We welcome once again Rev. Dr. George Byron Koch as our guest blogger.
As the Church moved out from Israel into the surrounding cultures, and the leadership of the Church became more and more Gentile, this understanding of following the Way, which was very Jewish and rabbinic, changed into a process of analysis and proposition construction—the development of theology, doctrine and Christian tradition. That is, the focus moved from how one behaved to what one believed—from following the way of a person and His teachings, to believing in a set of logical propositions: From acting to asserting.
This began innocently enough: Paul in his speech on Mars Hill (Acts 17) to contextualize the Gospel for Gentile listeners (who were, incidentally, Greek philosophers). Or when Origen wrote Contra Celsum (“Against Celsus,” ) a defense of the Way put into philosophical categories and syllogisms, because the Way had been ridiculed by the Greek philosopher Celsus as silly and lacking the philosophical foundations and rigor of the Greek schools.
The creeds are key examples of this focus on propositions. Whether the Nicene, Apostles’ or Athanasian, they are statements about the propositions we accept. There is not one word about how we are to live and act. The Way of Jesus is absent. Go reread them if you don’t believe it. This should unsettle us.
The problem is compounded by the multiplication of such propositions (creeds, confessions, doctrines, theologies, traditions)—as various Christians dispute with each other—and diverge, following paths that separate us from each other, and further from the Way.
In fact, we have worshiped our propositions—basically worshiped our own ideas about Scripture, tradition, and even the Way, and shunned, anathematized and sarcastically spoken against each other. Even if my favorite doctrine is right—or more right—than yours, my disdain, condescension and venom toward you and your ideas is sin. And it separates us. The same is true for you.
We have allowed our “defense of the truth” of our propositions to divide us from each other, rather than acting in love, following the Way, the halakha, of the One Who embodies truth.
The mean-spiritedness of our attacks on each other is stunning. And wrong.
Remember Paul’s words:
“Use your freedom to serve one another in love. For the whole law can be summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” (Galatians 5:13–15)
And let us not forget what James said. You can almost hear the exasperation in his voice:
“What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, ‘Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.
Now someone may argue, ‘Some people have faith; others have good deeds.’ But I say, ‘How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.’ You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless?” (James 2:14–20)
Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying doctrine is without value. In fact, as a method of understanding basic ideas from Scripture it can be useful. But IF AND ONLY IF that understanding actually leads to loving action. Even demons can have their doctrine right, but loving action never follows their beliefs!
We have sadly moved from Paul’s “contextualizing” of the Gospel to a religion often more focused on the worship and defense of propositions, than the acting out of love in our relationship with God and neighbor. The love of propositions has replaced acting with the love of Christ.
We lost our way. We lost the Way.
When Jesus prayed for His disciples in John 17, they were a mess of puffery, misunderstandings and bad doctrines, but He patiently taught them His Way, nudged them back when they strayed, protected them, and demonstrated to them what this Way of love really entailed—to act like the teacher, the rabbi. He prayed this for them and for us: “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
We disdain Jesus and His prayer when we shun each other over ideas, and put out those who do not affirm precisely our propositions. There is no love of God, neighbor or even “enemy” when we do this.
Obviously, no one of us will have all of his propositions correct. No theology, doctrine, confession, worship or tradition will get it all right. Should we wrestle respectfully? Of course! We can grow from that. But true unity in Jesus will not come from all agreeing to identical propositions, but from following His commands and learning to live and love as He did.
The doctrines and creeds are insufficient unless they are followed by loving action. “So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.”
Now to make it real: I confess my worship of my favorite ideas, and my condescension toward those who do not agree. Even where my ideas are “right,” my heart is wrong when I speak and act hurtfully toward you.
I ask for the forgiveness of any I have slandered or even held in disdain in my worship of propositions—from you, and from my rabbi, Jesus. I desire to never again to be so misdirected, or to repeat such sin.
You too may need to confess this—to make it real. And then we must covenant to honor rather than devour each another.
Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: you shall love neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets stand under these two commands.”
Do we imagine that our doctrines, theologies, creeds, confessions and traditions stand above these two commands—or should they stand under them, as do all the Law and the prophets?
And of those with whom we might disagree? How are we to behave?
Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for them,” and “Treat others the way you want to be treated.”
And near the end He prayed for us, “May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”
That unity comes from following His commands and His example—acting with the love He taught and lived. His halakha. It is how we can be one.
That is the Way of Jesus. Follow it.
