Many years ago, I was an upperclassman at a bible college. Like most upperclassmen in bible college, I had spent a few years learning vast quantities of information and was both eager and embarrassingly incompetent to make “real world” applications of all the things I had learned. In an effort to connect the theological dots I had assembled, I–along with several other Bible geeks–had a lunchtime discussion club where we would entertain issues of what we called “theoretical theology”. We would think of (usually) bizarre theological questions, analyze them, and then attempt to come up with solutions to those conundrums. Most of the time, the questions were ridiculous but still involved big theological issues (i.e. dispensationalism, creationism, pacifism, Calvinism, the second coming, etc.) in a roundabout way. The questions often were hilarious and allowed us to address serious issues in a humorous way that often ended up in carefully articulated responses.
One of the questions I remember the most was:
– If I am a New Testament Christian and I got a DeLorean with a flux capacitor and went back to the time of Moses, would I still be saved by grace or would I suddenly lose the Spirit and have to keep the law?
Now that question is both silly and impossible, but it was the manifestation of a few budding theologians attempting to struggle through and apply the numerous biblical/theological truths they were learning. I’m sure that some people now want me to address that crazy question, but that’s not the one I’m going to focus on. In my first post in this series, I gave an illustration of how the scripture often addresses matters more clearly than we may think. In my second post in this series, I gave an (ill received) illustration of how the Bible directly speaks about far more issues than we often expect. Both of those two involved matters that the scripture directly addresses and in the first post I made passing reference to “applying hand lotion to a penguin” as a theological question. I mentioned in the comment thread that I would get back to that idea and now, here I am.
Am I seriously going to talk about the application of hand lotion to penguins as a “theoretical theology” question?
Not the whole bird of course; that would be silly and needless. Just their feet.
Let’s not be totally absurd!
Allow me to set up the question a bit…
It’s no surprise there are more than a few Christians who believe it’s their God-given duty to care for the planet, and that issue is (likely) what underlies this question. I’m not going to link any of the outlandish and even ludicrous stuff that‘s on the internet (I don’t want to be to blame when someone reads the Cripplegate and goes off to become the mayor of Looneyville, Texas), but as in all issues there’s a wide range of positions on the spectrum of opinion. There are people who think that animals are (selectively and arbitrarily) included when a biblical passage mentions certain terms (i.e. “least of these” or “weak”), therefore passages like Matt. 25:40 or Acts 20:35 are veiled commands to care for animals; the “least” and the “weak” among us. There are some people who think that Jesus’ anger in the temple (John 2:13-16) was because Jesus saw animals in cages and therefore we should all follow Jesus’ example and never cage, let alone eat, any creature at all. There are some people who think that since St. Francis preached to the birds, we should follow his example and becoming aggressive environmentalists.
I’ll just say that animals are not the “least of these” and Jesus wasn’t angry at the “fact” that the moneychangers had animals in cages. Beyond that, preaching to birds isn’t wrong per say, but it seems unbelievably useless (though I’ve heard a few preachers who are “for the birds”, so to speak).
Still, there is a more exegetically- and biblically-responsible understanding of creation care that is out there which attempts to take the Bible a little more seriously. I first encountered a more serious form of creation-care theology when I was in Bible College and a professor first talked about how Adam was placed in the garden “to work and keep it” (Gen. 2:15), pointing out how that was before the fall. Another idea from Genesis is how Adam and Even were given dominion over every animal (Gen. 1:29); also before the fall. I learned about passages like Gen. 7:13-6; Deut. 25:4; Ps. 8:6-8; Prov. 12:10; Is. 6:11, 65:25; Hos. 4:1-3; Jonah 4:11; Matt. 6:26, 10:29; Luke 14:5; Rom. 8:19-21 and eventually discovered the difference between animals rights and animal welfare. In a nutshell, animal rights talks about how animals basically have the same rights as humans (and therefore humans who hunt or eat animals are acting immorally) but animal welfare talks about how animals should be treated as the provisions that they are from God (cared for and not caused unnecessary pain, killed for needless sport, etc. For more information on a Christian view of animal rights, I’d recommend starting here).
