Wise Words from Augustine

I am reading through Augustine’s City of God for the next few months. I came across this helpful statement in book V. Augustine is discussing the development and might of the Roman Empire. Specifically, he is delving into the question of how the Romans became so powerful. In his discussion, he brings up to common reasons for why events and such turn out the way that they do: fate and chance. Concerning fate, he writes, “If anyone attributes them to fate because he uses the term ‘fate’ to mean the will or power of God, let him keep to this judgment but correct his language.” (City of God, 187)

There are several important points on which to focus our attention.

  1. He acknowledges that, at times, our language may be accurate theologically, but not linguistically.

    Here Augustine recognizes that there are times in which language is accurate theologically but not linguistically. He goes on to clarify, “For when men hear this word as it is used in ordinary speech, they understand it to mean nothing other than the force exerted by the position of the stars when anyone is born or conceived.” (City of God, 187) So, for example, it is theologically accurate to say that Jesus is like us. However, it may be difficult to say the same thing linguistically. For example, when most people here that phrase, they may assume that means Jesus is only human, not divine.

  2. He reminds us that our language must be accurate in our own context.

    Augustine notes, “Some distinguish this from the will of God [that is, fate], while others affirm that it indeed depends upon His will.” (City of God, 187) Augustine shows that language means different things to different people. Even when using biblical language, it is important for us to consider our context. We can see an example of this in Acts 17:22-31. Paul worked within the understanding of the people of Athens to communicate Gospel truth. He was also careful in what he did not say.

Language is important. How we communicate as Christians, especially in matters related to our sovereign God, are of inestimable importance. So, think theologically, express it accurately, and may God be glorified.

(Image Credit: By Fra Angelico and workshop – Unknown, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1022879)

“Do I believe?”

In our last post we looked at the first three ways in which “we can help each other answer the question ‘Do I believe?’” (Lawrence, 104)

We began a discussion on conversion, that is, the means by which a sinful man is brought to life by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many people in our churches struggle with this question. Am I really a Christian? Do I really believe?

In an effort to help address these concerns, Michael Lawrence offers several ways for us to help discover the answer.

You can see the previous post for the first three. So let’s dive right in!

  1. “Fourth, be especially careful before you assure children of their faith.” This one may come as a shock, but how many times have children’s workers ask the child, “Do you want to go to heaven when you die?” And, like almost all children, the child responds, “YES!” What happens next? The worker rejoices and tells the child that he (or she) will go to heaven.

The question is, “Did the child really believe?” Were they converted? I have no doubt that there are people who become Christians in their childhood. But I fear that we unknowingly offer assurance to children who do not need it. I love how Lawrence offers balance to this area. “When they express faith verbally, celebrate. But remember that the true evidence of faith is trust, and trust needs time and opportunity to demonstrate itself.” (Lawrence, 105)

  1. “Fifth, make membership meaningful.” Perhaps more so than anything else, both pastors and congregants sadly misunderstand church membership. People today ask, “Why should I join the church?” As long as the church accepts their money, provides a preacher, and has nice facilities and programs, what difference does it make? This post is not a treatment of church membership. For that I would recommend Jonathan Leeman’s Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Yet, if we treated membership with more seriousness, it would definitely help answer the question, “Do I believe?”
    Lawrence writes, “We help each other know that we believe by attending the public services of the church regularly and by building into each other’s lives.” (Lawrence, 105)
  2. “Sixth, practice church discipline.” Along the same lines as meaningful membership, church discipline seems to be non-existent today. If we are focused on building our church, our community, and our kingdom, why would we discipline? We cannot even switch colors of carpet for fear of offending a certain church member (who just happens to contribute financially). Alternatively, we cannot tell an individual that they cannot teach a class because we are afraid they will go to the church down the street. Is this what God’s the church to do? Did He not instruct us in matters of discipline (see Matthew 18:15-20; 1 Corinthians 5:1-2)? Church discipline, while certainly not an enjoyable or glamorous part of ministry, is nonetheless important. But how does this answer the question, “Do I believe?” Lawrence succinctly states, “Church discipline means that the congregation won’t console itself or anyone else falsely by saying, ‘At least they prayed a prayer when they were a kid.’ Rather, because of love, the church is not satisfied with historical faith, and won’t let you be satisfied with it, either.” (Lawrence, 106-107)
  3. Seventh, make the gospel your first recourse in counseling and discipling.” I fear that I have made this mistake too often. We assume that someone who comes to church faithfully is a Christian. However, as you probably know, church attendance does not bring about conversion. Rather than assuming, why not begin with the Gospel? Beginning with the Gospel helps us answer the question, “Do I believe?” (Lawrence, 107)
  4. “Eighth, remember that relationships are as much or more about encouragement than they are accountability.” I am quick to see the negative, slow to see the positive, and ignorant (more than I’d like to admit) to distinguish between the two. We are acutely aware of everyone’s shortcomings. Mention the name and we can rattle off their top five weaknesses in about 30 seconds. Try and think of the good qualities of that person is a different story. In fact, for many of us, it is a different book in the library down the street. Focusing on encouragement, with regards to conversion, helps us see the good that God is doing in the lives of our brothers and sisters. Lawrence notes, “Sometimes it is hard to assure ourselves. Our sins are always in front of us, clouding our view. Our perspective is so often dominated by the pressing sin and the failure of the moment. That’s when we need someone else to look at us, and to point out the longer-term growth, present trust, and the fruit of the Spirit that we often cannot see in ourselves.” (Lawrence, 107-108)

