Saturday, January 5, 2008


“Fanaticism is...overcompensation for doubt.”
-- Robertson Davies

There is a very interesting progression in the New Testament when it comes to asking questions and challenging religious authoritarianism. The Greek word zeteo is used throughout the New Testament, and it means to challenge, to question, to seek honestly, to dispute, to debate and pose alternative ideas and solutions.

Jesus encouraged zeteo:

"Ask and it will be given to you; seek (zeteo) and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks (zeteo) finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

Jesus consistently debated and questioned traditional Jewish ideas, as did his followers in the Book of Acts. The Apostle Paul routinely brought differing religious opinions to the synagogues and churches:

“Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved." This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate (zeteo) with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question (zeteo).” Acts 15:1-2

This was normal in the early Christian movement. Both Jesus and Paul confronted the established religious opinions of their time, in the Jewish synagogues and Christian gatherings . The pursuit of truth requires honest inquiry.

A few decades after Jesus, we see the successful establishment and rapid growth of various Christian groups. As these parties expanded and organized, Bishops and deacons were appointed and doctrinal positions were developed. Ironically, or maybe not, they began to limit and forbid all questioning or zeteo. We see this trend in the Pastoral epistles:

“… stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote questioning (zeteo) rather than God's work—which is by faith.” I Timothy 1:3-4

“But refuse foolish and ignorant questions (zeteo) knowing that they produce controversial quarrels.” 2 Timothy 2:23

Some English Bible translators attempt to throw the modern reader off track by shifting the translations of these words in I and II Timothy, using words like ‘controversies’ and ‘speculations’ instead of the better translation of ‘questioning,’ ‘seeking,’ ‘debating,’ and ‘searching.’

A few decades later (c.180 A.D.), a man named Irenaeus, hailed today as a hero of Christian orthodoxy, made it clear that the time for honest debate and religious doubts was over. In the introduction to his classic treatise, Against Heresies, Irenaeus states a position completely opposed to what we see in Jesus and his early followers:

“Inasmuch as certain men have set the truth aside, and bring in lying words and vain genealogies…and by means of their craftily-constructed plausibilities draw away the minds of the inexperienced and take them captive...These men falsify the oracles of God…and also overthrow the faith of many, by drawing them away, under a pretence of knowledge (gnosis)…as if they had something more excellent and sublime to reveal…By means of specious and plausible words, they cunningly allure the simple-minded to inquire into their system; but they nevertheless clumsily destroy them, while they initiate them into their blasphemous and impious opinions respecting the Demiurge; and these simple ones are unable, even in such a matter, to distinguish falsehood from truth.
Against Heresies, Book 1

Notice how this Bishop refers to the members of his and other churches: ‘minds of the inexperienced.’ ‘simple-minded,’ and these ‘simple ones.’ They are so simple or stupid that the false teachers ‘draw,’ ‘overthrow,’ ‘allure,’ and ‘destroy’ them. So much for open and honest dialogue, doubting and questioning, or zeteo advocated by Jesus and practiced by Paul. It wasn’t long before the Christian movement excommunicated and later executed those who applied questioning (zeteo) to the pursuit of truth in the church. Gradually after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., Christian orthodoxy abandoned all forms of zeteo.
Theologian Paul Tillich once said, “Doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.”

Part of what this means is that a ‘Christian’ or follower of Jesus the Christ brings radical zeteo to his spiritual path. Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the LORD in order to come face to face with God, so only the person who honestly expresses his doubts and asks her questions will encounter God directly. Charles West said, “We turn to God for help when our foundations are shaking only to learn that it is God shaking them.” The good news, or evangel, requires us to ask questions. A true ‘evangelical’ does not have absolute, unquestioned doctrines. There is no good news in being forced to adhere to teachings which your head rejects and your heart despises.

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