My friend UnkleE and I have been having a wide-ranging discussion on several topics related to Christianity that ultimately come down to epistemology, or how Christians know God’s will. The discussion began in my last post, which critiqued a doctrine common to more moderate circles within Christianity. UnkleE had more to say on the subject than could reasonably fit within a comment, so he decided to do his own post in response, which is worth reading. We conversed a bit within that comment thread, where I said:
The President of the US and his spokespeople now regularly say things that are factually untrue. Yet plenty of his supporters are content to ignore reputable sources and only listen to the sources that they want to agree with. Where do you go from there?
It seems to me that the view you have of Christianity is similar. Why does the New Testament speak so much about false teachers, if it’s perfectly fine to get your beliefs from private revelation? If Paul and Hymenaeus have a disagreement, perhaps Paul is the one who’s wrong? Or maybe both of them are right, simultaneously? How can one use scripture to “teach, reprove, and correct” in such a system?
In the end, isn’t such a religion just anarchy? How can there be such a thing as “truth” when each person’s version is just as good as someone else’s? At least as an atheist, I can point to my understanding of reality and the physical world to try to reach a consensus with others. And if they can provide data that invalidates some position I hold, then I can change. But if I took my own random thoughts and feelings as revelation from the supreme creator of the universe, how could I ever be convinced of anything else?
Once again, this opened a big topic that was better suited to a full post, rather than a comment, so UnkleE offered his response here. And as my reply to that post grew and grew, I realized that I needed to offer it as a post as well. What follows will reference and borrow quotes from UnkleE’s latest post.
What Is the Gospel?
Under a section called “Another Gospel?” UnkleE gave this introduction:
Nate references Galations 1:6-9, which warns of accepting another gospel. But what does Paul mean by “gospel” (or “good news”)?
He then listed out 5 main points that he views as central to what the gospel is:
- Jesus, the “son of God”, lived and taught about the kingdom of God.
- He died to deal with human sin (how that happens is very much up for debate!).
- Jesus was resurrected and so conquered death.
- We need to change our thinking, turn away from behaviours that displease God, and seek forgiveness.
- Our new way of life should include loving God, loving neighbour, and even loving our enemies.
But it seems to me that the New Testament spends time referring to false doctrines that are ancillary to those 5 points. The entire book of Galatians has Paul accusing the Galatians of turning their backs on the gospel and trying to follow the Law of Moses, when it really just sounds like they were trying to follow both:
Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
— Gal 5:2-6
To me, that sounds like something that we’d view as a matter of personal preference, today, certainly not something that would qualify as a “different gospel.” And look at 2 Cor 13:5-10:
Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! I hope you will find out that we have not failed the test. But we pray to God that you may not do wrong—not that we may appear to have met the test, but that you may do what is right, though we may seem to have failed. For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth. For we are glad when we are weak and you are strong. Your restoration is what we pray for. For this reason I write these things while I am away from you, that when I come I may not have to be severe in my use of the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not for tearing down.
We don’t know the specifics of what Paul is criticizing here, but if these individuals were still present in the congregation to see Paul’s letter, then it’s likely they still held to the basic principles that UnkleE outlined above. What else could they be lacking that would make them “fail the test”?
In 2 John 7, it was considered heresy to question whether or not Christ had actually come in the flesh (like docetism, I guess):
For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.
To me, this seems kind of minor in many ways, though it was a huge deal back then. If someone still believed that Christ was the son of God and brought salvation in some way, should it have mattered if they didn’t fully understand how that happened? But 2 John shows that some early Christians had a huge problem with the doctrine.
2 Tim 2:16-19 talks about another form of false teaching:
But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some. But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.”
To me, this also seems like a minor quibble that runs outside the principles UnkleE laid out as the core of Christianity. Again, exactly what people believe about how/when the resurrection works, or even exactly what the writer means by “resurrection” here seems minor if an individual still believes Christ is the avenue for salvation, etc. Incidentally, there’s an interesting discussion of this passage here.
And if God is unchanging, it’s hard to overlook some of the judgments he supposedly handed out in the Old Testament, like killing Nadab and Abihu for not getting their sacrificial fire in the right way. Killing Achan and his entire family when he didn’t follow the command about not looting Jericho. Honestly, there are tons of OT examples, and I won’t take up any more space with going through them. But they each show how particular God was in seemingly minor things. Now, I agree that most of the New Testament argues that such legalism is no longer necessary. But I think the passages I listed above show that it still isn’t just free rein, especially if God’s character is unchanging (Psalm 102:25-27; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17).
The New Testament gives parameters about divorce and remarriage that are pretty strict. In Matthew 19:9, Jesus is speaking, and he says:
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.
That’s a rigorous standard that most Christians don’t really apply today, in that a large number of Christian marriages are actually adulterous, according to Jesus. Marriage and remarriage does not fall within the 5 precepts of the gospel that UnkleE laid out, but it still seems like it would be a big deal. After all, we’re told in 1 Cor 6:9-10 that adulterers can’t “inherit the kingdom of God.” What does that mean, exactly? I think it’s referring to salvation itself, and I think 1 Cor 5 bears that out. In that passage, Paul is telling the Corinthians to cast out the member among them who is sleeping with his father’s wife “so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.”
Apparently, this Christian was in danger of losing his salvation if he didn’t repent of his wrongdoing. And to go back to 1 Cor 6 for a minute, we see that far more than just adulterers would be in danger of the same fate:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
That’s quite a laundry list. Those sins might fall within the 4th and 5th points from UnkleE’s list, so does this include married couples who didn’t divorce their previous spouses for infidelity? For consistency’s sake, I would think that they would have to be included, yet very few churches make an issue of it.