So, do you believe? Have you joined with a body of believers? Have you recently examined yourself, to see whether you are in the faith (2 Corinthians 13:5)?

May the answer to those questions be a resounding yes! And may the church help to answer that in the affirmative.  

Rabbinical Insights into Inspiration


I have begun the task of reading the Babylonian Talmud. It is a monumental work spanning several centuries years and written in at least two languages.i Its importance to Judaism will never be overstated. To our interests as believers in the Messiah, it draws on a “long period of oral tradition ca. 450 B.C.E. To 200 C.E.”ii

I have been incredibly blessed by reading this work. Most of it is rather boring reading, to be honest. This rabbi says this, another says the opposite. And then three to four paragraphs of attempts to justify each rabbi’s position.

But hidden within the earth of wordiness are little gems such as I am going to share with you now. In a section covering the time necessary to recite the Shema (see Deuteronomy 6.4-6) I found this:

“Did David really know exactly when it was midnight? Now Moses, our master, did not know, for it is written, ‘At about midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt’ (Ex. 11.4). What is the sense of ‘at about midnight’ cited in the preceding verse? If I should say that that is language which the Holy One, blessed be he, said to him, that is, ‘At about midnight,’ is it possible that before Heaven there is such a doubt [as to the exact time of night? That is impossible.] Rather, [God] said to him, ‘At midnight,’ but Moses is the one who came along and said, ‘At about midnight.’ It follows that he was in doubt as to exactly when it was midnight. Could David then have known exactly when it was?”iii

I find several points of interest here. To begin with, in regards to the matter of inspiration, we find that God allows the individual author to shine through. When Moses wrote ‘at about midnight’ it seems that God allowed some freedom of expression. As the Rabbis conferred, if God should choose to be more specific he would have had Moses express it that way.

Another point that I find fascinating is that there is some ambiguity in the Scriptures. There are numerous times when estimations are given rather than exact numbers (Exodus 32.28; Joshua 7.4; Judges 15.11; 16.27; and Acts 2.41). This, in turn, can be applied to the rest of Scripture. It is important not to force exactness when exactness is not intended. We can find ourselves in much trouble when we attempt to force something that is intended to be taken loosely.

The last point that I get from this is to be comfortable with not having all the answers. In the context the Rabbis were discussing whether Moses knew when midnight was.iv But they were comfortable acknowledging that Moses didn’t know (or it was at the very least a possibility), and they were fine with that. There may some issues, some matters, that believers never fully grasp. Are we comfortable with not having all the answers? Are we honest to admit that we don’t know everything?

So the rabbis have much to teach us, if we would simply have ears to hear and eyes to see.

iJacob Neusener, The Babylonian Talmud, Volume I Tractate Berakhot (Peabody, Hendrickson: 2011), xv.

iiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, xxv.

iiiNeusener, Babylonian Talmud, 10-11.

ivIt may seem such a trivial matter to discuss when exactly midnight is, particularly when we know when midnight is. But to the ardent follower of Judaism preciseness is a non-negotiable, specifically when regarding the recitation of the Shema.

“Useful Knowledge and Discriminatory Learning”

Picture courtesy of Susie-K (I do not own the rights to this image)
[For more fantastic artwork, see the artist’s collection here.]

“His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] That is how John Watson, faithful friend and loyal companion described Mr. Sherlock Holmes knowledge of many aspects common to many a men. Of course the shocker for Dr. Watson was the fact that Holmes did not know anything about the Copernican Theory. Dr. Watson writes, “That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth traveled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003]

Sherlock, accustomed to reading the face and features of individuals with whom he was communicating, quickly retorts, “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] This completely dumbfounds Watson! Why anyone in the world would even think about forgetting such a basic fact of the universe was too much for him.

