BI 3223 Worldviews, Lipscomb University
The Christian Worldview (part 2)
DIFFERENT INTERPRETATIONS AMONG CHRISTIANS
As we discuss in this course other worldviews in light of Christianity, we must consider that there are different views held by Christians today concerning the nature of reality as taught in the Bible. One might ask why we don’t all agree on what the Bible means; why are there different interpretations of the same book?
First, we are finite creatures. We are not God who knows everything. Our understanding of the world is limited by our knowledge and filtered by our unique life experiences. As a white American male, my experience of the world is vastly different from a black woman in Nigeria. Each of us interprets what we read through these different perspectives, possibly leading us to different conclusions. She may see important themes in the Bible that I might overlook. We should be open to learning from one another since no single person can know everything.
Second, we are fallen creatures. Because of our sinfulness, we are self-serving and tend to see in scripture what we want to see, supporting our preconceived conclusions and justifying our own actions. For instance, slave owners in 19th century America quoted certain scriptures to support the practice of slavery. Also pride may blind us into admitting that something we have believed all our lives might be wrong, and we refuse to admit our mistake.
Because everyone does not interpret the Bible in the same way, Christians do not all share the same worldview in every detail. We will look at some of the major differences as they relate to basic questions about worldviews.
I. Questions of authority: how can we know the Truth?
- According to the theistic worldview, if God created us and has a purpose for our lives, then it is reasonable to believe that He has communicated his will to us in a divine revelation. This belief is shared by Jews, Muslims, and Christians, although they differ on which scriptures to follow.
- Many in our world today claim that truth is relative and different for every person. In contrast, those who accept the Bible as the revelation of God hold it to be absolute truth, valid for all people and all time. Truth corresponds to reality, the way that God designed everything to be. Objective truth refers to a reality that is the same regardless of anyone’s attitude toward it. Believers may differ as to how to interpret particular passages in the Bible, but they do agree that truth exists absolutely and that it is worth seeking.
- One cannot prove the inspiration of the Bible. Faith is a necessary aspect as well. A willingness to accept the possibility of supernatural revelation must be a part of one’s worldview. Although science and human reason can discover much truth about the world around us, believers acknowledge there is truth that lies beyond the five senses that must be revealed to us by God.
- However, many in our age who call themselves Christians have accepted the naturalistic worldview, which rejects the idea of supernatural revelation. One liberal NT scholar Rudolf Bultmann claimed, “One cannot use electric light and radio, call upon modern medicine in case of illness, and at the same time believe in the world of spirits and miracles in the NT.” According to liberal theology, we have outgrown the biblical worldview. The Bible is merely a human book like all others with some truth and much falsehood, based on the limitations of the writers and their times. The Bible is “inspired” in the same way that a great writer like Shakespeare was inspired, but not by God. The Bible cannot be relied upon as an authoritative source for deciding matters of ethics today. Human reason and modern science supersede the Bible as our guide today, according to these people.
- This question of the authority of Scripture is the crucial dividing line between conservative and liberal theology. Christian conservatives affirm that the Bible is the inspired revelation of God and remains for all time the authority for all questions of doctrine and true spirituality for those who believe. Religious liberals assume the Bible was written by ordinary men, just like any other work of ancient literature. They decide for themselves what they consider to be true or false in scripture, based on modern secular values. In Paul’s terms in 1 Corinthians, they defer to human rather than divine wisdom.
- The labels liberal and conservative are often misused. We should not call someone a liberal just because he has a different interpretation of the Bible from us, or follows the traditions of another denomination. Honest, sincere Bible believers will come to diverse conclusions about the meaning of a text without one or the other being a liberal. The important distinction is whether one looks to the Bible or to the world for spiritual answers. (Later we will discuss liberal and conservative political views, which are not the same as religious views.)
The Bible Alone? or Other Inspired Sources?
- Even among those who believe in the Bible as divine revelation, there are significant differences.
- Although Protestants and Catholics disagree on many specific issues, such as the veneration of Mary and the saints, the basic difference in their worldviews involves the question of authority.
- Both Catholics and Protestants revere the OT and NT scriptures as the revealed word of God. In addition, the Catholic church maintains that through God’s spirit, the popes and church councils have received continuing revelations throughout the ages. These new doctrines (for instance, infant baptism, the immaculate conception and perpetual virginity of Mary, seven sacraments, the infallibility of the Pope, purgatory) are not found in the Bible, but Catholics believe they have the same authority as scripture.
