Epicycles and the Conservative Churches of Christ

[Even though Mac and Phil have left the field of play, we’ll continue to post here, at least until we’ve fully set forth our case. And we may toss in a few additional posts now and again, in hopes that we can keep the conversation going in the comments.]

Centuries ago, the best scientists believed that the earth was at the center of the universe. It was believed by all that the planets and the sun traveled around the earth in perfect circles.

However, even the ancients observed that there are times when certain of the planets appear to slow down and go backwards (retrograde motion). To explain this, the astronomer Ptolemy added “epicycles” to the model, that is, a second circle centered on the edge of the first circle.

Thus, one could imagine a clockwork model of the solar system, with the earth in the middle, Mars traveling along a circular path around the earth, but simultaneously following a secondary circle around its primary orbit.

But later observations, by Tycho Brahe, showed that a single epicycle was insufficient to describe the actual movement of the planets. And so some astronomers added additional epicycles, developing quite a complex model.

Eventually, some added as many as 16 epicycles, plus shifting the circular orbits off center, for the model to work. You see, the more precise the measurements, the more epicycles were required.

Therefore, when Copernicus showed that putting the sun in the middle worked better, and when Kepler demonstrated that the epicycles could be replaced with three simple mathematical laws — if the sun were placed in the center — the geocentric theory was doomed. And it was doomed in the absence of much in the way of confirming evidence. You see, the idea of using 16 epicycles was just too ad hoc, too incoherent, to be believable.

And yet, even after much of the evidence was in, the church condemned Galileo for teaching a heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the Solar System. To approve Galileo would be to admit error, and church leaders with reputations to uphold don’t admit error. After all, the people have to believe their leaders to be infallible for their system to work.

Just so, the theology offered by our opponents here at GraceConversation is filled with epicycles.

They first declare that all sins damn.

But … God makes exceptions for novices. First epicycle.

But … there’s no exception for fornication. Second epicycle.

And there’s no exception for instrumental music in worship. Third epicycle.

Prior to baptism one must repent of all individual sins in order to truly repent.

But … one can truly repent without repenting of buying lottery tickets or saying certain words they shouldn’t say. Fourth epicycle.

And being factious damns (after all, being factious is a sin).

But … when speaking of factious leaders within the conservative Churches of Christ, being factious may not damn, depending on the man’s heart. Fifth epicycle.

Doctrinal error that leads to sin damns (because all sin damns).

But … some doctrinal error that hasn’t led to sin damns. Sixth epicycle.

And God may make exceptions for complex issues. Seventh epicycle.

Of course, sin is forgiven for those walking in the light. EIghth epicycle.

But some doctrinal error, such as instrumental music, takes one out of the light. Ninth epicycle.

We can’t judge the eternal fate of others.

But … we can condemn those who are in error on instrumental music. Tenth epicycle.

And we can condemn those in denominations. Eleventh epicycle.

And we can condemn those in the progressive Churches of Christ. Twelfth epicycle.

But we can’t condemn the factious among the conservative Churches of Christ. Thirteenth epicycle.

Nor should we condemn great men in the history of the Restoration Movement who taught a plurality of elders is not required (fourteenth epicycle), that women may teach men in Bible classes (fifteenth epicycle), or that churches with located preachers are damned (sixteenth epicycle). But we can condemn our contemporaries who teach these very things.

You get the point. We instead suggest a simple set of three principles, written all over the New Testament, that need no exceptions or quibbles.

And had the conversation continued, we could have shown the pastoral power of these principles when it comes to questions of discipline, disfellowship, and the like. Indeed, scriptures that are difficult under the conservative view of apostasy come alive and take us to the heart of God under this view.

We can cite entire books — 1 John, Hebrews, Romans, and Galatians, among others — in support of our view. In fact, the more the scriptures are read in context, the more clear the evidence for these principles becomes.

Why can’t the conservatives simply state their doctrine of apostasy? Because there’s no single doctrine that fits the results they want to achieve. You see, they want to define the boundaries of the church based on the battles that divided the church in the past — because they can’t admit the church has ever been in error. You see, when you teach that salvation depends on having all your positions right on the multitudes of doctrines conservatives deem essential, the people have to believe their leaders to be inerrant on all these issues for their system to work. But our leaders have changed positions every generation. Nor do they agree with each other even today — they can’t even agree on what is sinful and what isn’t.

