Anti-Gnosis: The Plight of the Church
“And as they did not study to have knowledge of God, God delivered them to a worthless mind to do what is not lawful, being filled with all kinds of unrighteousness, wickedness, greediness, and evil. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and meanness. They are gossipers, slanderers, and haters of God. They are insolent, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, and disobeyers of parents. They are without understanding, covenant breakers, without affections, and without mercy. They know the decrees of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do them, but also approve of those who do them.”
Peter writes that judgment must begin with the household of God (1 Peter 4: 17), which means, when salt and light does not pervade a culture where the church is immanent, there is a problem. And the source of that problem stems from within the church. If salt loses its saltiness, of what good is it? And, when light can no longer be distinguished from the darkness around, is it truly light any longer or has its lamp-stand been removed? There is no question that churches are present within communities throughout the United States, most of which proclaim themselves to be Christian. So, where is the salt and light?
It is my fear that three things have taken place. First, many churches that proclaim themselves to be “Christian” are not Christian by any meaningful sense of the term. They have rejected historic Christian Creeds and Confessional statements and have embraced ideas that have been condemned by the Councils of the Christian church going back to the first Century AD. Secondly, many professing Christians are more interested in a promise of heaven than they are interested in what it means to live out an authentic Christian faith. Many assume that they can live however they choose and worship in whatever way they prefer, so long as they have their “Get Out of Hell Free” pass promised by a person who preaches niceties to them on Sunday morning. Third, many Christians have become so busy with life that they presume that knowledge of the things of God is something for pastors and seminary students only. In fact, many are so used to this notion, that they are hostile to the notion that all Christians are commanded to study and learn the things of God.
Psalm 111:2 boldly proclaims, “Great are the works of Yahweh, studied by all who delight in them.” Do you delight in the things that God has done? Then the way you show your delight is by studying them. In fact, it could be argued that you most eagerly study those things in which you most delight. Billy Graham used to say, “If you want to know where a man’s priorities are, just look at his checkbook.” I say, “If you want to know what a man loves, look at those things that most occupy his mind and thought.
Paul writes here in Romans that one of the results of people seeking to worship the creation rather than the creator is that they do not “study to have the knowledge of God.” The Greek word in question here is δοκιμάζω (dokimazo), which conveys the idea of examining something to see whether it is right or true and then drawing conclusions about said things on the basis of what has been tested and examined.
Conceptually, this is a powerful notion. For without such careful and detailed examination, upon what does one base their Christian belief? Too many professing Christians simply claim that faith is enough, but is faith not something that ought to be substantiated? Without examination, how is our faith in God any different than the heathen’s superstitious faith in their totems and idols? Is not faith a conviction (ἕλεγχος — elegchos — the act of presenting evidence as in a court case — Hebrews 11:1) of things that are not seen? Is not the faith that results in praise and glory and honor at the revealing of Christ a faith that is examined (δοκιμάζω — dokimazo — 1 Peter 1:7)? If God tests our hearts (1 Thessalonians 2:4) shall we also not test every spirit (1 John 4:1) — δοκιμάζω (dokimazo)? How can we make a reasoned defense of the faith if we have first not examined what we believe (ἀπολογία — apologia — 1 Peter 3:15)?
Yet, not only do many (if not most) never bother applying their reason to the faith they possess, many pastors seek to dissuade their flock from doing so. Perhaps they feel as if the reasoned examination will detract from the passion of their worship. Perhaps they do not wish to face such questions themselves. Perhaps they too are blindly following the example of a superstitious faith set for them by others. Worse yet, perhaps they feel intimidated at the idea that someone, upon examination, might discover that the faith and practice inculcated at their church might prove fraudulent and empty.
If this is the state of the American church, then why should we be surprised when the world sees our practice as unintelligent, superstitious, undesirable, and irrelevant to life? They reject the salt and light of the church because the church has lost its saltiness and its light has become so dimmed as to be imperceptible from any other expression of religion or faith? The church in the first centuries did not have a vague witness. They boldly proclaimed Christ’s resurrection from the dead and were happy to have their testimony examined by even the most hostile and critical foes. Shall we not do the same? Yet, we cannot, until we are ready to examine the faith we profess. If we do not do so, then the church will continue to fall into the morass of sin that Paul describes in this passage — indeed, do not many of these sins describe the church of our day (envy, strife, deceit, meanness, slander, gossip, etc…).
How will Christ be pleased with the playacting that many supposed Christian churches practice week in and week out when the faith therein is never tested? On what basis will Christ say, “well done,” if there is no basis for that statement other than one’s personal preferences? Indeed, many will be expecting to hear the words, “well done,” yet will only hear, “I never knew you.” If the church will not repent of its foolishness, then the lamp-stand will be removed and Christ will spit them out of his mouth. To be ignorant in the church is one thing if one is a new believer. To be ignorant in the church, though one has been in the church for years, is lazy. But to be opposed to the careful examination of the things of God is the work of antichrists (1 John 2:18-19) and should be condemned with the strongest language — indeed, they are preaching a gospel of another kind than what is plainly taught in Scripture (Galatians 1:6-10).