So if you’re a Christian who is concerned with animal welfare, you have some scriptural precedent for a whole lot of biblically acceptable activities. Now to get to our specific question:
Let’s say you are employed with some sort of organization which cleans up of environmental accidents, and there was a huge oil spill somewhere in the far southern hemisphere. Let’s say a few thousand gallons of crude oil poured into a penguin habitat due to some sort of human error, so you find yourself as part of an environmental cleanup that involves a whole lot of unhappy feet. Some folks are doing the washing…
Some folks are doing the knitting (betcha didn’t know that oil-soaked penguins have to be covered to keep them from poisoning themselves while they preen)…
And you, being the keener that you are, notice that the penguin feet are in really rough shape; all cracked and bleeding due to irritants in the chemicals used to remove the oil. Being a budding penguin expert, you already know that penguin feet are incredible little tooties that are necessary to their survival, so cracked and bleeding feet can actually be fatal to a penguin. You talk with your supervisor and they give you the green light to fix up their feet as best you can. It will slow down the whole process and will probably mean volunteering some extra time to make sure all the birds get cleaned on schedule.
What do you do?
You know that:
(a) It’s your job to take care of these poor birds that had a whole boatload of sludge dumped on their habitat.
(b) These penguins are an important part of an ecosystem that will affect hundreds of millions of people along hundreds of coastal cities.
(c) God is actually concerned about the needless suffering of his creation and, as a Christian, you feel compelled to do everything you can for these birds.
So in that situation, should you apply hand lotion (or other topical healing agents) to those damaged penguin feet and make sure those cute little creatures can have the best chance possible at survival?
(You didn’t think that this was all absurdly hypothetical, did you?)
What do you do?
If the scripture is sufficient for guiding us, but we’re now in a clearly silent area of scripture, what do we do?
Let’s take a stab at a question that basically only a few dozen people on planet earth may ever actually face:
(Now if this were a real oiled seabird scenario, there would be a whole lot of other factors in play, but I don’t want to needlessly complicate this post or turn it into a book. I’m on a deadline so we’ll pretend that the information listed above is what we have to make the decision.)
If the Bible doesn’t directly address something, you need to make a logical deduction based on biblical principle. So, here’s an idea of how I would approach the decision-making process:
Step One: Ask the Lord to give you wisdom and guide your study and decision making.
In searching for wisdom to a difficult problem, it’s always important to remember that wisdom & understanding come from the Lord (1 Ki. 5:12; Ps. 111:10, 119:130; Prov. 2:6, 9:10; Eph. 1:17) and the Lord is the one who grants success in work, including study (Dan. 1:18-20; Matt. 22:29-33; Luke 2:46-47; 2 Cor. 3:14-16). The missing ingredient to my ineffective study is almost always the Holy Spirit. Relying on the Holy Spirit doesn’t simply mean praying before a problem solving situation/study project. The whole process needs to be bathed in the power and direction of the Holy Spirit; you need the Holy Spirit for every single step.
Step Two: As best you can, work out the situation in biblical categories.
In order to work out what the Bible says about about a subject, you need to work out how (and in what terms) the Bible talks about a subject (i.e. the Bible doesn’t say much about “hearing the voice of God”, at least in the modern/charismatic sense of the phrase, but it says a whole lot about prophecy.)
Secondly, you need to ask yourself “What is the real question I’m asking?” and “what sort of biblical categories would this fall under?”
Is the question you’re facing an obvious temptation to sin or will it place yourself in a situation of obvious temptation? If so, you need to focus on what the scripture says about sin and temptation and do your best to keep away from both.
Is the question you’re facing a question mainly about yourself or someone else? In this scenario, the decision will mainly affect the organization (if a bunch of penguins die, that will be bad PR for your organization), the supervisor (who is trusting you to make the right call and will answer for it if you don’t), and the coworkers (you’ll have to convince them of the necessity of your proposed project, as well as be ready to deal with the ramifications when you ask people to volunteer extra time to do a job that you just made harder).
What is the sphere that will be immediately affected by the answer? Seeing that this is a situation of employment where you’re likely gone from home for an elongated period of time, home concerns aren’t nearly as pressing as immediate work concerns and the scriptures associated with work and slaves/masters mainly apply.
There’s a whole lot more I can say about this, but that should give you an idea of what I’m thinking of here.
So, for the sake of illustration we’ll say that your concern is primarily for your organization, the people therein and your witness in the workplace, and secondly for the birds that you’re cleaning (which doesn’t automatically make them unimportant, just not the focus of your priorities).
