SUBSTANTIVE ERRORS REGARDING GOD

Underlying errors about God's nature, role and modus operandi which lead to division.

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You may read through this page in the order it was written or follow the links below to the topic of most interest to you.

Human frame of reference fallacy

Silent God fallacy

Divine ogre fallacy

Santa Claus fallacy

Dualistic fallacy

Human Frame of Reference Fallacy

The error which underlies all of the substantive errors concerning God is that of concluding that what we see, observe or feel about God is the whole truth about Him. Thus, if I cannot feel His presence or see His work on my behalf, I conclude He must have left me. If I cannot hear His voice, I conclude that He has quit speaking, either to me or to everyone for all time. But God is omnipresent, and therefore really cannot leave us, and He is always speaking, as creation itself is maintained by the Word of His power and His written Word is always available.

The sentiment that God has left us is stated often in the recorded words of Old Testament people. However, even in the Old Testament, where God appeared visibly in His glory sometimes and also sometimes withdrew that visible glory and part of His protection from Israel, the prophets repeatedly reminded Israel that God was with them. Even when it appeared God had turned His back on the people and left, He was really still right there with them, directly behind the backs they had turned on Him. God had, in fact, not moved; it was the people who had turned away from Him. When they turned their faces to Him again in repentance, He was always there, even though He had appeared to them to have left them... Return to top of page

Silent God Fallacy

This is the fallacy that God no longer communicates directly with most or all of His people. Historically, its development was made necessary when Christianity started to become fashionable in some parts of the Roman Empire, as early as the late Second Century, and its institutionalization was completed after the mass conversions of the Fourth Century. As long as the Christian church was a body of committed believers and association with the name of Christ brought persecution, it was permissible for the passages in the Gospels and the letters of Paul which appear to promise individual guidance by God and an individual relationship with the Holy Spirit to be understood literally and relied upon by individual believers. Heresy could be dealt with sufficiently by the study of the scriptures to see if the things new speakers said were true and by exercise of the discernment of what a speaker's spirit confessed about Jesus as commanded in I John 4. However, when unconverted pagans started coming into the Church and requiring recognition as true "Christians" — initially because it was fashionable and later because it was compelled — it was no longer considered politic to teach such an individual relationship or individual guidance, for at least two reasons. First, it would cause envy and friction because most of these unconverted pagans who now had to be called "Christian" would not be able to say that they had ever experienced any such individual relationship. Second, the few of these unconverted new pseudo-Christians who would be able to claim to have heard from God would likely have come out of religious backgrounds in which demons actually had spoken to them, and might now hear messages from their familiar demon and falsely attribute these demonic messages to the Holy Spirit. The practice of discerning the spirit of the speaker also became impractical, for the obvious reason that the spirits of the new pseudo-Christians certainly would not testify that Jesus the Messiah is come in the flesh, yet for political reasons these people had to be recognized as "Christians". Therefore, the tradition arose that God ceased to speak directly to His people when the Apostolic Age ended, and one or more of the forms of the silent God fallacy described below were adopted in nearly every Christian group.

Of course, after this, only the rare Christian who was willing to face ostracism, persecution and, likely, death at the hands of other Christians would actually hear from God and tell anyone else about it. So, with the exception of a few rare souls like Francis of Assisi and Joan of Arc, common experience appeared to follow official doctrine on this subject. It actually appeared that God had stopped talking, because those who really did hear His voice were too afraid to speak of it.

The form of this fallacy which is most commonly recognized as erroneous is its cultic form —; i.e., when a group's leader insists that "God doesn't speak to most of His people anymore, but He does speak through me, so anyone who disobeys me is damned." However, this fallacy also has at least five other forms. The deistic form of the silent God fallacy, espoused by Thomas Jefferson and others, insists that God has not only stopped speaking but has also stopped acting altogether in this present world — that He has gone on a long vacation and left us to do the best we can on our own using the natural laws He established at the Creation and the written instructions He gave in the Bible.

The strong biblicist form of this fallacy is just a step removed from the deistic form — it insists that God has altogether stopped speaking and has left us to do the best we can on our own with His written instructions, but also leaves Him free to "sovereignly" act in the world as long as His acts don't constitute forms of communication. (However, because of the view of God's sovereignty that usually accompanies this position, His "sovereign" acts are just as likely to be disasters as acts in our behalf — see the Divine Ogre fallacy, below). The weak biblicist form of this fallacy also permits God to "illuminate" His written Word — to guide our human minds to understand what those words mean — but does not permit Him to speak directly or to communicate anything beyond what He has previously written (1).

