Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Recommendation - Avatar

I know it's probably odd for a mostly-theological blog to recommend an entirely-secular movie, but odd has never stopped me yet and I don't think I'll start now. . .I just saw the film "Avatar" with my brother and our sons yesterday, and I have a new addition to my top-ten all-time favorite movies.  It's really that good.  Not because it's a compelling sci-fi and intercultural story, though it is that.  Not because it has the most seamless integration of CGI and live action I've ever seen, though it has that.  Not because of breathtaking cinematography or stunning action sequences, though it has both in spades.

No, what makes Avatar leap to the top reaches of my list is the moving way that James Cameron has told the story of the depths to which a military/industrial society will go to obtain the materials that contribute to their (our) consumer economy, and the complete disregard for the lives and cultures that may get in our way.  The material in question in the movie is "unobtanium," and the location where it's mined is a habitable moon around a blue gas-giant planet some six years' space travel away from us, but it's also the story of diamonds in Southern Africa, coltan in Congo, gold in Papua New Guinea, and all the other blood-minerals that power our economy.

Watch this movie.  Be prepared for an uncomfortable look in the mirror, even as you drink in a stunning exemplar of storytelling--probably Cameron's best ever.  And if you don't see 9/11 in the imagery, you're not paying attention. . .

It's rated PG-13 for violence and "sensuality."  No question the battles are violent.  The sensuality is very low-key in my opinion, unless you consider the nearly-nude (though depicted discretely) forms of the native race to be offensive.  The imagery is not sexual, it is natural.  The need for parental guidance on this film is not because of the overt material--it's to make sure your teenagers think about the deeper subtexts.  And they are thoughts we of the West should contemplate.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Manhattan Declaration -- I won't be signing it

A couple of friends have recently pointed me to The Manhattan Declaration with encouragement that I and other like-minded believers should sign on.  I won't be signing it, and I encourage my believing friends to think long and carefully about it too.  The declaration purports to lay out three principals as particularly important for Christians to support, and to publicly advocate:
  • the sanctity of human life
  • the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife
  • the rights of conscience and religious liberty. 
I actually support all three of these principles, but not in the way the writers of the Manhattan Declaration mean the words.  In point of fact, a careful reading of the principals as elucidated in the Declaration makes it abundantly clear that they only mean these things in the American Christian Republican manner, despite their nonpartisan protestation.  I say this in particular with regard to points one and three:

The sanctity of life  The text of the declaration is unmistakable in its denunciation of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, and therapeutic cloning.  I agree that abortion and euthanasia are inconsistent with a Jesus-centered life ethic, even though I disagree with most of the particular actions and laws that so-called "Pro-Life" advocates actually push (stem cells and cloning are far less clear-cut IMO).   In typical Republican fashion, however, the declaration says nothing about warfare or capital punishment.  While I freely grant that there are consistent, Jesus-honoring people who believe that there are times where the Christian may condone both of these, a position that truly considers the sanctity of all human life would have to require that any application of either warfare or capital punishment pass certain tests far more stringent than simply "the government (or at least the good, conservative, Christian, Republican government) says so."

In the case of warfare, a rigid application of just war criteria would have to precede every use of military force, and would require a deliberate and public examination of the causus belli and the actual prosecution of the war.  If human life is truly sacred, then the notion of "collateral damage" in warfare should be as horrifying as the notion of infanticide.  So, too, should the notion that we go and fight (i.e. kill people) for our "freedom."  Nothing but the preservation of life--not lifestyle, but life itself--can possibly justify the taking of other life if human lives are really sacred.

In the case of capital punishment, a Christian perspective should at the very least be in the vanguard of efforts such as the Innocence Project and similar efforts dedicated to making sure no one is wrongfully executed.  Quite to the contrary, Christians are often leaders in the enforcement of capital punishment.  If human life is truly sacred, then we should go to every conceivable length to make certain that those who go to the gallows are indeed guilty.  The notion that courts might actually reject the petition for a DNA test of a capital case is unconscionable.

The Right of Conscience and Liberty  This section advocates for the rights of Christians to promulgate and practice their views without government interference.  For the most part I agree with this, though when those same Christians attempt to enshrine their views in publicly-sanctioned (or owned) assets it gets a bit murky.  I do agree, for example, that Christian hospitals shouldn't be forced to perform abortions, and Christian adoption agencies should be able to screen their placements for families who meet faith criteria (though they should be prepared to give up government subsidies--including tax exemption--when they do).  However, there is not a word in this document on the liberty of other religions within America.  I know people in my own church who consider Islam to be an "enemy religion" and have said to my face that the Christian West and Muslim nations are inevitably at war.  I remember lots of Christians who felt that if Barack Obama were a Muslim (which anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows was false) it should disqualify him from the presidency.  The church in America has not been sufficiently vocal on the side of religious tolerance in our own country, and conservative Christians who support documents like the Manhattan Declaration are among the most egregious offenders.

Unlike points one and three, the section on Marriage at least shows some nuance in its acknowledgment that Christians have all too often violated the sanctity of marriage by their divorces and infidelity.  In large measure I agree with that section of the Declaration, though if I were to write a declaration of places we believers ought to take a stand, I doubt that the defense of traditional marriage would make my top ten list; it certainly wouldn't make it to the top three.

But until Christians who stand for the sanctity of life mean ALL human life (Jim Wallis of Sojourners calls this a "Consistent Life Ethic" and though I'm not an overall fan of Wallis, he gets that right), I can't endorse their statements on the sanctity of life.  And until the right of conscience is defended even for those whose conscience differs from mine--or yours--I can't endorse those statements either.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

An interesting take on incarnation and God's chacter

I just came across an interesting article by Greg Boyd at Christus Victor during my lunch break.  In it, Greg outlines several points that he is finding helpful in an attempt to reconcile the peaceful, self-giving portrait of God painted in Jesus Christ, with the violent and even nationalistic God portrayed in the Old Testament.  I was particularly struck with Greg's first point, which I quote here:

The Principle of Incarnational Flexibility. If Jesus reveals what God has always been like, then God didn’t start being “incarnational” with the Incarnation. Rather, God has always been willing to humbly “embody” himself within our fallen humanity and has always “borne our sin.” The portrait of Yahweh as a nationalistic, law-oriented, violent-tending warrior god is the result of God condescending to “embody” himself within our barbaric and deceived views of him in order to work toward freeing us from them.

That rings true to me, at least in part.  I'm not sure it fully grasps the times in the O.T. where God appears to command violence, however.  I still tend to see those more as the result of humans (whether cynically or ignorantly) co-opting God's mantle to promote their own objectives.  What do you think?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Re-examining the Trinity - Jesus

As longtime readers of this blog already know, a number of the issues I have addressed here come from my collisions with classic Evangelical statements of faith.  One common element of such statements is a clause on the Trinity.  Here's a good example, cribbed from the website of a well-known Evangelical organization:

We believe that there is one God, eternally existent in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

 This simple phrase is further amplified by the new EFCA statement of faith:

We believe in one God, Creator of all things, holy, infinitely perfect, and eternally existing in a loving unity of three equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Having limitless knowledge and sovereign power, God has graciously purposed from eternity to redeem a people for Himself and to make all things new for His own glory. 

 There's a long tradition behind the notion of Jesus as fully God and fully human, dating at least back to the Nicea, as immortalized in the Nicene Creed:

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. 

 But with all due respect (but no more than due) to the church fathers, I'm not absolutely sure they got it right.  There can be no doubt that Jesus represented himself as divine.  I refer you to an excellent word study my Mom published over at the Pioneers' New Testament, on the subject of Jesus use of the "I AM" phraseology--a construct that made no sense at all in Greek unless it was hearking back to God's declaration to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3:14).  There's no reasonable question that his hearers heard Jesus characterizing himself as divine, either, as they tried more than once to stone him for blasphemy when he said it (see John 10:30-33).

Nevertheless, Jesus also, and just as clearly, referred to himself and the Father in language that seems awfully much like he saw God the Father as truly and distinctly other than himself.  Take for example Matt. 10:32-33, where Jesus speaks of acknowledging and/or denying people before his father, or Matt. 11:27 where he describes having authority delegated to him by his Father.  Or look at Matt. 20:23, where Jesus tells James and John and their mom that the authority to decide who sits at his right and left hand, has been reserved by the father and is "not mine to grant."  Perhaps most tellingly, Jesus' prayer to his Father in the garden that the cup of his suffering pass from him, does not sound like a unity of being.  These passages all  have their parallels in the other gospels; I'm not trying to be exhaustive here, but rather to point out the case that is to be made.

