Nearly Twenty Years Later…

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

I came across this the other day:

“It is likely that scientific research in the next ten or twenty years will tip the weight of evidence decisively toward either a young earth or an old earth view, and the weight of Christian scholarly opinion (from both biblical scholars and scientists) will begin to shift decisively in one direction or another. This should not cause alarm to advocates of either position, because the truthfulness of Scripture is not threatened (our interpretations of Genesis 1 have enough uncertainty that either position is possible). Both sides need to grow in knowledge of the truth, even if this means abandoning a long-held position” –Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 309, 1994.

Grudem was hopeful that this debate would be settled by now.  I wish it was, but the lines are still drawn.  I wonder if they will ever be erased!

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Psychology and Suicide in the Church

Saturday night I was surprised to read that Rick Warren‘s son, Matthew, committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness.  You and I know Rick Warren as one of the most prominent pastors in America today.  He wrote the books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and you may remember that he offered the inaugural prayer in 2009.

The statement given to his church community on Saturday reiterated that his youngest son, Matthew, was “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.”  He made special efforts to spot and encourage others who were struggling in the church.

But ultimately, he succumbed to his own anguish.  “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.  Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

I am glad to see that the church community at large is supporting Warren’s family during such a tragedy. I too am very sad to hear about the news, particularly because mental illness likely contributed to the suicide.

But I am also saddened for another reason.  I’m surprised that there are still a number of people within the church who champion archaic notions about psychology and about suicide.  When I read the reports of the suicide, saw several of the comments people left.  While most of them were supportive, others were just mean.

Some were from folks who simply hated Warren and his church. I doubt that anyone takes them seriously–after some of these comments, I wouldn’t take them seriously about anything from that time forward.  But I’m more concerned about the Christians who say things like:

“What’s really sad about all of this is that he went to hell because he committed suicide.”

What a heartless and mindless thing to say, especially in a public forum.  Though I don’t care to delineate the biblical reasons why I think this kind of theology about suicide is ridiculous, I will say this. A person who thinks that a vibrant relationship with Christ instantly becomes null and void because of one bad decision is a legalist.  He has a poor understanding of theology and probably sees God as more of an ice-cold robot in the sky.  As long as you are sort of good and never do really terrible things like suicide, you’re in good standing.  But, even if you walk with Christ your whole life and then in a wave of abnormal despair take your own life, do you think God would toss you aside in disgust?  That is not a good relationship.

Truthfully, I am sad for the people who think this way.  The kind of people who think that God has a list that you must keep.  He likes you if you do all of these things; but if you do one of the major bad things, hit the road, buddy! There is no room for love in a relationship that demands such strict obedience. Your behavior may indicate your affections for another person, but do you really think that we will always win every battle in this life?  Do you think that the type of battles that we win or lose has bearing on our eternity?  I was under the impression that it was really about one particular battle that Christ fought on our behalf.  I think I heard that in a sermon just over a week ago.

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Luther, where Martin Luther buried a boy who took his own life.  The church would not allow the boy to be buried on church property since they believed that victims of suicide go to hell.  Luther rejected that notion and dug the boy’s grave on church property with his own hands.  He explained that the Devil used despair to kill the boy, the same way a robber kills his victims in the woods.  To Luther, one who dies of suicide loses a battle, and that is not a damnable offense.  I think this approach works best.

There is another attitude in the church that bothers me.  It’s the notion that psychology, psychiatry, and (secular) counseling is somehow unbiblical or unchristian. I would like to be godly enough to say that this grieves me, but really it just ticks me off something awful, especially since some mainline churches still take this position.  I remember a church I attended some years ago was one of the most prominent in the area.  I went with one of the pastors to visit a church member at a local hospital.  The young lady we visited had struggled with depression for years.  Recently, it became very intense.  She couldn’t manage it on her own any more.  Now, thanks to the medicine and therapy she was clear-headed and on a stable road to recovery. That’s when my pastor said “Have you considered that you just need to pray more and meditate on the scriptures instead of taking medicine?”

I wanted to slap the man. Here is a woman who was living a godly life who got sick.  Now she is making huge strides in recovery and my pastor friend thinks that this is some kind of sin.  The truth is after she recovered, her godly life continued and she thanked God for the hospital and the medicine. She didn’t abandon the faith, she could now embrace it more.  Although I will say, she didn’t have much desire to attend that church anymore!

