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Common Sense Christianity

F. Earle Fox
 - Sermon Christ our Savior, Torrence, CA Sept. 9, 2012
See similar article
The Authority of the Bible in a Scientific World

Last week I preached about a New Reformation, with six theses I pound on every church door to which I can gain access. This week I want to follow up with a related theme --

I do not recall anyone ever saying that Christianity is "just plain common sense" (as I think to be the case). The closest I have heard is C. S. Lewis's title, "Mere Christianity", by which he meant something like the simple basics of the faith, shared by most Christian denominations. He wanted to strip Christianity down to its bare bones to clarify the fundamental issues.

The original meaning of "fundamentalism" was also probably close to what I mean by Common Sense Christianity -- the basic fundamentals of the faith. It later, unfortunately came to mean a rigid holding of Christian beliefs which prevented honest discussion of them. "Oh, you're a fundamentalist!" has come to mean that.

But I want to add something else. Taken literally, the two words, "common sense" would indicate "a meaning which we would commonly, that is, together, think to make sense".

We read, for example, in 2 Corinthians 4:2 ff., "We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways; we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God."

How would one commend himself "to every man's conscience"? We would do it as Paul says, by "the open statement of the truth..." That is, by openly presenting all that he knows of the subject in a way that invites public inspection. An open statement of the truth as one sees it.

But there is another half to the arrangement. There is not only an open statement of truth, there is the listener who hopefully has a conscience which also respects the truth. You then have two truth-seekers with a shared sense of truth-seeking and truth-speaking. Only then can one have an honest discussion of any issue at all. It requires that moral commitment to getting at the truth of the matter. And that requires an admission that I am fallible, that I could be mistaken on some point, and am willing to learn from my listener. Or my students. Or my parishioners.

So, the "commonness" to which "common sense" refers does not mean that it happens a lot, "it is commonly done", but rather that it is happening between myself and others who are listening to me, a willingness to hear the other side for clues to the truth. Not an empty-mindedness, but an open-mindedness. The open search for truth continues on, right along side of our belief and faith. When you close your mind to deeper and wider truth, your faith begins to harden into cement. You no longer have a teachable spirit.  That is not common sense Christianity.

Though he would not use Paul's words, little three or four-year old Johnny already knows what Paul means, and what mother would mean if she were to ask, "Johnny, did you put your hand in the cookie jar?" Mother, by that time, has probably said often to Johnny, "Tell the truth, Johnny..." And Johnny knows what she means. He knows the difference between a lie and the truth.

That little bit of knowledge, the difference between truth and falsehood, between truth and a lie, is absolutely important for any family or society to function.

So how does little 3-year old Johnny know this truth, and distinguish it from a lie? The same way Paul would know. Either by having himself witnessed the event in question, or having heard of it from a reliable witness. Johnny knows whether he snitched a cookie or not because he is witness to all of his waking behavior. Johnny at three or so already knows what it means to be Johnny, and does not confuse that with being someone else.  He has come to know his own identity, who he is, and what he does.  So he already has the basic foundations for becoming a mature morally committed Christian.

We probably think of scientific experiments and theological treatises as hard to understand.  We say, "You don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand this..."  As though being a rocket scientist were specially gifted person who knows a lot.  He might indeed be.

But at the bottom of every great and successful scientific experiment is a pile of simple observations made by scientists, just as Johnny was there observing his own behavior with respect to the cookie jar.  Johnny might have stood there tempted, and either did the right thing or not.  Just so, the scientist has to make the moral judgement that he will report the truth as he sees it, or not.  He must read and report accurately the information given by a scale weighing chemicals, a gauge measuring pressure, a stop watch measuring time, a ruler measuring distance, etc.

You do not get a moral commitment from classes on scientific method.  Moral commitment is taught in homes and churches.  Moral commitment used to be taught in American schools as well, but that was before the government got control of education, when parents still had control of what their children were taught.

Moral commandment originates in God, not in the world.  So when you abandon the commandments of God, as our government has (and many of our churches), you can bet that down the line, probably sooner rather than later, you will be abandoning moral commitment to truth as well.  We see that routinely in both government and science today. Neither are anymore to be trusted without independent checking.

Without the moral commandment from God, and the moral commitment in ourselves, leading to truth, the search for the true faith will quickly run aground.

The moral commitment is implied by Paul's statement. "...we refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God."  "We refuse...," that's a moral commitment.  We will not do it. 

Many Christians failed back in the 1500's and later, during and after the rise of science, to do as Paul indicated, to honor the truth and the truth-presenting process. Especially those in positions of power and authority sometimes valued their positions more than they valued the truth, so they persecuted persons who were trying to spread the truth, such as writing Bibles in the local language -- even burning some at the stake.  But more and more widespread education took away some of the power of the clergy to interpret the Bible.  Some did not want the Christian faith to be a "common sense" faith as in Paul's description, but a faith for which one had to appeal to them, the hierarchy, for their understanding.

