I mean “open” in the sense of “open house”; where a real estate agent opens up a house for sale so that interested people can come in and look around. They will poke their noses into the cupboards, check various certificates (termite protection is a big issue here), wander around and generally scrutinize the place. Some will be genuine buyers, others will be just curious. The point of the exercise is to allow the buyer the chance to inspect the property before proceeding further and the real estate agent gets to know the neighbors for potential future business.
By contrast, “closed” refers to the situation where you can see the outside of the house, but you can’t look in; or at least, not until you’re fully signed up or initiated.
My theology for an “open” Gospel is derived from my reading of the Bible. It starts with an act of divine disclosure – God creates the Cosmos so that He can be known by it. Without a creation, God remains alone and there is nothing to which He can be known. He declares His creation “good” (Genesis 1:4 etc) because it fits His purpose and it reflects who He is. He creates humankind in His image, male and female (Genesis 1:27) so that they can recognize Him. Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones with the special privilege of being able to comprehend God; see the comparison with the Angels in Psalm 8:4-6, in which the author of the Letter to the Hebrews sees special significance in Hebrews 2:5-9.
Jesus is God’s ultimate act of self-expression, so much so that John calls him the “word made flesh” (John 1:14). When Christians think of God, they rightly think of Jesus – he is The God, come to make Himself known to us. Perhaps the most confronting image from this story is that of a crucified God, stripped naked and impaled, spread-eagled on a cross for all the world to see. This is God, bearing our sin. This is what our sin does to God. And yet, God triumphs, even over death.
Moving into the church age, we see that the Christian church has always striven to get the word out. Initially by word of mouth and handwritten scripts, then by the printed press and now by the internet. Christians want to make the Gospel of Christ known, and the more they can broadcast it, the better. The Bible is replete with admonitions to do this, not least of which are the concluding words of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel;
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”(Matthew 28:18-20).
Did you get the “teaching” part?
God wants to be made known. He wants us to see Him as He fully is. Put it another way; He wants to be scrutinized by us, all of us and not just a select few. It’s “open house”, and we get to set the agenda.
So, I get pretty worked up when I detect the introduction of “secrets” to the Christian Gospel. To me, this cuts right against the whole tenor of God’s self-revelation to us. To put it bluntly, it’s blasphemy of the highest order.
However, these “secrets” do crop up, and they do so in the Christian community. That’s because the people who promote the idea of “secrets” are thinking more like Gnostics than Christians.
Gnosticism has made something of a come-back in recent years, and because western culture has been inculcated with Gnosticism-lite, it’s quite difficult to diagnose.
One of my theological hobbies is to develop diagnostics for heresies and here’s one for Gnosticism – if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my knowledge, then I’m thinking like a Gnostic, not a Christian. Why? Because I am justified by Christ, and Christ alone and He is not me nor is He any part of me. In fact, if I find myself thinking that I am justified by my anything, I am not thinking like a Christian.
Gnostics, as their name suggests, put a great deal of emphasis on knowledge. That’s appealing to an educated and knowledge-based culture like ours, but it’s no accident that the most active proponents (e.g. Elaine Pagels) are those who pride themselves on their knowledge. I’m not saying that knowledge and education are bad, rather that they are not the end-goal of human existence – that’s God’s prerogative.
Further Gnostics pride themselves on their ownership of a “secret” knowledge – a knowledge that is only available to their initiates. They operate a “closed” house.
A prime example is Mormonism. Joseph Smith, it’s founder, joined the Freemasons on 15 March 1842, setting up a Masonic lodge in Nauvoo (http://www.irr.org/mit/masonry.html). In his early career, Smith promulgated a message that retained some Christian imagery, and this is the Mormonism that is familiar to most everyday Mormons. However, Smith progressively moved to a more secretive form of Gnosticism, introducing an elaborate system of temples, rites and initiations. The difference between the two has been described by Mormons as the "Preparatory Gospel" and the "Full Gospel", but by Mormon critics as the "Bait and switch" (see here for a discussion). Remarkably, both sides acknowledge that there is a difference.
These Mormon Temple rites remain secret today, and Mormons are forbidden to discuss them or what they were taught in them.
