Some thoughts on thoughts

For a while there it seemed that America’s Evangelical Christian sub-culture was obsessed with something called “spiritual warfare”. (Google it if you’re not familiar with the term.) These days, I still hear some people using the jargon associated with spiritual warfare, but it looks like that the fever has cooled a bit. One word that features prominently in the speech of believers in spiritual warfare is “stronghold”. This word, lifted from one of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, came to mean any sinful behavior or thought that is particularly difficult to give up. Yet, this doesn’t appear to be what Paul had in mind when he originally used the word. For Paul, strongholds were “arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God”. These arguments are less like the out-right lie that Satan told Eve when deceiving her (“You will not surely die.”), but more like the faulty logic that he put before Jesus when he took Him up to the pinnacle of the temple (If you’re God’s Son, jump. The Bible says that God will protect you.).

Recently, one preacher that I listen to said, “A stronghold is an entrenched pattern of thought…contrary to the truth of God.” As an illustration of such an entrenched thought pattern, he told the story of woman who lived for thirty years believing that she was unwanted and unworthy because she grew up with her father telling her that a) she was unplanned and b) he had hope she would be a boy. Thirty years of dwelling on this in her mind fuelled perfectionism and robbed her of joy.

While I don’t think that this is what Paul was getting at with his use of the word “stronghold”, I do think that he had something to say about such negative thoughts. In the same letter, in the same sentence no less, Paul says that we “take every thought captive to obey Christ”.

That same preacher offered two ways to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in the process of renewing our minds, one of which is basically a way to take our thoughts captive. He said, “We can think about what we think about.” Rather than remain passive when a thought enters our minds, we can seize it and critique it. Hold it up to the light of Scripture, of Christ and examine it. This is easier to do when we have the Scripture in our minds whether by means of intentional memorization or incidental familiarity born of lots of exposure. The more of God’s word (which are God’s thoughts) we have in us, the better we will be able to take every thought captive to obey Christ. In this way, we will not only gain ground against “arguments and pretensions” that are against the knowledge of God, we will also make progress in rooting out those “entrenched patterns of thought” that are “contrary to the truth of God”.

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What’s the problem with praying to saints?

Protestants get really uptight about the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) practice of praying to the saints. Generally, Protestants think prayer is communication with God. Catholics have a broader understanding of prayer. While it can be communication with God, prayer can also be simply asking for something. For Catholic apologists, praying to saints is merely asking dead Christians to do something for you, namely interceding with God on your behalf. They see this as essentially the same thing as asking living Christians to pray for you with the exception that the saints are perfectly righteous. The perfected righteousness of the saints is what makes their prayers on our behalf more effective than our own prayers. Protestants have a hard time getting past the fact that the saints are dead and therefore out of the reach of the living. (They also have a problem with the Catholic concept of “saint”, but we’ll leave that alone for now.)

Both groups appeal to the Bible to support their positions, so who’s right? On this issue, I’m going to side with the Protestants, but with some reservation. While I think Protestantism’s objection to praying to the saints is correct, I don’t think all of its arguments are sound . For example, I heard a well-known Evangelical apologist argue that praying to the saints is forbidden because it is analogous to consulting the dead, which is prohibited in Deuteronomy 18. I was very disappointed by his reasoning. Instead of seeing the prohibition of contacting the dead in its immediate context (divination and necromancy), this Evangelical generalized and stated that God doesn’t want any communication with the dead of any kind. The folks over at Catholic Answers stick with the context saying that there is a big difference between performing necromancy in order to get secret information from the deceased and asking a departed Christian in heaven to pray to God on your behalf. I have to agree. Deuteronomy 18 is not a good proof text for the Protestant position.

Is there a good proof text for the Protestant position? I don’t think that there really is. As they correctly point out, there’s not a single example of anyone praying to a saint found anywhere in the Scripture. How can there be a proof text when the subject simply isn’t ever addressed? At this point, Catholic apologists will likely disagree, saying that there are examples of praying to saints in Scripture and cite a passage from Revelation.

