Wednesday, July 01, 2020

Too Big for Its Boots

“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

A “lofty opinion” is a theological argument that is too big for its boots. The Greek word from which we get the expression is hypsōma, which means an elevated structure. Rightly recognizing the apostle is speaking of metaphorical heights, other English translations use the expression “pretension” or “presumption”, “proud obstacle” or “speculation”.

Out of Our Lane

We can easily see how that happens. In arguing, we get out of our lane. We are so sure of the validity of the theological point we are trying to make that we trot out absolutely anything that seems to us to support it. So the recently-discovered and dubious meanderings of some obscure historian are cited as counterevidence to something the word of God says plainly and repeatedly. Or else we produce the one contrary grammarian who thinks the Greek word on which the significance of the passage seems to turn means something quite different from all his peers. Or else we produce from our own imaginations a contrived hypothetical scenario in which the direct commands of God are made to appear unfair or ridiculous provided X, Y and Z were all to take place, though we cannot produce a single example of such things ever occurring. Our opinion lacks both orthodoxy and spiritual authority, so we “raise it up”, attempting to make our intellectual Tower of Babel appear more impressive than conclusions arrived at by way of sound, ordinary principles of interpretation, logic and evidence.

In doing so, we are not merely fighting about technicalities with theologians, we are raising up our own, very human and fallible opinions against the knowledge of God in disobedience to Christ and in defiance of his continuous example of humble submission to his Father’s word and will.

Attacking the Character of God

How so? Well, every refusal to hear what God has really said amounts to a repudiation of his character. It is a claim that God is not what he says he is, or is what he says he isn’t. It is a very personal and poorly-considered attack on the Almighty.

If, in defiance of the clear teaching of the word of God, we make him out to be indifferent to particular kinds of sexual sin because we ourselves want to be able to engage in them, we have not merely gone up against hundreds of years of church tradition or against the personal opinions of other men like ourselves. No, we have made God out to be something he is not. We have raised up our lofty opinion against the knowledge of God. We are obdurately refusing to see him as he is, in order to remake him in our own image.

If, disregarding the witness of the gospels, we make Jesus out to be primarily an agent of political change; or if we make him out to be a man who, unlike ourselves, was unaware that the first eleven chapters of Genesis are mythological, or perhaps simply didn’t care; or if we insist that he emphasized rights over responsibilities — if we do any of these things and many others, we are not simply offering legitimate alternative historical viewpoints for the more intellectual students of scripture to bat around over tea, we are raising up our lofty opinion against the knowledge of Christ. We are refusing to know God as he has revealed himself to be. We are wilfully disobedient.

Paul says, in effect, “We destroy such things. We fight our theological battles like warriors of old, and take the losers home enslaved.” Not only that, it’s for their own good.

Taking Every Thought Captive?

But how does that work exactly? How do you “take every thought captive”? History shows us that good theological arguments do not always beat out the bad ones. Sometimes the bad ones appear to win. A church gets “converged”, occupied with social justice at the expense of truth and obedience to the word of God. A false doctrine taught by one man gets so completely accepted by his congregation that twenty years later nobody even thinks to question it.

Not every thought gets taken captive. Some of them run around causing havoc for generations or more. This was the case even in the first century, when the apostle John could write that “Diotrephes ... does not acknowledge our authority”, when Jude could write that “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ”, and when even Paul could complain that “Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm.”

Sometimes the purveyors of lofty opinions don’t appear terribly demolished, do they?

But I don’t think that’s exactly what Paul was claiming. He wasn’t insisting that apostolic authority always successfully silenced its critics, even back then. Nor was he arguing that even the wickedest twister and perverter of the words of scripture secretly knows he is in the wrong and feels guilt over what he is doing, though that may well be true.

“All” and “Every”

Words like “all” and “every” sound as if they admit of not one single exception, but they must be taken in context and used just as we use them in ordinary language. “Every lofty opinion” and “every thought” may indeed mean all thoughts conceived by all men in every situation, but that seems incredibly improbable. It simply is not what we observe.

I think what Paul might be saying here is something like this: there is not a single species of lofty opinion raised up against the knowledge of God which cannot be defeated by the Spirit of God. There is no false doctrine for which God cannot provide us a convincing rejoinder. The answers are all there for those willing to seek the mind of the Spirit as expressed in his word. Whether the “lofty opinion” is Theistic Evolution, Gnosticism, the mythologizing of the Old Testament, the Kenosis Theory, Arianism, “Let us continue in sin that grace may increase”, or even the assertion that certain kinds of post-modern sin are not actually sin at all, there is not a single stray, foolish, contrary, heretical or even frivolous thought which the power of God available to us in his word has not equipped us to counter. All these arguments may be demolished — not always, perhaps, to the apparent satisfaction of the person arguing them, but certainly to the edification of all third parties present whose Christian maturity and increasing wisdom depend on the regular appearance of truth in the churches.

Non-Dialectical Demolition

But let us not imagine Paul is saying that bad theology and intellectual pretenses can only be destroyed with better dialectical arguments, or only by theologians. God forbid! A dialectical response to a fleshly argument may itself be made entirely in the flesh (though of course many are not), and Paul explicitly says, “the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh”. Moreover, at least eighty percent of Christians will not make it through an extended exegetical discourse or follow a complex grammatical argument in another language. We should not expect them to. But so long as we continue to put forward the truth by exemplifying it in the way we live, lofty opinions, false arguments and stray thoughts will continue to take a serious hit from the Spirit of God.

The wife who considers it ridiculous that her husband might be “won without a word” is silenced when she sees her neighbor practicing the submissiveness Sarah modeled, and her husband responding favorably. Her argument is demolished.

The boy in the youth group who claims pre-marital sexual experiences are a necessary part of learning about the opposite sex is stumped to find that while the fallout from his own bad choices makes him increasingly miserable, his abstinent Christian friends are visibly more content, their relationships enviably serene. His argument is demolished.

The woman who left her “uptight” church to enjoy a more “charismatic” approach can’t help but notice that the openness and spontaneity of Pentecostalism is often accompanied by other less-desirable features, including insecurity about salvation when their own emotional journeys fail to meet expectations. Her argument for the necessity of a spiritual experience to validate the word of God sustains what will eventually become a fatal injury when she keeps encountering this loss of confidence over and over among her new friends.

Doctrine and Practice

Paul himself used both doctrine and practice to demolish arguments. In the same book of 2nd Corinthians, he encourages sacrificial giving. For any who might think this unnecessary, he offers a doctrinal reason: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” As for practice, he commends the churches in Macedonia as an example. To the same audience, when encouraging humility, he points to his own example and that of Apollos, with which the Corinthians were quite familiar, as illustrations. Far from lording it over them, he can say, “We labor, working with our own hands.” They knew it was true; they had seen it. One of the strongest proofs of the truth of good doctrine is that it actually works in the real world. Good practice demolishes arguments.

When a theological opinion gets too big for its boots and threatens to push the word of God aside, there is always an answer. It may be verbal or non-verbal, but if the Spirit of God wants to speak and the servants of God will give him his rightful place in their hearts and lives, then, like Goliath, the most high-sounding arguments will eventually fall.

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