Categories, Content and Conformity to God’s Word

Watching and listening to the Prime Minister of Israel (please, no political judgments—this is actually not an essay on politics) give his speech to Congress reminded me of a passage from an espionage novel I read a few years ago. The novel involved some Israelis, and, in particular, a very old and retired Mossad agent. He was involved in a meeting in which a terrorist threat was discussed and analyzed. Most of those involved were intelligence officers from Western countries. After listening to their discussion and analysis the venerable sage spoke: “The problem with many of you Westerners is that you simply do not have the category of evil. You try and analyze that which is truly evil and arrive at solutions to it, and you don’t have within your analysis and solutions the very reality that allows you to make accurate sense or provide a viable and effective solution to the actual problem. What you need to understand is that there are some people who are evil, and they must be killed.” This is not a post about politics and international policy, it’s about the nature of our thinking.

Everyone thinks in categories and has content that fills their categories. We use words to communicate what we think, believe, feel and claim to know. A significant part of understanding another person or even an entire culture, is to learn the content that is expressed in and through their categories of thought. Likely, the vast majority of us do this without thinking about it.

Having been to ten different schools by the time I was in the 10th grade and in several different states, I learned quickly that people do not all think alike (even in the U. S.!). I learned that where people lived and with whom they lived shaped in important ways their thinking and behavior. I also learned that the person who was most often able to eventually detect the precise content in people’s categories of thought was the person who was from “the outside,” the person who had not grown up in that particular place and shaped by its words and ways. I also learned that when trying to point out to people that their thinking and behavior was, in various ways and to varying degrees, truly theirs, one often met more than a little resistance. Every pastor, who has ever had a genuine concern for true biblical discipleship to the Lord Jesus that changes people to be like the Lord Jesus, knows exactly what I am addressing.

More than a few people I am sure watched and heard the Prime Minister of Israel and responded to him in such a way that revealed they did not possess the category of evil that he possesses. Now in saying this I am not affirming that Mr. Netanyahu’s category of evil matches entirely that which the Bible has, and that Christians are required to possess. There is some overlap between Mr. Netanyahu’s perspective and that of the Christian Scriptures on the category of evil, but the last I knew the Prime Minister was not professing faith in the Lord Jesus for salvation. Still, he obviously believes there is a moral category called “evil.” He believes that there are some who demonstrate by their words and actions that they have given themselves nearly completely over to evil, and are generally not reached by human reasoning. One must engage them, not with words, but physical force, and, at times, even kill them. His opponents actually have this same category, theirs just has different content than his. Categories and the content that fills them, these are what mark and control our thinking.

Frighteningly, our predicament at this point in the history of the West is not so much that Christians will lose a physical conflict against an evil physical foe. Instead, it is that even we in the Church are on the fast track of having the category of evil changed so much that the real foe is never even fought against. This is how significant battles are lost: words are given meanings they did not have previously, the content that fills people’s categories of thought is thereby changed, and people’s behavior is brought into line with “the new way of thinking.” It has happened repeatedly in the history of the Church.

While the term evil is still used in the West, and in particular America, thus revealing that many people likely have it as a category, the content in their category for evil is often not the content required by the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament. In fact, given the reduction of knowledge claims to the realm of feelings, and private experience, the truly evil person will be regarded as the one who says and does things that makes others feel things that they do not like to feel. Thus, we have many students and teachers across college and university campuses who cannot seem to stomach for one second a thought that contradicts anything they already think, or a behavior they delight in. So much for “open-mindedness.” They, and others like them, can operate with the term evil but what they identify with that term is actually quite close to what a biblically faithful Christian would regard as good. In other words, their moral compass is seriously warped, at least according to God’s word. What is critical here is defining our words by God’s word so that the contents of our categories of thought conform to God’s word.

