Monday, October 31, 2005

Restoring a national treasure

In 1998 the Smithsonian Institute embarked on a massive restoration project. The “Star Spangled Banner” – the actual flag that flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during a British naval bombardment and inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the poem that would become our national anthem – was painstakingly restored after years of deterioration from dust and light. There were holes, and tears and parts completely missing. An effort to retain that which remained was considered critical. The project took $18 million and almost five years to complete. The effort demonstrated a deep national concern for the preservation of historical, national treasures.

If only we took as seriously our real national treasures.

On October 31, 2005 President George W. Bush nominated Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court of the United States. Pay close attention to the dog-fight that ensues, because it will illustrate for us the loss of one of our greatest national treasures as left to us by our founders – the loss of our limited, constitutional government.

If you listen to the rhetoric on both sides of the debate over Alito you will hear phrases like, “…this confirmation vote is critical,” and “…the future of our country rides on this Supreme Court seat,” and “…the survival of our republic is at stake.” The fact that so much rides on the nomination of one, single Supreme Court justice shows us just how far America has fallen from the intended federal system of government our founders envisioned. The Supreme Court is now in the business of making law when the constitution gives it no such authority. Congress passes laws annually that far exceed the bounds of the constitution while the president exercises power the office was never authorized to wield. If the appointment of a single judge or the election of a single official is so critical to the future of the country then too much power has consolidated in one spot. But this is not how it was supposed to be.

Our federal government was intended to be small. It was supposed to be limited. The really important decisions were designed to be closer to home. Our state and local governments were supposed to be the seat of greater power because their proximity to their constituents brought greater accountability. Our founders understood all too well the dangers of highly centralized government and the nature of true liberty to entrust too much power to the hands of only a few people.

But, over the years, our limited government has consolidated. As it has grown it has gobbled up many of the liberties guaranteed us by our constitution. Typically this is done “for our own good” because the big, centralized, federal government knows better than we what is best for us. Thomas Jefferson (pictured at left) warned America to put no trust in man but rather to "bind him down with the chains of the constitution." Yet our current federal government completely disregards the constitution to the point one has to wonder why we even have it at all any more.

The sad truth of the matter is this: Of the beautiful tapestry of limited government that derives its powers from the consent of the governed we have precious few threads remaining. A couple of hundred years of exposure to unprincipled leaders who sought to increase their own power at the expense of liberty has left us with a government so tattered that it less resembles the original version established by the constitution than the current “Star Spangled Banner” resembles the freshly sewn flag first hoisted above Fort McHenry.

When will the day come when Americans place a priority on a restoration project designed to reestablish and preserve our constitutional government? Will it ever come?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The "Measure of all Things"

“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” – Romans 12:2

The image below is of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous sketch “Homo Mensura” which means, “Man, the measure of all things.”

In mathematics it is possible to work through an entire complex equation without a single mistake in the process and still come up with a wrong answer. This is possible because the accuracy of the outcome depends on the accuracy of the variables used in the equation. If you begin with a single, incorrect variable everything you do from that point on is skewed. Your outcome will be wrong because you began your work from the wrong starting point.

The same holds true when dealing with philosophies and worldviews. Ideas build upon one another. It is possible to consider the world in a completely logical fashion and still come up with an erroneous view because of an incorrect premise. With each passing day I become more convinced the Church has fallen prey to this kind of error. We have tried to logically and consistently apply a biblical worldview but because we have unwittingly built upon a faulty premise we find ourselves at an erroneous conclusion.

There are two primary starting points for formulating one’s opinions about the world. One is man. The Greek philosopher Protagoras (pictured at right) is one of the earliest people to assert that man is the appropriate starting point for building one’s worldview when he made his famous claim, “Man is the measure of all things.”

When this variable is used as the starting point for forming a worldview the inevitable, logical conclusion is humanism. In an essay which answers the question, “What is Humanism,” Frederick Edwords, the executive director of the American Humanist Association defines “philosophical humanism” as any outlook or way of life centered on human need and interest. He mentions a sub-category of this philosophy that he calls “Christian Humanism.”

