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A Serious Debate Between Informed, Educated Evangelical Protestant and Two COG Members Described

 

 

Here I describe a debate that I and another friend in the UCG had with another man who upholds some very different doctrinal beliefs.  At that time in 2009, my opponent was a young married man, an engineer by trade, who has also an M.B.A. and was about to get a Masters in Divinity.  One friend of mine in the UCG thought it would be spiritually productive to meet with him after work one day in order to talk over our differences in doctrines.  The conversation, although sometimes a little intense, avoided cheap shots and personal/ad hominem attacks, so it was good in that regard.  The reason for documenting this debate concerns about how we in the COG can prepare better against intelligent, informed evangelical Protestants when they defend their teachings against Church of God doctrines. 

 

When we debated about whether the pagan customs surrounding Christmas and Easter should still be used to honor the true God today, I turned to our classic "proof text" on the subject, which is Deut. 12:29-32.  I also used the incident of Aaron's making the golden calf, and then calling the celebration they had the next day a Feast to the Lord (Ex. 32:1-7).  While agreeing with us that idolatry and statues of God are always sinful, he had three basic arguments in response.  One, he asserted that just because pagans invented something, that doesn't mean we Christians can't use it also when worshipping God.  Since he can play the guitar, he used this example:  If pagans wrote songs to false gods that were played when using the guitar, that doesn't mean Christians couldn't use the guitar in church services and then use it to play songs worshiping the true God.  My response here was that he was confusing rituals used to worship false gods with (amoral) technologies that are based on natural discoveries that are morally neutral.  For example, it isn't a pagan act of worship to use the laws of logic that the pagan Greek philosopher Aristotle discovered, even when doing theological analysis.  It isn't pagan to use a Bible printed on paper despite (presumably) pagan Chinese men invented that technological process.  He was making a category mistake in this regard, since technological inventions or natural discoveries about nature shouldn't be confused with rituals tied to particular false gods.

 

Two, he wanted to narrow the application of such a text to really awful pagan acts, such as using temple prostitutes and sacrificing children to Molech.  My response was that he was applying this text much too narrowly, that it also prohibited learning the customs used to worship pagan gods in general. 

 

But then there was argument three, which was the most interesting:  Christians can come along, and rename and reuse something instantly and arbitrarily for a different purpose, regardless of its past historical use.  I disagreed.  The analogy I used was that God, who demands exclusive devotion, would object to the use of pagan customs to worship Him in the same way that a wife would object to her husband having pictures of his ex-girlfriends put on prominent display in their house.  His way of overcoming that objection assumed that we humans can ignore all past history and customary use of any ritual or practice, by an instantaneous arbitrary assertion:  The Xmas tree was used by pagans in the past, but now we Christians can totally change the meaning of the ritual, and use it to worship the true God.  At the time, I could clearly see the flaw in this argument in that it ignores past history totally.  There's a reason why God had Israel under Joshua totally obliterate the pagans along with their practices, as harsh as that all sounds today, because one can't separate the past history from a practice so instantaneously and arbitrarily.  (In this light, it's worth thinking about one of the interesting, but assumed, views of the Catholic historian Hilaire Belloc is that it takes many centuries for people of a culture to fully absorb a religion's teachings (here Catholicism), including its unspoken assumptions entering into daily life and everyone's worldview as an unshakable, nearly unquestionable reality.  Such a change isn't something accomplished in a few years by a bunch of new converts or even a mere generation or two).  The statue that Aaron made that looked like Apis meant a pagan god was being worshipped, even though Aaron asserted it was the God that rescued Israel from Egypt.  The history of a custom can't be instantaneously and arbitrarily dismissed so readily.

 

As I think about that argument more now, there's another flaw, which may be based indirectly on something I read in Joseph Campbell or C.S. Lewis about the meaning of the rites of pagan religions:  Should rituals that are tied to fertility rites be used to worship the true almighty God?  Well, isn't there an intrinsic problem with such rituals even when we hereby arbitrarily decree they have a different meaning, because bunnies and eggs as symbols are intrinsically about having lots of babies?  That intrinsic meaning simply can't be obliterated summarily from such customs.  It assumes language allows words to be arbitrarily and subjectively redefined at whim, such as I could claim the sound and symbol of "book" now means a "car" in its denotation (the actual object in the external real world) every time I use the word, regardless of how everyone else uses those symbols and sounds when speaking the English language.  

