Why Catechism: Theological Laziness

It seems that there are few other pursuits that require such a little working knowledge than that of Christianity.

– Paul Watson –

Introduction

I have quoted my friend Paul Watson before, but I believe that the accuracy of his statement is poignant and worth repeating until it awakens the senses that the church has a real problem on its hands. Perhaps this quote was further engrained into my memory a couple of Sundays ago as I was commissioned to preach and teach at a church in south-eastern Kansas. As I concluded the sermon, on the Superiority of the Priesthood of Christ, the reaction of the audience was everything but enthusiastic and thankfulness to God. The congregation seemed completely disengaged and unaffected by the joy and blessing of having our salvation secured in the eternal priesthood of Christ as preached in Hebrews 5-10. Unfortunately the attitude did not stop at the end of the service. As I began the college sunday school class, we started with the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism which asks, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” As I started to work through the answer, evaluating each line and asking why each phrase was a comfort in life and death, I was met with an obstinate attitude and the question, “Why are you making us think?” Surprisingly this is not the only time I have encountered this question in the church or even in a college setting where thinking is your occupation for 2-4 years.

What follows in this post in strictly an evaluation of the current problem. In order to learn my proposed solution to this problem, you will have to wait for the following 3 posts. For, in order to understand the significance of a change in tactic, we must understand the position in which we currently stand. Please understand, the position in which we currently sit is by no means a pleasant one to deal with, but believe me when I say that there is hope and that it is completely within the means of the church.

Theological Laziness

It is evident that the level of biblical knowledge or theological clarity in the church is poor at best. However, it is not absent, which is a silver line in this otherwise gloomy cloud. But what is meant by theological laziness? By the use of this term I wish to communicate that the lack of biblical literacy in regard to the individual is not due to a lack of resources, for certainly we have an abundance of biblical/theological resources available to us in America. However, there is a growing trend of aliterate congregants in the church. That is to say, they have the tools and resources available to them to learn and grow, yet they willingly choose to not use them.

For an illustration of this point it is beneficial to pull from the experience of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he attended Union Theological Seminary in 1930. It is telling that the experience had by him there is not all that different from our current position in the church. Upon observing the students there, he once wrote to a friend:

There is no theology here…they talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students – on the average twenty-five to thirty years old – are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level. (Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, 101)

This is the first aspect to the term “Theological Laziness”. The second aspect is what some have coined as ‘Parroting’. This is stated to denote those individuals who only quote and repeat books, systematic theologies, or the ‘right’ preacher and theologians. Rather than being fluent in the Scriptures, developing theological convictions from that, and using Scripture as the basis for checking theological systems, they rely on what certain individuals have said. While this may mean that they have a large understanding of theology, they are not much better off than those who choose not to learn because they fail to base their theological convictions on Scripture. (This is not to deny the value of Theologies and books however.) Further, the person has not spent time wrestling with Scripture and relying on the Holy Spirit to illuminate their understanding of Scripture. Again, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words are beneficial in this regard as well.

Not only quietness is lacking, but also the characteristic impulse towards the development of individual thought which is brought about in German universities by the more secluded life of the individuals. Thus there is little intellectual competition and little intellectual ambition. This gives work in seminar lecture or discussion a very innocuous character. It is more a friendly exchange of opinion that a study in comprehension. (Ibid., 104)

In case the individual plight is not sorrowful enough, the situation in the church is not much better. Preaching in the church tends to be shallow, application driven speeches rather than preaching Christ and Him crucified every Sunday. Further, hearing deep theology from the pulpit is a rarity these days. In the 1920’s and 30’s the church was hit with a wave of ethics and sociological centered preaching where the sermon was replaced with a message responding to the news paper and the ‘fundamentalists’. (Thank you Harry Emerson Fosdick). Further, due to the liberal emphasis in the church that arose, the Bible was subject to malicious attacks under ‘higher criticism’ that sought to discredit much of what Scripture tought on life and salvation. With this assault from the pulpit, many congregants forgot catechism or theological instruction and the emphasis on applicatory sermons was driven to such a degree that J. Gresham Machen stated there was no Christianity left to apply. Since that time, true Gospel preaching, preaching Christ and Him crucified has become rare or absent. Again Dietrich Bonhoeffer encountered this.

