Where do the ducks go?

What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?

The question reminds me of another one: Where do the ducks go when the lagoon in Central Park freezes over?

Recognize the words? It’s from Salinger’s famous The Cather in the Rye (spoiler alert), and it is so subtly asked in the novel that the careless reader is bound to gloss over it. It also remains unanswered, which is significant. There is an idiotic attempt at a response by a nameless cab driver, but that does not count. If anything, his answer adds to the mystery.

Why does the question matter? Because it encapsulates the aimlessness of the protagonist Holden Caulfield’s wanderings. Everything remains open-ended, it seems. His efforts at meaning-making and finding answers lead him nowhere. Ultimately, he fails to discover where one goes when your circumstances become unbearable. That’s the point.

No one knows, it seems. Least of all the grown-ups.

So what does Holden do? This is where the beauty comes in, and, in my view, the single element that has catapulted the book to the top lines of must-read lists for decades. Salinger manages to say more through a single image – a catcher in the rye – than libraries of philosophy have done for centuries.

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

When your life becomes unbearable, and you wish you could spread your wings and fly away from it all, but you cannot – because there simply is nowhere to go – then there is a single sensible thing left to do: Help others not to fall into the abyss that your life has become.

Yes, I know. Not everyone interprets the book in this way; as though there is some moral compass to discover in it. The book has little to do with Christianity, and no one can be exactly sure what the famously elusive Salinger was thinking when he wrote the words above. Yet, somehow he tapped into the collective psyche of the human race by confronting the aimlessness of mortal human existence with a viable and practical alternative; to give up the quest and substitute it with a life of selfless service.

If you get this, you can skip reading the book. You can skip the profanities and references to sex (although moderate by today’s standards). It’s not a book Christians have generally felt comfortable reading or recommending. But we can certainly note that Salinger does a brilliant job of using a single unanswered question as a premise for painting a beautiful scene of a life dedicated to the well-being of others and, in the process, a life that becomes progressively oblivious to its own pain.

This life-out-of-death motif is central to Christianity. It underlies the sacrificial theme of both testaments. It illustrates what Jesus meant when he said that if you seek to find your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life you will find it. Here’s the connection.

To be clear, we do not serve to escape or forget our pain. We do so because Christ is our life and it is his divine nature to love and serve. The catcher-analogy breaks down at a point. Yet, at a practical level, to be other-centered is a great way to forget about yourself and your own misery. No rational person would deny this.

Which brings me back to my own question above: What do you do when you stumble upon a truth that is too big for theology?

Ironically, as I am writing, my friend Siju from India posted in the comments section of last week’s blog-post. His words so perfectly and serendipitously describe where I am heading with the question above that I will borrow them (Thanks Siju!):

Bible study done by the natural mind happens in the realm of the flesh/natural which consists of “IMAGINATIONS, ARGUMENTS, PROPOSITIONS & CONCLUSIONS” which do not have the SUBSTANCE of LIVING BREAD that gives/maintains life. And such bible study (or ministry ) inevitably ends up in debates such as “Calvinism vs Arminianism”. It is like a hungry man given a fantastic menu in the restaurant, it tantalizes him but he is still hungry! And he does a deeper study about the dishes that he thinks will satisfy him and finds out their recipes and is thrilled for a time because of the discovery but faints because he has yet not got the meal!!! He then slanders this hotel and goes to another hotel and repeats the same thing but still does not receive the meal that can sustain/maintain his life with “vitality to perform daily tasks “, “pleasure satisfy his longings”, and “comfort in times of troubles”. New Covenant learning and ministry is NOT “learning and transferring concepts” but the broken and hungry being fed with “Living Bread by the Father” ( https://biblehub.com/matthew/5-6.htm ) and due to a “love overflow” ( https://biblehub.com/psalms/23-5.htm ) the same person is able to distribute “Living Bread in brokenness provided by Christ from the Father”.

The “study of the dishes”… What a powerful way to describe the practice of theology apart from partaking of Christ as the living bread from heaven!

The point is that there is no answer that can satisfy the yearning of the dying soul (Hence the Catcher-analogy above). The life that God alone can give is not an ideological construct and can never be reduced to one, which also happens to be the main point of last week’s post on Ravi Zacharias.

In the garden, God became an idea – an intellectual concept – the moment the humans sank their teeth into the forbidden fruit. By opting for an alternative source of life, namely the knowledge of good and evil, humanity subjected their notions of God to that source. And so God (god?) became a recruit into the thought-world of humans instead of the Creator outside of it.

In the process, God-talk became an intellectual and speculative thing, on the same par as Siju’s menus served in the different hotels apart from any real food that possesses the power to still appetites.

The idea of God as our life is too big for theology. In fact, it is not worthy of the designation “idea”. It is too real. Too incarnate. Too experiential. Too accessible. Too inviting. Too irresistible for the hungry and thirsty.

And the charge, that we will all lose our mental faculties and instantaneously become heretics if we dare conceive of life as something to partake of instead of reduce to a creed (menu?) of our choice, is too outrageous to be dignified by a response. As discussed elsewhere, the Biblical idea of heresy has to do with the act of choosing opinions and causing divisions in the process.

So where does one go?

You exchange the quest for a new lifestyle. You give it up. You walk away. You leave it all behind. You become like Salinger’s catcher in the rye. You become like Siju’s feasters at the banquet of living bread.

In short, you begin to conceive of Christ as your life, and his doctrine as a moment-by-moment adventure of impartation and response that will constitute a type of learning that can only be described as the school of Christ. You will soon find that not only your God-awareness but your other-awareness will increase with leaps and bounds.

This does not exclude study or discussion or deliberation. Rather, it provides the groundwork for it. Some of us have found that we cannot stop talking after we’d walked away.

There are great discussions in the rye, believe me. But they are wholly different to the depressing ones we had before we packed our bags.

What happened to Ravi?

Miller & Martin, the Atlanta-based law firm hired by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) to investigate allegations of sexual impropriety against their founder, released its report on Thursday.

It is devastating, to say the least.

Zacharias died in May 2020 from sarcoma. At his funeral, Mike Pence referred to him as “the C.S. Lewis of our day” and “the greatest Christian apologist of this century”, echoing a sentiment shared by millions of evangelicals worldwide.

As the RZIM website puts it, “For over 30 years and across 43 countries, RZIM has met millions of questioners with thoughtful answers concerning faith and God.” At the helm of this influential organization was the phenomenon of Ravi Zacharias – the Indian-born Canadian-American with the gentle spirit and razor-sharp intellect.

For years, the quickest draw in a duel with an atheist has been to grab your phone and swiftly swipe to a YouTube snippet of one of Ravi’s talks or viral answers to a doubting student during a Q&A in a packed auditorium at some or other famous university.

Now, we are all forced to deal with sentences such as “Tragically, witnesses described encounters including sexting, unwanted touching, spiritual abuse, and rape.” This particular statement comes from RZIM’s “Open Letter” that accompanied the release of Miller & Martin’s report, so no rumours or conjecture here.

I cannot help but wonder what the student in that video is thinking.

So what happened? Why? What are we to make of it? How should we respond?

I think the most important thing we should do is not look for new answers, because there aren’t any. Humanity is still the beast it has always been, an issue that has been dealt with in depth in the pages of Scripture. The clearest presentation of the dilemma of being human is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and we are all under discussion there. Ravi, you, me; all of us.

Our lives are a composite of two worlds, we read in Romans: The world of the flesh and the world of the Spirit. If we are dead in our sins – unregenerate, as we say – the world of the Spirit is reduced to the voice of the conscience; a law in our hearts that manifests as thoughts accusing or excusing us. Because of the power of conscience, Paul tells us, gentiles are just as accountable as the Jews who have a written law to guide them in matters of wrong and right.