The question, then, is why we must make a big deal out of determining the appropriate Christology to think, in order to be judged a worthy disciple of Christ the King.  It took between two hundred and three hundred years for the church to come to the point of carving out the distinction (Nicea was in the early 300s--a time when a lot else got loused up by the church as well).  I submit that a healthier, and more biblical approach, would be to live with the tension of Jesus' divinity and his humanity--to recognize that when he referred to there being only one God, he was referring to his Father at the same time that he knew he, also, was begotten by the Father in a divine, non-human sense before creation, and then incarnated as the Word become flesh at a later point in history.

Bottom line, it doesn't take sorting out the finer details of this paradox, to get us down to the business of following him.   We would do well to get our priorities in order.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

A Personal Story - A Dad Confronts Down syndrome

Not a judgment, but a job!
Reflections from the dad of a nine-year-old boy with Down syndrome
Daniel W. Martin, September, 2009

In January of 2000, our youngest son Gabe was born. Two days later, his pediatrician informed us that she believed he had Down syndrome, and that she had ordered a karyotype to confirm. I was stunned. I searched for other reasons for each of the traits our doctor had pointed out, willing myself to believe that there was some mistake, and that when the results came back it would all be over. Together with my wife Janine, I grieved and wept as we told ourselves it would be all right, though secretly we each suspected it would not be. I don’t know if I have ever sobbed as deeply and uncontrollably in my life, as I did the first time I actually said out loud, to a family member on the phone, “they think Gabe may have Down’s.”

An awful lot of that grief was for myself. As the reality settled in—confirmed by the blood test—I feared Janine and I would never get to live or travel alone together, ever again. I worried that we would be saddled with a perpetual invalid who would require our constant care and attention. I pitied (as I saw him then) the poor child with the “broken brain” in my arms, pleading with God that, if he never accomplished anything else, Gabe would at least be able to know he was loved.

I was also mightily angry with God. I suspected that somehow, this burden had come to us because I was being taught some lesson. . .not so much as a punishment for anything I had done or been, but that somehow Gabe’s misfortune was God’s way of breaking through to me on something (I never really was sure what). And I was outraged that God would hurt my baby in order to get to me.

In other words, I had no clue.

The nine-year-old Gabe I know today bears not the slightest resemblance to the invalid vegetable of my early, dark vision. Not only does he know he is loved, he expresses his own love with infectious enthusiasm. Just tonight, when I drove into the garage, Gabe met me at the car door, greeted me with a warm embrace, and then led me into the kitchen, shouting to the rest of the family “Hey guys! My Daddy’s home!”

Gabe is known and beloved throughout our circle of friends: at school, where he is included in a third-grade class with a teacher who specifically requested him; at church, where he probably knows more of the congregation than I do; and in our extended family, who adore him. I know of at least two or three young adults who have chosen to study some form of special education or therapy in college, at least in part due to their experience with Gabe. He has shattered stereotypes of mental disability for more people than I can name.

What of my anger at God? Well, at some point in my struggles, it occurred to me that maybe this wasn’t about me at all. I envisioned that there was a purpose for Gabe to fulfill—something that he couldn’t do if he were “normal.” I realized that God had offered me, not a judgment, but an assignment. My job was—and is—to prepare Gabe for his job. It lay to me only to accept the challenge and get to work. It dawned on me that really, this was no different than my responsibility with my “typical” kids. The specifics might vary, but the basic needs and roles were the same. As I internalized this truth, my anger abated.

I have learned a few lessons, though. I’ve become a more compassionate man than I ever was before. I’ve learned to look for the pain and struggle behind other parents’ issues, and I’ve reached out to some of them that I might never have connected with under “normal” circumstances. I’ve learned the vital importance of a network of friends who care enough to share the load. For me, that network has been our family and our church; for others it might be other groups, but I can say without reservation that parents who try to negotiate these waters alone are at a severe disadvantage.

I’d be lying if I said raising a child with Down syndrome—even a high-functioning child—is easy. It’s not. Come to think of it, though, raising any child is no walk in the park. All children, regardless of their abilities, also have their challenges, and they challenge their parents. Nevertheless, I have a richer family, and I am a better man, because of my son Gabe. I love that little rascal. My job’s far from done, but I can tell you that so far, it’s been a rewarding one.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Talking with God . . . ???

After a post a few weeks ago that some might describe as cynical, I just had to share this tidbit (of which, by the way, I have no memory, nor do I choose to editorialize on it).  My Mom sent me a copy of the following meditation, which was published in the November 2, 1965 issue of the Gospel Herald, a Mennonite newsletter:

Out of the Mouth of Babes
by Ruth Martin

Our 2 1/2-year-old Danny just gave me a lesson I hope I shall never forget.  While I was cleaning up the breakfast dishes, he occupied himself with his toy telephone.

Trying to decide who to "talk to," he suddenly decided, "I better call Jesus."  The following conversation ensued:

  "Hello, Jesus.  Are you fine?"  (Pause)
  "Yes, I'm fine too."  (Longer pause)
  "OK, I will.  Bye-bye, Jesus.  See ya later."

The little receiver went down with its characteristic tinkle, and Danny went on about his business.

I stopped working, up to my elbows in suds.  "Father, help me to pray like that.  .  .  .As naturally as we exchange pleasantries on the phone, obviously more interested in His welfare, His wishes, than my own.  And let me teach my little ones as faithfully as you teach me, through them."

Mom tells me she always wondered what transpired on that phone and/or in my mind.  Wish I could tell you. . .

Friday, October 9, 2009

Of God and Time

I will preface this post by saying that from a point of discipleship, what I'm about to say is meaningless.  It's also a place where I have no problem if people disagree with me, as long as they are actually considering the foundation of their disagreement.  However, it's a point I've encountered in the middle of a variety of discussions on predestination, free will, and other such stuff, and I think it's a good example of people assuming a point as given without the proper consideration.

I refer to the relationship between God and time.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that time--the actual sequential experiencing of things, not merely our units for measuring it--is a part of creation that we experience, but that God himself exists outside of time.  Therefore, the notion of whether God foreordained something (say one person's belief or another's unbelief) is actually somewhat academic since God sees past, present, and future in some timeless sense whereby the very notions of past, present, and future don't actually apply to God's experience.  It's how at least some folks explain the paradox in Romans 8:29 where God predestined (implying choice) those whom he foreknew (implying awareness of another's choice).

There's really no biblical evidence I can think of that supports this notion, which derives largely (I have heard) from Plato who did believe the ideal God was immutable (that is, unchanging/unchangeable), impassible (that is, unaffected by outside forces, so nothing can influence him) and extra-temporal.  In contrast, though, the biblical account is full of instances of God interacting with his creation in ways that clearly show creation influencing the creator--for example Moses' arguments persuading God not to blow the Israelites to smithereens, or God's relenting from the disaster promised to Nineveh--and this in ways that rather clearly suggest that God intended or said one thing but as the circumstance unfolded he went a different way.  Such accounts make very little sense in the context of a timeless and immutable God.

But what if time, rather than being a created thing, is rather an element of God's nature itself?  Before you get all freaked out on me, let me clarify.  I'm not suggesting that time is divine, or that there is a divinity like  Father Time of legend.  Rather, what if God's nature is to experience an unfolding reality rather as we do, albeit on a much grander and longer scale?  God can still be eternal (existing from eternity past, will exist into eternity future) even if he experiences that eternity in an unfolding, progressive sense.  But if God actually knows a past, a present, and the possibility of a future just as we (after all, his image-bearers) do, it does put these questions in a completely different light.

For one thing, it makes the possibility of free will truly free.  The usual outside-of-time, sees-past-and-future-as-one construct really can't escape the notion that everything we do is in some sense predetermined (I would go so far as to say that I can't really see much room for a middle ground between absolute deterministic Calvinism on one hand and Open Theism on the other).  One cannot foreknow an outcome unless that outcome is fixed and therefore subject to knowledge, and no amount of multidimensional babble frees us from that trap.

But it also brings a whole new meaning to prophecy, as I implied before in my post on God's sovereignty.  By this I mean that when God foretells the future, he's doing so, not because he "knows what's going to happen" in any passive sense of the word, but rather because he has purposed that this is going to happen.  True future-telling prophecy, then, is merely the result of God tipping his hand about something he intends to accomplish; or what is far more likely, God decreeing what he has determined must be.  It is true, not because of God's omniscience, but because of his sovereign power.

What do you think?  How else would a notion of a timely God rather than a timeless one, impact your theology or world view?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Jesus is all I need ... NOT!

I just sat through yet another interminable “worship” session this morning, at which song after song repeated one form or another of the notion that “Jesus is all I need” or “Jesus is more than enough for me.” I suppose I’m going to raise serious doubts about my spiritual condition here (nothing new in that), but I’ve just got to say this:

Jesus is NOT enough for me. I believe he could be, but he ain’t!

I bring this up because I have an overwhelming suspicion that I’m not alone here, and more importantly, I really feel for the internal conflict that this (over)emphasis may cause for those who, like me, have not found full satisfaction in their spiritual experience (whereof more below).