The Rev. Dr. George Byron Koch (coke) is the Chairman of the Board of Act3 Network, and a strong advocate for unity in the body of Christ. He has been the Pastor of Resurrection Church in West Chicago since June of 1994. He’s the author of several books, most recently What We Believe and Why, a primer on the Christian faith and life, now in use across denominations in more than 64 countries. He is also the author of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, from Christianity Today to The Wall Street Journal. His personal website is at GeorgeKoch.com.
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I thank Mr. Koch for this post which reminds us that Christ and a living life in him should be the central focus of Christianity. I agree with him on many points, particularly how we often allow propositional statements, unique to our particular camp, to divide us and overshadow the unity that Christ prioritized and prayed for us to espouse. All too often, I hear the bible being used as a tool to promote one camp’s agenda rather than being regarded and used for its intended purpose, i.e. special revelation which points us toward the person and work of Christ. When I look at the early creeds, what I am most grateful for is their focus on the nature of Christ and the affirmation of the trinity. My opinion is that the church has erred using these mainly as litmus tests to see who is ‘in or out’ rather than mining the depths of these affirmations and deeply integrating their truths into our everyday lives. After all, it is both the incarnation and the Trinitarian nature of God, who is love and whose image we are made in, which should inform how we view ourselves and relate to one another. I’m not sure that the issue is that we have come at these with a western analytical mindset, but rather relationship is simply not the focus of many within the church (something that I am all too often guilty of). First century Judaism also had its problems with sectarianism as seen in the friction between the prominent schools of Hillel and Shammai. Jewish Christianity died out early on because of a kind of sectarian isolation, so while it may be useful to look at some aspects of rabbinical Judaism from a practical standpoint, we should not disregard the fact that those systems also held propositional truths which presented significant relational stumbling blocks. All in all, I’m looking forward to Koch’s further posts on how we can recover what Christ prayed for us in John 17.
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RT @JohnA1949: The Way of Jesus (2): We welcome once again Rev. Dr. George Byron Koch as our guest blogger. http://t.co/GR42f1FUzw
@JohnA1949 Christians dispute with each other—and diverge, following paths that separate us from each other, and further from the Way. #love
@JohnA1949 “Yet, I show unto you a more excellent way!” #love #unity
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This post sounds quite similar to much of the writings of those who trumpeted the emerging church and who decried our emphasis on doctrine. Many of the emerging church’s went as far as not having doctrinal statements, after all they claimed “truth is relational not propositional”. The truth is that truth is both and one cannot have one without the other. If someone is a modalist or denies the trinity it makes little difference what their relational world looks like. Granted, many have swung too far in the overemphasis of sound doctrine and not emphasizing the fruit therein. To that extent I see some merit in George Koch’s admonition.
John, you have not understood George’s ideas or his proposal based upon your response. I would urge you to read it again and then even consider reading his fantastic book on Christian doctrine if you are interested. He is NOT saying what you see based upon your response here. 🙂
I think there are sound reasons why the creeds don’t attempt to spell out what the life of discipleship looks like. If you had to codify it, where would you begin? Koch’s article from yesterday explains it well. We follow Jesus who is a living person. You can try to describe his way through words, but the actual know-how is encoded in the character of individual Christian disciples and their interrelationships in their community. Discipleship lives in the realm of what Michael Polanyi called “tacit knowledge” and is caught rather than taught. Love exists in that realm. Love can be experienced by any human being from the moment of birth, and even in the womb. But teaching the essence of love through words? Good luck with that.
John, I am a little unclear by what George means by our “worship of propositions”. I will reread the post again and perhaps his book on Christian doctrine.
John Appleton, perhaps this will help. This is how Koch describes it in chapter 22 of his book. Before us stand two doors. The first door is labeled, “The Way to God”; the second door is marked, “Lectures About God.” Going through the first is extremely frightening, so most of the time we opt for the second. In our study and in our worship, we talk about God, expounding on his attributes and discussing principles and doctrines. We speak of him in the third person as if he were not there. Rarely if ever do we address him directly. Encounter with God is buried under layer upon layer of abstract teachings. Over time, we cling to our ideas and imagine that they are the real thing, that in possessing them we have God himself, to the extent that we begin to worship our ideas. Without realizing it, our Christian faith mixes with religious idolatry which becomes extremely difficult to detect and root out. Our ideas, principles and doctrines may be good and correct. But by focusing on them rather than God himself, we become detached from him and from one another. And we begin to identify ourselves not by our common love for Christ, but by the unique teachings and practices that distinguish us from other groups.