However, neither the voice of conscience nor the Torah can provide the life-energy that is required to live up to their prohibitions and commands. For this to happen, one needs to enter the world of the Spirit and become a citizen there. This can only happen through a very real crucifixion and death to the world of the flesh and a subsequent resurrection in the world of the Spirit.

We have all kinds of fancy words to describe this passage, such as regeneration, new birth, conversion, getting saved, and so on. But it all boils down the same thing: I have died to my flesh and I am alive to the Spirit, who has now become my guide in the place of the fuzziness of my conscience and the impersonal dictates of a written code of regulations.

But here’s the thing, and Romans is pretty clear about it: Even though I have participated in this glorious transition from death to life and flesh to Spirit, it is still quite possible to exit the world of the Spirit and conduct my life in the old way of the flesh. In fact, at a certain level it is inevitable. And that is okay, because the immediacy and finality of the transition takes time to filter through to my cognition and from thereon to my actions. Life unveils itself in a fashion that can only be described as hesitantly; like a woman who guards herself ferociously until convinced that the one who pledges a commitment to her can be trusted with her gifts. It’s all one glorious process of growth and ever-increasing intimacy, until we shed our previous allegiances; not because we have to but because we want to.

In Romans, love fulfils the law and meets its obligation because the problem of illicit desire, underlying all the works of the flesh, has been overcome by non-elicit desire.

An analogy might be suitable here: It is the love that I have for my wife that has delivered me from my attractions to other females. She is the fulfilment of the law my mother gave me when she warned me against a certain type of girl. The commandment could not sustain me, I must confess, and even my nagging conscience proved little help when I was swept away by adolescent lust. But all of it disappeared when the power of love for the girl of my dreams invaded my soul. Those girls now seem bland and boring in comparison to the love of my life. I no longer have a need for mother’s prescriptions.

In Romans, as in the rest of Scripture, immunization against desire and the actions that spring forth from it is found in the realm of love. The Bible is a story of greater love subduing lesser love. It is as simple as that. The two greatest commandments are great exactly because they contain the power to deliver human beings from all their vices and addictions . “If you love me you will obey my commands,” Jesus said, and he was not kidding.

It is here where the world of the Spirit and the world of the flesh part ways. The world of the Spirit is governed by the force of love – love for God and love for neighbour. The satisfaction of intimacy with God banishes the need to be satisfied in other ways. Contentment is the distinguishing characteristic of the true believer. Just and right living is no longer legislated from the outside in, but has become an unstoppable force of passion from the inside out.

If this is true, then it means spiritual growth is nothing but an ever-increasing awareness of the beauty and sufficiency of God; not as some or other doctrine of transcendence but as a very real moment-by-moment life experience. I am constantly being weaned off my infantile dependencies. My maturity exists in my ongoing discovery that the shepherd’s green fields and still waters surpass all other sources of nutrition. My childhood cries are substituted by a single confession: “I shall not want.”

But it also means something else. Those who have wandered back to the world of the flesh and its works have done so because of one reason only: They have broken the first and greatest commandment. They loved something outside of God more than God himself. And the reason for this is that they have found a satisfaction and release in that thing – a satisfaction and release that they never discovered in God.

 “I need it,” the women quoted Ravi as saying. The great apologist understood and could defend the gospel better than anyone on the planet, but he had a need that was never satisfied in his walk with God. Whilst he excelled in the letter of Scripture, he failed in its spirit.

Ultimately, the great challenge is not to understand well, but to love well. I am convinced that our blindness and stubbornness in this regard constitutes the single biggest sin of the church of God in this present age.

This, I believe, is the word that God is speaking to us through the public disgrace of Ravi Zacharias.

On Dreams, Desires, Justice and Fellowship

2020-02-06At the root of all injustice lies a dream.

The dream presents a standard, and makes judgment possible. The dreamer judges himself by the standard of the dream, and then judges others by the same standard.

The dream is never inspired by what is, but what can be. The dream lies in the realm of the miraculous, which provides the power of its magic and enchantment. In the dream voices are allowed from another realm, which is why its inspiration seems divine.

The dream creates a new reality: The tension between what is and what can be. This tension is unbearable for the human soul, and it can only be conquered by one thing: Desire. Desire is the sweet voice that ensures the tension can be resolved. The distance between the dreamer and the fulfillment of the dream is eradicated by desire, for desire is the faith that promises to make the unreachable reachable.

When this judgment occurs, the dreamer leaves the path that he is on and ascends on the stairway of imagination offered by desire. The journey disengages the dreamer from his reality and allows him to escape into the nebulous world of the gods. Driven and energised by his desire, the dreamer takes the light at the end of the stairway as the standard for judging himself and others. He does not see that he has become inferior in his own estimation, and that the illusion of his future greatness is but a tranqualizer by which to suppress the horror of his nothingness in this world. He does not see that the world of goodness has been transformed into a prison of injustice by the power of his desire. Equality has been transferred to the top of the stairway, and justice becomes a crusade instead of a gift of the present.

There is only one antidote for the dark magic of desire’s fever and its hallucinations of injustice. It is to discard the dream and see God. God is not a dream, and he is not to be found in dreams. It is this one thing that separates him from the world of the false gods as expressed in images that aim to concretize the dreams of those on the stairway of desire.

God is in the present. His invisible attributes and divine power can be seen in the things he has made. God has made himself so visible that it is impossible to not see him. His life in all its goodness is around us all of the time. There is only one way to be blinded to God, and that is to turn him into a destiny, a dream, an accomplishment of the self’s ingeniousness. Idols are always imagined.

The serpent understood this, and that is how he beguiled Eve. Divinity was presented as a destiny. The present became the future. The contentment of all that she had was replaced by the desire of the one thing that was out of reach. The justice of creation’s fullness was replaced by the injustice of a single prohibition. Gratitude became offense. Fellowship became a dream. Unity became rivalry.

This is the curse of every human who does not see God. It is also the curse of those who claim to know God but have allowed the dream in their midst. This is true even of the church of Christ. When fellowship becomes a dream, it is destroyed. The enchantment of the dream is a bewitchment and a destruction of the real. The only church that will ever taste the fellowship and unity that exists in God alone is the one constituted by those who have died to the dream.

This death must first take place in the life of the individual before it can manifest in the life of the fellowship. Indeed, this is what it means to lose one’s life – to stop feeding on the image of an accomplished future self; to anticipate no future greatness in this world; to demand and expect no peace and comfort as this present age defines it. It is this collective death to aspiration that will bring the gathering of believers face to face with the glory that has already been bestowed on them as the church of God.

Unity that is constituted by a common dream and common vision, and expressed in a name that captures the essence of the commonality, falls apart when the anticipated penetration of the divine destiny fails to materialize. Its adherents will then be scattered like sheep without a shepherd. Such a church will be revealed as a daughter of Babel, not the Bride of Christ.

The true bride rejoices in the presence of the groom. She loves him in the here and now, and she does so with all of her being. She is immune to the voices of other lovers and the lust of desire for their images. She is content with his provisions. She rejoices in his love. She sees him as just, and shares in his justice. She becomes just as he is just. She loves as she is loved.  And so she remains with him forever.

Oh God, when every dream fails; when all anticipation is revealed to be but the dust of death; it is then when we return to you. Forgive us our idolatries and the imaginations they have inspired. You are the treasure in the field. You are the pearl of great price. Who do we have in heaven but you? And on earth we desire nothing but you. You are our shepherd. We shall not want.  



Who is the man in Romans 7?

Scream Edvard MunchRomans 7 may very well be the most misunderstood chapter in the Bible. It is here where we read the following words:

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. Romans 7:15-20

Someone over at Quora asked me a while ago to explain the meaning of these verses. I know it is an issue for many Christians, so here is my answer.

