Sunday, September 26, 2010

Narrow Minded Arrogance

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:36-38 ESV)

As Christians we believe in absolute truth, an unchanging, non-negotiable reality that is independent from our own subjective experience. This Truth is demonstrated to us in the person of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the very Word of God having come into the world in the flesh. He gives to us His Holy Spirit so that we would be led into the truth (John 14:16). We not only know that there is absolute truth but we can know the truth itself because God has revealed it to us. This gives us a basis for making consistent evaluations and judgments.

Unfortunately, many people have a view more like that of Pilate. Truth is seen as something that either doesn’t exist or is virtually impossible to get at. Postmodern philosophers tell us that there isn’t really any absolute truth but only subjective “truths”.  It is therefore aggravating to many that we have such confidence in our assertion that there can only be one single preeminent Truth. The question arises as to how we can be so narrow minded as to think that there is only one legitimate view of things and that everyone who believes differently from us is wrong. This is seen to be an arrogant and prideful approach to the opinion of others. It sounds like a more humble position to take the view that no person can possibly be certain about the truth claims or experience of any other so we should cling to our own convictions and not try to force them on others. This may sound like a more humble position but it is in fact an example of a tremendous arrogance.

There is a characteristic that makes certain beliefs of more value than others, namely whether they are in fact correct. If our beliefs are correct then to leave others in their ignorance is a bold indifference and neglect that would be totally inconsistent with what we know to be true. If we are correct then it is the most loving and humble thing we can do to share the gospel truth with others. Those who hide behind relativism and claim it is due to intellectual humility are being dishonest, even if with their own selves. Relativism, the belief that all beliefs are either equally valuable or that no single belief can be shown to be true, is dishonest and arrogant for at least two reasons.

First, it is dishonest because it is self-defeating both logically and practically. Plato, in his work Theaetetus includes a fictional dialogue between the philosophers Socrates and Protagoras that many of our current college professors would do well to read carefully. In doing so, he points out the self-defeating nature of a relativistic view.

Socrates: “So you believe that each man's opinion is as good as anyone else's?”

Protagoras: “That's correct.”

Socrates: “How do you make a living?”

Protagoras: “I am a teacher.”

Socrates: “I find this very puzzling. You admit you earn money teaching, but I cannot imagine what you could possibly teach anyone? After all, you admit that each person's opinion is as good as anyone else's. This means that what your students believe is as good as anything you could possibly teach them. Once they learn that each person is the measure of all things, what possible reason would they have to pay you for any further lessons? How can you possibly teach them anything once they learn that their opinions are as true as yours?”

As Plato so ably points out, the problem with saying that every view is equally valid is that it is self-defeating. Nothing could be learned or taught (including this view) because there are no longer objective criteria for determining what is true. If everything is true then by the same token everything is also false because the opposite of every truth is also true.

While people live with all sorts of contradictions no person actually lives with the assumption that every set of beliefs is equally valuable or viable. Everyone makes value judgments; the question is upon what basis they are made. A relativistic view is dishonest because nobody who teaches it or proclaims it actually follows it. Why then would so many people be attracted to this kind of thinking?

The answer is that by eliminating the pressure of any objective measure of truth and making each individual the ultimate judge of what is true they attempt to remove from themselves the recognition that there is a judge to whom they are accountable. If this kind of thinking is true then each person decides for themselves what is right and true. They effectively put themselves in the place of God. There can be no requirement to change or to act other than that which is self imposed. All moral decisions are then made in accordance with their own nature and judgment.

Brothers and sisters, we need to be very careful that we do not become prideful. We need to recognize that the knowledge we have is only due to the grace of God but we also need not be made to feel ashamed of the power of that knowledge. We must have the courage of our convictions and recognize that if the world hates us it hated our Lord before us. If you are clinging to the Truth of the bible with mercy and love then there can be no pride or arrogance because you recognize that it is all of grace. Clinging zealously to that truth is not prideful or arrogant. What is arrogant is for a creature to assert themselves as the standard truth rather than submitting to the God who created them. Let us therefore go forward and proclaim boldly that which has been entrusted to us.

