Thursday, August 14, 2008

Colossians 2:8

8See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ.

In v8, Paul directly attacks the false teaching that was likely prominent in Colosse. He says, “See to it that no one takes you captive.” This language brings to mind the sheepfold of God. The Colossians are in the fold, and the false teachers, unable to destroy the flock, will strive to plunder even one sheep at a time by confusing the sheep. It is Jesus’ firm grasp of His sheep as the Good Shepherd (John 10), through sound doctrine – hearing His voice – that prevents the sheep from being taken captive. Paul says that the false teachers are guilty of using “hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ” to try to deceive the sheep, the elect of God, if that were possible (Matthew 24:24). And how appropriate that we come to this passage today, the day after what appears to be the end of a two-week battle with a group of atheists. By the grace of God, I obeyed Paul's teaching here. Their philosophy, which is what atheism really is, was hollow and deceptive. It certainly depends on human tradition and the basics principles of this world. Let's examine this verse more closely:

First, philosophy here, according to Calvin, “means everything that men contrive of themselves when wishing to be wise through means of their own understanding.” It is “nothing else than a persuasive speech, which insinuates itself into the minds of men by elegant and plausible arguments.” And it “will be nothing else than a corruption of spiritual doctrine, if it is mixed up with Christ.” Paul condemns this kind of philosophy, which is hardly philosophy at all – Paul calls it hollow deception or vain deceit – because it “depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ.” Paul declares tradition, and specifically philosophy based on tradition, since it is manmade, to be less valuable than Christ and His word, which are divine. Vincent Cheung says, “It is ‘hollow’ in that it is devoid of truth, wisdom, and reason, but it tries to convince people that it possesses these qualities by using methods and arguments that are ‘deceptive.’ In other words, this philosophy can appear wise to foolish people, such as non-Christians, or to Christians who at the moment fail to maintain their focus on the sound doctrines referred to in v6-7.”

The question is often asked, “What does Paul mean by ‘the basic principles of this world’?” Calvin suggests that Paul is speaking of either cultural ceremonies, since he is about to bring up circumcision, or things that are of no use for the kingdom of God (Galatians 4:3), like mere amusing entertainment, such as television for us. Ligon Duncan says, “It may be that Paul is referring to ethical principles of behavior which are not grounded in the Word of God. Or Paul may be thinking of a particular teaching that says there are demonic spiritual beings who control elementary principles in the universe like the stars and such. And those stars then control our lives. It would not be unlike astrology, where there are people who believe that the position of the planets and the stars actually control human destiny.”

Vincent Cheung says, “The two major interpretations understand Paul to be referring to either ‘elements’ or ‘rudiments.’ The former could refer to the earthly elements of ancient science (as in earth, water, fire, and air), or it could even refer to ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ (RSV), including pagan deities that supposedly exercise power over peoples and nations. ‘Rudiments,’ on the other hand, would refer to the first principles of a philosophy, that is, the basic principles, teachings, and assumptions of a system of thought. Several considerations, including the context, favor the latter interpretation, so that the meaning should be ‘rudiments,’ as in basic principles or teachings. Paul refers to the rudiments of ‘the world,’ which in a context that chides the traditions of men, should be taken in the ethical sense. The content of the rest of the passage is consistent with this understanding. In particular, v20 calls attention again to ‘the basic principles of this world’ and cites ‘its rules’ as ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’ He says that these are ‘human commands and teachings…regulations.’ For this reason Calvin thinks the basic principles refer to ‘ceremonies.’ But it is more precise to say that Paul is referring to the teachings about these ceremonies. In any case, even if some insist that Paul has in mind elements or elemental spirits, it makes no pivotal difference in interpretation and application, since the meaning still reduces to a set of intellectual principles. This is because he is talking about a ‘philosophy,’ so that even if the reference directly concerns elements or spirits, he is in fact referring to the intellectual principles and assumptions associated with them.”

