Faulty Foundations

Abd-Allah was an eighth-century military commander who led an army capable of overthrowing the Abbasid Empire. Fearing his power, the Abbasid ruler made an unsuccessful attempt to kill the commander in battle.

Having failed to destroy Abd-Allah by force, the ruler devised a plan. He offered Abd-Allah a beautiful mansion in return for peace, a deal the battle-weary commander readily accepted.

However, the rainy season soon revealed the ruler’s treachery. He had buried salt blocks beneath the mansion’s foundation. The first substantial rain dissolved the salt and caused the house to collapse, killing Abd-Allah along with his entire household.

Although Abd-Allah couldn’t be destroyed by force, a good thing with a bad foundation ruined him. Satan has used this trick for thousands of years. He cannot force us to sin (1 Cor 10:13), but he can offer us good things that don’t have solid foundations.

Jesus tells us in Mathew 7:24-27 that the foundation of the Christian life is doing God’s will. Work, politics, fashion, collections, gardening, hunting, sports, and traveling are all good things. However, if we pursue these things at the expense of doing God’s will, Christ says we are like a man who builds his house on the sand.

Like salt, just because something is good doesn’t mean that it makes a solid foundation. God has given us many good things to enjoy, but if we build our lives around them, we’ll be ruined just like Abd-Allah.

(Note: see Wilson Bishai’s Islamic History of the Middle East for more about Abd-Allah)

Ventures in Mission

Over the past couple days, I read Ventures in Mission by Paul O. Madsen. It was published in 1968 during the very early days of what we now call the missional church movement. By comparison, Lesslie Newbigin, whose influence generally credits him as the founder of the movement, didn’t begin his ministry in Great Britain until 1974 and his influence didn’t spread to the United States until the 1980s. The term “missional” was coined in 1998 by Darrell Guder.

I bought this book in a thrift store bag sale. Apparently, it is a companion volume to Mandate for Mission by Eugene L. Smith, which I haven’t read.

Madsen divides his book into five sections covering encounters with people, urbanization, society, institutionalism, and self. The book’s main purpose is to provide real-life examples of missional activity. While most books with such a purpose become quickly dated, researchers studying the missional church will find this book a helpful record of early missional experiments, primarily in the United States but also internationally.

Madsen argues that rapid shifts in technology, society, and culture demand the church to undergo a radical transformation. Specifically, churches need to change from a professional ministry model to a lay ministry model, from an institutional “come” mentality to a missional “go” mentality, from teaching private spirituality to promoting social activism, and from an emphasis on individuals to targeting people groups.

The book is remarkable in that it puts forward virtually all the main arguments that the missional church movement promotes today, forty-four years later. While I appreciated Madsen’s emphasis on lay involvement and external focus, I find three things troubling about Madsen’s argument and in certain trends of the missional church movement today.

First, I am troubled by the argument that the church must change its identity due to developments in technology and shifts in culture. Sure, we must adapt to such things, but to say we need a new identity goes a bit far. In arguing what the church needs to be, the missional church tends to forget what the church has always been and will be for eternity.

Second, I find the present emphasis on social activism disconcerting. Christians have always had a concern for the poor and an emphasis on loving their neighbors. However, Madsen argues that the church should emphasize social action in place of personal spirituality. That’s like tossing out the eggs to make room for more chickens. Also, the missional church movement takes upon itself to accomplish the missio dei (“mission of God”). Thus Christians should be involved in doing everything God is doing in the world. However, God does a lot of things without asking for our help. He judges and punishes the world for sin. Are we to help God with that? If not, then why do we think He needs our help controlling climate change? Why don’t we instead talk about the missio ecclesiae (“mission of the church”)? Christians should stop trying to take part in everything they think God is doing in the world and instead focus on doing what He has told us to do.

Third, Madsen argues that the church needs to target people groups rather than individuals. We see the fulfillment of his vision in modern American evangelicalism. We have ethnic churches, biker churches, seeker churches, indie rocker churches, and churches for virtually every other segment of society. Missionaries no longer go to countries but to “the such-and-such people of” a country. While this is great marketing, where is the overall unity of the body of Christ in all this? Shouldn’t we be building a church where we are neither Jew nor Greek, biker nor automobilist, urban nor suburb? Our unity should be found in Christ, not our ethnicity or musical preference. The church needs to reach every person in society, but if we segment our ministries to target specific people groups, we surrender the unity of our diversity being lost in Christ.

I will be the first to admit that conservative Christianity as a whole has poorly adapted to cultural change, has failed to address many social problems, and has overlooked many unreached people groups. However, we need to adapt to modern culture without losing our historical identity. We need to address social problems without losing our primary focus on personal spirituality. We need to reach a diverse world without losing our unity in Christ.

