I am in this place, this “zone” and have been for some time now, emotionally, spiritually, philosophically, and theologically. This is a place where love, grace and mercy are at the forefront of my beliefs about God, the Christian Scriptures, the place of Christians in our society and culture, and how I understand God in Christ Jesus to be at work in the world, and how Christians ought to be engaged with the world.
I recently heard a message on “love”, and it perked my attention, one because of the theme, and also because of the youthfulness and zeal of the presenter. I have to say, that I could see myself 25 years ago being that same type of zealous pursuer of Jesus and the teachings of the Bible and the importance of “biblical truth”. For me to hear someone that reminded me of myself was at one level a surprise and at another level, it was a confirmation of just how much I have changed over time, and another reminder in the long line of reminders, the importance of a current discussion on “Christian belief” and “how we believe what we believe” as well as “how we practice our belief in the day to day world”. I believe this discussion, in our post-modern culture, needs to be re-visited and examined thoroughly, as we seek to present “truth and grace” and the person of Jesus Christ, to a culture that increases to believe and practice a disbelief and rejection of the historical Christian faith and it tenets.
The Dangers of Fundamentalism in Christian Faith
The young man who spoke was gracious and gentle and filled with zeal and passion. He went out of his way to quote verbatim verses and passages of Scripture that deal with the “theology of love”, and gave illustrations from his own life and his own challenges as he has attempted to live out what he understands about the importance of the love of God being the hallmark of the “Christian life”. As the man spoke, I was moved to reflect on my own understanding and how much change has occurred over the decades I have sought to walk faithfully with Jesus. The one thing that constantly bombarded my mind was just how much had changed in my understanding and in my thinking. My own journey has been a remarkable journey of discovery of just how much “Christian fundamentalism” has undermined the message of the Gospel of Grace and how that message is shared with the world through evangelical engagement and proclamation.
“Christian Fundamentalism” has its roots in North America at the time when in Western Culture, we had the impact of the Enlightenment, the rise of evolutionary science, the rise of rationalism. All this came to a head at the end of the 19th and the beginnings of the 20th centuries. The “traditional” Christian Conservative response was to take a position and posture in opposition to those trends of the Enlightenment to offer a counter to that trend, a “return to the fundamentals” of the Christian faith.
I still have an edition of the classic manifesto from that time period, edited by R. A. Torrey, The Fundamentals. I frequented is pages for the better part of a decade as I studied and reflected on biblical truth and the key beliefs of the Christian faith. The original manifesto was in twelve volumes that were published and sent to over 300,000 ministers, missionaries and Christian workers around the world. It became a rallying cry for conservative “Bible believing” Christians. I have a later edition that was put into four volumes. The basic premise of this extensive work is to defend the historical Christian faith against the rising influence of liberalism in the world at the time, which was affecting higher learning, and altering the world views of the general population. It became a barometer of sorts, or a “biblical and theological plumb line” to determine what was “true” from that which was considered to be “heresy”.
Torrey and the contributors to The Fundamentals, listed five core doctrines as being essential for being a “true Christian”, and essentially that if one or more of these were disputed, then that person was to be considered a “non-Christian”. These points of dogma are:
- The Trinity – belief that God is One in three persons, Father, Son & Spirit, co-equal in every way.
- The Person of Jesus Christ – belief that Jesus Christ, the historical figure, is fully God and fully man, and the only mediator between God and man.
- The Second Coming – belief that Jesus Christ is coming bodily to earth to rule and judge.
- Salvation – belief that it is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
- The Christian Scriptures – belief that the Scriptures are inerrant and sufficient for life and practice.
