In my last blog post, we began with a bit of a detour that will circle back and intercept Samuel chapter 8 the next time we meet. Please be patient; this detour is a needed one that revolves around how to deal with a sticky theological issue that is at the core of the remainder of 1st Samuel, 2nd Samuel and then the two books of the Kings.
The issue is: how are we to understand that God (up to now) supposedly has warned Israel against the prospects of having a king over them (which is seen as a rejection of Him)? But that God will soon not only appoint Israel a king but even make having a king at the heart of His plan for mankind’s redemption from this point forward (even after the end of history as we know it)?
The problem is that this issue has tentacles that stretch in many directions depending on how we decide to deal with it. As a result, most times, it is glossed over because when we pull back the covers on it, a major can of worms is exposed.
As we have examined the Torah together and then moved well into the establishment and progress of Israel, we’ve seen many changes and misadventures of the Hebrew people.
And one of the several themes that we see playing out in Israel’s history is this:
- The perpetual revolving door of periods of unfaithfulness to God,
- Followed by apostasy,
- Then God permitting Israel’s enemies to oppress them,
- The Israel recognizes that the cause of their oppression is both a natural and a divine result of their idolatry and rebellion.
So following their confession and repentance Yehoveh demonstrates His mercy by rescuing and delivering them and thus they are once again operating in harmony with the God of Israel (at least for a little while).
It seems that Israel was always in denial about their spiritual condition and didn’t want to hear about it, so in the midst of they’re idolatry, they couldn’t see themselves as idolatrous.
They never stopped loving the Lord (as far as they were concerned) even though they did adopt questionable practices into their society and worship that modeled after their Gentile neighbors; things that the Lord has repeatedly warned that He found offensive and so should be shunned.
I am, thankfully, part of our Savior’s church as are most of you. I find myself in an ironic and somewhat uncomfortable situation in that as one who is as equally guilty as those to whom I have no choice but to admonish. The Lord has made it clear to me that as much as I love the church and I am a member of Christ’s ecclesia, I must speak a word of warning that we are not immune from the same perpetual cycle from which the Israelites could never seem to extricate themselves; the cycle of
- A period of faithfulness to God,
- Followed by apostasy,
- Then oppression,
- Then repentance, and
- Finally deliverance.
The question for us as Believers is NOT whether we as the congregation of God are currently caught up within one of those cycles, but rather whether or not this is the final one before Messiah comes again.
While I don’t know if this is the last cycle I do not doubt that we are in and nearing the end of the apostasy stage of our current cycle and that we’re about to enter into the oppression stage.
“Apostasy,” some you will exclaim! “Apostasy, I don’t see any apostasy. Whatever is happening, it is too forceful to use the word apostasy. And even if I do see some amount of apostasy I am certainly not involved in it in any way, it’s those other Christians, not me”.
See that, my friends, was every Israelite’s position and attitude until the enemy’s oppression bore down upon them with greater and greater intensity and calamity finally struck.
And I’ll tell you what is so odd about it all: it is our human nature that we’ll deny and defend our role and responsibility and involvement until full-blown catastrophe strikes us. And then instantly we’ll recognize it for what it is, and our hearts will sink because we’ll know what we’ve done.
Our fierce defense will grow mute, and our loud denials will turn to confession, but it will be too late. Not too late to repent, but much too late to avoid the serious consequences of our actions.
What enables us as Believers to be such adept and professional deniers? Many ingredients go into our natural ability to deny the obvious, and I’m not about to try and address them all because I probably don’t even know them all.
However, the one that is pertinent to today’s lesson is the combination of false doctrines and error-filled traditions that have arisen from men’s minds and have served to push out and replace God’s Word as the source of truth.
We spoke at length in my last blog post about two significant innovations within Christianity that had a profound effect on the progress and nature of the Church over the past 2000 years: the creation of the notion of orthodoxy versus heresy, and the evolution of modern Systematic Theology. Both of these innovations are similar to most manmade institutions: they can be used for evil or good.
So there is nothing inherently wrong with the notion of orthodoxy and heresy or Christian Systematic Theology. In fact, both of these innovations can be traced to the church’s response to some threat to its existence and viability and had we lived during those times we would likely have responded similarly.
Recall that orthodoxy (as applied to Christianity) is but a set of non-negotiable beliefs (doctrines) that a particular denomination or branch of the church has established for itself. Heresy is to strongly question or perhaps even reject one or more of those beliefs.
So if a member of one of those congregations violates or otherwise rebels against the orthodoxy, then they become a heretic. The consequences can range from admonishment to re-education that leads to repentance, to excommunication. In days of old, it could lead to execution.
There is today (depending on whose count you use) about 3000 Christian denominations or sects worldwide, each having a somewhat different orthodoxy. Of course, at times those differences can be minuscule and nearly impossible to detect from what we hold dear, and at other times the differences form an impassable gulf.