So let’s break it down a little bit. What, in fact, does it mean that “Jesus is (more than) enough for me?”

1) Does it mean my physical needs are provided for? Maybe. I just had a new job land in my lap, taking away the very real fear that my former job (at which we were on reduced pay to try & save the company) was going away. My family continues with no lack of income, and for that I’m deeply grateful. . .to God and to those who helped me land the job. My daily bread is still coming.
But what about those who believe in Jesus as much or more than I, but whose physical needs are NOT being met? This could be a failing of their church body, who ought to support each other (a topic for another time), but the harsh reality is that there are people who DON’T have their daily bread, but who diligently seek Jesus. Is Jesus really “all they need?” What about a square meal? Man shall not live by bread alone, but he has a tough time living without ANY bread. . .

2) Does it mean salvation itself? Of course this must be part of it. I’ve written before about the fact that Jesus is the beginning and end of salvation and redemption (but please follow this link to clarify what I mean by salvation; it’s not just fire insurance). I would submit that most churches where I’ve heard the “all I need” language repeated ad nauseum are teaching—by implication if not explicitly—that Jesus without appropriate doctrine is most emphatically NOT enough. This needs examination.

3) Does it mean relationship or friendship or love? Sure sounds like it. And to be perfectly candid, this is one place where I simply have to say “no, Jesus doesn’t cut it here.” I have spent a lifetime believing in Jesus, trusting Jesus, and doing my fallible best to seek to be a disciple of Jesus, but I have never “met” Jesus. I have heard lots of justifications from lots of people, but I’m sorry—I do not accept a definition of “relationship” where the communication is all one-way. Reading a guy’s book and talking into the air believing he hears you, but never seeing his face or hearing his voice in response, does not a relationship make. I accept and acknowledge that God loved the world and gave his son; that Jesus demonstrated his love for “us” collectively in that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8). However, “us” collectively, by which I mean the whole of humanity, is not at all the same as a personal relationship with an individual—me.

I value my friendships and relationships highly. My wife Janine is my best friend and I deeply cherish my life with her. Could I survive without her? Sure, but it’d be a severely diminished existence. Likewise, though at a different level, my three children, and a few dear friends around the country. And in a still-different, but significant way, some of the friendships I’ve developed with readers of this blog—you know who you are, and I hope to meet you in the flesh someday. Each of these relationships adds something vital to my existence, and while Jesus may (and probably did) have a hand in my meeting and developing relationships with each of them, Jesus in their absence is NOT enough.

4) Does it mean fulfillment or satisfaction? The context of the singers would suggest as much. But here in particular I take issue with the implication of the songs. I have spent nearly twelve years doing work that, while it’s certainly responsible work for a Christian to do, it has absolutely nothing to do with my passion and desire to serve in health and development for the poorer parts of the world. And with limited time off and remuneration, it doesn’t even provide me a lifestyle that allows me to volunteer in that realm. It may very well be that God is preparing me for something I’m not yet ready to do. . .in fact I want to believe this is so. But the reality is that God has not given me the privilege to see the point of what I’ve been doing for the past decade-plus. I want to trust that I’m in God’s will here, but the harsh truth is that I’m clueless on this point. God hasn’t given me any indication of what else I ought to be doing, or that what I am doing is wrong. I just have this deep conviction (reinforced every time I engage the field) that there’s something else I could do that’s much better. . .if only I could find a way to do it without leaving my family in the lurch.

But the reality for now is that, in the realm of fulfillment or satisfaction that I’m in God’s will, that my life has a purpose beyond what I cynically call the “circle of life,” Jesus has provided me nothing.

In defense of Jesus, I’m not actually convinced that he ever promised to be or do any of these things. So it’s not really Jesus’ fault. It is, though the fault of a church/faith system that trumpets this sort of language in nearly every “worship” service. And therein lies the real problem, I think. If people who are less the independent, stubborn cuss I am, keep being battered with this message, and if those same people do a clear-eyed self-examination and come up as short as I have, we run the risk of driving them from the faith because of our own false expectations. And if I’m right about this, it would seem to me that Jesus’ comments in Matt. 18:6 (about the millstone) might be relevant.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Where/when can Christians serve in the armed forces? Part 1

I know that many (most?) of the readers of this blog share at least some of my qualms with Christians serving in the military (for those who haven't yet explored my blog, click on the "War and Peace" subject in the index at the top of this page). I have a question aimed primarily at those who do NOT fall in the no-Christians-in-military camp. I hope to get a few of my "Just War" friends to weigh in; if you know of anyone who ought to be invited to this dialog, and who can commit to keeping it civil, please recruit them.

This is not intended to be a "gotcha" or an attack on those with whom I disagree. Rather it's a conundrum I genuinely do not understand and would like to learn more.

My question is this:

We know that there are, and have been for centuries, Christian citizens of the nation of Iraq. Do you believe it was (a) morally acceptable, or (b) morally requisite, for those Christians to serve in the army of Saddam Hussein's Iraq when:
  1. Iraq invaded Kuwait?
  2. The U.S. invaded Iraq in response to the Kuwait invasion in 1991 ("Operation Desert Storm")?
  3. The U.S. invaded Iraq again in 2003 ("Operation Iraqi Freedom")?
If you answer in the affirmative in either (2) or (3), how do you reconcile the notion that Christians, citizens of the Kingdom of God, would have found themselves on opposing sides of a conflict where they very well might have tried to kill each other?

If you answer in the negative, please help me to understand, in the Biblical framework of Romans 13 or your choice of other passages, how you see the differing duty or freedom between citizens of Iraq and the United States in the context of the above conflicts.

And above all, please keep the ensuing discussion civil.

Friday, August 28, 2009

War and Peace - A Civil Discussion

I just wanted to point those of you who read my blog to a discussion I've been having with John Hobbins on his "Ancient Hebrew Poetry" blog. John and I most definitely do not agree about the appropriateness of Christians serving in the military, or on the justness of (at least some) military actions we're now involved with in the U.S. But we both agree that people who really care about Jesus don't all come down in the same place on these issues, and we're neither of us comfortable with the rancor that usually characterizes discussions between the "sides."

John has been proving to me that it is possible for one of my perspective and one of his to have a civil discourse. I doubt we'll come anywhere close to agreement on at least some of the issues, but IMHO this sort of discourse enriches the participants. I learned about a book I'm going to want to read, at the very least--the upcoming "Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State," by Daniel M. Bell.

But give John's thoughts a serious listen. And think about his challenge to "armchair pacifists." It's a worthy question he's asking, and someone who maintains that sort of Christian demeanor while asking is worthy of engaging.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Easter Should Make Rebels of Us All - a sermon link

Over a late lunch today I listened to a podcast of a sermon from a minister whose page I found through another blog, and I want to share it with you. Andy Croel, over at The Pulpiteer, preached a good sermon this past Easter on the notion that death is NOT part of God's plan, that Easter shows it, and how we ought to respond. I recommend it. Here is a quick excerpt:

In the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we see God's plan for dealing with death...In the resurrection, mothers are not told why their children died: mothers are given their children back. In the resurrection, we are not told why disease is secretly good: we are healed. In the resurrection the effects of evil and death are undone. Death is shown to have no ultimate effects at all, because God can undo it in the blink of an eye...

Easter should make rebels of us all...when we see evil and injustice, when we see death and destruction, when we see natural disasters that wipe out villages and leave hundreds dead, we are not to be a people that try to come in and explain some ultimate meaning and purpose behind horrible tragedy and death. Instead, we are to speak of a God of salvation who came back to rescue his good creation: A God who doesn't explain the tragic death of innocents, but rather raises them back to life.

He then goes on to challenge us to feed the hungry and minister to the suffering and dying, precisely because their hunger and suffering and death are the work of our enemy...death...defeated though it is by Jesus' resurrection. If I may paraphrase, working for justice, in Jesus' name, is an act of war.

The full sermon is here.

Friday, July 31, 2009

2 Timothy 3:16-17 -- Even Further Thoughts

OK, so we've established that I was wrong in placing 2 Tim. 3:14-17 in a single sentence. But no translation I have EVER read portrays verses 16 and 17 as anything other than a single sentence, and this is important. Let's look:

16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

Hmmm... notice anything? What's Scripture given FOR? It's not for "right belief." It's not "that you may believe God created the world in six days." It's not "that you may have the correct doctrine of the Atonement." It's not even "that you may have the correct view of the Trinity."


Funny thing about the's way less confusing when you're looking for stuff to obey, than when you're looking for theories, systems, and beliefs. Wonder if it's because that was its purpose???

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Important article on Biblical Inspiration

I just came across an amazing article on Biblical inspiration that goes into much greater detail, and with much more scholarly foundation, than my series has so far. I haven't had time to read the whole thing yet, but I will. I'll probably highlight bits of it in future posts.

