Monday, January 2, 2012

Model Christianity

For Christmas, 2011, Lisa bought me a book from my reading wish list: Models Behaving Badly, by Emanuel Derman. If the title sends your mind wandering to the seedy side of life, the subtitle will bring you back: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life. Derman, a physicist by training and financial engineering professor by vocation presents and illustrates a rather simple vocabulary that helps us understand our world, specifically the words Model and Theory.

Derman argues that a theory stands alone. It may be proved true or false, but it does not depend on reality as much as it tries to explain reality. A model on the other hand is always wrong since it is an over simplification of a reality. Derman uses a model airplane as an example. It may resemble an aircraft, it might even fly, but the model airplane eliminates much of the complexity of the object it resembles. Since a model is a simplification—often an oversimplification—it can help us understand reality, but it isn’t quite real. Derman contends that trusting a model as if it is reality can be a type of idolatry. Idolatry is putting faith in that which is made by humans.

Derman relies on his background as a physicist to help define what he sees as reality. He contrasts models with theories. Theories can be true whereas models are always incomplete. He summarizes QED, quantum electrodynamics, calling it the best theory in the world. He writes, “We trust it because it predicts the values of measured properties of the atom so precisely as to strain belief.” Derman trusts QED, yet when he defines the absolute, he invokes the Tetragrammaton, YHVH. He calls YHVH the “irreducible nonmetaphor”. He writes, “Yahweh is the name of something that isn’t a model of reality, but reality itself.”

Derman's reflections on models and theories, and his conviction regarding Yahweh led me to consider the Christianity as a model. Often theologians try to cast God in the image of their personal idols. They define God in ways contrary to how God defines himself and contrary to how he has revealed himself. They define God as being whom they want him to be. Yet God says of himself, “I am that which I am,” and he warns us in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them . . .”

Regardless of how we define God, we fall short of the truth. Our definitions of God err in both direction and scope, and must be continually be corrected by acknowledging that God is who he is. This is the purpose of worship to re-center our focus on the immutable and incomprehensible nature of God and accept him as he is through faith. As Derman says, “You can’t ask, ‘Why?’ about YHVH; you can only attest to His existence.”

Nevertheless, God has modeled himself within his creation—that is to say he has given us a means of framing our understanding of him. “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness’ . . . God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27 NASB). Man is not God, but rather is made in the image of his Creator. Man is a model. With the introduction of original sin, man became a flawed model—a broken model in need of repair. Propitiation of sin, the pathway back to perfection, is the overall theme of both Old and New Testament Scripture. Man is made in the image of God. This mystery is explored in the Book of Enoch wherein we learn about, and wherefore Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man. This Son of Man is not the model, but rather the realization of God to man. He is in form what believers shall become. Paul describes the risen Christ as the firstfruit of those who believe. The Son of Man is both the prototype from which we derive and also our means to a restored relationship with our Creator.

In the wilderness, God had Moses build a model of a heavenly reality. Within this model, the Tabernacle, once a year, the high priest would sprinkle the blood of a young bull and a goat on the mercy seat which set atop the Ark of the Covenant in the holiest place. Once a year, the sins of the nation of Israel would be propitiated, or atoned, in this way.

Jewish temple worship was never the real thing; it was only the model of reality. Jesus, as the Son of Man, reveals God in his visible, even tangible, expression. The Apostle John writes of the Word of Life having been with God from the beginning, saying, “. . . what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands . . . we proclaim to you . . .”

The writer of Hebrews tells us, “When Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” A few verses later he writes, “It was necessary for the copies of the things in heaven to be cleansed [by the sprinkling of blood], but the heavenly thing themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a holy place made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us . . .” (Hebrews 9:11-12, 22-24).

Although pure Christianity is by order of magnitude less ritualistic than Judaism, the New Testament does present us with the concept of models. Jesus said, for instance, “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” Some so-called Christians confuse what is the model and what is the object of reality in this passage. Jesus says of his discourse in John 6, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken are spirit and are life.” Jesus was not advocating the type of cannibalism that some theologies refer to as transubstantiation. Rather, he was trying to leverage a metaphor that each of us is familiar. As we cannot live without food and drink, so we cannot live eternally without Jesus Christ and his atoning work. “The flesh profits nothing.” Our daily eating and drinking is a metaphor for a spiritual reality. If we confuse what is the object and what is the model, we derive a rather perturbing theology. If we understand that our experience is the metaphor, then we can begin to realize how much we need Christ.

The church itself is a model of a spiritual reality. The visible church today is not the real thing; it is a model of the real thing. Let’s call the real thing Ekklesia and what we’re accustomed to we’ll call church. Church might be a part of the real thing, but it is not the whole. Since it is a model of the whole, our church is deficient in scope and possibly direction. A church functions best when it follows the model of Ekklesia presented in Scripture. It becomes idolatrous to the extent that it departs from Ekklesia as presented in Scripture. Paul presents practices of Ekklesia in his letters; especially in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, and Titus. After giving his instructions to the Corinthians, he binds these prescriptive practices to the Gospel itself, saying, “Was it from you that the word of God first went forth? Or has it come to you only? If anyone thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandment.” (1 Corinthians 14:36, 37 NASB)

Most churches defend some of their practices from reading Paul, yet most churches ignore or reject most of what Paul writes. They approach Paul’s instructions with an al a carte attitude. They accept some, but they reject the whole. They oversimplify and accommodate to a model that suits them.  If bad models can cause disaster on Wall Street, just imagine the spiritual harm bad models do to lives. Actually, you don’t have to imagine. The devastation of the failed model is in the news almost daily. What we call church is a model of the real thing, but it is modeled using the wrong presuppositions.

