Why Are Young People So Drawn to Calvinism?

Calvinism is all over the place. Many of the best known young preachers are Calvinists. Many of the most well read blogs are from a Calvinist perspective. All of a sudden there has been a huge influx of Calvinists. According to Lifeway “nearly 30% of SBC seminary graduates between 1998 and 2004, now serving as pastors, describe themselves as Calvinists” (p.74 of Young, Restless and Reformed). What is the story? I asked a young neo-Calvinist what book they would recommend to help me wrap my mind around what is going on. They said I should read Young, Restless, and Reformed by Collin Hansen. Collin is a journalist, Reformed and at one time the youngest editor at Christianity Today. He is currently the Editorial Director of the Gospel Coalition.

This book gives us two insights into why young adults are drawn to Calvinism. The first insight is Hansen’s own perspective. The second insight comes from all the interviews he did in order to write this book. This book is a record of Hansen’s travels to various well known Calvinist and Reformed congregations and conferences. He shares the stories of many young people who didn’t start out believing in TULIP but share their own process of accepting it as central to the Christian faith.

Two things need to be mentioned at the start. First, I am not a Calvinist…so this critique will reflect that in some places. Second,  there is a difference between Calvinism and the Reformed movement itself. The Reformed movement includes Calvinism but not all Calvinists are Reformed. Hansen says that the Reformed movement emphasizes TULIP along with “the five Reformation solas (by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone, by Scripture alone, for God’s glory alone). (p.111)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with TULIP, it is the five points of Calvinism:
T – Total Depravity – by nature mankind is unrighteous, selfish, and unable to love and seek God on our own
U – Unconditional Election – Salvation comes by God’s choosing/election that he established in eternity past
L – Limited Atonement – Jesus died solely for the sins of God’s elect/chosen people.
I – Irresistible Grace – If God has elected you he will draw you to himself apart from anything to do with your own goodness (due to total depravity)
P –  Perseverance of the Saints – God is so sovereign that once you are elect you will be saved. Nothing can keep that from happening

There are several reasons Calvinism is increasing in popularity. It is not because it is hip or attractive from a worldly point of view:

  1. Calvinism offers a God-centred approach to everything. It is not seeker sensitive. It is not pop-psychology. It is all about God, his power and authority.
  2. Calvinism lowers the position of man – It seems like some Christians want to focus solely on our value and esteem. Calvinism is focusing on our own lowliness. They say we are nothing. We can’t even pick God or want to pick God unless God elects us by his own sovereign will. Much of the way we (Arminians) motivate people is through talking about what is in it for them. If you come to Sunday night church you can grow closer to God, be blessed, etc…not so much with Calvinism. It is all about God.
  3. Calvinism offers certainty – Because God is so sovereign there is a solid foundation to live on. There is no wishy-washyness here. Hansen says, when John Piper speaks, he speaks with certainty (37)
  4. Emphasis on scripture – these guys love scripture, love study, and aren’t afraid to dive in deep.
  5. Passion – There is a sense of passion here because we often tend to get passionate about ourselves and that is all pretty shallow. When you passionate about the greatness of God and his overarching sovereignty…that is a passion that goes beneath the surface.
  6. Calvinism recognizes the control is in God’s hands, not ours. That is a liberating thought.
  7. It is a non-institutional institution. What I mean by that is they are less about church and more about God. That doesn’t mean church is emphasized less but in emphasizing our depravity and God’s election, grace and sovereignty they are putting God over church. They are moving outside the building
  8. Worship that is more all about God and not about us – Emphasizing God’s sovereignty and our depravity comes out in their worship. It is God-centered.
  9. This influence has made its way mainstream into a number of conferences and campus ministries that are affecting young adults all over the nation.

So what do we take away from this? There were a few things that I really appreciated about the Calvinist perspective. I really think they got emphasizing God and his glory right. I think too often we make self the driving force. We try to motivate people to attend or do things for what is in it for them rather than emphasize our participation in giving God the glory He deserves. That is solid. I appreciate their passion that comes directly out of a sole focus on God. We need more of that.