Part of the church’s mission is about physical and spiritual healing. I hope and pray that we can eventually weed out these erroneous notions which are counterproductive to the church’s pursuits.  Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness can and must be managed with counseling and even with medicine.  The church ought not be afraid of these things, because they work!  Isn’t that reason enough to do it?  And when some people lose loved ones to these diseases, we will not be judgmental.  Instead, we cover the family with love, prayer, and support. I’m very happy to see most of the church moving in the right direction.

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Non-Contradictions

You may have come across the “law of non-contradiction” in your religious readings. It appears frequently in apologetic writings that seek to defend certain religious doctrines. It is a simple rule that goes like this:

A concept or rule cannot be true and false at the same time.

Technically, it looks like this:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Now there are truck loads of articles and books addressing this rule, but all I’m really concerned about is how it is used by church apologists to make an argument. This rule was key for me as I developed my theology in college. I was a modernist who rejected all forms of postmodern thinking.

Ravi Zacharias

One of the main illustrations that made the law of non-contradiction clear to me was a story told my one of the heroes from my college years, Ravi Zacharias. It is often repeated in churches, Bible studies, and Sunday school classes; and is one that I have used frequently.

After Zacharias had finished a lecture, a professor of philosophy challenged him on a significant point. Zacharias had pressed the law of non-contradiction. Putting it in simpler terms for his audience, he said that the law might be called an either…or system. Christian theology uses this system. For example,

Either Paul is an Apostle or he is not.

Either Jesus is the Son of God or he is not.

Either Christianity is true or it is not.

You see the rule here:

A cannot be B and not B at the same time.

Paul cannot be an apostle and not an apostle.

Etc.

The irritated professor went to dinner with Zacharias and one other school administrator to talk things over. The philosophy professor insisted that the either…or system is exclusively a western philosophical idea while eastern philosophy uses more of an both…and system of logic. So…

A can be both B and not B at the same time.

Thus…

Paul can be both an apostle and not an apostle.

Jesus can be both the Son of God and not the Son of God.

Zacharias opposed this view with a simple statement: “So you are telling me that it’s either the both…and system or nothing else, is that right?”

The philosopher puzzled over this: “The either…or does seem to emerge, doesn’t it?”

Zacharias added, “You know, even those in India look both ways before we cross the street, because they know ‘It’s either me or the bus, not both of us!'”

The main point is that the either…or system–the law of non-contradiction–is something that even Easterners use in their thinking. This is a very important distinction and has helped me a great deal over the years. It also tended to lock me in a modernist way of thinking, and I think it has done the same to several of my contemporaries.

What I erroneously took away from that illustration was that all legitimate ideas come from either…or thinking; the both…and system of thought is worthless and even deceptive. That worked for me for a while, but I started having some pretty big problems with it when I went to seminary. In my biblical and theological studies I found that you must employ the both…and system to make things work. Otherwise, those who champion the non-contradiction rule will actually contradict themselves!

Jesus is both God and man.

The church is both currently redeemed and not yet redeemed.

God is both a single person and not a single person.

A strict either…or approach would have to deny these principles, even though these concepts are central to historic church doctrines. To be sure, there are many who try to reconcile these doctrines with an either…or system; and it seems to me that the harder we try, the further we separate ourselves from the teachings of the text.

Ultimately, I think we need to learn to use both systems where appropriate (see what I did there?). It seems to me that the “either…or” system promotes a more mechanical and objective style of thinking while the “both…and” system is much more organic and subjective. There will always be a tension between the two of them, but they are both helpful.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Universe Is 29 Years Young

A new map shows the oldest light in our universe, as detected with the precision by the Planck mission. Image by ESA and the Planck Collaboration.

When the thirty-something women I know lament their age, I usually tell each of them that they can’t be over twenty-nine years old. Everyone wants to be young, and for some reason people think you’re officially old when you’re thirty. I’d complain about this, but then I’d sound like an old-timer. Well I still might, since I have something else to gripe about.New cosmological evidence points to a universe that is even older than once thought. The evidence of a very old universe keeps piling up, even though young-earth creationists continue to chase “yabbut” trails.