The ecclesiastical form of the silent God fallacy, by contrast, insists that God does not speak to individual believers anymore, but permits Him to speak through a denominational organization and its councils or leaders speaking ex officio. Groups which teach this also often teach that the Holy Spirit resides only in the organization rather than in individual believers. It differs from the cultic form of the fallacy in that God's words spoken through organizational leadership are filtered and moderated by the presence of the organization and are often bound to agree in form and substance with established organizational tradition. Finally, the weakest form of the fallacy permits God to speak through particular people He has appointed, who are not necessarily recognized Church leaders but still constitute only a minority in the church. However, it limits his voice to certain times or occasions, usually during church services, and often also limits the messages to prescribed linguistic forms and a prescribed range of allowed subject matter.

The error here is not in believing that God speaks through His written Word — He does, and this is His most important means of communicating with us. Nor is the error in believing that God can speak through church leaders or organizations — undoubtedly, He does. Nor yet is the error to be found in believing that God speaks during formal worship services. Rather, the fallacy here exposed is that of denying God the prerogative to speak to His people at any time or place unless He communicates at a time and in a manner approved by the church organization. Denial to God of this prerogative leads, in turn, to an insistence that He speaks, at most, only to a minority in the church and is silent most of the time even to the favored few. It takes what is really a consequence of our own sinfulness, our slowness of heart to hear God, and makes it God's sovereign fault (see the Divine Ogre Fallacy, below)... Return to top of page

Divine Ogre Fallacy

This fallacy paganizes God by making Him either the source of all things destructive, or the eternal kill-joy in the heavens, or both.

Until the Greeks humanized their gods, pagan deities were almost invariably pictured as stern, dreadful, monstrous beings, distinctly evil in appearance. Invariably, they were believed to be in a state of active hostility with humans or with other deities who used us as human shields (this was true even of the Greek gods) and were said to demand worship and sacrifice as the price of some measure of peace. Moreover, the effect of their interaction with men was strictly negative. If left unappeased, they could be relied upon to be very destructive, but if properly appeased with sacrifice, they might be persuaded to be less destructive (although, because they were sovereign over us, no one could ever rely on their favor). However, anything positive which occurred in the human sphere was an accomplishment for which men could properly take the credit, being careful only to thank the gods for not destroying the work of their hands. Thus, a bumper crop was called the farmer's accomplishment, but a crop failure was attributed to the gods.

This pagan view of deity, moreover, so thoroughly saturates our "post-Christian" western culture that it has even been enshrined in the language of our legal system: the term "act of God" in a legal document doesn't refer to peace, health, success or a creative miracle of God. It refers to a natural catastrophe.

Unfortunately, although the scriptures and most Christian churches teach that we have a good God, the Church as a whole has for centuries to some extent insisted that our good God is, like a pagan deity, the source of evil circumstances, a deity who must be appeased or He will do us evil. This insistence takes two general forms — the consistent and inconsistent forms. The consistent form of this fallacy, which is taught in the formal theology of many churches, insists that God is the source of evil circumstances because He is the source of all things, good and bad. Under this view, God is just as much responsible for our successes as he is responsible for fires, earthquakes, famines, wars and cancers. On the other hand, the inconsistent form of this fallacy insists as the pagans did that God causes all evil circumstances, though He is generally said to cause evil for an unfathomable "good purpose," but also holds that many of the good things in the world are true human accomplishments.

While I'm not aware of any denomination or church which formally teaches the inconsistent form of this fallacy, I observe that the inconsistent form is much more common than the consistent form in casual conversation among Christians. We consistently desire to claim credit for our successes while blaming God for the things that go wrong.

However, even the consistent form of this fallacy cannot be correct, because it makes God responsible for human actions which He forbids. For example, consider the Holocaust. God's command is clear: "thou shalt not kill." Exodus 20:13. Further, lest anyone think that the mass murder of Jews is a righteous judicial punishment on that race, God's promise to Abraham is also clear: "I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee..." Genesis 12:2. This promise, moreover, is reaffirmed in the New Testament, which repeatedly promises that all Israel will ultimately follow their Messiah and be restored. See, e.g., Romans 11.