- In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation emphasized the principle of sola scriptura, “Scripture alone” as the authority for God’s will for all ages. Protestants do not consider additional teachings introduced by the church after the NT was completed to be authoritative (although not all Protestants act consistently on this principle; Luther and Calvin supported the church tradition of infant baptism even while admitting it was not found in scripture; and almost all Protestants accept the church council’s doctrine of the Trinity written in the 4th century).
- Other groups today such as the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses also believe in continuing revelation that go beyond Scripture. They follow the teachings found in additional books and revelations that they consider sacred, many of which contradict the Bible on specific doctrines.
- Some Christians claim to receive personal revelations today that go beyond the Bible. For them God speaks directly to their heart, and it doesn’t matter if this message coincides with scripture. One Pentecostal preacher threw his Bible on the floor saying, “I don’t need that book anymore. I am beyond that. I have the Holy Ghost. I am a prophet. God sends my instructions direct.” Another popular author: “I do not feel the need for study of the scriptures, for I know Jesus as he has revealed himself to me within.” (examples from MacArthur, Charismatic Chaos). Depending on one’s inner feelings without consulting the Bible can be very misleading in searching for spiritual truth.
II. Predestination vs. Free Will
Are we free to accept or reject God’s gift of grace through Christ, or has God predestined those going to heaven and hell, without any choice on our part? This question divides many Christians today.
The doctrine of predestination was first taught by the Christian theologian Augustine in the 5th century AD, then made popular by the 16th century reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. According to polls, about 30% of Protestants identify themselves as Calvinists. A summary of Calvinism came to be known as the TULIP acrostic:
Total depravity: The fall of Adam was devastating, enslaving the human will entirely to evil. All humanity was infected by Adam’s sin, as if it were our own. We are born sinners. After Adam, the human will became completely corrupt, dead, unable to choose good or turn to God in any way. In one sense, we are “free” to do what we want, but because we are slaves to our sinful will, all we want to do is evil. We cannot even repent and turn to God unless God himself has chosen from the beginning to give this faith to us.
Unconditional election: God chooses to save certain individuals based only on his free will, not on faith on our part. Calvin clearly states that this does not mean God chooses those whom he has foreseen will believe; instead God makes the choice for the elect, giving them and only them the ability to believe. We have absolutely no part in election. God even predestined the fall of Adam before creation, giving him no choice but to sin, and predestined the fall of Satan and the wicked angels in heaven (ideas not found in the Bible). Despite the divine willing of these events, God cannot be held responsible for evil.
Limited atonement: Christ’s death offers salvation only to those elected by God. Those that God does not choose have no ability to believe, repent, or call on God, thus no hope of salvation. Christ did not die for them. God’s love extends only to the few.
Irresistible grace: The person chosen by God cannot refuse his grace. The elect have no freedom to reject God.
Perseverance of the Saints: once saved, always saved. A person cannot fall out of the state of election, as this is God’s eternal decision. If someone does appear to lose faith later in life, he/she must never have been among the elect to begin with.
Martin Luther (1484-1545):
- Luther admits it’s a mystery why God doesn’t give his grace to everyone: “Admittedly it gives the greatest possible offense to common sense or natural reason that God by his own sheer will should abandon, harden, and damn men as if he enjoyed the sins and the vast, eternal torments of his wretched creatures, when he is preached as a God of such great mercy and goodness. … I myself was offended more than once and brought to the very depth and abyss of despair, so that I wished I had never been created a man, before I realized how salutary that despair was, and how near to grace. That is why there has been such sweating and toiling to excuse the goodness of God and accuse the will of man,” the argument made by the free will position (see below). “Nevertheless [we must confess] the painful awareness that we are under necessity if the foreknowledge and omnipotence of God are accepted” (Luther vs Erasmus on the Freedom/Bondage of the Will 244).
- The seeming contradiction between God’s revealed will (the Bible says that God wants all to be saved) and his hidden will (his election of a few) is something we must accept on faith alone, according to Luther (L vs E 22). God is free to act in any way he chooses, and is not bound even by what scripture says: “God wills many things which he does not disclose himself as willing in his Word. Thus he does not will the [eternal] death of a sinner according to his Word, but he wills it according to that inscrutable will of his … [which] we have no right whatever to inquire into … but only to fear and adore” (L vs E 201). In other words, God is free to contradict what he tells us in the Bible. To raise questions about the hidden will of God is dangerous and leads to cynicism or despair. God is not pleased when we question his justice (Table Talk 66).