 

Now, when we debated about whether the Sabbath or Sunday should be the day for Christian worship, he mostly leaned on an extra-biblical source, Ignatius's mention of worshipping on the Lord's Day, written c. 110 A.D.  Although he is very much a Protestant (although he was raised a Catholic), he felt compelled to lean very strongly on church history to buttress his argument.  He claimed that we should use this source (or other early ones like it) to interpret Revelation 1:10's reference to the Lord's Day as a specific day of the week.  I replied it is far more sound to use Isaiah or Joel's mentions of "The Day of the Lord" when interpreting this book.  (After all, it is an apocalyptic piece of literature about the world's end, so what other "Day of the Lord" is it likely talking about anyway, given this book's overall purpose and context?)  We should use a Semite to interpret a Semite.  He also repeatedly trotted out I Cor. 16:1-2 as proof for Sunday worship. He also argued that Sunday worship was Biblical because there isn't any record of a controversy concerning the changing over from Saturday to Sunday in the early historical record of Christianity, unlike concerning the Passover/Easter question, such as shown by Ignatius' assertions  that Sunday worship is an ancient practice by a man who (supposedly) knew John in an old established area for Christians. 

 

I had several responses to his arguments.  I pointed out that we use the whole Bible for doctrine.  We assume continuity and we shouldn't assume everything  changed.  My key text for this principle for theological interpretation was Matt. 5:17-19, although I also mentioned I Cor. 10.  We should base our doctrines on Scripture alone [for such an issue], "sola Scriptura."  After all, where does the New Testament ever say the day was changed?  Where does it say the first day of the week is holy or shouldn't be worked on?  Rev. 1:10 and I Cor. 16:1-2 don't say the first day of the week is holy, shouldn't be worked on, etc.  In particular, I used a formulation Ian Boyne, the late pastor of CGI Jamaica, came up with:  The burden of proof is on you (meaning you as representing the Protestants and Catholics) to prove something changed.  After all, we (in the COG who uphold the Sabbath and the Holy Days) have the Old Testament, which commands these practices.  It's your job now to prove things changed.  He counter-attacked that assumption:  Why should we assume things stayed the same?  Here I then used an engineering example that I learned from a man in the COG back in 1995:  He was involved in assembling prototype cars for Chrysler using special parts.  Well, when something changed in the specs, he was told, "This has changed."  But if he wasn't told that a specification changed, then everything stayed the same.  He really had no reply to that assertion, although he tried to use the text about being a new creation to justify the idea that everything doctrinally had changed in the way he believed after Jesus' crucifixion.  That's an obvious over-reading into that text, and extracts out of it far more meaning than God ever intended.  He brought up the issue of Jesus' resurrection being on Sunday, but of course I mentioned that we don't believe it was on that day of the week.  (He mentioned Mark 16:9, but the conversation moved on to another subject before I turned to another text in reply).

  

A key text I turned to about the importance of the 4th commandment was Acts 5:32.  If God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him, but someone is systematically disobeying God in this area, he can't be saved.  He immediately knew the seriousness of that point. His reply was that if someone denies the Trinity, they are worshiping a different God than His God, and that person can't be saved.  I pointed out that we believe that Jesus is God, unlike most non-Trinitarians, but that didn't cut any ice with him.  Hence, we denied that each other was saved, yet avoided descending into casual insults and personal attacks. 

 

He has an interesting historical interpretation of Christianity's spread and growth throughout history, which certainly seems to be like Augustine's.  He pointed out the growth of Christianity in Africa (from around 2% of the population to around 50% today), and the reinvigoration of Christianity in Latin America through the growth of Protestantism and more Catholics taking their faith there more seriously in response.  Then he mentioned the demographic reality that in the USA that religious people have many more children than the secular people, such that in three generations or a century, the Christians will take it over.  I mentioned in response that the secular people control the commanding heights of the culture.  But he pointed out that normally children keep the same worldview that they are raised with.  I didn't have time then to point out how so many are converted in college to giving up their faith.  But his overall perspective I partially had read about before in Alistar McGrath's "The Twilight of Atheism."  I also heard some of this before from a friend who's partially associated with the Church of God who also has been heavily influenced by Reconstructionism (Rushdoony, North, etc., a variety of conservative Calvinism) when he got his masters in theology or divinity.  This perspective puts an interesting spin on the world's destiny, such that the dismal, decaying state of traditional Christianity in America and (especially) Europe, i.e., the developed Western world, is a false way to look what's going on in the world in general.  Although I didn't say this to him then, it may be a way God is doing pre-evangelism before the second resurrection and/or the second coming, that the true God will be known by at least casually (and distortedly) by half of the world's population, especially if we include Islam in that total.  The true God isn't known merely by some small, tiny cult that meets in the wilderness someplace, but He's the God, however distortedly or casually, is nominally worshipped by about half of the world.

