Dogma on a Leash

dogma-on-a-leashChristian theology is the enterprise which seeks to construct a coherent system of Christian belief and practice. This is based primarily upon the texts of the Old Testament and the New Testament as well as the historic traditions of Christians. Christian theologians use biblical exegesis, rational analysis, and argument to clarify, examine, understand, explicate, critique, defend or promote Christianity. Theology might be undertaken to help the theologian better understand Christian tenets, make comparisons between Christianity and other traditions, defend Christianity against objections and criticism, facilitate reforms in the Christian church, assist in the propagation of Christianity, draw on the resources of the Christian tradition to address some present situation or need, or for a variety of other reasons.

“Christian theology”
Wikipedia

Your pastor Randy seems to be a Calvinist. Calvinism is one of the most disturbing (and erroneous) christian theologies that I’ve come across.

I extensively addressed the issue of Calvinism on my old blog site and I found that no other topic inspired so many hostile comments:

In your article you write:

“Think about it. It’s all Adam’s and Eve’s fault. They are the only ones who ever had a choice. According to ‘Divine Election,’ “

However the Calvinist view isn’t even as “fair” as that. According to Calvin:

“God not only foresaw that Adam would fall, but also ordained that he should….I confess it is a horrible decree; yet no one can deny but God foreknew Adam’s fall, and therefore foreknew it, because he had ordained it so by his own decree” (Cal. Inst., b. 3, c. 23, sec. 7).

-Onesimus, from comments he made on the blog post
Lancaster’s Galatians: Sermon Three, Paul’s Gospel, and the Unfair Election

I had a kind of revelation this morning (as I write this) while driving to work. Christians have a strong tendency to be critical of the “man-made rulings” of the Jewish sages and rabbis that are binding to various branches of Judaism. Particularly in Orthodox Judaism, Christians see the rabbinic rulings overriding the word of God and elevating the sages to a higher standing than God’s written word.

But I think Christians do exactly the same thing. Consider the words of Onesimus I quoted above. There are all manner of Christian “sages,” such as John Calvin, who issue proclamations that are considered binding by their followers.

I’m really ignorant of all the different doctrines, creeds, and dogmas running around out there, so it’s difficult for me to compare them, let alone claim a specific path for my very own. Trying to look up a comparative list of Christian doctrines is difficult, and the best I could do was About.com. In comparing, for example, Calvinism and Arminianism relative to Divine Election, I found this:

  • Calvinism – Before the foundation of the world, God unconditionally chose some to be saved. Election has nothing to do with man’s future response.
  • Arminianism – Election is based on God’s foreknowledge of those who would believe in him through faith. In other words, God elected those who would choose him of their own free will. Conditional election is based on man’s response.

These are both perfectly acceptable Christian doctrines, but they contradict each other. They are also binding doctrines in terms of the individuals and churches who follow them. How is that different from Jews who choose to follow the dictates of Reform Judaism, vs. those who adhere to Orthodox Judaism or even the Chabad?

The first Big Issue is this: If I’m going to switch my focus to the New Testament, should I continue following all the rules of the Hebrew Bible? In other words, should I keep my beard and fringes? Or should I break out the Gillette Mach3 and order shrimp fajitas?

After asking this question to pretty much every Christian expert I meet, I’ve come to this definitive conclusion: I don’t know.

You can find a small group – a very small group – of Christians who say that every single Old Testament rule should still be followed by everyone. The ultralegalist camp.

On the other end of the spectrum are those Christians who say that Jesus overrode all rules in the Old Testament. He created a new covenant. His death was the ultimate sacrifice, so there’s no need for animal sacrifice – or, for that matter, any other Old Testament laws. Even the famous Ten Commandments are rendered unnecessary by Jesus.

-A.J. Jacobs
“Month Nine: May”, pp 254-5
The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

AJ-Jacobs-bibleI just finished this book, which Pastor Randy lent me, and Jacobs illustrates quite graphically how the Bible, and particularly Christianity, seems so strange when looked at from a complete outsider’s point of view. He had some familiarity with religious Judaism since he’s a secular liberal Jewish person and has religious relatives.

