Past its Shelf Life

2 July 2019

The other day I encountered a gent who claimed, baldly and without qualification, that his preferred theological system is true. My initial response was that he might as well claim his theological system is purple. In other word, it’s a category error; theological systems can’t be true, any more than Calvinism can be mauve.

Upon reflection, that’s not quite fair; it is possible in principle for a comprehensive theological system to contain only true propositions, rightly arranged with respect to one another. But if such a system exists, it exists only in the mind of God Himself; certainly it was never inscripturated, and what human being could claim to have discovered it for himself?

So as a practical matter, no theological system is true. All of them are wrong in various places, and so all of them are at best approximations of the truth. In the same way that all the analogies for the Trinity turn into heresy, if pressed far enough, all theological systems eventually diverge from spiritual reality. As the system develops, various speculations and distortions creep in, and those inevitable distortions take on a life of their own.

I suggest that throughout Church history, the actual function of a theological system is to be a delivery vehicle for a few key truths. That’s the actual, lasting impact. Of necessity, the system will do a lot of speculating beyond that basic payload. If the people teaching the system are actually living the truths they preach, the thing will take longer to go to seed, but at some point, the system will outlive its usefulness. At that point, it’s time to collect the basic payload of the system–the core truths that the rest of the system was really just a delivery vehicle for–and run.

So it is that there are a lot of folks who believe in justification by faith alone in Christ alone, but aren’t Reformed; who believe in the possibility of real relationship with God, but aren’t Palamite; who believe in the value of an all-embracing Christian worldview, but aren’t Reconstructionist. This dynamic isn’t actually all that uncommon.

And so I want to make a proposal about dispensationalism.

Dispensationalism was an important development in the history of doctrine that reminded the Church of some crucial things it had forgotten (e.g. the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of prophecy, the distinction between Israel and the Church). That said, like all theological systems, it has a shelf life. Outside the Bible Church/DTS tradition, it’s already dead; within that tradition, the term is so broad that it’s virtually meaningless without attaching additional adjectives (progressive, classical, Pauline, etc.) That is a sign that we’ve entered the post-paradigm period for sure.

So it’s time to disentangle the payload from the delivery vehicle. Not everyone who believes in the value of literal hermeneutics, the importance of biblical prophecy, or a distinction between Israel and the Church is a dispensationalist.

They don’t have to be.

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Complex Mechanisms and Simple Interventions

31 May 2019

Every system of the body is incredibly complex. The deeper we look, the more we find. For example, take the circulatory system. It took us a long time to figure out that blood wasn’t just sitting there in vessels; it circulates. Then it took us a long time again to discover that the veins only return 90% of the fluid that goes out in the arteries. The other 10% returns through the lymphatic vessels, which we didn’t even know existed until about 100 years ago, and which serve a whole series of important immune functions. We’re still learning. We didn’t even know there was a connection between the brain and the lymphatic vessels until 2015, and we still haven’t mapped it all. Likewise, it took us a long time to work out the physiological complexities of blood clotting, and so on.

But God is kind to us, and we didn’t even have to know platelets existed, still less how they worked, to know that direct pressure on a small cut was the appropriate therapeutic intervention. If it’s a bigger hole, you might need to resort to pressure points and sutures — and again, we knew how to do that long before we knew how clotting actually worked.  Of course, some cases are orders of magnitude more complicated than a simple cut, and in those situations, you want a medically educated specialist. But those cases are a tiny minority; most people go their whole lives never needing any more wound-care intervention than direct pressure and a band-aid, maybe the occasional occasional staple or stitch.

I expect to find that the human energy system is as complex as any other system; the more we look, the more we’ll find. So far, Randolph Stone’s characterization of how different parts of the energy system interact seems most likely to me. Perhaps he’s wrong about some, or even most, of the particulars, but in any case, something similar seems to be true.

(And then, of course, it may turn out that energetic medicine is presently in its late Ptolemaic phase, the endless shells, vortices, meridians, and interconnections all reminiscent of spheres and epicycles. Perhaps the whole shebang will yield to a small, elegant set of principles after all. That doesn’t seem to be the pattern with living systems, but who knows? Maybe we’re just waiting for the next Copernicus.)

