Spiritual Illiteracy

Sometimes I write just because I have to. Gotta get it out of my system. Chances are, I have seen something that peeves me, irritates me, or just plain ticks me off. Thus it is with this piece. So hold on, I’m about to vent.

I am often amazed how illiterate we are as a people. We have gotten to the place in America where it seems we almost prize ignorance and stupidity. We make heroes out of the Forrest Gumps of life. We wallow in the mindless, puerile (and often immoral) trash that is promoted as reality TV. We seem to prize ignorance and eschew knowledge. Our national educational test scores only retain any type of respectability because we continually lower the standards and reform the scoring systems. We devalue education, and in place of our own mores and values we let the government tells us what is right and wrong. And all the while our country sinks further into its self-imposed ignorant “bliss.”

Let me give you an example. A recent article in Reader’s Digest concerned the outrageous ignorance of many Americans. For example, studies show that most Americans can readily identify who Larry, Curley and Moe are, but they cannot identify the three branches of the Federal government. Also, people can name at least four or five of the seven dwarfs, but they are clueless when asked to name two justices of the Supreme Court. Good grief! Is it really that bad in our country? I am afraid the answer must be in the affirmative.

And sad to say, in the church we are no better than the rest of the society. One of the traditional roles of the church has been to foster and promote education, literacy and academics. Historically the church taught people to read so that the Word of God could be understood. The church founded institutions of higher education so servants of the Scriptures could be trained for ministry. The church established schools because it was believed that people created in God’s image with a free will had a right to knowledge and self-determination.

Yet, where are we now? We are basically theologically illiterate and spiritually stupid. We accept popular doctrinal drivel without question. We hardly ever “try” the spirits to see if they be of God. We shun “judging prophets.” We allow our values and ideas and ideals to be handed to us via TV preachers who don’t know a lexicon from a lamppost. We believe whatever we are told from the pulpit or the radio or the CD because we are too lazy to study for ourselves. How many Christian adults don’t even know what a concordance is, much how to use one? Mention Irenaeus, Tertullian, Chrysostom, Athanasius, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, Whitefield, Finney, or Tozer… and most people look at you like you’re speaking Martian. (Of course, they probably could name at least five of the seven dwarves!) How many Christians look neat and respectable and “holy” on the outside, but in their minds and hearts they are woefully and tragically ignorant of the basic teachings of the faith, how to witness, or what reasons to give for why Christianity should be believed? Our pews are filled with sanctified ignoramuses!

Let me give you two examples of what I am talking about. I remember once teaching a class when the subject of the imago Dei, the image of God, was raised. I was somewhat taken aback by how many in the class had the concept that the image of God was essentially a physical reality. “Oh, God must have a body—Adam was made in His image.” “If we knew what Adam looked, then we would know what God looked like.” “Well, we know that God has eyes, and hands, and a backside—the Bible says so.” Mercy, mercy! I felt like I had been teleported from the east coast and plopped down right in the middle of a Mormon Sunday School class in Provo!

Now on the surface, this may seem like innocent ignorance. (Yeah right! Sort of like the kind of innocence a toddler displays when he swallows a whole bottle of pills because he thinks it is candy.) Indeed, I can understand the tendency to interpret biblical anthropomorphisms too literally. Many have done so. But there is a more heinous doctrinal crime here. There is a basic flaw in this theology itself, that is, in the underlying concept of who God is. Think about it. When we make statements like those quoted in the previous paragraph, what are we really doing? Are we not defining God by looking at man? Our theology is anthropocentric, that is, man-centered. And man-centered theology is pagan and humanistic, not biblical or Christian.

