Results tagged “knowledge” from Reformation21 Blog

Salvation by Ideas? God Forbid!


Recently, I've had three conversations that all circle around one significant topic: Christianity as a mere intellectual exercise. In the first, a seminary student told me of a conversation with his son:

"Dad, I believe in the Christian faith. I have sat under your teaching and under mum's teaching for years. I am still convinced that it is true. I also believe what the leaders of our church have taught. I believe in the Christian faith. The problem is, it just doesn't mean anything to me. It's all just ideas."

In a second conversation, another student confided in me that he has felt dry ever since arriving at school. He came expecting to know of God better, but has felt more distant. In a third (more hopeful) talk, a friend called from England to tell of an epiphany he had, which followed a season of study-related dryness. He was struck by the contrast of knowing God and being known by God (1 Cor 8:3; Gal 4:9).

I'll return to the rich insight of my dear friend, Bruce Pearson, later. But first, I'd like to think about the young man who saw the Christian faith only as a system of beliefs.

How are we saved? Is it through believing a fact of history, i.e. that Jesus died on the cross for our sins? Or does salvation occur through a deep personal relationship of trust in Jesus? If we say "both", we run the risk of avoiding the issue, leaving people to fend for themselves in working out the balance. For many--maybe most--this will mean landing hard on the side of intellectual assent, because when we think of "believe" in English, we often mean "assent".

If belief means assenting to ideas, several things follow. In the first place, this prompts a follow-up question: "How do I know I really believe?" The answer is fruit; true belief will show up in action (Matt. 7:16). But since relationality with God is no longer at a premium, this will boil down to rugged effort, an assurance by works.

In the second place, this leads to a question of spiritual growth. What can I do to move forward, which may also help me feel assured? Again, if someone lands hard on the side of salvation by assent, what follows is more of the same: Growth through knowledge. So the person will seek to learn more... and more... and more! But one day, perhaps, they will wake up to have the same conversation as the young man mentioned above.

Third, this will affect our view of Christian service. If belief means assenting to ideas, then it follows that what God desires most is for everyone to know more. So ministry amounts to teaching and learning. And "evangelism" comes to mean correcting those who have got it wrong. In my tradition, for example, I've heard people speak of winning other Christians over to "the Reformed faith."

All this, of course, describes an extreme. But it's an extreme with a paper trail, tracing back to a misunderstanding of faith when people are left to fend for themselves.

Let's rewind. Is faith mainly about believing facts, or is it primarily about a relationship of trust with "the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20). Here's where the rubber hits the Scriptural road, because over and over again when faith is used in Scripture it is not about intellectual assent. It is more often about trusting a real person, God, and the "messiness" that comes from relating to him personally. Think of Romans 10:9. Paul says:

"If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

At first glance, that first part may sound mechanical, since it's literally "lip service." But to confess Jesus in public is to honor him in public, to acknowledge him as your own... to own him, and to claim to be owned by him. As Jesus tells us in MAtthew 10:32, "everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven". As for the second part, this is not simply belief in the fact of resurrection; it is belief in the one who raises Jesus from the dead. Paul was at pains to point out this out earlier in Romans 4. Abraham had faith in the God who can be trusted, the God who keeps his promises... the God of the living. Here then we see that faith is intrinsically relational.

What's neat is how this fits with a recent exceptional study by Teresa Morgan, a Classicist from Oxford, who makes a compelling case that faith in both Greek and Latin, at the time of New Testament, was intrinsically relational. It was not simply about belief in ideas or trust in an impersonal object; it was about a deep personal relationship of trust towards another:

When I place trust in my sister, I do not trust her, as I do my phone, simply to have certain capacities and perform certain functions. She has her own subjectivity and her own view of me which she brings to our association, complicating it with thoughts, feelings, and actions beyond my control. When I trust her (whether or not she trusts me), the interaction of our subjectivities is liable to affect both our lives unpredictably and correlatively. In other words, we have a relationship (Roman Faith and Christian Faith, 28).

Paul repeatedly warns people about having a "Christian Faith" that is simply about knowledge. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-3 he warns knowledge-loving Christians that it puffs up while love builds up. He also points out that what really matters is loving God and being known by God. Then in Romans 10-11, Paul warns the Gentiles not to be arrogant over Jews who know less than them (10:2). What counts? "Reasonable religion" (as Dieter Betz translates it), that is found in offering one's body together with others as a living sacrifice (Rom 12:1-3). Then in Romans 14-15, Paul stresses how the strong, having greater knowledge of God, need to not quarrel with the weak over opinions (14:1).

Now we come to my friend's epiphany. Do we believe for all intents and purposes in "Salvation by Doctrine", because we essentially boil everything down to assent? To put this in language famously associated with the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber (but adopted too by Dietrich Bonhoeffer), do we perceive of our relationships as an "I-It" relationships, wherein God/Christianity is essentially a "thing" to be interacted with. Or do we have an "I-Thou" relationship, where God is a real person of equal importance to me in my relationship with him? Consider again Teresa Morgan's comment: My sister "has her own subjectivity and her own view of me which she brings to our association". This is the essence of the epiphany of my friend Bruce. It is not simply (though of course it is this) about me knowing God.  It is about God knowing me, which is staggering and is something that needs pondering, deeply and carefully. 

Here is a relationship. It is a true relationship. It has always been about a relationship, and must always be about one, in everything, at every moment: In saving faith, in assurance, in growth, in ministry and evangelism. God sent Jesus so we might have a living relationship both with him and with others.

Bruce Lowe (PhD) is Associate Professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta.

