Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Total Gospel

Last week I blogged that I was a proponent of an open Gospel. At the time I didn’t intend to extent the theme, but this week I’ve been thinking further about it, especially as a background response to my exchanges between an on-line character called LDS_anarchist on his blog and mine.

So, I’ll add another line to my “credo”;

I believe in an open Gospel.
I also believe in a total Gospel.

It was in my teens that I first heard that if I put my faith in Jesus Christ, he would save me. So I did.

As I got older (I’d like to say “matured”, but I’d be presuming), I began to wonder about what it meant to be “saved”. Looking back, I have been spared from major trauma in my personal life, but not all my Christian friends have been so fortunate. One of our closer friends died of cancer a couple of years ago, leaving a wife and two teenage kids. Many people with no Christian faith have been equally as fortunate as us. While I think it’s true that Christians are generally better at staying out of trouble than their unbelieving neighbors, it should be obvious that calling oneself a Christian does not immunize one against the trials of life and death.

I also found fairly quickly, that when the Bible talks of salvation it is a salvation from the disaster that’s about to come. The Israelites were saved from the imminent judgment on Egypt (by the blood of the Lamb, Exodus 12:12-13), the Prophets tried to save the Jews by warning them of the coming judgment around the 6th Century BC, and in the New Testament, we see the storm clouds gathering again in the lead-up to the destruction of the Temple in AD70 (see Acts 2:40). The picture that emerges for me is being saved from the coming wrath of God.

However, if this is all that the Christian Gospel has to offer, then it’s nothing more than an insurance policy against some future disaster. It’s not a total Gospel in the sense that it does not cover the whole of life.

The partial Gospel has other variations. For some (increasingly few, I believe) it’s something you “do” on Sunday, or at births, weddings and funerals (hatches, matches and dispatches, as they say in the trade). Church, for some, is nothing more than the "club" they subscribe to, and it is kept securely in the confines of the Sunday morning routine. For others, it affects one’s internal thought-life or perspective, but there is little connection to the “outside” world. The latter is a form of pietism and it’s prevalent amongst Pentecostals and Charismatics. I’m a post-charismatic myself (not an ex-charismatic), but I worry that such pietism retreats into an internal experience to such an extent that it has nothing meaningful to say to the world. The other extreme is to interpret the gospel purely in terms of a socio-political agenda, which ignores the moral and spiritual dimensions of the Christian Gospel. All of these are partial Gospels and if there was one word that summed up what they lack, it is integrity.

That lack of integrity grates against such passages as John 10:10b
I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
Or Colossians 1:19-20
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.
“All things”, “the fullness of life” – these phrases point to a fully integrated total Gospel.

Increasingly, I have been drawn to the writings of John (his Gospel, the three letters and Revelation). It's because he is concerned with a total Gospel – a Gospel that’s more than just an insurance policy against some future eventuality. It is something that encompasses my whole life; and not just my whole life, but the entire cosmos and my place in it. Put coarsely, John sees God as the origin, meaning and ultimate goal of life, as he writes Jesus' declaration in Revelation 22:13
I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.

This changes everything. When we see our lives, and every aspect of our lives played out within him, it changes everything. This is the start of the Total Gospel.

But where does it lead and what does it save us from? Put coarsely again, it saves us to God and it saves us from Hell. The difference is that we’re not just saved to God from Hell in the next life, we’re saved now (see Luke 19:9).

If we’re saved now, today, what does that salvation look like? There are, I believe, at least two dimensions to this that are equally important – we are reconciled to God and we are reconciled to each other. The acknowledgment of who Jesus is, and the worship of him is what unites “every tribe and nation” in John’s vision in Revelation 5. We are saved into community, and this is a message that the Evangelical Church, in particular, must rediscover if it is to embrace the Total Gospel of the New Testament. The Kingdom becomes apparent when we live out the values and characteristics of our King (see John 13:35). You could even say that it is the Church’s mandate to live out, or incarnate the Word of God (John 1:14 and Colossians 3:16).

There is a third dimension to it that is alluded to in Revelation 5. The reconciliation of Christ does not simply extend to God and humanity, it extends to the entire cosmos. It’s a restoration of the created order in which God, humanity and the “land” interact; the order that our sin broke apart (see Genesis 1-3).

So, the Total Gospel not only saves me from ultimate disaster. Nor does it just give me a mystical internal experience or the basis for a political agenda. It saves me to God, it saves me to my fellow human beings and it saves me to the cosmos. It gives me something of value to say to the world.

Now, that’s a Gospel worth preaching!