All of this was happening as education was receiving a mighty boost to be spread among the people by the invention of the printing press.  So the attempt to inhibit the spread of honest Christian education was a fool's errand.  It had no chance of succeeding.

After the rise of science, things changed because science seemed to have ways of examining things much more accurately and deeply.  It was feared by many that if they had an honest examination, there was a chance that the evidence might go against Biblical faith, creeds, etc.  So they compromised the Church's grip on common sense Christianity.

The implication of all this is that every human being is equipped to discern truth from falsehood, the truth of our common circumstances, the truth about right and wrong, about true and false.  There is therefore a common sense of obligation to the truth, and of what truth is and how to recognize it.  The "commending ourselves to every man's conscience..." to which Paul points is the bedrock foundation upon which truth-seeking and faith must stand.  That is the common sense to which I am referring.

Apologetics is the attempt to explain something, such as the Christian faith, reasonably. There are many persons all through Christian history who have engaged in such a project -- notably Augustine and Aquinas. My sermon last week on a "New Reformation" implies that we need to rewrite Biblical theology so that it can stand in the public arena to present its case in a compelling, common sense way, with no special appeals to blind faith, leaps in the dark, etc. That is the Biblical way. The common sense way means going by the evidence, wherever it might lead. It means pursing logical consistency and sticking to the observable facts -- as Elijah illustrates in I Kings 18, up on Mount Carmel with wicked King Ahab and the prophets of Baal.

As Elijah showed, God wants us to test His revelation with an up or down appeal to the evidence, both logical evidence and the empirical evidence. Elijah starts off with an appeal to logic, "How long will you go limping on two different opinions?" Choose either Baal or God, choose whichever one is the real God. But you cannot follow both because they contradict each other. You have to choose between them.

And then the appeal to the empirical evidence to decide which was the true God, the test with the two bulls on their respective altars, one offered to Baal, the other to Yahweh. The God who came down to light the fire for the sacrifice to himself would be the true God.

Some of the things that happen in the Bible cannot be explained apart from the existence of a God who intruded Himself into their history, such as the event on Mount Carmel. The existence of the Bible itself makes no sense unless the Hebrews had been visited by some such deity. They themselves began as pagans (Abraham in or near Babylon), so their change to being worshipers of a wholly different and opposed kind of deity with no parallel anywhere in the world needs an explanation. The best explanation by far is the one they themselves give -- that this new kind of God had chosen them. 

Common Sense Apologetics means explaining Common Sense Christianity -- which holds itself to intellectual integrity by honoring the two fundamental laws of intelligent discussion:

(1) the law of non-contradiction (a statement which contradicts itself cannot be true); and,

(2) the law of sufficient cause (every event must be explained by a cause sufficient to do the explaining).

Everyone uses these two laws all the time, just to make sense of their daily life. The difference between most of us and scientists is that the scientists pay close attention to the details. Science is just common sense paying attention to the details. The rest of us more or less wing it, skip the details, and hope for the best. That works much of the time, but sometimes we have questions which demand more careful and deeper study.

So, reason (discovery with our own wits) and revelation (hearing from God) both have their parts to play in the economy of God, and we must learn how to use each of them. They are not enemies, they are symbiotic, they feed each other. Neither reason nor revelation can survive without the other. Revelation requires reasonable study of its content. And reason requires a moral commitment to the truth, and only God by revelation can supply a moral order to which to be committed.

It is right to call this "common sense" Christianity because those two laws of intelligent discussion (go by fact and logic) are being learned as basic common sense by children at very early ages. By at least 4 years old, children typically understand the difference between truth and falsehood, between right and wrong, and the nature of moral authority. When mother asks Johnny, "Did you put your hand in the cookie jar?" little Johnny (maybe embarrassed little Johnny) knows exactly what mother is asking for...., the truth. Little Johnny will not be able to define these concepts, but he will know how to practice them.

These great metaphysical and moral issues are common sense stuff to the child and to God. Only we fallen adults make hard work of it. At seven years old, I was not reasoning about God at all. But I saw God creating the world as my father read to me and my brother from Genesis 1. It was one of the most real and powerful experiences of my life, which became for me the "common sense" basis of my faith right up to the present moment.

If there is such a God who is creator and sovereign over all that is, then it is just common sense that God can work miracles. Miracles are not oddities in the Kingdom of Heaven, they are a natural part of the way things are. It is only in our world, fallen from the presence of God, that miracles are not common sense experiences. Jesus upbraided the disciples for their not being able to calm the storm at sea.