And so I left us with the question the last time of how we Believers are to determine which (if any) of those 3000 sets of church doctrines (orthodoxies) is correct.
But I also left us with the thought that perhaps the question itself (of finding the one Christian congregation with the only right doctrine) is based on some false assumptions. Born out of the way we tend to read and assimilate the Bible and the way these orthodoxies and doctrines arrived at in the first place.
Modern Systematic Theology was a response to the threat of the European Enlightenment that sought to gut the church of our spirituality through ushering in secular humanism to replace it.
Since this was the era when intellectualism and the Scientific Method were established as the best of all possible protocols for the discovery of truth the Church felt it had to find a systematic way to present itself that would be acceptable to the new Enlightened Society, and yet retain its spirituality and reliance on faith in God.
And the system that was created divided the essence of Christianity into about ten elements, and each element was then given a category, and a name and the church endeavored to answer fundamental questions about Christianity that each of these 10 or so elements would naturally ask.
Of course, by now the Catholic Church was no longer the only accepted church, the Church of England was quite powerful, the Protestant church well established and the Protestant Reformation had occurred, and so there were already a substantial and growing number of competing branches of the church in the West.
And in general, each of these various branches had already formed their own (and separate) orthodoxies. Systematic Theology simply offered a new route and method to developing orthodoxy (and thereby hopefully fending off the dangers of the Enlightenment philosophy).
The fact that we have more or less 3000 differing sets of Christian doctrine ought to be a clue that as good as was the intent, there is an inherent (and probably unavoidable) flaw within the very nature of how modern Systematic Theology has evolved. It is far too simplistic to conclude that one Christian denomination holds all the truth and so the remaining 2999 are based on error.
But how did we arrive at such a place of confusion and splintering of the church? What is the flaw that has developed to cause such an unintended result?
Before I give you a way to think about this issue, let me remind you why we’re attempting this detour. It is because Believers today are confronted by a new and well-accepted form of bible academia called Literary Criticism that says that the books of Samuel and Kings have been corrupted and cannot be taken at face value.
And this assumption is because contained in those writings we find two opposing views and agendas on the question of Israel having a human king.
One view is that they SHOULD have a king and that God is OK with this; the other is that Israel should NOT have a king and God is NOT OK with this.
And because when we read these books, we do SEEM to see such a conflict we must conclude that God indeed changed His mind or the texts are indeed suspect.
So I want to show you that we don’t have to accept one or other of these conclusions at all. Rather, there is a better solution, and it is all wrapped up in how we ought to approach extracting meaning from the Bible.
Here’s the thing: today the notion of orthodoxy and heresy expressed within modern Systematic Theology (the basis for practically all Christianity) has followed a path that allows for fewer and fewer gray areas.
The required answers to the ten certain elements of Systematic Theology must be firm and unequivocal. “I don’t know” or “It can’t be either a, b, or c or some combination of them” is no longer acceptable.
Let me first illustrate this matter. Systematic Theology looks into the Scriptures (primarily the New Testament Scriptures) to find the answers to the questions posed for each of the ten categories. There are of course many bible verses that address each of these issues, sometimes very directly and at other times somewhat indirectly.
Allow me to give you four familiar examples of subjects typically dealt with by Systematic Theology:
- The Law,
- Eternal security,
- The Sabbath, and
- The Deity of Christ.
Now I’m going to demonstrate to you shortly what you already know; that there are several verses spread throughout the New Testament that addresses each of these subjects and they’re not usually the same principle merely repeated in each verse but rather slightly different aspects of each topic brought to light.
But due to the modern way of implementing Systematic Theology, a rigid and well-defined answer is required (an answer that will become the accepted “doctrine” on that subject).
And the answer is established when a contingency of a particular denomination’s leaders feel they have defined that which best reflects what is intended by the passages of Scripture (concerning that particular subject) when weighed as a whole.
A visual illustration of this development of a Systematic Theology for a denomination might be thought of as the construction of a wall, a high straight wall.
On one side of the wall lay the denominational orthodoxy, on the other lurks heresy. On the one side of the wall is the truth and on the other side is the error. You are either on one side or the other, and there is no middle ground.
Like the wall I’m using in my graphic presentation (a wall separating Israel from Palestinian territory), it is a narrow but strong wall, and there is no such thing as being partly in and partly out. You’re either here or there or nowhere.
So, this is a pretty good illustration of how Systematic Theology operates as a barrier wall that is constructed, segment by segment, to establish a real straight understandable boundary that divides orthodoxy from heresy, truth from error.
Let me give you another example of how Systematic Theology works towards an outcome. Let’s create an imaginary Systematic orthodoxy to define a car.
Systematic Car Orthodoxy
First question: What does a car do?
It transports people.
Doctrine #1: a car must carry people to where they want to go.
Second question: How many people does a car carry?
Well, depending on where you look, there is evidence that it can perhaps take two people, or 4, or 6 or even 8. However since the bulk of the evidence is that most cars carry four people. And since our Systematic orthodoxy for a car demands a firm and not a broad answer, and the most usual number of passengers for the cars selected for examination is 4, our second doctrine is: a car must hold four people.