The article is "Inerrancy, Inspiration, and Dictation" by Joel Stephen Williams, and it was published in the Restoration Quarterly, Vol. 37/No. 3 (1995). I had never heard of Williams before, but it appears he's an author and professor at Amridge (formerly Southern Christian) University.

Two quick quotes:

We must realize that the doctrine of inspiration is not the capstone of Christian theology. A fundamentalist view of inspiration does not insure orthodoxy. Many who hold to a fundamentalist view of inspiration are in extreme error on more significant truths such as the deity of Christ. Furthermore, many people come to faith in Christ and salvation without knowing even the rudimentary elements of a doctrine of inspiration.


Positive statements about the usefulness of the Scriptures in instructing mankind for salvation affirm more about the Bible than a negative statement that it is without error. The Bible is not the ultimate end. Instead, it is a witness to God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. As John the Baptist pointed toward Christ, the Bible is a witness pointing toward God.

This comes very close to my own perspective, as I expressed it in an email to my Mom last week. Here, then, is my "doctrine of the Bible," if you will:

I prefer to say that the biblical (particularly N.T. and prophets) authors are faithful witnesses to what they saw/heard, and their writings are to be trusted as the testimony of a faithful witness. . .without blurring the distinction between the witnesses and the truth to which they are testifying.

2 Tim. 3:16 -- Redux, Correction, and Further Thoughts

Those who have read my series on Biblical inspiration know that I took issue with the use of 2 Tim. 3:16 as a prooftext for the inerrancy of the entire Biblical canon. I stand by my objection, but I have to do a correction nonetheless.

One of my suggestions in my prior post, was that perhaps 1 Tim 3:14-17 should be read as a single sentence, with verses 16 and 17 as a dependent clause on 14 and 15--that is, that the "all scripture" Paul is describing in verse 16 is merely an elaboration on "the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus" in verse 15.

Well, I put that very question to the translators at the NET Bible, as I have read from several sources that they are scrupulously careful with the grammar and the text, even if the result is an unfamiliar reading. Here is their response, authored by someone named "mburer" (I'd give fuller credit if I could, but I don't know least you can follow the link):

It is almost impossible for v. 16 to be a dependent clause. (1) Verse 16 is marked by asyndeton, and this is most normal for independent clauses. (2) Verse 16 has no marks of normal dependent clauses; there is no participle, infinitive, or subordinating conjunction to indicate dependency. (3) If it were dependent and meant to modify τὰ ἱερὰ γράμματα in some fashion, πᾶσα γραφὴ would need to be accusative case as the original phrase is, but it is nominative. (4) The fact that the copulative verb is missing from v. 16 does not argue for v. 16 being dependent. When a verb is lacking in Greek, usually the indicative is implied, which would in fact make this independent. To make v. 16 a dependent clause the participle would need to be implied, and likely Paul would have written that in ful to make the sense clear if that were the case.

Now, I freely admit that the grammatical technicalities they gave here are way over my head. I have submitted this to one other Greek scholar I know who has told me that it's correct, however, so I must accept that my limited knowledge of Greek led me to an incorrect conclusion regarding the division of the sentence. I was wrong to suggest that 14-17 is a single sentence.

However, I still suspect it's a single thought, for the simple reason that the "pasa graphe" that Paul is referring to in verse 16 cannot truly mean "all writing." While it is true that "graphe" as a noun occurs in the New Testament as referring only to sacred writings, the fact remains that the word itself just means "something written down." In fact, according to lexicographers Liddell and Scott, no lesser sources than Herodotus and Plato use the same word to refer to drawing and painting, not to mention plenty of non-sacred written words including catalogues, archives, medical prescriptions, and legal writs. So Paul was using a generic word "writing" not a holy word "Scripture" in verse 16. He cannot have meant that "all writings" are inspired by God, so it remains likely that he's referring to the very writings he just mentioned in verse 14, simply because of context. As I have said before, to apply the statement in verse 16 to the entire canon of our modern, Protestant (or Catholic) Bible is only possible if you start with the presupposition that Paul was foreshadowing a canon he did not yet know about, when he wrote those words. In other words, it proves nothing you have not predisposed it to prove.

However, that's only the phrase "pasa graphe." We have not touched "theopneustos," the word translated "inspired of God" in the KJV, "breathed out by God" in ESV, "God-breathed" in NIV, and "God's breath" in the Pioneers' New Testament. It's a word that didn't get much play at all in Greek literature prior to Paul (if you have the energy for a long and convoluted analysis of the word, have a look at B.B. Warfield's article here). It's broken down, of course into the constituent words "theos" or god (not necessarily always God the Father of Jesus), and "pneustos" which comes from "pneuma" and/or "pnoe," two alternate forms of a word that can mean "spirit," "breath," and "wind" (I hope it's not too insulting, but according to Liddell-Scott, "pneuma"--the same word used of the Holy Spirit, has also been used in Greek literature to refer to flatulence!).

It's certainly appropriate, based on the wide variety of usages of the pneuma/pnoe pair, to understand "theopneustos" as "God's breath." But we have to remember, when we do, that there is an element of "spirit" in the word as well. As such, Paul may be saying as much about the influence of the Holy Spirit in tandem with the content of the written word, as he's saying about the text itself.

The bottom line, however, is that grammar or no, to use 2 Tim 3:16, standing on its own, as proof that the Biblical canon is inerrant, is to lift a sentence out of context, impose rigid meanings on words with much broader history, and basically create a circular proof-loop where the evidence depends upon the conclusion that in turn is being supported by the evidence. That makes no sense.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The miracle of the vine . . . and the Lord's Supper

C.S. Lewis is a favorite author of mine, both for his fiction and his serious writing. Among my favorite of his works, and one that doesn't get a lot of play, is "God in the Dock," a collection of essays that in many cases summarize in a few pages each, thoughts that elsewhere he spends a whole book on (available at Amazon, also on Google Books).

This is an excerpt from his essay entitled "Miracles" and has meant a lot to me since I first read it. Here Lewis is explaining and riffing off a teaching he found in Athenasius:

"There is an activity of God displayed throughout creation, a wholesale activity let us say which men refuse to recognize. The miracles done by God incarnate, living as a man in Palestine, perform the very same things as this wholesale activity, but at a different speed and on a smaller scale. One of their chief purposes is that men, having seen a thing done by personal power on the small scale, may recognize, when they see the same thing done on the large scale, that the power behind it is also personal - is indeed the very same person who lived among us two thousand years ago. The miracles in fact are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see. Of that larger script part is already visible, part is still unsolved. In other words, some of the miracles do locally what God has already done universally: others do locally what He has not yet done, but will do. In that sense, and from our human point of view, some are reminders and others prophecies.

God creates the vine and teaches it to draw up water by its roots and, with the aid of the sun, to turn that water into a juice which will ferment and take on certain qualities. Thus every year, from Noah's time till ours, God turns water into wine. That, men fail to see. Either like the Pagans they refer the process to some finite spirit, Bacchus or Dionysus: or else, like the moderns, they attribute real and ultimate causality to the chemical and other material phenomena which are all that our senses can discover in it. But when Christ at Cana makes water into wine, the mask is off. The miracle has only half its effect if it only convinces us that Christ is God: it will have its full effect if whenever we see a vineyard or drink a glass of wine we remember that here works He who sat at the wedding party in Cana."

Now partly I appreciate this quote because I genuinely love a good glass of wine, particularly a good Shiraz, Zinfandel, or Cabernet. I confess I have yet to fully discipline my mind to remember Jesus as Lewis admonishes in the last sentence, though I do think of it more frequently than I might otherwise. But this passage resonated anew with me one day when I read Matthew's account of the Last Supper:

26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.” (Matt. 26:26-29, ESV)

What struck me about this was Jesus saying this was the last glass of wine he would enjoy until the "wedding feast of the Lamb" (boy, talk about a dry spell!). He is not only (or at all?) instigating a sacrament here...he's telling his friends to remember him--and to look forward to his return--when they lift a glass. Sounds rather like a wake in some ways, to me.

So one thing I have done, ever since I discovered this connection, is that I have approached the celebration of communion differently. When I take the cup, I raise it, and either silently or in a whisper, offer the toast "Till He comes" before I drink. Some day, I'm going to encourage a group to do the same.

Till He comes. . .

Monday, July 20, 2009

Lessons in the gospel from Nairobi

I just came across two articles today that anyone who really cares about poverty, justice, and the gospel must read:

I love Nairobi. I used to go there a lot when I worked in Tanzania in the mid-80s. It seemed a somewhat safer place then, though even back then I suspected it was a bit of an illusion--there was such a disparity between wealth and privilege on one hand, and poverty and despair on the other, and they were side by side all the time. I last saw Nairobi in 2002 when I went for a conference, and I was struck by how much a lot of the city had decayed, but yet how incredibly built-up certain wealthy areas had become (the Sarit Centre in Westlands in particular). I still dream of taking my family there some day, but unless I land a job in international health I fear it may remain a dream.