A couple of things were pretty unsettling to me about this book. I don’t know if this is about Hansen’s perspective or if this is common in Calvinism at large:

  1. It seems they really venerate men like Edwards, Calvin, Piper and others. I bet their names appeared over 100 times in this book. Names like Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc paled in comparison.
  2. Language of conversion – he talks about people converting to Calvinism. What does that mean? If they were elect to begin with how is there a conversion? A conversion of thoughts and views?
  3. Sovereignty meets Mercy – Calvinists will go on and on about the mercy of God that they are the elect. They are elect only because God picked them against their own will and desires. The flip side is God rejected giving his mercy to others. They had the exact same sinful desires and depravity but God just chose not to be merciful to them. Can God still be full merciful if atonement is limited and his mercy is forced?
  4. This book is a lot about personalities. He even says that if Piper weren’t so zealous in his presentation that young people wouldn’t listen to him (34).
  5. It takes this book 90 pages before Hansen says all of this is really about the Gospel itself and not about Calvinism but you just don’t get that feeling reading this book. If Calvinism is accurate to God’s intention for creation then this is the Gospel we are talking about here. We go on and on about how people converted to Calvinism? Why not just call TULIP the Gospel?

What is your experience with Calvinism? For those of you who hold this view, is this critique fair?


Simply Accepting God On God’s Terms

Roland Murphy wrote that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes “simply accepts God on God’s terms.” As simple as that sounds it is quite another thing in practice. We often already have our terms in place when we come to God. We are like Jacob who tells God straight out that if he is going to follow the Lord, God is going to have to bless him first. Otherwise, no dice. When we approach God on our terms we fail to recognize the vanity of our own lives. The word vanity in Ecclesiastes literally means a vapor or breath. Our vanity is more than materialism or being dressed in a gaudy way. Our vanity is the haughty arrogance of ephemeral beings approaching God like we are his equal.

His conclusion – Fear God.

Once you fear God…accepting God on God’s terms will come naturally to you. Once you fear God, placing your own terms and demands before God will seem foolish and vain. In all of our study and pursuit of wisdom and knowledge we often reduce God and his Gospel down to a list of bullet points. It is hard to fear a list. God isn’t a list. The Gospel isn’t a series of verses to memorize and know the historical backgrounds of. That is too small. That reductionism has converted God and His Gospel from the biggest and most powerful being in the world to an intellectual pursuit or game of trivia where the one who knows the most, has the best doctrine, and attends the most services wins. God doesn’t play by those rules.

Maybe if we were really honest with ourselves we don’t fear God and we don’t really want to accept Him on his own terms. That is a dreadful place to be. If that is where you find your heart after reading this post I would encourage you to reconsider.

Baptism – Immersion, Sprinkling, and Pouring

Word meanings can change over time. Today, baptism has become a general term within Christianity that encompasses sprinkling, pouring and immersing but only the latter is accurate to the Greek meaning of the word “baptism” in the New Testament and practice of the early church. If you doubt that please read the previous post, consult a good Greek New Testament lexicon, or have a look at Ferguson’s book, Baptism in the Early Church, 47-59  where he cites countless examples from extra-biblical literature where baptism is used to mean immersion. Here is his conclusion from, which was quoted in the previous post,

“Baptizo meant to dip, usually through submerging, but it also meant to overwhelm and so could be used whether the object was placed in an element (which was more common) or was overwhelmed by it (often in the metaphorical usages)…Pouring and sprinkling were distinct actions that were represented by different verbs and this usage too continued in Christian sources. When the latter speak of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit or the sprinkling of blood, they do not use baptize for these actions.” (Ferguson, 59)

The New Testament authors had other words at their disposal to talk about pouring and sprinkling and actually used them. They just never used them to describe immersion because pouring, sprinkling and immersion are three different things. There are more examples I could cite but I will just cite one each to make the point.

