Religions Enslave : God wants us Free

Chapter 5  Church History

Augustine - Freedom from original sin

Aquinas - Freedom by philosophy and tradition

Luther - Freedom by assurance

Calvin - Freedom by being elect

Theological students are required to take at least one course in church history. This is a way to root one's preaching in the traditions of the past. But traditions can also burden us with legalism and unnecessary guilt. Jesus himself complained "Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, 'this people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.' You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition . . . making void the word of God through your tradition which you have handed on" (Mark 7:6-8, 13, as in the parallel passage, Matthew 15:1-9).

Only God can be infallible, which means that human explanations will to some extent inevitably be wrong. This is not to suggest we can learn nothing from what has gone before. Richard Foster wrote a great book outlining seven streams of tradition (imitatio, contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical, sacramental) that can nourish us (Streams of Living Water, Harper, 1998). But in each of these the theologians who explain the model seem to mix in serious amounts of dross with the gold they have mined.

I realize that this will certainly be true of what I am offering in this book. When I preached at St. James' church, Kingston, I often warned my hearers that twenty per cent of what I was teaching would probably turn out to be wrong. Readers will easily discern that my criticism of others is slanted (some will say twisted) in the light of my commitment to the freedom which I believe God has in mind for us.

When I was first converted from atheism all I knew was that God had lovingly stepped into my life, and I found myself talking to Jesus. The first thing I did the next day was to buy a Bible, which I had never read, and I happily began in Matthew (instead of 1 Chronicles). Very soon I was taught an explanatory model of the Christian faith and a set of rules about avoiding smoking, drinking, movies, books, and dancing (that results in sinful thoughts). I should also go to church on Sunday instead of yacht racing at St. Ives.

That was 55 years ago, and since then I have never doubted the love of God, my daily experience of talking to the Son of God, or my assurance of the resurrection. The next year my supervisor (as I studied economics) was Maurice Dobb, the leading Marxist in Britain, and some Marxist friends made me engage with their explanatory model. My cousins in Belgium were Roman Catholics, and when I had to decide on a denomination, that was an option I had to explore. In India I studied Hinduism, and taught a course on the internal logic of Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Taoism, and other religions (written up in Religions: Origins and Ideas, 1966). As a result I have found myself continually encountering and exploring the explanations that others give of their religion or ideology.

Theology (theos logos, as in bio logos, zoo logos, psycho logos) is the study of the explanations that people give for their faith in God. For convenience I will illustrate these from four very great Christian theologians, who can still be admired and found profitable, though I have moved to a model of freedom which none of them might have approved.

But before I begin I must make clear that I am not a church historian. There are specialists who spend a lifetime studying the life and work of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, or Calvin. What right have I to add my bit from a position of massive ignorance about these giants of the church? As I outline a very personal theological pilgrimage, I will welcome the corrections of experts and I can amend this chapter as needed (a great advantage of web publication).

Augustine - Freedom from original sin

I started as a Christian on October 7, 1947, and the next day I bought my first Bible. It was rebound twice and finally got torn up for fun by one of our children. I first encountered Augustine of Hippo (354-430) when I read his Confessions, and I was excited by the account of his conversion. I also identified with his emotions as he struggled with the sins of the flesh. From his City of God I learned to watch for the interventions of God among the nations, which was confirmed by reading Herbert Butterfield's Christianity and History, 1949 (see Advent Comings of the Lord among the Nations, web publication1998).

During my first seven years as a Christian the doctrine of original sin was something I took for granted. It was part of the evangelical orthodoxy imparted to me by my fellow students in CICCU (the InterVarsity group at Cambridge University). And then in my theological studies. I can't remember it being questioned. It was in the Anglican 39 Articles. "In every person born into this world, it (original sin) deserveth God's wrath and damnation" (Article 9), which I must have subscribed to when I was ordained. I am glad it is no longer part of Canadian Anglican church tradition.

By reading C.S.Lewis (The Great Divorce, 1945) I was convinced that nobody would end up in hell who could by any means be happy in the love of heaven (see under "Genesis" in chapter 2). God was not in the condemning business, and he has no intention of torturing anyone in the fires of hell for ever. Rather he gave humans the freedom to love the light of the Son of God or to hate it and shrink away into the darkness (John 3:17-21). That obviously implied that original sin could not result in God's judicial condemnation. Where then did this idea come from?

