The very challenge of discussing heresies, ancient and modern, makes my head hurt. The debates that rage are often so rancorous and bitter that I don’t even want to read the stuff—even from people I agree with!
Hence I want to warn you in advance that there will be, here, a quite-severe critique of all of this—not self-important, I hope, but what I believe is a necessary and overdue upbraiding of the Church’s doctrines, and the cost of those doctrines, regardless of whether they are right or wrong. More later.
How to Disagree
I believe we do need to be serious in understanding what the Lord wants us to know about Him, and what isn’t true about Him. Right doctrine is important. But it never trumps love.
There will be points at which any of us will disagree. So long as we abide by the two commandments that Jesus has declared supreme, and on which our doctrine should hang, we can keep on talking to each other and loving each other. Jesus said,
“‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NKJV)
Even if we have got our doctrine “right,” if we apply it in a way that violates those two commandments, we’ve got it wrong.
This is a very hard thing for us to remember, because in the Church, people disagree—just as with politics, sports, families, and life in general. Then they get angry and bitter, and quickly dash to the violation of those two foundational commandments Jesus gave.
And when someone complains that the debate has become rancorous and mean, the charge is laid that the peacemakers value being “nice” over being in accord with God’s will, that they stick their heads in the sand or are afraid to name aloud what is seriously wrong. Those who do not approve of vicious attack are themselves attacked—accused of being wimps, or quislings, or traitors—apparently in the hope of silencing them, or justifying the hateful attacker’s words and methods.
My desire is that as we face serious issues in the Church, we approach them consistently with Jesus’ two commands. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter if we are right about where we stand, because we are unholy at the roots.
A Severe Critique
You may remember back in Chapter 14, “Covenant—The Law of Moses,” I quoted Rabbi Ronald Isaacs, who said, “Judaism has always been more a religion of action and deed than belief and creed.”
This is a deep and historically profound insight, and if understood is likely to remake how Christians understand who they are, and how to live life more fully in relationship to our Creator.
Philosophers love to draw parallels and make connections across centuries and cultures. The abstractions and categories created in doing so can provide insights into how humans live, believe and behave—and there are surely deep commonalities among human communities, even when widely separated by distance or time.
But such abstraction and categorization is not universal. That is, not all cultures think this way. Oh, they do to a degree, but the real flowering of this approach to analyzing and describing human life and the world is essentially Greek in its origins, especially in the West, and especially in Christianity.
Think of it like this: The entire Old Testament is essentially a narrative story about a people, the Jews, and their robust, constant, joyful, rocky, rebellious, dedicated, awestruck and argumentative love affair with God. They are so familiar with Him that they will yell and wrestle with Him, even turn on their heels in fits of pique, and yet they are so profoundly in awe they will not even say His name aloud. In the entire Old Testament there is virtually not a word of doctrine, nor a foundational philosophical proposition.
A philosophically minded person could look at it, and impute doctrine or philosophy, just as could be done with any narrative, but neither of these are in the worldview or methods of Hebrew thought.
The Greeks, on the other hand, developed a philosophical approach to human life and the world. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, and this conviction characterizes their passion to examine and explain. They abstracted, categorized and organized what they observed, and drew parallels and distinctions. From these they were able to establish foundational propositions, and from these came doctrines: definitions of what fit or didn’t fit the foundational propositions. Whether it was the Platonists, the Aristotelians, the Stoics, the Rhetoricians, the Epicureans, the Cynics or the Skeptics (to name a few), the approach of abstraction, categorization, organization, proposition and doctrine was essentially the same: The various schools differed primarily on what values were key, and which were not. They had many gods, some of which were icons of these points of view, others of which were a means to self-satisfaction, or defense, or spiritual mystery. The Greeks were complex and deep thinkers, as well as being sensual and pleasure-seeking.
Greek philosophy intersected Hebrew thought at several key points throughout history:
- When Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) conquered the known world and Hellenized it. Greek became the common language of all the nations he defeated. (It’s because of this that the New Testament was written in Greek.)
- When Rome, whose leaders were all trained by Greek teachers, conquered all the lands of Alexander, and more. Greek continued to be the common language, and Greek philosophy the way of thinking about the world. Pilate, the Roman governor, said to Jesus, “What is truth?”( John 18:38a) This was a profoundly Greek question.
- When Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, explained the God of Israel (and Jesus) to people who didn’t know how Jews thought, and didn’t know the Old Testament, but who were accustomed to thinking in Greek philosophical categories (including their beliefs about Greek and Roman gods) and listening to rhetorically sound argument. Read Acts 17:16-34 for a quick insight into this. Paul was trained in rhetoric and continues this approach throughout most of his letters to the Gentile believers.
- When the expanding Church defined and defended itself in debate over many centuries, most of which took place between Gentile authors and leaders (starting in the second and third centuries), hence imbued with and expressed through Greek philosophical and rhetorical methods.