Bring out the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!

All the nations gather together, and the peoples assemble. Who among them can declare this, and show us the former things? Let them bring their witnesses to prove them right, and let them hear and say, It is true. “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me   and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and I am God.                                   (Isaiah 43:8-12 ESV)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Pushing the Envelope

It is the desire of every Christian to see others come to Christ. We are always looking for ways to introduce the gospel to people and to best use our resources to witness to others and glorify the Lord. One of the final commands of our Lord was for the church to evangelize. In Matthew 28 he tells his disciples Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in1 the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”. Many of us, however, feel inadequate as evangelists and are intimidated by the process thinking that we may not have the training or experience to do it properly. Many of us feel much more comfortable inviting others to come to church with us rather than trying to witness the gospel on our own. We feel that if we can just get people to the church they would have the best opportunity of having their questions answered.

As I was driving on a local freeway I noticed that a local church  had posted a billboard that said “Northridge Church is for Hypocrites”. Apparently there are two other billboards around town, one that says “Northridge Church is for Liars”, and the other which says “Northridge Church is for Losers”. I am not sure exactly what the purpose of this ad campaign is although I have to assume that they are trying to generate some buzz and get people to visit by playing upon certain stereotypes that unbelievers often have of those who attend church. I am not sure how effective this particular campaign will be but I assume they will undoubtedly get a few more people to check out their website to see who they are. Do the ends justify the means when it comes to this kind of thing?

The shift of church services from a worship focus to an evangelistic focus has been underway for many generations and is the result of a number of social as well as theological developments. I doubt that most Christians would oppose having an evangelistic element in the church service but making the worship service the primary evangelical platform has led to some curious innovations over the years. One is an increase in the sophistication of the advertising and marketing of church services. Particular churches are branded and then they market to their target demographic. I believe that the campaign mentioned above is an example of that.

Another is the expansion of the “ministry” activities to include a broad range of opportunities for people to socialize that leaders believe will appeal to those they are trying to reach. These attempts have often been criticized as a lack of reliance on the Holy Spirit, the power of the gospel and as appeals to the flesh. This is not a new argument. The following cartoon appeared in the fundamentalist journal The King’s Business in May of 1919.

The modern trend, however, is for this expansion of activities to become part of the worship service itself. For Easter last year a church in Texas was raffling off cars and other high priced prizes in order to get people to come. Most of us have seen or heard of similar examples. There have been many very well done examinations of these trends written and I am not going to try in this short space to duplicate those efforts but I will leave you with this observation:

Our generation is inundated with sophisticated marketing approaches. We are used to being able to customize our environment to suit our own individual tastes. Truth and community have become customizable. We are able to get our news only from those who agree with us. Using our ipods and mp3 players we continually feed back to ourselves the kind of music and entertainment that we have selected for ourselves. Using social networks we can even control how our friends and family interact with us to some degree. Unfortunately we are able to insulate ourselves from most challenges to our settled way of thinking. In this environment the best thing we can do to be relevant is to focus on the plain, straightforward preaching of the foolishness of the gospel. We all need to hear that there is God who is much bigger than we are who demands that we meet Him on His terms. We need to hear that we are corrupt sinners whose only hope is to cry out for the grace of God without which we remain an offense to His Holiness. We need to know that by the power of His Spirit we can become a new creation no longer bound to our lying, hypocritical, and inadequate old natures.

I pray that this is what Northridge is planning to do.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Passion and Truth

Some time ago I ran into an acquaintance that I used to go to church with. After exchanging the usual pleasantries he began to ask me about some other people that we both knew. It was the typical “have you talked to so and so lately” and “did you know that so and so is doing such and such” type of thing. But when the discussion turned to a particular friend this man became very concerned. His body language changed, his eyes diverted downward and I was expecting to hear that something really negative had happened. What he then proceeded to tell me was quite shocking but not for the reason that I expected.