Pour – εκχεω (echeo)

  • Acts 2:17-18 – “I will pour out my spirit on all people…I will pour out my spirit in those days.”

Sprinkle – ραντιζω (rantizo)

  • Hebrews 9:21 – “In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies.”

Immerse – βαπτιζω (baptizo)

  • Acts 2:41 – “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”
  • Acts 8:36-39 – ” As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.

The question is how do those who practice pouring or sprinkling justify calling that baptism/immersion when that is neither the original meaning of the word or the practice of the early church.

Ferguson puts it like this,

“Submersion was undoubtedly the case for the fourth and fifth centuries in the Greek East and only slightly less certain for the Latin West. Was this a change from an earlier practice, a selection out of options previously available, or a continuation of the practice of the first three centuries? It is the contention of this study that the last interpretation best accords with the available facts. Unless one has preconceived ideas about how an immersion would be performed, the literary, art and archaeological evidence supports this conclusion. The express statements in the literary sources, supported by other hints, the depictions in art, and the very presence of specially built baptismal fonts, along with their size and shape, indicate that the normal procedure was for the administrator with his head on the baptizand’s head to bend the upper part of the body forward and dip the head under the water. Whether the person was standing, kneeling, or sitting may have varied in different circumstances, but in the art the one baptized is standing.” (p.857-858)

He continues on pouring and sprinkling,

“The only viable alternative interpretation of the evidence that would account for the fonts is a partial immersion in which the baptismal candidate stood in water and the administrator poured water over the upper part of the body, but this is largely conjectural. This interpretation is not really supported by paintings and sculpture…and with little (and that dubious) literary support. A pouring or sprinkling did occur in two special circumstances: a lack of water and (more often) sickbed or deathbed conversions. Both were treated as exceptional, second choice, and undesirable alternatives.” (p.858)

Ferguson is right, immersion was the common practice for several hundred years. He is also correct that pouring and sprinkling did begin at some point in the first few hundred years of the church’s existence. When? No one can say with 100% certainty but it appears to have had some separation from the first century church. You can see where pouring and sprinkling comes from. Some guy is about to die, he repents and a pool of water is too far away. What do you do in that moment? Let’s say you sprinkle the guy and he dies. Okay…so you did the best you could. Does that then justify making sprinkling or pouring the practice from that point on for the rest of the church and those who come to the Lord? Is that justifiable? A few more questions…I really am curious how people who practice sprinkling and pouring would answer these:

  • Why do something other than the practice of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of the New Testament?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus went through himself?
  • Why do something other than what Jesus commissioned us to do in Matthew 28:19, other than what Peter taught the crowd and did to the crowd in Acts 2:38-41, and other than what Paul went through himself in Acts 9:18?
  • Why adopt an alternative practice that is devoid of the beautiful symbolism described by Paul in Romans 6?
  • Why do something other than the teaching of  the New Testament when immersion is not done with great difficulty. It is not like we live in the desert and this is near impossible. It is not like it is going to take that much extra effort to go from from sprinkling to immersing. What’s the hold up? I would say it is being stuck in tradition. Is that justifiable?

Last, we all have to realize it is God who does the saving. In Churches of Christ we have sometimes sounded like the water does the saving. It is important reminder that God forgives sins, not water. And yet God has told us what to do in faith for our sins to be forgiven (Acts 2:38), how we are united with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection (Rom 6:1-7, Col 2:12), and which gives us a clean conscience toward God (1 Peter 3:21). That response is immersion.

I am not here to judge someone else’s servant. I am not here to point fingers. I am here to say let’s have a good look at what was taught and practiced in the New Testament and by faith (over tradition) practice and teach what we find there. I hope this has been helpful to you. If you have any comments, questions, or answers to my list of questions above please comment below. I look forward to the discussion.