Regardless of the structural complexities and their ramifications for more complex clinical practice, I am finding that the vast majority of problems I run into in the human energy field can be addressed with a small number of fairly simple interventions. I would not be surprised to see that trend continue.

And if it does, I’d like to see some form of energetic first aid become very common knowledge. Something you would grow up knowing, just like you learn to put direct pressure on a small cut.

 


Biblical Voices: the Sage

30 May 2019

The Bible is a book of specific, verbal revelation. In it, God speaks. You would expect such a book to lead off its proclamations with phrases like “Thus saith the Lord…,” and in many places it does.

However, not in all.

In Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular, we find a different voice coming to the fore. It’s not the voice of a prophet or a priest, delivering a word directly from God. It’s the voice of the sage, the wise man observing the world. Where the prophet says, “God said…” the sage says “Here’s what I saw…,” and then “Go look for yourself!”

Van Til and other thinkers downstream from him have made much of the observation that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge. So it is. If you don’t start there, they will say, then you haven’t got anything. I want to make a slightly different point. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, not the whole of wisdom. There’s nothing holy about willfully remaining a beginner. The goal is to grow.

So once you have the fear of the Lord, you have the beginning. What more do you need? Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways and be wise!

Do you see? A sage, speaking in Scripture, is telling you to go outside Scripture into the world, pay attention to what is happening there, and contemplate it–because you will gain wisdom by so doing.

Can you interpret the world wrongly? Sure. Just like you can interpret verbal revelation wrongly. Discernment is required. Mistakes will be made. But God has given us the task: it is the glory of God to conceal a matter, and the glory of kings to search it out. Let’s be about it.


Devouring the Grandchildren

21 May 2019

A doctrine is like a painting. It’s possible for it to be inaccurate—a landscape painter putting a lighthouse on the edge of the Grand Canyon, for example. On the other hand, even an accurate painting is not a perfect representation. You have to know what to pay attention to. You don’t criticize a painting of the Grand Canyon because the real Grand Canyon doesn’t have brush strokes on the rocks. You don’t look at a Monet and think, “Gee, that feller needed glasses.”

Likewise doctrine. An accurate doctrinal formulation will give you a correct impression of the acts of God that it is describing, but there will always be picky little details that aren’t exact representations. You gotta know how to look at the painting without picking at the brush strokes. The best way to do that is to incarnate the doctrine in practice. Once you have firsthand knowledge of the ways of God that the doctrine describes, the whole thing makes a lot more sense. And as it happens, that was the point anyway. Doctrine is not there just to think about; it’s an aid to loving God and your neighbor. It’s meant to be lived.

When a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has himself experienced it, and seen it at work in the world, God’s people are greatly edified. This is often true even if the doctrinal formulation is…shall we say, a bit impressionistic. People usually still get the  point, and are blessed.

By contrast, when a doctrine is proclaimed by a person who has not experienced it for himself at any depth, it is worse than useless: it is dead. Even if the propositional content  is mostly correct, nonetheless, it is dead, and as all dead things do, it begins to rot, and provide a breeding ground for maggots.

The doctrine of divine election, for example, is indeed “an unspeakable comfort to godly persons,” as the Westminster divines put it—if it is expounded as Luther or Calvin expounded it. In them, as C. S. Lewis explains, the feeling is unspeakable, scarcely believable joy. It is the joy of the lover who has been chosen by his beloved, regardless of merit, despite all flaws, to have been loved and chosen! And to be assured that the choosing is irrevocable, irreversible! What joy!

Now, I believe that the doctrine of election as taught by Luther and Calvin is a bit impressionistic. Their formulation suffers from serious exegetical and theological flaws. But the experience of relationship with God that they were pointing to is real enough. Expounded with the joy and trust in God that Luther or Calvin had, even their flawed formulations can do quite a bit of good, and little enough harm.