Things are not much different in the church. The sermon has been reduced to parenthetical church remarks about newspaper events. As long as I’ve been here, I have heard only one sermon in which you could hear something like a genuine proclamation, and that was delivered by a negro (indeed, in generally I’m increasingly discovering greater religious power and originality in Negroes). One big question continually attracting my attention in view of these facts is whether one here really can still speak about Christianity….There’s no sense to expect the fruits where the Word really is no longer being preached. But then what becomes of Christianity per se? The enlightened American, rather than viewing all this with skepticism, instead welcomes it as an example of progress. The fundamentalist sermon that occupies such a prominent place in the southern states has only one prominent Baptist representative in New York, one who preaches the resurrection of the flesh and the virgin birth before believers and the curious alike. In New York they preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the cross, sin and forgiveness, death and life. (Ibid., 106)

This situation has resulted in two pitfalls for the church. First, the church has become infested with false teaching and errant theology. Men have arisen in the spotlight preaching a false gospel that tickles the ears and have gone virtually unchallenged as they feed the self indulgent tendencies of mankind. Second, the congregants of the church have eroded their defense against false teaching by failing to be well versed in the truth. These two pitfalls have been the reef that many a ship of faith has wrecked upon. Pastors unconcerned with the diet of their sheep have produced sheep who care nothing of their diet. The watchmen of God’s flock have failed to keep watch and have allowed the wolves of false teaching into their pasture with the result of their anemic, defenseless sheep being devoured.

Born Out of Sunday School?

What is the root problem of the current situation? For years the church has implemented the Sunday School technique as a way to curb theological laziness and illiteracy but have the actual results matched the desired impact of the program?

Ken Ham in his book Already Gone explored this very question and found this: “Sunday School is actually more likely to be detrimental to the Spiritual and moral health of our children.” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Sunday School has not aimed to be as theologically accurate as it has aimed to provide an age appropriate story time. This is how Ken Ham described Sunday School.

In the hallways, the kids will split up by age and be welcomed into classrooms full of laughter and life and hope. Teachers will embrace these kids as if they are their own for about 45 minutes. They will pour their hearts and souls into the children and teens with the help of videos, various curricula resources, Bible stories, crayons, crackers, CD music, computer graphics, flannel graphs, white boards, cookies, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, prayers, and pipe cleaners…It all looks so safe and healthy – an inseparable part of the fabric of spiritual life in the western world. (Ken Ham and Britt Beemer, Already Gone, 37)

However, his findings completely demolished previously conceived ideas about the Sunday School program. According to his study, students who regularly attended Sunday School were more likely to: not believe that all the accounts/stories in the Bible are true/accurate, doubt the Bible because it was written by men, doubt the Bible because it was not translated correctly, defend that abortion should continue to be legal, defend premarital sex, accept that gay marriage and abortion should be legal, believe that God used evolution to change one kind of animal into another, view the church as hypocritical and believe that good people don’t need to go to church just to name a few. (Ibid., 39)

Conclusion

It would appear that the church’s effort to build the faith through Sunday School has not produced the desired result. In reflection upon my own experience with Sunday School, the accounts of Scripture were notoriously portrayed in a ‘fairy-tale’ manner rather than a Historical, Redemption fashion. As a result, when trials came later in life, the ‘fairy-tale’ approach left me with little to no foundation to fall upon and almost resulted in the shipwreck of faith. Indeed for some this lack of a proper foundation has resulted in just that.

Obviously, the Sunday School method is not the sole culprit to this condition. To look at this method alone and place the whole blame upon it is naive. It is a combination of factors that has led to this current situation, which will be addressed in later posts. Further, it is unwise to criticize a particular method without a plan to carry out in its place. Accordingly, in the following post (next Monday) we will cover the importance of theological knowledge and how methods certainly play a role in the success or failure thereof.

For now let it be said that I do believe that the Sunday School system needs an overhaul and in the coming weeks I will lay out an exact plan as to how this current mess we find ourselves in can be remedied. Perhaps it is time for the church to return to a historically proven method “forged through a kind of wisdom and life experience gained during an era in which Christians were less apt to simply react to the secular agenda and uncritically imitate its glitz, glamour and noise.” (Kim Riddlebarger, The Need to Recover the Practice of Catechism)

To read the Introduction to the Catechism series Click Here.

Advertisements

Are the Qur’an and Scripture ‘Near-Perfect Matches’?

In his response to the “Voices of Faith” question, “What’s the best religious book you’ve read other than your faiths”, found in the Saturday, July 23, 2011, edition of the Kansas City Star, Syed E. Hasan, Ph.D., stated that while comparing the accounts of Joseph (son of Jacob) and the Virgin Mary, “I was struck with the near-perfect match between the stories.” Further he stated that, “Overall, I found that both books carry the same messages of compassion, peace and justice toward humanity, along with beliefs in accountability, Day of Judgment and life in the hereafter.” With this explanation it would seem that the two books are almost identical thus bringing to question why the Christians and Muslims have a dispute after all. But are the Qur’an and the Bible really ‘near-perfect matches’?

