Posted by: Johnold Strey | March 27, 2009

Reducing the Data

“Heresy is a reduction of the data.”  I heard this definition several years ago from a liberal theologian.  Apart from the ironic source of the statement, I thought that was an interesting way of defining heresy.  But it’s true.  If you fail to present all the evidence (i.e. Scripture references) for a particular biblical doctrine, you are reducing the data and likely putting yourself on the path to heresy.

“No heretic ever woke up in the morning and wrote a letter to his mother, saying, ‘Dear Mom, today I plan to spawn a heresy.'”  I heard that statement from one of my former professors (who is now retired) at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin.  And there’s some truth to that statement as well.  I seriously doubt that most false (non-biblical) doctrine promulgated in church history has been done by people who wanted to promulgate false doctrine.

So what’s the point (at least so far)?  The church must be on guard lest it fall into false teaching, even inadvertently, by reducing the Scriptural data on any given point of doctrine or practice.

In light of that, I try to conduct my ministry with two seemingly opposite principles.  One is that the Holy Spirit has used the Word of God to lead me to believe and, as a pastor, to proclaim the objective truth about Jesus Christ and salvation.  The other is that I’m a sinful human being, prone to mess things up, and so I need to constantly check my preaching and teaching with Scripture should I discover that I have something wrong.  And there’s the apparent contradiction.  I operate like I am correct and certain on one hand, but potentially incorrect on the other.

Jesus called his disciples to preach the Word unapologetically (Matthew 28:18-20; Luke 10:1-12, 24:46-49; Acts 1:8).  Paul told Timothy and Titus to do the same in the Pastoral Epistles.  At the same time, Scripture encourages us to test everything that we hear and to be on guard continuously lest we fall into false teaching or unbelief (Matthew 18:7-9, 25:1-13; Romans 16:171 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 1:10).  Because I have been called to the office of pastor and the task of preaching and teaching the authoritative Word of God, I will do so confidently.  Because my sinful nature still plagues me daily, I need to constantly evaluate myself to make sure that I am not deviating from the Word of God by what I teach or by the way my church carries out its ministry.  Every pastor (and for that matter, every Christian) needs to constantly evaluate the Scriptures — all of the Scriptures — to make sure that he is not evaluating his teaching and practices with only a small portion of the “data.”

In a recent sermon on John 2:13-22, I raised a concern about a Bible verse written by St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 9:22, that seems to be taken out of context on a fairly reguar basis.  On its own, the verse sounds like Christians should do just about anything to bring people into the church.  But the fuller picture of Scripture suggests that we shouldn’t take Paul’s words as a blank check that turns just about anything into a means of grace.  Here’s the point I made in the sermon:

Do you know what one of the most misunderstood verses is in the Bible?  There are several candidates, but the one I’m thinking of today is 1 Corinthians 9:22, where St. Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”  This verse has been used to justify the practice of bringing the world and its culture into the church.  This verse has been used to justify the practice of marketing the church to a particular audience, even though the gospel is supposed to transcend ethnicity, age groups, and other demographic divisions.

Too much has been read into Paul’s words.  We would be better served if we let Paul interpret Paul.  Look at the way Paul carried out his ministry.  When he preached in a Jewish synagogue, he began with a natural starting point for Jews:  He talked about the God of their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  When Paul arrived in Athens (Acts 17:16-34) and found himself surrounded by statues of Greek gods, he preached in a way that would communicate the gospel to this different culture.  He started with the natural knowledge that God existed and had created them.  He quoted some of their poets as proof that they recognized this.  And he turned that into his avenue to get right to Christ and the resurrection.  If you know the story, that’s when Paul lost his audience.  The resurrection was too much for these Greeks who “looked for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22), as today’s Second Lesson mentions.

There is a big difference between bringing Christ and his work into a particular culture versus bringing the culture into the church.  But there’s only one way to serve any culture.  Bring Christ and his work to the world!  Yes, we should understand our local culture and setting so that we can serve it.  But let the church be the church!  Serving the culture is not the same as becoming the culture.  And this is so important because there is so much at stake.

The point of this sermon excerpt is to show what happens when we “reduce the data.”  If Paul’s encouragement to “become all things to all men” is understood apart from his own preaching in Acts, and if it is understood apart from Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 (which indicates that teaching and baptizing are the means by which people enter the Holy Christian Church), then someone might assume that Paul condones any tactic to bring people into the church.  Some have decribed this approach as “proof passage Christianity,” using the Bible as a source book of quotes to support one’s ideas and approaches, but not necessarily taking it as a whole.  This can happen either intentionally or (more often than not, I suspect) inadvertently.  But if you’re using the Bible as a book of spiritual quotations, you might not look for the quotes about sin, death, judgment, grace, Christ, forgiveness, salvation, etc. — and miss the whole point in the process.  “These are the Scriptures that testify about me,” Jesus said (John 5:39).

