Posts Tagged With: Bible

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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Categories: Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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

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.

Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Isaiah 9: the Warrior-King and Christmas

20121223-124021.jpg

For a child has been born to us,
a son has been given to us.
He shoulders responsibility
and is called:
Extraordinary Strategist,
Mighty God,
Everlasting Father,
Prince of Peace.
9:7 His dominion will be vast
and he will bring immeasurable prosperity.
He will rule on David’s throne
and over David’s kingdom,
establishing it and strengthening it
by promoting justice and fairness,
from this time forward and forevermore.
The Lord’s intense devotion to his people will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7, NET)

Isaiah 9:6 is a favorite passage quoted by Christians just before Christmas, predicting the coming of Messiah. It’s one of my favorites, too. It is difficult for us to look at the passage in its original context, but let’s give it a try.
In the 8th century BCE, Judah was in trouble. Ephraim and Syria were a new threat just to the north and the Assyrian Empire was a terrible juggernaut gobbling up all the surrounding territories. These days, commentators say that Judah was under the “Assyrian Crisis.” The Assyrians were a pretty ruthless people who demonstrated their cruelty in some terrifying ways. Impalement and dismemberment were just a few ways they proved their power to their enemies.
In this cultural and historical setting, Isaiah gave a prophecy of great hope to a people under enormous pressure. A child would be born who would set all things straight. Isaiah’s audience were under Ahaz’s rule, but his actions were less than ideal. But this child would be a king who rules on David’s throne and would bring about a definitive order in the middle of the political chaos.
The birth announcement foretold a human event with divine intention. The child is a human conception, though God has determined its happening and purpose.
He will be one that bears a great weight of responsibility as a political leader, but will be renown for his technique and ability, because he will be called “Extraordinary Strategist” by many. I think the NET Bible communicates this well. Oftentimes we see the popular gloss “Wonderful Counselor” and think that he will be someone that will give great advice or direction in a personal matter. Instead, Isaiah’s audience was more interested in a leader who could get them out of their terrible predicament; someone who could save them from forces like Assyria.
As was common to the ancient Near East, kings were representatives of a nation’s deity. The kings embodied the authority of the gods. They were even considered the very presence of a deity on earth. The title “Mighty God” points to this divine embodiment, but it isn’t an outright incarnation that the New Testament teaches. Instead, a king who accomplished the great things destined for him would obviously be driven by the deity. His authority would be synonymous with the authority of the deity, and so he would represent the divine.
The title “Everlasting Father” really doesn’t have anything to do with deity. Instead, it refers to the fatherly provision and protection of this coming king. A Christian appeal to the Trinity would be problematic here, especially since Christian see the king as the Son and not the Father. The metaphor of a kingly father is also found in Isaiah 22:21 (esp. ESV or NIV). Of course, the duration of his protection will be “everlasting,” which fits the theme of this pericope nicely. This kind of forever language is almost always hyperbolic, not referring to a literal eternity, but is instead a magnanimous description of the coming king. It also fits the language of the promise made in 2 Samuel 7 where God promised David that one from his lineage would establish a kingdom of peace that would endure forever.
He’ll be a “Prince of Peace.” How can a king in that environment establish peace? He’ll be a supreme and unbeatable warrior-king who will force the bad guys into submission and so take care of his people. His concern for his people is clear in verse 7. He’s David’s son, he brings peace and justice to his kingdom, and that kingdom is one of great prosperity. It’s YHWH’s passion that motivates and drives him. He’s the perfect king, truly the Messiah.

Is it any wonder that the first century Jews expected a warrior king that would utterly demolish Rome? It makes a lot of sense when you hear Peter’s revolutionary language and see him charge the crowd who came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane.

But what do we do with this Isaiah 9 passage this Christmastime? The people who walked with Christ experienced a paradigm shift and interpreted these passages like this one differently and we do it too.

A child was born by human effort and divine intention. This child would set things straight and we would save us from a war going on between all humanity and God himself: this king would save us from our own sins (Matt. 1:21). The king will be not simply be a representative of God, but will be the actual incarnation of God Himself. He will not just be a symbol of God’s presence among us (Isaiah 7), but will actually be God in human flesh. He will be Immanuel in substance, and not just in spirit. His kingdom will expand as the Gospel message moves across the globe. Our reasons for fear–death, sickness, and divine retribution–will fade. In him, we got more than was originally expected. With him we gain victory over the grave and death. Political aggressors are really secondary when it comes to the issues of sin and death; and the latter are the most important things in our lives that the Messiah came to correct. The culmination of all God wants to accomplish on earth are found in the Christ child.