On the other hand, when those same formulations are proclaimed in doubt, with some question as to whether one is chosen, the doctrine does incalculable harm. The result is a paranoid, frantic search for many tests or proofs that might allow someone to attain (at least theoretical) certainty—as required by the late New England Puritans, or in modern times by, say, a John MacArthur or a John Piper. The speaker is often himself somewhat unsure of his election, and the fear is contagious. The hearers understand, at least unconsciously, that this is a terrifying doctrine, because they are hearing it from a terrified man. Soon enough, the terror comes to the surface, and the resulting (slanderous) view of God—petty, autocratic, using eternal human destinies as His personal plaything—becomes, in Lewis’ words, “something not unlike devil worship.”

Now, Luther and Calvin could expound divine election with joy because they were chosen, and they knew it. Despite their propositional errors, their basic understanding of their relationship with God was correct. He did, in fact, love them and conspire to save them before the foundation of the world. When they believed, He did bring them into His family irrevocably, and give them life that would last forever. In all this they were entirely correct. Crucially, they did not just know these things by syllogism. They knew them by experience, by knowing God for themselves and hearing Him in their own souls. Thus fortified, they taught God’s love with joy, as similarly joyful children of the Reformation do to this day.

But their formulations were somewhat in error, and as the generations ran on, the errors became apparent. The doctrine of election was not, in fact, an unspeakable comfort; it was a terror to many tortured souls who did not know if they were chosen. Indeed, because of the errors baked into the early formulations, many poor souls were taught that in this life, they could never know if they had been chosen. This doctrine, despite the joy of Luther and Calvin, devoured its great-grandchildren. This was a sign that something was wrong, and needed to be fixed.

Instead of revisiting their formulations to see what might have gone awry, too many Reformed folks have doubled down, willingly sacrificing their terrified children on the altar of conformity to doctrinal tradition. All the non-Calvinists reading this are no doubt nodding their heads and thinking, “Well, such are the dangers of erroneous doctrine.” Not so fast! Do you imagine yourself to be perfect? Do you think you got it all right, that there are no fuzzy little corners in your doctrine? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course there are—and so you have an opportunity to make the same mistake.

None of our doctrinal formulations—however correct—are immune to this danger.  Peter tells us that ignorant and unstable people can twist even the Scriptures to their own destruction (2 Peter 3:16). How much more might they exaggerate the flaws of our all too fallible doctrinal formulations?

The cure—the only possible safeguard against dead, rotting doctrine—is to know God for ourselves, and not just from books. This is also the very definition of life: “to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.”


Mystical Union: Aiming Right At ‘Em

14 May 2019

Several years back, I got myself in a pile of trouble for talking about mystical union with Christ. Folks in the tradition I grew up in were…resistant, to put it mildly.

With some further years and miles on me, I’m able to reflect on that discussion and see that not everyone was resistant for the same reasons. Best I can tell, there were about six different reasons people didn’t like me talking about mystical union with Christ.

The first reason is the associations the term “mystical” carries with various weird things. “Mystical,” like “intellectual assent” and “legalism,” is a theological cuss word in some circles, and this can be an issue. I expected to encounter this problem when I chose to use the word, but as I said at the time, I don’t believe there was a better choice. With additional years of reflection and considering the alternatives, I still don’t.

The second reason — and this actually surprised me, although it shouldn’t have — is the respectable pedigree that “mystical” has had throughout church history. Evangelical conservatives often harbor a deep contempt for the historical church, and anything the church fathers approved of is automatically suspect.

These first two classes of objectors are suffering from prejudices that need to be overcome. A kid named Fred might have bullied you in second grade, but that doesn’t make every guy named Fred a bully. The word “mystical” might be associated with some people and ideas that you find distasteful, but like the man said: “in understanding be men.” There are realities here the Bible talks about, and believers should talk about them too. Don’t refuse to join the conversation just because someone uses an adjective you don’t like.

A third reason some people object is that they simply don’t understand what I’m saying. For whatever reason, my way of explaining the truths of John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11 and other passages simply doesn’t resonate with them. I suspect many of them haven’t lived these things for themselves, and like virgins hearing a conversation about sex, they simply can’t relate. But many of them, I’m sure, have the experience of walking with God, and for whatever reason, simply aren’t able to talk about this aspect of it.

