Thursday, June 26, 2008

Truth, Charity, & Tolerance

This morning at theology breakfast we read John Owen’s A Country Essay for The Practice of Church Government There (Volume 8 of his works by...Banner). As Linds and I were headed home we were thinking about how the culture impacts people. We are truly children of our era. We have all thought this before… “How could our ancestors have tolerated slavery?” Well, the answer we often hear is, “Well, they were children of their time.” This did not make it just, but it did not make one hundred percent of their thinking about all things wrong. Many of our ancestors – not all, but many – had a wrong view of slavery. It was wrong, and it was a huge blind spot. This blind spot, however, should not keep us from going back to them for what they had correct. There is still much good that we can learn from their perspective on things.

Well, the truth that we are “children of our time” was hitting home as we considered this essay by a 17th century theologian and pastor. His was a time in which evangelism was a foreign thought (if you were born in England you were baptized into the Anglican “church” and therefore thought to be a Christian). In effect their perspective was one of, “What’s the need for evangelizing when everyone is a Christian?” This was also a time that ecclesiological decisions regarding church discipline were made by the civil magistrate (the government). There was an established religion (Christianity). This is the situation that Owen was writing to in this essay. His thoughts were revolutionary for his time, and they are for us as well as we try to figure out where our country is headed. Here’s an excerpt:
“Ignorance of men’s invincible prejudices, of their convictions, strong persuasions, desires, aims, hopes, fears, inducements, - sensibleness of our own infirmities, failings, misapprehensions, darkness, knowing but in part, - should work in us a charitable opinion of poor erring creatures, that do it perhaps with as upright, sincere hearts and affections as some enjoy truth.” 61

It is interesting that he says their ignorance played out in convictions (etc.) and that it should elicit charity from us in regard to their errors because they do it with upright sincere hearts and affections as some enjoy truth. They are ignorant of the full truth but we should be charitable because they perceive their error as truth. This doesn't mean that what people believe erringly is truth, however. Owen is clearly calling for charity in the midst of strong diverse opinions and convictions. Generally this is the definition of “tolerance”.

In our era many say that tolerance means, despite differences of persuasion, one cannot say another’s conviction or persuasion is wrong or false (and if you do you better have scientific data provable by repeatable experimentation!). At least this is the general theoretical understanding of tolerance folks would articulate in our day. In real life this principle does not work itself out as neatly as they may articulate. Hence, we have two supposedly opposing political parties in our country (which I think is a false dichotomy of sorts), or the fact that we buy one product over another based on how they have pitched a convincing or unconvincing argument for “quality” or usefulness. Regarding the latter you don’t see companies that have decreasing sales figures yelling at other companies, “By you saying your product is superior to ours you are not being tolerant.” We all understand to a certain extent this is a dog eat dog world. Despite a push for strict egalitarianism across all diversity we all understand that that philosophy is a half-truth at best. Regarding the former you do see politicians crying fowl sometimes in regard to “tolerance” but generally we would all agree that they should try to be well educated in their decisions and if their solutions to problems are the best then by all means, persuade us! This isn’t a lack of tolerance. Why then do we point accusingly at people in religious and moral matters accusing them of a lack of tolerance? We need to practice charity as Owen is exhorting. His words of “charity” and of “tolerance” though old are fresh to our time. He doesn’t pose the perfect solution, but he does offer a different perspective that we should listen to which we may not have considered. (I disagree with him, however, that the civil magistrate should handle matters of discipline. I believe this is something given to the responsibility of a local church.)