My wife Mollie said that when she was a nurse at King's College Hospital in London she was required to baptize any baby who was in danger of dying if no clergyman was available to do this. The theory was that without baptism the infant would be excluded from heaven and consigned to Limbo. I tracked this monstrous denial of the love of God back to St. Augustine. Where did he get this from in the Bible?

Obviously what Adam and Eve experienced in the Garden of Eden pictured some kind of death (Genesis 2:17), and exclusion from the full joy of life (Genesis 3:24). The only reference in the Gospels that might be relevant was Jesus' statement that "It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly, and they defile a person" (Mark 7:21-23). By then we had our first two children, and it was obvious that children did not need to be taught avarice, deceit, envy, or folly. And I already knew my own heart was not fit for public inspection. Obviously a huge amount of change was needed for us to enjoy the perfect love of heaven.

There were texts that supported the idea of some kind of original sin in Paul's Epistles. "Sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned. Because of one man's trespass, death exercised dominion through that one " (Romans 5:12, 17). "As all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in the Messiah. The first man, Adam, became a living being, the last Adam became a life-giving spirit" (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45). But this was nothing to do with a judicial condemnation. The death in the Garden of Eden was not a physical death or punishment but spiritual deadness to the love of God.

As Paul explained "You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that now is at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive" (Ephesians 2:1-5. Here wrath or bad consequences is not eternal damnation, but the bad consequences we experience in this world. See Death under chapter 6).

This convinced me that what Paul was describing was two ways of living one's life, either in Adam or in Christ. One can be governed merely by the flesh (our natural instincts as twisted by the world we are born into). Or we can live by the inspiration and power of the Spirit (as explained in Romans 8:1-9). Where then did Augustine get the idea of original sin in the legal sense of being condemned by a judge in a Roman court?

In chapter 4 I wrote that the English words justification and righteousness (Latin justificatio, dikaiosune) ) belonged to the Roman law court model that Augustine derived from Jerome's translation into Latin. There had been some older Latin translations a hundred years before, but Jerome (c.342-420) had completed his monumental translation of the Bible into Latin by about 404 AD, so this was obviously what Augustine used in his theological work. And I guessed that this was the source of Augustine's legal (forensic) model of original sin.

This was confirmed in an important article by David Weaver ("The Exegesis of Romans 5:12 among the Greek Fathers and its Implication for the Doctrine of Original Sin" in the St. Vladimir Theological Quarterly 27.4, 1983). He demonstrated, to my mind conclusively, that the Greek Fathers of the Orthodox Church (who still used the Greek of St. Paul) never set the interpretation of the doctrine of sin and salvation in the context of a Roman law court. This was why Clark Pinnock and I commended a family model of the atonement in the introduction to Unbounded Love, 1994).

As I pointed out, all theologians make mistakes, but this law court model impacted the theology of the Western Church for a thousand years, and Augustine's theory of original sin was swallowed without question by Martin Luther, Calvin, and apparently by all the English reformers.

Aquinas - Freedom by philosophy and tradition

After my conversion from atheism I was told I could not just be a Christian. I had to have a denominational label. On my first visit to Belgium (where I was raised) my boyhood friend Gustave took me to meet Professor Leclerc, a priest who taught at Louvain University. To my astonishment I found he had been converted through reading a New Testament given to him by a student at the atheistic Brussels University. We had much in common. What finally put me off was the doctrine of obedience. If I trained as a Roman Catholic priest I must be willing to obey the Bishop even if he told me to do something I felt was morally wrong. That was unthinkable. But I continued to wonder what made the ancient Roman Catholic denomination so powerfully attractive for so many.

After fifteen years of missionary service in India and Canada I felt the need to check the philosophical foundations of my faith if I was to go on as a Bible teacher. My cousin James Brow told me that if I studied modern linguistic philosophy I would lose my faith in God. So at the age of 40 with four children in school I enrolled in the University of Toronto Graduate School of Philosophy. The first year I had a wonderful course with Professor Anton C.Pegis of the Pontifical Institute. His Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, Random House, 1945 was required reading for the mediaeval period..