These became the tenets of the Christian Fundamentalists as a movement, which later spawned the Evangelical movement post World War Two, with the appearance on the scene of evangelist Billy Graham and others, including healing and miracle crusade evangelists. We have lived with this since the late 1940’s. That generation is passing the torch. At the same time there is a “post-Evangelical” movement that is largely “progressive” and is going into uncharted waters. That began with the rise of countering Post-Modernism through the likes of people like Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Rob Bell and others. There seems to be a growing and widening divide that is mirroring what happened between Christian Fundamentalism as a movement and the Evangelical movement. To my own understanding, I believe the Church as a whole has to reinvent itself to meet the challenges of each generation and the respective culture in which it finds itself.
The crisis in Evangelicalism is real. We have reduced the vibrant faith of the Gospel of Christ to:
- Rules of do’s and don’ts instead of relationship
- Precise statements of faith and belief instead of the tension of engagement with the Bible and its message to the culture
- Simple answers to multi-complex problems
- Constantly engaging in politics within and without the Church
- Caring more about being “right” than being compassionate and loving
- Using the Bible as a hammer to correct and judge others
- Being more concerned with power and wealth than works of service to others
- Displaying a persecution complex in the midst of a culture that sees the Church as irrelevant
- Confusing morality and law with love and grace
The question for all the various streams in the Church, is whether or not, in trying to find itself, its voice, its message, its identity, will the Church become unhinged from its own historical past as a millennial movement?
I find myself, having embraced a variety of expressions of church denominations, non-denominational churches, and non-traditional churches, and Christian communities, that at the end of the day, while I may NOT be an “Evangelical” when it comes to the religio-politico-socio movement it represents, I am still very much a follower and disciple of Jesus, and a practitioner of the Christian faith as I understand the Scriptures to teach us and guide us. I am in a place of total disconnect with the political engagement of the Evangelical movement. I am not a “conservative” politically speaking, as the Conservative Party of Canada is the furthest thing from being socially engaging with the needs of Canadians. I lean left of centre due to the crises we have with poverty, affordable housing, employment, the peace movement, and other social issues affecting Canadians. So, this makes me more of a “Post-Evangelical” and I am OK with that.
All this helps to create context for this message on “love” and my “current state of heart and mind” on the matter of the love of God and my place in the world as an agent of God’s grace and love.
The Issue of Absolute Belief In Tension With Mystery And The Unknown
Back to the message on “love”. The speaker was speaking from his heart, and what I realized as I focused my attention to his presentation, was again, the “presumption” I hear in the statements that are made by Christian speakers, where there is such a “confidence”, and in this case even the speaker admitted that some could perceive what he says as being “arrogance” rather than confidence. This is rooted in how Christians communicate the Gospel, or expound and explain the Scriptures. When you hear a speaker read out the Scriptures, often simply reading a verse or two, and starts the process of multiple texts in the same fashion, this is a form of “proof texting” where the speaker will attempt to convey by quoting these verses, often without proper context, to assert a particular rendering and understanding to a Scripture.
What many listeners and even speakers do not realize is that many people when quoting texts of Scripture, they presume to know what the text means and how it is applied. The presumption is communicated through words that are boldly proclaimed such as, “the Bible says” or “this text states”, and it is offered up as the only viable understanding to the text. That is presumption plain and simple. The presumption is found in need to have “absolute reliable truth” and it is mixed with the fact that it was taught to the speaker, either through the form of a class lecture, a message on a Sunday, a Bible study of some kind, or from a book on the subject.
The point being made, is that what we know of the Bible, we have picked up from “someone else’s eyes and understanding”, and then we “make it our own”. Sometimes this is at a base level. When accept the rendering given without studying it ourselves, we can miss the actual meaning of a text. The science of hermeneutics, the actual study of syntax, language, meaning and interpretation, history and cultural nuances to the language, all have bearing on the actual meaning. When people read an “English translation”, it is indeed a “translation” and at best we can deduct from the word meanings and context a particular meaning. When someone is teaching us, they are passing on everything that was packaged into the intellect and understanding of the teacher that communicated to their pupil. So this young man, like myself was influenced by another person who passed on a particular understanding.