Ponder this for a moment. I have over the years had to deal with this very same discussion repeatedly. We read that God created man in His own image. And what do we do? We usually begin by looking at human nature and from that we try to figure out what God is like. Instead, shouldn’t we look at God and try to figure out what characteristics that are similar to the Deity we find in humankind? Shouldn’t our starting point be the Deity, not Adam? If God IS SPIRIT (John 4:24) then we know that the imago Dei must be a spiritual image, not physical. We must look to man’s intellect, will, capacity to have relationship, emotions, desire to respond in worship, and similar human traits as our focus for understanding the image of God. We must begin with who God is, and then see Him reflected in man, if are to understand this concept. Not the reverse. If we define the image of God as physical, and we try to make Adam a corporeal clone of God (shades of Brigham Young and the Adam-god teaching!) then we have limited the very nature of God Himself. The Almighty is, well, not All-Mighty any more. In our minds He has become a being bound by flesh and limited by the laws of the physical space-time continuum. Heaven and all good sense forbid it!

Let me give you another example. I recently heard a sermon in which the subject of sin and holiness were being presented. The statement was made that God decides what is right based on what is good for His children. Sin, the reverse, is what harms men. God decides that something is wrong, and designates it as sin, because it hurts those He loves. You know what this teaching amounts to? Let me give it to in Latin: Soapus Porcus. I.e, HOGWASH.

Listen to me, you need to understand this. God doesn’t arbitrarily choose what is right and what is wrong. He doesn’t consult within the Holy Trinity and decide what is holy and what is sin. And He certainly doesn’t use man’s welfare as a measuring guide. There is no guide, no moral law, no standard outside of God that the Deity looks to in declaring what is sinful or not.

Instead, what we know to be true is that sin is something that violates the very nature of God Himself. Whatever God does, He does in accordance with His own Being, His own holy and righteous nature. He cannot act otherwise. What He does comes from Who He is! Holiness, goodness and rightness is as intrinsic to Him as are eternity, infinity and omnipotence. What is consistent with the holy nature of the Almighty is good and right. What contradicts the nature of God is evil and sinful.

Do you see the problem? Once again there was a misguided attempt to understand spiritual truth from a man-centered perspective. Now, I agree that what is holy and good will produce benefit for human beings. And I also adamantly insist that what is sinful and wrong will bring ill results to people. But the effects of both of these things on people is not what determines what is right or wrong. Holiness is rooted in the Person of Yahweh. God declares most emphatically in His revealed Word, “Be holy, because I am holy.” He did not say “Be holy because it will benefit you.” No. Our holiness must be rooted in an emulation of the personal character of the Divine.

Guess what? As I listened to this sermon, I saw many heads nodding in agreement with this point. I thought to myself, here is a subtle form of humanistic heresy being accepted and affirmed by an entire congregation of Christians. God help us. No wonder Paul admonished, nay, commanded the Corinthians to judge (that is, discern, reasonably analyze, and critique) the proclaimed word of God. Humans are prone to error. We all err—myself most certainly included. The only adequate judge is the Holy Scriptures. But in order for that trustworthy standard to be enforceable we need Christian believers who are mature in understanding the Word and capable of using it effectively.

I will close with a challenge. One of the most skilled and best known preachers of the past century or so was a guy named G. Campbell Morgan. Morgan’s commentaries and biblical expositions are still highly merited classics. In his day, Morgan was known as a Bible teacher and preacher extraordinaire. How did he get to be this way? By reading and studying the Bible with commitment and consistency. Yet, as capable, learned and well-studied as he was, he still knew that anytime he wrote or spoke on the Scriptures, he needed to further immerse himself in fresh study. Consequently, if he was preparing to preach on a particular book of the Bible, or write a study of it, he would read that book 40 to 50 times! Imagine that. What an example to us. What a challenge. How many of us don’t even read the Word at all! God forgive us!

What is the result of our spiritual laziness and apathy? Dead churches. Lost people. An immoral culture. An ignorant church body. Lifeless and listless saints. Unchanged lives and worldly lifestyles. A nation which desperately needs spiritual renewal and yet remains without revival.

We are blind sheep following blind shepherds, and one day we will all fall into the ditch.

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