However, the keeping of secrets is a hard business in the days of the internet, and any enquirer can quickly search for what they want to find. To cut a long story short, the theology that emerges from these secrets is that Mormonism is actually a polytheistic religion, in which men become Gods by acquiring multiple wives and subscribing to the Church. Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s direct successor, said “The only men who become Gods, even the Sons of God, are those who enter into polygamy" Journal of Discourses 11:269, 1866. Ask the next Mormon missionary who comes knocking on your door, though you're unlikely to get a knowledgeable answer.
Remember my diagnostic above about “I am justified by my [fill in the blank here]”? Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and the Mormon prophets after them want to tell you that you are justified by your polygamy.
In discussing this with Mormons, the most common response I get is the “milk before meat” thing. It’s a misappropriation of what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3:2, where he’s actually saying “I’m going to take you back to basics because you seem to think that the Gospel of Christ gives you a license to sin”.
However, the Gnostic isn’t interested in allowing the text to speak for itself because he already has a “special knowledge” that tells him what he wants to know. Why does he have this “special knowledge”? Because he has been initiated into the brotherhood, of course.
I once asked a Mormon Bishop what he thought the main intent of Christ’s mission was. He replied that it was to give us the ordinances and principals of the Gospel. His answer indicated that it was all about transferring a special knowledge to his followers. When I replied that we don’t read much about that sort of thing in the Bible, he retorted that that’s because it had been changed by the Catholics. I feel that he considers himself to have this “special knowledge” because of his connection to the “one true Church”, and it’s not his fault the Bible doesn’t agree with him.
There are a couple of themes in the Bible that might seem to support the Gnostic view, but I think they can be dispelled as giving support to it. I’ll address a couple briefly.
The first is that Jesus spoke in Parables. The dialog in Matthew 13:10-11 addresses this directly;
The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?” He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 78:2. This is one of those instances where it’s worth going back to the scripture quoted to get a fuller picture. Here’s the opening stanzas of the Psalm…
My people, hear my teaching;(Psalm 78:1-4).
listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old—
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
In other words, the Psalmist is proclaiming an “open” Gospel, using such phrases as “we will not hide”. If there is a “secret” knowledge here, it is only so because the people have forgotten it and needed to be reminded - a situation that the Psalmist seeks to correct.
So, is Jesus misquoting the Psalm? I believe he is doing what the Psalmist is doing, by opening the eyes of the people to what they can already see. The Parables are a superlative vehicle for this message, because Jesus takes everyday scenarios and uses them to point out the obvious. It remains a “secret” to his opponents because they are incapable of “getting” it. Jesus’ opponents don’t see the Kingdom of God described in the parables because they see it in the building of their Temple and the “principals and ordinances” of their law. Thus the parables divide between those who are Jesus’ followers and those who are not.
Another verse I needed to reconsider this week (because it was brought up in a post at blog.mrm.org, click here and do a search on "white stone") was Revelation 2:17b
I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.My reply was that it is not appropriate to interpret the apocalyptic language of Revelations too literally, however it is appropriate to understand the meaning from the imagery provided. The “white stone” signifies a permanent monument or marker post, like the Ebenezer in 1 Samuel 7:12. The “new name” denotes a change in ownership, like the change in name that God gave to Abram and Sarai (Abraham and Sarah, Genesis 17:5 and Genesis 17:15).
The fact that the new name is known only to the person who receives it is a little more problematic, because it appears to imply some kind of secret initiation. However, I think that John is saying that the only people who can be sure of this change of ownership are the people themselves, perhaps at an individual level. In other words, the fact that God’s people now belong to God is a fact that the world cannot comprehend or “know”.
In my experience, I’m often greeted with blank stares when I tell people that I don’t belong to myself – I belong to God, doubly so because He created me and He redeemed me
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.(1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
That’s a confronting message to give to the next person who protests at Christianity’s interference with his or her life, saying “it’s my life, I’ll do with it as I please”. They might even challenge the Christian with “it’s your life, why do you allow yourself to be dominated by God”. They cannot see the white stone with the new name written on it. God owns us.
There may be secrets in the world. The revelation of God, whom He is and what He is like, is not one of them. If it is a secret, then it’s a secret that’s meant to be exposed.