Bruce Morton’s Book Deceiving Winds

Bruce was kind enough to send a copy of his book Deceiving Winds for review. It has taken me too long to get to this so I apologize to Bruce for that. After having read this book there are several things I think are praise worthy about this book and about Bruce and a couple of things that I think could have used a little tweaking.

Praiseworthy stuff:
First, Bruce has spent a tremendous amount of time studying inscriptions and archaeological evidenced about Roman Asia as background for this book. One of his main points in the book is that the times we live in today are much more like the first century in cities like Ephesus than we may have been taught. He goes to great lengths to demonstrate this and makes a very good case for it through scripture and archaeology. Most of the historical and archaeological background deal with the Artemis and Dionysus cults in Ephesus. He points out things like that culture’s desire for spiritual experience and sensuality and has no trouble making the case that things haven’t really changed all that much. To me, that was the bread and butter of the book. We must never let our own desires trump God’s plan for His church.

Second, you can tell that Bruce really loves God and the church. As far as I can tell he doesn’t have a bone to pick. He isn’t out to get anyone. He is trying to make a difference and is calling on the church to be pure and different from the world. There may be people who disagree with some of his points because they are so entwined with the world that they will have a hard time listening to what Bruce is saying or his interpretations of various scriptures. In the opening chapters he goes to great lengths to show how much God loves his people and how we identify with God as his people. Some really good material in the first four chapters on that.

Third, I appreciate his willingness to tackle some difficult subjects in a transparent search for the truth on these matters, even if that truth is difficult for us to hear. He deals with everything from women’s roles to church leadership and instrumental worship. He goes to great lengths to cite and quote relevant sources and commentaries.

Tweakworthy stuff:
There were a few places in the book that I took issue with. Sometimes historical and archaeological background was the main supporting point Bruce had in his argumentation. In other words, I felt there were places archaeology stood in the place of sound exegesis instead of complementing it. He would hypothesize a potential background for a given verse based on archaeology and then work out his interpretation from there. This means many assumptions had to be made about how Ephesian Christians would have understood things that may or may not be the case. Let me give an example. In chapter six (his chapter on worship based on Eph 5:18-20) he assumes that Paul was in fact condemning instrumental worship because “It is likely that the Ephesian Christians were bringing Dionysus (and/or Cybele) cult-like practices into their assembly…perhaps eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper had seemed the ideal setting for blending Asian cult practices into worship of Jesus.” (p.82). He goes on to say, “The root problem that he writes about in Ephesians 4:17-5:20 is a thirst for the sensual. The use and sound of instruments in Dionysus worship represented an accomplice to the sensational religion. The same was likely true for the Ephesian assembly.” (.94). Those are big assumptions. You can’t do good exegesis through assumptions and historical background alone. To be fair that is not all the exegesis he does but it is his main point that the potential background for Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5:19 was based on these practices entering their worship assemblies. We really don’t know that and have to interpret the text as it stands without reading these backgrounds into the text.

Second, so much of his archaeological background work is really good and very interesting. But there are times it is distracting and it feels like he is stretching a point just to fit in an interesting bit of background. For instance, there is a long piece about the potential association in the roots of the word “bee” and “care for” that might shed light on 1 Tim 3:3. He gives about a page of background that doesn’t really seem to connect with the text nor seems to be what Paul was really referring to in 1 Timothy 3. Again, background over exegesis is never as good as background + sound exegesis. Now that is a very small point and hardly worth mentioning but I did get that feeling here and there. Nothing major.

Third, it seems he offers little room for others to use historical and cultural background in their interpretation but allows it for himself all over the book. For instance, in discussing 1 Tim 2:15 he chastises Carroll Osburn for turning to Jewish backgrounds and traditions and not just giving Genesis 1-3 a good look as if scripture wasn’t enough for Osburn (p.136). A few pages later Bruce dives into his own archaeological background about Ephesian culture and childbearing on p.148. It left me wondering if Genesis 1-3 wasn’t enough as he said it should have been with Osburn. Like point two, this wasn’t over the top and this may have been the only time that happened in the whole book so again, nothing major.