It is no mere coincidence that God identifies himself completely by and with his word. The Second Person of the Trinity is the Word made flesh; Jesus is God’s word. There is no salvation—now there is an important category—from sin—there’s another one—apart from God’s power displayed and applied in, by and through God’s word. And, yes, your category regarding God’s word is not tracking with the category mandated by God’s word written unless every time you think about and use God’s word you think about and recognize his union with God’s Spirit. One way to understand salvation from sin, according to the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament—God’s word—is that it is about having your categories of thought changed so that the content that fills your categories matches the content of the Scriptures so that your thinking, your emotional responses (yes, even these!) and actions increasingly reflect obedience to Jesus. This reflects Jesus statement in John 14:15: “If you love me, you will obey my commandments.” And, yes, we could talk about how faith in Jesus’ perfect obedience to God’s law is necessary for this and that no one perfectly obeys Jesus in this lifetime. Still, in doing this we need to be careful that in stressing these points we do not “sin that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1). That’s also God’s word to us, so the two verses do not contradict but complement one another; they do fit together, whether we recognize that they do, or not.

But part of the impossibility of humans saving themselves from their sin, from their thinking and living in rebellion against God is that they are born into a creation stained or corrupted by sin so that they have the condition of sin controlling their thinking and living, controlling their categories and content. Of course, one is not aware of possessing this condition upon birth. But, the Bible teaches—although this is ghastly to the controlling beliefs of much of Western culture, and indeed all humans—that we do not have to be aware of a reality in order for that reality to exist. Furthermore, this means that perhaps the most important feature of our thinking is whether we possess and submit to the category of objectivity mandated by God and His Word.

Using terms like objectivity and subjectivity is always a bit difficult. Some people’s eyes began to spin, they begin to hyperventilate and sweat, because you have just used some words that they are not sure they understand, or that they think other people will understand. I know too many pastors who are like this. If people are going to mature or grow, or grow-up you have to teach them how to think, how to live, and an unavoidable part of that is called learning. This is what it means to be a disciple. Jesus taught his disciples to make disciples. Learning means having something introduced to you that you did not know. It can be uncomfortable. For it to be Christian learning it will inevitably involve discomfort. The things God requires his disciples to learn produce repentance from sin in them. If you do not want to learn in this way, you do not want to be Jesus’ disciple, and you aren’t. Okay, back to the previous point. Objectivity has to do with what things really are.

Perhaps the chief problem regarding objectivity and thinking in Western culture as a whole, and American culture in particular, is that the controlling belief (or presupposition) that drives the accepted way of thinking disallows the very idea that there is such a thing as “the way things really are.” This does not mean people have stopped using the words objective, objectivity, real, is or are. Instead, such terms have been dissolved into the category of subjectivity, or how people feel, or the way people experience life. Some people make the silly mistake of thinking we should not use words like feelings, feel, experience, subjective, and relative, or stress the realities to which they refer. Bad move. God created us as emotional beings. God created us to live in a particular time and place and so to have a particular experience in his creation. The truth is, according to God’s Word, we cannot rightly interpret our experience apart from God telling us how to interpret our experience. But God determined that the people who would be his disciples would have a particular kind of subjective experience that would give them the ability to interpret their experience rightly. There is an objectivity to our subjectivity!

No, this does not mean that everything is subjective with no way of speaking to those who are not Jesus’ disciples. Was Jesus mute!? Did Jesus, the creator—the one who chose his disciples, who must open people’s eyes so that they can understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:31), who ultimately determines what is and is not, who judges the intentions of our hearts—did he refrain from speaking to those whose thinking and living demonstrated rebellion against him and his heavenly Father? As Jesus made disciples, did he give governing authority to the content that fills the categories of thought possessed by those who rebelled against him? I am not avoiding the reality that Jesus used terms, concepts and the categories of thought that made some sense to his disciples. Of course, he did; he had to. But for what purpose? He did it in order to change the content that filled their categories of thought so that their behavior changed; so that in their thinking, affections and actions Jesus’ disciples would more and more obey him in the concrete details of their lives.

We live at a time that in some ways is a bit scary, but it is filled with a great opportunity. The most fundamental issues of human living and thinking are coming out into the open. Only those who are learning from God’s Word and conformed by and to it will know how to navigate the categories and rightly address the content that controls people’s thinking and living. Those who do will discover that their subjective experience of truth has the power of objective truth.

The following is one way (not the only) to organize our categories of thought.

Basic Doctrines or Categories of the Christian Faith
Doctrine of God
Doctrine of Scripture
Doctrine of Man
Doctrine of Christ
Doctrine of Salvation
Doctrine of Church
Doctrine of Last Things

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