- Calvin follows Luther’s argument of God’s two wills: “There are two types of calling: for there is a universal call by which God through the preaching of the word invites all men alike, even those for whom He designs the call to be a taste of death and the ground of a severer condemnation” (Institutes24.7). God “invites all to life by His word. Now this is not contradictory of His secret counsel, by which He determined to convert none but His elect. He cannot rightly on this account be thought variable” (C. E. P. 8.2). Calvin does not explain why this apparent contradiction in God’s will is not so; he simply claims that it’s not. “So wonderful is His love towards mankind that He would have all to be saved, and is of His own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. … But it may be asked, if God wishes none to perish, why is it that so many do perish? To this my answer is that no mention is here made of the hidden purpose of God according to which the reprobate are doomed …” (commentary on 2 Peter 3:9)
- Conclusion: both Luther and Calvin admit that God’s “hidden will” to choose some and not others contradicts the biblical teaching that He wants all to be saved, but say that we should not question God.
The Free Will Position
- Christians who disagree with the interpretation of Luther and Calvin emphasize the importance of God’s gift of free will which still exists in us and allows us to choose whether or not we believe in and want to obey God.
- Both Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree on the basic teaching of the gospel. Human beings have fallen away from God, and cannot do any good works on our own to earn salvation. Our sin creates a barrier between us and the holy God, whose purity cannot tolerate the presence of sin. However, by the grace of God we can rely on the sacrifice of Jesus, who took our sins upon himself, to become sin for us (2 Cor 5:21). God looks upon those in Christ as if they were righteous (justified), and thus can be reconciled to God in Jesus’ name.
- At this point, those who take the free will position disagree with Calvin, pointing out the passages in scripture which teach that we must reach out in faith and accept this free and unmerited gift. God’s election does not remove the need for us to respond and accept our place in the divine plan. God’s choosing does not eliminate human choice. God’s call in both OT and NT to believe, repent, and live faithfully implies that we have a choice to make as well.
“Now choose life, so that you and your children may live, and that you may love the Lord your God.” (Deut 30:19-20)
“Choose this day whom you will serve … but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Josh 24:15)
“They hated knowledge and did not choose to fear the Lord.” (Prov 21:9)
“If any man chooses to do God’s will, he will know of my teaching, whether it is from God or whether I speak for myself.” (Jn 7:17)
- Some people ask why can’t we believe in both predestination (as Calvin defines it) and free will, but these concepts are incompatible, an example of inconsistent beliefs in one’s worldview. If God has predetermined our response to him, then we have no freedom to choose.
- In Deut. 11:26-8 God says, “See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing if you obey the commands of the Lord your God that I am giving you today, the curse if you disobey the commands of the Lord your God and turn from the way that I command you today.” When the text says “if” it implies options with a choice the people must make. If God has predetermined everything, there is no “if.”
- The Bible does speak of God’s election but not in the way Luther and Calvin understood it. Election does not imply exclusion. When God chose Israel to be his people, it did not mean that he rejected all other people. He had a special destiny planned for the Jews and a role that they would uniquely serve, but this election did not exclude other people from God’s plans. God has always desired for all people from all nations to worship him. That’s the message of the New Testament, that Gentiles were also included in the plan of salvation, available to anyone who chooses to follow Christ.
- Furthermore, God’s election of Israel did not guarantee that every Jewish person would remain faithful to him. The Old Testament records a long history of Israel’s unfaithfulness and disobedience to God. Even though God had chosen them, many did not choose to accept his gracious will. God’s election does not override human free will.
- Likewise, the term predestination as used in the NT does not mean that God has arbitrarily condemned most of humanity without giving them a choice. Predestination refers to God’s eternal plan of salvation in the broadest sense. From the beginning he knew what would happen; the cross was not an afterthought. He predestined a society of people, all those who believe in Jesus as savior, to be his church. But in his wisdom he leaves it up to each individual to accept or reject this plan to become part of this elect group.
