Theological Mistakes: I Can Do Anything

Tire liftMy son, Jesse, and I are workout partners. We try to go to our local AnyTime Fitness twice a week, and we have been fairly consistent for the last year. I appreciate him greatly in this, because I would never go by myself.

At the gym, there is a piece of “equipment” that has intrigued me, a tractor tire. It is not a super big one, maybe four and a half feet in diameter. As I have toned up a little, I wanted to see if I could wrangle that tire. I have seen the strongman competitions on ESPN where they take such a tire, stick their head in the hole, lift it, and then walk a hundred yards or so. I didn’t think I could do that, but I wondered if I could just lift it off the ground. So, one day after we worked out, I talked Jesse into helping me try. We rolled out the tire. I stuck my head through the hole, and positioned it on my neck and shoulders. Then I lifted with my legs. It didn’t even budge off the ground. Nada.

I have since learned that the tire is there to do an exercise where you “flip” it on the ground without lifting. I’m not sure I could do that either. One estimate I found is that these tires can weigh 500 lbs.

Philippians 4:13 is a very popular verse, often quoted. I have quoted it to myself in tough times. In the NIV1984 this verse reads:

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

This is often taken to mean, “I can do anything” if I have enough faith. And, since I should be able to do anything through God’s infused strength, my failures are my fault, my lack of faith. In this way of thinking, the most successful folks are the ones with the greatest faith. The people with the most setbacks and problems are the ones with weak faith. So was my failure to lift the tire a lack of faith?

I don’t think that is true, and I don’t think that is what the verse is actually saying. There are two problems here. First is mistranslation. Notice how the NIV2011 translates this verse:

I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

This is much better, I think. It is not an easy set of words to translate, but I might render it like this:

I have strength for all these things by means of the one who empowers me.

The second problem is taking this verse out of context, using it as a proof text. The NIV2011 won’t let us do this. It demands that we know what the “all this” might be, and that drives us back to the previous verses. In these, Paul is talking about his own experiences of sometimes being in need, even being hungry. He is saying that God has given him the strength to get through the times of need, when it didn’t seem like he had enough. This is what he is talking about in 2 Corinthians:

12:10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses,
in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.

So, I’ll never be able to lift a 500 lb. tractor tire. That does not negate the promise of Philippians 4:13. But when I am weak, when I am broken, God will see me through. He is always strong, and he has strengthened me over and over. He will do it again.

Special Needs Children and Theology

BeaversI was at the Oregon State vs. Indiana game for the College World Series last night. It was a classic pitchers’ duel, both guys throwing complete games and the final score 1-0. OSU prevailed. Go Beavs!

I was sitting next to a man with a little boy, maybe four years old. I am not a trained diagnostician, but I would guess the boy was autistic at some level or had some other similar condition. He was very active and talkative, although he was not paying attention to the game in any way and was unable to sit still. After a time, the father apparently did something, and the boy began to scream. He screamed at the top of his lungs for about five minutes, barely pausing for breath. The father held him tight and tried to calm him, for which he received many blows to the face from the little boy. Finally the father picked him up and left, and I heard the screaming all the way to the top of the stadium steps.

I had mixed feelings about all of this. On one level, it was upsetting for me because I was unable to pay attention to the game I had come to watch during this episode, as were about 100 other fans. I did not know if this was a first “try” with the boy to see if he could manage such a setting, if it were a particularly bad day, or if this happened often. My selfish nature wished he had not brought the boy to the ballpark. On another level, this was upsetting in the sense that I felt entirely useless and helpless. I wanted to help. I felt badly for both the boy and his father. The boy seemed consumed with unquenchable, implacable anger. The father was being patient, but was obviously embarrassed and frustrated. When my son was that age, we enjoyed many trips to the Kingdome in Seattle to watch the Mariners. I thought, why shouldn’t this man be able to do this with his son?

This reminded me of a horrible news story from a couple of weeks ago about the mother and godmother of a 14-year old boy with severe autism. They had murdered the teenager and then taken pills to commit suicide themselves. They felt trapped with no other way out. I cannot condone murder, but I am also at a loss to give a good solution to this. There seem to be no good solutions.

The theological aspect of this does not escape me. Why would our loving God allow such suffering? Surely God takes no joy in these situations. All the answers that suggest these are testings that make us stronger seem to be inadequate in the case of the murdered teenager. Did his mother just fail the test?