I discovered that in 1879 Pope Leo XIII required all Roman Catholic priests to be grounded in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-74). But Thomas' work was sharply divided into two sections. First there was what could be known by human reason, and that included the fact of the existence of God. Then there were the facts of the Christian faith which needed to be accepted in an act of will by faith. As I went on into linguistic philosophy I soon saw that none of the arguments for the existence of God can be made to work. And even if they did prove the existence of some original cause, that would not get us to what God is like, and they certainly would not get us to the God and Father of Jesus the Messiah.

As I studied Wittgenstein I saw that the proposition "God created the world" first needs a language-game for the word "world." Is it the world of our imagination, or an illusion (maya in Hinduism), or the world of modern physics? In Genesis 1 I decided it was the world we can observe as clouds and mountains, birds and fish, mammals and humans. Then we need a language-game for the word "Created." Is a pattern created in a child's kaleidoscope, or by a splash on a white wall by driving through mud a creation? In that case nobody could be an atheist. In Genesis 1 I decided the words creation and created include the idea of a personal artist or creator. In that form of life the word God (Dieu, Elohim, Allah) is the name we choose to give to the Artist. That still does not tell us whether the Creator is loving or indifferent, just or a monster.

In Thomas Aquinas what has to be accepted by faith is God as a Trinity, the incarnation of the Son, the work of the Holy Spirit, and the resurrection of the body (these are basic statements of the Apostles' Creed).. But he also added that we must believe in doctrines of the church such as original sin (see Augustine), the priesthood, transubstantiation and purgatory (see under communion and death in chapter 6).

Where do these doctrines come from? Once we are convinced by reason that God exists, it follows that the Creator must have a church authorized to teach correctly all else that we need to know. And this church was founded on Peter (Matthew 16:18). He argued that the Roman Catholic Church can give us the correct explanations of what the Bible teaches and the implications of that in practice. In the Reformation Protestants said that our only authority is the Bible, and they rejected other traditions. Their watchword was sola scriptura ("only by the Scriptures") which meant that the Pope of Rome could not be our final authority. That obviously makes me a Protestant, though I don't like the name (it reminds me of the Orange Order in Ireland).

Luther - Freedom by assurance

All Christians who are not Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox tend to view Martin Luther (1483-1546) as their champion against the Goliath of the papacy. For his first seven years as a monk Martin Luther had battled with his own sinfulness and doubts as to whether he could possibly be saved from eternal damnation. Then he had a sudden revelation that it is faith, not trying to do good works, that results in our justification. He found assurance of his salvation when by faith he accepted the full payment Jesus the Son of God had made for him on the cross. This was the doctrine of justification by faith alone which became the battle cry of the Reformation.

His faith was based on the Word of God, but he was bitterly opposed by church authorities who insisted that salvation was only possible through the sacraments and submission to the traditions of the Roman Catholic church under the authority of the Pope. The battle was engaged (some say won) in 1517 when he opposed Tetzel's preaching of indulgences, and nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door. He went on to encourage the German princes to reject the authority of the Pope. He soon denounced the celibacy of the clergy and monastic vows. The communion service remained very important, but he rejected masses for the dead, communion in one kind, the doctrine of transubstantiation and the idea that priests offered a sacrifice by conducting the liturgy. .

Everyone (including Roman Catholic theologians) now agrees that he was right to oppose the granting of indulgences to obtain favors from God on payment of money. And nobody could question the importance of his great work of translating the Bible into German. It has not only nourished the Christian church, but provided the foundation for the modern German language. The freedom to have services in German instead of Latin established the principle that people must be free to worship using their own language. This freedom was given to Roman Catholics four hundred years later when Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council. Meanwhile the translation of the Bible and the writing of hymns in local languages had opened the door for the modern missionary movement.

By any standards Luther was a giant of the universal church, but he was not without serious faults. In 1525 he encouraged the German princes to exterminate those involved in the Peasants Revolt.

The language he used in his attacks on the Pope and in his arguments against Erasmus (c.1466-1536) hardly encouraged reasonable discussion.

I have already suggested that Augustine's doctrine of original sin and his use of the Latin words justificio (justify) and justificatio (justification) governed the theology of the western church throughout the mediaeval period. Luther was an Augustinian monk, and he continued to picture our salvation in the categories of a Roman law court transaction. As a result that language came unchanged into the German, English, and French translations of the Bible and the reformation theology based upon them.

