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Christianity

Doctrines We Lost in the Fire

The following is a guest essay by my friend Caleb Wait.

What does one do when their house is on fire?

Californians, such as myself, have to think about this question more often than most Americans. While there may not be one correct answer, one generally is inclined to salvage the essentials, whatever is priceless, and let the rest go up in flames. Easier said than done. In the recent Kincade fire in Sonoma, CA, 180,000 residents were forced to pack up their belongings and say goodbye to their homes. After getting to safety, some residents realized that what they salvaged in their panic was far from the essentials: folks have been recorded grabbing cucumbers, cleaning supplies, and bike helmets.

Panic is a strange and disorienting phenomenon. Per Mariam-Webster, panic is “a sudden unreasoning terror often accompanied by mass flight.” This seems to make sense of the residents of Sonoma. Likewise, it might make sense of those in the church’s history when faced with new cultural and philosophical fires, as it were: the East and West had different reactions during the Great Persecution in the 4th-century, Roman Catholics and Protestants reacted to Humanism and Voluntarist philosophy differently, and Christians today continue to react to the Enlightenment and modernism in their own ways. Some more successful than others.

Perhaps when Hume awoke Kant from his “dogmatic slumbers,” it was an awakening full of panic and violence, s0 much so that Kant salvaged the wrong pieces of furniture from the perceived fire of Hume’s project. The empiricist project that said we cannot reason our way to God or know anything about him, rather, we can only trust our sense experience and passions. Either way, Kant wanted to hang on to morality, a priori. And he knew you needed God for that. But do we need orthodox doctrine? While Kant left dogma on the kitchen counter to await the flames of modernity, we might not want to be so hasty.

Right Belief vs Right Behavior

While modernity is now old hat, it is no less easy to buy into the same dichotomy Kant did; that doctrine and moral obligation are irreconcilable forces. Conservatives and progressives both do this. For many, orthodox doctrine encumbers the ability to ‘just love’ one another. It gets in the way of caring for hurt people and it doesn’t do enough to combat injustice and oppression. For others, doctrine is used abstractly as a means to remove one’s moral responsibility. For the former group, what we believe and why is not as important as loving your neighbor; for the latter, doctrines are merely tools for demarcating who you can associate with and who you must make highly edited videos of, placating them as dangerous liberals.

However, what if orthodox doctrine is a primary way we love our neighbors? What if the implication of our confessions propel is toward our moral responsibility? In Linguistics & Biblical Interpretation, Peter Cotterell & Max Turner give the following summary about implicatures:

Language is interesting in that what is implied may be as informative as what is said…. The notion of implicature is of importance in the interpretation of utterances in general and of conversations in particular…conversations are governed by certain principles, amongst context-appropriateness. The actual words used in conversation might appear to run contrary to those principles. My wife asked me: ‘Are the girls in yet?’, and I replied, ‘The porch light is still on.’ Taken out of context the two utterances appear to be unrelated, and my response would appear to disregard both principles. However my response required an implicature which did not require to be expressed: ‘The porch light is still on, the girls would have switched it off had they come in, and so I can say that they are not yet in.’ The conversation principle that I should not include unnecessary information is observed and so are the two earlier principles (p. 47-48).

In light of Cottrell and Turner’s principles, we can see the connection between orthodoxy and orthopraxy laid out in several biblical texts.

Paul’s Theology of Love

In 1 Corinthians, Paul speaks to the kinds of issues an immature and multicultural church might face. One such issue is the matter of idol-food. Those who partake in eating idol-food without a troubled conscience do so because they assent to the truth of the Shema:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:4-6).

The ‘strong’ in the church feel justified in their consumption of idol-food since the so-called gods represented by idols don’t really exist, unlike the one true God. The ‘strong’ read an implication into the Shema which Paul grants; nevertheless, that is not the only implicature Paul reads into this orthodox claim.

In 8:6, Paul sets out to qualify some of the assertions represented in v. 4-5a. His goal is to help the Corinthians form a full-orbed understanding when they confess “there is no God but one.” To know God constitutes a love for God and a love that overflows in building up the brethren (8:1b). I am indebted to Chris Tilling’s helpful work on 1 Corinthians here. He summarizes that Paul reworks the Shema subtext from Deuteronomy in terms of Christ, and does so, “in light of the contrast between the Corinthian ‘knowledge’ and true ‘love for God’ in 8:1-3.” (Paul’s Divine Christology, p. 91).

Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God (1 Cor. 8:1-3).

Paul then utilizes the Lord/Christ in the Shema (v. 4-6) to contrast its covenantal implications between God and his people against the rational Corinthian gnosis. The context in which the contrast plays out, of course, is in the case of eating idol-food. If one truly loves the one God and one Lord, one will build up those whose conscience is weak, instead of using their “knowledge” to destroy the other (v. 11).

1 Cor. 8:6 introduces Paul’s use of Deuteronomic imagery, which he continues to use as a parallel with the church, adding that “these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction” (10:11a). Thus, from 10:1-22, Paul moves back and forth between the current issues the church is facing and the issues Israel faced in the wilderness. After consideration of Israel’s circumstances long ago, Paul says, “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry” (10:14). How does one flee from idolatry? Paul answers by harkening back to the contrast of the Corinthian “knowledge” and true knowledge: “‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (10:23). To sin against a brother, then, is parallel to the idolatry of Israel in the wilderness.

Paul’s scriptural allusions, starting with God’s knowing of his people in 8:3, shows his work to weave the themes involved in the experience of Israel’s relation to YHWH with the experience of the church in Corinth. Tilling summarizes:

Just as Deuteronomy 6’s monotheism was susceptible to the destructive power of sin, by ‘following other gods’ (6:14), by testing YHWH (6:16), just as loyalty to YHWH was always threatened by rebellion, so, Paul’s argument shows, is loyalty to Christ, the one Lord of the Shema. By sinning against your brothers, you sin against Christ (p. 92).

Knowing Jesus Leads to Orthopraxy

While Tilling goes on to extrapolate the vertical as well as horizontal dimensions of sinning against your brothers and sinning against Christ (8:12) in the Supper, the point at hand is that there is a connection of right belief and behavior and devotion and understanding of who Jesus is. In 1 Cor. 8 Paul sees the driving force leading to proper love of the brethren as a true understanding of Christ as the Lord of the Shema. Which is quite striking, really. When you confess who God is, the obvious conclusion for Paul is that we must love our brothers and sisters. And if you mishandle the base facts of orthodoxy, you are prone to the same idolatry the wilderness generation was prone to. Those in Corinth know orthodoxy as lip-service, but they do not know orthodoxy for what it is: a way to know and love God and neighbor.

These themes are especially pertinent to those of us in the malaise of evangelical and modern culture. As Molly Worthen pithily summarizes, “Winning the war against modernism became more important [for the later fundamentalists] than illuminating orthodoxy.” We all know there is a fire of sorts, but we are busy debating what needs salvaging and what needs leaving behind. Some wish to leave doctrine behind, others wish to lock the doors of the burning building and leave the brethren behind.

This clarion call of orthodoxy is not a ploy for us all to just get along. Much more than that, we must take our confession and its implications even more seriously; so much so that when those of us who are tempted to use orthodoxy as a tool for demarcation in the culture wars, we must tell them to “flee from idolatry.” Perhaps then we can stand in the midst of our fiery furnace, demonstrating to the world that its fire has no power over our devotion to God and love for one another (Dan. 3:27).

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