Cheung continues, “These principles are false, Paul explains, because they are based on men’s ideas and not based on Christ. This point is significant because it universalizes the application of the statement. The false philosophy is hollow and deceptive not just because it is based on some particular human inventions. If this is as far as Paul goes, then this verse might leave room for other human inventions to be correct, or at least they would have to be individually considered. But Paul says that the philosophy is false because it is not based on Christ, the Christ that the Colossians received and were taught (v6-7). In other words, any philosophy that is not based on the Christian faith as delivered by the apostles is a false philosophy. A hollow and deceptive philosophy consists of the traditions and principles of men – things that they invented or deduced from their speculations and superstitions. These false principles pervade all non-Christian religions and philosophies. The natural sciences, including modern cosmology, physics, biology, and so on, are not exempted from this charge. Man-made philosophies are not only hollow, but also deceptive, and many Christians have been deceived into thinking that science is rational and authoritative. This is what it claims, and this is what it wants us to believe, but it cannot withstand even the most basic logical scrutiny in its assumptions, methods, and conclusions. They are after all the traditions and principles of men, nothing more. On the other hand, true philosophy consists of Christian traditions and principles, things that God has revealed to us through the Scripture.”

Whatever these principles, by clinging to them, we would be in no small way proclaiming that Christ is insufficient, so Paul will now address that, as he has previously. V9-15 correspond to the positive instructions given in v6-7; and v16-23 correspond to Paul’s negative charge given in v8. None of this teaching is new to Paul – even within this letter. He frequently shows the sign of any good teacher – repetition.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Colossians 2:6-7

6So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in Him, 7rooted and built up in Him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.

After the commendation, Paul exhorts them to continue in Christ, and by this he means to go back to what they have been taught and to grow in it, to go deeper within it. Positively, he states the truths that his readers need to know in this context, and negatively, he applies them against the errors that his readers must avoid. V6-7, as positive (“do this”) reinforcements, summarize the whole letter, and then v8 moves to a negative (“do not do this”) advisory. The simple message is this: “Remain faithful in Christ, but grow in Christ as well.” Paul is basically being Paul here. He loves to tell people who they are, and then encourage and command them to be who they are. He says, “You are a Christian, so be a Christian. You have received Christ AS LORD (not just Savior), so continue living in Him, or ‘walk’ in Him.” In other words, receiving Christ is merely the beginning of spiritual life that lasts forever; receiving Christ is not the end of the road.

V7 stresses thanksgiving, particularly since these believers are firmly rooted in Christ (Ephesians 4:14), having been taught the gospel early on. Being firmly rooted and built up suggests a solid pattern of growth. Robert Murray McCheyne, reflecting on his own growth, said, “I am persuaded that nothing is thriving in my soul unless it is growing.” Also, Paul points to continued belief. C. S. Spurgeon once said, “Men to be truly won to Christ must be truly won to truth.” If we are to continue to grow in grace, we must continue to avail ourselves of the truth of God’s word. Paul also says that Christians are thankful. Ligon Duncan says, “As we think about gratitude and thanksgiving in our experience, there are two interesting components to it. Negatively, gratitude lifts our thoughts from ourselves because true thanksgiving is born in a spirit of humility. Positively, gratitude directs our hearts toward God, from whom all growth comes and to whom, therefore, all praise and glory should be given. So thanksgiving and gratitude move us from off ourselves and onto God. It comes from humility and it ends in praise.” Paul rightly instructs believers to be thankful to God that the gospel came to them and that they have been firmly established in faith by God (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

On a side note, though not mentioned here, Paul is no doubt complimenting Epaphras as the good teacher who faithfully and completely delivered the word of truth to the Colossians some years prior to these false teachers infiltrating their young church. Finally, Paul is not issuing commands here in v6-7; rather these things – growth, belief, and thanksgiving – are descriptive of what is certain to happen to true believers in Christ.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Beginning of the End?