I found it quite befuddling that the majority of responses to your question (by far) suggest that Romans 7:15–25 is about the “two natures” that battle within a Christian. This is in fact not the case, and it is evident from a few observations:

  1. Paul’s references in Romans 7, “I agree with the Law” (verse 16) and “I delight in the Law” (verse 22) occur nowhere else in the New Testament, and are irreconcilable with his statement that we have been “released from the Law” (verse 6) and that we have “died to the Law” (verse 4). Clearly the man of Romans 7 finds his moral guidance in the “old way of the written code” and not in “the new way of the Spirit” (verse 6). Similarly, his statement in verse 18, “I have the desire to do what is right,” contradicts his confession as a regenerate man in Philippians 3, namely that his main desire is no longer to do right according to the Law’s prescription (Phil. 3:9), but to “know Christ” (Phil. 3:10).
  2. The use of the present tense in the passage does not necessarily mean that Paul is speaking about a present experience. As some Bible commentators have pointed out, the tense that Paul is using here can be described as the “dramatic present.” (See, for instance, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans: Exposition of Chapter 7:1-8:4, The Law: Its Function and Limits, Guildford and London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1973, p184.) This means that Paul is using the same type of language as a man describing an accident scene that he had witnessed days before: “Here I am, standing on the pavement, ready to cross the road. The next moment I see this car. It jumps the red light and collides with a truck…” This person is clearly not speaking about his present experience, but is describing a past experience in the way that he experienced it while it was taking place. Thus, he is transporting his listener to the event for dramatic effect.
  3. In line with the above, readers regularly miss the fact that Romans 7’s own testimony, found in its opening verses, tells us how the chapter should be interpreted. Note verse 5: “For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.” Paul is using the past tense (while we were living in the flesh) to describe a life that once was (sinful passions, aroused by the law, that bore fruit for death). As you will see, the rest of Romans 7 is about the experience of sinful passions that are aroused by the Law, and this includes Paul’s words about being unable to do the things that he wants to do! Thus, it is an account of a past experience, namely a life lived in the flesh void of the Spirit of God.
  4. The struggle of the man in Romans 7 is not with the Law in general, but with one single commandment, namely the prohibition to “covet” or “desire” (verses 7 and 8). The man in Romans 7 says that it was this commandment that enabled him to know sin, for it produced in him “all kinds of covetousness.” Thus, without it he simply would not have known sin for the powerful force that it is.
  5. The prohibition to “covet” is found in the tenth commandment of the Decalogue, and represents the sin of the heart as opposed to the misdeeds of the body. As I explained elsewhere: While the first nine commandments prohibit certain actions, the tenth commandment prohibits the intention that precedes those actions. Note that the seventh commandment tells a person not to “commit adultery,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s wife.” Also note that the eighth commandment tells a person not to “steal,” but that the tenth commandment tells the person not to “covet your neighbor’s ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbour’s.” Clearly we break the tenth commandment every single time before we break any one of the other nine. And the reason is clear: We first desire to do something before we go ahead and do it. Put differently, we first do it in our hearts before we do it in our deeds.
  6. Romans starts off in Chapter 1 with a discussion of the entrance of sin into the world, and explains that it took place when God “handed us over to covetousness/desire” as a just retribution for having rejected his revelation towards us. This desire underlies the entire list of external “sins” that are listed in Chapter 1, and is “irresistible” due to the fact that God handed us over to it. Romans 7 tells us that the Law was given not only as a restraint against committing “sins” (plural), but also as an instrument to reveal the unconquerable power of “sin” (singular) within us, so as to make us look away from ourselves to a Saviour. Romans 7 can never be understood if it is not seen as a response to the problem of Romans 1!
  7. The pattern of desire underlying sins is confirmed by the Genesis account of the fall of humanity: The woman “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Genesis 3:6). The desire then overcame her and she ate the fruit.
  8. Similarly, James tells us that “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)
  9. Peter and Paul independently identified desire as the single force that has corrupted humans and causes them to behave in the ways that they do:…he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire (2 Peter 1:4)…to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires. (Ephesians 4:22)
  10. Paul’s ultimate answer to the problem of irresistible desire is found in Galatians 5:24, and is there represented as the mark of the regenerate Christian: And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
  11. The message of Romans 7 is that the spiritually astute Rabbi Saul of Tarsus was no exception to the rule above. While he could keep himself from doing any deed that was prohibited by the Law, he could not suppress the inclination of his heart that yearned to do them! The tenth commandment tells us that God is concerned with more than an outward allegiance to his Law. What he wants is an inward desire to please him. We should stop sinning not because we have to, but because we want to. And the only way in which that can happen is if we have a change of heart. Put differently: To keep the first nine commandments, one merely needs a measure of determination and will power. To keep the tenth, one needs a heart-circumcision, namely the crucifixion of the flesh as pointed out in “9” above. In this way the “Law is our schoolmaster to Christ.”
  12. To be regenerated is to experience a change of desire, and to identify Jesus Christ as the bread and water that alone can satisfy the appetites of the heart. It is to be enabled to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your strength.” When this happens, the underlying motive for treating others unjustly disappears, for they are no longer regarded as potential sources for one’s well-being. One is then regulated from within, and no longer requires the Law as a restraint. In this way the “righteous requirement of the Law is fulfilled,” as stated in the opening verses of Chapter 8. Chapter 13 completes this message of Romans by stating that “love is the fulfilment of the Law.” The Biblical definition of love is nothing but a redirection of our passions and desires back to their rightful object, namely God. From that position of utter joy and contentment we are free to love others, for we no longer wish to complete ourselves by desiring those things that belong to them.
  13. To be totally and completely delivered from the power of desire has nothing to do with a hypocritical claim to “Christian perfectionism,” but is the simple testimony of a person who has encountered an object of affection that far outweighs all other preceding attractions. It is to fall in love, and to spend the rest of your life growing in that love. This is God’s only prescription for the problem of human, idolatrous desire. Thus, it is not far-fetched to reject the notion of “two natures” battling within, and to assert that Romans 7 and 8 present us with a beautiful picture of a life that has been captured by the power of love for God, poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. In fact, every believer should have this testimony. If not, they have never tasted the fulness of the satisfaction that is found in Christ alone.
  14. Lastly, the idea that the defeat of the man in Romans 7 is synonomous with the normal Christian experience is completely contradicted by the context of Romans 6 to 8. Note the following verses: How can we who died to sin still live in it? (6:2); We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. (6:3); We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. (6:6); For sin will have no dominion over you… (6:14); …you who were once slaves of sin…(6:17); …having been set free from sin, [we] have become slaves of righteousness. (6:18); For when you were slaves of sin… (6:20); But now that you have been set free from sin… (6:22); For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. (7:5); For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (8:2); …he condemned sin in the flesh… (8:3). In line with the above, note the contradiction between 7:14, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin,” and 8:9 “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.” It is impossible that both statements can be true at the same time, and refer to the same person.

Escape from Heresy (IV)

fish-jumping-from-boulWith our previous definition of heresy in the bin (a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine), we are ready to take a step closer to the way the Bible defines the term. Ironically, we will see that the definition that we have rejected is not merely incorrect, but in fact an excellent display of heretical thinking.

We will also see that it has stood the test of time so well because it looks very much like the real thing indeed…

Heresy in the New Testament

So how does the Bible use the word? Whilst the Greek term hairesis (αἵρεσις) sounds very much like our English “heresy”, it actually means something else. Before we discuss this, let us note that the word appears 9 times in the New Testament, and that 6 thereof are found in Acts:

  • Luke uses the word to refer to the Sadducees (5:17) and the Pharisees (15:5).
  • Tertullus uses it in his case against Paul, in reference to the Nazarenes. (24:5)
  • Paul uses it in his defense against Tertullus’ accusations, referring to the manner in which the people were speaking about “the Way”, that is, Christianity. (24:14)
  • Paul uses it in reference to the Pharisees, and his former life as one of them. (26:5)
  • The Jewish leaders in Rome used it in reference to the Christians, when they request Paul to share his views with them. (28:22)

At first glance it feels like we are on familiar ground: Everyone accuses everyone else of heresy. But a closer inspection of these verses reveals that the word refers to the people – the actual movement– not just the doctrine held by them. Which is why English Bibles typically translate hairesis as “sect” throughout Acts.