Related Links

Romans by James Boice [ Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Vol. 4, Full Set ]

PCRT 1980: If God Be for Us [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Up Close and Personal by James Boice [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download  ]

Knowing the Trinity by Ryan McGraw

Persons of interest

You may not be aware of a portentous US drama for mild paranoiacs called Person of Interest. The premise is fairly simple: after September 11, 2001, a mysterious and reclusive (you could be mysterious without being reclusive, I suppose, but the reclusive are typically more mysterious than average) billionaire computer genius called Harold Finch creates a mysterious computer system that surveils pretty much everything going on in the US with the aim of preventing further terrorist attacks. Discovering that the Machine also predicts more ordinary crimes, he recruits a mysterious, presumed-dead CIA field officer going by the name of John Reese to intervene in these crimes, receiving the social security number of those who are either a risk or at risk and then building up a picture from available data to enable them to prevent the crime in question. Finch's mysterious voice-over at the beginning of each episode in season one tells us:
You are being watched. The government has a secret system, a machine that spies on you every hour of every day. I know because I built it. I designed the machine to detect acts of terror but it sees everything. Violent crimes involving ordinary people, people like you. Crimes the government considered irrelevant. They wouldn't act, so I decided I would. But I needed a partner, someone with the skills to intervene. Hunted by the authorities, we work in secret. You'll never find us, but victim or perpetrator, if your number's up . . . we'll find you.
All very mysterious. Or not, now that we know that Machine exists, after a fashion. What is particularly interesting is that, at one point, Finch admits to creating Facebook as a means of gathering the data needed to fuel the Machine's calculations. The essential premise was that it is amazing how much information people will give if you ask, and it is much simpler than trying to extract or extort it by other means.

And that is what is vaguely laughable about the furore over the PRISM program conducted by the US government and probably dipped into by the UK government and who knows how many others: we gave them the information.

I am not suggesting that the companies involved are indeed just massive governmental facades for data-gathering (though just because you are paranoid does not mean that everyone is not out to get you), but it is not as if anyone forced us to offer the most mundane, specific or intimate details of our lives in a constantly updated stream of data. We were asked, and we gave, and gave probably far more and far more readily than the most insane dictator might have demanded. When people know that others are trying to get their information, they seek to hide it; when given an opportunity to share it, they do so thoughtlessly. I can imagine that a variety of representatives of dystopian totalitarian regimes past and present are now scratching their heads over their elaborate and expensive surveillance operations and saying to themselves, "You mean, all we needed to do was ask?"

So, we gave. But - on the assumption that it is not all a massive governmental conspiracy to obtain our information - the government took. We were not deliberately offering our data to them in order to be subjected to the surveillance program conducted with what were doubtless the best of intentions: after all, who would say that preventing terrorism is a bad thing? Ergo it is a good thing. Ergo we should do whatever it takes to prevent terrorism. Ergo PRISM is a good thing. Government employees and committees tend to work like that. And so sales of Orwell's 1984 skyrocket as we begin to realise that we may well be hurtling toward the age of Big Brother. We made our data readily available and nicely packaged, but the government took it unbidden, and in doing so crossed a line of sorts.

And there have been some trying to draw parallels between this process and the knowledge of God. But there are several critical differences, and we need to take great care with our analogies. First of all, we did not need to make our data available to God, and God did not need to take it. The God of heaven and earth simply has it. Possession of all knowledge, both actual and possible, past, present and future (as perceived from within the stream of time), is something that simply belongs to God as God. God is not Big Brother, or any approximation to him; he is God. Although sometimes language is used that accommodates God's knowledge to our understanding - "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good" (Prv 15.3) - God is not surveilling the world; he is God. God is not gathering information; God possesses it intrinsically. He is in all places, he knows all things:
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; if I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there Your hand shall lead me, and Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, "Surely the darkness shall fall on me," even the night shall be light about me; indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness and the light are both alike to You. (Ps 139.7-12)
But furthermore, God is not Big Brother, because God is Father. The incarnate Son of God condescends to call us brothers (Heb 2.11-12) but that does not make him Big Brother. The Holy Spirit is not the Ghost in the Machine, taking up residence to spy from within. The Triune God already knows all things, and that knowledge is directed ultimately to the glory of his name and the good of his people: we are and always have been his perpetual persons of interest.

If we are the children of God, the knowledge and wisdom of God do not terrify us, not least because they are exercised by the God who is also loving, righteous, merciful and gracious. The fact that there is not a word on our tongues that the Lord does not know altogether (Ps 139.4) may act as a check upon our sin, but it does not take us into the realm of horror lest we should be overheard. It carries us into the realm of assurance because nothing lies outside of his understanding, and this is a God who cares for us.

The 1677/1689 Baptist Confession of Faith summarises the Scriptures sweetly by telling us that as the providence of God does in general reach to all creatures, so after a most special manner it takes care of his church, and disposes all things for the good of the church. God's innately-possessed knowledge is the knowledge of a heavenly Father who will accomplish all that is best and right for his children. It is the knowledge of the Good Shepherd who discerns all threats to and needs of his flock. It is the knowledge of the Comforter who understands altogether the being and doing of those to whom he ministers. It is the knowledge of the Lord of heaven who will defend his people against all his and their enemies and ultimately secure the downfall of those enemies.

We cannot rely on fallen men not to abuse their knowledge. To cobble together a couple of generally-acknowledged dicta, knowledge is power, and power corrupts, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely. But the incorruptible God simply knows, and his is the powerfully active and loving knowledge of a Father toward his children, and in that knowledge we may rest secure and happy.