“Yabbut radio carbon dating is flawed.”
“Yabbut science cannot observe past events”
“Yabbut the fossil record actually points to a young earth”

I used to be a young-earth creationist, but gave it up mainly because the evidence of an old earth always crushed the young-earth propositions. But it was a long haul for me, because I held tightly to my literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. And that is, I believe, the main motivation behind most of the young-earth chatter. If the universe is very old, if the earth is very old, then that will affect the way you read Genesis. And how you read Genesis could greatly influence your theological approach to the Bible. A deeper fear is that if someone concedes an old universe, then they may give up their Christian faith. That’s not true but believe me, I have felt that fear before.

One of the most popular young-earth arguments is one that I often found hard to accept: God created the universe to appear old, but it is really very young.

So the universe looks 13.8 billion years old, but really she’s only 29 (or 6000–she’s still flattered).

It may sound preposterous on its face, but the argument goes like this:
-When God created Adam, Eve, the animals and the plants, they were mature enough to reproduce (Gen. 1:11, 22, 28).
-Thus, it is not surprising that God created the rest of the universe to look old.

This kind of argument has big problems. The biggest is the fact that it is an argument ad ignorantium–an argument from ignorance. There is no possible way that someone can prove God created the world this way.

Epistemologically, the argument is completely useless even if it were true. Think about it. For the sake of illustration, let’s pretend that you are 50 years old. What if God actually created the universe just 1 year ago. One year ago today, God created the space-time continuum, Earth, all the people on earth, and you. But you look 50. You still have memories of your past 10, 20, 30, 40 years of life already, even though those memories didn’t actually happen. Everyone else in the universe was created the same way and at the same time. They were also created one year ago, but have no perception of it. God created all things to appear as if they have existed for a long, long time.

If this scenario were true, how old would you be? Would you be one year old, or fifty?

Well, you would be fifty. God made you to be fifty. All the evidence in the universe points to the fact that you are fifty. Scientific research says that you are fifty. Your friends tell you that you are fifty. Every ontological bit of evidence in the created universe points to the fact that you are fifty (because it was created to show that).

But aren’t you really only one year old? No! God is the one who made you one year ago with all your perceptions and knowledge which proves beyond a shadow of doubt that you are fifty.

Now this gets to my point. What if God created the universe 6000 years ago but made it appear in every way shape and form to be 13.8 billion years old?

Well, then it is 13.8 billion years old.

You may say, “No, it only appears to be that old!”
But if God created it to be old…then it is OLD! Its ontology is old, so it is old. It doesn’t simply appear old, it is old!

You see, the “universe only appears old” argument goes nowhere. Even if it is correct–even if God created the cosmos to appear old, then there would be no other way for us to see it.
You might as well say that the world is only one year old and God created it to look much older. There is no direct evidence to support that, so it cannot be affirmed. It is a useless argument.

This is a little heady, but hopefully you see my point.

Categories: Creation, Evolution, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Incarnational Humanism by Jens Zimmermann–My Thoughts.

Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World. Strategic Initiatives in Evangelical Theology (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, 2012), pp. 357.

I must say, the book’s beautiful cover caught my attention, and then the title made me take it home. My recent reevaluation of Christian theology has me reading more philosophy and theology than usual these days, and I’m glad that this book was pretty enough for me to read (that’s why everyone reads philosophy books, isn’t it?).

All kidding aside, the book is well-written. Zimmermann teaches English and German at Trinity Western University, his main interests being literary theory, theology, and philosophy; so he knows what he’s doing. He argues that a great deal of Christianity has lost touch with its roots. The two thousand years of theological and philosophical thought from the first century until now has taken it’s toll. The western church seems confused about it’s main purpose. Is it exalting Christ? His birth? His life? His death? Is it saving lost souls? Is it feeding the poor? Is it retaining a traditional liturgy? Is it social action? There are many more possibilities, but Zimmermann recommends that the church re-embraces the incarnational humanism promoted by the church fathers.

Even uttering the word humanism concerns many of the laity, since they usually relate humanism directly to secular humanism. Though he doesn’t say it outright, I think that is part of Zimmermann’s point. The fact that this misconception is widespread indicates that the church has forgotten its most important mission: the restoration of humanity. The incarnation event heavily influenced the early church and promoted humanism. So Zimmermann spends most of his time tracing the main ideas about humanism from the early church to the present.