The problem arises when we do not recognize the predisposed understanding of a text in our own mind and heart, because it is so easy to drift from the deductive (or exegesis) and investigative rendering of a text, to a “reading into a text” a predisposed understanding. We call this eisegesis (reading into). You know it when you hear it. The person reads the text, and in their reading, they are already giving it the interpretation and understanding by which they have come to understand it. A good exercise for you to attempt is to listen to someone read and explain Scripture. They very often explain it in how they read it, in tone and inflection and emphasis.
The meaning is in the details. I remember speaking to one speaker and I asked him to explain something that he had addressed in a message. The man said, “The Bible says….” And went on to tell me exactly what he had said in his message. I interrupted, and I said, “You don’t understand my question. I asked you to explain, and you presume quoting and telling the verse and a few descriptions of its meaning, that you are actually explaining its meaning. You are not. You have already decided on its meaning and you have read that into the text and you have made this understanding of the text to support your theological premise. That is not the only meaning to the text. You are simply presuming that it is.” Well, that was not a popular exchange with those that were there together. I did not want to embarrass the man, but simply point out the problem of reading into a text and misapplying a text to prop up a theological point.
The Idolatry of The Bible – A Sin Against God, Against Others And Against Yourself
Words have meaning and communication can only happen if we all mutually recognize, affirm and understand the meaning. When we converse we are presupposing that the words we use will be understood in context in the dialog. The Bible is understood in the same way. How we view the original documents and the whole understanding of “inerrancy” and the “inspiration” of the Bible often determines how we will interpret the teaching of Scripture.
There is a seismic shift taking place in the Evangelical Movement, and one that is welcomed. For some great material it is worthwhile reading the writings of men like my fellow Canadian Brad Jersak, Derek Flood and others.
There are many people, and some I know personally, who have essentially made the Bible a part of the Godhead, making it “I believe in God, God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit and the Bible”.
The elevation of the Bible to this lofty reverence is heretical. It is idolatry of the worst kind. Many who have a lofty view of Scripture, unfortunately include their interpretation of the Bible as being co-equal to the Bible itself. Our interpretations are not inspired. Our interpretations are derived from using particular methods to analyze, understand, interpret and apply the principles of Scripture to living out our faith in our own day and time, often thousands of years removed from the targeted original audience of the biblical writer. We need to refrain from making the Bible, and even particular translations of the Bible, like the King James Version, objects of lofty admiration and borderline worship of it. We as Post-Modern Christians, do not need to commit this act of idolatry when it comes to the Bible. We need to get a grip on Jesus and let Jesus speak to us through the Scriptures.
I do not worship the Bible. I respect it. I promote its reading and study. But, I worship the God of whom it speaks and proclaims.
Choosing To Live in Tension Embracing God, His Love, And Loving Others Graciously
So back to the speaker. He spoke and said, “If I get even one in this list wrong, then I get them all wrong. I am not operating in God’s love.” Ouch! That came across to me as a “harsh” thing to say. I know for I have done it myself. We need to operate more in a place of grace rather than critical judgment, even of ourselves. There are several issues at stake here.
- We cannot reduce “love” to definitions of actions. We know words have meanings. We know that words that form sentences and covey meaning, are in themselves limited by their meaning and their use. The best that these individual noun and pronouns and verbs and adverbs can do, is to simple describe and illustrate what the overall idea of the concept is.
- When we speak of divine love, we must first recognize that in this case, love as revealed in Scripture is the core identification mare, DNA and central truth about the nature of God. The Scripture teaches God IS love. Not God loves as a human being loves. The core being of God’s nature is love.
- The Scriptures will say some statements that sound harsh and even the “love chapter” has some difficult parts to it. When we read First Corinthians 13, we need to read it redemptively, even the parts that “sound” harsh, such as the comparative statements, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate.” Then you have “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all its mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. “ What we have here as some descriptions of the lack of love being in sharp contrast to the agape love of God. It is made for emphasis. Paul is describing the sanctifying nature of love and how love will manifest in our lives and what that should look like.
