nevertheless answer the question differently, depending on the contextual meanings of the words and the philosophical underpinnings. Therefore I suggest we should avoid being dogmatic on this question. I am not opposed to dogma on other questions, such as the “three-ness” (Trinity) of God or the deity of Christ, but it seems to me that whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God is not a question which admits of a single correct answer, nor is it a question whose answer is essential to the maintenance of Christian faith. (more…)
The Bible does not often report unanswered prayer; when it does, we should pay close attention. One such instance occurs in an unlikely place: the fallout of the story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of her husband Uriah. In this story (2 Samuel 12), David is no hero, but a villain, and when he was rebuked by Nathan, the prophet tricked him into condemning his own actions. Only then did he repent, and even so the Lord condemned the child to be born, for Bathsheba had become pregnant with David’s son, to death. David then lay in sackcloth for seven days, fasting and praying for the child to be spared, and yet at the end of the week the baby died. To the bewilderment of his servants, David then got up, cleaned himself off, stopped fasting, and worshiped the Lord. Even though this awful situation was the result of David’s own sin, the divergence between David’s actions and his servants’ expectations, a disjuncture occasioned by unanswered prayer, spotlights the difference between faith and feeling in Christianity.
This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?” Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven. So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.
Clarifying the Problem
What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”? In what ways is Truth not preserved? Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies. Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted. Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people. A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs. Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief. And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger. But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths. And thus true beliefs need to be preserved. The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth. The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption. In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)
Will the real Church please stand up? Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering. Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed! How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?
One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors. This is the argument from similarity. I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning. It was not the first time. I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity. I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present. I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)
Things start sometime, if they start at all. Tuesday of Holy Week is not generally considered the best time to start anything. The events of the Passion have already begun, and the joy of Easter is not yet here. And yet, this is where we always first find ourselves with God: things have started without us, and we have not yet reached the fullest joy. So this blog starts at the wrong time, on the wrong foot, just like everything in our lives.
Tuesday of Holy Week is also not the best time for a road trip. Holy Week “ought to be” a time of preparation for the severity of Good Friday and the joy of Easter. It is a time of reflection, of spiritual discipline, and of worship. But real life has its requirements, and I drove ten hours today. This is also how most of us worship God. A few people have the privilege of withdrawing from the world to devote their lives to worship alone. Most of us have to work in order to eat. We worship God in the moments around other activities, and we try to learn how to worship God in all the movements of our lives. It is not easy, and it does not come naturally. But Christ did not come to call the perfect, the devout, and the righteous; he came to call the sick and the sinners, like us. And he did not take us out of the world, but left us in the world to be his servants here. So real life happens, and we seek to worship Christ within real life.