Friday, November 19, 2010

An Open Gospel

I am a proponent of an open Gospel.

I mean “open” in the sense of “open house”; where a real estate agent opens up a house for sale so that interested people can come in and look around. They will poke their noses into the cupboards, check various certificates (termite protection is a big issue here), wander around and generally scrutinize the place. Some will be genuine buyers, others will be just curious. The point of the exercise is to allow the buyer the chance to inspect the property before proceeding further and the real estate agent gets to know the neighbors for potential future business.

By contrast, “closed” refers to the situation where you can see the outside of the house, but you can’t look in; or at least, not until you’re fully signed up or initiated.

My theology for an “open” Gospel is derived from my reading of the Bible. It starts with an act of divine disclosure – God creates the Cosmos so that He can be known by it. Without a creation, God remains alone and there is nothing to which He can be known. He declares His creation “good” (Genesis 1:4 etc) because it fits His purpose and it reflects who He is. He creates humankind in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27) so that they can recognize Him. Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones with the special privilege of being able to comprehend God; see the comparison with the Angels in Psalm 8:4-6, in which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees special significance in Hebrews 2:5-9.

Jesus is God’s ultimate act of self-expression, so much so that John calls him the “word made flesh” (John 1:14). When Christians think of God, they rightly think of Jesus – he is The God, come to make Himself known to us. Perhaps the most confronting image from this story is that of a crucified God, stripped naked and impaled, spread-eagled on a cross for all the world to see. This is God, bearing our sin. This is what our sin does to God. And yet, God triumphs, even over death.

Moving into the church age, we see that the Christian church has always striven to get the word out. Initially by word of mouth and handwritten scripts, then by the printed press and now by the internet. Christians want to make the Gospel of Christ known, and the more they can broadcast it, the better. The Bible is replete with admonitions to do this, not least of which are the concluding words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel;
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
(Matthew 28:18-20).

Did you get the “teaching” part?

God wants to be made known. He wants us to see Him as He fully is. Put it another way; He wants to be scrutinized by us, all of us and not just a select few. It’s “open house”, and we get to set the agenda.

So, I get pretty worked up when I detect the introduction of “secrets” to the Christian Gospel. To me, this cuts right against the whole tenor of God’s self-revelation to us. To put it bluntly, it’s blasphemy of the highest order.

However, these “secrets” do crop up, and they do so in the Christian community. That’s because the people who promote the idea of “secrets” are thinking more like Gnostics than Christians.

Gnosticism has made something of a come-back in recent years, and because western culture has been inculcated with Gnosticism-lite, it’s quite difficult to diagnose.

One of my theological hobbies is to develop diagnostics for heresies and here’s one for Gnosticism – if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my knowledge, then I’m thinking like a Gnostic, not a Christian. Why? Because I am justified by Christ, and Christ alone and He is not me nor is He any part of me. In fact, if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my anything, I am not thinking like a Christian.

Gnostics, as their name suggests, put a great deal of emphasis on knowledge. That’s appealing to an educated and knowledge-based culture like ours, but it’s no accident that the most active proponents (e.g. Elaine Pagels) are those who pride themselves on their knowledge. I’m not saying that knowledge and education are bad, rather that they are not the end-goal of human existence – that’s God’s prerogative.

Further Gnostics pride themselves on their ownership of a “secret” knowledge – a knowledge that is only available to their initiates. They operate a “closed” house.

A prime example is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, it’s founder, joined the Freemasons on 15 March 1842, setting up a Masonic lodge in Nauvoo ( In his early career, Smith promulgated a message that retained some Christian imagery, and this is the Mormonism that is familiar to most everyday Mormons. However, Smith progressively moved to a more secretive form of Gnosticism, introducing an elaborate system of temples, rites and initiations. The difference between the two has been described by Mormons as the "Preparatory Gospel" and the "Full Gospel", but by Mormon critics as the "Bait and switch" (see here for a discussion). Remarkably, both sides acknowledge that there is a difference.

These Mormon Temple rites remain secret today, and Mormons are forbidden to discuss them or what they were taught in them.

However, the keeping of secrets is a hard business in the days of the internet, and any enquirer can quickly search for what they want to find. To cut a long story short, the theology that emerges from these secrets is that Mormonism is actually a polytheistic religion, in which men become Gods by acquiring multiple wives and subscribing to the Church. Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s direct successor, said “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy" Journal of Discourses 11:269, 1866. Ask the next Mormon missionary who comes knocking on your door, though you're unlikely to get a knowledgeable answer.

