Dichotomy, the partition of opposites that are actually complementary, is a common term in mathematics, philosophy, literature and linguistics. Hilary Putnam, author of the Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays, traces its use back to David Hume. Within the context of facts and values, Hume heavily utilized dichotomy to articulate and defend metaethics and his ethic of virtue and vice. As per Hume’s dictum, an ought can never be derived from is.
Dichotomy is, however, not Hume’s brainchild. Long before it became a prominent product of human consciousness and culture, the Bible has been pushing it down the birth canal. From saving and losing life (Mark 8:35) to dying and living to gain (Phil. 1:21), the Bible utilizes speech acts that give us a glimpse of God’s character. There is a catch though: the Bible never observes Hume’s no-ought-from-is principle. It is quite the opposite: the Bible has always been an ought and is in itself. In the same manner, the triune God is the was and is, the alpha and the omega and the first and last. Modern day Christians can always derive an ought from the Bible’s is. And this is also true for truth and love.
Balancing truth and love is such a challenge for most Christians and Christian churches today. It is like using rosemary and oregano for a dish. Both herbs have a strong taste that when used together without caution may bring forth a dish disaster. However, when successfully blended, rosemary and oregano would make a very palatable, one-of-a-kind dish. Likewise, truth and love are strong biblical concepts. Their imbalance brings havoc to modern-day churches while their sense of balance leapfrogs churches to growth, numerically and spiritually. Churches have been wanting to strike that balance and while some of them are beginning to see a little more daylight how one goes about accomplishing the truth-love dichotomy, many others still fail. Now is definitely not the time to rest on bridging this divide. This area is one of the churches and Christians’ contemporary Armageddon.
In Revelation 2:1-7, Jesus addressed a loveless church from Ephesus. This loveless church was known for its patience, hard work and indignation against evil. It was also known for its discernment: they have tested those who say they were apostles but were not. Jesus applauded them for standing up against Nicolaitans who were considered false teachers. However, Jesus had a concrete observation: the church left its first love. And for this, it must repent or else Jesus would take away its lamp stand.
Located in the Roman capital of Asia Minor, the Christians of Ephesus faced enormous social and financial pressure to participate in the city’s practices. Ephesus was the center of paganism during the first century. Documents showed that Ephesians worshipped at least 14 deities. Additionally, the city had a large Jewish population, which led to racial and religious tensions within the church. Years of battling for pure faith while resolving recurring internal conflicts between the Gentiles and the Jews might have caused the hearts of most Christians in Ephesus to grow cold.
Losing the Elementary Principle
One day, my youngest went home from school with an assignment on phonemes. The assignment entails, marking the spot of emphasis on given words when spoken, using copyediting symbols. Students should also identify whether the given words were using long or short form of one of the vowels. My youngest wanted me to explain how he would go about with his assignment. Unfortunately, phonemes did not make it to my long-term memory. Together with a host of other basic lessons in phonetics, phonemes did not survive the horrendous encoding, storing and retrieving process in my psyche. My firstborn ended up answering the questions for me. He did it with ease, complete with an explanation why they were the accurate answers. I picked up the lessons from there and processed them into ideas my youngest could understand.
Most of the time, the basics are the easiest to forget. And yet, almost always, they are the most important. According to Rev. 2:5, the church of Ephesus forgot to nurture the first works of faith. The phrase “first works of faith” struck me as profound. I had to leave my computer table and walk for a while to make sense of it. What are these first works of faith? And why can they be neglected in the pursuit of truth? I was reminded of a young Christian Rein passionate about the things of God. She had a genuine joy and hunger to be closer and walk with God. And then responsibilities came, one after another. The desire to do greater things for God intensified until burn out set in. And slowly and surely, everything became arduous. Without her knowing, the now-considered old Christian Rein was critical, frustrated and impatient.
In the church of Ephesus’ struggle against the Nicolaitans and other environment-related pressures, it neglected to model the love of God. In its effort to hold fast to what was true and right, the church unconsciously abandoned the love for love. When we talk about God’s love and first works of faith, we are referring to love translated beyond pleasantries or making it to our 7 a.m. commitment, rain or shine. We are talking about the love we had when we first get to know Christ. That childlike love that would plunge our being into awe whenever we read John 3:16 or Genesis 1:1. That love that would wrap us in hopeful reveling for the future. I lost that. The church of Ephesus lost that. And the modern day churches and Christians continue to grapple with that loss: an advancing Kingdom, which people and churches lost touch to the first works of the Holy Spirit.
How many times did we push ourselves to stretch for the great, only to realize we have been bending way too much in the most basic of our Christian doctrines? In our desire to baptize all the nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, we ended up cutting corners, sacrificing the “first works of faith” in the altar of our great. Not God’s great, because God’s great is always tied to the first works of faith. Due to fear of committing pagan worship, the church of Ephesus failed to use its instinctive guard, espousing a sloppy love.
The love of God is in the same plane and adjacent to the truth of God. It never compromises the truth. After all, no Biblical truth is founded on anything else but God’s love. The God of Revelation wears the truth hat and the love hat at the same time. He never compromised one for the other. He begins with love and would end in love.
How do we solve a problem like truth-love dichotomy?
Jesus already gave his answer: “repent.” The church of Ephesus in all its diversity — theological depth and shallowness, opportunities and oppression, peace and war — needed to heed Jesus’ arresting words. This is also true to modern Christians and churches. When our pursuit of truth, the love of what is right, abandons the love of Christ, we have to slow down. We have to make two steps back and honestly assess if a step forward is worth it. Consequently, we also have to guard ourselves from another extreme – compromising Biblical truths in the name of love. Again, all Biblical truths emanate from the love of God. Meaning, the love of God produces nothing but sound, Biblical truths. And I would like to emphasize this: the love of God will not destroy its own. So, if what we call love is obstructing the application of a Biblical truth, then it is not the love that emanates from God. A type of deception is at play.
I am convinced that the church of Ephesus’ lack of capacity to balance truth and love has something to do with the church members and leaders’ immature spiritual discernment. History will tell us that Christian churches, for some reason, flourish when they are countercultural. Where there is a place antagonistic to Biblical truths, a thriving church offering a viable alternative to the people in the area can be found. And so, the challenges the church of Ephesus was facing were to an extent ordinary – churches and Christians, ancient and modern, were familiar to them. Then why did the church and its people allow their first love to slide through their grips? Or has the church been enjoying a slippery slope ride from the beginning?
Understanding the truth-love dichotomy is understanding the properties of a circle. It is a closed curve, which distance from a given point is constant. It has no definite starting or ending point, only a precise center. Because of this, a circle, by technical definition, is always identified by a set of points and a center. In the truth-love dichotomy, the center is the heart of Christ. And without understanding the heart of Christ, we will always find ourselves struggling to balance truth and love. When modern day churches and Christians learn to only focus on that center, then the pursuit for a church thriving in a well-balanced truth and love is not farfetched.
“...cultivate your heart. Invite the Word to plow deep bleeding furrows in your heart, and invite the Holy Spirit to turn those furrows into channels of grace.” –R. Kent Hughes
Duval, J. Scott. Revelation: Teach the text Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.
Putnam, Hilary. The Collapse of the Fact/Value Dichotomy and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Note: A reflection paper for my Daniel-Revelation class, SY 2015-2016.