Revelation is a complicated bit of Scripture. It belongs to that unique genre called apocalyptic”. The book’s highly symbolic rhetoric makes it unwise to approach it as though John were a foreign correspondent on assignment in a far away land giving his eye-witness report of historical events. So when Catholic Answers turns to Revelation 8 and points at the angel offering the “prayers of all the saints upon the golden altar”, we should slow down and think this image through. Let’s begin by dealing with the image itself without addressing its meaning. In the image, there is no saint offering prayers to God, but rather an angel. Consequently, this text doesn’t illustrate dead saints praying on behalf of living saints and therefore doesn’t justify its citation. Then there are the prayers themselves. We don’t know the content of those prayers, so how do we know if they are addressed to God or to a saint? We know that the prayers come from “all the saints” but what does that mean? It might mean both the living and the dead ones, or it might mean only the dead ones (depending on what one means by the word “saint”.) The image alone, that is without interpretation, fails to do the job for which the Catholic apologist has employed it. The same applies to Revelation 5 where we see “the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.” Who are these “elders”? Are they saints themselves? (If so, would that mean that there are presently only twenty-four saints in heaven?) Again, what is the content of these prayers? The Protestant claim that there is no example in the Bible of people praying to saints is justified.

Without a good proof text, is there a good Protestant argument against praying to the saints? I think there is but I’m not exactly sure how to make it. Since Catholics see Tradition as equally authoritative as Scripture, I would have to know a lot more about Tradition to make a complete argument. However, I think I could put together a good argument from Scripture. My argument would include the simple fact that the Bible isn’t perfectly clear about what happens to Christians when they die. This would probably upset some Catholics and Protestants because they are so sure of what they believe the Bible says. For example, they are sure that the Bible says Christians go to heaven when they die, but does it really? Where? The Bible is clear that Jesus returns at the end of history, that the dead are raised and that there is both reward and punishment. The Bible is not clear about what happens between death and resurrection. In the Bible, we find Jesus telling the thief on the cross that he would be with Jesus in Paradise on that very day. Yet, we also find Paul saying that the Christians who had died before the return of Jesus were “asleep”. (I suppose the thief could be asleep in Paradise, but I don’t’ think anyone on either side is willing to say that.) We read in the Psalms that “the dead can not praise the Lord”. When Jesus is transfigured on the mountain, Moses (who died) and Elijah (who did not die but was “taken”) were there with him. So what’s going on with the dead? Where are they really? What are they doing? Are they conscious, unconscious or semi-conscious? The Bible simply isn’t clear, so why should we believe that the saints are in heaven, hearing our prayers and presenting them to God? Without Tradition, there simply isn’t a good reason to believe this. I suppose that the Catholic response would be “Thank God we have Tradition,” which brings up a different problem Protestants have with Catholics.

I have heard a Protestant apologist argue against the Catholic distinction between “latria” and “dulia”. Catholics say that “latria” is worship which is only due to God, while “dulia” is service which can be given to both God and man. Therefore, prayers to saints are “dulia” while prayers to God are “latria”. I think that the Biblical case he presented was sound, but unfortunately he got very close to being ungracious in presenting it. I would probably want to work that into my argument.

The problem with praying to saints from the Protestant perspective is that it appears too much like worship which is only due to God. Catholics deny that praying to saints is worship. Either way, it’s enough for me that there’s no good Biblical support for the practice, which means that my Protestant roots are showing.

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My Catechism: Question 5

Q: Are there more Gods than one?
A: No, not really.

1 Corinthians 8:4-6
4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

How’s that for a memorable answer? No, it’s not pithy but I think it captures the essence of the verse I’ve cited. On the one hand, we find Paul telling the church in Corinth that idols are not gods. On the other, Paul acknowledges that there might be beings which others refer to as gods and to whom they give their allegiance.

I think we see something similar among Western Christians today. For the most part, we would deny the existence of any gods other than the Father of Jesus, yet at the same time we might bestow a god-like status upon sex, power and money. NT Wright was once asked what were the false gods of our times and these were the ones he spoke about. While not personal beings, these three objects appear to operate like forces which drive, guide and consume human lives. For some, this is what they imagine a god does. Not so for us. The One True God motivates and directs the lives of those submitted to Him, but He doesn’t consume those lives. He enriches, enhances and increases those lives.

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My Catechism: Question 4

Q: What is God?
A: God is Spirit, love and light revealed in the person of Jesus and expressed by the Holy Spirit.