But anyhow, I want you to read Frank's posts, in particular how his experience in the Kibera slum expanded his understanding of the gospel. One brief quote:

On Sunday I came face to face with the ravages of sin and it messed with my sense of humanity. Driving through Kibera on Monday I was made intensely aware of how humanity was being ravaged and the need for redemption. It was all around – I believe God’s anger burns white hot at the depravity of his people that would result in such chaos and destruction of the pinnacle of his creative expression.

In the dirt with those children I found the redemption of the cross – the act that wipes the slate clean, I sensed the victory of the resurrection pointing to a renewed world, I felt the assurance of the ascension, I reveled in the hope of God’s future time of complete restoration where his justice shall be displayed in full and I relished the visible transforming power of that story on display before me in the very lives of those children. Right there, in the middle of human depravity was a small point where the very transforming power of the gospel could be seen. Right in the middle of the darkness there was a light shining very brightly.

I must act, not just out of gratitude for the substitution Christ gave on the cross – no, the story and message of good news (the Gospel) doesn’t end there. Because the Kingdom has come near, it is active. Christ’s work has given me citizenship and I work to transform this world in anticipation and with the hope of God’s complete justice in view. As those children transformed my life, it’s that Gospel that overwhelmed me and I will permit no scholar to demand that I settle for less, no matter how popular their name.

Now go read the whole thing!

Walking on water - Can't Jesus have a little fun?

I've heard about Jesus walking on water twice in the past two weeks. Our pastor preached a sermon on how the disciples were underestimating Jesus, and a buddy of mine just shared with us the idea that the seas represent chaos in first-century mythology/cosmology, so that Jesus walking on water was symbolic of his trampling chaos/Satan underfoot. Both may be right, and I have no real reason to think they're wrong, but as I read the story (Matt 14:23-33, Mark 6:47-52, John 6:17-21) I keep getting this distinct impression that Jesus was having a little fun with his disciples.

Jesus could have used several means of natural or supernatural transport to catch up with the guys--heck, he could have just zapped himself across the lake and beat them there (and according to John 6:21, once he got in the boat he DID motor all of them across). But instead he takes a little stroll--actually a fairly good stroll as the Galilee at Capernaum is five-plus miles to any "across" shore, not to mention the waves. And then according to Mark, he was actually going to pass them by. I can't substantiate this, but it seems to me like Jesus decided he was going to mess with the boys a little. . .

Then of course Peter gets the bright idea that he ought to come out there. I think he must've thought "hey, that's cool, wonder if he'll let me do that?" I envision Jesus flashing Peter a grin and saying "sure man, come on!" Peter, of course, gets out there and looks around and says "hey, wait a minute, I can't do this!" and promptly he can't. But here again we give the poor guy too much grief I think. The biblical text says "you of little faith, why did you doubt?" But I imagine Jesus saying that not so much as a scolding for Peter's "lack of faith," (we scold each other too much about that sometimes), but rather a friendly and sympathetic "Dude! You almost made it!"

I'm hanging no dogma whatever on this meditation. Maybe I'm as all wet as Peter was by the time they got back to the boat. But really, we have to loosen up our perspective on Jesus. The guy knew (knows) how to have a good time. Some of his zingers against Herod and the Pharisees and such must've had the crowds rolling. The stiff-upper-lip types got their knickers in a twist because Jesus was hanging out with a bad crowd (Mark 9:10), and I have a hunch they weren't all sitting around with long faces hearing a Sunday School lesson. Sometimes, if we let our imaginations run to Jesus as a friend and a fun guy to travel with, I think we might, just maybe, get a little closer to the truth.

Friday, June 19, 2009

David and Goliath Revisited - a textual analysis

And now, for something completely different, I want to highlight an article just published by Mike Heiser at Bible Study Magazine. Clash of the Manuscripts: Goliath & the Hebrew text of the Old Testament looks at the twin issues of Goliath's height, and an apparent textual contradiction in 2 Samuel 21:19 about who actually killed him (see also Mike's blog, The Naked Bible).

I won't bother summarizing the whole article, but those with interest in textual issues and how they might impact a perceived (though IMHO trivial) contradiction in the text, I recommend you wade through it. I did, however, want to highlight a very interesting observation Mike made, which I think adds to the compelling nature of the story itself.

We all know the sunday school story--young teenager visiting his brothers at the battlefield goes up against a 9-foot-plus giant using a slingshot, thereby proving the military truism that long-range weapons beat brute force (am I the only one who wonders if David had a slingshot corps in his army?). But what I didn't know was that the "six cubits and a span" height description comes from the Masoretic text, a Hebrew text that was solidified somewhere around 100AD, while the earlier Greek Septuagint (itself a Greek translation from Hebrew) reports Goliath's height at the far-less-fantastic four cubits and a span, which would put Goliath's height at somewhere between six and seven feet--which is still way taller than the average Hebrew at that time, but within the realm of observed human dimensions.

But the real point (for me) comes in Mike's reminder to us that Saul, too, was a giant, as 1 Samuel 9:2 tells us. Mike points out that by rights, the giant king of the Israelites should have been the one to stand up to a guy who was maybe a bit taller than him, but probably not the towering menace the Masoretic text would suggest. But instead, upstart David, who couldn't handle Saul's outsized armor (at least that's one way to read 1 Samuel 17:39), takes him on under the reasoning that anybody plus God is a winning combination.

No wonder when the people of Israel sang that "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands" (1Sam 18:7) Saul got his nose out of joint. He likely already felt the guilt of his own cowardice for not providing "someone his own size" for Goliath to fight.

So to my way of reading it, Mike's textual criticism gives us a story that is more probable, while bringing the conflict between David and Saul into sharper relief than the usual, fantastic version. Interesting how careful study can do that.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Authority of the Catholic Church - A friendly debate

Over at Nick's Catholic Blog, Nick and I have gotten on a rabbit trail from a post he did about imputation of righteousness. The particular trail started when he commented about the possibility of the re-unification of the church, and I responded with the idea that while I'm all for believers to work, play, and worship in unity of spirit and behavior, I'm not so sure that institutional unity is even desirable. We then segued into the question of apostolic succession and the authority of the church, which obviously Nick sees as important, and I(equally obviously?) see as dangerous.

I'm picking up the thread here so as not to run too far afield for Nick, and also because my last response turned out to be longer than his comment settings will allow. I hope you will read the discussion comments linked above, before trying to pick up here.

Anyway, this post is in response to the questions in these comments of Nick's:

Nick:...the danger of not having hierarchy (a thing very clearly indicated in the NT, and OT) is that of having the masses determine doctrine, whether individually or by majority. This makes truth a matter of popularity contest, or worse yet having the "teacher" be subject to the "students." Either he is a bishop with authority or he can be overturned by those he is guiding. It's a slippery slope because then "authority" loses it's meaning.

Nick, this is a great discussion. Thanks for engaging!

I see your concern with the masses determining doctrine. My counter would only be that the bishop is still a sinner before God under the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, and no ordination changes that. So he's just as susceptible to error as any other believer--no less, but also no more--and therefore the risk of him going astray is equivalent to that of the flock under his oversight...and perhaps more so if he's not accountable to them. It's a balancing act, to be sure, but in the final analysis it comes to a definition issue: If I correctly understand you (and correct me if I am wrong), you are saying that by virtue of being ordained into the episcopate of the true church, the bishop is protected from making that error, unlike the laiety. I contend, to the contrary, that just like the laiety, he is susceptible to all the same temptations and error as the rest of us, perhaps compounded by the illusion of supremacy conveyed to him by his position. Those two definitions are fundamentally at odds, and we can only agree (if I am correct) that this is a point where we disagree. You fear authority "losing its meaning," I fear the exercise of authority that ought not to exist.

Nick: One of interesting passage in this regard is 2 Tim 4:3, where Paul warns against those with "itching ears" who will elect teachers who will say what they want to hear. Also, I'm not sure how your system would mesh with a clear example like Acts 15 and 16:4.

2 Tim. 4:3 is true by empirical observation as well as biblical authority...we don't have to look far to see people tailoring "truth" to their convenience or pleasure. I find it compelling that the defense Paul offers is in verse 2--which you might interpret as exhorting Timothy to exercise his authority (am I correct?), but I see as Paul warning Timothy to stay grounded in the truth of "the word." In other words, I see "sola scriptura" as the one thing that is offered to Timothy as an anchor against the tides of opinion. Bringing my own assumptions to the text? Perhaps, but I think it's consistent with Pauline teaching.