The assurance of salvation that Luther experienced, and contributed to evangelical Protestants to the present day, is based on two law court transactions. On the cross Jesus took the whole weight of our original sin upon himself, and paid the penalty in full. Then by a second transaction we accept that by faith, and the result is that we are justified and Christ's righteousness is imputed to us.

Sadly that model of salvation resulted in Luther's suggesting that human effort is useless, if not sinful. And he completely missed Paul's teaching that although we are by nature unable to do by our own efforts the good that we long to do (Romans 7:14-24), the Holy Spirit is eager to work in us to produce the beautiful fruit of the Spirit (Romans 8:1-10). The resulting deadness among Lutherans and other Protestants later had to be corrected and brought to life by the Pietists and Wesleyans.

Modern evangelicalism still retains a Lutheran doctrine of assurance. What is now added is the need to hear about Jesus as Lord and Savior, and make a decision for him. And that results in being born again. In our day there is more and more teaching among evangelicals and others about the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, which is what Luther failed to clarify. I admit that is a value judgment that reflects my own understanding of Paul in Romans 7 and 8, and I respect those who would argue that I have misunderstood Luther's reformation theology. I hope I can be corrected.

Calvin - Freedom by being elect

I think it was at a conference in England that Jim Packer told me to read Calvin's Institutes, which he said encouraged him every day. And I certainly enjoyed my first reading, though I can never remember calling myself a Calvinist. In India I taught at the Allahabad Bible Seminary which was run by the Oriental Missionary Society. Friends told me they were Arminian (not to be confused with Armenian) which put them on the edge of being outright heretical. My brother in law, David Tarrant, was a minister of the Church of the Nazarene, and I gathered they were equally suspect, as were the Free Methodists. It was only after Unbounded Love, 1994, was published that I discovered Clark Pinnock and I were also in the Arminian camp.

That made me look again at the life and writings of John Calvin. Some things were obvious. In Geneva Calvin set up a theocratic state where he imprisoned, and even burned those he disagreed with. As we have seen with the Inquisition, and more recently the Taliban of Afghanistan, it is never right for popes, priests, ministers, and mullahs to run a government.

Earlier in this chapter I expressed my discomfort with Augustine's doctrine of Predestination. I felt equally unable to accept Calvin's explanation that some were elect (chosen) for a place in heaven, and others were condemned to eternal damnation. Even in this life our future decisions are already known in the mind of God. Friends who are Calvinists assure me this does not mean Calvin denied we make responsible choices (I recently reviewed on this web site Terry Tiessen's very helpful Providence and Prayer, IVPress, 2000).

When I read The Openness of God (edited by Clark Pinnock, InterVarsity Press, 1994) I had no doubt it fitted the model I live by. I certainly find myself talking to God, and believe that he not only listens but frees me to share in influencing the course of this world. That puts me on the wrong side of the Calvinistic theological fence. But frankly I very much doubt whether those who use a Calvinistic model in practice pray very differently from those they call Arminians. The Christian family at its best can cope with different theological models.

It seems obvious to me that the explanations that people give for their faith and practice may not correspond to their heart commitment. Why then should we engage in any kind of mission to change the minds of others? First we should point out that anybody who cares about the freedom of others must be involved in changing the explanations that enslave them. We have to question "You earn more by quitting school and beginning to earn. Thalidomide is a wonderful way to avoid the discomfort of pregnancy. There are no terrorists in America. Sleeping around is more fun than sticking to one partner. Lots of people smoke and live to a ripe old age. All men are sexist. Nobody gets cancer or diabetes without first noticing some symptoms. Let's all have a drink for the road."

The title of this book is in two parts. Religions Enslave implies that the religions and ideologies that people live by will in due course prove harmful. The second half of the titles is God wants us Free. And if God want us free, we will serve him by caring about the freedom of others. We will want to offer them the good news of God's love and intention to free us. That is why in Creative Love (1999) I explain that God is love, and like a loving parent, he creates an environment for us to find freedom. The Son of God came into our world to teach us the freedom of being empowered by the Spirit, and by his death and resurrection he created a church to bring freedom to the world. I know of no other religion, or ideology, that offers us that kind of love and freedom. That is a good reason to make our good news known.

We now turn to see how this model is not just an idea in the head. It can only result in freeing people by being incorporated in the life and teaching of local churches in every place.

Chapter 6  - Church & Sacraments