Monday, January 17, 2011

Bad Philosophy can Land You in Deep Doo-Doo

“Brothers, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.”
-Romans 10:1-2 ESV

There is a well documented and easily observed culture of doctrinal indifference within many evangelical churches. Doctrine is considered divisive and obscure, something not worth getting tangled up in. The preference is to focus on living like Christ, being kind to our neighbors, and having a passionate commitment to the gospel. Emotion and initiative are often considered to be more valuable than learning and preparation. Of course, this is nothing new.

In his Concluding Unscientific Postscript to the Philosophical Fragments, published in 1846, the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard argued that a pagan who prays to an idol with “the passion of the infinite” is more “in truth” than the orthodox Lutheran who prays to the true God in a false spirit. For Kierkegaard and those who follow his reasoning the what of belief is less important than the how of belief. This elevation of the experience of religion over the intellectual content of faith is really a rejection of the objective nature of the claims of Scripture in general, and Jesus Christ in particular. Unfortunately a subtle form of this kind of thinking has become a major and I fear growing influence in professing Christendom.

Perhaps it never occurred to Kierkegaard that the heathen praying to an idol as well as the hypocritical Lutheran who prayed in a false spirit would both be unpleasing to God but that is the message of the bible. Notice in the passage above that the zeal of the unbelieving Jews did not save them because it was “not according to knowledge”. The Scripture nowhere says that we can be saved solely by our understanding or our zeal.  The Truth must not only be understood but it also must be believed. A false belief though held passionately, is likewise useless. We are saved by faith in the Truth alone. What we believe matters and incorrect beliefs have bad consequences no matter how passionately they are held.

This isn’t only true of theological questions. Consider the ancient philosopher Hericlitus of Ephesus (535-475 b.c.), famous for his observation that one cannot step into the same river twice. He believed the universe was in a constant state of flux and part of his explanation of this was that there was a type of cosmic fire that was the basic element of change and animation in the world. Eventually Hericlitus became seriously ill with a disease (probably Edema). Convinced of his theory that the life force was some type of divine spark he attempted to increase his temperature in order to bring about a cure and had his followers smother him in fresh cow manure. He died.

It is true that few, if any, of our philosophical or theological errors are likely to land us literally in deep doo-doo like it did for him but the consequences for us are even greater. Passion and initiative are important but they must flow from what we know and authentic Christian passion cannot be separated from knowledge of the truth. We cannot live like Christ unless we know Him and how he lived. We cannot be kind to our neighbors unless we know who they are and what kindness is. Finally, we cannot have a passionate commitment to the gospel without knowing what it is. All of these things find their definitive explanations in God’s word (i.e. doctrine).

Not all of us have the same level of understanding or ability to articulate our faith but we are all saved by the same faith because there is only one kind of faith that can save, namely, faith in the Truth.

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