At the beginning of his answer, Hasan states that “I have studied the Bible” in order to establish credibility with his intended audience but as I studied the accounts he referenced in his article in both the Qur’an and the Bible, I really began to question the legitimacy of his claim to have studied Scripture. A simple reading of the accounts in both books quickly shows that neither account is anywhere near a ‘near-perfect match’. Indeed the accounts differ quite dramatically.

In the following response to his answer, I will only analyze the account of the Virgin Mary in the interest of the length of this post. If I were to respond to both here and now, this article would be longer than is proper for a blog post. In coming days I will post a response to the Joseph account.

The Account of the Virgin Mary

The account of the Virgin Mary can be found in Luke 1 in the Bible and in chapter 19 and 3.33-51 in the Qur’an. For his demonstration of the similarity between the Qur’an and the Bible, Syed Hasan relies on the general knowledge of his audience of the Biblical Account of the Virgin Mary (that she was a virgin) and quotes Mary from the Qur’an saying: “Mary asked: How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me and I am not unchaste? The angel replied: So it will be. Thy Lord says this is easy for Me. So she conceived him, and she retired with him to a remote place.” Undoubtedly the general knowledge of the Biblical account in the minds of the reader will be evoked by this quotation and the readings will seem to be similar. Hence the reader will walk away from Syed Hasan’s answer and conclude that the accounts really are similar.

However, Syed Hasan has not been honest with his audience and has failed to show just how strikingly different the two accounts are. It is beneficial for a quotation of the two accounts be produced here in order that you may be able to discern their differences at face value, followed by an explanation of the more intricate details.

The Qur’an, Chapter 19.16-35:

Mention in the Scripture the story of Mary. She withdrew from her family to a place east and secluded herself away; We sent Out Spirit to appear before her in the form of a normal human. She said, ‘I seek the Lord of Mercy’s protection against you: if you have any fear of Him [do not approach]!’ but he said, ‘I am but a Messenger from your Lord, [come] to announce to you the gift of a pure son.’ She said, ‘How can I have a son when no man has touched me? I have not been unchaste,’ and he said, ‘This is what your Lord said: “It is easy for Me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from Us.”‘ And so it was ordained: she conceived him. She withdrew to a distant place and, when the pains of childbirth drover her to [cling to] the trunk of a palm tree, she exclaimed, ‘I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this!’ but a voice cried to her from below, ‘Do not worry: your Lord has provided a stream at your feet and, if you shake the trunk of the pal tree towards you, it will deliver fresh ripe dates for you, so eat, drink, be glad, and say to anyone you may see: “I have vowed to the Lord of Mercy to abstain from conversation, and I will not talk to anyone today.”‘ She went back to her people carrying the child, and they said, ‘Mary! You have done something terrible! Sister of Aaron! Your father was not a bad man; your mother was not unchaste!’ She pointed at him. They said, ‘How can we converse with an infant?’ [But] he said: ‘I am a servant of God. He has granted me the Scripture; made me a prophet; made me blessed wherever I may be. He commanded me to pray, to give alms as long as I live, to cherish my mother. He did not make me domineering or graceless. Peace was on me the day I was born, and will be on me the day I die and the day I am raised to life again.’ Such was Jesus, son of Mary. [This is] a statement of Truth about which they are in doubt: it would not befit God to have a child. He is far about that: when He decrees something, He says only, ‘Be,’ and it is.

The Bible, Luke 1:26-38: (For the birth account of Christ and Circumcision/Presentation, read Luke 2)

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and giver birth to a son, and you will call His name JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His Father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?” The angel replied to her: The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth – even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s slave,” said Mary. “May it be done to me according to your word.” The the angel left her.

Do those accounts seem ‘near-perfect’? In fact, they differ quite a bit.

Particular Differences

At this point I wish to highlight three significant differences in the two narratives. Once this has been accomplished I will evaluate the Christological impact of the differences.

  • Absence of Joseph in the Qur’an account
You may notice that there is no mention of Joseph in the account of the Qur’an. This difference may seem rather minor but it is through the lineage of Joseph that Christ has his right to rule on the throne of David (Matthew 1:1-17).  Without the line of Joseph, Christ is disconnected from the Davidic line and right to the throne, thus for the Muslim the account of the Qur’an aids in portraying Christ as nothing more than a prophet appointed by Allah.

This is a significant difference because in the account of Luke 1, one of the expressed purposes of Christ’s incarnation is that “the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David,” and that “His kingdom will have no end.” By leaving this out of the Qur’an, the Mohammedan has seemingly contradicted the very predictions of a future Messiah found in the Torah, which they claim to hold to.

