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Faulty Logic, Interpreting Bible Verses Based On Word Order – There Is No Biblical Mandate To Always Put Others Before Yourself

“The greatest commandment is… Thou shalt love the Lord thy God… and the second … is …Thou shalt love thy neighbor as yourself”

First of all, let me say that it is admirable to see someone put someone else’s need above their own and act accordingly.  For example, both a young person and an elderly woman need to enter a building.  The young person is actually at the door a minute ahead of the woman.  But, the young person stops, and holds the door to let the woman in first.  Or, when getting a serving of mashed potatoes, you help someone else get one first.  These are just small examples, but there are bigger examples.  In fact, people make big sacrifices all the time: the wife who works to put her husband through school, the man who takes a cheaper vacation to help the young family down the street with the sick child, the people who give up their time and money to go help the Katrina or Haiti victims.  These are admirable examples and models for all of us to follow.  There are definitely times when it is appropriate to put others before ourselves.

But what I want to address is the teaching that some give that says that we should put others before ourselves ALL THE TIME.  It looks like this, in fact following are examples from the web.  I did a quick Google search and picked a couple of examples from the first  search results returned:  God First, Others Second, I am Third.[i] There is even a Facebook page: God First, Others Second, I’m Third.[ii] Another way that it is expressed is: God first, others second, self last.[iii]

If you look at these articles, you will see logic like this:

“Let’s imagine just for a moment a family in which everyone lives according to (Gale)Sayers’ little motto, “I’m third.” That is to say each would always place God first, then each other second. A husband and father would say to his wife and children, “God is first in all things and you are an immediate second.” A wife and mother would say the same thing to her husband and children. And children would grow learning in all things that God is first and to place the good and well being, the needs of others before their own. Would that introduce some new dynamics in you family if everyone lived with each other in that way?”[iv]

This is hard to argue with.  We all know how selfish we all can be and how this can make family life chaotic.  What a dream it would be if our whole family acted like the example above.

You will also read logic that itemizes all kinds of biblical arguments about how we are to be meek and humble: Blessed are the meek, Pride goes before destruction, we should all submit to one another, and so forth.  All of these admonitions are true.

So it is plain to see that there are places in the bible that teach against selfishness, and to sometimes put others first. But the truth is that there is no biblical verse(s) that says that once and for all time the order of preference in our lives is God first, others second and we are commanded to be third.

I have heard some say that the answer is in the order of the words because in the sentence the first object of love that you see is God, the second is neighbor, the third is yourself.  Since neighbor comes before yourself in the sentence then neighbor should come before yourself in life.

That is just not good biblical interpretation.  First, anyone that knows anything about Greek knows that in Greek, which is what this text is translated from, and contrary to English, the order of the words in the sentence do not determine its meaning.  Rather, it is the endings of the words that determine the flow of the sentence and its meaning.

But more important to the logic here, the key to this setting of priorities is in the word “as”.  “As” means “like, in the manner of.”  For example, consider the next sentence:

You will get paid as much as the other union members.

Would anyone think that you are supposed to be paid more because you are named before the others in this sentence?  Of course not!  Everyone understands that your pay will be the same as the others here.  Or how about:

Bill is as tall as Frank.

Does anyone think Bill is taller than Frank because he is named first? Again, of course not.   They are the same height.  So why would anyone say that “love others as yourself” means anything but loving others the same as yourself?!  There is no good reason.

The mandate that we are being given here is to bring the love that we have for others up to the level we have for ourselves.  That is the challenge.  The problem that we have is:

for no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as Christ also the church;  (Ephesians 5:29)

Paul is attesting to the fact that we love ourselves, we take care of ourselves.  We tend to think of ourselves first.  Paul tells us to put God first, and then to add the concerns of others to our concerns:

doing nothing through faction or through vainglory, but in lowliness of mind each counting other better than himself; not looking each of you to his own things, but each of you also to the things of others.   (Philippians 2:3-4)

Notice that “counting other better than himself” does not say “loving other more than himself.”  The context is esteem, humbling ourselves to others.

The natural standard of care for each of us is to “look upon our own things.”  Paul exhorts us to do the unnatural thing, to look “to the things of others.”  He is exhorting us to give the same standard of care to others that we give to ourselves.

Why is this distinction important?  Let’s look at a few examples first.