Last, he dismisses other scholars conclusions too easily without really digging into the strength of their position. For instance, on pp 104-105 he dismisses Osburn and I. Howard Marshall’s views regarding love-patriarchalism in a few short sentences with little explanation, “The argument is careful and it sounds good to people who are part of an equal rights society. Indeed it may represent the dominant conclusion in the early twenty-first century. However, that does not make it true of Christ. Jesus gave up ‘rights.’ He submitted himself even to death on a cross. He gave himself up for his bride.” If that is the dominant view on Eph 5:21-33 in our world today why not spend a little more space critiquing that view rather than dismissing it so easily.

All in all you can tell Morton is very passionate about this topic and I found the most helpful information being the archaeological backgrounds that were a great reminder to me just how much our culture can interfere with our worship in negative ways. Culture can have a positive impact on worship as well. I think that is an important point to remember. But it is important that we evaluate what we do through the lens of scripture and not just do things solely because we find doing it that way enjoyable.

In a couple of days I am going to do a second post that examines some of his conclusions in the book that will give you more substance than this post.

Review of Four Views on Hell

This book was published in 1996 (originally in 1992) but after reading it I would have sworn it was written in the last few years due to how well it keys into the issues brought up by Bell and others over the last few months. Four Views on Hell is edited by William Crockett and has four authors, each experts on their particular view of hell. Each one presents their view and each one has a response to all the others. It gets pretty interesting hearing how someone who believes in purgatory would respond to someone with a literal view of hell or an annihilationist would respond to the metaphorical view. I highly recommend this book. It is written on a very accessible level and is written with a very kind and loving tone (especially as they respond to one another). Here is a brief synopsis of the four views:

1 – The Literal View (John Walvoord)

Walvoord doesn’t avoid the point that there is a certain tension that makes the literal view difficult for many to accept. That tension is between the love of God and the images we get in scripture of eternal torment. He says the tension is really between God’s love and God’s righteousness. His scriptural support comes from Matthew, Paul, Hebrews, and Revelation. His conclusion is that a literal hell is hard to exegete/interpret away but people do try to systematize it away. In other words if you just look at the verses as they stand and interpret them he believes it is hard to come away with anything but a literal view (obviously at least three other people disagree with that!) but where a literal hell comes into question is through systematic theology, trying to fit hell into the broader picture of who God is and what God is doing in the world.

2 – The Metaphorical View (William Crockett)

Crockett goes out of his way to say that he is not trying to soften things up when it comes to heaven. His point is that many of the verses that are used to describe hell are metaphorical. Just like heaven is not necessarily made up of gold streets and a crystal sea (which nearly all of us could agree on) what does that say about descriptions of hell? Is it a valid question to ask if those descriptions could also be metaphorical? He makes a good point. This view is that hell is real. It is a place and has judgment but that the details might be fuzzier than we once thought.

3 – The Purgatorial View (Zachary Hayes)

I had never really read much on purgatory before. I didn’t realize that the belief was that purgatory was in operation only until the final judgment and then only heaven and hell are left (p.93). I also didn’t realize that purgatory is viewed as more of a process than a place. They pray for the dead and do acts of service for the dead in order to cleanse them so they can be in heaven. The logic is that we know some people, the saints for instance, or so much better than the rest of us that certainly they go straight to heaven. But could the rest of us mere mortals expect a straight ticket to the great by and by? They would say that would be absurd. Instead, us filthy folks, have to be purified further before we can enter into paradise. We become our own bridge to heaven instead of Christ. Hayes had one scripture to back up this view (unless you count the verses he cited from the apocrypha). The verse was Matthew 12:31-32 where it talks about blasphemy of the Holy Spirit as a sin that can’t be forgiven in this life or the life to come. He says that implies there is forgiveness that can be granted beyond the grave.