Question number 3: What color is a car?
While looking again at our car sample, we see a variety of colors. But with a little observation, we soon see that 40% or more of all cars are white, the next most are black at 20%, and the remainder of cars of other colors is a significantly smaller amount.
Since we can’t have any gray areas and must pick the one best answer, the best answer we can give is white because there are more white cars by far than any other color.
Doctrine #3: a car must be white.
Question number 4: How many doors does a car have?
Well after some study it seems as if the number of doors on a car, depending on the situation, is 2, 4, or 5 (if one considers the door at the rear of individual cars a door). It is not even close: some cars do have two doors, a few less have 5, but the vast majority of cars have four doors.
Doctrine #4: cars have four doors.
I think this is enough to pause and see what our current imaginary systematic car orthodoxy is without venturing into the several other routine category questions that will finally give us a complete definition of what a car is.
So, our systematic car is this: Cars carry people to where they want to go. In fact, cars carry four people. And cars are to be white and have four doors.
But what if I want to buy a car that carries only two people? Nope. That’s probably heresy because cars are supposed to carry four people (perhaps a car that only takes 2 isn’t even a car.)
How about if I’d like a red car (that does carry four people) instead of a white one? Again, nope. A REAL car is white. Red is obviously indicative of something else, maybe of pride or of evil.
How about if I want a more practical car that carries seven people and has five doors. Heavens, NO!! Not only can that not possibly be a car (according to our systematic definition of a car thus far) but to even consider it indicates that maybe you need some additional instruction on car orthodoxy. You get the picture.
Now no analogy I give you is perfect, and I don’t mean to poke too much fun at Systematic Theology (because there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, I just wanted to lighten things up a bit). Nor is my intent to demean the brilliant Bible scholars and good men who participated in designing it.
But I think this analogy of a wall and of establishing a car orthodoxy is somewhat representative of how a Systematic Theology is approached in principle.
However, I remind you, that this sort of mindset is NOT how the ancient Hebrews, nor how Judaism up to the time of Christ, ever envisioned establishing the revelation of truth in Holy Scripture.
Rather they recognized that for practically any subject we could envision that the Scriptures give us some number of aspects about that issue as boundaries for dealing with it.
But Systematic Theology demands by its nature (a nature that demands orthodoxy) that we must choose only the BEST one of those several aspects of each subject as pre-eminent and the other aspects are therefore given less weight or deemed irrelevant because they don’t agree with our choice.
But sometimes of course after you’ve chosen the answers to the first 4, 5, or 6 particular questions, it narrows the possible range of choices you can make to answer the remaining questions. Because a reply that doesn’t take the previous absolute answers into account could easily lead to a set of doctrines that conflict with one another.
Let Tom Bradford give you a real life example of that. As he was putting together this lesson, he wanted to examine a substantial sampling of differing views on this subject of orthodoxy/heresy and Systematic Theology.
One website he went to (operated by a person whom many of you would recognize as well-respected and known), had a section that discussed the important doctrinal subject of eternal security.
And the lesson began by explaining that we would examine a variety of Scriptures some of which supported one side of the matter and others which might support the opposite view so that one could come to an informed conclusion.
A column labeled “once saved always saved” listed about 30 scripture verses that the author felt were representative and supportive of his belief that once a person was saved, they could not lose their salvation by any means.
The next column was labeled” “you can lose your salvation.” And under it, there were no scriptural entries, only a couple of sentences that said: “Since you cannot lose your salvation there is no point to examining Scriptures that seem to say that you can because it would just lead to an improper interpretation.”
Now in no way do I want to paint all Systematic Theology as that blatant in attempting to close off all dialogue on an important theological issue, but in many respects, the end effect at times is just that.
The rationale of the actual example he just gave to you is, if you are satisfied that the verses “a, b, and c” provide the answer to your theological question, then there is no point in considering verses “d, e, and f” that also discuss the same subject but offers a bit different perspective.
Or better, if the leadership has decided that of all possible choices that “a” is true and is our doctrine, then even to examine “b” is a waste of time or is even perhaps heretical.
What we have with the way that modern Systematic Theology operates is that there are probably 3000 or so denominational walls and in each case, one must choose which is the right wall and then stand on the side of the wall that is the orthodoxy side of it.
Since there is generally but one pre-eminent and best answer to each categorical systematic question, it is the answers to those issues that form the substance of the wall.
But was the Bible created in such a way that this is how we’re supposed to use it? Is that how it is intended that we find truth? Is this the best means to arrive at the set of answers that (when taken together) lays out the divine truth about our Christian faith and how to operate within it?
I think there is another way to approach the issue of searching the Scriptures for truth and it is not as if we are building a tall, straight and impenetrable defensive wall, but rather as though we are creating a sheepfold.
To be continued…