Why would our loving God allow such suffering? I have an answer that does not satisfy me much, and will probably not satisfy you: I don’t know. I just don’t know. But, having said that, I do not doubt God’s loving nature and his love for me personally. Theologically, the willingness of God to sacrifice his only Son for our/my sins is unquestionable evidence of his mighty love. God loves the autistic boy. God loves the father of the autistic boy. And I must love them, too. Maybe I can’t help much in specific situations, but they deserve neither my anger nor my impatience. They deserve my love. I’m not God, but maybe I can act as God would, even when it is very hard. I’m working on it.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Baptism as Sacrament Part 2

Baptism Chancel WindowA church’s practice of baptism is a reflection of that church’s theological position in other areas. We usually think that a church that views baptism as a “sacrament” will tie the act of baptism directly to the eternal fate of an individual. If proper and valid baptism can only be done by an ordained priest, then salvation itself is under the purview of the church in that its priests can determine who is baptized and therefore saved. In my earlier blog I pointed out that this led to abuse that was rightly condemned by the sixteenth century reformers of the church.

But if baptism is not the key to salvation, two questions must be answered? First what is the key? What is the doorway to salvation? Luther still speaks for most Protestant churches to say that salvation is by “faith alone” or “grace through faith alone.” This position is  biblical, based on Ephesians 2:8-9:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.

But, as I have often said in this blog, we cannot let our doctrine be controlled by proof texting. If this were the only verse in the Bible, it would be very simple. Baptism is not mentioned here, so it can have no part in the salvation process. But that is not the case, baptism is connected to salvation in other verses. This is not the place to do a complete presentation of the New Testament teaching on baptism, and I refuse to get into a “my proof-text is better than yours” argument, but the New Testament is full of references to baptism. They are neither incidental or unimportant. A case in point is that first Pentecost, the birth of the church in Jerusalem. When those guilty of Jesus’ death asked Peter what they must do, he included baptism in his answer and then a whole lot of them were baptized. Furthermore, a careful reading of the Cornelius story in Acts 10 shows that the question there was not whether these Gentiles needed to be baptized, but whether they should be baptized, since they were not Jews. This was answered by God by the miraculous distribution of the Holy Spirit among Cornelius and his household. This was understood by Peter as God’s answer, “Yes, they should be baptized.”

So this leads to the second question, what is the relationship between baptism and salvation? There have been many wrong answers to this question. Baptism is not a work whereby we earn salvation, I am sure that is true. Baptism is not a transaction where we strike a deal with God and he saves us when we are dunked. Baptism is not magic water that invokes mysterious spiritual forces. I don’t think baptism is simply an act of obedience, because that implies “work” to me. Let me humbly say that I don’t have a simple answer to this question, but I am unwilling to disconnect baptism from salvation in an absolute way as has been done by many evangelicals.

Perhaps the sacramental view of baptism, if understood more anciently, may help us here. The potential Roman soldier was not considered to be fully inducted into the army until he took the oath of allegiance, the sacramentum. When we are baptized, we are signaling to all who will listen and pay attention: Christ is my Lord! I will serve him! He is my Savior! I am trusting him for the forgiveness of my sins! I will follow him wherever he leads. And when we partake in the Lord’s Supper, we are renewing that oath. We are saying, Christ, you are still my Lord and I am unashamedly part of your army!

I don’t think this fully exhausts the meaning and significance of baptism, but maybe it is a starting point.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Baptism as Sacrament Part 1

300px-Baptism_UkraineThe word “sacrament” comes from the Latin, sacramentum. This word had a long history before the New Testament was written and before any sort of “sacramental theology” was developed. One of its uses, dating back to the Punic wars, was the military oath of allegiance. By the time of Augustus, this was sometimes used as an oath of allegiance to the emperor, the supreme commander or ultimate imperator of the Roman troops. This oath was sometimes taken in the presence of the emperor himself, and was an annual obligation.

During this period, the word began to be used for a solemn oath of the highest order, even in non-military situations. It took on the connotations of being “sacred,” something that was tied to inviolable personal honor. It also began to have the sense of being “secret,” a private oath that was nevertheless binding and obligatory. By the time of Jerome’s Latin translation of Scripture (called the “Vulgate” and from the 5th century), the translator was able to use sacramentum to translate the Greek word musterion [mystery] (see Ephesians 1:9), although Jerome did not do this consistently.

