Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Perfect And Absolute Blank

A dear old friend and I have been arguing for more than a decade now. I will give you first his side and his reasons.

He is the pastor of a small church. Intentionally he has created in the church a very non-churchy atmosphere, and he has succeeded in attracting a good group of the down and out of our society. As he desired, he is building a church almost entirely composed from people who did not grow up in church and have very little knowledge of the Bible.

Mike, for that is his name, is doing a great work and I am proud to call him my friend.

Mike has always been passionately in search of the bare minimum that might be required in order for someone to be a Christian. What is the very bare bones of what a person must believe and cling to, for them to have a solid hope of eternal life.

Mike is trinitarian, that is, he believes God to exist in the persons of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Mike understands these three to be not merely different names of the same person, but in fact to be different persons who exist eternally in relation to each other. And at the same time Mike understands there to be but one God. Three who are God, but one God. That is the Trinity.

But, Mike reasons, it is possible for a person to be saved (that is to have hope of eternal life) without having any concept of the Trinity. For evidence in favor of this we need look no farther than the Old Testament, in which we assume that most of God's people did not have much understanding of diversity within the one God.

So, Mike does not want to burden his flock with what he considers the non-essential and confusing question of the Trinity. Such doctrines often lead to controversies, to dispute, and to hurt feelings. Mike would spare his congregation all of this, so he skirts around what seems to him to be a dangerous topic.

He does likewise with all other biblical topics that he deems to be non-essential: and by non-essential he always means that it is possible to be eternally saved without an understanding of the question.

Jesus, you will recall, had no kind words for those who "tie up heavy burdents, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders." (Matt 23) Mike is being scrupulously careful not to do this with his teaching.


My question is: What then is he offering to them? What is he providing?

While it is not "essential" that we ever eat beans or fish, are we not healthier if we do? And do we not find that we enjoy them once we've tried them? Yet we could subsist entirely on a diet of Wonderbread and margarine, at least for a while. But ACCKKK!!!!! We would grow tired of it. It would be like when God force fed the Israelites quail "until it was coming out of their nose." We could not be healthy, and I think we could be little happy. But true, for at least a while we could be kept alive.

Mike's approach seems admirably caricatured in this little piece from THE HUNTING OF THE SNARK, written by the Reverend Charles Dodson (aka Lewis Carol). To set the scene, a misfit crew is on an ocean voyage.


The Bellman himself they all praised to the skies--
Such carriage, such ease and such grace!
Such solemnity, too! One could see he was wise,
The moment one looked in his face!

He had bought a large map representing the sea,
Without the least vestige of land:
And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
A map they could all understand.

"What's the good of Mercator's North Poles and Equators,
Tropics, Zones, and Meridian Lines?"
So the Bellman would cry: and the crew would reply
"They are merely conventional signs!

"Other maps are such shapes, with their islands and capes!
But we've got our brave Captain to thank"
(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best--
A perfect and absolute blank!"


But of course this does not settle our debate. It will go on, I'm sure, for another decade or two. And I'm twice as sure that we will still be dear friends throughout it.



Rosa said...

Wonderbread and margarine... very interesting point! I would have to agree. While I believe that a thorough knowledge of dogma and doctrine is not necessary in order for God's love and mercy to save, (in some instances, a child's simple faith is so much stronger than a scholar's technical view on God) why would the beauty of the Trinity and other mysteries be kept from the people?

I'm glad to know that you remain friend throughout your disagreements; a concept I can well relate to!

Doug P. Baker said...

Oh yes, our personalities work together in such a way that our many disagreements seem to make us better friends; they do not alienate us from one another.

You have a great point, that a child's faith is very often greater than a scholar's faith. Absolutely! Jesus held up a child's faith as the ultimate type of faith. (At least that is how I take his "Unless you come like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God. . .)

Knowledge saves no one. Only Jesus saves us. In fact, to a very large degree, understanding comes after the Holy Spirit has applied the blood of Jesus to us, for until he removes the heart of stone and gives us a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26) we cannot really see or hear.

When I said that Mike is in search of the "bare minimum," I wish that I had phrased it "essential core." He wants to teach only the essential core of doctrine. "Bare minimum" sounds a little negative, and I didn't mean it too.