1.  Barry loves sports cars.  He buys one as soon as he is able and drives it all the time.  He meets Meg whom he eventually marries.  Soon, little Georgette comes along.  Meg wants to stay home with Georgette but it will mean giving up the sports car.  Barry reasons he needs to put his family first so he gives up the car, although he misses it.

2.  Joe has volunteered to coach a youth basketball team.  Bill comes to him and asks him to trade one or two of his best players for some other players that are not so good.  Joe reasons that he should follow the mandate of making others second and himself third.  He makes the trade.  His team suffers; with the original players they would have been better, with the lesser skilled players they have a losing season.  The team he traded with beats him badly every time they play, and they rub it in.

3.  Mary has some places she wants to go for vacation, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite.  Her husband, Frank, never wants to go to those places, he likes golfing vacations.  Their budget is limited, thy can only go one place a year.  Mary reasons that she should follow the mandate of making others second and herself third.  She always goes where Frank says.  She gets depressed that she never gets to go the places she wants.

Do you think that any of these examples would be an unrealistic application of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”?  After all, the teaching isn’t that you are only supposed to do it when the other person is loving also.  The teaching is that you are just supposed to make yourself third.

Who can argue that Barry did the wrong thing, but what about Joe and Mary?  I am going to say that Joe should have taken care of himself and kept the better players.  And there is no way that Mary should always have to give up where she wants to go.  Couples that love each other alternate so that each sometimes gets what they want.  That would really be applying the “love others as yourself” rule when each gives to the other as much as they insist on their way for themselves.

When one person is always giving in to the other that makes for an unhealthy, unbalanced relationship.  Foolishly believing that you are always supposed to live under the “God First, Others Second, I am Third” rule could keep an abused person under the thumb of an abuser. I have seen both men and women who lived like their way was the only way, and the spouse was supposed to just go along with whatever the dominating spouse wanted.

The healthy relationship is based on give and take, not one person always making themselves third to the other person.

Most importantly, is correctly reading and interpreting what the verse says.  It says that we are to love others the same as ourselves.  Not more than, not less than, the same as.

If you have to number a priority, instead of “God First, Others Second, I am Third”, it would be:

“God First, Others and I are tied for Second.


April 10th, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments

John 1 – The Slippery Slope of Applying Mathematical Precision to Language Expressions

In a previous article, Grammar and Logic – Boring But Invaluable, I wrote “Another mistake is to substitute the logic of one discipline for another. An area where I have seen this kind of mistake is in the fields of mathematics and languages. For example, some people read the word “is” and ascribe to that word the mathematical definition of “equals”.”

To reiterate it is important not to assume that you can apply mathematical precision to language expressions. In particular, in mathematics we have the axiom that two things that are both equal to a third thing are equal to each other. Or, as it is written mathematically, if a equals B, and B equals C, then a equals C. You can use this axiom ad infinitum. If c equals d also, then a would equal d, and so forth.

This does not apply universally to expressions people use to communicate. The temptation is to say that anywhere someone uses the word “is”, you can substitute the word “equals”. Sometimes that logic does work and here is an example:

Minerals are inanimate.  Quartz is a mineral.  Therefore Quartz is inanimate.

The above is a syllogism, a concept introduced by Aristotle.

However, there are numerous examples where the word “is” doesn’t mean “equals”.  For example, US President Barack Obama (A) is a man (B). Nelson Mandela (C) is a man (B). Would anybody try to apply the above mathematical logic and say that Nelson Mandela is the U.S. president? Or that Nelson Mandela is Barack Obama?

Barack Obama(A)  = a man (B) = Nelson Mandela (C) Therefore Barack Obama(A)  = Nelson Mandela (C)

How ridiculous this is! Nelson Mandela was at one time the President of South Africa and is a terrific world leader. Whether or not you agree with his politics Barack Obama holds the power of the U.S. presidency, a position of great honor and power.  These two both “equal” men, but they do not equal each other; in fact they are very different men. And in fact, there are no examples where one man would “equal” another. John McCain, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Peyton Manning, and James Earl Jones are all men. But we all agree John McCain is NOT Kobe Bryant who is NOT Lebron James who is NOT Peyton Manning who is NOT James Earl Jones.