Here's a quick summary of the conversation.

1) I was politely asked a question regarding the single most important benefit I receive from my faith.
2) I answered, "Eternal Life," and offered a short explanation of what that entailed.
3) I was given a link to the conclusion of a survey to aid an atheist in concluding what he wanted to believe, that fear of death was the motive for theism.
4) I disagreed with the conclusion, speaking for myself alone, and noted that the motivation for my faith was and remains the Holy Spirit.
5) There was some back-and-forth dialogue bringing up various topics that often appear in debates with atheists on theism (and especially Christianity).
6) This dialogue was going nowhere productively, due to both sides having well-established presuppositions, while the overarching theme of the involved atheists was simply that theism is irrational.
7) I offered an essay pointing to twelve testimonies that would enable anyone to view theism as a perfectly rational conclusion.
8) There was one response worth noting to this essay.
9) I replied to that response, and a number of comments followed at that link.
10) Finally, to bring us to the current post, I was accused of avoiding a question regarding Epicurus and/or Euthyphro.

First of all, with all the issues brought up and not followed up on between all those involved, I find it strange that it would be brought up as a big deal now. I haven't addressed several questions thrown at me for the sake of brevity, and I know I have not been brief. Phillychief et al. have likewise left issues unaddressed, but for undoubtedly the same reason. Second, I did provide a very brief "in my own words" response to Epicurus along with a link worth reading. But, as I have read or at least scanned each link provided by my opponents, it is clear that my opponents have not done the same. I won't hold that against them, but they shouldn't accuse me of failing to respond to an issue when the content of a given link answers adequately, especially when the answer in my own words would be quite lengthy. In other words, if you want to know how I would respond, read the linked article. Though that kind of response could be perceived as lazy or desperate, it doesn't necessarily reveal inadequacy. For example, phillychief offered a link as proof for macroevolution that contained 29 reasons. I'm sure glad - for his sake - that he didn't take the time to write all of that on the blog. The link sufficed for me to grasp his response. Third, the subject seemed to change when replies started coming in regarding my brief response to Epicurus. Now the attacks are against the supposed character of God. I find that interesting, but not surprising. In fact, that type of response reveals more clearly the presuppositions behind the atheist position. Apparently, none of the atheists read Vincent Cheung's essay, offered in a previous post of mine, even if only the first 14 pages. Perhaps that essay could set forth some guidelines should any further discussion "evolve."

Therefore, let me suggest that, if anybody wants to continue, that we address one question at a time and as completely as possible. And as phillychief suggested, "As far as venue, I think a question should be answered where it was asked, unless the answer will be one too big for a comment section and require and entire blog post, in which case a link would suffice."

Perhaps it would be good to start in a place where we left off... Epicurus. Since his supposed logical dilemma for the theist brings up the idea of evil, let's address that. Needless to say, a Christian theist understands good and evil. The basis for such understanding is not only Biblical, but also plain reality. In other words, I see good and evil in the world. I experience good and evil. I can survey a population and find that people think good and evil are objective, not subjective, realities. Alas, I cannot find an empirically scientific way to test good and evil. Perhaps you can help. You guys are calling my God evil. But what is your standard for evil? Explain the atheist understanding of evil. If you need help answering this question, read this article.

Colossians 2:1-5

1I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea, and for all who have not met me personally. 2My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, 3in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. 4I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments. 5For though I am absent from you in body, I am present with you in spirit and delight to see how orderly you are and how firm your faith in Christ is.