What happens when we reduce the data?

  • What happens if we acknowledge the doctrine of election without the mission of the church?  Will we be prone to open the doors on Sunday and assume that people will find us without any evangelism on our part?
  • What happens if we acknowledge the mission of the church without the doctrine of election?  Will we be prone to think that we have to pull every last trick out of our sleeves in order to get people into the church, unconsciously assuming that the gospel isn’t quite enough to do the job?
  • What happens if we preach the law without the gospel?  Won’t we lead people either to despair because they can’t keep the law, or to self-righteous Pharisaism because they think that they’re keeping the law when they’re not?
  • What happens if we preach the gospel without the law?  Will we see our true need for Jesus anymore?  Will we reduce the message of Christianity to “Jesus loves me, this I know, and this is all I want to know” (a quotation from one of my college professors)?
  • What happens if we look at the Old Testament’s ceremonial laws apart from their purpose and function described in Galatians, Colossians, and Hebrews?  You get legalistic assumptions like this comment.  (One pastor responded to me personally about this comment and asked, “I wonder if she wears clothing with a blend of fabrics?” – Leviticus 19:19)
  • What happens if we confess the truth that God uses his means of grace to sustain his people in faith without facing the warnings that faith can be snatched away by the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature?  Will we fall into old Calvinist thinking that says, “Once saved, always saved”?
  • What happens if we teach faith apart from its connection to repentance?  Will we lead people to think that persistent, deliberate, willful sin is no big deal, because “I still believe in Jesus”?

These are musings (or maybe “ramblings”?) that I’ve been mulling around in my mind for a while.  I am willing to be corrected if I’ve missed the boat with these thoughts.  And I fully recongize that many more examples could be given beyond what I’ve typed here.  While this blog has generally not been a discussion blog, I wouldn’t mind readers submitting their own examples similar to the ones listed above.

That said, the bottom line should be clear: We  need to be on guard lest our sinful nature “reduce the data” found in Scripture, and we fall into false theology or bad practices that are detrimental to our faith and lives as Christians.

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Responses

  1. Amen! I’ve got to remember to read your blog more often. 🙂

  2. I really appreciate this insightful post. I wanted to offer an example, but it became so long that I ended up placing it on my own blog so I did not encroach on your comments section. I’m not sure if I followed your line of thinking in contrasts, but if you are interested, you can find my pet peeve example here: http://comfortyemypeople.blogspot.com/2009/03/re-reducing-data.html

  3. I read your post linked above and yes, you are on to something. There is a distinction between handling private sin (Matthew 18:15-18) and dealing with public sin and false doctrine (1 Timothy 5:20; Galatians 2:11-14). After discussing private matters in light of Matthew 18, Luther says the following about public matters in his explanation to the Eighth Commandment in the Large Catechism (paragraph 284, Kolb-Wengert translation of the Book of Concord, copyright 2000 Augsburg-Fortress).

    “All this refers to secret sins. But where the sin is so public that the judge and the whole world are aware of it, you can without sin shun and avoid the person as one who has brought disgrace upon himself, and you may testify publicly concerning him. For when an affair is manifest to everybody there can be no question of slander or injustice or false witness. For example, we now censure the pope and his teaching, which is publicly set forth in books and shouted throughout the world. Where the sin is public, the punishment ought to be public so that everyone may know how to guard against it.”

  4. Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts. You are so right about the need to understand the difference between public and private sins, and how to address them. This seems to be an area of confusion for many Christians. I have also thought that living in a culture of distorted niceness, where truth is deemed relative, has played a large role in adding to the difficulty for Christians in understanding how to discern and address the popular lies in our culture.

    In general, the reduction of data that seems to be pervasive in many Christian circles is: do not judge (Luke 6:37). Which seems to translate in practice to: see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. It renders too many Christians deaf, dumb, and blind? Or susceptible to what I call delusional Osteen positivism? I wish I could explain my concerns better and I may be too harsh in my observations since this subject is a frustration of mine (I also have an old friend who has been hijacked by Osteenism). But I have to laugh at myself, if the prevailing culture leaned towards a harsher (pharisaical) approach, I would be fussing and probably sound like an antinomian! 🙂


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