Nevertheless, at Hitler's command, six million Jews were murdered. If God really causes all of the bad things that happen in the world, then He must have caused Hitler to curse the Jews and also have caused his success in seizing control of the German government. Furthermore, God must have been responsible for the apathy exhibited by most of the Christians and churches in Germany toward Hitler's plans at the time when their resistance could have prevented those plans from coming to fruition. But if all of this is correct, God is personally responsible for causing Hitler and his committed followers to carry out a great atrocity which God had also directly forbidden them to commit. This would make God completely inconsistent and untrustworthy. The premise which leads to this inconsistency must be rejected.

A closely related error, which is also unfortunately common in everyday Christian discourse, is well summarized by the secular jocular saying "everything I like is either illegal, immoral or fattening." The underlying idea is that God is a heavenly kill-joy who sadistically gave us all sorts of desires which we cannot satisfy without violating His rules and incurring His wrath. But we forget that He placed the first man and his wife in a garden in which all of the desires He had placed in them could be satisfied. It was only when the serpent presented them with a desire which God would not satisfy — the desire to know evil (Genesis 3:5-6) and so in their own minds become like God (although He knows no evil!) — and they succumbed, that mankind became afflicted with desires offensive to God. This was not God's doing, but is very much His purpose through the Gospel to undo what Adam did by so changing the desires of His children who will trust Him that he can fulfill them all. See, e.g., Psalm 37; John 14:9-29... Return to top of page

Santa Claus Fallacy

The Santa Claus Fallacy is the polar opposite of the Divine Ogre Fallacy. It is the error of believing that God exists for the sole purpose of giving people, at least "good boys and girls," exactly what they want.

This fallacy is divisive not because any Christian religious groups actually hold it — this author knows of none that do — but because many groups are ACCUSED of it by groups which are morally stricter or are more deeply committed to the Divine Ogre Fallacy than themselves. For instance, any group which teaches that God heals the diseases of his people in this world, other than as an extremely rare "sovereign" act for his own unfathomable purpose, is automatically accused by many other groups of turning God into Santa Claus. Similarly, any group which teaches that God has a real interest in the financial condition of his people, other than an interest in punishing them for their financial errors as his stewards or in penalizing their failure to give to the church as generously as they should, is accused of preaching a "name it, claim it," "health and wealth" gospel. The name-calling surrounding the Santa Claus Fallacy on both sides is quite divisive and destructive... Return to top of page

Dualistic Fallacy

The Dualistic Fallacy, in its original form, was borrowed into the Christian Church from Greek philosophy (particularly Neoplatonism), and holds that reality is divided into two realms: 1) the spiritual realm, which is by nature real, permanent and good; and 2) the physical realm, which is (in different schools of thought) either a shadow or an emanation of the spiritual, and which is by nature unreal, transient and evil. The original, strong form of dualism spawned several major heresies in the early centuries of the Church, and few Christians today would espouse a thoroughly dualistic philosophy. However, milder forms of dualism spawned the monastic movement, which still exists today, and are also alive in most modern Christian thought, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

The continued vitality of the dualistic outlook in the Body of Christ can be demonstrated by observing how negatively the teachings of most denominations have responded to worldly wealth and to the Pentecostal/ Charismatic practice of healing. Traditional Christian thought going back to the early centuries (when, incidentally Neoplatonism was in vogue in the Church) has held that material wealth is, essentially, evil and that it is best for Christians to live in poverty.

Why? Some early Christian thinkers would not have hesitated to say that poverty is better because the physical world from which material wealth comes is evil and association with it will pollute the purity of the spirit. Most modern Christians would stop short of saying that wealth is positively evil, but would call it "unimportant" because it comes from the physical rather than the spiritual realm, so that those who have it may keep it but those who are poor are probably better off without it. But this is just a weaker form of dualism — material wealth is "unimportant" because it is not spiritual.