- The free will position was the teaching of the early church before Augustine in the 5th In the second century Tertullian wrote against the heresy of Marcion who claimed that an evil god, not the supreme God of Jesus, was responsible for creation and hence evil (a similar idea was taught in Gnosticism). In defense of the biblical teaching, Tertullian blames human freedom, an aspect of the image of God, for the problem of evil. Freedom is necessary for man to be a moral creature, choosing between good and evil. Without freedom, it would be unjust for God to punish or reward us for our actions if we committed them by necessity. Likewise, Marcion was unjust to blame God for sin which is the consequence of our abuse of freedom. Human freedom implies that God does not control everything that happens in this world. He willingly gave up some of his power to allow for human free will. God knew what would happen if he created free creatures, that we would go against his will, but he allowed it to happen, not revoking our freedom which he considered a higher good (Marcion 2.5-7).
- Many verses teach that the atonement of Christ is universal and unlimited in scope. God offers salvation to everyone, not just a select few. God did not create the majority of humanity for the purpose of sending them to hell. God doesn’t reject anyone; but we may choose to reject God. The Bible emphasizes that God’s grace extends to all people who choose to accept Christ:
“For God so loved the WORLD [not just a small part of it] that he gave his only son, that WHOEVER believes in him [not whomever God chooses] shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)
“God is not willing for ANYONE to perish but for ALL to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
“For the love of Christ compels us, being convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died FOR ALL, so that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” (2 Cor 5:14-15)
“This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, WHO DESIRES ALL MEN TO BE SAVED and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom FOR ALL.” (1 Tim. 2:3-6)
“He suffered death so that by the grace of God he might taste death FOR EVERY MAN.” (Heb 2:9)
“He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, not only for ours but also for the sins of THE WHOLE WORLD.” (1 John 2:2)
“Just as one trespass [by Adam] resulted in condemnation for all, so also one righteous act [the death of Christ] resulted in justification and life FOR ALL.” (Rom. 5:18)
- The Bible clearly teaches that Christ died for all who choose to believe in him. God’s revealed will in the Bible is the final authority on this topic, and there is no reason to assume He has another secret will which contradicts what He says in the scriptures (as Luther and Calvin argued). God does not contradict himself.
- To correct a common misconception of Luther and Calvin, we must understand that faith – our choosing to accept Jesus as our only means of salvation – is not a work that “earns” us salvation, so that we might boast of anything we have done. Luther and Calvin imply that if we have in ourselves the ability to believe, we have somehow diminished the credit due to God for our salvation. But our faith takes nothing away from the accomplishment of Christ on our behalf. All we are doing is accepting the gracious gift that God offers through his Son. He offers the gift and we reach out and take it.
- Faith in Paul’s letters is clearly distinguished from works, and is never considered a work.
- God does draw us to faith (as Jesus says he draws “all men unto me,” John 3:14-15) but we must still respond to God’s calling in faith. This choice gives absolutely no credit to us. Faith is admitting that we have nothing to offer God, giving all the glory to Him for our salvation.
Recommended readings for those who want to study this idea further:
- Friesen, Garry. Decision Making & the Will of God: a Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View. 1980.
- Shank, Robert. Elect in the Son. 1970.
III. Premillennialism vs. Amillennialism (Eschatology)
Many Christians today believe that they see signs of the end of the world. But as we discussed above, not all believers think this is what we should spend our efforts doing. Does the Bible give clues to the time when Jesus is going to return? What are the signs of his coming? And what will happen when he does return?
- The idea of the millennium (1000 years) is found in Revelation 20 (only here in the Bible) but can be interpreted in different ways.
- Premillennialism refers to the belief that Christ will return prior to his establishment of an earthly kingdom which will last a literal 1000 years. According to this popular interpretation, several things must happen before the millennium such as the Rapture, the appearance of the Antichrist, the Great Tribulation, and the Battle of Armageddon.
- A version of Premillennialism was taught by some early Christians in the 2nd century but fell out of favor after the time of the church theologian Augustine (5th century). His interpretation called Amillennialism (meaning “no millennium”) was the view held by most of the church, both Catholic and Protestant, for 1500 years (see further explanation of Amillennialism below).
- Premillennialism returned in the 19th century to become the prominent view among conservative Protestants as well as Adventists, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
- First conceived by John Nelson Darby in 1827, Dispensational Premillennialism entered widespread public currency with the publication in 1909 of the Scofield Reference Bible which included notes based on Darby’s interpretation. The popularity of this edition spread these ideas among conservative Christians. So Premillennialism as it is known today is a relatively new idea in church history.