The word is used in a similar way in Paul’s famous teaching on the Lord’s supper: “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions (hairesis) among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 11:18-19)

The “works of the flesh” list in Galatians 5 also includes the word: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions (hairesis), envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

The last reference comes from Peter, and provides us with the only Biblical example where the word appears to be used as we understand it: “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)

We will return to Peter, but let us note for now that the New Testament authors did not think of heresy purely as a cognitive exercise gone wrong – an “incorrect belief” that did not conform to an established, accepted doctrine. Rather, they thought of it in terms of something that caused division. Heresy had to do with factionalism.

If we look at the etymology of the word, it becomes clear why. Derived from the Greek hairein (to choose, take, grasp), hairesis means “choosing or taking for oneself.” Thus, it refers to a “self-chosen opinion” (Strongs) that separates the person from the group and causes division. According to some scholars, it derives from the Indo European root ser which means “to seize”, and is linked to the Hittite saru and the Welsh herw. Both these words mean “booty.”

Thus, the error is not to be found in an incorrect or incomplete understanding of a matter, but in the choice to settle on an opinion that will lead to division. Out of the 9 references in Scripture, 8 carries this clear connotation.

Whilst the reference in Peter may seem like an exception, the context makes it clear that the “heresy” of the false teachers had nothing to do with theological issues, and everything with “greed”, “sensuality”, “lust”, “passion” and the like.

The problem with the “heresies” in Peter is clear from the adjective – they are “destructive.” Likewise, the problem with the false prophets who will spread them is that “many will follow their sensuality.” As above, the heresies will lead to a schism among the flock of Christ, and the outcome will be detrimental for those who have been torn away. The problem of the “false words” of verse 3 is not that they fail to conform to a correct credal construct, but that they enable the false teachers to “exploit” their hearers.

Again, note the focus on the “self” and its opinionated choices.

False Doctrine in the New Testament

Does the Bible then say nothing about doctrine that deviates from Biblical doctrine and becomes “false” in the process?

It does, but in a manner that accords with the way it defines hairesis.

For instance, Paul tells Titus that an elder “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” (Titus 1:9)

Churches love this verse and do everything to follow it to a T. Which is why I was once banned from a Pentecostal pulpit after telling two senior elders that I no longer believed that people who do not speak in tongues have never received the gift of the Holy Spirit. I had forsaken sound doctrine, as sound doctrine was understood in my classical Pentecostal congregation, and could no longer give instruction in it to my congregants. Thus, I no longer qualified as their pastor.

When I convinced my best friend to get baptised with me in the summer of 82, his Dutch Reformed dominee wanted to administer censure against him. Many godly elders in South Africa suffered that fate in the seventies and eighties as a result of their decision to be baptised as believing adults. They had contradicted sound doctrine and suffered public rebuke, in accordance with Titus 1:9.

And so we can go on, which brings us back to the problem of defining a heretic as someone who has embraced a doctrine at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine: Orthodox according to who?

If we carry on reading in Titus the problem resolves itself. Those who contradict sound doctrine are empty talkers and deceivers who teach for shameful gain (note the corelation with Peter), devote themselves to Jewish myths, and profess to know God whilst denying him by their works.

On the other hand, to “teach sound doctrine” (2:1) is to teach the older men to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. It is to teach the older women not to slander or become alcoholics, but to train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure. It is to teach the younger men to control themselves. It is to teach bondservants to respect their masters, not be argumentative and refrain from stealing, so that in everything they may “adorn” the doctrine of God. It is to teach people to submit to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

At this point you may ask, “Where on earth is the doctrine in all of this?”

The answer is rather disturbing: The word “doctrine”, as we understand it (a systematic codification of beliefs, along with its verb form “indoctrination) does not appear in the Bible. The Greek word is simply “teaching” (didaskalia). And the content of the teaching in Titus is the application of the Christ-lifestyle to males and females, the young and old, and bondservants.

This, believe it or not, is “sound doctrine.”

The Heretic in Titus

Interestingly, it is in Titus where we run into the “heretic” (hairetikon), the only place in the entire Bible where the word appears.

By now you should know what to expect. He is contrasted with those who hold to the “sound teaching” by virtue of their “good works” (a term that appears 6 times in Titus’ 3 short chapters and characterizes sound teaching better than any other term), and is identified as follows: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division (hairetikon), after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.” (Titus 3:9-11)

Interesting, isn’t it? The heretic is the one who gets involved in religious controversies and quarrels about the law, who draws conclusions and stirs up division as a result. The one who embraces sound teaching is the one who avoids these things, who does not quarrel, who refuses to be argumentative, and who channels his/her energies into becoming a “model of good works” (2:7).

If this does not shake you to the core, then perhaps you are unaware of what goes on in the inner circles of the denominational universe, and behind the closed doors of theological faculty boardrooms.

Does the rest of the New Testament concur with Titus? We will explore this in the posts to come.

(PS: I am aware that the above raises a myriad of questions, and lends itself to a number of misinterpretations and caricaturizations. But let’s stick with Scripture and trust it to address these issues as we continue to explore this theme.)

A Turkey’s Tale (A re-post)

I posted this 6 years ago, but a re-post seems appropriate at this time. As I am writing, the entire globe is yearning for a “return to normalcy.” We are using our memories of the past to construct our vision of an ideal future, and this enables anticipation – that powerful and enchanting substitute for real faith.

Ironically, the focus of true faith is presence. Translated into time, that means immunity to the regrets or nostalgia of the past (including bitterness towards those who messed up our past), and immunity to the fear or anticipation of the future (including an attraction to those who can lead us to a better future). It is the ability to experience the fullness of God in the now, regardless of the circumstances accompanying it. Thus, it is ultimate freedom.

Presence, of course, is not a type of “awareness” or “mindfulness” sought for its own sake, through meditation, contemplation or any such strategy. It is Christ with us. There simply is no other way in which frail humans made of dust can partake of the eternity which is to be found in God alone. 

2TurkeysBI am indebted to Nassim Nicholas Taleb for the turkey analogy. Taleb borrowed it from the philosopher Bertrand Russel and used it in his provocative book The Black Swan to illustrate the folly of predicting the future by using the past as a point of reference. Along with scholars such as Daniel Kahneman (Fast and Slow Thinking) and Daniel Gilbert (Stumbling on Happiness) Taleb points out that humans are outrageously irrational when they try their hand at forecasting the future.

The topic intrigues me. As you may know, humans are most egotistical and idolatrous when they imagine what their own futures are going to look like. It is not our photo albums or mirrors that inspire self-worship, but our projections of an idealised future self. Our past and present selves are simply too real to be worthy of deification, and so we use the future to shape and mould the image of I.

All of this becomes rather interesting if we consider that the first motivational speaker in the history of the universe was a serpent. He convinced Eve that she could be more than what she was. He managed to divert her gaze from what she was and had in God to what she could have and be in herself, and thus from the present to the future. “Eve, you can maximise your potential. Eve, you can fulfil your destiny.”

Ever noticed that God identifies himself as “I am”, even in His self-declaration in Christ, but that Satan identifies himself as “I will”? Note the contrast:

I am who I am. Exodus 3:14
I am the bread of life John 6: 35, 48
I am the light of the world John 8: 12, 9:5
Before Abraham was, I am John 8: 58
I am the door John 10:9
I am the good shepherd John 10:11
I am the resurrection and the life John 11:25
I am the way, the truth, and the life John 14:6
I am the true vine John 15:1

“How you are fallen from heaven,
O Day Star, son of Dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
I will ascend to heaven;
above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high;
I will sit on the mount of assembly
in the far reaches of the north;
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the far reaches of the pit. Isaiah 14:12-15

Reading Isaiah 14, it is clear why John tells us that “the devil has been sinning from the beginning” (1 John 3:8). The seed of the serpent was forged in eternity before time, when the contentment and perfection of “I am” was replaced with the desire of “I will”. And so “being” was replaced with “becoming”, beholding with visioneering, the Creator with the creature, rest with striving, contentment with anticipation, the now with the then, the “thank you” with “if only”, the treasure of having with the emptiness of wanting.