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.

Categories: Biblical Studies, Christian Calendar, Christmas, Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sacred Word, Broken Word by Kenton Sparks–Comments from a Former Fundamentalist

When I returned from the SBL annual meeting a few weeks ago, I told lots of folks about my experiences and about a few of the books that I purchased or had hoped to purchase in the near future. The one I began reading on the bus ride home was Sacred Word, Broken Word: Biblical Authority and the Dark Side of Scripture by Kenton Sparks. I posted the picture of the book on my Facebook account, which led to a flurry of mostly negative comments. I don’t suppose most of the folks knew Sparks or anything about his book. They might have reacted to the title which calls the Bible both sacred and broken, and I’m sure Sparks’s quote from Bonhoeffer that I posted helped egg on the discussion:

“We must read this book of books with all human methods. But through the fragile and broken Bible, God meets us in the voice of the Risen One” (Sparks, 1; Bonhoeffer, Reflections on the Bible)

A former fundamentalist, I understand the concern. People assume (as I did once) that any insinuation about the Bible’s brokenness is simply an attack on the Bible’s authority. Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me uneasy, but it is also one of the more wonderful and refreshing things I’ve heard about the Bible in a long time. The more I study the Bible through an academic and critical lens, I am less convinced by the traditional ways to reconcile Bible contradictions and difficulties. It is one reason I could no longer tow the fundamentalist party line. But old habits and theological positions die hard, and Bonhoeffer’s quote makes me nervous yet hopeful in my search for a different approach to Bible interpretation. But Sparks intrigued me with his first quote, so I eagerly dove into the rest of the 156 pages for the next week. I read it slowly, marking it up in several places with some !’s, some ?’s and a whole lot of circles, underlines and comments. Overall, I was enthusiastic about the message.

He began his book by affirming that the Bible is God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, and written by those who were moved by that Spirit (8-9). It contains God’s truth and elements of divine beauty. Yet it also contains some features that are very disturbing to modern readers–to Christians and non-Christians alike. It is pretty clear that one of the basic messages in the Bible is that the world was created by God and yet contains a great deal of pain and evil. Sparks touches on different theological approaches to the creation narrative and the effects of the Fall on the universe, probably to show the theological complexity of the issue. He also offered a very brief argument himself, but ultimately stated that no one can really prove conclusively that the Christian view of evil is correct (17-19). I agree, especially since the Bible itself offers several approaches to the problem of evil (compare the messages of Job and Ecclesiastes for example). Furthermore, Sparks observed that God expresses himself through creation even though it is fallen and warped (20-21; cf. Ps. 19:1-3). I had never considered this before; and so as I read I could feel my hope grow. The Bible can and does reflect a redemptive message through the pens of depraved authors.

Next Sparks devoted a few pages to Christology..which is a little weird until you see where he is going with it. The coming of Jesus is an example of how God seeks to communicate with mankind. God became incarnate, taking on the “likeness of sinful flesh” to redeem and communicate with those people who were condemned (Rom 8:3-4). Therefore, the fallen world is only redeemed when God interacts with it (27). But unlike the nature of Christ himself, the scriptures were written by sinful men whose works were adopted or sanctified for God’s uses. To claim the scriptures themselves were sinless all together, insinuates a kind of hypostatic relationship between God’s divine perfection and text or its authors. Since none of the human authors have a simultaneously divine and human nature, a perfectly written text seems unlikely. This was a difficult section for me, but I largely agree with Sparks and I think that it honors God more to separate him from the text in this way. An inerrantist view of Scripture seems to idolatrously elevate the Bible to a divine status.