During the medieval period, church theology recognized certain practices as “sacraments.” There were two “dominical” sacraments [given by the Lord]: baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and other sacraments that were “ecclesial” [given by the church]. These dominical sacraments began to be seen as having saving significance or power. Baptism was understood to be a “cure” for the illness of original sin, therefore to be administered to infants so that they would not be damned. The Lord’s Supper was understood as necessary spiritual nourishment, sustaining and saving the soul on a weekly basis. One early Christian author called it the “medicine of immortality.” To be barred from taking the Lord’s Supper (or Communion) was to be ex-communicated, and thereby deprived of salvation. By controlling both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the medieval priesthood wielded great control over European society, for it was understood that the church itself could determine who would be saved and who would be damned after death.

In the case of the Lord’s Supper, this was further confused by an extremely literalistic interpretation of Jesus’ words, “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” A primary function of the church’s priest was to reenact the sacrifice of Jesus on the altar (communion table) and through this ceremony, transform the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation). In the superstitious milieu of medieval Christendom, this was seen as a kind of magic by the common people. It may even be that the magical term “hocus pocus” is a parody on the Latin terms “Hoc est corpus meum,” [This is my body], supposedly the words that transformed bread into the body of Christ. All of this shows how far the Lord’s Supper had gotten from its origins in the Upper Room: now a celebration controlled by a priesthood, using words that were neither in the language of Jesus or the people, and understood as essential for maintaining one’s salvation.

The church reformers of the sixteenth century rightly objected to these things. These guys (Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Luther, and the later reformer, John Calvin) were driven by many things, but my analysis is that there were two things that were paramount for them. First, they did attempt to return to Scripture as a guide for church practice and doctrine. In my opinion, this was often flawed by a proof-texting approach to theology and by a failure to distinguish adequately between the Old and New Testaments. Second, there is no question but that they were also driven by an abhorrence for and bias against the medieval practices of the Roman Catholic church. Zwingli and Luther were both dissenting Roman Catholic priests and Calvin had been on a priesthood track for his education at an early age (although his father switched him to law). They were insiders in this and knew the abuses intimately. So while they all wanted to retain some form of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the church, they wanted to unchain them from the church’s priesthood as a way of determining salvation.

Were these reformer correct to condemn the misuse of the sacraments as tools of church control? Yes, absolutely. Were they correct to disconnect these sacraments from salvation in every way (although Luther did not quite do this)? Not so sure. More to come in the next blog.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Earning Salvation

There have been some Bible students who have seen irreconcilable differences between the teachings of the Apostle Paul and those of the book of James on the importance of good works in regard to salvation. These seemingly irreconcilable differences led Martin Luther to “divorce” James from the rest of the New Testament, assigning the little book to a type of appendix in some Luther Bible editions.

This reflects a difference of practice within the Christian world. Some believe that salvation is by faith alone, and that is the end of the story. We do nothing whatsoever to be saved, and works of any type are irrelevant. Others believe that salvation is primarily a matter of the accumulation of good works, that we earn our way into heaven. In this case, we can never be satisfied with our good works, we must always be looking for more.

Let me say that I believe the New Testament teaches that salvation is a gift, it cannot be earned. Even more, this teaching is found in the Old Testament, too, because Paul uses Old Testament texts like Habakkuk 2:4 to make his point that “The just shall live by faith,” and Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” We cannot earn our salvation, and whenever our theology leads us to conclude that we do, we are wrong and need to fix something.

I think, though, that Paul and James are talking about two different sets of “good works.” Let me illustrate with this diagram:

Works of Law vs Works of Faith

To put it simply, Paul is concerned about the understanding of earning salvation through keeping the Jewish Law. In this he reflects the teachings of Jesus, who indicated with the rich young ruler that a keeper of the law will always have one more thing left to do. James is concerned with how we practice our faith. We might even say that James is concerned about the nature of faith itself, what the result of faith should be.

Once we have crossed the doorway of salvation (and we may disagree on how that works), what happens? After we walk through the door of faith and trust Jesus for our salvation, what do we do? James is encouraging his readers that this relationship with the Lord should show up in our lives. Good works are not the condition of salvation, they are the consequence. A life of faith should demonstrate itself as a life of doing good for others. If this does not happen, the personal faith of an individual is in question. There cannot be faith, true faith, genuine faith, saving faith, that does not lead to good works. This is the concern of James, and Paul would not have disagreed.

And I agree with both of them. You cannot be saved by good works, but you are not saved without them.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College