He shared with me that he was praying for our mutual friend and was trying to talk to him because he was concerned that “he seems to think that he can get his religion out of a book”. Now it is true that this friend is a rather serious thinker who often ponders things in an academic way but I wasn’t sure I understood the concern properly. I asked him if he felt that our friend was not sincere in his love for God or the brethren etc. to which he replied that this was absolutely not a concern. I was a bit confused as to what the problem was exactly so I asked him to explain what he meant. I inquired as to if our friend was secluding himself in an unhealthy way, or didn’t sincerely believe the gospel, or didn’t show any evidence of fruit in his life. Again none of these was the concern. Finally, he explained that our friend studied too much and tried to hard to understand things and that he should just stick to the basics and not burden himself or everyone else around him with weighty matters of theology.

Is this man correct in his concern about our mutual friend? Are all forms of intellectualism somehow sub-Christian? Is passionate ignorance more spiritual and more commendable than studied consideration?

We live in an age emotionalism. People are encouraged to seek experiences rather than understanding and passion is often more highly regarded even in our churches than is knowledge. Many Christians believe that doctrine and theology are dangerous, divisive, and have little practical value. There are many who have an almost allergic reaction to doctrinal discussions and insist that we just need to focus on Christ and loving one another.

This sounds pious but unfortunately it is overly simplistic because without some doctrinal basis those words have no distinct meaning. I believe that the decline of theology has significantly weakened rather than enhanced the ministry of the Church. The reason why there is often little distinction in the moral positions of those who self-identify as Christians and those who do not can be traced to the lack of firm convictions and diluted teaching in modern churches. One of the marks of a person who is born again is the desire the things of God and a yearning to learn as much as they can about Him. We must encourage serious study of the Word of God and support those who want to learn more about Him.

Does this mean that I am dismissing the concerns about my friend? Absolutely not, biblical and theological studies are not ends unto themselves. The purpose in study is that by the knowledge we gain we might better live in a way that glorifies God and ministers to others. There is a type of cold and detached intellectualism that is not glorifying to God. As J.I. Packer noted in his book Knowing God, To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it.  … there can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can be no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard.”  Similarly, Gordon Clark used to point out that there was a distinction between understanding something and believing it. There is an important difference between someone who is simply intoxicated with the intellectual challenge of theological study and someone who desires that same knowledge so that they may delight in God and keep His commandments.

It is impossible for anyone who both understands and believes biblical doctrine to remain unchanged by it or dispassionate about it. Every believer is a new creation, born of the Holy Spirit with unique gifts and traits endowed by God so that they might fulfill His purpose in them. We need to be careful not to honor a pious ignorance where emotion is substituted for knowledge. We must also guard against a detached and cold intellectualism where knowledge is gained but not applied. Knowledge without faith is as useless as passion without truth. The bible affirms that we should seek knowledge and wisdom so that we might glorify God and serve Him well. The two cannot be separated. God works through people of all types including passionate brothers like Peter, and intellectual brothers like Paul but faith wrought in the Spirit involves both. Is there any among us who would claim that Peter, for all his passion, lacked essential knowledge? Or that Paul, for all his learning, lacked true passion?

Let us pray for and support each another so that we might be strengthened in our faith, growing in knowledge, and abiding in love. Let us pray also that both our passions and our minds are both brought captive to Christ.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Moral Politics

I am generally skeptical about the politicalization of moral and religious issues. Often politicians use these issues to manipulate and motivate the Christian electorate to further their own agendas rather than having any particular commitment to those issues themselves. This, of course, is nothing new but sadly as American Christians we often contribute to the problem by responding as expected, on cue.  

I fully recognize the importance of having Christian interests represented in the public square and of the need to fight to ensure that our rights to practice our religion are protected but I cannot help feeling that at times we have a bit of a herd mentality. We are called to be light and salt and we are supposed to be passionate about moral issues but all that glitters is not gold. Our main focus should be on the gospel of Jesus Christ. If we truly have any hope in the face of this swelling tide of immoralism it is not in a grass roots movement but rather in the ultimate top down solution, the Gospel. The structures and mores of the society reflect the convictions of its people and unfortunately many who identify themselves as Christians have nothing to distinguish them from the rest of society when it comes to their convictions. We have failed to emphasize enough that Christian ethics are the result of something much deeper than civic responsibility.