After giving some samples of the “broken” elements in the Bible, including logical and theological inconsistencies along with moral difficulties such as genocide and slavery, we get to the heart of the book where Sparks makes his main arguments. The fact that some of the laws of the Old Testament codify actions that are morally troublesome these days, indicates that the Bible is not simply a divine yardstick to measure all morality for all people. In Sparks’s estimation, “biblical error became God’s wise accommodation to the intellectual and spiritual limitations of the human audience” (53). The idea that the text cannot have errors because it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16) cannot stand since, “the Greek word itself does not really imply anything in particular about how the transaction between God and the human authors took place” (56). Strengthening his case, Sparks shows that other key theological figures have made similar remarks in Church history.

At this point, I’ve agreed with Sparks a great deal, though I feel some trepidation. When he states, “By virtue of its human form and character, Scripture is an adequate human voice that does not fare so well when judged by the yardstick of divine perfection” (61, emphasis his), I must wonder if there is a yardstick at all. What makes Scripture so special? Should we trust the Bible’s documents with the fate of our souls if it doesn’t fare so well against divine perfection? It’s here my hope begins to fade, giving way to despair. But Sparks doesn’t leave me entirely dead in the water. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is a divinely motivated witness to God’s work of redemption in the world through Christ (63). But this still doesn’t answer my questions.

The chapter on epistemology was foundational to the book and one of the most intriguing parts in my reading, probably because I’ve been exploring postmodern ideas on my own. It is important because the way a person determines truth has direct bearing on that person’s ethics. Sparks promotes what he calls “practical realism” (73), which is a tempered postmodernist view. He acknowledges the importance of empirical evidence in the pursuit of truth, but recognizes that personal experience, culture, and traditions carry a great deal of weight as well. Thus, church tradition and history inform and guide church theology and ethics.

With this in mind, Sparks then revisits some of the diversity of ideas and difficulties in the Scripture again. In anticipation of Christ’s imminent return, Paul stated that people should avoid marriage (1 Cor. 7), but Sparks states that these days one is better off looking to Genesis 2 when deciding to marry (115). Good advice, I think. Regarding slavery: “We should not try to argue that biblical laws which allowed Israel to buy foreign slaves (Lev 25:44) fit very nicely with biblical texts that call for justice, equality, freedom and love of neighbor. At a crucial point the two views are simply incommensurable” (105). These slavery texts may have more self-serving purposes for the human authors than divine mandate. And, of course, there’s the church’s old view of geocentrism they finally had to abandon based on new scientific evidence.

Okay! I get it! But how can I know if my reading of the Bible is correct? I’m a Reformed Protestant, so I cry “Sola Scriptura!“and have placed little emphasis on church tradition for my hermeneutics. But recently I have joined a church that does place a great deal of weight on church tradition; so his points resonate with me now. Sparks notes that more Protestants are like me are recognizing the importance of church traditions in Bible interpretation (125). And so my hope grows even more! (FYI: See also the emphasis on tradition in 2 Thesselonians 2:15 and 1 Corinthians 11:2) We also have confidence that the Spirit of God guides the church as she interprets the Bible. As mentioned earlier, we should also consider the natural world and scientific knowledge, since God also reveals himself in nature. Furthermore, Sparks argues that we should always consider our own experiences. He notes that he was taught as a child that Catholics could not be Christians, but working with several devout Catholics over the years has taught him that this is not the case. The church should take a similar approach when reading the Bible. Sparks also gives a list of guidelines and principles for validating one’s interpretation of the text. Part of it includes the mystery of God’s Spirit interacting with the church throughout history, and part of it recognizes one of the most obvious points of all the canon: God is on a mission to redeem the world.

If I could, I would thank Dr. Sparks personally for writing such a great book! It stretches the limits of my accepted doctrines and has given me the groundwork for an alternative to an inerrantist position. I had abandoned this position a few months ago, but Sparks’s writing has given me a nice blueprint for constructing a new hermeneutic. To me, the Bible remains authoritative even though it has clear evidence of human frailty behind it. Sparks affirmed my suspicions about the Scriptures, pointing out some difficulties I had never considered, and then gave me some guideposts with which I can chart a better hermeneutical method that still shows great reverence to Gods word. Now, I feel that I have stronger supports for my position.