However, in his inventory of the different “Christianities” he was able to contact, he showed his readers quite dramatically how hard it would be to choose one particular path and call it the “right” one. He contacted a number of Christian scholars and pastors to act as advisors, and visited such diverse groups as Answers in Genesis, Jerry Falwell’s MegaChurch, a Gay men’s Christian Bible Study in New York, and a group of “snake handlers” in Tennessee. It doesn’t get more “mixed bag” than this.

Day 292. I’ve got a decent biblical library going now. Perhaps a hundred books or so. And I’ve divided them into sections: Moderate Jewish. Fundamentalist Jewish. Moderate Christian. Fundamentalist Christian. Atheist. Agnostic. Religious Cookbooks.

I’ve tried to keep the conservative books on the right side and the liberal ones on the left. When I started my year, I thought that nothing would go to the right of my Falwell collection. But of course, I was wrong…

-Jacobs, pg 292

Of course, Jacobs was trying to live the Bible as literally as possible, so he skewed his sampling of Judaism and Christianity to those branches that express themselves in a more literal and often, fundamentalist manner. But even restricting himself to those particular “Christianities,” it was still confusing.

There’s a phrase called “Cafeteria Christianity.” It’s a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop.

Fundamentalist Jews don’t use the phrase “Cafeteria Judaism,” but they have the same critique. You must follow all of the Torah, not just the parts that are palatable.

The point is, the religious moderates are inconsistent. They’re just making the Bible conform to their own values.

The year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just the moderates. Fundamentalists do it too. They can’t heap everything on their plate. Otherwise, they’d kick women out of church for saying hello (“the women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak…” -1 Corinthians 14:34) and boot out men for talking about the “Tennessee Titans” (“make no mention of the names of other gods…” -Exodus 23:13).

-Jacobs, pp 327-8

There’s nothing like having an outsider sincerely look at your faith to give you (or me, in this case) fresh perspective.

In reading Jacobs’ book or reviewing the websites I’ve mentioned so far, I wasn’t really satisfied that I got a good look at the different “Christianities” so I kept searching and found a chart of the differences between denominations at religionfacts.com.

It’s too long to quote from in any meaningful fashion, but if you take a look that page, you’ll see how many different ways there are to apply the different Christianities to different doctrines and topics (Trinity, Nature of Christ, Holy Spirit, Original Sin, Free Will, and on and on and on).

So when Pastor presents his point of view and backs it up with scripture, it’s not the only valid Christian point of view. If I disagree with him or even if I am aghast at something he says, it doesn’t automatically mean I have to agree with him, even if I can’t immediately come up with Bible verses that state another perspective.

I remember being told (in a seminary class) that we must choose between Armenian or Calvinist theology. I found it strange to be forced into an either/or position like that.

-Ruth on Facebook

If I were to run all this past the Apostle Paul, what would he say? Would any of this even make sense to him? Would he advise me to take a Calvinist or Armenian approach, or would he think both were equally dodgy? I don’t know. I have said that I think religion evolves over time to meet the needs of each generation, but there’s a difference between adaptation to adjust to new technologies or social situations, and totally new ways of understanding the basic nature a completely unchanging God.

rabbinThe following story is said of Moses (see Menachot 29b.) that when he was about to receive the Torah from God, he saw God attaching crowns to the letters. Moses asked why God was doing this and God answered, “There is a man who will live many generations after you and his name is Akiva, son of Yosef. He will examine every single spike of every letter and draw from them piles upon piles of halachot.”

To help Moses understand, God allowed Moses to visit a class of Rabbi Akiva. As Moses listened to the esteemed Rabbi’s teaching, he couldn’t follow any of it and “became weak with despair.” At the end of the Rabbi’s explanation, a student asked him, “Where do you learn this from,” and the Rabbi replied, “This is an oral tradition passed down from Moses.”

“By those words, Moses was set at ease.”

(see Is It Really the Torah, Or Is It Just the Rabbis for more)

This is midrash and I don’t believe God literally sent Moses forward in time to visit Rabbi Akiva in the early First Century of the common era (but what do I know?), but this tale is meant to illustrate how there can be new interpretations of our original Biblical data designed to illuminate subsequent generations. There are no doubt many matters in Judaism that Moses could not anticipate, so he wouldn’t have looked at the Torah in those ways.