How, then, do our lessons today illustrate the common sense character of the Bible?

Reflecting on Isaiah 35:4 ff., we have no doubt been ourselves "of a fearful heart", and would like to believe that we can "be strong and fear not", and that "God will come with vengeance" to save us from our predicament. Especially if we are afflicted with impediments, we long to see the time when "the eyes of the blind shall be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped...."

But for most of the people on earth, those do not seem to be believable statements. They are believable only if there is in fact the kind of God of which the Bible speaks -- a creator of all things who is therefore sovereign over all things. But more than that, such a creator and sovereign who loves us, who loves me in particular. It would require that we could say of Him that while we were yet sinners, He died for us.

And in James, 1:17 ff., "Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.... with whom there is no variation of shadow due to change. Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth that we should be a kind of first fruits of His creatures."

The goodness of creation flows from God alone, but is echoed in our responses to Him as we obey His commandments. We are made in the Image of God and can therefore reflect and image Him abroad in a world which does not believe or understand.  

And Mark 7:31 ff. Jesus heals a man who was deaf and with an impediment in his speech. Persons who are born deaf cannot learn to speak properly because they can hear neither others nor themselves. So it was a double miracle that Jesus performed. The man not only could hear, but was able to speak without first having to learn how to do it properly.

These things are beyond the world's common sense, but not beyond the common sense of God who loves us.

No potentate or deity in all of history is known to have made love the foundation of His work and creation. Such a God was unimaginable to the pagan world, totally contrary to their common sense. Alone in the Bible do we read of a deity who contrived a law which was for our benefit, and yet for His own benefit as well. But our salvation, the marriage of the Groom to the Bride, would cost Him the crucifixion.

Human laws are typically made for the benefit of those at the top making the laws, not for those at the bottom who are to obey them. That has been the history of mankind from the earliest recordings to the present. It has been only under the law and grace of God that a different form of government was even conceived, let alone put into operation. Slowly, painfully, over centuries, God built up a form of government which would be the servant of the people, no longer their taskmaster. During the 1300's, 200 years before the Reformation, John Wycliffe, first wrote in the introduction to his Bible, newly translated into the English language, of a government of, by, and for the people. God loves His people.

Once God set love as the goal and end of His creation, all the rest followed as by common sense logic. Love required all the rest, the pursuit by God of His fallen people into their own misery, incarnation, identifying with us to communicate Himself to us. God had to do that in order to make Himself believable to us so that we would choose to follow Him and be saved. He, God, had to put Himself at our mercy and, at the same time, keep on loving us.

The law of God bound us, but it's common sense logic also bound Him, by His own freely chosen purpose, to love us unconditionally. His love would be freely given, not earned by ourselves.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays that this cup might be taken from Him, "yet not my will but Thine be done..." One can imagine the Father perhaps gently reminding the Son that they, the One, Holy, and Undivided Trinity had a whole eternity ago decided -- it would be done. The purpose set by the Triune God, of loving Their neighbors, us, their adopted children, just as They, the Trinity, loved themselves, that purpose by logical common sense, required it. And the Son said, "Yes." He would die for His Bride.

The meaning and direction of common sense all depends on which worldview you believe:
the Biblical worldview with a God who is creator and who sovereignly sets Himself to love us uncondtionally; or the worldview of the pagans, emerging by random chance out of an original chaos, into which all things, even the divinities in the end return.

The Christian Church in the West has all but lost is grip on the Biblical worldview, compromised at almost every point with secularism and neo-paganism. Because we want more to feel good than seek truth, we are making next to no progress in reclaiming the public arena for the law and grace of God, and will continue to descend more and more deeply back into that chaos.

We are thus leaving a heavier and heavier burden for our posterity. They will have to fight the battle at much greater cost that we would now, if we put on our spiritual armor and wielded the Sword of the Spirit. We have failed, as the prolog to the Constitution says, "to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". We have all but abandoned Godly common sense -- for the secular/pagan version of it. We are, in practical effect, saying "no" to God.

Yet, there small, but significant, signs of recovery -- (1) the Intelligent Design movement (go to www.discovery.org), (2) a group called Common Sense Science (science has not been so common sense as we have been led to believe - go to www.commonsensescience.org), and (3) the beginning recovery by New Hampshire parents of the education of their children (go to http://networkforeducation.org/neo-new-hampshire/ ) -- These are all Christian groups, which we can talk about after the service.

But we Christians have steady, demanding, and potentially painful work cut out for us -- nothing new -- the Way of the Cross for today.  Let's get on with it.


So, let's pray....

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Date Posted - 09/09/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 09/25/2012