4 – Conditional/Annihilation (Clark Pinnock)

This is basically the annihilation view. Scripture says the wages of sin is death…this view agrees. Scripture says there is a second death…this view agrees. Scripture says to fear the one who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell…this view agrees. Paul taught about the destruction of the wicked (2 Thess 1:9, Gal 6:8) as did Peter (2 Peter 3:7). Why call this the conditional view? Pinnock believes that what is conditional is not hell but the immortality of the soul. He believes that we have adopted a Greek notion that all souls are eternal. This view would say only those God grants eternal life or new life to are able to live forever. The rest are destroyed. This becomes somewhat of a more merciful option. Some people believe a literal view of hell makes God into a monster as he grants eternal life to those who will then be tormented forever and ever. Or as Pinnock puts it,

“Everlasting torture is intolerable from a moral point of view because it pictures God acting like a blood thirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for his enemies whom he does not even allow to die. How can one love a God like that? (p. 149)

In summary I can definitely say that I am not a fan of purgatory. I will say that hell is probably more metaphorical that I once thought. I do wrestle with the annihilation/conditional view a bit and I think it could have some merit. It is really hard to lay all the relevant scriptures on the table and come to a solid and coherent view on how to put all the pieces together in a way that maintains a high view of scripture and also takes all those verses seriously. I do believe Jesus was serious when he warned us about hell so that is enough for me. Really, I will be quite alright if I never figure it out completely. I am even better off if I don’t wind up finding out first hand and say, “Oh…that’s what that verse meant. Finally makes sense…youch!”

Erasing Hell by Francis Chan is Now Available for Pre-Order

Pre-orders are now open at amazon for Francis Chan’s new book Erasing Hell: What God Says About Eternity and the Things We Made Up. I guess I am a little surprised by the subtitle as some are viewing this book as some sort of response to Rob Bell. I can only guess that what he is referencing are things like Milton’s Paradise Lost, Greek Philosophy and other bits and pieces of literature, culture and philosophy that have often been as influential as scripture itself in shaping how the Western world has traditionally viewed hell.

I am looking forward to reading this book but, if you are really interested in this conversation on hell and what scripture has to say about it, I would encourage you to read a book “The Four Views on Hell” edited by William Crockett. I will post a review on that book in just a moment.

Jerry Starling on Maturity in Following Jesus

Jerry gives us some insights about discipleship that I think sum things up quite well for Christians today. In a nutshell he says some Christians are following boy Jesus in the temple. The content of his childhood ministry was discussing the text with other like-minded people. From their his ministry grew. It went from talking about it to actually making a real difference: healing bodies, forgiving sins, dying & rising. This is the Jesus we are called to follow. We weren’t called to Christ to solely discuss pet issues or doctrines. We were called by the adult Jesus who knew how to make a difference and calls us to do the same. Thank you Jerry for sharing and elaborating on that profound point. I am not content to be a disciple of boy Jesus and let the content of my ministry be discussion. I want to be a difference maker in the lives of others and, just like with adult Jesus, calls me to action.

Am I about my Father’s business?

Trevor Thompson – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code

This is somewhat dated since this book came out a while back and the conversation has died down. But I still feel this is valuable information. I am not sure where Trevor presented this but he has given his permission for it to be uploaded:

1 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
2 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
3 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
4 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
5 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
6 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
7 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
8 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
9 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code
10 – Fact and Fiction in the DaVinci Code

Get Simple

A great point from Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet’s Jesus Manifesto, (edited down a bit)

“In Acts 2:42, we read about something called ‘the apostles’ doctrine.’..what exactly was it?

Before we answer that question, let’s reframe it. Here’s the scene. The Twelve have just baptized three thousand new converts. Tomorrow, they will begin teaching these new converts. What will they teach them?

