Monthly Archives: June 2010

>Justified through doing good works (!)

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“…the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation.”

– Roman 2:5b-8, New American Standard trans.
We already have an understanding of what Paul’s theology is all about. In fact, it is nearly impossible to read any of Paul’s letters without assuming we know what he means. We always bring our pre-understanding to the Biblical text. We know, if we are children of the Reformation, that salvation comes through faith and not works. We cannot earn our way into heaven. We cannot make ourselves good enough to be saved.

But wait, what does Paul mean, then, by “according to his deeds” or “perseverance in doing good”?

It would appear that Paul is saying that one can be justified by doing good works. If we are to make this jive with our traditional reformed understanding of justification by faith alone then we’ve got some theological gymnastics to do with Paul’s language. Maybe, however, Paul means what he says. Maybe one is saved, gaining glory, honor, and incorruption, by persevering in doing good. If this is true then everything rests on what Paul means by doing good.

I would hazard that “doing good” means just that. With Jesus as our example we lay down our lives for others, setting aside our ambitions and wants for the needs of others that are all around us. We help widows and orphans, we give to “the least of these” and seek peace in a world of constant war and oppression. I believe it also means that we forgive seventy times seven, turn the other cheek, go another mile. We do good by living out the kingdom of God in our daily actions.


If this is true then a significant characteristic of the Reformation, at least in how it is often understood and lived out, is misguided. It also means that divorcing faith from action, separating our ultimate destinies from our deeds here and now, may be a kind of cheap grace. Without a gospel of good deeds we are left with one of the scariest passages in the Bible:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” He will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.
– Matthew 25:41-46, New American Standard trans.
I am profoundly and fundamentally challenged by this passage. If I am to be judged by my deeds then I am a failure many times over. I do not want cheap grace but I also cannot afford the grace that is offered. What I need is mercy.

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>all other ground is sinking sand

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I am not sure what I think of Shane Claiborne, other than I like his spirit and his perspective. I have not tried to pick apart his understanding of the gospel or his use of the Bible to support his arguments. Some times I am a little hesitant to embrace his message but, for the most part, I like it.

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>"…do instinctively the things of the Law…"

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Here are some thoughts I have regarding the Gentiles who do instinctively the things of the law.

From Jack Crabtree’s translation of Romans, Portion One/Section 1/Part 5/paragraph #14:

3) It is not the hearers of the divine commandments who are dikaios before God; rather, it is the doers of the divine commandments who will be deemed dikaios. 4) Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the Covenant by natural birthright, do the things required by that Covenant—even though these people do not possess the Covenant for themselves—such things are a covenant. 5) Such people demonstrate the deed required by that covenant written on their hearts[.] (See Romans 2:13-15 in your “real” Bible.)

 These real (or hypothetical) Gentiles are not “God fearers” in the sense that they are merely not familiar with the Judaic law or the particulars of the various covenants. These are true pagans or non-religious individuals who know absolutely nothing of the God of Abraham and Moses. When they “do the things required by that covenant” this is not that they have figured out somehow (intuitively?) what the covenant is and then began keeping a list of commandments. From the outside there may be nothing about these Gentiles that would make them appear as devout Jews.* What this implies is that the hearts of these Gentiles have come to a place whereby (one could imagine) they might stumble upon the Sermon on the Mount, for example, and say, “Yes! That’s true. I long for that.” It follows, then, that when Paul here is arguing to “do the things required by that Covenant” he is thinking not of dietary laws or keeping the Sabbath. Neither is he thinking of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I imagine Paul has in mind the list we call the beatitudes – being poor in spirit, being a peacemaker, being someone who thirsts after righteousness, etc. To be poor in spirit, to be a peacemaker, to thirst after righteousness, is to do the things required by the covenant.

What does this mean for us? I think we need to constantly examine our tendencies to create lists of particulars by which we judge others and ourselves. Just like the Jews of Jesus’ day, we too have our rules, our mental covenants that we live by. We judge our spirituality, our faith, our righteousness by these lists, and each of us always come out better in our own minds than do anyone else to whom we apply the standard. But we know this, we hear this on Sunday. The frightening reality is that deep down we know that to truly live as the beatitudes call us would produce people who might not look much like us or the other Christians around us. What is more frightening, we cannot become the people who live the beatitudes by choice. The beatitudes are thrust upon people, mark people, at times against their will.

* I think we have to assume, as well, that there may be nothing about these Gentiles that would make them appear as “devout Christians” either.

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>Translation/Interpretation mumblings

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The most important axiom to keep in mind when doing Bible study is this: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see. Translation and interpretation is about learning to see what is actually there in spite of one’s expectations.