The dualistic outlook is also demonstrated by the violent reaction most other Christian denominational organizations have had during the Twentieth Century, and to the present, to the practice of physical healing in the Pentecostal and, later, the Charismatic movements. While it is not the purpose of this paper to take a position on the question of whether the gift of healing, as practiced in these movements, is a valid gift which results in real healings of divine origin, some of the arguments commonly raised against the practice are good illustrations of the dualistic fallacy and several of the other fallacious modes of thinking discussed herein. Mainstream Christianity has reacted against the practice of healing on four major stated grounds: 1)the gift of healing passed away at the end of the Apostolic Age because its only purpose was to accredit the words of God's spokesmen and God stopped speaking to men when the Apostle John died, thus rendering the gift superfluous; 2) therefore, the healings claimed cannot be real, but must instead be either human or demonic fakes; 3) since God is sovereign, He must intend the sick to be sick, and spiritual healings today, if real, are in opposition to His will; and 4) healings by a gift of the Spirit, if permitted today, will distract people from important spiritual concerns and the salvation of souls into the relatively unimportant business of seeking physical healing.

The first of these grounds is an example of the Silent God Fallacy (see above). The second ground states a question of observable physical fact beyond the scope of this paper. The third is an example of the Divine Ogre Fallacy (see above). The fourth ground, finally, is a beautiful example of the milder, modern form of dualism.

The real problem with dualism is that neither Jesus nor the Apostles at any time indicated that the spirit world and "spiritual" concerns were "good" and "important," as contrasted with the physical world and our involvement in it which are "evil" or "unimportant." Indeed, in His dealings with the children of Israel, God openly spoke of physical wealth and health as blessings He would give if they were faithful and poverty and illness as curses that would result if they were unfaithful. See, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 28. Moreover, even in the New Testament, the "good" versus "evil" distinction is not the same as the "spiritual" versus "physical" distinction, as Jesus and the Apostles plainly spoke of evil spirits, of good deeds done by our physical bodies in the physical world, and of yielding our physical bodies to the control of the Holy Spirit. Neither does the New Testament anywhere indicate that how we relate to the physical world is unimportant: indeed, in a number of places it indicates that we are to be judged and rewarded based on how we have used the things of this world. See, e.g., Matthew 12:43-45; Matthew 24:45-25:46; Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:1-9:15; Galatians 5:16-25; Ephesians 2:8-10; Ephesians 4-6; James 2:14-26; James 5:1-6... Return to top of page


Common Divisive Fallacies site index

Related material on other sites

God is spirit, always speaking.

A call to worship, in which the whole person is under God's control.

Being filled with the Holy Spirit, voluntarily under His control.

Have any of the gifts of the Spirit passed away?

Faith is believing that what God says is more real than what I see


END NOTE

(1) Both of these biblicist forms of the Silent God concept tend to proceed from the assumption that any words God speaks are, ipso facto, "scripture," that is, words applicable to all persons at all times. From this false assumption, and the true premise that the scriptures have been completed, it is concluded that God has nothing further to communicate. There are two problems with this, however. The first is that the scriptures themselves contain many examples of God giving people individual instructions which have not been directly applicable to anyone since and which are not his commands for anyone today. For instance, Jesus told Peter on one occasion to pay his taxes by going fishing and taking a coin out of the mouth of the first fish he caught(Matthew 17:27). Yet, while the principle that we ought to pay our taxes to show respect for authority and to avoid giving offense is still valid (Romans 13:7)and God still provides for the needs of his children, there is no record that anyone (even Peter) was ever again instructed to find money to pay taxes in the mouth of a fish. Fishing to pay taxes has not become a sacrament or ordinance of the Church. It was an instruction to Peter individually on one occasion, not a command to all Christians for all time. The second problem is that, while the scriptures set forth principles which will control many of our decisions (e.g, should I lie to get ahead today?), there are many decisions as to which the scriptures by themselves are neutral and as to which more personalized guidance would at least be useful (e.g, which of several mutually exclusive opportunities to do good I should pursue?). God still speaks, not only to give us insight into the scriptures but also to give individual guidance. Pentecostals have, unfortunately, often confused this issue by calling God's guidance beyond the scriptures "revelation knowledge," making it incorrectly appear that they place it on an equal level with scripture (as most, in fact, do not). However, this error in terminology should not be used as an excuse for denying that such communication occurs at all.


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Richard Blake's review of the book Our Oneness in Christ by Lauston Stephens and Ian Johnson.


©2000 by Ian B. Johnson