While the idea of a deity becoming flesh was certainly not new in the first century, the Christian story of the incarnation represented a tremendous paradigm shift: we are not like the gods, but the holy God–the one who is completely other and separate from humanity–has become like us. We are not like the gods, but rather God infinitely condescended to become like us. Not born to royalty, but to poverty. Not born to prestige, but to the lowly. Humanity had now achieved a special level of dignity because God had ensconced himself in a human form and triumphed over sin and death for the sake of the rest of the world. God had achieved the victory that man could never win. He did that while he was a human being made of flesh. Thus, Christianity promoted the dignity of humans. Christ had proved that the world can be redeemed, so Christians ought to redeem the world. They should seek the betterment of humanity through education and social action. Furthermore, the church fathers made a sharp distinction between Neo-Platonism and Christian humanism. The truth of Christianity was more relational than cerebral (though truth and facts were very important).

Later, the Enlightenment and Reformation championed personal knowledge and independence. Philosophers such as Kant and Hegel equated knowledge and logical thought with humanity. Dignity had more to do with the cerebral instead of being itself. The reformers had legitimate and serious concerns with Rome, but also championed ideas and ideals over some of the more mysterious elements of Christianity. The Eucharist had to be modified in Protestant circles to accommodate to new ways of thinking. Even Luther modified his view of the bread and wine based on enlightenment thought. The center of Christian worship–the moment acknowledges the mysterious union between spirit and flesh–the Eucharist became segmented. To many, they became symbolic. The bread was just bread and wine was just wine. A Neo-Platonic separation between flesh and spirit thus became standard doctrine for many churches. So human beings were similarly segmented into flesh and spirit beings.

Later, philosophers such as Nietzsche, Foucault, and Heidegger negated the “spiritual” side of humans. Beforehand, people assumed that there was a common and even divine expectation for all human beings to fulfill, but these philosophers identified such expectations as elements of control that impeded the freedom of human beings. Thus, the cerebral element to humanity is really irrelevant; being is the only issue relevant to humans. So, expression becomes important for humans with no prescription for normality. Humans are not obliged to be anything or to act in any specific way. They simply are what they are. Later postmodern philosophers developed these concepts even more. As a result, the uniqueness and dignity of humanity became a misnomer. Humans no longer had innate value or dignity.

Zimmermann argues for a return to an incarnational humanism promoted in the Christian Church. Such an approach emphasizes the Eucharist as the embodiment of human dignity. It is the center of Christian worship which reminds the congregation of the incarnation event when God became human. This event brought ultimate victory for all humanity. It also represented divine struggle with human travail. It is God’s goodwill toward humanity. It teaches us that all human beings are valuable because all are in God’s image and God became flesh to save us all. God’s efforts should be our own. We should take on a similar mission when we partake in the Eucharist.

Zimmermann is quite fond of Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s approach to humanity and the Church’s mission. The Church must participate in the current state of the world (the penultimate) with a view to bring about the world’s ultimate redemption (the ultimate). Thus, the church seeks to bring about common good and divine good in the world, unabashedly involved in social action. We ought not be legalists who consistently separate ourselves from the world and huddle triumphantly in our local congregations; neither should we be antinomians who have no stance on morality.

What a great aspiration! Zimmermann points us in a nice direction, but what kind of that church would that be? How does that look practically? Zimmermann doesn’t offer much practical guidance with these questions (except for some broad comments here and there). He remains philosophical overall.  I also wish that Zimmermann interacted with the theologians who had similar concerns in the twentieth century. There are no references to Barth or Tillich, for example. That was very surprising for such a well-documented book! There are also very few biblical references. To make his case among those who hold the scriptures in high regard, Zimmermann would need more biblical support to make his case.

On the other hand, Incarnational Humanism, represents a fantastic history of humanism from the first century until now. The writing becomes rather heady at times, particularly when he discusses the postmodern period, but the discussions are rich and enlightening. It is a strong philosophical argument that modern church academics should consider in an era where church identity can be hard to define.

Categories: Book Review, Philosophy, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Good Parent Condescends, God Does too

You probably won’t answer your son as elaborately as the dad in this commercial, but I wonder if you condescended in a similar way when your 4-year old asks where babies come from. Why do you do that? Why don’t you just come on out and talk about sexual intercourse and all the things around it? Well–duh!–he’s four years old! It wouldn’t be appropriate for him to learn about all the aspects of human sexuality (which you, of course, have mastered)! I’m not a child psychologist but I think I know why you might do it:

-For one thing, he won’t really understand what you’re talking about.
-It will introduce him to concepts that are either inappropriate or irrelevant to his current lifestyle (let’s hope!).
-Also, he might not be emotionally ready for full-disclosure on the topic.