Of course there was only one way in which the toxic seed of the serpent could be injected into God’s creatures, made in his image and likeness, birthed into his rest, partaking of his identity of life, enjoying the abundance of his provision. They too were to utter the venomous “I will…”

And so the serpent whispered to them: “You will… be as God.”

The moment they believed the promise, and acted on their newfound faith, they too were brought down to Sheol. Note that the first sin was in fact the second sin, but that it was like the first sin.

The enmity between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent began here. The “I will” became a collective in Genesis 11, when an entire nation aspired to penetrate the heavens and found a name and identity for themselves. “I will” became “we will”, and so the seed of the serpent that had become the seed of humanity became the seed of the kingdoms of this world.

Two Seeds, Two Births, Two Confessions

The enmity continues throughout Scripture and finds its ultimate manifestation in two births. The first came into the world and restored our understanding of the “I am” identity, the partaking in that which is and cannot become, for how can perfection be more than what it is?

This was the one who defied the arrogance of the serpent and his offspring, by saying “not my will, but yours be done.” This was the one who defined divinity in his “I am” statements, quoted above. This was the one of whom was said that he, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” In each and every way he contradicted the aspirations of the serpent and his offspring.

Of course the serpent tempted him in the traditional, tried and tested way that had successfully led the whole word astray: “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”

Note the underlying transactional and graceless philosophy that has governed all human relationships and marriages since the fall: “I will, if you will.”

But Christ resisted. As he would later say: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.” In the same manner, he taught us to pray “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

The first birth manifested the seed from heaven, and revealed its nature as that which is and cannot become, which has and cannot want, which beholds and does not imagine.

If the first birth was God’s Messiah and a revelation of his perfection, then the second birth is Satan’s messiah and a revelation of his imperfection and subsequent striving to “become”. As the seed of the woman brought Christ into the world, the seed of the serpent brought forth the exact opposite and antithesis of Christ, aptly referred to as “Antichrist”.

Naturally, the Antichrist is the incarnation of the human will and its striving, and so, in accordance with the first and second sin, and all the sins since then, he is made manifest in one way only: “He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thessaloninas 2:4). Naturally, for his coming “will be in accordance with how Satan works” (verse 9).

These insights reveal why it is futile and sinful to obsess about “tomorrow”, and why God has a habit of only providing enough manna for “today”. A focus on tomorrow is an inevitable invitation to idolatry, and so we are warned:

Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. James 4:13-16

Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring. Proverbs 27:1

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. Matthew 6:31-34

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11

Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day. In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions… The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, the one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little. Everyone had gathered just as much as they needed. Then Moses said to them, “No one is to keep any of it until morning.” However, some of them paid no attention to Moses; they kept part of it until morning, but it was full of maggots and began to smell. So Moses was angry with them. Exodus 16:4, 17-20

Needless to say, the above insights have made me not only highly suspicious of the motivational revolution of the last few decades, but especially of its recent infiltration into the church world. A quick visit to the Google Ngram Viewer (an online phrase-usage graphing tool indicating usage of words and phrases in more than 5 million prominent publications) reveals the following disturbing trend:

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 6.13.30 PM

All of this has prompted me to rethink the contemporary hallowed usage of the word “destiny” amongst Christians. Wondering if the word is actually used in the Bible as it is currently being used on the covers of Christian bestsellers, I went to my concordance. This is what I found:

But as for you who forsake the Lord and forget my holy mountain, who spread a table for Fortune and fill bowls of mixed wine for Destiny, I will destine you for the sword… Isaiah 65:11-12


Correct me if I am wrong, but it would appear that even the great apostasy is no longer in the future, but in the present.

Escape from Heresy (III)

fish-jumping-from-boulOn that fateful day, 27 October 1553, on the plain of Champel at the gate of Geneva, whilst the flames were engulfing Michael Servetus, he used his last breath to cry out in a loud voice, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” The words were ignored by the bystanders, and Servetus died soon afterwards.

Commenting on the affair, in his Calvin: A Biography, Bernard Cottret wryly remarks: “He passed away after committing a terrible error of syntax; he cried out, ‘Oh Jesus, son of eternal God, have pity on me!’ in place of the proper, ‘Oh Jesus, eternal son of God.’” Cottret concludes: “His punishment was due to the misplacing of a single adjective. Heresy is never anything but a question of grammar.”

Servetus did not agree with John Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity, and so rejected the notion of Christ’s eternal sonship. The solution to his heresy was a simple alteration of words, a “confession” that would set the matter straight. And so William Farel, like a good grammar teacher, tried to persuade Servetus in his final hours to fix his sentence construction and earn his freedom. But of course Servetus didn’t.

The Chronicles of Geneva

The obsession with a correct articulation of words and sentences as a sure antidote to heresy governed the religious thinking of 16thcentury Geneva. The Registers of the Consistory of the city confirm as much. The single theme that recurs throughout these records, in some or other form, has to do with the citizens’ ability to recite the “Pater” and the “confession” faultlessly. And yes, these people were summoned to appear in front of the consistory if there were any doubts about their religious commitments.

Here are some typical extracts, dating from the years 1542 and 1543. In each case, John Calvin was present:

Jacques Emyn: Summoned to render an account of his faith. He responded that he had made little progress and said the Pater, “Our Father, etc,” and a few words of the creed. The Consistory advise, having given him proper admonitions…

Charriere: She said her Pater fairly well, the creed very little. Remanded to Thursday.

The sheath-maker’s wife: …in the French language she could not say her creed; in Latin in a general way.

Clauda, daughter of Tyvent Joctz: …said the prayer poorly, and does not know the confession. She was admonished…

 And so it goes on, page after page, month after month, year after year. The only other spiritual activity that enjoyed the same scrutiny was the attendance of Monsieur Calvin’s sermons. The question, “Are you born again?” does not appear in the records.

The error behind the contemporary definition of heresy hinges on the very misunderstanding that governed the thoughts of the religious elite in Calvin’s Geneva, namely that it is possible to capture and preserve the essence of the sacred in a formulation that consists of mere human words and nothing more.

It should be noted that this understanding obscures the true nature of evil by subtly suggesting that one can banish it through the powers of a credal construct. Words arranged in the correct order becomes a type of magic charm that can dispel the darkness of the human heart. If only I can extract the good confession from the heretic, I will have destroyed the heresy. If not, I will have to destroy the heretic. (If not by fire, then by rumour).

The Real Problem

Where on earth did this idea come from?

We could approach the question like good historians, citing a pendulum-like overreaction on the Reformers’ part to the mysticism of the late Middle Ages.

Or we could point to the fact that the Reformation coincided with the dawn of the Renaissance – that golden era of enlightenment rationality, the scientific method and the birth of the industrial process and left-brained utilitarianism.

Or we could remind ourselves that the power of words experienced a revival during Luther’s time due to Gutenberg’s invention that immortalised the speech-bubble by turning it into print, hence the centuries-old association between the Protestant message and the gospel tract. And so on.

We can do so, but we will be scratching the surface.

The idolisation of words as containers of spirituality stretches much further back than the time of the Reformation. It even precedes the word-obsessed religious subculture of first-century Palestine – one that prompted Jesus to rebuff prayers that relied on a vain repetition of words to increase their efficacy, and rebuke those who confessed him with their lips whilst their hearts were far from him.