Remember my diagnostic above about “I am justified by my [fill in the blank here]”? Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Mormon prophets after them want to tell you that you are justified by your polygamy.

In discussing this with Mormons, the most common response I get is the “milk before meat” thing. It’s a misappropriation of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3:2, where he’s actually saying “I’m going to take you back to basics because you seem to think that the Gospel of Christ gives you a license to sin”.

However, the Gnostic isn’t interested in allowing the text to speak for itself because he already has a “special knowledge” that tells him what he wants to know. Why does he have this “special knowledge”? Because he has been initiated into the brotherhood, of course.

I once asked a Mormon Bishop what he thought the main intent of Christ’s mission was. He replied that it was to give us the ordinances and principals of the Gospel. His answer indicated that it was all about transferring a special knowledge to his followers. When I replied that we don’t read much about that sort of thing in the Bible, he retorted that that’s because it had been changed by the Catholics. I feel that he considers himself to have this “special knowledge” because of his connection to the “one true Church”, and it’s not his fault the Bible doesn’t agree with him.

There are a couple of themes in the Bible that might seem to support the Gnostic view, but I think they can be dispelled as giving support to it. I’ll address a couple briefly.

The first is that Jesus spoke in Parables. The dialog in Matthew 13:10-11 addresses this directly;
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.
Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 78:2. This is one of those instances where it’s worth going back to the scripture quoted to get a fuller picture. Here’s the opening stanzas of the Psalm…
My people, hear my teaching;
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
(Psalm 78:1-4).

In other words, the Psalmist is proclaiming an “open” Gospel, using such phrases as “we will not hide”. If there is a “secret” knowledge here, it is only so because the people have forgotten it and needed to be reminded - a situation that the Psalmist seeks to correct.

So, is Jesus misquoting the Psalm? I believe he is doing what the Psalmist is doing, by opening the eyes of the people to what they can already see. The Parables are a superlative vehicle for this message, because Jesus takes everyday scenarios and uses them to point out the obvious. It remains a “secret” to his opponents because they are incapable of “getting” it. Jesus’ opponents don’t see the Kingdom of God described in the parables because they see it in the building of their Temple and the “principals and ordinances” of their law. Thus the parables divide between those who are Jesus’ followers and those who are not.

Another verse I needed to reconsider this week (because it was brought up in a post at, click here and do a search on "white stone") was Revelation 2:17b
I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
My reply was that it is not appropriate to interpret the apocalyptic language of Revelations too literally, however it is appropriate to understand the meaning from the imagery provided. The “white stone” signifies a permanent monument or marker post, like the Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7:12. The “new name” denotes a change in ownership, like the change in name that God gave to Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah, Genesis 17:5 and Genesis 17:15).

The fact that the new name is known only to the person who receives it is a little more problematic, because it appears to imply some kind of secret initiation. However, I think that John is saying that the only people who can be sure of this change of ownership are the people themselves, perhaps at an individual level. In other words, the fact that God’s people now belong to God is a fact that the world cannot comprehend or “know”.

In my experience, I’m often greeted with blank stares when I tell people that I don’t belong to myself – I belong to God, doubly so because He created me and He redeemed me
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.
(1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

That’s a confronting message to give to the next person who protests at Christianity’s interference with his or her life, saying “it’s my life, I’ll do with it as I please”. They might even challenge the Christian with “it’s your life, why do you allow yourself to be dominated by God”. They cannot see the white stone with the new name written on it. God owns us.

There may be secrets in the world. The revelation of God, whom He is and what He is like, is not one of them. If it is a secret, then it’s a secret that’s meant to be exposed.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Letter to Kevin Rudd MP and Mr Rudd's reply

As the polls were counted, it became clear that the 2010 Australian Federal elections would result in a hung parliament. In order to form a majority, the two major parties (Labor and Liberal) would have to recruit the required number of independents and minor parties, the Greens included.

On the Saturday night after the voting booths were closed, I watched the reaction of Bob Brown, leader of the Greens, on TV as he retained his seat. I also saw our MP, Kevin Rudd (who had until recently been Prime Minister) retain his seat with a convincing margin. Faced with the prospect of Mr. Rudd’s Labor Party negotiating with the Greens, I wrote to Mr. Rudd on 22 August 2010. On 26 October 2010, I received a reply from Mr. Rudd’s office. My letter and Mr. Rudd’s replies are reproduced below, though I have removed postal addresses, email addresses and phone numbers out of courtesy.

Letter to Kevin Rudd, 22 August 2010.