So maybe you’ll just be as vague as possible. That’s a safe move. You don’t want to bring out the textbooks and talk anatomy. You don’t want to use dolls for any illustrative purposes. You’d rather not use specific terms. The main thing you try to do is condescend to your son. You want to put complex matters into understandable terms. And why would you do such a thing to your son? Are you trying to lie to him? Confuse him?

Just the opposite, actually. You want to answer his questions in a way that is relevant to his life experiences and his current mental acumen. This is a little heavier than working with fractions and pie charts, after all.

As you explain some things, you’re holding back. You’re not being dishonest or deceptive. You are giving him the amount of information that he can handle. He uses some terms that are not technically correct, but you’ll overlook that and actually use his terminology to communicate the main point clearly. As he grows up, you’ll talk about these things more and correct some of his misconceptions.

So we condescend to our children because we love them and want them to understand matters that are relevant to their current situation.

In the same way, God the Father is the best dad of all (Matt. 7:11) and condescended to answer people’s questions. The ancient Hebrews wondered where they came from and where they were going. God answered with the creation narrative–Gen. 1-3. The Hebrews weren’t asking questions about science–at the time, nobody was! So God answers their questions in ancient symbols that they would understand. He could have told them how old the earth was. He could have described the creation in much more scientific detail. He could have explained how there could be light before any sun existed, or how a day could pass before the sun even existed (Gen. 1:14). But apparently, those things didn’t matter to the Hebrews.

Instead they asked, “Are we special?” And God said that he created them in His image and ordained them to rule the earth in his place. They learned that they are included in a divine struggle between the serpent and God. They learned that their disobedience leads to separation from God. They learned that sacrifice would be necessary to cover their shame before the Almighty. God was answering their questions based on the terms and knowledge they had. That’s what a good dad does. God condescends, he does not lie.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Creation, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Word about Christian Skeptics

File:Caravaggio - The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.jpgCall Peter your favorite all you want; Thomas is my favorite disciple in the New Testament! He’s gotten a bad rap as the doubter, but I think a better word for him is skeptic. He is optimistic about one thing: pessimism. I find his complaints familiar and comical. The Gospel of John brings these out twice, probably because the writer is arguing for belief more than anything else (Jn. 20:30-31)

Exhibit A (Jn. 11): Jesus heard that his good friend Lazarus was dying, so he made the peculiar decision not to hurry to his side. He waited until Lazarus died so that he could resurrect him, stimulating faith in his disciples (vv. 14-15). The folks in Lazarus’ town have murderous plans for Jesus and his disciples; so the move doesn’t make any sense to them, and Thomas is the only one who voices his sarcastic complaint: “We’re making this trip to see a dead guy? Fine, let’s all go so we can be dead too!” Now, I’m sure this wasn’t all he said. Narrators always cut material to make things work–that’s just good storytelling. So I’ll wager Thomas grumbled a lot on the way.

“This is nuts. We left our careers for this?”

“The guy is already dead. What’s the point of all this?”

“You know, we could have gone to visit him a long time ago.”

“This has become a ministry of death, not of life.”

I also wonder if he was behind this statement uttered later: “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?” (Jn. 11:37)

But Jesus bore with Thomas, and Thomas stayed nonetheless. In return, Thomas saw one of the greatest miracles reported in the New Testament, the resurrection of a dead man.

Exhibit B (Jn. 20): Thomas was not with the other disciples when the resurrected Jesus appeared. We’re not sure what this means. Maybe he had abandoned all hope in Jesus’ ministry and separated himself from the other disciples. At the very least, his separation suggests disbelief. But when the disciples told Thomas that Jesus was truly resurrected, he demanded concrete evidence. “Unless I see him for myself, and see the marks of crucifixion–unless I see hard evidence, I won’t believe it” (v.24). But there must have been some sibilance of hope within him, because Thomas went with the other disciples to the room where they saw Jesus before (v. 26). There, Jesus had special dialogue with Thomas, offering him the evidence he needed to believe (vv. 26-27).  Maybe Thomas should have believed all along. Maybe he was too pessimistic. In fact, Jesus chides him a little for needing so much evidence (v. 29). Earlier, in fact, Jesus criticized the people for their need of signs to believe (Jn. 4:48). But he did provide signs, and provided the direct evidence Thomas needed.