Yet the application of mathematical precision to the word “is” is exactly what many theologians do in the prologue of the gospel of John. The gospel of John says that the Logos is God.  It also says this same Logos was in the beginning with God.  A little further down the page it says that this Logos became flesh and dwelt among men.  So we have all of the mathematically inclined theologians teaching that this is a mathematical expression. They say that the Logos equals God, that the Logos was in the beginning with God, and that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us. So we have a mathematical proof that Jesus is God, the God_man.

Anyone who makes the erroneous mathematical analysis that equates God, Jesus, and the Logos in the prologue of John’s gospel really does not understand the concept of Logos at all.  Just like today that there are topics that are discussed around the world like evolution, Darwinianism, Islamic Jihadism, communism, and so forth there were concepts that were just as heavily discussed 2000 years ago.  The Logos was one of those topics.  In looking at this discussion throughout the centuries before and after Christ we see philosophers, religious writers, and others, one after another, identifying the Logos in their scheme of reasoning as a divine principal in the grand scheme of life.

In the previous article on stoicism we discussed the stoic view of God, whom they defined as the Logos:

“… the universe is a single ordered whole , a perfect organism that unites within itself all that exists in the world. It is ruled by a supreme cosmic power, a fiery substance that the Stoics called Logos, Divine Reason, or God.  The Logos is the organizing, integrating, and energizing principle of the whole universe.  As a perfect entity, the universe combines within itself the Logos or Divine Reason, which is its soul, and matter, which serves as its body. Since everything is derived from God, everything is a part of God, but not separated or cut from the whole.  Each individual soul is a fragment of the universal Logos or God.”[i]

This stoic philosophy of the Logos as an intermediary force is much closer to the explanation given in the prologue of the Gospel of John than any kind of quick mathematical analysis perfectly equating the Logos to both God and his Son.

More closely to the language of the times the prologue of John says that the word of God is the powerful energized plan of God. This powerful energized plan of God is what we know about God the father. In reality, as minuscule, finite beings we can only understand that part of God that he reveals to us. This word of God, this plan of redemption that God set in motion, and revealed through the law and the prophets, and experienced through our spiritual connection with him is God to us.  But in reality, the little bit of God that has been revealed to us cannot in any way fully express to our miniscule minds who God is.

Jesus Christ, our Lord, is that human fulfillment of God’s energized plan, the logos. Just as the logos is God to us, but less than the total of all that God is, Jesus is just that part of God’s plan that work to provide a human savior for mankind. That is in no ways a small feat, but that does not make the living Logos equal to the creator, at least not by anything that these verses are saying.


[i] The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant, Touchstone, Simon & Schuster New York, 1961. p.51

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

March 2nd, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments

Axiomatic Systems ?!?!

What does Axiomatic Systems have to do with a study of Christianity?  In fact, what is Axiomatic Systems?  Why would anyone care about Axiomatic Systems in the first place? Well, it’s because Christianity is an axiomatic system!

To give a little history, when I was growing I was one of the school math whizzes.  Math came easier to me than most, and I was fascinated with it. The incredible logic of it was (and still is to some small degree) awesomely beautiful.   So I was advanced in school, took calculus in high school, and started college as a math major.  I took more classes, Differential Equations, and so on.  One of the last classes I took was one called Axiomatic Systems.

So what are Axiomatic Systems?  Well, first we must look at what an axiom is.  An axiom is a truth or principle that is assumed because it is self evident.  There is no way of proving or disproving an axiom, it is just so obvious it is universally accepted.  An axiom cannot have a single contradiction ever.  For example, in algebra one axiom is:

The whole of a quantity is greater than a part.

Pretty simple, right?  Does anybody disagree with this?  Is there any time a whole orange would be less than some of its segments.  Is there any time a bunch of 50 grapes would be less than say, 20 of those same grapes, taken from it?  No, of course not.  The whole bunch will always be greater than part of the grapes from the bunch.  And the whole orange will be greater than some of the segments.  This axiom is self evident, and no one has found a contradiction.

There are quite a few other axioms that form the basis of algebra.  Examples include:

  • a + b = b + a
  • a times b = b times a

Now, whereas axioms are just self evident truths, theorems are truths that are deduced from axioms or other theorems.  (I know all this may sound complicated, but bear with me, I will relate this to Christianity pretty soon.)  Most people have heard of the Pythagorean Theorem.  Of course, this theorem relates to triangles which are more related to trigonometry, but algebra is also involved in working with the theorem.