Consider this famous optical illusion:



One will tend to see either a young woman or an old woman until the image is explained. Once it is explained then one laughs at how easy it was to miss the dual image. It can be all too easy to believe one knows exactly what one sees and move on. It took me years to unlearn many “obvious” interpretations. I had to set the Bible down for a while – really a few years – before I was able to come back to it with fresh eyes. I recognize this process also flies in the face of what Christian culture tells me.

“Biblical translation is more like an art rather than a mechanical process.”

Translations play a part as well. We tend to study translations of original (or near original) texts. Translations can be quite bad, and good translations can still mislead. Anyone who has spent time with languages other than their native tongue know this. Think of the instructions below translated from Chinese into English. It is important to have some idea of where one is going.


Even if the translation is fine, or one is studying in the original language anyway, it can still be tricky. Consider to following statement:

“You can’t put too much water in a nuclear reactor.” 

What does this mean? What should the one managing the nuclear reactor do? Might it be important to get the interpretation correct? But how is one to know? In biblical studies that is a huge question. Many sentences in Greek are not much different than the above quote. Translators often remove such ambiguity because the translators made a decision based on their pre-understanding. That does not mean they were correct. And pastors and Bible teachers who thrive on the performance rather than substance shortchange their congregations by missing such interpretive conundrums, teaching with a practiced conviction that their understanding is without substantial challenge.

For many Christians, doing Bible study is more about letting the spirit of God teach them directly through the words. This is often just a religiously encourage method of disguising one’s intuition as the voice of God. Regardless, imagining that you “get it” is not the same thing as actually getting it. Intuition is rational and takes years of hard work to develop. Having an “intuitive flash” does not mean one has got it right, but that flash is often part of the process of our search for understanding. Tacit knowledge is critical. Regardless, in our pursuit of understanding we need to have humility. And we must remember: One tends to only see what one is expecting to see.

Context is huge for meaning. So is the intent of the author. For example: JFK’s famous line “Ich bin ein Berliner” can mean both “I’m a Berlin-person,” or “I’m a jelly donut,” though I believe most German people instantly knew he meant “Berlin-person.” The socio-historical (not to mention geographical) context meant a lot in understanding JFK’s intent. We often have to make a case for intent, but an author’s intent is frequently difficult to discern. It is important to keep in mind that authorial intent has more to do with making a case for what the text means from the test itself rather than trying to read the author’s mind, which we cannot do. It is also an art and not a mechanical process.

These thoughts are very simple I know. But I think there is something basic and profound in them as well. What is unfortunate, however, is that so much of Bible teaching that I hear reminds me of the Benny Hill skit when a character says, “Look, what’s that in the road? A head?” and the director says “Cut! It’s suppose to be ‘What’s that in the road ahead?'”

Postscript: I recognize that in this day of pomo-evangelical, deconstructive theology my thoughts above are possibly simplistic. But I am convinced that the average Christian cares little for the more intellectual debates and just wants to live as a good Christian (or at least look like one). I believe the general outline I have given is radical enough that if followed would shake up much of popular Christianity as it stands.

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>just war

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As Cain lifted the stone so that he might bring it down upon his bother Abel’s head to kill him, Abel leaped out of the way and grabbed a stone from the ground and threw it at Cain’s head. Cain fell to the ground and died. God came to Abel and asked him, “Where is your brother Cain?” Abel said to God, “I killed him in self-defense.” God then said to Abel, “Did you have to kill him? Was there not a more peaceful solution? Do you not believe that I can take care of you?” Abel said to God, “Like I said, it was in self-defense and, honestly, there really was no other alternative. I know Cain would never change. You know how it is with people like that.”

I am studying about Just War Theory. I am inclined to think that when the layers of arguments are pealed back it comes down to human nature: Sin is the great justifier of its own existence. Sin is the great excuser. I fear that Just War Theory is fundamentally an elaborate excuse system. I recognize this is simplistic, but maybe simple is closer to the truth. The fact that Just War Theory is also the “common sense” position only fuels my suspicion.

More specifically I find fascinating the fact that human beings are utterly captivated with this world. We love this world (my perspective here is Pauline not Platonic). More importantly, we are committed to this world being a certain way and we not only feel the need to make is so, we want the control to make it so. Part of that control is the belief in our right to exist at the expense of others – if it comes to that. In other words, I have my life and no one has the right to take it from me (true, except that God has that right of course) therefore I can take another’s life if my life is threatened (true??). 
In Just War Theory it goes a step further. I have the right, some might say the obligation, to take the life of another if a government tells me to, assuming that government has made the case that the killing is justified. Or, if we don’t go quite that far, I am at least absolved of any need for either justice or mercy for having killed.

We weave our elaborate theories out of our common sense. Our common sense emerges from our captivation with this world. And, like all things human, our common sense is run through with sin.