Step Three: Study the Scriptures and list the relevant passages connected to your conundrum.
For the sake of illustration, we’ll pretend that your search produces Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-23 (which convict you of the necessity of doing your best at your job), as well as Matt. 5:16; Tit. 2:9-10; 1 Pet. 2:12 (which remind you that how you conduct yourself in the workplace reflects Christ either positively or negatively and directly impacts your testimony). Also, Prov 24:11-12 and James 4:17 come to mind in your study (which convict you to do what you know you must). Now there’s obviously a whole lot more passages which could apply, but we’ll pretend this is the list you’ve come up with.
Step Four: Dig deep in the relevant passages connected to your conundrum.
This is where you find the relevant passages and soak them in. Work through the passages exegetically to make sure you understand what the passages are and are not saying; there’s nothing as humiliating as discovering that you’ve made a major decision based on a misunderstanding of scripture coming from a simple surface reading of a passage. Pour over the details and work out the nuances of a passage as best you can. Work your way through every word in the passage, track the argument of the author, and notice all the various details. Do word studies if necessary. Wrestle with a passage and ask lots of questions: Who is this written to? Is there a command here I need to obey or keep in mind? What is the subject matter here? Etc.
Step Five: Commit to memory the relevant principle or thrust of the principle/passage from the scriptures.
If there are directly relevant principles, commit them (and their respective biblical references) to memory. It’s always important to remember why you chose to do something, especially when you face doubt while in the middle of facing the consequences of your decision. If you don’t necessarily find any direct principles to apply to your question, you may always consider the thrust of biblical principles (or Biblical narratives). It’s worth mentioning that the further you get from directly dealing with the topic at hand, the easier it is for you to subtly twist scripture in your (sinful) favor. I mention that, not because the Bible is unclear or non-comprehensive, but simply because the Bible is a big book and I haven’t met anyone who has a comprehensively thorough grasp on the whole thing yet. More than once, I’ve run into a guy who was described by people as a “Bible Encyclopedia” who was apparently missing a few pages when it came to the minor prophets.
Step Six: Go with the conviction of your conscience and do the will of God.
What? After all that just do what you want? Not at all. It’s beyond the scope of this post to unpack the whole nature of the conscience or the will of God, but I’ll direct you to some resources for those two issues since they’re intimately related to what’s going on here. With regards to the conscience, I’d suggest starting here and then here. With regards to the will of God, I’d recommend reading/listening to this and then this.
You need the Holy Spirit to educate your conscience by means of the scripture and then activate it to help guide you towards the path you should go.
In other words, you need to be righteous and do what you want. The whole “be righteous” part is 98% of the whole process, and that includes things like conforming your thoughts about a subject into line with God’s thoughts (which is what we were attempting to do in steps one through five), growing to a biblically-derived conviction on an issue based on the historical-grammatical meaning of all the relevant texts of scripture (which means Jer. 29:11 likely doesn’t ever apply), and killing sin in your life (since sin harms the conscience). Most of us skip far too much of the “be righteous” part and make a bee-line for the “do what you want” part. That is always a recipe for sin and horrible failure.
So, though I could have been around 15x more thorough and covered the topic in far more detail, we’re at over 2,500 words now and I think it’s time to wrap this up. It’s been my hope in this series to show, in some small way, how the word of God often addresses matters more clearly than we may think, directly speaks about far more issues than we often expect, and always gives us a framework of principle from which to tackle any question or issue.
In other words, the scripture offers sufficient divine guidance, either in prescription or principle, for the man of God to be equipped for every good work; no further divine revelation is needed for Christians to know, serve, or be like God to the extent that it is his desire. Further revelation may often be wanted, but it is not needed (nor promised).
WAIT A MINUTE!
I almost forgot something.
What about the penguin feet?
What would I do in that scenario?
I’ve hinted at the idea that, given the very limited data at hand and the fact that helping the penguins was a matter of duty to my employer, I probably would do my best to fulfill the objective of my job and help make as many happy feet as possible.
What about you? What would you do? Can you think of any biblical parameters or passages that would be relevant to the issue of penguin paws that I forgot? Do you disagree with my reasoning at any point and feel I missed something obvious or was way off in some way?
Let me know in the comments!