In fact, it predates the Isaiah passage that Jesus quoted from, “…this people draw near with their words” and “their reverence for me consists of tradition learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13, NASB), and it does so by millennia.

The Sacralisation of Language

Study the history of religion and you will soon run into the fascinating phenomenon of sacred language.

Like the architectural design of religious edifices symbolising the coveted penetration of the heavens, or the idea that some select locations on the globe are more suitable than others for doing so (this mountain, Jerusalem, Lourdes, Mecca, the “church” around the corner…), or the notion that spirituality is an impossibility without the mediation of a guru or holy man or priesthood of sorts, or the conviction that God is in the habit of assigning strange titles and dress codes to individuals who have learnt about him in settings inaccessible to the general public; the belief persists that there is an indissoluble bond between God’s revelation of himself and the words by which that revelation were conveyed.

The idea might not have been a bad one, were it not for the fact that it suffers from the same malady as our conceptions of what makes a heretic: Everyone seems to have their own version of what God has revealed to us.

And so there are tens of thousands of well-meaning folks, especially in the southern states of the USA, who remain convinced that God’s chosen language of communication is the type of English that King James and his cohorts spoke at the turn of the sixteenth century.

Travel north to Pennsylvania and you will run into Amish believers who are convinced that God would have them read the Bible in Luther’s Gothic Script High German, even though many of them struggle to understand the antiquated language.

Visit a couple of traditional Catholic churches on the way and you will meet people who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in the sixties, that allowed the use of vernacular languages in the Mass in the place of Latin.

There are many other examples.

The phenomenon is not restricted to Christendom. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is a revelation specifically in Arabic and should only be recited in Quranic Arabic. Translations into other languages are mere “interpretations.” Shinto practitioners chant in a form of Japanese that was spoken in the ninth to twelfth century. Hindus worship in Sanskrit, a language considered “dead” by many. Buddhists memorise their texts in Classical Tibetan. And so on.

The pattern repeats itself throughout religious history and can be traced back to the dawn of civilisation as we know it. Sumerian, one of the oldest languages known to humanity (spoken in ancient Mesopotamia of the Bible), was replaced by Akkadian in the second millennium BC, but lived on as a sacred and ceremonial language until the first century.

You cannot really go much further back than that, can you?

You can, in fact: To a time before language existed as we know it today; to a time when the notion of “knowledge” was understood and intended to be conveyed in a manner that transcended the limitations of mere spoken syllables and written symbols.

More about that in the posts to come.

Escape from Heresy (II)

fish-jumping-from-boulSo what on earth is a heretic?

According to conventional ecclesiastical wisdom and most dictionaries, it is “a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine.”

If you have read the previous post, you will see that there is a problem here. Accepted or orthodox according to who? Keep this in mind and it quickly becomes clear that the textbook definition of heresy is little more than code for “a doctrine or opinion at variance with my doctrine.”

Two Approaches to Heresy

This little insight is not a new discovery. Sebastian Castellio, the man famous for daring to accuse John Calvin of having “hands dripping with the blood of Servetus” after Servetus’ public execution in Geneva in October 1553 for heresy (Servetus rejected infant baptism, predestination and the doctrine of the Trinity) put it as follows:

“After a careful investigation into the meaning of the term heretic, I can discover no more than this, that we regard those as heretics with whom we disagree. This is evident from the fact that today there is scarcely one of our innumerable sects which does not look upon the rest, as heretics, so that if you are orthodox in one city or region, you are held for a heretic in the next.”

Castellio wrote this in 1554, in a pamphlet entitled Concerning Heretics: Whether they are to be persecuted and how they are to be treated, one month after Calvin published his now infamous Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus. Calvin wrote the latter in response to the outcry against him and the Geneva City Council for the murder of Servetus. In it he made the following statements:

“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honour, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories? Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.”

It is not difficult to see how these words inspired Castellio to write Concerning Heretics. Calvin was not impressed that he dared to do so and called Castellio “a monster full of poison and madness.”

Castellio responded yet again, and this time he confronted his readers with the logical conclusion of Calvin’s propositions:

“He makes himself (by what right I do not know) the judge and sovereign arbiter. He claims that he has on his side the sure evidence of the Word of God. Then why does he write so many books to prove what is evident? In view of all this uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, for each is sure of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and other nations, wipe out cities, put all the men to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, not even the babes and beasts. All who bear the Christian name would be burned except the Calvinists. There would be left on earth only Calvinists, Turks, and Jews, whom he accepts.”

Castellio’s point is relevant, even though the threat of being exterminated for heresy is not quite as real as it was in his day. We may not burn our theological foes at the stake, but we have a myriad of other uncharitable ways to deal with them, all fueled by our sincere convictions that we are the custodians of God’s truth and those who disagree with us are the heretics.

Is there any yardstick or benchmark by which to judge this?

So Who Came First?

I mentioned that the first Pentecostals I came across were quite happy to refer to themselves as the oldest denomination on earth. Didn’t it all start on the Day of Pentecost? Weren’t the first Christians Holy Ghost baptised tongue talkers? Of course they were. So we are orthodox and everyone else is… well, a heretic. Case closed.

However, not everyone agrees. According to a gentleman from the Western Diocese of the Armenian Apostolic Church of North America, who carries the honourable title of “Reverend Father,” Pentecostalism “is a modern American Christian movement that emerged out of the Holiness Movement at the turn of the 20th Century along with other heretical movements during that period of time in American history.”

Note: The Reverend Father does not see Pentecostalism as orthodox but as “modern” and thus heretical. He then highlights one of their aberrations: Pentecostal Church services are “very informal, avoiding the Divine Liturgy of the original churches.”

Ok, so here is an element of orthodoxy that distinguishes the “original churches” from the modern, heretical ones: The Divine Liturgy. (Note the capitalisation).

So, which element best captures the ethos of the non-heretical original churches? The charismatic gifts or the Divine Liturgy?

Here is an answer from a “Reformed” believer who proposes a third way: “Calvinism is so-called because John Calvin was the foremost man in history who articulated it in a way that many have not forgotten. He is not the only one who did so. There are many others, and the Apostle Paul was the first.”

That’s quite a statement. In tracing their beliefs back to their origins these guys zoom right past the “original churches” to Paul himself, the first Calvinist.

Shouldn’t one then call it Paulism?

Amazingly, the author anticipates the question and provides the answer in his next sentence: “Why then do we call it Calvinism and not Paulinism or just plain Christianity? The answer is that EVERYONE thinks their interpretation of Christianity is the correct one. The only way we can differentiate our interpretation from other interpretations is to give it a unique label. The fact that it is called, “Calvinism” does not make it extra-biblical, this is simply a designation that separates it from all other interpretations of the Scriptures, all other “isms.” The point of this all is that Calvinism is simply Biblical Christianity.” (Emphasis in original)

Hmm. That’s quite something – giving your version of Christianity a “unique label” that ends with an “ism”, with the express purpose of distinguishing it from all the other “isms,” and also from the designation “plain Christianity” which doesn’t quite convey the allegiance to the theology of John Calvin that Paul adhered to.

Think about that: This gentleman thinks that CALVINism is a better label than CHRISTianity.

Interestingly, while I was writing the above I found myself wondering what a Catholic would have to say about all of these people claiming the original churches and even the apostle Paul for themselves and their movements.

I kid you not: Whilst doing so an email containing a Quora notification flew into my Inbox. I opened it and read the following question:

“What was Christianity like before Catholicism?”

I then read the answer:

“Non-existent! Catholicism is the ONLY Christianity established by CHRIST HIMSELF, and the only Christianity which has been there for two thousand years.” (Emphasis in original)

No, it’s not a parody. The author identifies as a “Catholic who teaches Catechism, RCIA, and Prayer classes.” (I looked for mind-reading abilities, but there was none.)