- We cannot hold to an absolutist understanding and rendering here. What Paul is doing is continually affirming the work of the Spirit from chapter 12 through 13 to 14. In chapter 13 Paul is showing how a life governed by and care for through love will impact the lives of others and our own. Our nature is being transformed and conformed. When we see Jesus we see love incarnate. When people see us, they should see Jesus in us, by how we live and express life. This is the point Paul is making. We are never going to be perfect in this life, BUT we possess the Perfect One inside of us, and it is He who continues to mold and shape our lives and our character. People should see changes happen and over time it should be more visible and more experienced and more transformative.
- Read the passage and where you find the word “love”, put in your name. You may want to deny this, but this is HOW God sees you. This is WHO you are IN Christ. Now read it again… slowly, taking it all in.
1 CORINTHIANS 13 [The Message]
4-7 Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.
8 Love never dies.
We need to operate from an expanse of grace and love. Both go hand in hand. If we will truly manifest the love of God, the very essence of Christ, in our daily life and encounters with people, then we need to have a wide expanse of grace at work, so that we can extend grace even to those who appear to be difficult to love, or to those who are hostile toward us.
What I find amazing is what the apostle John states in 1 John 4. John goes to great lengths to describe the love of God in action, not only in our own lives but in the lives of others. What I find amazing, is that we cannot love apart from God giving us His love to enable us to love. In recent years I have been astounded by how many people, I would call them “pre-Christians” who have and continue to demonstrate tangibly a real authentic love, and sometimes it is of more depth and character than what I have known from self-confessed Christians.
Please read this part of 1 John 4.
1 JOHN 4 [The Message]
7-10 My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn’t know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can’t know him if you don’t love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.
11-12 My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. No one has seen God, ever. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!
13-16 This is how we know we’re living steadily and deeply in him, and he in us: He’s given us life from his life, from his very own Spirit. Also, we’ve seen for ourselves and continue to state openly that the Father sent his Son as Savior of the world. Everyone who confesses that Jesus is God’s Son participates continuously in an intimate relationship with God. We know it so well, we’ve embraced it heart and soul, this love that comes from God.
17-18 God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.
19 We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.
20-21 If anyone boasts, “I love God,” and goes right on hating his brother or sister, thinking nothing of it, he is a liar. If he won’t love the person he can see, how can he love the God he can’t see? The command we have from Christ is blunt: Loving God includes loving people. You’ve got to love both.
Let Us Choose To Live Lives of Love and Inclusion And Not Exclusion
The work of redemption has been completed by Jesus Christ, once and for all time, for all people. Let us love people graciously, with a wide expanse and a wideness of mercy and acceptance. It is God alone who changes and transforms the lives of people. By His Spirit, God is at work in our world, and in our lives, and we barely see things that are at work, but they are at work. So let us love with a mindset of inclusion, and that God has not excluded anyone from His mercy. How Jesus takes care of bringing in His own inheritance is up to Him. We are not called to exclude. We are called to love and include. Jesus is the Lord of the Harvest. He is gathering in the harvest. Saving people is Jesus’ job. It is not our job. We have one responsibility and that is to LOVE others with the love that God has loved us. Jesus has it all covered.
Just love and see what God will do.
I close with the words of Paul in Romans 5 [The Message]
18-19 Here it is in a nutshell: Just as one person did it wrong and got us in all this trouble with sin and death, another person did it right and got us out of it. But more than just getting us out of trouble, he got us into life! One man said no to God and put many people in the wrong; one man said yes to God and put many in the right.
So how is your “love life”?
Remember that love covers a multitude of sins. Remember how you love and read and interpret the Bible affects how you live it its principles. How you read it matters and it affects your relationships with people. Does how you understand the Bible make you more loving and compel you to love others deeply? More important than anything… Love rules the day, and Jesus has it all covered.