Fourth, some people object because they don’t see how there can be good grounds for assurance of salvation in this way of understanding relationship with God. To them, all this talk of relationship just seems so slippery and messy. Assurance can’t be allowed to rest on a miasma of relationship talk; it needs a foundation of objectivity in order to remain solid and dependable. These folks are correctly wary of anything that endangers assurance, and in their minds that means all this business about mysticism and relationship has got to go.

The third and fourth classes of objectors are suffering from legitimate misunderstandings, and with them, I hope for the opportunity to have long conversations over meals and drinks. As we explore how they would describe their own life experience of walking with God and living out John 15, John 17, Galatians 2:20 and so on, I learn a lot about how other Christians talk, and we are able to explore ways of bridging between my language and theirs. Or if they’re struggling with the assurance side of things, we often talk about their experience and mine, and frequently find that our stories are not so very different. Again, at that point we will have room to explore how to talk about that and relate theology to it.

Finally, there are two groups of objectors who understand very well what I’m trying to say.

The fifth group is composed of people who also live the reality I’m seeking to talk about, but they believe I’ve made an unwise choice of terminology. Basically, we agree on (most of) the doctrine and the praxis; we just don’t yet have a common language for it. I suspect their stance is mostly a result of their theological training scaring them away from all things subjective, with the result that they can’t talk about the very real subjective elements of a relationship with God. These people are fun to talk with, and I do, often. They are fellow workers in the same field of endeavor, and I’m glad to be working alongside them.

The other group understands what I’m saying, and they hate it. They hear me saying that  a person can know his Bible inside and out, and “love” God the way John Hinckley “loved” Jodie Foster, the way Saul of Tarsus loved Yahweh. They understand that I’m saying if there is no acceptance of God personally and on His own terms, then they’re not  loving God; they’re stalking Him, and it will end in murder.

These people have invested themselves heavily in academic understanding of doctrinal principles because that’s what they wanted the Christian life to be about. They haven’t really come to know God as the One who loves them, with all the subjective experience that implies, and they don’t want to. They’re furious when I talk about real relationship with God, and no wonder–I was aiming right at ’em.


“…not even our church.”

10 May 2019

One weekend while I was in massage school, I took an introductory class in Polarity Therapy. Polarity is a big field of study, and we just scratched the surface of most aspects. We did come out with a series of basic energy balancing exercises we could use with clients, though.

The day after the class, I came home and found my wife in serious distress. It was certainly manifesting in physical and emotional discomfort, but there didn’t seem to be anything physical obviously wrong. I wondered if the Polarity balancing session might help. I am automatically suspicious of myself when I think that a new tool I just learned is exactly the thing for someone’s ailment. To a man with a shiny new hammer, everything looks like a nail, you know?

But on the other hand, wouldn’t it be just like God to give me the tool right before I need it? So I thought, “Well, if it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.”

With nothing to lose, I set up the massage table and got her on it. As always, I began with prayer (I don’t pray out loud if the client’s not up for that, but I always pray). I asked for God to take this time and restore her well-being, then I went to work. The entire sequence had taken about an hour in class. Doing it on my own, it took two, and it was anything but smooth. I had to keep consulting my routine sheet to see what to do next, and the techniques were unfamiliar, so I had to keep deciphering the notes I’d hastily scribbled in the margins to remind me how we’d done each thing in class. Not ideal. Kimberly later described it as “the most boring massage of my life” — Polarity bodywork is on-body, but barely touching for the most part.

But here’s the thing: God answered my prayers. It absolutely worked. When we finished the session, she was calm and collected. The distress — both physical and emotional — was just gone.

We later lay in bed together debriefing. I described what the session had been like for me — the continual reference to my notes interrupting the flow, the battle to keep myself grounded, but also the sensations of energy moving from place to place in her body, where it felt stagnant or blocked, the shifting patterns of heat and cool I felt as I worked with her, and so on. She described her experience, and what she had sensed as I did certain techniques during the session. At one point I was talking, somewhat excitedly, about how it all felt, when she interrupted me and said, “You realize, you can’t talk about this at church. Not even at our church.”