Rather than trying to convince others to act morally for the sake of civility we need to witness to Christ in our own actions and speech. If Christians would take the same kind of energy and commitment that is being demonstrated in political action (i.e. tea parties etc.) and focus that energy (and those resources) in the ministry of their local churches I think we would be more successful in effecting meaningful change. Unless God builds the house those who labor do so in vain.

Russell D. Moore, dean of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, recently posted a good article dealing with the dangers of confusing conservative agendas with Christian agendas. I encourage you to read it, you can find it here: Moore on Beck.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Children's Studies

Here in North America summer is in its last throes before the inevitable slide into autumn. The nights are beginning to cool and the days are filled with hurried activity as parents and children begin to preparing for the return to school. Parks, campgrounds, pools, and other summer-focused businesses are preparing for the slow wind-down through the fall and into the winter. Tourist destinations are trying to eek out the last busy weeks by offering various deals and incentives but alas, Labor Day is upon us.

Churches also tend to have a certain cycle about them that roughly correspond with the school year and the summer vacation season. By and large the Vacation Bible School programs have all come to an end, the children have graduated to the next level of Sunday school classes, and fall/winter programs of all sorts are starting up. As I thought about all this activity I began reflecting upon children’s ministry in general.

The form of children’s ministries varies quite a bit based upon the resources of the particular congregation and the priority of children’s programs within those ministries. In some churches the children sit in relatively sparse classrooms not much different than their parents or grandparents did while in others the children’s areas are more like mini theme parks where the children can be stimulated with activities of all sorts. As one pastor told me “we not only want our children to learn, we want it to be fun. We want them to be looking forward to Sunday all week long. If they have a choice between going to church and going to Chuck E Cheese, we want them to choose church.”

While the outward form of these ministries varies considerably they are not that much different with regard to their overall approach. Most children’s ministries are designed to balance bible teaching and worship with various forms of fun and entertainment. There may be a different balance struck between how much is bible and how much is entertainment and there may be substantially different amounts of investment made in the rooms and resources available but the goal remains fundamentally the same. Teach kids important lessons and let them have fun.

The choices regarding how to balance these goals and what kind of investments to make in order to support them are very important and should be carefully considered by both ministry leaders and parents. My focus, however, is on the teaching elements in those ministries. There are a number of different teaching approaches that are often blended together in any children’s program. Some of these things such as singing songs, playing games, and doing crafts overlap between conveying lessons and having fun. There are other aspects, however, that are more obviously focused on the transfer of knowledge and information. There are two in particular that seem to be prominent.

The first is scripture memorization. This is one of the most basic and most important techniques for teaching children in church. Some churches spend a lot of time on it even encouraging the kids to learn the names and order of the bible books etc. and others tend to use this approach only during special teaching sessions such as a VBS week but virtually all churches do it. We are encouraged in many places in the bible to store up His word in our hearts, to know it, and meditate upon it and memorizing what He has said is an important beginning step in that process.

Another common aspect of children’s teaching is the use of bible stories. The stories of bible characters such as Moses, Jonah, Abraham, and Jesus are so compelling that they hold the interest of children and are easily remembered. The stories are often followed by a question and answer period that allows the teachers to give examples of how principals found in the stories can be applied in the life of the children.

These approaches, combined with the Christian focused crafts, games, snacks, and singing often seem to be rather effective in the lives of the children. They know the stories, seem to have a good understanding of the ethical principals of the faith and they can often melt their parent’s hearts by reciting the Ten Commandments from memory.

Why then do so many young people have such distorted views of the faith and truth in general by the time they finish college? It is quite fashionable within Christian circles to blame atheistic professors and the anti-Christian agendas of the universities and colleges for this problem but I think that is a cop-out. Don’t get me wrong, there is absolutely an anti-Christian bias in many institutions of (so called) higher learning. I have degrees from secular universities and I have experienced firsthand the venom of hostile professors as well as students. Secularism, however, doesn’t seem to be the only problem because the statistics aren’t much better for those who attend “Christian” universities. Of course, there is the problem of liberal and secular infiltration into evangelical schools as well but why would these professors be so successful in undermining the faith of their students? The fact is that we want to blame others for these trends because the alternative makes us uncomfortable. If the problem isn’t out there somewhere then it must be, at least in part, something we are doing.