Paul, in v24-29 of chapter 1, described in general his suffering for the Church, his commission from God to preach the gospel, the message of his ministry, and his method, purpose, and power, or motivation. In v1-5 of chapter 2, Paul continues speaking of his ministry, but with a slightly different focus. He shows how his ministry is important to the Colossians and Laodiceans (4:16), though he hasn’t even met many of them (v1). He still speaks of his struggle (v1), which is not solely prayer as some commentators suggest, but is more related to his purpose (v2), of which he also speaks again. His purpose is a struggle, to make disciples of Christ through the verbal communication of the gospel, so that those who receive it will be made perfect, encouraged in heart, united in love, having the riches of complete understanding, full in the knowledge of Christ (v2), in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (v3). And Paul gives his reason for wanting to bring this reality that the fullness of wisdom is in Christ to everyone (v4): so that no one will be deceived by fine-sounding arguments. The false teachers denied that v2-3 could become reality for believers in Christ alone; they heralded additional rites and spiritual practices. Paul wants them again to know that Christ is sufficient. And he compliments them for thus far standing firm in their faith in Christ (v5). Let’s break it down a little further.

Paul specifically in v2 wants the believers in this region of the Roman Empire to be encouraged in heart (deep to the core) and united in love. The steady and stable, maturing Christian has a strengthened heart. And the maturing Christian also has a deep love for other believers. “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” The knowledge of Christ produces these things; and these things help to increase our knowledge of Christ. Additionally in v2, Paul says that encouragement and union in faith and love are essential for having the full riches of complete understanding, which is having a full knowledge (experiential perception) of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2). A Puritan once said, “Knowledge in the head is like money in the bank, but knowledge in the heart is like money ready for use.” Knowledge in the heart is what Paul desires for us, so we can put it to use.

Although the word “assurance” is missing from v2 in the NIV, it is present in the Greek and certainly in Paul’s intent. It’s the same word from Hebrews 6:11, 10:22. The KJV says, “That their hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgement of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.” Paul wants us as believers to be firmly convicted in our relationship with Christ; he wants our faith in Christ to be sure and settled, not halfhearted or uncertain. Settled conviction is what enabled the martyrs to die a death in faithfulness to Jesus Christ. When Polycarp, an 86-year-old man, stood before the Roman proconsul, the man said to him, “I will let you live; I will not put you into the fire, if you will but deny Christ.” Polycarp said, “For eighty and six years I have served Him and He has never denied me yet. How can I deny Him?” That is a man with settled conviction. He knows Christ. He knows that Christ knows him and he is not willing to trade Christ for anything else or to add anything to Christ. This assurance has been called “the suburbs of heaven.”

Paul wants spiritual encouragement, mutual love, deep assurance, and true knowledge of Christ for the Colossians. Knowledge and application are joined together here. Living the Christian life cannot be separated from knowledge of Christ (the full gospel, neglecting no doctrine), and an authentic knowledge of Christianity (not merely intellectual) is certain to bring about living the Christian life. As a circular letter, this epistle was to passed on specifically to Laodicea and perhaps to other neighboring churches. Likewise, Paul wrote a letter to Laodicea that was expected to be passed on to Colosse; alas, we have no record of that epistle.

At the end of v2 and into v3, Paul uses “mystery” again, and he also says that treasures are “hidden” in Christ. This language is playing on the false teachers heresy. Ascetic rituals and mystical spiritual experiences were taught to unlock some deeper spiritual life with God, but Paul says, “No. Christ alone contains and unlocks the only treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Calvin says, “We are perfect in wisdom if we truly know Christ, so that it is madness to wish to know anything besides Him. For since the Father has manifested himself wholly in Him, that man wishes to be wise apart from God, who is not contented with Christ alone.” In John 17:3, Jesus is praying to the Father, and He says that He has shown the Father to His disciples (1 John 2:23). Then He says, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” In Christ alone is the treasure of knowing God – eternal life.

So Paul uses the language of the false teachers to refute their claims (v4), and to warn his audience of their intellectually appealing tactics, just as Jude did in his short letter. It’s really a great example of an evangelism tool. Seated next to a lady on an airplane a few years back, she started a conversation that quickly turned to spiritual things. She was a “new-ager,” thinking of “God” as some “light-force.” And so I engaged her using her language. Indeed the Scripture says that God is light, and in Him there is no darkness. Now I made efforts to correct her faulty understanding of the “Light-God,” but I made no measurable progress that day. Perhaps it was a seed planted or watered, and as the Bible says, “God must give the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7).