This has led to an ad hoc, incoherent theory, shown to be in error by the fact it can’t even be articulated by the best among the conservative churches. And just as surely as the clumsiness of the epicycle theories doomed the geocentric theory, conservative Church of Christ theology is doomed as well.

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21 Comments on “Epicycles and the Conservative Churches of Christ”

  1. Alan Says:

    This is a fascinating analogy. I agree that the conservative position will eventually collapse due to its own weight.

    I’m glad you’re continuing to blog the rest of the progressive perspective. It’s a shame we won’t be hearing the conservatives articulate and defend their rules of fellowship. Maybe commentors will fill in the gap.

  2. Tim Archer Says:

    I’ll second Alan’s thoughts. Some of us merely observe the discussion, but we are still learning. Thanks for taking the time to share this material.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  3. Rob Woodfin Says:

    Jay,

    Thanks for the stellar illustration (sorry, couldn’t avoid the pun). It puts much of our difficulty in a clearer perspective. If I might tag on to that line of thought, here is another point that I think might further the discussion:

    At about the same time as our solar system was being mapped, another “mapping” system was being devised which sits at the epicenter of Christian divisiveness. But the cartographer to which I refer was not a scientist, he was a printer. Robert Estienne, a French typographer, was the man who first assigned verses to the Bible. Almost from that moment in 1551, you can see sectarianism explode like a spectacular pyrotechnic in a Fourth of July display. Take a look at a timeline of Christianity and you’ll see that once this codification of the Bible was accomplished, we entered the dawn of prooftexting.

    Estienne’s intent was clearly to aid in Bible study, since Gutenberg in that same era had made it possible to own a personal copy of the Bible. But the unintended consequence was to convert (scriptural) paintings into (doctrinal) jigsaw puzzles. From that point on, Bible stories which once looked like da Vinci portraits began to more closely resemble the works of Picasso, with bull’s heads on men’s bodies.

    Ironically, though the Protestant movement may have raised denominationalism to an art form, so to speak, it was the Restoration movement, inspired by modernist reasoning, that attempted to make the leap to empirical law. And despite the fact that more than a century and a half of factious data now clearly shows our hypothesis to contain the same flaws as every other man-made doctrine, the conservatives of our tradition stand prepared to torture any Galileo who questions our unique view of the sunrise.

  4. Rich Says:

    Many atheists consider Galileo as their source of courage to disagree with anyone who believes in God.

  5. Rob Woodfin Says:

    That’s interesting since Galileo went to great lengths to avoid controversy with Church authorities. Though he was branded a heretic and labeled an atheist by more than a few Christians of that day, such was not the case, and he ultimately was buried in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. What is especially interesting is how striking a resemblance his experience bears to the treatment of our progressive leaders by conservatives today.

  6. Jay Guin Says:

    Alan,

    Thanks. The winning strategy is the one focused on by Todd Deaver in Facing Our Failure — just insist that conservatives plainly state the Biblical principles that determine who falls away and who doesn’t. They can’t. Or they say something patently unscriptural, such as “all sin damns.” And don’t get caught up in debates on side issues. Do that and the epicycles quickly become evident.

  7. Royce Says:

    Jay,

    To piggy back on your analogy…. Traditionalists’ theology is “ego centric”, it revolves around man. Thus all of the nuances you mentioned.

    Christianity (opposed to religion) is “Chirst centric”. He is the SON everything else revolves around.

    In every place I know about where Christ is the center of attention and devotion (instead of the church and it’s traditions) there is little division and unity prevails.

    At the root of the problem with traditionalists is that they don’t know why or how God saves wicked sinners.

    Royce

  8. Rich Says:

    I first heard of this aspect of Galileo’s life when the story was used in the lecture opening of a world renowned research scientist in the area of brain function and artificial intelligence. Although he said it in a very professional manner, he basically considers all believers of the “mystic” (that’s we God believers) as buffoons like the church leaders in Galileo’s day.

    I found it an unfortunate choice for progressives to choose an association with an icon for the modern science-based atheist/agnostic.

  9. Jay Guin Says:

    Rich,

    Galileo was a devout believer — and he was right.