Kevin Rudd, MP

Dear Sir,

Congratulations on your re-election in my constituency of Griffith.

In watching the results come in these last 24 hours, it seems that whoever forms our next government will have to enter into some sort of deal with the minor parties, including the Greens. I would like to take this opportunity to let you know my reaction this prospect but, as I hope to explain, my concerns remain whether this particular circumstance eventuates or not.

The Greens, I think, have a valid message in the sphere of climate and environment. I am a professional civil engineer, specializing in flooding and drainage and my particular concerns in this area are to do with planning for climate change, particularly its potential impacts on increased flood risks to coastal infrastructure. Like the Greens, I am concerned to preserve and best manage our natural heritage because, whichever way you look at it, our well-being is sustained by our natural environment. Last night Bob Brown said that as a general rule, what’s good for our grandchildren is good for us, and I agree.

However, Bob Brown also promised to continue to campaign for same-sex marriage, and this is where we part ways. In part, my reason for writing to you is because I feel that I, and those who share my convictions, appear to be increasingly silenced and demonized as homophobic. I wonder how long I have remaining to raise my concerns and objections to same-sex marriage without being stigmatized, and that should be a concern to those of you who support parliamentary democracy.

My reluctance towards same-sex marriage does not, I sincerely hope, arise from a desire to deny happiness and a sense of fulfillment to same-sex couples. Further, I refuse to discuss sex and sexuality in any context that regards persons with differing sexual orientations as anything less than human beings. This leaves me at a disadvantage, however, because the pioneers of same-sex marriage can project an image of themselves striding confidently into the 21st Century with a revolutionary vision of great value, leaving me with the circumspective and undeniably boring sound-byte of “no it’s not”.

I could appeal to the thousands of years of human wisdom relating to family and home that the pioneers of same-sex marriage look set to jettison, but that’s unlikely to appeal to them. Instead, I ask that we look forward to the potential consequences and what effect, as Bob Brown suggests, this will have on our grand children.

These consequences, I suggest, relate to the deconstruction of marriage as a coherent social entity and it’s reconstruction as a contract between private individuals. The question I ask is, if we allow this to play out to its ultimate conclusion, what will we be left with? I suggest that we will be left with something that’s virtually indistinguishable from current de-facto and living-together relationships and, if this is case, what’s the point of legislating for it? To me, it’s rather like buying the lease for a coal-mine and building wind-farms on the land instead of mining it. It’s a dog in the manger.

What business is it of mine to object? I fully respect a couple’s prerogative to exclude my intrusion into its private life and to tell me that it’s none of my business. However, by bringing that relationship under the auspices of marriage, that couple necessarily brings its relationship into the public sphere, and in doing so, it implicitly seeks my approval, my validation and my affirmation of its relationship. In the case of same-sex couples, this is something I feel I would be unable to give. If I were put in a position in which I were forced to either express my endorsement of the relationship or shut up, then I would have to question my rights.

The Greens have successfully positioned themselves as the intelligent, progressive choice. The pioneers of same-sex marriage have successfully generated a sense of inevitability about their cause. Their positioning has given them the advantage of being able to dismiss people like me as unintelligent, regressive and resistant to moving forward. They may be right but, to borrow a phrase from the gay rights movement, this is who I am and why can’t they simply accept it? It seems to me that there is a clash of rights. If we cannot have a win-win situation, then we need to think carefully about whose rights we decide to deny.

There are other important and solemn issues to consider in government, of course. However, the advocacy of same-sex marriage is one way to lose my vote.

Yours faithfully,
Martin Jacobs

Letter to Martin Jacobs, 26 October 2010.

Dear Mr Jacobs

Thank you for contacting Kevin with your policy suggestions. I note your specific reference to same-sex marriage policies.

Kevin appreciates you taking the time to share your feedback.

Community views are of critical importance to the Government when forming its policies and your views will be taken into account in relation to this process.

If there are any other federal government matters with which Kevin may be of assistance to you, please do not hesitate to contact his Electorate Office on [phone number and email provided]

Yours sincerely

Amy Cooper, Constituent Officer

The Honourable Kevin Rudd MP
Federal Member for Griffith

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Myths of New Atheism – Part 3 – We’ve grown out of the need for faith in God

The myth of the New Atheism is that it’s not a myth.

At the risk of repeating myself, I’m going to return to the theme of faith, specifically faith in God.