There is Intellectual Content to the Christian Faith
Soapbox time… One of the things that really bugs me is when people believe that they can believe whatever they want to believe and yet still be called a “Christian.” True, there are certain things that are disagreed upon within the Christian faith — subject and mode of baptism, forms of liturgy, and the nature of the end times for example. But there are also some ideas and facts that are non-negotiable and are a “must be affirmed” part of the Christian faith.
This means two things…first, that there is intellectual content to the Christian faith. In other words, there are ideas that a person must positively affirm to be considered a Christian. Or, maybe even simpler yet, Christianity is not a set of feelings that you might have toward God or fellow man. It is not that “fuzzy-warm” sense that all things are going to be okay. And being a Christian (and with that, your assurance of salvation) has a great deal more to do with what you think than what you feel inwardly.
Think about it this way: there is a saying in America that the only things that are guaranteed are death and taxes. Let’s take the second part of that. Every year, come mid-April, people in America need to file their income tax paperwork (or an extension in some cases). If you do not file your taxes by this time than you can be assured that the IRS is going to visit you at some stage of the ballgame. As Americans, we are assured of this — that is the job of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). That assurance does not come from any set of feelings that we may or may not have. It comes from the facts that surrounding what the IRS is and what it is designed to do. It is built on an intellectual content about the IRS that is defined not by you, but by the IRS.
Similarly, when it comes to our assurance of salvation, we too must recognize that this assurance does not come from our inward feelings or preferences. It comes from our knowledge of God — who he is, what he has done, and what he has promised to his elect. Feelings and preferences are irrelevant in this case. We know what we know about God because God has revealed these things about himself…feelings about God are irrelevant. All weight must be based on what has been revealed in the Scriptures.
The second thing that this means is that if we are going to call ourselves Christian, we must affirm those things that God reveals about himself and cannot confirm that which is contrary. For example, there are some people who claim to be Christian yet deny the Triune nature of our God. Such is an untenable position. The God presents himself within the Scriptures as three persons yet one God. The creeds and confessions do not create this doctrine, the creeds and confessions simply articulate in a concise form what the Scriptures teach in a more exhaustive way. And thus, there are not only teachings that the Christian must positively affirm to be a Christian, but there are also positions which one cannot reject.
And thus, question 22 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks, what does the Christian have to believe (intellectual content of the Christian faith)? The answer? “All that is taught in the Gospel…” And what is the Gospel? Good News — and that is all of Scripture. What comes next is how the Apostles’ Creed is helpful in explaining this in concise form (so long as we understand the Creed rightly). And though we are not saved by our knowledge, those who are brought to Christ in faith submit their understanding to the authority of Christ just as they do every other aspect of their lives.
Love guarded by Knowledge and Discernment
“And this is my prayer: that your love might overflow more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”
And so, out of Paul’s love for his friends in the church in Philippi, he offers up his prayer for them as they seek to grow in their spiritual maturity. He begins with a prayer for agape love…there are several different words in the Greek to reflect different aspects of love; agape love reflects the idea of a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether the love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. Ultimately, it is the love demonstrated by Christ who died for the sins of the elect while we were yet dead in our sin and in rebellion against the King of Heaven. It is also the kind of love that all believers are to strive toward as we live our our lives in community…as the old hymn based on John 13:35 goes: “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”
But notice something. Often Christians seem to end there when they talk about God’s design for our lives. There is an assumption that we are just to love one another, love the world, and all will be happy. And what we end up with oftentimes is this mushy, sappy, love that has no real backbone to it. Yet, Paul does not end his prayer here. Paul asks that the agape love that the church would have would indeed overflow (arguably a reference to Psalm 23:5), but that it would overflow in knowledge and discernment.
In other words, love does not stand on its own, but is guarded and guided by something else in the life of the believer. The term that Paul uses for knowledge is ejpi/gnwsiß (epignosis), which is typically used to refer to a knowledge of the transcendent — a knowledge of that which is outside of you, whether moral or spiritual. And while the term ai¡sqhsiß (aisthasis), which we translate here as “discernment” only shows up once in the New Testament, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 22 times in the Book of Proverbs (no great surprises there). Thus, according to Paul’s prayer for spiritual maturity, love does not stand alone, it is accompanied by both the knowledge of God and the discernment that comes from the fear of the Lord.
The idea virtue seems to have been replaced by freedom in our culture today. People champion personal expression and personal pleasure over the idea of chivalry, honor, integrity, and duty. People seem to value personal experience over transcendent truth. And that shift is a dangerous one for the culture; more significantly, it is our calling as a church to pull the culture back from the edge of the cliff. But we cannot do that unless we, as Christians who make up the church, also embrace a Biblical model of knowledge and discernment that guides and guards our love. May indeed Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi be a prayer that we embrace in our lives and may we strive to cultivate the knowledge of God (found in the scriptures) and godly discernment (begun with a fear of the Lord) in our lives in every way.
Where Does Your Understanding of Jesus Come From?
“Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again and questioned Jesus and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you say this from yourself or has another spoken to you concerning me?’”