Christian Mysticism

Mysticism refers to any direct source of divine communion or revelation. For the most part, mysticism can be dismissed as people falsely attributing a divine origin to their own thoughts. God no longer communicates special revelation outside of Scripture (Heb 1:1–2).

However, the Holy Spirit is transforming believers into the image of Christ. This communion with God cannot serve as a source for theology or doctrine. Our experience with God is not revelatory; despite common Christian phrases, God does not “tell us” things apart from Scripture. However, one cannot overestimate the effect that the believer’s walk with God has upon the task of theology. False teachers are known by their lifestyle (2 Pet 2:1–22). Theologians must be progressing in their personal sanctification if they ever hope to arrive at correct doctrine. Furthermore, Sin is deceitful (Heb 3:13). Christians who permit sin in their lives are choosing to believe lies that will destroy them and corrupt their doctrine (1 Cor 9:27). Correct doctrine depends on more than mere academics.

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) is frequently charged with being a mystic because he stressed the believer’s need to experience God in sanctification in order to understand God. In a sermon titled “What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make,” Tozer refutes the charge of being a mystic. His remarks are worth reading.

“Some of my friends good-humoredly—and some a little bit severely—have called me a ‘mystic.’ Well I’d like to say this about any mysticism I may suppose to have. If an archangel from heaven were to come, and were to start giving me, telling me, teaching me, and giving me instruction, I’d ask him for the text. I’d say, ‘Where’s it say that in the Bible? I want to know.’ And I would insist that it was according to the scriptures, because I do not believe in any extra-scriptural teachings, nor any anti-scriptural teachings, or any sub-scriptural teachings.

I think we ought to put the emphasis where God puts it, and continue to put it there, and to expound the scriptures, and stay by the scriptures. I wouldn’t—no matter if I saw a light above the light of the sun, I’d keep my mouth shut about it ’til I’d checked with Daniel and Revelation and the rest of the scriptures to see if it had any basis in truth. And if it didn’t, I’d think I’d just eaten something I shouldn’t, and I wouldn’t say anything about it. Because I don’t believe in anything that is unscriptural or that is anti-scripture” (14:24–15:36).

The Bible is the Christian’s only authoritative source for understanding God. Christians experience God daily as they are being transformed into His image. Even while reading Scripture, Christians are being illumined by the Holy Spirit. Although such experiences are necessary to properly understand Scripture, Christians should seek to interpret their experiences via Scripture, not vise versa.

When God Takes Away Your Swing

My eighteen-month-old daughter becomes obsessed with the swings every time we go to the park. No matter how long she swings, she nearly always cries when I take her down. Once, I decided to let her swing as long as she wanted. After forty minutes, I gave up. She was starting to look sick yet still she cried, pointing defiantly towards the swing.

I wonder what my daughter thinks of me as I tear her away from her prized swing. Obviously, she doesn’t understand that coming down is better for her and will give her the chance to enjoy the slides, tunnels, etc. No, in her view, daddy is cruel and unreasonable. Why doesn’t he just give me back my swing?

God sometimes takes away our swings. Some part of our lives seems perfect; then suddenly we’re being carried away and know that our beloved swing isn’t coming back.

What do we think of God? Obviously, we can’t be better off without something so perfect or ever enjoy anything else nearly as much. Perhaps God is being cruel and unreasonable.

I know my daughter can’t understand what I’m doing, but I wish she could love and trust me enough to enjoy being in my arms as I carry her to something better.

The Theologian Who Never Experienced God

Over the weekend, I read Jürgen Moltmann’s Experiences of God, another book from my thrift store sale bag. Having read Moltmann’s Theology of Hope in seminary, I was interested to form a more concrete opinion about Moltmann’s theology.

Experiences of God is a short book (80 pages) divided into four parts: (1) Why Am I a Christian?, (2) Hope, (3) Anxiety, and (4) The Theology of Mystical Experience. Unfortunately, Moltmann’s presuppositions lead him to disastrous conclusions in each of his main points, but his scholarship and clear reasoning enabled me profit from the work despite severe disagreement.

I admit this is a long post concerning a random theology book published in 1980. Feel free to skip to the summary at the end.

Why Moltmann Is Not a Christian

Moltmann begins the book with an autobiographic essay. He describes his hopelessness as a prisoner of war in WWII and how that experience motivated him to study theology. He also recounts what influences shaped his theological positions and concludes:

In [God] I found the power of a hope which I can believe, live and die with. But whether this means that I am a Christian–that I really do not know, in spite of all the arguments and in spite of all the telling. Neither nor anyone else can decide. It is in the hands of the one to whom I trust myself (p. 18).