Edwords defines Christian humanism as a philosophy advocating the self-fulfillment of man within the framework of Christian principles. This is a remarkable statement because humanism and Christian principles are diametrically opposed. Humanism and Christianity are built on completely different premises. But, I am afraid this philosophy describes too many modern churches.

In his essay Edwords said, “I was once asked by a reporter if this functional definition of religion didn't amount to taking away the substance and leaving only the superficial trappings. My answer was that the true substance of religion is the role it plays in the lives of individuals and the life of the community. Doctrines may differ from denomination to denomination, and new doctrines may replace old ones, but the purpose religion serves for PEOPLE remains the same. If we define the substance of a thing as that which is most lasting and universal, then the function of religion is the core of it. Religious Humanists, in realizing this, make sure that doctrine is never allowed to subvert the higher purpose of meeting human needs in the here and now.”

When this “Christian humanist” philosophy extends to it’s logical conclusion it produces … well … consider the text of the following internet ad:

“What if there were a religion that does not presume to declare universal religious truths? The meaning of your existence would be yours to determine.

What if there were a religion able to generate respect among all of humanity by embracing our equality in the most important questions we face?

What if there were a religion that unites freethought with spirituality?

What if there were a religion that demands no blind faith in prophets or their writings?

What if there were a religion that asserts no moral authority, religious or secular?

Universalism! The church of the 21st Century!”

The second primary starting point for formulating one’s opinion of the world is God. This is the biblical worldview. There is no way an honest reading of Scripture will leave a person with the notion that man is the measure of all things. God is the measure of all things. God is the Creator. Everything in creation is for and about him NOT us. But we have forgotten the biblical admonitions to be “in” this world not “of” it. The humanist philosophies of the world have infiltrated the Church in highly destructive ways but we’ve become so ignorant of the Word of God that we don’t even recognize it.

It’s not a recent thing, either. Dr. R.C. Sproul addresses one of the age-old debates that springs from this very distortion of a “Christian Humanist” worldview. We have too many humanists in the pews and pulpits of our churches. In his essay Edwords attributes a quote to Jerry Falwell (I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but the sentiment is rampant in churches today). According to Edwords, Falwell said, “When we seek a solution to the AIDS crisis we thwart God’s punishment of homosexuals.”

The very idea that we even have the ability to “thwart” the will of God demonstrates how humanistic our worldviews have become. I’ve heard too many Christians, when debating about the nature of God, use the phrase, “Well, my God isn’t like that.” As if we have the ability to define for ourselves who God is. We've tried for too long to build a biblical worldview on the faulty premise of humanism.

It is long past time for God’s people to return to God’s Word and recognize the fact that our very existence is by God’s grace and for God’s glory. The only accurate starting point is God.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Celebrating Reformation (Part III)

(Continued from Parts I and II)

After posting the 95 Theses Luther began a prolific career as a writer. He began to put in print his views on the corruption of the Catholic Church and on the biblical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. His works became widely circulated and caused quite a stir. Pope Leo X referred to Luther as “a wild boar loose in God’s vineyard.” It was something the Catholic Church could not overlook.

In 1520 Leo X issued a Papal Bull (pictured at right) excommunicating Luther from the Church and ordering him to Rome within 60 days to recant. Luther responded by burning the Bull at the gates of Wittenberg on December 10 of that same year.

In 1521 Luther was ordered to appear before the Diet (Assembly) of Worms to recant. To help insure his appearance he was guaranteed safe conduct to and from the Diet. Seeing it as an opportunity to defend his positions, Luther agreed and traveled to Worms. After hours of study and prayer Luther refused to recant saying, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Here I Stand. I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

He was declared both a heretic and an outlaw. While he had been guaranteed safe passage a conspiracy had been hatched to kill Luther on his return trip. Luther’s friends, apparently, were aware of the plan, because they donned masks and “captured” him while he traveled through the forest on his way back to Wittenberg. They galloped away in the darkness with Luther and thwarted the efforts to kill him.