Yet, I do have some criticisms and points of disagreements, but there is really only one matter I care to address. As a former fundamentalist, I was drilled with one doctrine above all: the Bible is inerrant. Without the Bible’s inerrancy, I had supposed with everyone else that all was lost. Without inerrancy, we can’t know God and his requirements. With an inerrant view, we can be certain who God is and what he requires. So when my friends saw the title “Sacred Word, Broken Word” and the Bonhoeffer quote, some felt two things: anger and despair. Anger because to question inerrancy is to question God himself, and despair because the recognition of errors in the Bible can feel like the foundation of one’s faith has been compromised. I’m a trained Biblical scholar, and I felt it even while reading Sacred Word, Broken Word; I can only imagine the layperson’s struggle through such a text. Sparks doesn’t seem to anticipate this tremendous emotional and existential struggle. Simply put, he is not pastoral anywhere in his approach. To be fair, he is a theologian and does a great job arguing his point. But this is a sensitive issue for some, and I didn’t see that he is aware of that.

The model I was taught as a fundamentalist is like that of so many: the Bible is my one foundation for truth. Sparks doesn’t replace that foundation with another, instead giving principles for good Bible interpretation via the church, tradition, experience, and nature. After reading Sparks’s book, there is no more singular foundation upon which a Christian can build his house (life). Thus, despair or anger for the fundamentalist reader. As one who has a so-called Calvinist perspective on the sovereignty of God, I find that this is a great replacement foundation to fill the fundamentalist void. The Spirit of God sovereignly moves through the church and through its members to eventually redeem us. We get it wrong sometimes, but through those errors, shortcomings, and even sins, God will be faithful to accomplish his purposes. A little emphasis on something like this would have been appreciated!

 

 

Categories: Biblical Studies, Calvinism, Existentialism, Postmodernism, Practical, Theology, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

SBL Annual Meeting 2012

SBL

For the past several years, I have attended the annual and some regional Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) meetings where I have learned a lot and met several great scholars. I never had the chance to attend the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), which usually met about the same time and in the same city as ETS–though not this year. Because of my new and recent theological investigations I decided to go to SBL this year. I am so very glad that I did!For those of you who don’t know the difference between ETS and SBL, here’s the deal. ETS is primarily faith-based while SBL is purpose based. ETS is for scholars who believe in two basic things (1) the inerrancy of the Bible and (2) a trinitarian view of God (a later stipulation that deals with any Mormons who want to get involved). SBL exists to encourage any scholarship of the Bible or any literature relating to it. Since it is not limited to a religious view, the scholarship is wonderfully broad which offers so many scholarly views of any given biblical topic or text. Pure gold to a biblical scholar.

SBL exhibits3

SBL exhibits3 (Photo credit: Joe Weaks)

Why go to a conference like this? There are several reasons. One obvious reason is to learn. From Friday through Tuesday morning scholars from all over the world present papers on new findings and new theories. Some people present papers just for the sake of presenting, some really want the feedback of the other participants so they can fine-tune their ideas, some people present ideas as precursors to published essays and books. On the downside, some papers promise a lot but really aren’t worth your time. Another benefit of the conference is the books . Numerous vendors sell their books and products at a huge discount. Additionally, you’ll meet editors at these booths with whom you can discuss publishing opportunities.

Another plus is networking and running into old friends. I met several old buddies and made many new connections while looking at books, eating meals, and traveling. It was over some pasta and a few drinks that I had one of the most aggressive and serious theological discussions I’ve had in years. Each of us made very strong points…and mine were the strongest . That was probably the greatest learning experience for me on the whole trip. It was so friggin’ awesome.

Giordano’s kickin’ pizza

That leads to another reason to go to SBL–the hosting cities. The meetings are always held at great locations:

San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Baltimore, and this year it was Chicago. So during my down time I would go to some of the great r

estaurants and sights. Of course, one evening I strolled to Giordano’s to get a stuffed pizza and ate it nice and slow. Another plus is the fact that you’ll do so much walking in Chicago, it helps offset the fact that you just ate ten thousand calories.

I am so going to do SBL again. I’m hooked.

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

My Little “Ah Ha” on Saturday Morning.

The word is very qarob to you…and so is this coffee.

I’m working my way through a very good book: The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (ed. Kevin J. Vanhoozer).  So, I’m learning a whole lot more about this postmodern business.  The essays are by some really smart people, and are on topics such as Anglo-American Postmodernity, Postliberal theology, Postmetaphysical theology, Deconstructive theology, Reconstructive theology, and Radical orthodoxy.  It covers more topics than you can shake a post at.  One of the great things about it is how it does not simply promote postmodern theology, but rather explores and critiques it, giving credit in some places and caution in others.