As a culture we often do not teach our children to think and in particular we don’t teach them to think critically about what they believe and why. Many of our children enter college with rather disconnected and poorly thought out theological positions. They can repeat what they were taught but they often have never had to process any challenges to it. It is true that the pressures of the university and the working world are formidable but they are nothing compared to the pressures of the coliseum, the flame, and the sword which other young Christians gladly faced long ago because they understood what they were dying for.

Much of what we consider “traditional” in Christian children’s education is actually not that old. The Sunday school model, which in one form or another still dominates most of our churches, was not developed until the mid 1700’s. In fact, until the 1800’s the Sunday Schools were primarily operated separately from churches and were focused primarily on increasing literacy and general educational among the poor. In the early 1800’s Sunday schools began to be associated more closely with churches and began to be used specifically as doctrinal and evangelical outreaches. Under the influence of D.L. Moody this model expanded rapidly and today it is difficult to imagine an evangelical church without a Sunday school program.

From what I have gathered from my reading through the years the primary training mechanism of the historical church for children was the use of catechisms. Doctrinal points were organized into a series of questions and answers that the children were expected to memorize. Catechisms along with the memorization of scripture and creeds such as The Apostles Creed were the foundation of a Christian education for both children and new converts. The power of this type of approach is that the catechisms and creeds are systematic expressions of the faith. They entail a particular worldview rather than an individual relational emphasis. These kinds of questions and answers, if understood properly, are much more effective in organizing the various truths of Christian faith in such a way as to defend against the inroads of competing worldviews. They are an effective antidote to the disconnected a la carte Christianity that many people today have.

That isn’t to say that this approach doesn’t have its own weaknesses. The catechisms eventually came to be seen as too scholastic and too intellectual.  To many, the process seemed somewhat cold and distant and the argument was often raised that rather than defend denominational orthodoxy (as creeds and catechisms tend to do) children should be taught to engage the scriptures directly. Another criticism was that the church institutions should be geared more toward evangelization of the children rather than doctrinal instruction. A focus on the individual experience of the students in their relationship with Christ was thought to be better than the memorization of theological propositions. We should not minimize the force of these arguments. By the mid 19th century (the time when the approach in Christian education began to change) stories about characters that were theologically well educated but morally delinquent were a popular theme even among secular writers (Hawthorne, Hogg, etc.). It is important that we always recognize that Knowing about God is not the same thing as knowing Him.

The other problem is that most of the historical creeds and confessions are rather advanced when compared with the current curriculums in use in modern children’s programs. Many adults today would have trouble answering some of the questions contained in them and yet at the time they were written young children were expected to know and explain the answers. Attention spans and learning styles shift over time and it is doubtful that our current culture would be conducive to that as the primary form of instruction. It certainly wouldn’t match up well with Chuck E Cheese! Of course, it is possible to write new catechisms but if you remove too much of the precision they lose their distinctive value. It seems therefore that a return to the older methods, despite some possible benefits, is probably not practical or desirable.

Simply returning to a catechismal approach would not be an improvement. Other traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, have retained a central role for their catechism and yet many Catholics still cannot explain the basic distinctives of their faith. I believe that the more systematic training is appropriate after a child understands and professes faith in Christ. The problem in our modern Sunday school models isn’t the fact that they are evangelistically focused. It is that they too often stop there. There are a few basic things that I think could be done (and are being done in many places) to better prepare our children to face the world when they go out on their own. Let’s begin with the two major teaching components of current programs, namely bible memorization and bible stories.