Jesus has thus been returned to Pilate’s custody and now Pilate must decide how to handle the matter. His first question to Jesus returns to the matter of politics — is this man a threat to Rome. While it may be a surprise that Jesus breaks his silence for a moment, it ought to be considered that this is, for the first time, a private audience without the priests screaming false accusations. Here, an honest conversation can take place. More importantly, Jesus uses this opportunity to change the discussion from the earthly to the eternal.
What is striking about this dialogue is its similarity to one that Jesus had with Peter earlier in his ministry, recorded in Matthew 16:15-17. Jesus is asking his disciples who people said he was. Many answers were given and then Jesus made the question more personal and asked Peter who he said that Jesus was. Peter’s response has become the bedrock of the Christian profession of faith — “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”
But notice what Jesus says to follow: “flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” This question of Jesus is a spiritual question. Jesus is asking whether Pilate is saying this because that is what he is thinking or because it has been told by another. The right answer would have been, “because I have been told by the Holy Spirit.” This, of course, was not in Pilate’s vocabulary and thus his response is very different than Jesus‘ — rather than professing Christ, the rock upon which the church is built, he professes that one cannot know anything that is true, but we get ahead of ourselves.
The definition of King and Lord and Savior is radically different depending on the source of that understanding. Many would intellectually call Jesus their Lord or King, but have lives that do not reflect that this is something they really believe. Many call Jesus Savior out of an emotional response, often from an experience during a difficult time in their lives, but when the emotion fades the lifestyle does not reflect the profession. The truest way to test a profession of faith is by watching the person persevere in that faith as they live their life because we can reform our lives for a short time, but lasting change requires a work of the Holy Spirit. Pilate sadly demonstrates the source of his understanding about Jesus (or lack thereof); what is the source of yours?
Knowledge Without Understanding
It seems that we have an addiction to knowledge without an interest in understanding. We go to conferences and seminars but we return home and little ever changes. In the church, we hear sermon after sermon exhorting us to live this way or do that and, like a fad diet, we might try out a few suggestions for a day or two and then let it go by the wayside. We have become junkies for academic degrees but tend to divorce what we are learning from life. Game shows glamorize those who have memorized endless strings of facts with absolutely no emphasis placed on being able to apply or to interpret those facts in a way meaningful to life. As the early church father, Tertullian, lamented, “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” Or perhaps, to put it in today’s vernacular: “What does real life have to do with book learning?”
In the world of Artificial Intelligence, there is a running debate over the question as to whether it is possible for a computer to “think.” In other words, can a computer ever be designed and built in such a way that it will be able to use inductive logic and make inferences based on new situations. Though the science-fiction community has been toying with the idea of thinking robots for quite some time, science-realty has not been able to produce such a machine. The simple reason is because no matter how fast or sophisticated the computer processor or the algorithms that make up the software, a computer is little more than a processor of information.
The Philosopher, John Searle, developed a useful analogy to help understand the limitations of computers. He described a man placed in a room that contained nothing but two books written in Chinese. There was also a slot where pages could be put in and a slot where pages could be sent back out. Imagine, he continued, that a man were put into the room that had never studied or even heard the Chinese language. The process would look something like this. A page of paper would be put in through the first slot that contained Chinese characters. The person in the room would then compare the characters on the paper to the characters in the first book. When he found the matching character, that book sent him to a page in the second book and then the man would write down the characters he found in the second book on a page of paper and send it back out the second slot.
Over time, one might expect that the man in the Chinese room would become proficient at his task and thus become both very swift and very accurate in his writing of the symbols. In fact, the man might become so proficient that he would no longer need to use the books as references. Yet, at no point will the man ever learn Chinese. The symbols themselves only carry meaning in terms of which symbol he is to write and not with the thing or idea that the symbol represents. And essentially, a computer chip is little more than a man in a Chinese box (just much smaller!).
Yet, as computer engineers seek to develop a computer that “thinks” more like a human thinks, humans are becoming conditioned to think more like computers…essentially as repositories of vast quantities of information but never applying that information to life. We gorge ourselves on information, but never slow down and reflect enough to incorporate all of the data we ingest into a unified system of thought and life.
The reality is that technology surrounds us and has become a part of our daily lives. While we can control our obsession with information, we cannot step away from the reality that information is a part of the DNA of our times. What we can do, though, is to better filter that information through a mature and unified worldview…one based upon the Scriptures of the Bible. All the while, always discerning how new ideas fit into the whole. If ideas are consistent with the fabric of the Bible then they should naturally fit into ones system of though; if not, it should be held in suspect while seeking to understand the Biblical ramifications of the new view. Is it corrective or destructive to the whole system? The one direction that we cannot afford to go, though, is the direction we are traveling…that of holding many contradictory ideas in tension, never unifying them in a system, but affirming any bit of information as equally valid and considering that knowledge of many things is more valuable than the understanding that comes from being able to apply those things to the whole.
Ignorance and Vague Generalities
Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.
I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?
The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”
Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:
“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”
It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).
Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:
“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”
Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.
The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:
My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.
Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.
It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.
When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.
In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.
Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?
My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.
I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.
The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.