There are some important lessons here:

Skepticism is not a sin. Some Christians are afraid to voice their concerns and questions about life, about Christ, about the Bible for fear that they will be condemned and cast out of the Christian community. It’s true, Jesus called for faith, but he did not demand a naïve belief. In reality, all Christians believe because they are convinced that they have seen the hand of God move in their lives. Some people require more “evidence” than others. That doesn’t make anyone better or worse, it just means that they are built differently. And if the Christian is to love God with all his mind (Mk 12:30), then his objections and questions should be taken seriously and not simply waved off as “disbelief.”

Skepticism can be arrogant, but so can piety. I hope to be a humble skeptic, the kind of guy that respects the positions of others and admires the kind of faith that others can have so easily demonstrate. Some of the godliest people I have ever met have shared matters of doubt and struggle with me (they were wonderful conversations, I might add). Yet I know some skeptics who think they are the epitome of wisdom and knowledge. We don’t see that kind of arrogance in Thomas. Instead, we see honest concerns and fears voiced in inquiry and frustration. He didn’t have all the answers, but he was looking. Truthfully, I see more arrogance in the most pious of disciples: Peter. Peter’s radical trust is admirable, but he was a little too sure of himself more than once. It was Peter’s misled enthusiasm that drove him to attack those who came to arrest Jesus (Jn. 18:10-11). Peter insisted that his faithfulness to Christ was superior to the other disciples, yet he proved to be just as weak as the rest (Matt. 26:33; 26:69-75). And let’s not forget how Peter actually rebuked Jesus, which drew Jesus’ harshest criticism: “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23). Arrogance is simply not limited to the skeptic.

Skeptics in church are skeptics in church. It’s important to recognize that Thomas participated with the disciples despite his skepticism. He went to Lazarus’ tomb despite the danger and joined the disciples when they gathered in the locked room to see the resurrected Christ. He could have left at any time. He could have blown them off. If he was such a skeptic and such a doubter, why did he stay with the disciples? I think it is because he had hope in Christ and his ministry. He had a measure of faith already; otherwise, why would he waste his time? There are many skeptics in church because they have hope in the Christian message. They may not believe everything you do, and they might even be a little rough around the edges; but they are there for a reason.  If you condemn them for asking honest questions or having legitimate concerns about the Bible or beliefs in the church, you’re not helping them.  Instead they will learn that church members get defensive when they are challenged instead of answering honestly.  Jesus let the skeptics stay in his group; maybe the church should follow his example.

Christ didn’t drive the skeptic away. Thomas could be a pain in the rear. But Christ did not chase him away like some churches do. Ultimately, Christ broke through the biggest barriers that kept Thomas from a fulfilled faith. It took time. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that Thomas grew into his faith. Jesus had a longsuffering for him that resulted in Thomas’ triumphal cry: “My Lord and my God!”

The skeptic is not bad. He has honest questions and struggles that he hopes God can address. I pray that our churches will remain a place where skeptics can voice their genuine questions without feeling threatened or condemned.

Categories: Biblical Studies | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Authority: Who Has It and How Should It Be Handled? (Emergence Christianity Once More)

This should be my last post on my interactions with the Emergence Christianity conference a few weeks ago.  I keep thinking of everything I’d like to say, but can’t manage to get it in one entry.  So here is one more bite at the elephant.

I think Phyllis Tickle put her finger on one of the biggest issues in Christianity today: authority.  Authority matters have divided Christians since the first century.  Divisions over circumcision between Christians at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a good example.  Should the Gentiles be circumcised since the first century bible (the Old Testament) required it?  The Christian literalists thought this was a slam dunk (v. 5): the Bible requires all believers to be circumcised.  That’s it. Game over.  The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  But Peter disagreed.  So did Paul and Barnabas.  All these guys used their personal experiences an argument.  At this point, a Bible literalist’s head will explode.  Personal experience should always bow to the Bible; and in the first century, that was the Old Testament.  What’s worse is the fact that James quoted Amos 9:11-12 (LXX) [and alluded to Isaiah 45:21] which have nothing to do with circumcision.  A Bible literalist, would have to say that James, Peter, Paul and Barnabas lose and the Pharisee Christian converts win.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead the church issued a statement freeing the Gentile converts from the circumcision requirement.  Consequently, I’m sure the circumcised Gentiles were pretty peeved.