No doubt, there are many issues in modern Christianity that would have escaped Paul, so he wouldn’t have written any of his letters addressing them.

Still, how far afield can Christian doctrine go before it completely escapes the bounds of the intent of the writers of the Bible and more than that, the intent of God? Does God require that we choose between Armenian or Calvinist theology or can we be servants of the Most High and disciples of our Master without doing so?

Is that like asking if a religious Jew can be a good Jew and not choose between the halachot specific to a particular branch of Judaism? If it is, then Christianity is doing almost exactly what Judaism is doing. The only substantial difference, is for Christianity the required responses are largely conceptual (what you believe), and for Judaism the required responses are largely behavioral (what you do).

Maybe we Christians should cut religious Jews some slack or stop being so dogmatic with our doctines…or both.

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13 thoughts on “Dogma on a Leash”

  1. “The only substantial difference, is for Christianity the required responses are largely conceptual (what you believe), and for Judaism the required responses are largely behavioral (what you do).”

    James, you nailed it. Dogma is Christianity’s halacha, its own “Oral Law”. Not how you should walk (acts), but how your mind should walk (dogmas). Except that this sort of beliefs-are-more-important-than-actions “halacha” has caused far more damage, disunity and wars in the Christian world than the disputes about the behavior-based halacha did to the Jewish world. A smart person I know called it a “tyranny of dogma”.

  2. So I have stumbled upon Christianity’s “oral traditions” after all. This has been driving me nuts about Christianity for some time…I knew something was bothering me, but I couldn’t articulate it…until now.

  3. Great meditation James and very well said about the Christian “sages” doing the same thing they criticize the Jews for.

    What I realized about Christianity is:
    1) it must create boundaries, in order to remain what it is. (Everything needs to do this.)
    This is done by adherence to the writings and teachings of the Church Fathers. Then the Protestant stream breaks off with Martin Luther’s “reform” in the 16th-century schism. The problem is that: a) he didn’t want to stop being a Catholic, he was kicked out (excommunicated by the Pope) and b) it’s a bit shocking since I’d grown up in a Protestantism that believes Catholics aren’t Christians!

    So who do Christian Pastors study in seminary? Who creates the “boundaries” of the faith for them?

    Much like Judaism points to Maimonides, who came much later than Moses, to frame their religion and avoid certain perceived “pitfalls”, Christianity has ours too. Unfortunately they’re raging antisemites.

    2) The Torah and it’s application to non-Jews is misunderstood by said Church Fathers, and so is the status of the Jewish people to God. There has to be a system that makes us non-Jewish Christians superior to the Jews and the only way to do it is to demote them and their covenant.

    3) If Augustine (for instance) tainted the river at a certain point, everything downstream is affected. One must jump over him to a place that was yet untainted to truly examine the water the Apostles drank. (Not that he didn’t do good things tho).

  4. We can never go back to “recapture” the world of the apostles, nor can be go back and correct the mistakes of the past. We can only go forward and with a correct understanding of our past, build a better future by repairing the world we live in. Christianity is whatever we make it as the progress from here. May what we make the church be within the will of God and for the honor and glory of Messiah.

  5. Right on! James, as we used to say back in the day. And the “tyranny of dogma,” is an apt description that also sheds light on this stealthy phenomenon known as the dogma. or is it doctrine (?) of “sola scriptura.” The “tradition” of Replacement Theology perhaps being the most lethal of all of Christianity’s “invisibly dogmatized” traditions. I’m thankful for Jacob Fronczak’s writing on the matter of “sola scriptura” for insight on this subject (Messiah Journal #112, FFOZ). Great job here, James. I appreciate the insight… this is an elusive concept to nail down, for sure. And in dialogue with my much-loved fellow Christians I tend to treat this subject with “extra tender loving care” if/when bringing it up at all, as it’s such a sensitive issue to navigate…

  6. Yes, I know your beliefs about “recapturing” the past, but that’s not what I’m saying James.

    Rather, as we contemplate our faith, we are able to also notice the frame it’s been placed in by those who came before us and it’s a valid exercise to consider an alternate frame, one that doesn’t obscure the picture, or do damage to it. (God’s Word or Jesus’ life and the Apostles mission.)