Acts 15 is important, and you are right to bring it up. Clearly when there was a dispute among different believers, they appealed to the apostles and elders. This is right and good and biblical. It is interesting that in verse 22, we see that it was not only the apostles and elders, but also "the whole church" that is related to have decided what to do, apparently in Spirit-led consensus. It is also possible that an authority-based answer was necessary due to the authority-based problem being addressed (the demand that Gentiles follow Jewish law). While a good model, it does not necessarily follow that this account justifies a complete ecclesiastical system. However, if I ever saw an ecclesiastical system that met in open session and (apparently) solicited the input of "the whole church" I might also be more positively inclined toward it. There's a vast chasm between consensus and fiat!

Nick: To me, if the Church is the Body of Christ, with Him as it's head, the Church is indefectible and guarded against a tainted Gospel by definition (1 Tim 3:15; Mat 16:19).

I confess I don't see what 1 Tim 3:15 brings to bear on the discussion, so I can't respond to that one. As to Matt. 16:19, you know well that Protestants and Catholics interpret that passage radically differently--you see it as establishing the apostolic succession of Peter, we see the "rock" as being the confession of Jesus as the Anointed of God..."for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Cor. 3:11).

I can only say that I really don't want to start listing examples because I DON'T want to get into Catholic-bashing, but surely you acknowledge that your church (along, I insist, with all the others) has in fact committed serious errors in the 2000 years since Jesus? Isn't that a historical, empirical fact? How do you reconcile that with an indefectible church with Christ as its head? It's easy for me, holding that the church whose head is Christ is not the human institution, but rather all everywhere who call on his name and seek to follow him in all their brokenness. But if you are looking for the standard of an unsullied theology and an authoritative institution that holds it, how do you reconcile this with the bloody, sinful history of the institution?

And to your last question, I don't trust someone who waffles on the basic truth of Jesus Christ. But I, somewhat opposite of you I guess, run screaming from any group that DOES claim to have the whole truth without error. I consider that claim to be proof positive of corruption...whether the authority is the papacy or the fiat of the individual, self-righteous independent Baptist minister doesn't matter to me, either one is wrong when they refuse accountability to honest confrontation from scripture. This, again, is probably a point on which we'll agree we disagree.

But I will reiterate in closing, that this does not in any way cause me to write off those who've chosen to put themselves in that church. As I've said before, I've found Jesus' followers in all kinds of places I expected far less, than just in a church with which I don't agree. And I know the Lord seeks such to follow him!


Monday, May 18, 2009

Enough with salvation already!

OK, time to stir the pot a little. Our particular corner of the blogosphere has been buzzing fow a while now on the subject of atonement. I've enjoyed it, I don't think we've nearly closed the topic, and I certainly intend to return there myself at some point. Nevertheless, I think we need to step back and pause for a reality check.

First of all, whatever the mechanism by which sin has been atoned, the clear message of the gospels and the epistles is that Jesus has done it. It's not conditional on us understanding or believing any point of detail as to how he did it. It's not even conditional upon us knowing or understanding that there WAS a problem! It should suffice us to recognize that Jesus had--and has--both the means and the authority to deal with the problem, whatever problem it was.

More importantly, though, the whole question of atonement for sin, at least as it's discussed in most definitions of "the gospel," presupposes that sin and its remedy are the central focus (or at the very least one principal focus) of the mission Jesus came to do. While I do not dispute that Jesus' death and resurrection had a beneficial effect with regard to human sin, it was never the point of the process. Salvation was always a means to an end, it was never intended to be the end in itself.

The story of Jesus' time on earth is replete with redemption and healing. This is indisputable. But the point my Mom just made in her word study on repentance is also true for the rest of Jesus' redemptive acts: the healing, the repentance, the salvation of people from whatever mess they were in, was always and only a beginning. What really mattered wasn't the key that got them in the door, it was the life they were called to live on the other side of that door.

For this reason, while we may continue to debate the mechanism by which Jesus dealt with sin, the vista we must regain shows us that the process actually doesn't matter. Jesus' message was, and is:

If you're sick or hurting or wounded, I can take care of that. Follow me!

If you're feeling guilty or worried about the sin propitiation you've been taught you need, I have taken care of that. Follow me!

If you've learned "every man for himself" all too well from your society, I can take care of that and lift you out of yourself. Follow me!

If you are afraid of the others--human or supernatural--who are exercising the power of fear and death over you, I've defeated them; I took care of that. Follow me!

If you're worried about your life beyond the grave, I'm already beyond the grave. I took care of that. Follow me!

If you're oppressed by any of the ills that have afflicted my Father's creation, whether poverty or injustice or disease, I've now sent my followers to take care of that in my name. Join them in following me!

If you're one of the oppressors that are helping to perpetuate the abuse of my kingdom and my followers, I can free you from the tyranny of power. I can take care of that. Work with me to lift up what has been trampled down, and follow me!

And perhaps most compellingly to us amateur theologians (and the pros too, if they'll listen): If you're wrapped up in endless controversies over how I took care of all that, let go, accept that I DID take care of that, and follow me!

Repentance - an article you've gotta read!

I have a bunch of things I need to get written and no time to write, but you guys have got to check out my Mom's latest article on repentance. It's related to all the sin and atonement and kingdom stuff we've been talking about. . .

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Evangelism - what does it mean to share the gospel?

I'm going to write about this in more detail some day, but I just came across a post that addresses my concerns very well. In fact, Dave has highlighted one of my biggest issues with the usual methods of "presenting the gospel," by going back to Acts and looking at what the apostles actually talked about when THEY presented the gospel. Not too surprisingly (to me at least), it doesn't look at all like the four laws. . .

Dave has put together a nice matrix of things that are or aren't said by the Apostles in the various Acts passages where they're encouraging someone to follow Jesus. A pattern emerges, and guess what, it's not about heaven and hell. . .

Sunday, May 3, 2009

An apology and explanation

Due to an unfortunate trolling incident I have--at least for now--enabled moderation on this blog. I hope at some point to be able to relax the controls again; I wish Blogspot allowed for the kind of control Wordpress has, that users can be approved to bypass moderation settings, but if they have that setting I haven't found it yet. However, I want to stress that I welcome comments from all of you who want to engage the issues, whether you agree with me or not.

Unfortunately, I managed to get the attention of someone whose sole purpose seems to be to hijack a thread and scream about how anybody who isn't Roman Catholic is going to hell. I have deleted the offending comments, but I feel it incumbent upon me to offer a bit more of an explanation.

I am categorically not anti-Catholic. Most of the Catholics I know well, I consider to be unquestionably followers of the same Lord Jesus Christ I follow. We have plenty to disagree about, but we agree on the commonality of our commitment to Jesus. (On this point, by the way, I point you to my friend Mason's recent post, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I also would refer you to Nick's Catholic Blog, where I have recently found myself supporting the "Catholic" contra the "Protestant" in a debate on atonement. Nick and I haven't teased out all our areas of agreement/disagreement by any means--and I'm sure we could find them--but I hope this at least clarifies that I don't reject Catholic believers).

I do have an issue, as I have made clear on this blog and in comments elsewhere, with the notion of extrabiblical authorities--including ecclesiastical hierarchies--being taken as doctrinal authority on a par with the scripture (and in particular, the words of God within scripture as I have elsewhere proposed). Apparently, this particularly riled at least one poster, as he spent entirely too much emotional energy on the idea that anybody who doesn't accept the apostolic succession of the Roman popes is going straight to hell. Of course, I'm sorry to say that the current Pope Benedict has poured fuel on that fire, as he has suggested that churches without priests and sacraments can't possibly be true churches. Obviously I repudiate that statement. That doesn't mean that I am suggesting that Pope Benedict isn't a follower of Jesus (I really don't have the information to pass judgment one way or the other, but I presume that he is). I think he's misinformed on this point, but that doesn't mean he's going to hell. It does mean that I don't give his pronouncements any more weight than I do any other believer's. . .which means they have to be backed up by scripture just like mine or yours.

Of course, coming as I do from the Anabaptist tradition, I would argue that the New Testament teaches that there should be no such thing as a priesthood at all in a post-resurrection Church, as "there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. 2:5), and beyond that all believers are a "holy priesthood" (1 Peter 2:5) and a "royal priesthood" (1 Peter 2:9). But that doesn't mean that I write all Catholics, Anglicans, and Lutherans (their priests included) out of the kingdom of God. I know better. The Spirit of God has worked and is working through a wide variety of human institutions that are trying their level best to be faithful churches. They don't get it all right, and they get different parts wrong, but they're trying to be faithful witnesses to Jesus.

I have argued before that even defining people according to who is going to heaven or hell is asking the wrong question. This, combined with the fact that I'm tired of Christian shouting matches, is why I banned the posts in question. I welcome--and will continue to welcome--robust debate. I will not tolerate accusations and pronouncements of damnation against others. I have no interest in why your church is better or worse than mine. I have a great deal of interest in what you and I can do to become better followers of Jesus Christ than we now are.