Finally, in v5, Paul compliments their “good order” and “firm faith in Christ.” This is a strong encouragement to perseverance, something we spoke of previously in chapter 1. However, we come across something else of interest here. Paul speaks of being absent in the body, but present in spirit. What is that all about? Paul is saying that although he is not with them, his intimacy with them as a brother in Christ and his authority over them as God’s appointed instrument to teach them makes it as if he is there. His heart is with them; he cares for them deeply. And furthermore, his mind’s eye has seen their unity and faithfulness and delighted in them.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Re: Excuses To Believe

In a recent essay, I offered some reasons to believe that theism (and more specifically Christianity) is rational. I did this not as a security blanket for Christian theists to cling to - in fact, I noted on more than one occasion that, thanks to revelation, Christians do not need the mentioned reasons as evidence - but with the hope against all hope that some well-mannered (and other not so well-mannered) atheists, who had been accusing theists of being irrational, might acknowledge that theism, while by no means compelling, is indeed a rational conclusion and foundation on which to live life. I received one noteworthy response to that essay and would like to make a few comments regarding it. Sadly, the back-and-forth arguing doesn't lead to productivity or fruitfulness, other than perhaps, to supporting the truth that theism is in fact the fruit of rational thought, for countering opposing arguments suggests, if nothing else, that one has attempted to reason through the issues. Though in the case of my opponent, I'm not sure he did.

Putting aside the images of cookies in this response, which seem, ironically from one claiming to be so rational, to serve no reasonable purpose (in fact, they suggest that filler space was needed to make the response appear witty, lengthy, and fruit-filled),
I'll begin by addressing sincerity. The author of the rebuttal acknowledges that I'm not out to trick anybody, but he thinks the Christian apologists I'm leaning on (John Frame, R.C. Sproul, Gordon Clark, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, James White, Louis Berkhof, Wayne Grudem, Vincent Cheung, John Piper, Ravi Zacharias, Ligon Duncan, and many others) regarding the testimonies I lay forth are trying to fool the naive. What would possibly be their motive? They gain nothing financially; they serve humbly and are not striving for name-recognition or self-exaltation. They are the most trustworthy men I know, and their sincerity is unparalleled.

In fact, they remind me of the apostles, even Jesus Christ Himself. Consider the apostle Paul; one thing you will never do in reading from Acts (which introduces Paul and gives the historical accounts of his four missionary journeys) through Philemon (the last of Paul's 13 epistles) in the Bible, is think him to be trying to trick anybody. The 195 lashes on his back, the stonings, and multiple imprisonments testify to his sincerity. He wouldn't even accept money for his ministry, instead relying humbly on tent-making for survival. The same - to a greater extent - goes for Jesus. C.S. Lewis' argument is appropriate to revisit here. Was He a liar? Was He a lunatic? Or was He telling the truth - that He is Lord. Because His teachings are undeniably practical, we must address the question. The only rational conclusion, and the only reasonable conclusion, is that He is Lord.

And the statement that Jesus is Lord may very well answer the Hitchens' challengeanswer. My opponent also brings up Epicurus' argument against theism. Here's an interesting article on Christianity and Epicureanism. Like the Sagan dragon illustration, the premise is false. God has a good purpose for evil; He allows it for a time in order to bring glory to Jesus as the One who conquers it, and to bring condemnation to all the non-elect. Furthermore, I wonder if Epicurus had the trustworthiness of Paul? I wonder if he experienced the changed lifestyle? How does anyone know that Epicurus even lived? It is by faith, of course, reasonable faith in the historical evidence. Why, therefore, should Paul be less trustworthy than Epicurus? I am certain that there is far more manuscript evidence for the veracity of Paul's letters than for the writings of Epicurus. My opponent answers that final question indirectly with the second of his two-point summary of my twelve testimonies - presuppositions.