    I don’t feel compelled to have the Church Fathers be the final authority for framing my faith and according to your own posts, neither do you.

    Looking at the Jews as still being the covenant people of God, and us non-Jews as the gracious expansion of His salvation, but not a replacement of the Jewish people, necessarily places me outside the boundaries to some degree, and I’m comfortable with placing the “commandments of men” lower than the commandments (or teachings) of God.

  7. @Dan: I’m hoping to see Jacob again at the FFOZ Shavuot conference next month. I agree that his Sola Scriptura articles in Messiah Journal are extremely illuminating and should be required reading for all believers.

    @Ruth: I think we’re probably just using different conceptual frameworks to try and say the same thing. Sounds like you’re using reframing this way. I agree.

  8. Haha, aren’t you a psychologist James? Are you analyzing me? Jk.
    Yes, that’s how I mean it. I feel Jesus himself teaches to put Gods revealed Word above any other teaching or tradition. Although he was directing that to Jewish Pharisees, I believe it’s universal.

    People, no matter how sincere, go off track. We need the unchanging standard (God’s Word) to be the corrective. To Evangelical Christianity’s credit it claims the (whole) Bible as it’s creed (at least within S. Baptist theology). Within that framework, again, I feel justified in using a different frame that has no trace of RT.

  9. Haha, aren’t you a psychologist James? Are you analyzing me?

    Actually, I have a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, but I haven’t practiced clinically in years. No worries about being analyzed. 😉

    You and Pastor Randy would get along in that you both agree that the Bible is the final authority above any commentary or interpretation of man. And yet, as I’ve found out, Yeshua did seem to approve of some or much of the halachah established by the authorities in his day and agreed that they had the authority to make binding halachah.

    He also gave his own disciples the authority to make binding halachah for the Messianic community, and we see that they exercised that authority in Acts 15 by making a ruling affecting the Gentile God-fearing disciples.

    Yes, authoritative rulings cannot contradict the Bible, but sometimes they are required in order to clarify a commandment or to make it understandable in a 21st century context.

  10. “Actually, I have a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology, but I haven’t practiced clinically in years. No worries about being analyzed.”

    Oh good news!

    I should have been clearer in my response. I’m not saying the Jewish leaders had no authority to make halachah, in fact it is necessary and appropriate. Jesus does in fact seem to acknowledge it as well.

    I’m only saying that he taught that those traditions, practices, and beliefs or teachings cannot be placed above the revealed Word of God and when they inevitably are, the appropriate response for the people is to reject them. Christianity eventually took that to mean rejection of all things Jewish and I certainly don’t make such an argument.

  11. I’m only saying that he taught that those traditions, practices, and beliefs or teachings cannot be placed above the revealed Word of God and when they inevitably are, the appropriate response for the people is to reject them. Christianity eventually took that to mean rejection of all things Jewish and I certainly don’t make such an argument.

    Agreed.

  12. It should not be a matter of choosing one theological system above another (Calvinism vs Arminianism for example). That approach is merely a choice of a prefered teacher – choosing which one is more capable of soothing our itching ears.

    By starting with a favoured teacher or a teaching we are more likely to find scripture agreeing with what we WANT to believe.

    That is the kind of system perpetuated in the institutional church through training of ministers in denominational colleges. The colleges teach their denominational traditions using the parts of scripture that can be interpreted to support those traditions and avoiding the parts that seem to contradict the tradtitions.

    Why can’t we merely start with scripture and trust God to bring understanding through the Holy Spirit (the teacher HE promised)? And THEN turn to others for confirmation or correction of what we believe we have learned. In other words – START with scripture – don’t rely on scripture as the END part of learning (using it to check up on what someone else’s teaching by checking their “proof” texts).

  13. Why can’t we merely start with scripture and trust God to bring understanding through the Holy Spirit…

    I guess that’s part of my problem. I tend to think of myself as “generic” (with a Messianic twist) and am having a tough time relating for denominational traditions.

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