As I said in my opening post, if you want to shout and scream and hurl abuse at people, there are plenty of places to do it on the internet. This isn't one of them.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Torture - May God have mercy on us!

I just learned of this CNN report from a friend. Here's the meat of the story, referencing a new poll by the Pew Research Center:

The more often Americans go to church, the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

I have no words strong enough to express my outrage. I am ashamed to be part of the group "Americans who go to church" if that's what we look like.

as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Rom 2:24)

Perhaps we need to follow the example of Daniel (Dan. 9:20) and learn what it means to confess the sins of our people. . .

Monday, April 27, 2009

Penal-Substitutionary Atonement--It has God's Role Wrong

I want to highlight a thought my friend Ben just posted over at his blog, that I think adds an additional dimension to the (mis)understanding of atonement which we have been discussing. This is the role of God the Father in the whole process.

As Ben proposes the analogy, we look at atonement in an (appropriately) law-court setting. In classic PSA, God is both plaintiff bringing the accusation against humanity, and judge deciding the case. God proposes and finds man guilty, and as he is pronouncing sentence, Jesus volunteers to accept the sentence in our place. In CV, as Ben proposes it, God is judge, but not plaintiff. That role is the role of Satan and the Powers (appropriately, as Satan is named the "accuser" in scripture). It is the accuser who seeks the death penalty for the defendant (humanity), and the accuser is all-too-glad to accept the judge's son in place of the defendant. When the judge then trumps the sentence by raising Jesus from the dead, the enemy's design is foiled.

Like all analogies, this one can be carried too far (and we have yet to unpack the loaded terms of "sin" and "atonement" so we still have a long way to go. But I think Ben is correct in re-directing our attention to who, after all, is the accuser and who, after all, is demanding the sentence.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Atonement and the Warfare World View

My good friend Ben and I have the greatest theological discussions by cellphone text message. This is both a blast and a pain. . .a blast in that an ordinary, underwhelming day can be interrupted at any moment by a question or a thought about stuff that really counts, and a pain in that it can be really hard to encapsulate a nice juicy thought in 160 characters or less!

Being that as it may, we have been trading thoughts recently over some questions related to the purpose and effect of Jesus' death, ignited (this time) by a great post over at my friend Kurt's blog. I want to get some of these thoughts down in greater detail here. . .and I must start with the caveat that while the words here are mine, the thoughts are very much a product of this back-and-forth we have been having, so thanks to all of you.

Regulars will recognize that we've been over some of this territory already, and will know that several of us have pretty serious issues with the Penal-Substitutionary Atonement (PSA) framework for understanding Jesus' death. Most of us have agreed that the Christus Victor (CV) view explains vital elements of the redemption story that just aren't covered in PSA. Where we may differ is in just how much to keep or discard, in PSA.

The prevalent notion, of course, is that Jesus' in his death took on the wrath of the Father (who demanded death in payment for our sin 1). A major problem with this theory is that it is (I am beginning to suspect) largely extrabiblical. I am doing a study right now on the use of, and teaching regarding blood sacrifice in Scripture. My initial observations suggest that God never demanded blood sacrifice as payment for sin in the first place. . .but more on that once my study has progressed further. But if (as Ben and Kurt and I have all suggested at different times) Jesus' death wasn't primarily (or mostly, or at all) a payment for sin, then what was it? Just a necessary prelude to resurrection? No, biblical texts still suggest it was more than that. What then?

The key that is starting to tie this together in my mind, was ignited for me when Kurt commented that Jesus did, in fact, die in our place--a "substitutionary" death--but not necessarily in the "penal" framework usually posited. That clicked a connection for me with the "Warfare World View," (WWV) which holds that, rather than God controlling--and even planning or mandating--everything that happens, in fact the cosmos suffers under a grand battle between God and his servants on one hand, and the "principalities and powers" (which I will refer to simply as the "Powers") at work against God throughout creation (Greg Boyd has a nice intro to WWV here). I don't know if Boyd (or other WWV proponents) would agree with this or not, but WWV has the potential to profoundly affect our understanding of Jesus' death, and that matter the broader notion of atonement. The concept is this:

God didn't demand death as payment for sin, the Powers did.

Death, remember, is an enemy. Rev. 20:14 tells us it's the last enemy to be destroyed, and Rom. 5 tells us that death "reins" as a result of sin. In other words, humanity's choice to rebel against God handed authority, as it were, over to the Powers. The Powers' ultimate weapon is death (and humanity's fear of death); therefore, the rein of death is the consequence of the Powers' authority.

What Jesus did in the incarnation, and culminating on the cross, was to voluntarily submit to the Powers' ultimate weapon. In this sense, he died "in our place," in that although he "knew no sin" (2 Cor. 5:21), he submitted himself to the consequence of sin (death at the hands of the Powers). Of course, they didn't know that his submission wasn't the end of the story. When he was raised from the dead, he defeated the Powers' ultimate weapon, thereby becoming the first fruits of God's restoration of his corrupted cosmos. (If this sounds an awful lot like the climax of Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, don't blame me. Obviously Lewis thought of this long before I did).

So yes, Jesus' death was "substitutionary" for us. But not because he was absorbing the Father's wrath--but rather because he was dying for us so that he could then rise for us, and in so doing defeat our slave masters and raise us into his renewed kingdom. The Lord is Risen Indeed!

1) I am avoiding, for now, a study of the word "sin," which itself requires further parsing. I will get there, Mom, I promise! ;{)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Gay Brother's Grief

I found this article linked off of a long discussion related to a gay fellow participating in a worship team, over at Scot McKnight's blog. Wesley Hill's poignant piece is what I want to highlight here.

Hill gives a heartfelt description of the deep frustration and intense loneliness he has experienced because, well, I'll let him explain it himself (the "Auden" to whom he refers is another author):

I am drawn to these haunting confessions of Auden’s because I, too, am a homosexual Christian. Since puberty, I’ve been conscious of an exclusive attraction to persons of my own sex. Though I have never been in a gay relationship as Auden was, I have also never experienced the “healing” or transformation of my sexual orientation that some formerly gay Christians profess to have received. But I remain a Christian, a follower of Jesus. And, like Auden, I accept the Christian teaching that homosexuality is a tragic sign that things are “not the way they’re supposed to be.” Reading New Testament texts like Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 through the lens of time-honored Christian reflection on the meaning and purpose of marriage between a man and a woman, I find myself—much as I might wish things to be otherwise—compelled to abstain from homosexual practice.

Hill makes a vital point in his article, which we straight Christians who still believe homosexuality is not God's standard, must take to heart. People need to feel love. They need community. This is true even for someone like me who's in a deeply satisfying heterosexual marriage--how much more for someone who does not have that privilege, whether through orientation, through a broken marriage, or through whatever combination of life's circumstances leaves them alone!

If we as believers do not provide a loving, sustaining community for those who are alone, how dare we blame them for seeking that love somewhere else? If we are (rightly) to teach that gay relationships, like other extramarital sexual relationships, are outside God's standard, then we have got to be the sort of "how few" Wesley Hill is seeking. As he himself concludes:

Will the Church shelter and nourish and humanize those who are deeply lonely and struggling desperately to remain faithful?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The fallout of credalism . . . a personal reflection

We've been having a lively debate on the authority of the ancient creeds and the church fathers who wrote them, on several blogs lately. Mason, Martin, Kurt, and I have been trading comments across all four, and we've all shown up on a few others as well. Though in general I prefer to keep the subject matter here away from excessive navel-gazing, I think a recent personal story might throw some light on why I'm quite as passionate about this particular issue, besides my basic predisposition to be careful what/who is ascribed spiritual authority.

Beyond the obvious (I hope) subjects of my faith and my family, my real passion is international health and development. I have had the privilege to serve in this capacity a few times in my life--a two-year stint in Tanzania 25 years ago being the most obvious, though I have also done shorter volunteer stints in both Africa and Latin America, and I worked in an international project for the Centers for Disease control for a couple years in the mid-90s. I did my master's in International Health (met my wife in grad school, in fact), and all of my "best laid plans" were to make that field my life's work.

Well, as we all know, life doesn't exactly hew to plan, and mine has not. Being all that as it may, a little over two years ago I had another chance to do a short-term trip to Africa, this time to rural Democratic Republic of the Congo. While there, I had the privilege of working with some absolutely amazing Congolese doctors at the hospital we visited, and to help them a bit with some concepts in monitoring and evaluation of their projects, and general epidemiology. I also got to teach an inservice class for the nurses who run the hospital's network of rural health centers, and we spent most of three days looking at sanitation, water, and basic community nursing issues. It was an incredibly fulfilling time for me, and I took away three significant lessons from the trip: one, that I still had both the passion and the ability to be of some use in developing-world health, two, that I really wanted to re-connect with that field in some career way; and three, that other believers who were with me saw and reinforced one and two.