Scripture memorization is an extremely valuable exercise. Although our primary concern is that the children know what the scriptures mean they cannot do that unless they know what the scriptures say. The thing that we need to be careful of, however, is that the children do not come to see these memorized verses as independent units. The bible doesn’t teach in verses and we need to be cautious that we do not encourage our children to see the word of God as a disconnected series of points rather than as a unified revelation of God. We have a tendency to isolate particular verses rather than thinking of them as functioning in their broader contexts. As the children get older we should combine the memorization of verses with exposure to broader teaching units and themes in scripture. Doing this forces the students to think about the meaning (and non-meaning) of the verse in conjunction with broader theological truths. Obviously this has to be done in an age appropriate way and every student and class will have a different level of ability that the teacher will need to adjust to.

There may be nothing more important than exposing maturing students directly to the biblical text and much of the “meat” of current Sunday school programs consists of bible stories and discussions about them. There are certain concepts that young people are just not ready to handle but quite often we do something that I think is unhelpful when teaching kids bible stories, particularly when using the Old Testament. We often neuter the stories and remove many of the elements that are most important to their purpose and function within the broader context of God’s revelation. The result is that Old Testament stories are often reduced to moral examples that teach an ethical system without the underlying theological foundation. The lessons that children in many Sunday school classes take away from their classes are therefore similar to the kinds of points that were the focus of 19th century liberal sermons. Through these stories the children are taught to be kind, respectful, demonstrating love to one another. It is almost as if we are saying to them “God loves good little boys and girls so listen to your parents and be nice and if you believe in Him and love Him back then nothing bad will happen to you.”

Thankfully, many teachers are more careful when it comes to teaching about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Because of the evangelical focus they tend to be clear about the theological significance of this event and the desired response. Interestingly this is probably the second most theologically complex narrative in the scripture (2nd only to the incarnation) and yet it is boldly taught to the children and they generally understand it. We should be as bold in explaining the other doctrinal elements in scripture. To do so doesn’t require us to venture off into some esoteric scholasticism because the plain teachings are so rich with connections and implications of obvious importance. The Old Testament writings, for example, do not just contain moral examples for us to live by but they are also the building record of God’s promised salvation through the coming messiah and of His holy nature and purposes in redemptive history. The beautiful thing is that the imagery used in those texts provide us with all we need to explain the ideas using concrete rather than abstract language.

There are so many wonderful and gifted people involved in teaching children in the church. We need to thank them and encourage them in this crucial ministry. Pray for them, talk to them, and follow up with your children to discuss their lessons. If we want them to be as effective as possible in their ministry we need to be involved in the process of teaching our children to think. We must encourage our children to learn and encourage their teachers to teach and by God’s grace He will lead them into the truth and protect them from the assaults of the enemy.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Unhelpful Answers: Two wills in Christ

One of the most distinguishing elements of the Christian view of salvation is the simplicity of it. It doesn’t require any esoteric knowledge, no painstakingly rigorous methodology. There isn’t even a particular distinguishing diet or dress code. Of course living the Christian life isn’t without its profound challenges but essentially God has done the heavy lifting. He has provided the solution and all that we have to do is to accept His work and trust Him. The Christian birth, the Christian life and the Christian death are all fundamentally the result of God’s work on our behalf. It is all of grace, a grace so amazing that it changes everything, but grace nonetheless.

Of course, there is an awesome profoundness to the way in which God works this out. Thankfully the faith required is trusting in what God has done rather than understanding all the mechanics of it. Although even the most basic Christian concepts, such as atonement or rebirth for example, involve implications that no human mind can completely understand, the things necessary for our salvation are straightforward enough that they can be understood by a young child. I have always appreciated the way that the Westminster Confession expresses this truth.

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.                        (WCF Chapter 1 Section 7)

However; as the Westminster divines admitted, there are many questions that are difficult to answer and are not “alike clear unto all”. Just the mysteries surrounding the created world are sufficient to keep us busy until Christ returns but when we consider that the chief end of theological reflection is greater understanding of God Himself the complexities of the questions that can be raised become infinitively inexhaustible. There are a great many things that are deserving of much study and reflection before we can even begin to conjecture a biblically sound answer.