  10. Rich Says:

    I use Galileo’s story as a word of caution in understanding Genesis 1 & 2. Some traditions are about face with some scientific facts like in Galileo’s day.

    Although I’m sure Galileo didn’t intend it, his life is considered by many to be the kick off for the science vs. God debate that permeates our society today. This is probably the biggest obstacle to the Christian faith today.

  11. Alan S. Says:

    We who are less traditional in the Churches of Christ can also learn a valuable lesson from Galileo. He got in trouble from the Catholic Church not so much for his teachings on the Solar System, but because in defending his beliefs he ridiculed his critics, including the Pope.

    Lesson – Ridiculing our more traditional brothers in the Churches of Christ will not win us any disagreements.

    God bless

  12. Rob Woodfin Says:

    Alan is right that ridiculing the conservatives is not a good approach, even when the provocations are often far to the other end of the spectrum from humorous. But in reading Rich’s explanation of why Galileo was an “unfortunate choice” as an illustration in this discussion, I was reminded of another figure who was similarly disparaged in more recent times.

    As I was settling into the Church of Christ a quarter century ago, the conservatives were in the process of throwing one their own to the curb. Though he had once been heralded as a brilliant minister and writer, with books in almost every CoC library, when he wrote a plea for Christian unity in 1986, his plate was broken in at least half of the fellowship halls across the brotherhood. For twenty years I accepted as “gospel” the warning to keep away from anything to do with him or folks like him who had “gone off the deep end.” I might still hold that same opinion today except for what my conservative brethren call an “unfortunate choice;” I finally read that book.

    While there are obviously issues that conservatives and progressives simply are not going to agree on, the reason why conversations like these are so important is because I know there are more than a few folks who would love to hear both sides but may never have the opportunity unless they find a blog such as this one. And I wholeheartedly agree that we certainly don’t want to do anything to insult or discourage those who are seeking to make an informed decision.


  13. Ron,
    You can’t just leave us hanging like that. What’s the book title?

    Steve Valentine

  14. Rich Says:

    Alan S.:

    You got the real point.

  15. Rob Woodfin Says:

    Steve,

    The name of the book is “I Just Want to be a Christian.” It was written by Rubel Shelly.

    Thanks for asking. And thanks for the work you are doing for the cause of Christ in West Texas.

  16. Nick Gill Says:

    A bit of sad warning for those of us who hope for unity in our time: almost every preacher’s library I’ve ever been in has copies of the Geocentricity Primer, because a) preachers can’t bring themselves to throw away free books, and b) despite all the time and evidence, etc etc, Geocentricity still has its devotees.


  17. Ron,
    Thank you very much. Please keep the Body down there in your prayers.

    I have a cassette (yes I said cassette) set that Rubel did back in the late 80’s early 90’s at Richland Hills CoC. The title…wait for it…Will the Church Survive the 90’s? It’s a good listen and I’m trying to find a way to put them on MP3 so I can listen to them in the truck.

    I’ll look for the book. Thanks for the title.

    Because of what Christ did,
    SV

  18. John Miller Says:

    Jay, you asked “Why can’t the conservatives simply state their doctrine of apostasy?” After reading posts by Phil, Greg, and Mac, I came to the same conclusion you did: “Because there’s no single doctrine that fits the results they want to achieve.”

    Over the years, I’ve read several articles (I don’t have the sources easily at hand) where leading conservative lights compare progressives to liberal judges who use the law to justify the result they want to achieve. This judicial philosophy has troubled me since law school and I find this methodology (decisions based on desired results rather than flowing from a “philosophy”) to be no more justifiable when used by Christians than by secular, “the Constitution is a living document” judges.

    Thanks to you and Todd for so clearly and patiently spelling out a philosophy of how to define heresy that is based on Scripture rather than human philosophy.

    John Miller

  19. nick gill Says:

    This is part and parcel of belonging to a tradition that was born as a reaction to perceived error.

    Reactionary, or at least responsive, thinking runs deep and wide in so much of our thinking and publishing.

    That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but clearly it can poison us if it is most of what we imbibe.


  20. […] GraceConversation.com « In Response to Mac’s Final Post Epicycles and the Conservative Churches of Christ […]

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