Owen further speaks to the inclination our age has toward relativity in most if not all things:
“These things turn in a circle: what we are to ourselves, that he is to himself: what he is to us, that we are unto others that may be our judges. But however, you will say, we are in the truth, and therefore ought to go free. Now, truly, this is the same paralogism: who says we are in the truth? others? no, ourselves. Who says erroneous persons (as so supposed) are heretics, or the like? they themselves? no, but we: and those that are to us as we are to them, say no less of us. Let us not suppose that all the world will stoop to us, because we have the truth, as we affirm, but they do not believe. If we make the rule of our proceedings against others to be our conviction that they are erroneous; others will, or may, make theirs of us to be their rule of proceeding against us.” 62-3

He is addressing the fact that the magistrate in carrying out disciplinary actions on behalf of the Anglican “church” to those they believe are heretics, namely burning them alive, chopping heads off, etc. They weren’t barring them from the sacraments or taking their names off of member roles; they were killing people. He is encouraging more charity in church discipline based on the logic of Matthew 7:12 “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Further, he later uses the logic that Gamaliel used in Acts 5:33-42 that if what dissenters in the churches believe and live out the validity of this (whether or not it is actually true) will be established by God: “But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:39) May the Lord forbid our exercise of discipline in the form of killing if it only proves that we were in opposition to God. He is calling the church then to exercise charity in discipline. This is revolutionary! John Locke (one of Owen’s students at Oxford) had not come along yet to propose a separation between church and state. Even though Owen was a product of his era, here, in the middle of England's civil war, Owen is proving himself to be ahead of his time.

Toward the end of his essay he leaves us with two cautions:
“(1.) So to carry ourselves in all our censures, every one in his sphere (ecclesiastical discipline being preserved as pure and unmixed from secular power as possible), that it may appear to all that it is the error which men maintain which is so odious unto us, and not the consequent or their dissent from us, whether by subducting themselves from our power or withdrawing from communion. For if this latter be made the cause of our proceeding against any, there must be one law for them all, – all that will not bow, to the fiery furnace! Recusancy is the fault; and that being the same in all, must have the same punishment, – which would be such an unrighteous inequality as is fit for none but Antichrist to own.

(2.) That nothing be done to any, but the bound and farthest end of it be seen at the beginning, and not leave way and room for new persecution upon new pretences. ‘Cedo alteram et alteram,’ – one stripe sometimes makes way for another, and how know I that men will stay at thirty-nine? ‘Principiis obsta.’" 68

The first caution seems to be a warning against a mixture of church and state and that having the same punishment (death) for dissenters as all others who must be disciplined by churches was of the type of inequality the Antichrist would support.

The second caution seems to be a warning of centralization of power in one body, individual or otherwise without some kind of accountability. There should be some kind of limitation of power and of meting out punishments. Otherwise, new reasons will come to the surface that require new punishments (or persecution) and there is no accountability for how much punishment is given out.

"Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Marston Moor, by an unknown artist. The Parliamentarians under Sir Thomas Fairfax defeated the Royalists at this battle in Long Marston, Yorkshire, on July 2, 1644. Cromwell commanded the Parliamentarian cavalry that defeated the previously invincible Royalist cavalry of Prince Rupert. Marston Moor was a turning point in the English Civil War, as it effectively lost the Royalists the north of England."

I am thankful for the Lord's work in the separation of church and state. May we take advantage of this and seek to share the gospel. Further, we may not always have this lets take advantage of it as an opportunity given from the hand of God Himself!

Any thoughts?

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Divided Heart

I’ve been taking a class on the Gospel According to Matthew this week and between this class and the one I took last winter, the Sermon on the Mount, one concept (of many) has been fodder for a lot of thought. Particularly in regard to Matthew 5:8 and what Dr. Pennington refers to as “virtue ethics.” “Virtue ethics”, generally speaking, means a wholehearted mind and heart in what you think and do in your actions. So while there is certainly right and wrong things don’t always fit into a cookie-cutter formula regarding how they might be corrected. Heart issues are the main focus. While external actions are certainly involved the heart issue is the cause, and the solution isn’t always so black and white. It’s the complexity of the noetic effects of sin. So one of the things that Jesus kept coming back to in His ministry is that we should not be “double-minded” or “double-souled.” We must not be a divided soul. The book of James is thought of as an extended wisdom reflection on the Sermon on the Mount and it calls this a case of being “double minded” (Jas 1:5-8).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

Jesus was addressing the issue of having a right heart or a right motivation of desires and affections working out in godly actions. So as James makes this point with a negative illustration we can infer the positive, namely, that personal holiness issues from a consistent stable mind, heart, and action (this is also clear in his point that faith without works is dead in 2:14-26).