Professor Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion, a vocal atheist whom the BBC seems to like) argues that early humans needed faith in a deity to fill in the gaps of their knowledge of the universe; what they could not explain, they attributed to a supernatural deity. He goes on to argue that now our scientific knowledge is complete, particularly with respect to the origins of the universe, we no longer need the hypothesis of God. Everything we need to know about ourselves, he has stated on air, can be explained by our knowledge of evolution. God, Dawkins says, was needed to fill the gaps, but now that the gaps have been filled, we no longer need him.

It shouldn’t be surprising that a Professor of evolutionary biology at Oxford University should interpret the whole faith/God thing from the perspective of our knowledge of our origins. However, he profoundly misunderstands faith – what it is and what it does.

One reason I wanted to return to this topic was that on Monday my family and I attended the homecoming dinner of Michael Young, who became the youngest person to cycle around Australia. He, and his support driver Glenn Walker, are friends of ours from Church. Michael’s ride raised about $28,000 for the Cancer Council of Queensland.

Michael’s venture, to me, is a superb example of faith. Michael Young’s faith was not “needed” to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of what lay ahead. Michael had planned the route very carefully, but he still did not know what to expect when he set out. There remained plenty of unknowns and risks, not the least of which was the risk that Michael could become another tragic road traffic statistic (which, thankfully, did not eventuate). I recall seeing Michael set out from one of the parks in Brisbane and it was clear that there was so much he and Glenn did not know. They did not even know if they would finish.

But, and this is my point, Michael’s faith was the thing that drove him to action. It was a faith that fully acknowledged what he did not know, but it propelled him to launch into the venture anyway. Without his faith, he could not have cycled into the unknown.

The intrinstic aspect of Michael’s faith is that it produced action. I don’t think Michael theologized too much about it; judging from my conversations with him, he seemed content to believe that he would do this thing and some good would come of it. However, I find it remarkable that Michael’s faith did not simply result in him adopting a particular intellectual position; it resulting in him doing something. Contrary to Richard Dawkin’s assertion, faith isn’t about simply changing intellectual property; it’s what gives us our reasons to do the things that we do.

That’s precisely what the New Testament author is writing about in James 2:26 “As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.” Another passage on faith is in Hebrews 11, which lists out the heroes of faith and identifies them by what they did. John writes that the dead would be judged according to what they had done (Revelation 20:12,13).

It’s not that our deeds justify us before God (that’s a whole topic in itself), rather that our deeds tell us about the kind of faith that we have. And where there are no righteous deeds, there can be no faith in God. The kinds of deeds we carry out tell us about the kind of God we worship

I’m qualifying this faith-deeds relationship because everybody, including atheists, is moved by faith. Hitler had so much faith in his Third Reich that he was willing to send his armies into Western Europe and Russia and murder 7 million Jews for it. Dawkins has so much faith in his atheism that he is willing to publish books to promote it. Michael Young had so much faith that he was willing to cycle into the unknown for it. There’s no differentiation. This isn’t about who has faith and who doesn’t; it’s about what or whom we put our faith in.

Jesus had so much faith in his God, that he was willing to be crucified for it.

Faith is part of what it means to be human. Everybody has it, and every person’s actions are directed by it. The question is not whether we “need” it, or whether we’ve outgrown it. The question is what we have put our faith in.

Faith came up in another context this week. I watched the TV show on the rescue of the Chilean miners. In reflecting on what brought the miners through their ordeal, the narrator commented that if the psychologists summed it up in one word, it would be faith. The program then cut to a psychologist who expanded with words to the effect that it was “…faith in their fellow miners, faith in their families that they were doing all they could to rescue them, faith in themselves and their religion.”

I was disappointed to hear the psychologist’s voice trail off as he got to the bottom of the list and the “religion” word. It’s as if he was afraid his fellow practitioners would chastise him if he acknowledged this aspect of the miner’s perspective. Other footage showed the community bringing in the statue of Mary and relieved and grateful miners and families genuflecting, praying and crossing themselves. I’m not going to speculate on what this overtly Catholic faith meant to the miners and their community, but it was obvious that they were looking to God to save them. As far as they were concerned, He did.

The miners had appealed to one who was outside their imprisonment to save them. They acknowledged that they could not save themselves, not even by trying harder at being better miners. This is a fantastic example of the faith that the Christian Gospel seeks to promote. It reaches beyond ourselves into the unknown, with the hope that the God of the unknown will welcome us because of His own great love and mercy. (He can and He does because of the cross of Christ, but that's another story.)

We have not outgrown the need for faith. Our faith, which is part of what makes us human, continues to be worked out in our deeds, great and small. Without faith in a great and loving God, this faith becomes small, mean and self-centered, and so do our works.