Look across the landscape of contemporary Christianity and ask yourself what many of today’s preachers would teach them. Here are some certain answers. They would teach them about…

  • how to live a good life
  • church multiplication strategies
  • the mark of the beast and end-times prophesy
  • the visions and dreams in Daniel and Ezekiel
  • signs, wonders, and miracles
  • how to build a movement
  • leadership principles
  • social justice
  • prosperity
  • spiritual warfare
  • wealth and health
  • systematic theology

Now compare this list with what the apostles actually taught the early believers.

“And daily in the temple, and in every house, they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ.” (Acts 5:42)

Add to that what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 – “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. 2For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

This is not to say other doctrines aren’t important. But some people, myself included, can easily get distracted and let things other than the “main thing” become the “main thing.” Our faith hinges on simple truths and not complex theologies.

Here is another verse to consider…

“The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.”
– Psalm 19:7

There are certainly complex things in scripture that take a lot of study to understand (which I personally really enjoy!). But in all of that study it would be a shame if we let our time meditating on those things overshadow our time thinking about and trying to live like Jesus Christ.

What Was the Colossian Heresy and What Can We Learn from it?

In comments on the last post Philip mentioned Milton Jones’ interpretation of the Colossian heresy as something comparable to post-modernism. I have a great level of respect for Milton Jones. I haven’t read his book (that Philip linked to in his comment) but I did think this would be an interesting point to respond to in a post rather than a comment. In January I started writing curriculum on the prison letters of Paul. I really believe it is important to understand the occasion of an epistle if we are going to spend time teaching it and discussing it. So I really wrestled with the Colossian heresy for a while. After sitting at the feet of everyone from N.T. Wright to Benny Three Sticks and Peter O’Brian via their excellent commentaries, here was my take on the Colossian heresy from my Prison Letters of Paul small group curriculum,

“The Jews believed angels were involved in giving the law (Gal 3:19 for instance). It seems false teachers had come in and said that it was necessary to please these angels, principalities and powers if God was to hear their prayers (see 2:16-23). In order to please them they were taught to follow strict dietary (2:21)and holiness guidelines as well as the observance of special days (2:16). Paul is teaching them that such teachings are false and that Christ is still supreme with full authority over everything in creation that they don’t need to lean on such hollow and deceptive teachings (1:15ff, 2:8).”

I can’t say with certainty that I have it all right but that is the best I can come up with thanks to borrowing from a few scholars I highly respect and trying to put these pieces together in my own mind. It seems more appropriate to me to read their Jewish worldview into the text rather than to read a 21st century worldview into it. It makes more sense that Paul would be referencing things from their culture and not ours. Application can certainly still be made and the parallels connected appropriately to teach us something today about our own world. But as for interpreting what the actual heresy was we have to be careful to read the text from the right direction and not interpret it in light of the first “hollow and deceptive” teaching that we can think of in the world we live in.

If this interpretation of the heresy is correct, how do we make application in our world today? First, we have to listen to what Paul did say about the truth concerning Christ because Paul believed that if we have the truth we won’t be led astray by false teachings (Col 2:8-15). Postmodernism in and of itself is not a false teaching, as some have claimed. It is a worldview. It can lead to false teaching but it can also lead to some very profound insights regarding our faith. We cannot let our worldview “kidnap” (Col 2:8) us by leading us away from Christ and to something claimed superior or more sufficient than Christ. If we allow any worldview to do that we are in grave danger. That can happen with postmodernism but it can happen with any worldview, even modernism. You can get so caught up in figuring everything else, from the modern perspective, that you fail to see a need for Christ in your life. That is Paul’s point in the next verses (Col 2:9-10). The Gospel doesn’t need anything more to make it sufficient to bring us life and godliness because Christ is head over all things. In Col 2:11-15 Paul lays out all that Christ has done for us. When we read through that great list we should realize that our worldview must draw us closer to God and not further away from Him.

PS – If you don’t read Philip’s blog you should have a look. He is a great friend and a very insightful guy.