He was taken to a castle known as the Wartburg in the Black Forest. Here he hid from the Catholic authorities. He used his time to translate the Bible into German, as it was his firm conviction that the Word of God belonged to everyone, not just religious scholars.

Eventually he left the Wartburg disguised as a knight named Junker Jorg (pictured at left). He continued to write and preach, producing hundreds of volumes and thousands of sermons over the course of his ministry.

It is my hope that churches will focus more attention on educating members about the wonderful historical legacy we have in the foundations of the Protestant Reformation rather than spending time focused on the pagan origins of Halloween. October can be a wonderful time of exploring an incredible story, one filled with courage, conviction, daring escapes and rescues, horsemen dashing through forests, hiding in castles and, most of all, the restoration of biblical doctrines on salvation. October is our month to celebrate reformation.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Celebrating Reformation (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk who struggled deeply with his condition before a Holy God. He observed all of the ordinances of the Catholic Church and was a model monk practicing asceticism and living in poverty. Yet, he could not find peace. His superiors sent him to the town of Wittenberg to be a professor of theology. During his intense studies of the Scripture Luther discovered, for the first time, that salvation comes by grace through faith alone.

He was awakened not only to the precious Word of God but also to the deep distortions and corruption within the Church. He was particularly incensed at the practice of selling indulgences. Why, Luther wondered, when the Church supposedly has access to a treasury of merit would the Pope extort money from believers rather than dispense the grace freely? Luther considered this practice a horrible perversion of God’s grace. He expressed his specific objections to the practice in a document he entitled the 95 Theses and, on October 31, 1517, nailed it to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg.

This single act was the spark that touched off a firestorm with an intensity Luther could not have anticipated. It is considered the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.

(Continued in Part III)

Monday, October 10, 2005

Celebrating Reformation (Part I)

The moment October arrives the Halloween displays appear. You may or may not notice them tucked into an obscure corner of the Christmas decorations at most retail stores (that’s another topic) but they are there. Many churches take the opportunity to rail against the evils of Halloween. Others provide alternative “harvest parties” as a means of keeping youngsters from mischief. But October is an extremely significant month for Protestant churches and we miss an incredible teaching opportunity by focusing our attention in an “anti-Halloween” manner. In fact, October 31 is one of the most significant dates in the history of the Church. We should seize a golden opportunity and focus our attention backwards to that date in the year 1517 …

The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church was Leo X. He wanted to build the grandest cathedral ever constructed and dedicate it to the apostle Peter. Money was an issue. So he authorized the selling of indulgences to help fund his project.

Now, it was a Roman Catholic belief that the good deeds performed by the Saints was more than enough to secure their places in heaven. The good deeds they performed over and above those necessary to get them into heaven were stored in a “treasury of merit” held in trust by the Church. An indulgence was a document issued to a member of the Church whereby some of the merit held in trust in the treasury was credited to them or to a loved one. This merit would reduce the time they or their loved one had to spend in purgatory. The indulgence pictured above reads, “By the authority of all the saints, and in mercy towards you, I absolve you from all sins and misdeeds and remit all punishments for ten days.”

Pope Leo X authorized the sale of a special indulgence (pictured at left), one that would allow the buyer to forego purgatory altogether. He sent representatives out to sell the indulgences to raise the money necessary for building St. Peter’s Cathedral. One of his most effective salesmen was a man named John Tetzel. Tetzel played on the sympathies of church members. He told them they had an opportunity to free their loved ones from purgatory immediately. “When the coin in the coffer rings,” he would say, “The soul from purgatory springs.”

All of this shameless salesmanship and bartering with God’s grace caught the attention of a young Augustinian Monk who intended to speak against the practice. His name was Martin Luther.

(Continued in Part II)