Moltmann is not a Christian. This sounds harsh and judgmental, but it’s a fact. My criticism here is not an insult. I simply intend to demonstrate that Moltmann is misappropriating the term “Christian.” Yes, God is the ultimate arbiter of all things. However, the term “Christian” refers to a set of beliefs regarding who God is. Someone cannot claim to be a Muslim and proclaim, “There are many gods in addition to Allah.” Likewise, if the term “Christian” is to mean anything, it cannot be divorced from the essential doctrines of the Christian faith.

Moltmann does not place his trust in the Christian God. Moltmann’s conversion does not include repentance from sin and trust in Christ’s substitutionary death in payment for those sins (Gal 1:4). From the earliest Christian writings, rejecting these tenets constitutes “another gospel” that should not be considered Christian (Gal 1:6-9). If Christianity is true, Moltmann has placed his trust in a false god.

Wishful Thinking

Moltmann rightly stresses the importance of eschatology for the Christian. “Without the expectation of Christ’s second coming there is no Christian hope” (p. 33). However, Moltmann’s concept of Christ’s second coming (or parousia) does not appear to be primarily literal (p. 34). Moltmann’s hope is centered on a global political freedom (p. 34) and a realized liberal social agenda (redistribution of wealth, pp. 26-27; environmental protection, p. 27). He assumes that God’s future judgment will not punish evil but will instead simply “establish his righteousness everywhere and in everyone” (35).

Moltmann misses the key to Christian hope. Christians hope in promises. They confidently expect that God’s revelation will continue to be true forever. They trust God’s promises to revoke the curse, reward faithfulness, and punish evil (Rev 22:3; 2 Cor 5:10; Matt 25). Moltmann’s hope is not based upon the promises of Scripture. For the Christian, such a hope amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking.

Patripassianism

Moltmann proposes that anxiety can be overcome through resistance and endurance modeled after Christ and God. Moltmann argues for patripassianism, the belief that God the Father (patri-) suffered (-passian) in a human sense just as Christ suffered. Patripassianism directly contradicts the doctrine of impassibility–the teaching that although God has emotions directed toward his creatures, His emotions are not affected by them. For an excellent post on impassibility and its importance, see Mark Snoeberger’s “Is Impassibility Passé?”.

For Moltmann, this view springs out of his devaluing the trinity as “a product of Hellenistically influenced, philosophical theology” (p. 16). Moltmann starts with Adolf von Harnack’s assault on the trinity and traces the development of patripassianism through two Jewish sources—Rosenzweig’s interpretation of the Shekina and Heschel’s interpretation of the OT prophets. He also points to Kierkegaard as significantly influencing his thinking (pp. 16-17, 50-54).

Why does patripassianism matter? Two reasons. First, this view has been working its way into evangelical circles through sources such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Second, it seems this view is often a veiled attack on the trinity or the attributes of God’s greatness. We need to remember that God had to send His Son because only the God-man could be without sin and suffer as a member of the human race.

Pantheistic Mysticism

Moltmann advocates what he calls a “pantheistic vision of the world in God” (pp. 78-79). God is directly accessible in everything surrounding us through meditation, contemplation, and mystical union. This accessibility is supposedly possible via Christ’s redemption of everything through His suffering on the cross.

This position is obviously problematic. It is built on a universalist view of the atonement, virtually denies God’s transcendence, and raises human experience to equal standing with special revelation. While Christians do directly encounter God through sanctification, Christians must subject all their thoughts to the teaching of Scripture (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Learning from Moltmann

Four lessons can be learned from this critique. (1) Christianity is a community marked by their common beliefs. Those who don’t believe Christianity’s essential doctrines should not be granted Christian recognition. (2) Christians must base their hope on the promises of Scripture. We must not confuse our desires with God’s promise. (3) Beware of patripassianism. God sent His Son for a reason; God the Father does not suffer as we suffer. (4) Scripture is the only true source for doctrine. Christians will encounter God as they grow in sanctification, but God will not teach us anything apart from His Word.

Say No to Co-sleeping

I’ve never understood the attraction some parents have for co-sleeping. Why would anybody willingly bring a child into their bed? Apparently, some do it for the experience. In my experience, it’s kinda like being handcuffed to a dead zebra; it sounds interesting at first, but it gets real old real quick. This comparison obviously breaks down at some point. The dead zebra won’t keep kicking you all night.

As a Christian, I can’t say there is anything biblically or morally wrong with co-sleeping. First-century Palestinian families commonly slept in the same bed (Luke 11:7), so you could argue that Jesus probably slept with his parents. However, I can assure you that my daughter doesn’t ask “What Would Jesus Do?” before she kicks me in the ribs.

Despite our aversion to co-sleeping, circumstances on numerous occasions have forced us to let our daughter crash our bed. If you can’t imagine what could be so bad about having a child in your bed, the guys at howtobeadad.com have put together some diagrams to illustrate the horrors.

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Here’s a video based on one of the illustrations.