There is a logic to the Just War Theory, but I fear we only cling to the logic in order to delude ourselves into believing our right to chose to kill in war does not come from our corrupt hearts. We disparage Cain in the Genesis account, but we hold to a position not unlike Abel in the fractured fairy tail version above. We are good at creating a gloss over sin. This does not mean there is no truth in the gloss, but it may still be only a gloss over something we neither want to look at or be seen. (I use “we” in the broadest human sense, recognizing the multiplicity of experiences.)
I am in the process of looking deeper into Just War Theory. I am doing some reading and a lot of pondering. I welcome any suggestions for reading. I will probably write through my process here on SatelliteSaint.

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>Can you ask the question?

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I have a beef with mainstream Christianity.


I am going to try to make a point here, but I fear my concerns may be just that, my fears only and belonging to no one else. But here goes…

Possibly the great doctrinal sacred cow in all of Christendom is the doctrine of the Trinity, or more truthfully, the theological formula that apparently secures the divinity of Jesus: The incarnate fully god/fully man, existing before all of creation person, entering into that creation with humility, Son of the Father God, and understood as the second person of a single but triune god (Father, Son, Holy Spirit). For most Christians the Trinity is a given, an unquestioned if not fully understood (or understandable) doctrine. Could it be that this doctrine, this interpretation of scripture we have held so inviolate since A.D. 325 might be wrong? Is it okay to ask this question without immediately being condemned to the fires – or at least without being in dire need of intercessory prayer, a laying on of hands?

That may be the real crux: Can you seriously, legitimately ask the question?

For the most part, if you have grown up in Christendom you have grown up with the doctrine of the Trinity. The doctrine has been used extensively to support numerous other positions (e.g. we can know God is a relational being because He exists as a relationship). In fact, at times it seems that much of Christian theology rests upon this powerful doctrine. The truth is, I really don’t have any particular need to disbelieve the doctrine of the Trinity, unless it is actually wrong. But I will assume the freedom to ask the question.

It is a well know fact that the doctrine of the Trinity was invented within the context of a rather large church squabble and was then formulated as a solution at one of the great church councils. The need for a solution was political as much as anything else. Constantine was trying to hold his empire together and saw the Christian church as one element of the glue. The philosophical questions being asked were primarily Greek (not Hebrew) in origin. The arguments were more like legal arguments than sound biblical exegesis. The final decision was made with direct help/guidance from the emperor himself. All of that makes me suspicious. Regardless, my concern is this: Do we truly have the freedom to ask the question? Can one say, “I have my doubts whether the doctrine of the Trinity is biblically sound” and not be seen as having fallen away from the faith? Maybe more importantly, can a pastor get up in front of his congregation and say he has his doubts without losing his job? Can a Sunday school teacher encourage her “flock” to value questioning such doctrines as a means to spiritual growth?


Some will wonder why in the world would one even bother to ask such a question. If not outright heretical it would seem to be at least pointless. Maybe I am making a mountain out of a molehill. What value, what improvement to one’s faith could it possibly produce? There are two: a) If the doctrine of the Trinity is true then by asking the question (with the full implication that one might discover it is not true and have to face the consequences) one gains a finer and more substantial understanding of that truth, and b) If it is not true then one has a chance of coming to the truth. I know, however, that within mainstream Christianity both of those possibilities are generally squelched or cut off altogether.

By calling the doctrine of the Trinity a sacred cow I am calling attention to a reality of Christendom that some doctrines are not allow to be genuinely questioned. I recognize the fact that there are some traditions within the history of Christianity that do not hold to the doctrine of the Trinity, and there are also always exceptions. (Someone is bound to comment that they have always been free to ask such questions within their church.) But, in general, to seriously pose the question, to say one thinks the doctrine may be a misinterpretation of scripture, is to court a real or symbolic tossing out from one’s local church – or, at least from ministry in that “body.” Christendom has thrived on dogma and conformism, and has suffered because of it. To challenge the unchallengeable doctrine is to court danger. To challenge the doctrine of the Trinity is to challenge the traditional understanding of the divinity of Jesus: no Trinity no divinity. Hence the tossing. If follows then: Christendom also does not allow questioning of the traditional understanding of the Son of Man’s divinity, but that’s another question.

Now I am only using the possibility of questioning the validity of the Trinity somewhat rhetorically. I am in the process of asking the question and doing some research, and I do have my doubts as you might have guessed, but there are many such questions waiting to be asked. My desire is to keep pursuing the truth and letting that truth guide me. Though I am still firmly a Christian (God willing) I was fortunate to escape from some of the mainstream clutches more than twenty years ago. I have been “in process” ever since. And though I am not a liberal Christian, I am not a conservative one either. I believe, in fact, that my faith has matured and my understanding deepened. (I could be deluded too.) The biggest factor in both the escape and the subsequent maturity in faith was the freedom to ask questions without social fear (though maybe a little personal trembling). This came about by my finding a community of believers who gave me that freedom. I wrote a little about that here.

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