The Pythagorean Theorem says that the area of the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.  There are “proofs” that show how this is logically deduced.

Algebra is an axiomatic system because it is based on a number of axioms.  Trigonometry is another axiomatic system, and so forth.  An Axiomatic System is any set of axioms that can be used to logically derive theorems.

What made the Axiomatic Systems class both fascinating and maddening is that this class went through the exercises of taking existing axiomatic systems like abstract algebra and trigonometry and changing some of the axioms.  For example, there is an example in classic geometry that says that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Some of you may know that this particular axiom is changed in some higher systems. Einstein, for example, postulated that space – time is a curve, and that the shortest distance between two points is a curve.

It is this example, and others like it, that brings me back to the study of original, primitive Christianity.

There are certain “truths” taught by different churches and denominations as basic tenets. These truths art presented in that they can neither be proven nor disproven.  That makes them axioms. Things deduced from these axioms therefore are theorems. That makes these theologies axiomatic systems.

As we have seen in different places of this website, however, there are many disputed doctrines, which means that we don’t have a clean and precise single axiomatic system that we can call Christianity.

One of the first things that we need to do when we have an axiomatic system that produces competing results is to examine the axioms, and verify whether or not there are contradictions to the axioms.

Of course, we don’t have any churches or denominations that define their theology as axioms and theorems. However we do have creeds, and statements of belief. And when we look at these we find that at least some of these have axioms.  Some parts of the statements of belief are axioms, and others are deductions, or theorems.  For example, some common statements in statements of belief define the status of the scriptures, the definition of the Trinity, and the role of the sacraments as well as more basic statements about the saving nature of believing in Christ.  For example, Christianity Today, a mainstream Christian magazine says the following on its website about the status of the scriptures:

“A. The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice.”[i]

This is presented as an axiom.  Since there are no copies of the originally written scriptures this statement cannot be either proven or disproven.  To the holders of this belief this statement is represented as so obvious that it is unthinkable to think otherwise.

This axiom and a few others then form the basis for other statements.  The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is very long statement that expands on the meaning of the above simple statement. (Remember that this, as with most church doctrines, can have subtly different shades of meaning among proponents) It elaborated with phrases such as:

“We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.,..

We deny that church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible…

We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God.

We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity…

We affirm that God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.

We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings…

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.

We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind….

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant…

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science…

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism…”[ii]

The writers of this statement take the position that these statements cannot be disproven, that makes axioms.

The Southern Baptist Convention holds a very similar statement on the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture to Christianity Today.  A later statement after the SBC’s statement on scripture is this:

“VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”[iii]

If you look for “proof” on how the SBC gets this, the obvious answer is they will refer to numerous passages of Scripture to document that each of the ideas in this particular statement is deduced from the principal axiom, that being that the Scriptures, with the Holy Spirit being the teacher for us to understand the Scriptures, “proves” that this is how the church is to operate.   A clue that is relevant to our discussion is “associated by covenant”.  This denomination promotes Covenant Theology over Dispensationalism.

One  key to working with axioms is to verify that they really are self evident, i.e., that they do not have any contradictions.  And if you do find a contradiction, then the challenge is to see what the ramifications are.  Just as when one element is wrong in a story, it doesn’t mean the whole story is a lie, just the element that was wrong, and any related facts that were based on it, so the same goes for evaluating an axiomatic system.

Amazingly, after I took Axiomatic Systems I started losing interest in Math.  I found the classes too abstract (I can hear the laughs!), and for years I wondered why I was so interested at one point and so uninterested after that.  (So if you found this article hard to follow I totally understand.  It’s just that it is important to resolving a lot of the disputes between the differing doctrines.)  After I started studying all these competing Christian theologies, I was thankful I had taken the class as I realized that the concepts of working with axiomatic systems applied to this study.

We will go further in future articles examining this tool of axiomatic systems and how it can help us find out what is true or not about so many of these Christian theologies.  Hopefully, it can help us sift the wheat from the chaff concerning what is true Christianity.

[i] From the Christianity Today Website, this page located at http://www.christianitytoday.com/help/features/faith.html

[ii] From The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy located at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm

[iii] official website of the Southern Baptist Convention. This page located at http://www.sbc.net/bfm/bfm2000.asp#xi

© copyright 2011 Mark W Smith, all rights reserved.

February 22nd, 2011 Posted by | Grammar and Logic | no comments