Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Unity, Disdain for Theology, and Bishop Tony Palmer

We are overflowing with words, ideas, arguments, worldviews, verbal self-revelations, and i-messages, and yet theology has become a dirty word. This disdain takes many forms, even among Christians. Here’s one Facebook example:

  • I'm done debating theology… I trust in the mercy of The Lord, that he knows I call His name. I can't get caught up in the minutiae of everyone's different theology - everyone tugging in different directions. I have to go with what makes the most sense to me, where I see the most unity and continuity and what speaks to my soul.

This “theology” reflects the thoughts and feelings of many, and their disdain for theology. Okay, theology requires work and much of it is become culturally unacceptable. Besides, Christians disagree, but so do scientists, but nobody uses this as a rationale to reject science. Instead, it should be a reason to do more hard work!

Even more important than this, theology – the truths about God - are not optional. Jesus explained to a Samaritan woman He had encountered at a well that worship had to entail truth:

  • “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, [and because of this] salvation is from the Jews [- the distinctive revelation given to them]. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:21-24)

Truth (theology) is a necessary ingredient of salvation and worship. We are not at liberty to conjure up any understanding of God that might feel right to us. I can’t even do this with my wife. She wants to be loved and appreciated for who she is! If I love her because she reminds me of my first flame, our “relationship” is in jeopardy. Instead, love and relationship must be built upon a foundation of truth.

Paul had a similar concern about the Galatians. They were straying away from the truth of the Gospel:

  • I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—  which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Gal. 1:6-9)

Today, a growing number of people believe that they can have Jesus without the Gospel or theology of Jesus. However, Paul passionately argued against such an idea. Turning to a different Gospel is also turning to a different hope and Savior. If we turn to a different gospel, we turn to a different “Jesus” – one that cannot save. Therefore, to embrace Jesus was also a matter of embracing His Gospel – His theology (teachings).

We care about how others regard us. God too cares profoundly about our thought-life regarding Him. In a dream, He warned King Nebuchadnezzar how he had to think about God. The Prophet Daniel interpreted his dream:

  • “This is the interpretation, Your Majesty, and this is the decree the Most High has issued against my lord the king:  You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox and be drenched with the dew of heaven. Seven times [or “years”] will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.” (Daniel 4:24-25)

Evidently, the King didn’t take this warning to heart. After all, it was just a matter of theology! A year later, while standing on top of his palace overlooking Babylon, the King exulted:

  • “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?” (Dan. 4:30)

He was immediately struck down with insanity, and for the next seven years he thought he was a cow, until his mind was restored. Then Nebuchadnezzar acknowledged the very theology that God had revealed to Him and was restored to power.

To reject the knowledge/theology of God is to reject God Himself. Therefore, Paul warned that when Jesus returns:

  • He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thess. 1:8)

If we have rejected His Gospel, we have also rejected Him. We cannot separate the salvation of God from the truth of God; nor can I separate the love of my wife from knowing about my wife. As I have come to better know about her, our relationship has deepened.

Although we live in an age that pours forth words and communications of various sorts, it is also an anti-intellectual age. The immediacy of experience has trumped the contemplation and acquisition of wisdom and knowledge. In our postmodern age, what is “true” for me might not be “true” for you, but there is a high value placed on self-fulfilling experience – immediate gratification that doesn’t interfere with your lifestyle as doctrine would. Therefore, Peter’s words sound unbelievable to this generation:

  • Grace and peace be yours in abundance through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord. His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him. (2 Peter 1:2-3)

This is troubling for another reason. Knowledge makes demands and even issues personal rebukes (Prov. 1:29-30). Wisdom also requires work (Psalm 1) and it raises uncomfortable questions about “unity.”

While unity is something that is required (Eph. 4:1-5; John 17:20-23), we cannot create unity where none exists. Even the most skilled midwife cannot bring forth a baby where there is none! Fr. Tony Palmer is an Anglican Bishop, but he is also an official member of the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Delegation for Christian Unity and Reconciliation. In his work to bring about unity – a return to the RCC – he equates the Protestant emphasis on doctrine with “spiritual racism” that “divides what Christ had united.” In a UTube video, he condemned any “doctrine” that would cause division, claiming that in doing this, “we elevate doctrine higher than the cross itself.”

Palmer attempts to separate theology from the cross, as if they are two distinct things. However, the cross is doctrine/theology. When we embrace the cross, we do not embrace a literal tree but instead, the teachings of the cross – the Gospel.

Besides, Scripture often teaches division instead of unity, where there is no Gospel-basis for unity. Paul argued against being “unevenly yoked” and the need to be “separate” (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

Admittedly, Paul didn’t teach separation from other Christians (except in cases of church discipline), but it’s just hard to know where and how deeply to draw the line. Who are the true believers? Should we embrace all who claim Christ as Savior – the New Age Jesus, the mystical Jesus, the Prosperity Ministry, the Televangelists, the Mormons, the Jehovah Witnesses, the Catholics, the Postmodern, Emergent, Agnostic Church? Should we separate completely? When does their Jesus become another “Jesus” and another “gospel?” How do we know where there is a “unity” worth preserving and presenting to the world?

These can be perplexing questions. However, rather than allowing the quest for unity to reduce theology to the lowest common denominator, we have a Scriptural mandate to be faithful to what we already understand about God:

  • So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Rom. 14:22-23)

We must remain faithful to our theological beliefs. If we compromise them for the sake of “unity,” we sin. But we must also grow into the doctrines of the Bible, and God gave us teachers and pastors to provide us a theological foundation:

  • Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. (Eph. 4:13-15)

According to Paul, unity and stability could only be achieved through growth in “the knowledge of the Son of God.” Consequently, we are not at liberty to throw away doctrine and theology for the hope of “unity.” Instead, these are the foundations of unity.

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