- The term Dispensationalism refers to Darby’s idea that God’s work of salvation occurs in three* stages or dispensations. First, the OT dispensation led to the coming of Christ. When the majority of Jews rejected him, God went to plan B, the era of the predominantly Gentile church. Thus we are now in the second dispensation. [*Scofield lists seven dispensations but the first five are in the OT age and do not affect current speculation about the near future]
- At the end of the present church dispensation which many believe will be soon, God will remove all true Christians from the world at the Rapture, taking them up to heaven (an idea first taught in the 19th century). On earth during a third dispensation lasting seven years, God will begin his plan again with the Jews to bring them to Christ.
- Rapture: according to Darby, Christ will actually return twice (an idea never taught in scripture). First, Christ will come to take all true believers to heaven where they will escape the Great Tribulation on earth led by the Antichrist. During the next seven years of the third dispensation, the focus of God’s plan for salvation will shift to Israel, the primary victims of the Antichrist’s persecution during the Great Tribulation.
- At the end of the seven years, Christ will return again and will defeat the Antichrist at the battle of Armageddon. He will rescue the Jews, winning their gratitude and worship. Then he will establish his millennial kingdom in Jerusalem. Only after this 1000-year reign on earth will believers go to heaven.
- Premillennial excitement increased with the forming of the state in Israel in 1948, which these Christians interpreted as the fulfillment of OT prophecy. Conservative religious views continue to influence our foreign policy in the Middle East in America’s support of Israel.
- The worldview of Dispensational Premillennialism has become extremely popular with the Left Behind series of books (over 80 million sold).
Amillennialism (proposed by Augustine in the 5th century and the typical position of Churches of Christ today):
- To listen to many evangelical Christians today, the Bible is filled with prophecies about the millennial reign of Christ on earth. However, only one chapter, Revelation 20, refers to the 1000 year period. No other scriptures ever mention this idea.
- The Amillennial position, which has been the majority position for most of church history, interprets this “1000 years” not literally but as a symbol of the entire age of the church in which we still exist, going on for over 2000 years at this point. The book of Revelation is filled with such numerical symbolism, and it makes sense to interpret the millennium symbolically as well.
- The following verses contradict Premillennial teachings concerning a future earthly kingdom. Jesus told Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this earth” (John 18:36). Paul says that Christ reigns with his followers now, not at some future time (1 Cor 15:23-6, Eph 2:6-7). Jesus’ reign on David’s throne began with his resurrection (Acts 2:30-1) and will last until Death is defeated (1 Cor 15:24-8). Thus according to scripture, we are now living in the millennial age during which Christ reigns in a spiritual sense, but not a literal 1000 years.
- Furthermore, the Bible does not describe a Rapture, an idea not taught in church history until Darby invented it in the 19th century. The Bible describes Christ returning once, at which time the dead will be raised to face the judgment.
- The Amillennial position notes that “antichrist” in the NT is not a title for a super-villain at the end of time. The term occurs only in John’s epistles (not Revelation): 1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7, where John says there are many antichrists present in his day, identified as those who denied that Christ has come in the flesh and was not a real man. We should understand the term antichrist in its historical context within the first and second centuries, the people to whom John was writing. There is no reason to believe John was talking about anyone else who might appear thousands of years in the future.
- The Amillennial position does not perceive the formation of the modern nation of Israel in 1947 as a fulfillment of prophecy or a sign of the End-times. Modern Israel is largely secular; two-thirds of Israelis consider themselves non-religious. Their existence as a secular state does not fulfill biblical prophecies concerning a return to God and spiritual restoration.
- Jesus warned his disciples about the folly of looking for signs of his coming. “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (Matt. 24:4-6). He admitted that even he did not know when this would occur: “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matt. 24: 36). He said that he would come as a thief in the night when no one was expecting him.
- So Christians should not waste time looking for signs of the End, or the identity of an Antichrist as a world political figure, but we should focus on the consequences of Christ’s first coming, and continue to live faithful lives to his glory. If we do so, we will be prepared for his second coming, whenever that may be.
Important final note: Christians may be divided over issues such as the authority of the Pope, predestination, or premillennialism, but we can be united in our faith that only through the blood of Christ can we be forgiven and declared righteous in the sight of God. We should focus on what unites us as a church.