It is then that Sherlock gives his explanation,

“You see, I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is humbled up with a lot of other things, to that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003]”

Now, you may be asking yourself, “What the deuce does this have to do with me?” Much! More than much, I would say. Now, our journey through the life and doings of Mr. Sherlock Holmes has application for any area of life. However, being that my focus in life is God and theology, we shall then apply it to our life with God.

Being in North America, and in the south in particular, there are some things that are just common to life. Football, baseball, (and let’s be honest, sports in general) and guns are the life of many. We can name the top Quarterback in the league, we can cite all of the stats for the catcher, and we can name off the type of gun and ammunition simply by a quick glance. Certainly these things are not wrong. In fact, there are many things such as these that I enjoy myself.

However, what if we had the same intensity to know God? What if we had the same desire to know what others believe? For example, there is so much information that is simply false floating around the interment and news sources concerning the Islamic faith. What if, insane as this may be, we searched the actual sources of their faith to discover what Muslims actually believe?

Let’s take this a step closer to home. What if we searched the Scriptures to determine what was right and wrong? What if someone was entering a difficult stage in their journey on earth and we could at a moment’s notice relate several accounts from biblical literature of people facing similar times. Or what if we could tell someone about who God is from our in depth knowledge of Scripture?

Sherlock Holmes was the master of his brain-attic. How do we fill ours up? Can we quote line upon line from our favorite show? Can we relate the history of an entire fantasy saga, including wild names and fantastical beasts, only to fail to adequately express the God we serve? The lesson that Mr. Holmes can teach us is discriminate knowledge. Let me offer an example.

Small talk is an important aspect of human relations. Being able to discuss the weather, the current political issues facing the local arena, and other issues is vital in order to connect with our fellow human beings. So some knowledge that does not have an immediate impact or importance on our lives is necessary. But here is the catch, you can know enough about a team without knowing everything, be able to carry on a conversation, and then move it onto deeper matters. If your goal is to share God with people, you should be more knowledgeable about God than any other thing in your life. If your goal is to bridge gaps between people of different skin color, then your knowledge should be focused on the historical and cultural development of each different people group. Do you see the wisdom in this? Holmes was the master consulting detective. Why? Because he knew what he needed to know and forgot what he didn’t. Simple, yet absolutely brilliant.

Our first objective, then, is to discover our goal in life. What is our purpose, our passion? I have several, and each one builds upon the other. So my learning, my retention of facts and information has several outlets but with one overarching theme.

Our next objective would be to determine to know about our goal and the subject material available. This may sound absurd, and it may be that some may think of this simply as an intellectual exercise. Be not mistaken, friend, for this type of discriminatory knowledge is vital for all of the children of men.

And our final objective is simple. Do not bother attempting to retain knowledge that has no applicable purpose in your life and work. A master electrician does not need to know the detailed information that a master plumber in order to accomplish his or her electrician work. In the same manner we should only use the information that is useful to us and our task.

So what is your Copernican Theory? What information do you need to let go? I end with the words of Sherlock to John concerning that theory, “If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” [Doyle, 1887 reprint 2003] Don’t let that information keep you from your work.

Discernment: A Vital Gift

A tree is one of the most beautiful aspects of creation. There is one stem, one trunk, and then there are so many branches and leaves. Each leaf is unique, a incredible work of art. The tree can teach us much. The lesson I want to learn today, however, is that of unity.

Donald Bloesch, a scholar and theologian, writes, “….Christians sorely need the gift of discernment to make the proper evaluations.” [Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts, 145.] He is dealing with different variations within Christendom that view the Spirit in diverse ways. 
His comment is so vital for today. There are so many variations, so many denominations, so many view points. Which one is correct? Which one is wrong? The spirit of discernment, mentioned in 1 Corinthins 12.10, needs to be exercised today. We need to discern, to judge in order to determine which view is correct and which view is not.

Another point Bloesch makes is to differentiate between heterodoxy and heresy. He defines the two, “Heterodoxy signifies the elevation of what is peripheral over what is essential in the faith, while heresy leads to a denial of what is essential.” [Bloesch, The Holy Spirit: Works and Gifts, 145.] It is imperative that, in Christendom, we learn to do this. Is it difficult? Yes. Will it be messy? Of course. But if we are to follow Christ, then we are to seek unity. Harmony, oneness, and “a complex or systematic whole” are words and phrases that describe what we should be seeking.

Too often we make peripheral issues the main focus and lay aside essentials.

I end with these words from the Messiah, and pray that believers may be one, אחד, a God-glorifying harmony.

John 17.20-23

20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.