Who had the authority to decide what God required and what he did not? The leaders of the church: apostles and the elders (15:22-23).

During the 1500s, corruption in the church went unchecked until the Protestant Reformation opposed the church’s authority.  The basis for their revolt was that the Roman Catholic church was contradicting the Bible, which should be man’s sole source of divine authority.  Thus, Sola Scriptura was one of the enduring battle cries of Protestants.  The printing press made it possible for more people to have the Bible and to see clearly what it required.  Now that people had the complete Bible translated in a their native language, they could hold the Church accountable to do what it required.  God wrote the Bible, so it is infallible; there can be no contradictions in it (if you think there are, you have either misunderstood or are rebelling against God).  If we all study the Bible correctly, we will see the one message that God wants to convey.  As Phyllis Tickle stated, the Protestants exchanged a physical Pope for a “Paper Pope.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  Each and every Christian is a priest with that right  (1 Peter 2:9).

Centuries later, the Catholic church made their own rule about infallibility.  The rule of ex cathedra, the Pope’s infallible utterance, was dogmatized during Vatican I (1869-70) and reaffirmed at Vatican II (1962-65).

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church leaders who are approved to interpret the text correctly, and infallible statements may come from the Pope via ex cathedra.

These days postmodernism has affected us all.  We acknowledge that there is more than one approach to truth because all our perspectives will always influence how we see and interpret information.  The Protestant idea of the Bible being the only source of divine truth is still a pleasant idea–it is comforting to know that something is in black and white–but the fact that there are thousands of protestant denominations in the world today is certainly not encouraging.  Many of these denominations evangelize by saying things like “Do you know for absolute certain that you will go to Heaven when you die?  I mean, do you know that you know that you know?  Is there any doubt in your mind?”  Well, considering the fact that there are 6 different Christian churches on this street alone, and that I have about 5 different English translations of the Bible on my shelf…there is at least a little doubt.  But I trust Christ and participate with him in worship.  I’m certain that is enough–relatively speaking.

Tickle mapped this framework out in her lectures and suggested that we are currently in a Wikipedia kind of Church age, where authority is really a matter of public discourse than determining who has the right to give us direction.  So Christianity becomes much more broad, we listen to those other Christ-followers who have different ideas, learning to love and respect their views even if we disagree.  Pledging allegiance to Christ and participating in worship is the center of gravity.  We must allow the latitude for others to disagree.  Let the Spirit of God work in that person and stop thinking that you will turn argue that person out of their “wrong thinking.”

Who has the authority to decide what God required and what he did not?  The church community via discourse.  Regularly engage in respectful dialogue and let authority take care of itself.

I found these ideas very intriguing and wonder where we will be in the next 10 years.

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More Thoughts on Emergence Christianity

My last post gave a cursory description of the Emergence Christianity conference I attended which featured Phyllis Tickle.  Here are some more concepts I learned there, with my responses:

“Emergence Christianity” or the “Great Emergence” is a recent phenomenon among many Christian denominations (and perhaps other religions), so it is not confined to a few denominations only.  It is a new attitude about religion and spirituality that represents, as she described, a probable and major shift in history.  It is one that is more sensitive to the spirit of God who reveals truth to local congregations.  It values one’s experience in life and with the spirit of God alongside a reverence for the Bible and tradition.   Tickle suggested the beginning of this movement sparked at the Pentecostal Azusa Street Revival, referencing the efforts of Charles Fox Parham and Bill Seymour.  Tickle showed no skepticism to the miraculous gifts supposedly manifested there.  The implication is that some congregations might receive specific direction from God–theological, social, or practical–communicated through these gifts.  Thus, prophecy is an important spiritual gift.

Response: I’ve left my old circles which tended to have cessationist views regarding the charisma (charismatic spiritual gifts–tongues, healing, etc.), but I still have reservations about it.  I think most people do.  This is because many a charlatan has mimicked them to take advantage of people.  Those gifts given for building others up twisted to manipulate the congregation is more than a little detestable.  So I have some hope that people genuinely practice these gifts in humble ways.  So you can imagine, I am very suspicious of new social and theological direction coming from these kinds of divine utterances.

Furthermore, I’m concerned about how one can validate the legitimacy of a prophecy these days.   The Torah called for some pretty severe consequences on those bearing empty prophecies (Deut. 13:5); but the New Testament doesn’t seem to call for such harshness.  Paul instructed the Corinthians to evaluate prophecies but didn’t even hint at what to do if they were illegitimate  (1 Cor. 14:29).  What standard might one use?   Obviously, the Lordship of Christ was a standard that prophecy could never violate (1 Cor. 12:3).