John 4:24

God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.

1 John 4:8

Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.

1 John 1:5

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.

John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

2 Corinthians 3:17

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.

While I think this is a valid question, I don’t think it belongs in a catechism. Catechisms, by nature, seek to provide succinct and memorable answers to concise questions. I don’t think it’s possible to answer this question succinctly and completely. Summing up the Divine Being in a pithy sentence or two of finite human language just isn’t possible. Instead, this question seems to be better suited for prolonged meditation over the course of a lifetime. Sure, there are Scriptures (like the ones I’ve referenced) which provide an adjective or an appositive to describe God, but all of them together are still inadequate. After all, how can finite language hope to fully express the infinite? Doesn’t the Incarnation suggest that God found language alone inadequate to express Himself?

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My Catechism: Question 3

Q: What do the Scriptures principally teach?
A: The Scriptures principally teach us the answers to the questions; Who is God? Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? What is the solution?

I’ve heard that it’s rude to answer a question with a question. Answering a question with four questions must be quadruple-rude. And not providing any Biblical references is beyond the pale I guess. And if that all wasn’t bad enough; I borrowed my answer from NT Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God pg 132!
I have a great regard for NT Wright and I think that his characterization of the totality of Scripture as imparting a story (as opposed to a systematic theology) is spot-on.

The story is God’s story. God is the Hero. Creation, as represented by mankind, is His Beloved. He loves us because we are His image bearers. We’ve been unfaithful to God and fallen into peril. He must rescue the Beloved and so He chooses a man out of which to make a nation from which He will come Himself in order to restore the broken relationship and heal Creation. This is principally what we find in Scripture. The laws, genealogies, and cultural information are embellishments and details which ultimately serve the story of God’s love for Creation.

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My Catechism: Question 2

Wow. Only one question into this series and I’m already struggling. If you’ve read the previous post, you know that my response to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism doesn’t really lead into the second question the way the prescribed response does. What to do? It seems that I have two choices: a) rephrase the second question to dovetail with my response to the first one or b) do my best to answer the second question as it stands. I think I’ll try option “b”.

Q: What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?
A: God has spoken to humanity at different times, in different ways which have been recorded in both the Old and New Testaments, but the greatest communication of the mind and person of God came through the man Jesus of Nazareth whose life and teachings are recorded in the four gospels of the New Testament.

Hebrews 1:1-2
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.

2 Timothy 3:16-17
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God[b] may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The first question is about purpose; why are we here? The second question is about guidance; how do we know what to do? The short answer is revelation. God has revealed Himself to us and the Scriptures record specific revelations so that we may know who God is, who we are, who Jesus is and how to behave accordingly.

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My Catechism: Intro and Q1

I don’t have a Presbyterian background, so I was not taught the Westminster Shorter Catechism as a child. Yet, somehow I learned the first question: What is the chief end of man?

In spite of the archaic use of the words “chief” and “man”, I think it would be clear to most people that this is a question about purpose. A fair paraphrase would be, “What is the main purpose of humanity?” Some might prefer the more common question; “Why are we here?”

Since I’m not a Presbyterian, I don’t suppose it would surprise you to learn that my response to that question isn’t the one prescribed by the catechism. Please don’t click away just yet. This isn’t going to be a critique of the catechism. I’m not going to go on at length about why I think the catechism is wrong in one way or another in an attempt to undermine the Reformed theology reflected there. Instead, I’m simply going to answer each question for myself in accordance with my current (limited and fallible) understanding of Scripture as a sort of exercise. I’m sure that there’s something beneficial to be gained by doing this, even if I don’t exactly know what that might be at the moment.

In future posts, I’ll give the question, my answer and cite relevant passages of Scripture…if in fact I think there are any. Yeah, that sounds strange. If you’re familiar with the catechism (or just the Reformed way of doing things) you know that there are Scriptural references for each response. I concede that not referencing the same (or any) passages may amount to a tacit criticism of the catechism/Reformed theology…and that’s how I’ll leave any criticism-tacit, not explicit.

Q: What is the chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end (main purpose) is to be the image of God within Creation, to increase in number, exercise authority over the Creation and to do God’s will on Earth as His will is done in Heaven.

Genesis 1:26-28
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Matthew 6:9-10
9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

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