I must hand it to these guys. They trace their origins further back than the earliest Christians and even the apostle Paul. Jesus himself founded them. Jesus was a Catholic!

At this point, I was tempted to wonder why Paul the Calvinist never addressed Jesus’ Catholicism. Imagine, we could have had the Reformation recorded in the book of Acts!

I will spare you the nuttiness that runs throughout the rest of church history. Trust me when I say that the sad pattern above has replicated itself with each ecclesiastical schism and split over the past two thousand years.

I think we are on safe ground to dismiss the definition of heresy at the beginning of this post. Which leaves us with a question: If heresy is not “a doctrine or opinion at variance with the accepted or orthodox doctrine,” then what is it?

More about this in the next post.

Escape from Heresy (I)

fish-jumping-from-boulI had barely turned ten when I heard that there was such a thing as a heretic. In my neck of the woods, the biggest heretic was a wederdoper (re-baptizer). A group of them was a sekte, and they were to be avoided like the Bubonic plague.

There were also other sects: Pentecostals, JWs, SDAs, Mormons, and so on. They were all equally dangerous, and equally lost. That was the consensus at the time, as we all understood it, and it lasted well into my high school years.

Until one morning, during a compulsory Sunday School class before the church service, when our dominee revealed a somewhat more open-minded approach. He took a piece of chalk and drew two large circles on the blackboard. Like the Audi rings, they overlapped, but barely. He pointed to the left circle.

“That’s us.”

He pointed to the other circle.

“That’s them – the Pentecostals.”

His finger slid to the minute overlap, which bore a remarkable resemblance to the eye of a needle.

“It is possible that there are true believers amongst them, and they will be found here.”

Not long after that, my older brother, who had recently become a “born-again” Christian, forced me (literally) to accompany him to a Pentecostal church service. I was surprised to discover that these folks were nothing like the treacherous apostates I had been warned against. The singing was great and the love was tangible. I ended up staying.

One of the first things I learned was that the real heretics were the gereformeerde people. They baptized infants and did not believe in the gifts of the Spirit. The Bible differed with them on both accounts, and that settled the matter. “We are the oldest denomination on earth,” the Pentecostals said. “We trace our roots back to the church of Acts.”

It was a relief to learn that I had not become a heretic, but that I had in fact escaped from them. The downside was that it seemed that my entire Reformed family had suddenly lost their salvation, and were in desperate need of redemption.

The passion that I found amongst the Pentecostals led me all the way to seminary. I wanted to be the best pastor ever, and gave it my everything. But in my final year something happened that would alter the course of my spiritual pilgrimage yet again: I stumbled upon John MacArthur’s Charismatic Chaos, and devoured it.

I was a heretic, after all. A vile and horrid one. MacArthur’s book made sense, and clarified a number of things that I had become uncomfortable with in our denomination. Chief amongst them was the outbreak of the so-called Toronto Blessing – the laughing revival that had been exported to the USA by South Africa’s Rodney Howard Brown, and that had returned to our shores thirty times stronger. Phenomena like this were all just over-the-top fanaticism, MacArthur taught me. Like the Pentecostal lady who taught her dog to bark in tongues.

MacArthur represented a new hybrid of Christian. He was the best of both my former worlds: Someone who understood repentance and baptism, but was wary of fanaticism – a type of Reformed Evangelical. I began reading everything by him that I could lay my hands on, and even distributed a copy of Charismatic Chaos amongst my Pentecostal congregants. (By now I was an ordained minister.)

The Senior Pastor was not amused, to say the least.

Needless to say, the cognitive dissonance soon became unbearable. After a number of ministerial years in my Pentecostal denomination, I resigned and became a Baptist. That was the closest thing to a MacArthur denomination that one could find here in South Africa.

However, I soon learned that not all Baptists could be trusted. Some of them were not like MacArthur at all, I was told. They were Arminians. Arminians were people who misunderstood grace. And yes, you guessed it. Arminians were heretics.


The good news was that there existed an antidote to Arminianism: Calvinism. That was MacArthur’s secret, and it left me with no choice. I quickly gravitated towards the non-Arminian Calvinistic fraternity within my new denomination, only to discover that they had the habit of fraternalising with non-Arminian Calvinists from other denominations, many of whom were passionately committed to the doctrine of infant baptism.

My passion for purity had made me delirious, it seemed. Like a lost soul in the desert, my ecclesiastical wanderings had taken me full circle to where I had begun. I was now attending conferences with paedobaptists (the fancy name for people who baptize babies) who believed that Pentecostals were heretics. It all seemed too familiar.

At one of these conferences I managed to corner Joel Beeke, one of the most respected Reformed theologians in the world, a renowned expositor of John Calvin’s writings, and an all-round nice, godly guy. I told him about the church of my youth, and he used the term “hyper-covenantalism” to explain how my old dominee’s theology differed from his.

I liked Beeke, so I decided that I was also going to become a non-hypercovenantalist. But before I had time to consider whether this label would suffice to put a distance between me and the heretical religion of my youth, a friend stuck a book in my hand. “It’s a gift,” he said.

The book was Dave Hunt’s What Love Is This? I started reading, and it did not take long to get the message: Calvinists were heretics. All of them, regardless of their levels of covenantalism.

The cognitive dissonance was back, with a vengeance.

I soon realized that the only way to rid myself of it was to write the inevitable Dear John letter to Calvin, although my ultimate decision to do so involved significantly more than what I had learned from Hunt’s book.

Let me pause for a moment and explain this. It is a maxim amongst Calvinists that non-Calvinists are non-Calvinists because they do not understand Calvinism, and that Dave Hunt, especially, does not understand it. This is quite befuddling, as Hunt spent more time studying it than just about anyone on the planet. But that’s besides the point. You never critique Calvinism based on a mere reading of Hunt. NEVER. Unless you enjoy evoking the Calvinistic stare that comes with recognizing a theological fruitcake (a mixture of horror and pity).

The reason, I suspect, has to do with the fact that Hunt’s book speaks more to the heart than the head. That makes it beautiful, and more than convincing for any sensitive soul, but it also also makes it inadmissible as evidence in the courts of Calvinism. Calvinism, as you may have heard, is severely left-brained. Humanitarian considerations are not at the top of their list, which is why early Calvinists had no problem to drown, torture or fry people who disagreed with their theology. As a result, I had to think hard and deep before making my exit. (I spoke about it here.)

Back to the story…

So who was Dave Hunt? My bridges were now burning ferociously behind me, and I was eager to find a resting place for a rapidly wearying soul. At this point my effort to escape from heresy had been going on for well over two decades.

Hunt was difficult to pin down, which made him interesting. He could probably be best described as an ex-Charismatic (although not Cessationist) with Brethren tendencies (he grew up in a Plymouth Brethren family.)

Now here was an interesting group of people: The Brethren. I liked their severe dislike of denominationalism, but disagreed with their end times theories. These they got from one of their founding members, John Nelson Darby, the man known as the father of Dispensationalism and Futurism. Another Brethren writer, Cyrus Ingerson Scofield, popularized Darby’s eschatology with his reference Bible that remains a sensation to this day, especially amongst Independent Fundamentalist Baptists.

Did I mention that I once explored the IFB in my desperation to settle down in a church family? This was during my early Baptist days, before I tried to be a Calvinist. One night a good brother from the United States looked me straight in the eyes and said in a no-nonsense voice: “The litmus test of Christian orthodoxy is your Bible translation!” He was, of course, referring to the KJV 1611 Authorized Version. I was using another translation. I was a heretic. That settled it.

And so, during my flirtations with the IFB, Darby’s eschatology was everywhere. They regarded the doctrine of the “rapture” (in the sense of it being a distinct and separate event from the second coming of Christ) as almost on the same par as the KJV issue. But I remained unconvinced, especially after reading Hendriksen’s More Than Conquerers, Greer’s The Momentous Event, Robertson’s The Israel of God (all of them Calvinists, for some or other painful reason), and so on.