  • Portrayal of Mary

Further, you may notice a significant difference between the portrayals of Mary. First, in the Qur’an Mary is chosen by Allah and made pure, whereas in the Bible Mary is chosen by God because she has found favor with the Lord (granted, not out of her human righteousness) and is called as such. Second, Mary’s reaction to the news of being chosen is drastically different in the two accounts. In the Bible, Mary breaks out into a hymn of praise (Luke 1:46-55) saying, “because He has looked with favor on the humble condition of His slave. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and His name is holy.” However, in the account of the Qur’an, Mary clings to a tree ‘when the pains of childbirth drove her’ and says, “I wish I had been dead and forgotten long before all this.”

Finally, the largest difference in the two accounts is the beginning of Christ’s existence. In the Bible, Mary is told that, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) However, in the Qur’an, Mary is told, “It is easy for me – We shall make him a sign to all people, a blessing from us,” (Qur’an 19.21) and “This is how God creates what He will: when He has ordained something, He only says, ‘Be,’ and it is. He will teach him the Scripture and wisdom, the Torah and the Gospel.” (Qur’an 3.47-48)

The words of Allah in 3.47-48 heavily imply that Christ would be ‘created’ not necessarily born of the virgin. Further, it is highlighted that it was by no means a supernatural act of the Holy Spirit within Mary infusing her womb with the Incarnate Christ. There is not only the messenger’s words to Mary but later in the Qur’an, 3.59 to be specific, this is what is said: “In God’s eyes Jesus is just like Adam: He created him from dust, said to him, ‘Be,’ and he was.” With this view of Christ, Ergun Mehmet Caner states this, “Since the work of the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary is rejected, the virgin conception of this dust-made child was by divine spoken fiat.”

  • Narrative Focus

The final particular difference I wish to highlight at this time concerns the Narrative focus of each account. Obviously, the highlight of the Biblical account is that of the Incarnation of Christ for the deliverance of His people and His rule on the throne of David. However, the main focus of the Qur’an account is that of Allah’s decrees and the beginning of Christ for the purpose of being a messenger (prophet) to Allah’s people. Accordingly, Jesus is merely a human prophet and not the Son of God to the Muslim. This comparison ultimately boils down to the Deity of Jesus Christ.

Christological Impact

Perhaps the most interesting aspect to the Qur’an account of Christ is found in 19.30-33 where Christ speaks to a group of people as an infant. In the account, Christ as an infant, denies his Deity and states that he is merely a prophet. How interesting that the first words out of Christ’s mouth are a direct repudiation of the Christian doctrine of His deity. I sense an underlying motive in this account. Further, as it has been stated earlier in this article, Christ is attested to being like Adam in that he was created from dust in the Qur’an.

This is by far the most critical area of difference to understand between the Mohammedan and the Christian. When they are conversing, it is vital to know the difference in their view of Christ because when they use the term Christ, they are speaking of a different idea entirely. To the Mohammedan, the term Christ is not really a stumbling block as one might suspect because in their defining of the term, ‘Christ’ is taken as ‘Anointed One’ rather than a specific title for Jesus. With this in mind, it is not surprising that the Mohammedan might agree to calling Jesus ‘Christ’. It is the definition of the term that makes the world of difference.

With the Mohammedan view then, Jesus Christ is not the Savior and if he is not the Savior, then the Law has not been fulfilled and if the Law has not been fulfilled, God still expects an appeasement of His wrath incurred by sin. To the Mohammedan, their expectancy of the afterlife is based upon their living up to God’s expected standard and hoping that your good works outweigh your evil deeds when judgment comes. Therefore, when you enter into eternity, your good works must in someway appease God’s wrath for sin.

“For no flesh will be justified in His sight by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. But now, apart from the Law, God’s righteousness has been revealed – attested by the Law and the Prophets – that is, God’s righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ, to all who believe, since there is no distinction. For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. They are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. God presented Him as a propitiation through faith in His blood, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His restraint God passed over the sins previously committed. He presented Him to demonstrate His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be righteous and declare righteous the one who has faith in Jesus. Where then is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a man is justified apart from works of law.” (Romans 3:21-28)

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Qur’an and the Bible really are not as similar as Syed Hasan would have you believe. It is only when the definitions are changed and the major differences ignored that one can say that they are similar. This also comes into play when you evaluate Syed Hasan’s comment that “both books carry the same messages”. However, the fact that they use the same words does not mean that they are teaching the same thing.  Our beliefs about Christ being the major example.

The unfortunate fact about Syed Hasan’s answer is that most of his audience will take him at face value and do little to no homework on their own, thus buying into the egregious belief that the Qur’an and the Bible really aren’t that different while failing to see the Grace of God in Jesus Christ for the redemption of sin revealed in Scripture and the damnation of man secured by Satan in the Qur’an.