It is, perhaps, one of the easiest things in the world for us to compromise on truth. Though we are called to faith, transformed by the power of the Spirit, we still live in this world, and it’s a world that frequently conflicts with the Scripture. Perpetually presented with competing thoughts and ideas, the tension between the two is real and palpable.
Presented with this conflict, human reasoning, which already struggles with the things of God, tries to reconcile the two, interweaving worldly philosophy and ideas with the things of God. The inherent problem is that what is produced, though perhaps more acceptable to the individual and the masses, is unrecognizable. No longer biblical Christianity, in compromising on the truth of God it becomes something different entirely.
This isn’t new though. It has been a struggle that has endured in the church since its birth, because of a problem that has plagued humanity since the fall. Polycarp, the Bishop of Smyrna, who lived in the first and second centuries and was a student of the apostle John, spoke of this aspect of human nature in his epistle to the church in Philippi.
One of the earliest heresies to arise in the church was the Docetae heresy, a form of Gnosticism whose early forms were alluded to in the first two epistles of John (1 Jn. 4:1-3; 2 Jn. 7) and spoken against in several other letters. Born out of a debate on whether the reference to “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” in John’s gospel (Jn. 1:14) should be taken literally or figuratively, certain elements of Greek philosophical thought incompatible with Christianity were forced into Christianity, creating something new. This something new had a strong pull to it, becoming popular in its day.
Though it is not necessarily crucial to understand all the finer points of Docetism recognizing these elements of it is important to understand the context of what Polycarp wrote in his epistle and why it remains relevant to us today. In a short statement around the middle of the epistle, in the seventh chapter, he admonishes the Philippians, “Wherefore, forsaking the vanity of many, and their false doctrines, let us return to the word which has been handed down to us from the beginning.”
This can be incredibly difficult for us, not the least because we convince ourselves that it’s not false doctrine, nor is it contrary to the Scriptures. We tell ourselves it’s our attempt to better understand or better explain Christianity, to make it more amendable to a world that is already confused by it and hostile to it. Because of it, we blind ourselves to the dangers that are there waiting to take hold of us.
The Vanity of Many and Their False Doctrine
Vanity is an important word here to help us understand those dangers. In Greek, which the Bishop of Smyrna wrote in, meant something that was bereft of truth and appropriateness. It could be used to mean that which was perverse and depraved. In this sense, we can understand it to be something like the English use of the word when we recognize vanity as holding the quality of being worthless, drenched in futility. Where does this vanity arrive from, but pride, a pride that creates in us the belief that we somehow know better than God?
The challenge we arrive at is that we don’t necessarily recognize our compromises as being vanity. This is the deception of false teaching and false doctrine. We believe that we are acting with the best of intentions as we try to make Christianity more accessible to the masses, as we make it more acceptable to the World. We are taking the hard teachings, those things which we have difficulty reconciling with our understanding of the World around us and we are creating a framework by which they are grasped rather than grappled with.
The inclination is then to justify how and why we have adapted and changed the faith like we have, interweaving crass antithetical philosophy into our Christianity. Often these adaptations and synergistic thoughts we arrive at are because we believe that our faith should be amenable to the world around us, rather than in conflict with it.
Yet it is pride that goes before destruction and a haughty spirit that precedes a fall. (Prov. 16:18) This becomes our siren’s song, rushing us headlong into disaster as we wreck ourselves on the rocks of temptation, sinking amidst the crushing waters of this world. In remolding and reshaping the doctrines of Scripture we recreate God, asserting that we have sovereignty over Him, making Him something less than our will, which has now become supreme. In this sense, we gain the world, but we lose our soul.
This, in turn, makes Christianity something empty and hollow, needing us to fill it, to give it purpose and meaning, rather than God Himself, rather than Christ Jesus, the author, and finisher of our faith. In a very real way, it reflects that temptation in Eden, whereby Adam and Eve believed that they would become like God. (Gen. 3:1-24)
The irony here is that for mankind to “become like God” in this world they need not be elevated to His level; they simply need to drag Him down to their depth. This is primarily accomplished by replacing His foundational truth with their own. The danger, the threat of these false doctrines, this bizarre mixing of temporal understanding with eternal truth, is that in the name of the one true God, they lose Him. They create an idol of their own making, one which is, ultimately, subservient to them. This is vanity, a depraved vanity that strips truth of its power.
This vanity that spurs false doctrine is born of the fact that we have placed our focus, and our attention elsewhere. Rather than centering ourselves on God and the things of God we have allowed for ourselves to be distracted by this world. The warning of Peter is that we must be on constant guard because the Devil, our adversary, prowls like a roaring lion, seeking those whom he can devour. (1 Pet. 5:8)
Yet, he doesn’t simply appear as the devil. Rather, as Hamlet reminds us, “the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.” Here he takes our best intentions, our desire for understanding, our yearning for wisdom, and the allure of acceptance, and he twists and turns them into something different entirely.