For instance, most churches also disobey Jesus’ direct command in Matthew 23 against reverential hierarchical titles. We might not use Rabbi, Teacher, or Father, but we’ll use Reverend or we’ll interpret a functional role of pastor as a reverential title Pastor. This distortion serves the leadership well. It becomes a source of financial wellbeing and egotistical gratification to those in control, but their implementation of church dishonors Christ whose name they claim to represent. Clergy set themselves up as idols to be revered. Jesus condemned the Nicolaitans (literally, rulers of the people, e.g., the clergy) within the church in Revelation 2. They present themselves as the Vicar of Christ within their scope of influence—then some of them rape children, or commit adultery, or embezzlement, or larceny, or murder.
 
When these events hit the news, everyone close to the man is shocked. Having known predators in positions of power, I admit that I didn't always see the warning signs. Rather than continuing in a cycle of sin and cynicism, why not adopt a New Testament model of Ekklesia? By supporting the failed model, do not the clergy and their sycophants exacerbate the problem?

Ekklesia is not leaderless, but there is a distinction between those leading by example and those holding positional leadership. Paul told the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, just as I am of Christ . . . But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man.” Paul served as an example, but he did not serve as an intermediary. He made sure the Corinthians understood that. Every man answers to Christ; they did not answer to Paul or any other man. Stop following men blindly; follow Christ! Stop delegating your family's spiritual life to the paid professional (or the professional entertainer); start leading your family!

As a result of Christianity’s departure from the prescriptive practices in the New Testament, church as most of us experience, has little or nothing to do with Ekklesia. We are in effect a model behaving badly, to borrow a phrase from Derman.

So how does one move from a bad model to a better model? How does the church become Ekklesia? Or the better question is, how does a church attendee realize Ekklesia? The Protestant Reformation began with a return to a Scriptural theology, but it retained much of the ecclesiastical error of its forebears. Reformers tried to pour the new wine of the reformation into the old wine skin of the apostate church (Mark 2:22). As a result, the Protestant Reformation, in many cases, resulted in trading one evil task master for another. Calvin’s Geneva is case in point. Calvin’s theology is not the product of Scripture; rather it spews from the vain imaginations of a bloodthirsty megalomaniac. Jesus said, by their works you shall know them, and knowing Calvin’s murderous totalitarianism is enough evidence to reject him and his theology. Calvin's theology is wrong, but applying Jesus' standard you don't even have to study it to ignore it as a matter of principle (read Matthew 7).  While Luther took a stand against false doctrines; he did not implement the practice of Ekklesia. He has an entire sect of the church named after him! Before you flaunt your denominational or theological labels read 1 Corinthians 3. Such sectarianism isn’t spiritual. It can’t be because it is based upon idolatry—putting faith is that which is of human origin.

Ekklesia doesn’t need Calvin or Luther, or for that matter John Piper or Rick Warren. Ekklesia doesn't need their ideas or their writings. In fact, the first principle of the Protestant Reformation, Sola Scriptura – or by Scripture alone, precludes dependence on such! What a great idea. Too bad church doesn't implement it. If each successive generation, each assembly, each family, each man would reexamine Christian theology and practice based upon Scripture alone, then the church would not drift so far from Ekkelsia. Instead, we fill buildings with people who don't know what they believe. They just know whom they follow.

Instead of deciding which church we're going to attend on Sunday, we should rather determine each day to be the Ekklesia based on our knowledge of Scripture and our faith in Jesus Christ. Let the head of the Ekklesia take care of the details.

2 comments:

  1. I apologize to anonymous. A comment left earlier today came through URL encoded, and in my attempt to clean it up for readability, I lost it.

    Nevertheless, in response let me say . . .

    I would say that there can be value in learning from others. Yet Scripture has been supplanted in Christianity by commentary. People never learn to discern by reading Piper, Warren, or even Luther.

    However, I do take exception to Calvin because of Jesus' words, "You shall know them by their fruits." By that standard, Calvin must be rejected. Calvin was a murderous megalomaniac. While Luther was driven by conscience, Calvin was apparently driven by lust for power. You can assume his writing is toxic.

    As far as any Christian "leaders" we should all beware. Read Scripture before commentary, and don't put anyone on a pedestal. It is better to understand and believe what is within your grasp than to take anyone else's word for it.

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    Replies
    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for your reply.

      I completely agree with what you say: "Read Scripture before commentary." That is the responsibility of all men and women and commentary should never, ever replace Scripture. Someone who follows commentary before Scripture will fall into many grave mistakes and that is the case, I think, of what has happened to the followers of Calvin among other men.

      But the existence of commentary is unavoidable, and often times, very profitable, too. After all, that is a great part of what you do here, in your blog, and with the people you talk. In the end, your provide your understanding of Scripture. That is all a man can ever do. And the same happens with Piper, MacArthur and others.

      Now, if we all read correctly, in theory we should all understand the same or something very close to the same, instead of the very vast differences we see right now between the different christian denominations.

      The odd part, though, to me at the moment is that from what I've read thus far here, I agree with your understanding. That makes me wonder. Have we really understood correctly the message in Scripture or have we misunderstood it equally wrong? I hope it is the former.

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