First, he pointed out one as uncertainty. In bringing up "the gaps," meaning the unknowns - and possibly unknowables - regarding matters of existence, the atheist criticizes the theist for throwing God into the gaps where material evidence is lacking; the theist criticizes the atheist in much the same way, suggesting that the atheist throws speculative natural explanation into those same gaps. Both views, as I've said before, rely on presuppositions - essentially, what you want to be true - which turns out to be the second of his two-point summary. The theist has no problem with this. We trust Paul over the likes of Epicurus. So why does the atheist have problems with presuppositions? By the way, since we're talking about Paul and presuppositions and Greek philosophers, you really must read this essay. Why does the atheist truth-suppressive speculation amount to superior reason and intellect, while the theist appeal to revelation is regarded as irrationality and delusion? The answer is moral. The theist has nothing to lose and everything to gain. The atheist cannot win; and there is everything to lose if they are wrong.

Finally, it is true that people believe what they want to believe; after all, that's what presuppositions are all about. The 29 proofs for macroevolution can easily be interpreted as evidence for proving intelligent design. Why would you expect to find something else? God created far more amazing creatures and life forms than we see today, but sin has caused them extinction. It's a great testimony to science that we can learn anything about them at all, since we can't observe them. But sadly, most are looking at the evidence through the wrong glasses, hence the name of my blog - Biblical Glasses. When the Christian theist looks at my twelve testimonies: the universe, life, consciousness / reason, morality, the history of religion, theology, personal experience, history in general, apprehension of beauty, the church, the Bible, and Jesus Christ, he sees order and design and purpose - God in and over all of it. He wants to see it, because it's reasonable to see it. When an atheist looks at those same twelve testimonies, he sees blind and random chaos and is amazed that something with no mathematical chance of occurring has occurred. But he is the one who is delusional, having suppressed the truth by his wickedness. Only by God's gracious revelation can one's mind be renewed unto wisdom and understanding.

From a scientific and philosophical perspective, theism is rational. My opponent's "proof" for the rationality of atheistic evolution came in the form of an analogy - cigarette smoking. We could easily change the wording in this "proof for evolution," and therefore atheism, to be adequate "proof" for theism. The essay states, "There is no direct, laboratory test that can prove that smoking causes cancer." Yet we know that it does. The same can be said of God's existence. He's not the dragon in my garage. The article says, "No one has seen a quark, yet we can infer their existence by observing collisions between subatomic particles." The Bible says, "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only [Jesus], who is at the Father's side, has made Him known" (John 1:18). I appeal to revelation, the Word of God, the Person of Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, as reason enough for a rational faith.

P.S. - My opponent seemed interested in the German Science Magazine's study of the probability of the existence of God. While I don't have access to the actual article, you can read the entirety of David Robertson's The Dawkins' Letters, his response to Charles Dawkins' The God Delusion, here. Robertson quotes Dawkins saying, "'Even if God’s existence is never proved or disproved with certainty one way or the other, available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50%'. Really? Why such a confident assertion? Anyway science has moved on since you made that unqualified and unsupported assertion. The Times reported (Nov 20th 2006) that the actual figure was well over 50%. 'The mathematical probability of God’s existence is just over 62 per cent. So says a German science magazine. P.M. tried to settle the issue by using mathematical formulae devised to determine plausibility and probability. Researchers started with the hypothesis 'God exists', then tried to analyse the evidence in favour or against the hypothesis in five areas: creation, evolution, good, evil and religious experiences. The scientists applied the formulae to calculate how statistically probable different answers were to questions such as 'How probable is it that the evolution of life took place without God?', and 'How probable is it that God created the Universe?' Their conclusion will be cheering to many, although not, perhaps, Richard Dawkins.'"