Return to the Word
Polycarp then admonishes his readers to return to the Word, calling them to prayer and fasting, “beseeching in our supplications the all-seeing God “not to lead us into temptation.” Returning recognizes the fact that we have ventured away from where we need to be. It isn’t that we have transformed or changed the Word. Regardless of anything and everything else the Word remains steadfast and true. (Is. 40:8) God does not change (Num. 23:19) and “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Heb. 13:8) As doctrine becomes unrecognizable to the Word we have been drawn away, becoming lost amidst strange teachings.
This is the warning of the Apostle Paul to the Colossian church as he warns the believers there, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. (Col. 2:8) The implication here isn’t simply that the believer is taken captive. Rather, it is more like being carried away like a slave or a prisoner, being led astray under the power or the sway of someone or something else.
The temptation we have to take pure doctrine and mix it with a temporal philosophy contradictory to it is great, because it appeals to our flesh, to that part of our broken nature that’s constantly grabbing at us, trying to draw us back, obscuring our vision as it pulls us away from God.
Thus, we must re-center ourselves on the Word of God, turning our focus and our attention back to the Scriptures, recognizing them not as some dead document, but, rather, as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12) They are, after all, “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
Returning is not an easy task. It requires humility on our part, recognizing that we have ventured into far-off lands and squandered what God has given to us. We have not rightly handled the word of truth; we have not observed the whole counsel of God. We have made it about us, about our World, about our understanding, rather than about God and who He is.
Thus, to return, we must repent, realizing that the Word does not need our help, nor do they need to be reconciled to secular philosophy developed against the backdrop of the current cultural zeitgeist. It does not need to be interpreted through the lens of the popular notions and ideas within our society as if, somehow, our social eisegesis represents the most comprehensive and meaningful way in which we can understand their applicability within the world around us. This means that, above all else, we must set aside the wisdom of this age for the wisdom of all ages, the truth of this world for the truth that transcends it.
Handed Down to Us From the Beginning
This means rightly seeing and understanding the Word of God for what it is. This is, perhaps, one of the bigger problems that we can have when we take these temporal philosophies, or these prevalent ideas of our age and we weave them into Scripture. We are beginning with a notion or an assumption even if it is in our subconscious. This is namely that the Scriptures are incomplete, or insufficient. They do not present a full or complete account; they do not have everything that we need for our faith or our understanding. We need something else, something different to truly understand who God is, and what He does. To this end, we hear the Words of the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20) as being go forth and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost, but we ignore the part where Christ states that we must teach them to observe all which he has commanded us.
Here though Polycarp points us to two basic truths. The first is that the Word is handed down to us. These Scriptures are breathed out by God. (2 Tim 3:16) They are given to us by God who, through His Spirit, divinely inspired the authors so that they would transmit the truth of God.
What we are unable to discern, what we fail to comprehend, God reveals to us through His Spirit, which searches everything, including the depth of God. Without the Spirit we are unable to grasp even the slightest of God’s thoughts. Yet, through the Spirit we have been graciously granted that which transcends our own understanding, as we see what God has freely given us. Thus, the truths that we receive are not from words taught through human wisdom, but, rather, by and through the Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:10-13) They are a gift of God, intended to reveal Himself to us, guiding us to truth by His authority.
The second is that it has been with us from the beginning. God’s Word is not just some form of a subjective guide, nor does it contain a truth as we come to know and explain it today amidst post-modern society in the spirit of our age. It is foundational truth, objective by its very nature. Containing all that we need for our salvation, God has not withheld His Word from us even from the beginning. Giving it to the prophets and the apostles He has used it to make His will and His purpose known to us. This, in turn, allows for us to live according to His standard, knowing Him, rather than simply having to guess, while perpetually trying to adapt to shifting or changing patterns.
Thus, we know Him because He chose to reveal Himself to us from the very beginning. There is never a moment in the existence of this world or the existence of man where His Word was not known to us even though He chose to progressively reveal His plan for us.
The temptation is always going to be there for us. Resting on His strength, ours is to realize that though our spirit is willing, our flesh is weak, and the Adversary, knowing our weakness will seek to use it against us. This world and its prince are always going to try and deceive us with philosophies and ideologies incompatible with Christianity, trying to convince us that we can seamlessly weave them into our faith. Our enemy will assume pleasing shapes and use convincing arguments to try and persuade us. The allure will always be great. We know this because we see it all around us in our society today as individuals and denominations try to harmoniously impose conflicting belief systems on the Word of God and, thus, God Himself, the product of which is a manmade religious system masquerading as Christianity.
We must guard ourselves not only from these dangers but the danger that we, ourselves, can present amidst our pride. We, after all, are not immune from imposing alien philosophies and ideologies on God’s Word. Thus, turning ourselves back to the Word of God and setting our minds to the things of God must be a perpetual discipline that we practice, being transformed by the Spirit rather than conforming to this world. We must, as we are admonished, forsake the vanity of many who are out there, distracting us from the truth of Scripture, the truth of that which God has, in His love and mercy, revealed to us, and return to the fount of true knowledge and wisdom which has been given to us, handed down to us from the beginning.
Lord, grant this unto us all…