This is Jesus’ beef with the Pharisees. They didn’t have a right heart, and this divided heart and mind resulted in the fruit of hypocrisy. This is the main point of Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” It’s not that we are never to make judgment calls on what is right and wrong but we are to do so with humility recognizing our sin. We must understand our rightful place before the God of the universe before we would think to look to others. Notice that Jesus says later in 7:5 that we need to deal with our flaws so we can help others deal with theirs. We need to be humble and recognize that we are not perfect so we can make judgment calls from a right heart.

This is also the main point of the language of cutting off the hand that causes to sin and cutting out the eye because of lust (Matthew 5:29-30). This is hyperbole…but we have to feel the rub of this. This should challenge us. That being said I am certain all have had lust before and most people have not gouged out their eyes. Are we then disobeying Christ? I would argue, “No.” As long as we are on this side of heaven and the new creation we carry sin. So our eyes and hands will be involved with it. We are not cutting our hands off because of our sin. Don’t get me wrong this should challenge us severely. If we are in sin we must take radical measures to mortify it, but it seems that Jesus’ main point is that our bodies are to be wholly directed toward a life of worship toward Him and we must do whatever we can to maintain this “undivided life” toward Christ.

So God is in the business of changing hearts James further draws this out by saying, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you (James 4:8-10).” This passage is coming directly after his statement that we should, “submit to God,” and further that if we, “Resist the devil…[the devil] will flee from you (James 4:7).” So becoming whole hearted is linked to submitting to God and resisting the devil.

Okay, so what does that have to do with Matthew 5:8, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” Well, we had a discussion about how this is linked to Matthew 6:22, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light.” This should be read in light (pardon the pun) of the ancient near eastern theory that was prevalent during the time this was written that light is emitted from the eye (e.g. Plato and others argued this). One Old Testament example of this was Leah’s weak eye or “dim” eye in Genesis 29:17 may have been an indication that there was less light in her, which was part of the reason she was less desirable to Jacob. So if the heart is not “divided” among itself it will be more pure hence enabling light to emit from the eye in such a way that they might see God more wholly as well. The idea that many have had about the “evil eye” (in which one can give a curse by looking at someone in a certain way) is part of the same kind of logic. It’s really interesting that even science can’t really figure out what light is (It’s clear that light does not emit from the eye in the physical realm; although, this may be true in the spiritual realm in some sense). It seems that God’s word has an enlightening effect of bringing the Lord’s purity to our eyes and then it works itself out of our lives in a rejoicing heart (Psalm 19:8).

This all roots into the main thrust of the Sermon on the Mount that it is ultimately about heart issues. Actions were taking place coming from a poor condition and posture of the heart. This is the same reason why Jesus said, “Knowing their thoughts, he said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?’ (Matthew 12:25-26).”

I have been thinking about how this plays itself out in regard to faith and works. Do my works then issue from a divided heart? If they do are my works hypocritical? Further, if I believe my heart is in a certain condition…do the works that issue out from my heart betray my perceived condition? It seems that a pure heart is God’s desire. A pure heart that is purely one hundred percent sold out to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This is clearly a theme in the Bible (Psalm 24:4; 73:1; Proverbs 20:9; 1 Timothy 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:22; Hebrews 10:22; and 1 Peter 1:22).

I pray that God would grant pure hearts to His people that we may be able to see Him and live lives that are one hundred percent for Him. May His people cry out to Him with Moses, “Please show me your glory (Exodus 33:18),” and may His people trust that, “Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2).” Ultimately, God changes hearts, and makes them whole. By our own will we cannot make our hearts undivided; we need the Lord Jesus Christ.

Just some thoughts.