The essay I worked through this Saturday over a pastry and cup of joe was “Deconstructive Theology” by Graham Ward (a priest of the Church of England and professor of lots of philosophical and religious concepts that you and I would probably have a hard time understanding at the University of Manchester).  He gives a history of deconstructive theology and hermeneutic concluding with his own appraisal of such methods.  Discussing Jacques Derrida’s ideas, he notes that Derrida only became academically interested in theology when theologians began using his methods to interpret the scriptures.

Derrida’s approach to the text was nihilistic.  It seems he believed that any given text was a platform upon which a reader constructs meaning.  I think there is some truth in that, but I’m not entirely convinced.  I grew up interpreting the Bible a certain way.  I interpreted it the best way I could based on what I knew.  When I went to seminary, I learned a lot and so interpreted the Bible differently based on my new-found theological education.  I have more tools and knowledge of the text now.  Some bothersome questions arise now: Can God speak to me more clearly through the Bible now that I have a theological education?  If God uses the Bible to speak to me, can he speak to me better now that I’m “educated”?  Are my interpretations of his message more legitimate now than they were in the past?

And here is my “ah-ha!”  My engagement with the Bible is a divine interaction, and the Holy Spirit can and does use these readings to speak directly to me.  When I read the text, in a way, I construct the meaning of that text and I expect that the Holy Spirit is involved in that process.  It’s mysterious, and cannot be entirely measured or regulated.  My education may give me the tools and skill to have a more critical reading of the Bible, but not necessarily a more devotional and thus a more meaningful reading of the Bible.  I can now see the significance of Karl Barth’s approach to the Biblical text.  A Bible laying on a desk is the Word of God.  But an open Bible that I am reading to a church audience behaves differently.  In which instance is the Word “living and active”?–while it sits on the desk or while I actively engage it?   The Holy Spirit works in me while I read it.  I may not always get it “right,” but I have faith that it will affect me positively.

Now, I still believe there must be regulation in reading.  If the text is “God is Love” interpretations like  “My cat is red” would be delusional, illogical, or dishonest.  How does all of this work together–well…this is just an ‘ah ha!’ not a full exposition.

Categories: Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Evangelical Drinking Stories

It’s grape juice. You know, the kind that Jesus made.

If you do an internet search on “drinking stories” you’ll see hundreds of entries of stupid or dangerous things that people do when they are as drunk as can be.  Well, you’re not gonna find that here, so just keep on surfing if that’s what you’re looking for.  This post is different.  It’s about leaders in the church risking dismissal because they drink occasionally and responsibly.  They are an example of self-control and character…and should be disciplined.  Weird, huh?  So before you partake here, just know that the punch is spiked.

A friend called me recently having a little problem he needed help figuring out.  He’d been serving in his local church for many years and was a well-respected leader.  His influence was growing and the church leadership wanted to give him more opportunities.  But when they discovered that he liked an occasional glass of wine, all bets were off.  He would be lucky to lead anything anymore.  To be fair, the leaders were as loving as possible to him and wanted him to stay regardless.  A pastor of the church sent his arguments from the Scriptures exercising his best expositional skills to ‘prove’ why the consumption of alcohol is always wrong and why the wine of the Bible was simply grape juice.  My buddy wanted to ask my opinion about the whole situation.  He didn’t feel that anything was wrong with alcohol as long as you avoided drunkenness.  Character is measured by a person’s behavior, not what he consumes.  Of course, I agree.

I was disappointed and angry.  Why was this great church cutting off one of its most influential lay-leaders?  And why were the pastors so quick to denounce something that isn’t condemned in the Bible?  The best explanation I could muster was the cultural influence in the church and just bad hermeneutics.  If you work hard, you can unearth what the Scriptures are saying; if you work even harder, you can make it say something else.