Now rapture views were popping up once again – this time round in Brethren literature. Did this make them heretics? I decided that it did not. It was an honest mistake, and could be forgiven. (My wife also believes in the rapture, which contributed to my decision. Who wants to be married to a heretic?)

However, even though the Brethren started off well and their eschatology was forgivable, they ended up stepping into the very trap that they were speaking out against. They became progressively exclusive and elitist, and eventually split into two factions – the “Exclusive” and the “Open” Brethren – each firmly convinced that the other had succumbed to the spirit of…heresy.

Double sigh…

My ecclesiastical wanderings sort of fizzled out at this point, and were replaced with an exploration of everything non- (or post-) institutional, house-churchy, organic, relational, simple, and so on. Throughout, I remained passionately committed to the belief that somewhere, some day, I would stumble upon that non-heretical group of Christians who had been eluding me since infancy.

Sadly, I discovered that the non-institutional church world was oftentimes just a microcosm of the one I had fled from, with its own gurus, schisms, weird beliefs, rituals, claims of exclusivity, and so on. In fact, I learned that for every denominational atrocity under the sun there existed a myriad of spawns who perpetuated the atrocity somewhere in a house under the guise of being a purer or restored version of whatever it was that birthed the original movement in the first place.

And, of course, they all fled the mother ship with one express purpose: To get away from… the heretics.

At this point I ran out of sighs.

Yet I was not ready to give up. I could not shake the feeling that there was something disturbingly familiar about the observation that the passion to escape from heresy seems to lead to the inevitable dissemination of heresy. We were all too much like the delirious man who got quarantined for Jungle Fever – along with his fellow travellers who all picked up the deadly disease – and then decided to get away from them as he no longer wanted to associate with a bunch of people who were clearly not well. His escape provided him with the illusion of freedom and normality that he so earnestly craved, but his only real accomplishment was to spread the dreaded disease wherever he went.

I thought deeply about this, and then I remembered something that I haven’t told you, and found my answer:

Each group that I had ever explored in my yearning to escape from heresy was spectacularly shattered into its own bits and pieces.

When I encountered the Pentecostals In the 80’s, they were split into the middle-of-the-road Charismatics like the Hatfield Baptist Church of the Ed Roebert era, the Brook House guys next door (that story would fill a book), the Word Faith Churches like Rhema, the SA Vernuwingsbeweging with their churches, the Tent Revival Meeting styled classical Pentecostals like Nicky van der Westhuizen (no relation), and official denominations like the PPC (Pentecostal Protestants), AFM (Apostolic Faith Mission), FCC (Full Gospel Church), AoG (Assemblies of God) and the Spade Reën churches.

I visited all of them. Sometimes I joined them. I attended their conferences, read their literature and listened to their tapes. I studied them. I experienced them to the full. I made friends in them. I got to know a number of their leaders.

And, of course, I always managed to find out why each of these streams was regarded as heretical by someone, somewhere.

When I joined the Calvinists, I witnessed the same phenomenon. And I witnessed it amongst the Fundamentalists. And the Baptists. And…and…and…

And then I thought of an old joke…

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What denomination?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

…and an old cartoon…


… and I finally got it.

I am a slow learner. It took me over three decades to smell the rat. Clearly what I was looking for did not exist. The moment I realized this, I realized that there was something dreadfully wrong with the way in which I had been defining the word heretic.

More about that in the next post.

(PS: I made a promise to write a third post in the series The Church of No Anticipation during 2018. I have not forgotten, but I am still thinking through that one.)


A Political Alternative

symbolicons-iconLegislative_509729_7Elections are around the corner here in South Africa. As always, there is a lot of conversation and even debate amongst Christians regarding the church’s political role and responsibility in addressing, influencing and even giving direction to a secular government.

I recently sent an e-mail response to a believing friend who asked a question along these lines, which may be of interest for those who are pondering this issue. If you have been tuned in to the local discussions in the Christian media and on the airwaves, you will note that the view below is a minority one:

“…The question is whether it is a government’s responsibility to acknowledge God. It appears from Scripture that a government’s role is to bear the sword, collect taxes, punish wrongdoers, and so on. In this they are “God’s servant,” according to Romans 13. When we pray for them, we should pray that they should govern well so that we may live “peaceful lives” (E.g. pothole and crime-free in SA), as Paul told Timothy. This does not necessitate any acknowledgment of God or Jesus or the principles of Scripture on the government’s side. It necessitates doing the job well. When I flew to Thailand last month, I could not care less whether the pilot was a Hindu, Buddhist or Christian. I wanted him only to be a pilot!

The Bible clearly distinguishes between 3 forms of justice: The justice of the gentiles, the justice of Old Testament Judaism, and the justice of Christ. The first applies to all governments worldwide, and has characterised them since the dawn of civilisation. The Babylonians and Egyptians are prime examples. There is a National Geographic (History edition) on the shelves at the moment that has dedicated a huge section to the justice system of the ancient Egyptians. If you page through it you get a crystal clear picture of the justice elements that constitute the responsibilities of a government, and they are remarkably similar throughout the history of the nations. According to Romans 2, these principles are written on the hearts of the gentiles!

I am of the opinion that John Calvin and the other Reformers undermined the Reformation with their belief that the justice system of a government should be expanded to include the Christian idea of justice. You cannot marry darkness and light. You cannot expect unregenerate people to function outside their calling. But you can expect them to govern well. When you try and forge some alliance between government and church, you end up with atrocities such as the old SA government’s marriage to the Dutch Reformed Church, where they justified their governmental injustices with an appeal to Scripture. It could be argued that they should have received guidance from other governments at the time (such as the USA), rather than from their local DRC leaders. The Biblical jargon confused the issue (most of it traceable right back to Calvin & Augustine), rather than clarified it.

Secular governance is a type of temporal governance allowed and sanctioned by God for the sake of the nations during this dispensation while the spiritual aspect of God’s Kingdom is being established in the hearts of regenerate people. When you mix the two you give the church a type of power that it was never supposed to have, and you give the state a sense of spirituality that it was never supposed to have. This is why Anabaptist historians call Luther and Calvin’s Reformation “neo-Constantiniasm.” They simply carried on what Constantine established in the 300s, and that eventually gave us Catholicism with its papal worship, government-subsidised priesthood and severe persecution of those who disagreed with their doctrine. (Wow, we can make it a capital crime to be baptised as an adult, and punishable with death!)

This does not mean that the church should be silent when a government goes off the rails, but it is a fine line to distinguish between governmental “sin” and “sin” as defined in the body of Christ. To use the pilot analogy again: If the pilot gets drunk I can and should address him, but this is not because I believe drinking is sin or because I am a fundamentalist teetotaller or because I believe that Jesus turned water into grape juice or because of any other doctrinal conviction. It is because drunk pilots are bad pilots. Also, I do not need to be a Christian to discern or address this. His co-pilot can also do it, and would perhaps do it even better as he is acquainted with the formal do’s and don’ts of drinking and flying as contained in whatever code it is that pilots live and fly by…”

In closing: Of course there are fuzzies in this debate, such as the abortion issue and the myriad of social injustices perpetrated by governments worldwide, especially against women and children. But we need to remind ourselves that we cannot expect people who are unregenerate to think about the sanctity of life in the same way that believers do. While we may work to address and rectify these issues for the sake of those at the receiving end, we always do it as citizens and never as a special type of Christian Crusader. We do it for the purpose of establishing the type of governance that God expects from the nations, never to impose a type of Kingdom ethic on the world, as though they are supposed to share in our understanding in exchange for us sharing in their authority.

As Stanley Hauerwas has quipped: “The church does not exist to provide an ethos for democracy or any other form of social organization, but stands as a political alternative to every nation, witnessing to the kind of social life possible for those that have been formed by the story of Christ.”