_____

Tickle argued that history works in cycles (see my earlier post) but also suggested a view of all religious history that references the Trinity.  The Old Testament time period was the time of the Father who focused more on judgment.  The New Testament time period (I suppose CE 33 to present?) is a time that emphasized experiences with God the Son.  The present is a transition into the time of the Spirit which will see much more spiritual activity.

Response: I’ve heard this kind of thinking before.  It sells well, but it suggests Modalism (Sabellianism), that God has presented himself in three different modes throughout history, and that each mode is a different personality.  It suggests that each member of the Trinity behaves differently in each time period.  On the other hand, it may not be that they each act differently, but rather that they each interact  differently with humanity.  That would have some clout, but there should be a distinction here to ensure that all three members of the Trinity were simultaneously involved with human history.

On the other hand, I agree completely that something big seems to be happening in Christianity.  Regular church attendance is way down, but people desire spirituality.  Many believe in Christ but have been burned by the church.  They prefer sincerity over strict dogma because, like the Pharisees of the first century, religious leaders often sacrifice goodness and common decency for the sake of religious ideas.  So in this “post-postmodern” environment, I’m sure that the face of Christianity will change.  How it will ultimately look is something that none of us can really predict.

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Ever heard of “Emergence Christianity”?

A few weeks ago some new friends asked me if I was going to the Emergence Christianity conference in Memphis. Apparently, it was a big deal, but I was oblivious. A sold-out event, there wasn’t much chance of attending; but that week, someone who couldn’t go offered me their spot. I took it, pretty much flying blind into unfamiliar territory.

The shindig’s main attraction was a local figure, Phyllis Tickle. I must confess, I had probably only heard of her once before and never read her work. She is the founding editor of the religion department at Publisher’s Weekly and has written several pieces on what she calls, among other things, the “Great Emergence.”

In fact, the word great came up a lot in her lectures. She spent most of her time talking about church history, mentioning the Great Schism between the East and West Church, the Great Reformation led my Martin Luther, the “Great Unpleasantness” between the northern and southern states amid the American Civil War, and other great’s. She was well spoken, not needing notes or a podium and cramming a much information into her pleasant and almost casual orations as possible, at times confessing that she didn’t have sufficient time to cover all the material (the teacher’s curse).

I can see why she has impacted the community so much, since she really is dealing with some of the most obvious problems of modern Christianity…and really religion as a whole. It’s been clear for some time that church attendance has dropped over the years, but people have retained their own private spirituality. They believe in higher power, but not in organized religion. People have lost hope in human leadership, and so spiritual anarchy looks better and better all of the time. Tickle noted that this is not unique, but is common throughout human history. She argued that history shows a pattern that about every 500 years a massive shift takes place in human authority, particularly in religious doctrines. So there were four in the common era. The first was when Constantine made Christianity the state religion (AD 313). The second was the Great Schism between the East and West Church (AD 1054). The third was the Protestant Reformation (AD 1517), splitting the church again. Tickle observed that it is about time for another shift, and all of us can feel that tension now. Religious authority has frustrated many of us. We want to express our religious views but feel that we are oppressed from every direction. [To be clear, she was not calling for any kind of split or revolution. Tickle was only observing what was happening in the current religious climate.]

So, what is Emergence Christianity, then? Here’s my take on it. It is an ecumenical movement that spans across all Christian denominations and sects that liberates from dogmatism–that is, control of human systems–and pursues the religious freedom and dignity of all people. It elevates Christ above all but does not impose Christ above all. It recognizes that Christ is the supreme demonstration of God’s love to the world, but understands that people have to come to that understanding on their own terms. In other words, the Spirit of God will move in people’s lives whenever and however he wants to, and we can’t force that to happen.

*Emergence Christianity is not the so-called “Emergent Church,” which is a movement that tends to be more conservative. As Tickle put it, the Emergent Church tends to be more sexist and homophobic. I’m not sure how fair an estimation that is.

I believe this movement is similar to the post-evangelical phenomenon. The term “convergence” also came up in the discussions, and I thought of the ‘post-postmodern’ label a few times in the lectures. There are some positives and negatives about all of this that I may flesh out later.

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