We must think carefully about our positions to ensure that we do not trivialize the majesty and complexity of God in providing oversimplified answers to difficult questions. We live in a time that encourages pithy summarizations as opposed to weighty consideration and the tension and nuance that often accompanies it. From time to time I think it will be worth it to highlight certain common answers to difficult questions that just do not work.

Recently I heard one Christian ask another if they thought it were possible for Christ to have sinned. The person prefaced the question with the statement that they knew that He did not actually commit any sin but was curious if it were possible for Him to have done so.

This is an age old theological question that has been debated since the early church fathers. Those who believe that it was possible for Christ to sin (doctrine of peccability) typically point to scripture such as Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (ESV)  and take the position that if it were not possible for Christ to have sinned then the temptation (and thus the sympathy) is not real. Those who believe that Christ could not have sinned (doctrine of impeccability) point to a number of doctrinal implications, such as the fact that He has a divine nature, that they assert would make His sinning an impossibility. The brother who was asked the question replied (quite confidently) by saying “Christ could have sinned in His human nature but not in His divine nature”. A few words were exchanged and they left it at that, both appearing to be quite satisfied with this explanation.

This kind of quick off the cuff answer may sound reasonable at first but if anyone thinks about it for a moment they will realize that it is unsatisfactory. This answer doesn’t solve the problem for many reasons not the least of which is that it tends toward a heretical view of the relationship between Christ’s natures. While Christ has two natures, He is one person. Christ, being one person, has one will. Both of His natures, though distinct, are inseparable and converge in a single personhood. When Christ chooses to do something it is a single volition, a single movement of His will which is inclined according to a perfect union of His two natures. Neither nature on its own constitutes an individual person and therefore cannot “will” in contradistinction to the other because natures do not “will”, persons do.

The orthodox Christian view of the relationship between the natures was worked out at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. The definition of that council explains the relationship in this way:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.                                                     -Definition of Chalcedon (451)

Admittedly this can get rather complex, particularly as one begins working through the implications of these questions on various other doctrinal understandings such as the atonement. The point, however, is that we need to be careful that in attempting to simplify the explanation of some of these complicated issues that we do not unwittingly promote unbiblical views.

Let us say for the sake of argument that it is true that natures can “will” and that Christ’s human nature was capable of choosing to sin and yet His divine nature was incapable of doing so. How would this resolve the issue exactly? This seems simply to be a restatement, with modifications, of the problem itself. If Christ’s human nature had chosen to sin but His divine nature remained pure what would have happened? Would Christ be frozen in some kind of indecisive tug-o-war or would one nature have to overrule the other? Which one would prevail? Why? As we try to work out the implications of this answer we quickly find ourselves in dangerous heretical quicksand. The more we try to wiggle our way out the more we sink.

The explanation that the brother above provided to the question tends toward the heresy of Nestorianism which teaches that Christ possessed both a human and a divine essence. This means that there are basically two persons in Christ; a divine person and a human person. According to this view the human and divine wills work together in harmonious coordination. There are a number of more modern theologians, particularly in the Reformed camp, who have flirted with this kind of view but it has been consistently held as heretical by ecumenical councils and the historical Church.

In this case there does not seem to be any way to split the baby. Christ is one person and therefore has one will therefore there really are only two options. Either it was possible for him to have chosen to sin or it was not. The closest thing to a middle ground I can think of would be to say that it was possible that He could have chosen to sin but His divine nature rendered it certain that He would not. Even that raises many issues. Regardless of which side you take on this issue it should be clear that the answer given above is not a good answer.

My purpose in this post is not to work out any particular view on this issue but rather to point out that too often we are satisfied with overly reductionistic answers that may be more problematic than living with the tension of an unresolved difficulty. For those who may be curious I hold to an impeccable view.  Perhaps, if there is any interest in it, at some point in the future I will write on why that is. Let us pray to God to help us understand His word recognizing that all wisdom and understanding come from Him. Secondly, as we depend upon Him to provide illumination, let us study well and think carefully before giving a quick answer to profound questions that deserve much reflection.

(See the follow up to this post "Am I a heretic")