Not long after that, I was actually approached to consider a position with a mission agency I will not name, that would have (to my way of thinking) really resonated with both my passion and my skills. I dove into the process of applying, even though the notion of going on a full-support-raising mission structure terrified me (still does).

The opportunity fell apart because I couldn't sign the statement of faith without reservation. It wasn't even the inspiration of scripture part that did me in (though if I had studied through it as much as I have since, that probably would have got me too). It was that I could not say with absolute certainty, that I'm sure anybody who hasn't heard Jesus' message, as well as anybody who's rejected it, will suffer eternal conscious punishment in hell (both issues are elucidated elsewhere on this blog if anyone wants to dig further).

Now, I fully understand that a Christian mission organization wants to have its workers, those that represent them in the field, to be faithful believers. Not only does that make sense, I think it's only right. But somehow, it seems to me there is a disconnect when I can't find a way to help people have clean water and healthier lives, all because I'm not convinced they'll burn forever in hell if they don't get their beliefs in line.

It certainly goes deeper than this. It's not just about my job prospects. A whole lot of people over the centuries have actually shed the blood of those who wouldn't hew to their creeds; a whole lot of others have created horrible schisms between fellow-believers, a multitude of denominations, and a downright nasty witness to the world. But the point is the same, even if the outworkings vary. We do a whole lot of dividing on the basis of stuff that, I still maintain, is beyond the boundaries Jesus or his first followers taught. Along the way, we've left a lot of damage.

A new book I have to read. . .

Trevin Wax has just posted a new review on his blog . It's Lost In Transmission?: What We Can Know About the Words of Jesus, by Nick Perrin.

I can only go on Trevin's review so far, but it looks to me like an important study for anyone who cares about the actual words of the Lord Jesus. I look forward to getting a copy.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Standards of Truth/Doctrine/Dogma

I've alluded to this several times in other posts, but I think I need to throw it out as a subject in its own right. An awful lot of "doctrines" that are considered by church authorities as standards for faith, even standards for who is orthodox or heterodox, stand on what I submit are fairly tenuous grounds. I've been thinking about this a good deal lately, in part because of Scot McKnight's series on heresies on the Jesus Creed blog. It was further stimulated by a good discussion over on my friend Mason's blog.

In his introduction, Scot quotes Ben Quash, one of the authors of Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why It Matters What Christians Believe: "A heretic is is a baptized person who obstinately denies or doubts a truth which the Church teaches must be believed because it is part of the one, divinely revealed, and catholic (that is, universally valid) Christian faith." To my shock, in four posts so far, Scot has appeared to reinforce this definition several times, and I have not yet seen him challenge it. This shocks me because, coming from the Anabaptist tradition himself (as I do), Scot has got to realize that this definition validates the condemnation of his own spiritual forbears as heretics--for they certainly denied a number of "truths" that were universally accepted by "the church" of their time.

While I have not (yet) read the book, so I am going primarily on the discussion on Jesus Creed and other locations, I am highly troubled by the degree to which Christians of a variety of stripes appear to be perfectly OK with elevating various church fathers or reformers to canonical status. I say this because of the level of deference I encounter, in debates on doctrine, to those fathers' teachings, even when those teachings go beyond what is stated in canonical scriptural sources.

It should be familiar to anyone who has read much in my blog, that I believe this level of deference to extrabiblical authority is inappropriate. But just to make it blindingly clear, let me state the proposition directly:

If any proposition is not derivable from scriptural sources alone, it dare not rise to the level of dogma.

By this I actually challenge most of what is in the vast majority of creeds and statements of faith, including the ancient ones (cf this post). My issue is that an awful lot of cherished doctrines of long standing are, if viewed honestly, extrabiblical. Unless we are willing to grant apostolic, inspirational credentials to the church fathers (which the Roman Catholic church does for some, but Protestants claim not to), their writings, however carefully and prayerfully considered, do not rise to the same level of authority. This same filter must be applied to the Reformers.

From Ingatius and Iranaeus, through Augustine, to Calvin and Luther, and even to Wright and Piper and all the others today, we have the writings of Godly, dedicated men who deserve to have their reasoning and arguments considered in the light of scripture, but none of whom, severally or individually, deserve canonical deference.

I do not claim that everything these guys stood for was/is unbiblical--far from it. I say rather:
  1. If what they say is derivable from a careful, contextual reading of scripture, it deserves doctrinal consideration.
  2. If what they say may be supported (or at least is not contradicted) by scripture, but is not independently detectable there, it may or may not be true, but as a doctrinal test it must be considered optional. . .even if centuries of church tradition have adopted it!
  3. If what they say is not actually found in scripture (and here I actually place at least some christology, believe it or not), it's nothing more than opinion and dare not be elevated beyond that.
These criteria make a lot of Evangelicals nervous, because when consistently applied they actually strike at some pretty closely-held positions. One of the things these standards produce is a much shorter list of things for which we can maintain certainty. But if we are to really "rightly divide the word," one of the things we have to be about is dividing it from all those accretions it has gathered in our doctrines and creeds over the centuries. Frankly, I believe such a standard would return "systematic theology" to its rightful place--as a useful tool to contemplate the wonder and grandeur of God's work, but in humble acknowledgment that it is, at best, a good and honest guess, and not sufficient to divide the orthodox from the heterodox.

Put more simply, none of us--not even the doctors of divinity, the reformers, the church fathers--know half as much as we think. Writing people out of our fellowships, or worse, consigning them to damnation, on the basis of these things is wrong. It was wrong when they did it at the second council of Constantinople, and it's wrong when denominations, conventions, preachers, and the rest of us do it today.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Atonement and the Resurrection

Last week Trevin Wax posted a review of Mark Driscoll's new book "Death by Love: Letters from the Cross" on his (Trevin's) "Kingdom People" blog. It was a detailed and sympathetic review of a book that, according to Wax, concentrates heavily on the suffering and death of Jesus as it impacts the redemption of human sinners.

I was troubled, and I raised this question in the discussion, by the apparent lack of emphasis on the resurrection in this work. Wax's response bugged me even more: "The book is specifically about the atonement, so it is natural that it focuses more on the death of Christ than the resurrection." The more I thought about it, the more wrong that notion seemed.

There is no question that Scripture, particularly the Pauline epistles, teach us that Jesus' death in some way dealt with the problem of corruption and sin and death in this world. But when the writers of Scripture talk about Jesus' death, his resurrection is never far away. Think of all the gospel accounts where Jesus, while prophesying his death, says in nearly the same breath that he'll be raised on the third day (Matt 16:21 &ff, Mat 20:17 &ff, Mark 8:31 &ff, Luke 18:31 &ff, and others). John is the only gospel where none of Jesus' comments about his death are associated with resurrection in the same paragraph, though in John 14:18-19 Jesus is clearly talking in that vein.

But it's not "just" Jesus who talked that way (I can't believe I just said that). Paul, whose writings form the backbone of most atonement theology, flat-out said in 1 Cor. 15:17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.

It doesn't get much clearer than that. While Jesus already had the authority to forgive sins before he died (see Matt. 9:2-7), Paul teaches us that it was his death and resurrection together that wielded the ultimate power over evil, over the principalities and powers of this age.

It occurred to me as I chewed over this, that perhaps the reason Jesus' resurrection gets soft-pedaled so much in the church, is precisely because the prevailing view of atonement within the church is the Penal-Substitutionary notion that Jesus died in order to take upon himself the wrath and punishment of God for our sins. In P-S, the redemptive act was completed when Jesus "yielded up his spirit" on the cross. In fact, though P-S proponents wouldn't actually say this, the resurrection is pretty much unnecessary in the view of penal substitution, except perhaps for the fact that like any bereaved father, God wanted his son back (I won't get into a discussion on christology here). Maybe this is part of why P-S seems so inadequate to me.

But in the Christus Victor view, which comes much closer to my own position at this time in my life, the resurrection is absolutely essential. When Jesus died, Satan and the powers actually thought they had won. From Genesis to Revelation, we see that death is the ultimate weapon of evil against the purposes of God. When they managed to kill the Son of God, they thought they had triumphed and their ultimate weapon had taken down their ultimate enemy. It was when God raised Jesus from the dead, that Satan's greatest weapon of mass destruction was rendered powerless. Satan's defeat happened Sunday morning, not Friday afternoon!

Therefore, I contend, as subjects of the resurrected King, we have no business going on about Jesus' death for a whole book without spending much more energy on celebrating and proclaiming his resurrection.

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . .We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
Romans 6:4-5, 9 (ESV), emphasis added

That "no longer" intrigues me. Is Paul saying that, for Friday night and all that Saturday, death DID in fact have dominion over Jesus? We don't know, but death's owner certainly thought so. He hasn't learned much either. Death is still the ultimate threat that the powers of this world (human or otherwise) try to hold over us. It is only in the certainty of Jesus' resurrection that we can know that he has the power to save us. His blood alone was not enough for that!