I said, “I know.”

And it was true. Our church (at the time) was probably, of all the churches in our town, the most open to various forms of weirdness in daily life. We strove to be “naturally supernatural,” and we really meant that. But I knew better than to think I could talk about energy work at church.

It was a defining moment for me. I agreed with God when I got into this that I was going to explore, submit to the process and the experiences that He led me into, and never allow myself to ignore something or pretend it didn’t happen just because I didn’t understand it. And I won’t. But at that moment I realized that my agreement with God meant I was going to have to carve out a niche somewhere outside the established American church. At least in the churches I knew, there was simply no place for what God was showing me.

Their loss. God’s doing a lot beyond the walls of the established church, and it’s good. So I’m gonna start talking about it.


On Disrespecting the Manure

12 April 2019

One of the most basic promises of Christianity is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and His continuing ministry to the believer. Every church and ministry I’ve ever worked with has affirmed this…in theory. In practice, there was a bit more variation. The idea that you could have a meaningful and vital relationship with a spiritual being–not just a doctrinal system or an arrangement of mental furniture, but actual person that is not you, communicating to you–well, that was challenging for a lot of folks. In many churches and ministries, they tended to cover their asses with an orthodox doctrinal statement on the point, while denying any instance of it in practice. They all believe the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but tell them that He showed you something in Hebrews 2 an hour ago and they don’t believe it.

When interacting with such communities, believers with a more robust relationship with the Spirit often point to John 16:13:

However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come.

The objection we often face in response is, “That was referring to the apostles, the people Jesus was talking to at the time.” On the face of it, the claim has some curb appeal. It draws directly from the context–who could argue with that? 

Well…me. I have questions:

  1. Sez who? On what basis? Can I use that same approach to dismiss anything Jesus ever said that I don’t want to apply now? (“I mean, sure, He said lust is as bad as adultery, but that was only for the people He was talking to at the time….”) No? Okay, distinguish that case from this one.
  2. We’re ready enough to apply 14:2, 14:27, or 15:13-14 to any believer, anytime, with no discussion whatsoever. We do this because Jesus is speaking to these men as “His own;” we are also His own, and in fact inviting us to become His own is kinda what the book is about. So on what principle are we so ready to read 16:13 differently from other things Jesus said to the same people in the same immediate context?
  3. These folks usually want to apply 16:13 to the men in the room…and Paul. The interpretation proposed flatly excludes him, and he’s a clear counterexample. How is this not blatant special pleading?
  4. 1 John 2:27. From where I’m standing, John directly applies the doctrine Jesus gave in John 16:13 to his readers, extending it well beyond the apostolic circle. If we needed some extraordinary justification for reading 16:13 the way we already read, say, 15:13-14, isn’t John providing it?

I want to set forth a positive case for reading this passage as speaking about something that happens for us, today, if we are listening. Most of my case is implicit in the questions above.

Jesus is speaking to His own, talking about what it will be like when the Spirit has come. He told His disciples, one of whom–John–preserved those words and wrote them down in a book that invites its readers to join in that group and become “His own” too. John’s Gospel invites believers into a lively relationship with the Spirit.

John reiterates that stance toward relationship with the Spirit–and this particular aspect of the Spirit’s guidance in our search for truth–in 1 John 2:27, for yet another group of addressees; so why shouldn’t we expect Him to do the same for all those who belong to Jesus, right down to today?

I have no doubt that a suitably educated theologian could apply his theological system or his scholarly skepticism in such a way as to bury the above two paragraphs under a mountain of doubt. It is also possible to bury a diamond under a wheelbarrow-load of manure. This does not call into question the nature of the diamond; it just reveals the guy with the wheelbarrow for a churl and a lackwit.

As the diamond does not cease being a diamond, a true reading of Jesus’ words does not cease being true, no matter what is being heaped upon it. We are not obliged to treat the manure with respect.