In the end, I think when Paul uses terms like “the gospel,” he’s not always strictly speaking about the 5 basic points that UnkleE outlined. I think he’s also talking about any specific instructions that he (or other apostles) laid out in their epistles. Yes, passages like Romans 14 and 1 Cor 8-10 talk about issues that individual Christians may have differences of opinion over, but that’s because those were issues that no specific instruction had been given about. But today, there are so many issues, like divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and women’s roles in the church that are considered minor by moderates today. And this is where the idea of authority comes into play. How do they justify their positions on these things?
Principles Not Rules
UnkleE goes on to argue that the New Testament focuses more on principles of how to live versus hard and fast rules. I do agree that it focuses more on principles than the Old Testament did, but I think the passages we’ve already looked at show that hard and fast rules still played a part.
UnkleE offers the following supporting points:
We serve God not according to a written set of rules, but guided by the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6). Note that he uses as his example in the latter case nothing less than one of the Ten Commandments!
But I don’t think these 2 passages really illustrate UnkleE’s point. He makes it sound as though Paul is saying that written sets of rules no longer apply, but that’s not at all what he’s saying. He’s specifically talking about the Old Law (the Mosaic Law) in those passages, and UnkleE and I already agree that Paul argues the Old Law (including the 10 Commandments) has served its purpose and is no longer binding to Christians. That doesn’t mean there’s no longer any kind of written law — what about all the teachings in the New Testament, including the gospel?!
We can legitimately hold different views on moral issues. Paul gives several examples, some of them significant issues in his day – the eating of meat that had been offered to pagan idols (1 Corinthians 10:23-30), and the keeping of rules about Sabbath days and “unclean” foods (Romans 14:1-23). But he says quite definitely (Romans 14:13): “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.”
But as we saw above, these passages are dealing with issues about which there was no direction given in the New Testament. They were true matters of personal conscience. Paul does not give permission to make these same kinds of judgments on things like divorce and remarriage. And while Paul says that they shouldn’t judge one another about these kinds of things, 1 Cor 5 talks about how they’re supposed to judge the actions of fellow Christians.
UnkleE’s third supporting point is:
Therefore, Paul’s conclusion on even important matters of behaviour is that we are free to decide (1 Corinthians 10:23), we should leave the judgment to God (Romans 14:4) and it is not rules but faith that will decide, for whatever is not done in faith is wrong (Romans 14:23) and all should be done to God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
But again, all of the passages here come exclusively from 1 Cor 10 and Romans 14, which discuss issues that are merely matters of personal preference.
The Holy Spirit
This is really where my biggest concerns lie. UnkleE has this to say about it:
A key fact, which many christians as well as critics can forget, is that christians believe we have been “given” the Spirit of God. Again, I don’t pretend to fully understand how this works, but it is clearly taught in scripture. Each believer has the help of the Holy Spirit in following Jesus in our lives and – crucially for this discussion – in guiding us to truth.
The Spirit is God, which means he is above the Bible, not lesser!
This is exactly what I was trying to get at in my initial questions to UnkleE. If the guidance of the Holy Spirit can trump scripture, how can any position ever be tested? If a man is married, but strongly believes that God wants him to be with his next door neighbor, who’s to say he’s wrong? Sure, the Bible contradicts his feelings, but the Holy Spirit has authority over the Bible. Yes, common sense contradicts his desire, but “God’s ways are higher than man’s.”
UnkleE also says this:
This merits a longer discussion than I can give now (but will post on soon), but we are told that the Holy Spirit will guide us into truth (John 16:13), so we can even know God’s will for us (Romans 12:2). We see examples of the Spirit guiding the believers in Acts (e.g. Acts 11:1-18, 13:1-3, 16:6-10). But we do, I believe, need to ask (James 1:5, Matthew 7:7-8).
So far from being “random thoughts”, if we pray, and take the precautions that the Bible gives us, we can have faith that God guides us (not just me, but his whole church) through his Spirit into true understandings – not infallibly, but steadily over time.
But to me, such a system looks exactly like “random thoughts.” How could anyone tell the difference between his own thoughts and the Holy Spirit? How could Paul rail against false teachers and false gospels if guidance from the Holy Spirit carries more weight than scripture? If 1000 different Christians all believe God has given them personal revelations that happen to conflict, there’s no way to sort among them to separate the true revelation from all the false ones.
In effect, it seems to me that such a religion can end up saying everything, which basically means it says nothing.
One More Thing
I know this post is painfully long, but I wanted to add one more thing. In his closing, UnkleE makes this point:
I suggest we should always start with what the scriptures say and expert knowledge about what it means – what would this or that passage have said to the people of the day, what do the words actually mean and how do experts understand them? We must read more than one viewpoint.
Then we must pray, consider, wait if necessary, and see if we receive guidance, and see how the Spirit is working and leading the body of believers as a whole. Our own experience and thoughts (if we are allowing God to transform our thinking) will help us.
Isn’t this exactly what we, as atheists, do as well? I’m quite familiar with the Bible (more so than many believers that I know), and I try to pay attention to what Biblical scholars have to say. I consider more than one point of view. I don’t pray, but I used to. And I believe that I’m open to being wrong — I’m even open to guidance. And I would love for God to give me some kind of message, personally. Used to plead for it, in fact. What else is there for me to do?
Let me stress that I really appreciate UnkleE’s willingness to discuss these things with me. As he knows, I was raised within a very fundamentalist version of Christianity that believed in biblical inerrancy. UnkleE has a very different perspective, and it’s difficult for me to fully understand it. My arguments here are how I try to come to terms with his beliefs. If I’ve missed some obvious answer to some of my questions, it’s solely due to ignorance, not obstinacy.