- When Thomas Aquinas discovered the writings of Aristotle, which had been lost to the West for centuries, and began to explain Christian theology in Greek philosophical terms (even transubstantiation, substance and accident are concepts from Aristotle).
- When Humanism arose, heavily dependent on Greek ideas, and began to claim values arising from human reason (in which the Greeks delighted). Remember that “man is the measure of all things” is from a contemporary of Socrates, the Greek philosopher Protagoras, who predated even Alexander the Great.
- When science arose, contesting religion for primacy in the lives and faith of people, and showing its superior and growing ability to cure disease, tap power from the atom, and travel even into space. It remains dominant to this day. Its roots, like the Enlightenment and Humanism, are largely Greek.
Each of these intersections of Greek philosophy and Hebrew thought have affected how we understand and respond to the God of Israel, Who we Christians (along with Jews and Muslims) believe to be the One True God.
Now, you may not have thought about it this way before, but the fact is that much of the theology that we do today, and that has been done in the Church since the second or third century, has, in structure and even in content, been fundamentally a Greek philosophical debate.
It is a Herculean effort to explain God, to abstract, categorize and organize what the Jews and followers of Jesus experienced, and then to draw parallels and make distinctions. From these were established foundational propositions, and from these came doctrines: definitions of what fit or didn’t fit those propositions.
Instead of a robust, constant, joyful, rocky, rebellious, dedicated, awestruck and argumentative love affair with God, we have given our hearts to propositions. We have fallen in love with our own thoughts about God, and missed Him. I realize this is a difficult thing to hear or countenance. I myself want to jump up and defend good doctrine: Bad doctrine can lead to disaster. I know! And Paul warns us:
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. (2 Timothy 4:3-4, NKJV)
“Doctrine” here in Paul’s quote is the Greek word didaskalia, and means “teaching, precept, proposition.” And we do want to get that right, and not be led astray by fables instead of the truth.
But the truth isn’t a concept to Jews or Christians: God is truth. So the issue fundamentally isn’t about getting the doctrine right, so much as it is about getting the relationship right. If bad doctrine can lead us away from relationship, let’s point it out and move on, seeking Him. But right doctrine can and does also lead us away from Him—when we focus on it instead of Him, and when we try to grasp and explain Him by doctrine.
We’ve now endured centuries of this approach to God, and we’ve missed the point, which is—well, God. It isn’t our intellectual assent to propositions about Him that He seeks. It is our trust. It is intimacy. It is wrestling. He offers love and covenant, marriage, not highly ordered thoughts and explanations about Him. There is no explaining Him.
This problem began early, with the Hellenization of the Mediterranean and Middle East under Alexander the Great. It affected Judaism and Pharisaic methods in the Talmud, and it continued under Paul, both in his training as a Pharisee, and later as he sought to reveal the God of Israel in terms and concepts his Hellenized Gentile audience would grasp.
I understand this and don’t even really object to it, as it is. It was a door for the Gentiles, an opening, to a new way of life and to salvation and the love of God. Paul taught them in their language, in their own modes of thought. But his goal was not to have his philosophy beat the other philosophies—it was to introduce them to their Creator and Savior.
In our day and age we have virtually abandoned the prospect of life with God, and have settled instead for debates about His nature and intentions.
Even the struggle between Humanism and Theism is almost entirely within the Greek philosophical arena. The Humanists adopt basic Greek philosophical ideals about the nature of man, from Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, from the Skeptics and others, and posit a world of human relations in which God is absent at best, and we are left to determine what we will value and what standards we will maintain.
But the Theists, though they proclaim a God in intimate relation with humanity, act largely like Deists (who believe God created the world but is now uninvolved in it), and posit their own worldview in carefully structured, detailed and defended doctrines, deduced from Scripture and Tradition, and re-formed into a philosophical system of considerable breadth and compass. Their thought is dialectical: One way is right and the other wrong. The smallest deviation is cause for attack. But even if it was consistent to the nth degree, and “right” in some elemental and universal system of “truth,” it is still Greek and not Hebrew in its approach to God and to life.
Well, so what? Is God a Jew? Do we need to think like Hebrews in order to love God or be saved? Doesn’t Scripture tell us that God is the God of all nations, and that in Him we are neither Greek nor Jew?
Yes, of course. But I contend that by putting all of our effort into explaining God, arguing about God, understanding God and defending God in philosophical terms, in debates about doctrine, we have fled the door labeled “God” and packed a hall for “lectures about God,” delivered by contesting theologians.
Christian liberals and Christian conservatives alike are essentially Greek in their approach to God and life. We differ on philosophy, we align with sparring schools, we accuse each other of ineptitude and bad motives, and we fight about how we each define and explain God.
We instead need to be married to God, and let Him have His way with us. We need to be ravished, not lectured.