Joseph Schafer this whets my appetite. What you describe (and cite) is not unrelated to a problem many evangelical preachers have; they are extremely good in describing the gospel – often in painstaking and pains-giving detail – but never quite get round to proclaiming it in such a way that it invites the hearer to make a personal response to God. We Reformed and evangelical people often confuse the call to worship with a call to instruct, and whilst there is a time and place for both, they are not necessarily synonymous. Our preaching too often lacks the numinous; it doesn’t lead into the presence of God and confront with the beauty of holiness. And I am as much to blame as any!
Thanks Joseph L Schafer that is helpful and I do not disagree with the thrust of what he is saying. In that sense it is what Jesus fought against with the Pharisee’s, who knew the scriptures backward and forward, but did not realize that it was the scriptures that referred to Jesus himself. I am always nervous when there is a push to deemphasize doctrine, but understood from the excerpt above I can see how the doctrine itself could become sterile or distant. Hebrews 4:19 would be a good refresher for one in that boat.
May I add, that I welcome Dr Koch’s understanding of the Jewish origins of the Church.
Yes, and the way he contrasts the Hebrew understanding of truth and knowledge with that of the Greeks is very helpful, because in that regard we moderns are much more Greek than Hebrew. When Jesus said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life” I think his conception of truth is difficult for us to grasp.
I agree, but the so-called Hellenisation of the Church ought not altogether, in every respect, be rejected as inappropriate, after all the Holy Spirit in choosing Koine Greek as the medium for New Testament revelation obviously didn’t consider it incompatible with the Hebrew Old Testament. I also recollect that the Greek New Testament was on the whole – maybe in its entirety – written by Greek-speaking Jewish Christians, whose thought was, to some degree, expressed in terms derived from Greek culture.
I do agree that many things Jesus said are difficult to grasp, indeed impossible to grasp fully, but they are understandable and truly knowable – we may be out of our depth, but we are not left in a irrational and mystical fog.
I think I am more and more concerned how too often we use the precious gift of truth as a weapon of disaffiliation against those who either do not understand our system or disagree about aspects of it, rather than as a bond that unites around a core and enables us, with all our honest disagreements, to move forward together, in love and curiosity, to discover more and more about the God we love and his ways and will. If someone says ‘Jesus is Lord’ and holds to the historic creeds why can I not journey with them in faith towards a more complete understanding?
Yes, the gospel is for Jews and Greeks alike, and must be understood by each on their own terms. Delving into these things does help us to understand the Bible better, and it also helps us to contextualize the message in these postmodern times, because today’s understandings of truth and knowledge are shifting and becoming more similar to the Hebrew. It was interesting for me to learn that the Hebrew word for truth (’emet) may also be translated as “faithfulness.” In Hebrew, if you say that a statement is true, you may be claiming that it jibes with external reality. But you may also be saying that the person who has made the statement is faithful and trustworthy. Hebrew conceptions of truth are not just about ideas, but about persons and relationships. I like that.
Brilliant post John.
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“We have sadly moved from Paul’s “contextualizing” of the Gospel to a religion often more focused on the worship and defense of propositions, than the acting out of love in our relationship with God and neighbor. The love of propositions has replaced acting with the love of Christ.”
if I were a hanky-waving-type I’d be be throwing my shoulder out. simply because i am ever-so-guilty of this…
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John Ross, I’m not sure the Greek language can be, in any sense, a justification for accepting the Hellenisation of the Hebrew message.
I agree, but the term Hellenisation is used very loosely. There is indeed an unhelpful philosophical Hellenisation alien to the Gospel, but the immersion of divine revelation in Greek language and culture must be taken as seriously as we do the Hebrew origins and background of the Bible. Scripture undoubtedly crossed cultures in the shift from from the medium of Hebrew to Koine Greek, though without any threat to the internal coherence of the message. Strictly speaking the transcends culture being equally applicable at home in all milieus. In that sense in itself it never speaks an alien language.
Once I heard a sincere young Christian speak about The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. He said that the writers of the New Testament carefully selected their words, and in any passage the word choice (agape, eros, philia, or storge) is highly significant. Yes, I agree with that. But then the young man went on to say (essentially) that because the New Testament was written in Greek, this classification of love into four types has been given a divine stamp of approval, and there really are four distinct types of love. I had to disagree. The Greek conceptions of love haven’t been canonized merely because the NT canon was written in Greek.
I could not agree more Joseph L Schafer. My book will attempt to argue this very point when I wrote on the Four Loves.