 

His eschatology is partially amillennial and partially post-millennial, which obviously ties closely to this view of church history:  Instead of a small embattled flock struggling for spiritual survival through the centuries, he sees the history of the Christian church as one of general growth throughout history from a very small beginning.  He rejects any notion of a general apostasy or of a "Lost Century" in church history that allowed for huge errors to overtake the (Catholic) church.  Based on this view of the past, he is very much an optimist when looking to the future.  Indeed, I think a key error of post-millennialism is that it doesn't take seriously the idea of an evil human nature and its effects on society and mankind's general development (i.e., his civilizations).  God rescues us collectively from war and death by sending His Son to dramatically change civilization from the top down; it isn't a gradual moral improvement working from the bottom up through individual humans' decisions until the whole society is converted.  My response at the time, lifted from a sentence that I wrote in my book about Judaism's false arguments about Christianity, was that post-millennialism should have died in the fields of Flanders and the ovens of Auschwitz. That is, post-millennialism looks upon humanity's present prospects too optimistically.  I mentioned that the end times would be like the time of Noah, when only 8 people were saved.  The point I could have added then was that pre-millennialism takes evil human nature seriously.  But he interprets the Book of Revelation in a preterist manner, and wants to confine the first 17 chapters to first century Rome.  He thinks Revelation 20 or 21 is occurring now (I'm not quite whether it was either or both).  This whole schema is an amazing way to blind oneself to the dire predicament that the human race is now in, in which we have the ability to blow ourselves up and it's becoming easier and easier and cheaper and cheaper for even small and/or weak countries (like North Korea, Pakistan, Iran) to gain the ability to do this. 

 

He said his story of the church through history was much better than ours.  My response, although I had little time to explain it much (i.e., explain the plan of God as symbolized by the Holy Days), was that our story of God's plan for humanity was much better than his:  We don't believe billions of people will be cast into hell to be eternally tortured forever who never had a chance to be saved.  The problem of evil in this light rolls off his conscience like water off the back of a duck.  He just confidently said that in the ages to come we wouldn't ever question God's justice in this regard.  My response was that human reasoning can figure out God's moral reasoning some, such as shown by Romans 1-2 about the gentiles following the law based on their conscience.  And then there's the story in Numbers (I believe) of the 5 daughters who said it was unjust that their father's inheritance would go to another tribe because he had no sons, and then God told Moses that their reasoning was right.  True, although he believes in eternal separation, and denies annihilation of the wicked, he denies that the unsaved will be "tortured," which apparently doesn't take the Bible's words literally in this regard.  So in general in this area, it would be necessary to attack this type of optimistic eschatology as a fundamental misreading of the world's present crisis (i.e., premillennialism makes more sense when reading the newspapers) and of human nature's intrinsic evil.  It also would be necessary to point out the moral problems with the ignorant being cast into hell for eternity from the viewpoint of human moral reasoning alone, even when making only minimalistic claims for it, since our ability to morally reasoning is built into our minds and brains by God to begin with.  By attacking this kind of eschatology, it also allows us to attack this optimistic view of church history:  For if I say, "Revelation teaches that the true church is a small flock, not a great church," he would attempt to confine Revelation 12-13, and 17-18 to first-century Rome.  For a refutation of preterism, one can turn to the criticisms of Calvinist Reconstructionism (such as Dr. Thomas Ice, "Dominion Theology:  Blessing or Curse?).  For a better view of church history, such as how this man used Ignatius to buttress his views of what is the correct day for Christian worship, we need to know enough of the Church of God's traditional perspective in this regard, such as (say) from Ivor Fletcher's book or John Ogwyn's booklet.  The idea of a "lost century" and overwhelming apostasy contradicts this man's eschatology and view of the great church normally going from strength to strength throughout history, despite occasional set backs.

 

My main point is that we should think about this man's arguments, and be prepared to respond to them.  I believe I did a reasonable job, as God helped me.  However, I could readily see how this man's arguments could confuse people in the COG who aren't well founded in their faith and know how to defend it.

 

Eric V. Snow

www.lionofjudah1.org

Click here to access essays that defend Christianity:  /apologetics.html

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Why does God Allow Evil? Click here: /Apologeticshtml/Why Does God Allow Evil 0908.htm

May Christians work on Saturdays? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Protestant Rhetoric vs Sabbath Refuted.htm

Should Christians obey the Old Testament law? /doctrinalhtml/Does the New Covenant Abolish the OT Law.htm

Do you have an immortal soul? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Here and Hereafter.htm

Does the ministry have authority? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is There an Ordained Ministry vs Edwards.html

Is the United States the Beast? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Are We the Beast vs Collins.htm

Should you give 10% of your income to your church? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Does the Argument from Silence Abolish the Old Testament Law of Tithing 0205 Mokarow rebuttal.htm

Is Jesus God? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Is Jesus God.htm

Will there be a third resurrection? Click here: /doctrinalhtml/Will There Be a Third Resurrection.htm

 

 

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