Thursday, July 26, 2012

Godly Worship Begins with Biblical Thinking

When confronting aberrant worship patterns, the best tool at the believer's disposal is the Word of God, but when differences of application arise between assemblies, there may need to be argumentation from a comparison of correct worship to incorrect.  The contrast helps to illuminate the strengths of the former and weaknesses of the latter.  Arnobius of Sicca * takes this tack concerning pagan worship.
Come now: as the discussion has been prolonged and led to these points, let us summarize what each has to say and decide by a brief comparison whether your ideas of the gods above are better or our thoughts more preferable, honorable, and just so as to give and assign to the divine nature its own dignity.
From The Case against the Pagans, VII.35

The apologist argued using the common sense approach of using terms and concepts they understood in order to build his case moving point by point through summaries of what was already presented.

Topic Of Pagans Arnobius' Response
Origin You declare that the gods, whom you either think or believe to exist, of whom you have set up images and statues in all the temples, were born and produced from the germs of males and females, under the necessary condition of sexual embraces. We, on the contrary, if they are indeed true gods, and have the authority, power, dignity of this name, consider that they must either be unbegotten, for it is pious to believe this, or, if they have a beginning in birth, it belongs to the supreme God to know by what methods He made them, or how many ages there are since He granted to them to enter upon the eternal being of His own divine nature.
Gender You consider that the deities have sexes, and that some of them are male, others female. We utterly deny that the powers of heaven have been distinguished by sexes, since this distinction has been given to the creatures of earth which the Author of the universe willed should embrace and generate, to provide, by their carnal desires, one generation of offspring after another.
Form You think that they are like men, and have been fashioned with the countenances of mortals. We think that the images are far removed from them, as form belongs to a mortal body; and if they have any, we swear with the utmost earnestness and confidence that no man can comprehend it.
Work By you they are said to have each his trade, like artisans. We laugh when we hear you say such things, as we hold and think that professions are not necessary to gods, and it is certain and evident that these have been provided to assist poverty.
Character You say that some of them cause dissensions, that there are others who inflict pestilences, others who excite love and madness, others, even, who preside over wars, and are delighted by the shedding of blood. We, indeed, on the contrary, judge that these things are alien to the dispositions of the deities; or if there are any who inflict and bring these ills on miserable mortals, we maintain that they are far from the nature of the gods, and should not be spoken of under this name.
Emotion You judge that the deities are angry and perturbed, and given over and subject to the other mental affections We think that such emotions are alien from them, for these suit savage beings, and those running the course of mortality.
Sacrifices You think that they rejoice, are made glad, and are reconciled to men, their offended feelings being soothed by the blood of beasts and the slaughter of victims. We hold that there is in the heavenly realm no love of blood, and that they are not so stern as to lay aside their resentment only when glutted with the slaughter of animals.
Novelties You think that, by wine and incense, honor is given to the gods, and their dignity increased. We judge it marvelous and monstrous that any man thinks that the deity either becomes more venerable by reason of smoke, or thinks himself supplicated by men with sufficient awe and respect when they offer a few drops of wine.
Theatrics You are persuaded that, by the crash of cymbals and the sound of pipes, by horse races and theatrical plays, the gods are both delighted and affected, and that their resentful feelings conceived some time prior are mollified by the satisfaction which these things give. We hold it to be out of place, nay more, we judge it incredible, that those who have surpassed by a thousand degrees every kind of excellence in the height of their perfection, should be pleased and delighted with those things which a wise man laughs at, and which do not seem to have any charm except to little children, coarsely and vulgarly educated.
From The Case against the Pagans, VII.35-36

Though biblical texts are not explicitly stated, the responses reflect Christian themes concerning deity and where pagans err in their attempts to honor a divine being, especially the "supreme God" and "Author of the universe" as noted above.  Even today there are those rejecting anything Christian who fall into the same trap as the opponents faced 1700 years ago.  Though their spiritual condition is lamentable, we should not be surprised.  More lamentable is the trend by so many Christian groups, purporting to be conservative, Bible-believing, and evangelical, run headlong after the same error. †  The parallels are striking.

What can be learned from these things?  Arnobius' conclusion helps here.  He begins by addressing the core issue beginning with a question.
Since these things are so, and there is so great difference between our opinions and yours, where are we impious on the one hand and you pious, when the reason as to piety and impiety must be weighed on the beliefs of the two parties?  (VII.37)
How can one religious system make claims for true piety?  It cannot be measured by rationalized actions.  The underlying truth claims upon which the system is built must be examined.
For he who makes himself an image which he may worship for a god, or slaughters an innocent beast, and burns it on consecrated altars, must not be held to be devoted to divine things.  Religion is constituted by critical judgment and a right way of thinking about the gods, meaning that you do not think that they desire anything contrary to what accords with their own exaltation.  For since we see all the things which are offered to them consumed here under our eyes, what else can be said to reach them from us than beliefs worthy of the gods, and most appropriate to their name?  These are the surest gifts, these the true sacrifices.  (VII.37)
Sincerity is not questioned nor the desire to bring the intended deity due exaltation.  No amount of good intention can approach the the surpassing worth of believing on a divine person as has been revealed.  Actions will fall into line as the teaching permeates the worshiper who follows in obedience.  The application to Christians and non-Christians alike  is the same: hear and hold fast to the truth of God's word.  Solomon said it well:
The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.  My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.  (Eccl 12:11-12)
Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ have been and will be tempted by those promoting the new—new idea, new "revelation of God," new way of "doing church," ad nauseum—by well-intended people hoping to spur the church to new heights of spirituality and obedience, but the life of the disciple does not work that way.  After Jesus commended Peter for his great confession and followed with the authority to bind and loose, Peter immediately misunderstands by attempting to exercise authority over Jesus' plan to suffer and die (Matt 16:22).  He failed to understand that authority is best expressed in humility to God and his word, or as Solomon said it: "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."  (Eccl 12:13)

If our obligation is to fear God and do what he says, we need to know some things: how do we fear God, and what commandments need to be kept?  We discover these things from the Bible through hearing and reading, and should see them manifest in the assembly overseers, Bible teachers, and those older in the faith, each as they were taught the sound doctrine.  This will establish right thinking leading to a right understanding of God's person and work.  In the context of our discussion, this also means we should expect God-fearing worship to be in place—worship that receives from the Lord what he gives, remembers him and rightly recounts his glorious person and mighty works, and moving us to praise.  We need worship that teaches as we participate.

Notice I did not say that we need teaching and worship to be perfect.  That is too much to hope for while sin is in the world.  What I am saying is that there should be no excuse for not examining scripture and allowing the Holy Spirit to straighten what was crooked, tear down what is puffed up, and lift up Christ above all.

* The quotes for this post have been modernized somewhat from the 19th-century translation at Christian Classics Ethereal Library I have been using in order to help follow the argumentation.
† See my previous posts commenting on and applying this ancient work.

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