I wish this was the only instance where a simple and responsible consumption of alcohol shut down opportunities to serve in the church, but it isn’t.  Many years ago, I helped out in a ministry of a large church where I knew fantastic married couple who was eager to serve.  They helped direct a Sunday school class, but the church wanted to have all the leaders sign a leadership agreement to continue.  The agreement included a clause that forbade any consumption of alcohol.  The husband told me they couldn’t sign with a clean conscience…and I had to tell my pastor why they couldn’t.  They enjoyed wine with their meals but were responsible and did not over-consume.  They couldn’t understand why the church thought their character made them stand head and shoulders above others, but a responsible consumption of alcohol quashed all of that.  I didn’t either, but I sat in the inevitable meeting with that gentleman listening to the pastor make his case from passages like Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 in a rather slipshod manner.  My layman friend made a great argument to defend himself, and I eventually chimed in.  The pastor argued that these Bible passages forbid us from doing anything that would offend another–like drinking alcohol; but I replied that offence is inevitable no matter what you do.  Such passages are used by legalists and fundamentalists to assert control other people all the time.  Anyway, Paul was not talking about the kind of offence that simply makes people uncomfortable, he’s talking about something that will grind a fellow believer’s faith into powder.  [It’s my experience that teetotalers don’t abandon their faith when they see others drink, they just openly condemn them, congratulate themselves about being better than the boozers, and get on with their lives.  In a way, seeing people drink alcohol actually feeds their misguided vitriol!]

That’s me in the middle.

After that meeting, the pastor was concerned about me (I mean, I probably got in bar fights all the time!), so he gave me a sermon tape of the senior pastor‘s lesson on abstinence from alcohol.  I was dubious, but listened anyway.  As I expected it was a 40 minute prohibition commercial.  It was what you would expect a great and misleading sermon to be: oratorically brilliant, hermeneutically misguided.  After I thanked my pastor buddy for the tape, I shared my points of disagreement.  I thought I was charitable overall, but my disagreements with the pastor must have made him uncomfortable since he looked around at one point and said “easy, buddy!”  I suppose he didn’t want to be in a conversation with someone who was disagreeing with the pastor’s sermon.  You don’t disagree with the boss.  That’s the way business goes, I guess.

The short of it is, the pastor denied the Sunday school director the opportunity to serve because he regularly and responsibly drank; and he distanced himself from me because I openly disagreed with a sermon on abstinence even though I didn’t drink at all!

How about another heartwarming story?  One of my best friends from high school got married years ago and pursued work on the mission field.  After filling out the lengthy applications, things looked quite promising…except for the troubling comments they made about their alcohol consumption.  The question was something simple like: “When was the last time you drank an alcoholic beverage?”  They answered honestly: during their honeymoon just over a year ago and maybe only once or twice since then.  This led to a long conversation with the mission group who ultimately turned my friend and his wife down.  We can’t help but think that their ravenous winebibbing of a few drinks per year had something to do with it.

Would you like another round?

I could mention the professor who studied in Europe.  Over there, the theology/divinity professors drink without fear of reprisal.  They too drink responsibly and know that drunkenness is to be avoided.  They get a good laugh at my American friend who talks about the paranoia about all things alcohol in many Evangelical churches.  In fact, some pastors there use casual drinking illustrations positively in their sermons!  [Those boozers!]   My friend drank all that info in (did you catch that?) and went back home with a new attitude.  He talked about it lightheartedly with his new friends at church.  They got a kick out of it.  As a joke, he brought a 6-pack of non-alcoholic beer to a gathering…but nobody laughed.  He got in some hot water for that.  I imagine that discussing issues like wine/alcohol in class can be difficult for him after that.

I could also write about an acquaintance of mine that publishes all kinds of Bible studies who has to take a teetotaler position or he could get in trouble with his publisher.

Or maybe we should address the educational organization that makes it clear that it is not a sin to drink, but they forbid it under any circumstances because of policy issues.  How can you effectively teach that the scriptures teach one thing but your institution does another?  What kind if integrity does that communicate?

There are plenty of great studies that make the Bible’s position on alcohol clear.  This one is my favorite and is the most sobering examination (heh! I kill me!).  The gist of all these studies is this: wine in the Bible is alcoholic and a gift from God, so enjoy it insofar as it doesn’t negatively affect your relationship with God and your relationship with others.  Getting drunk will  lead to poor decisions and will jeopardize these relationships.  If you choose not to drink, that’s a fine decision!  But you have no right to impose that rule on everyone else.  You may have good intentions, but remember that legalism always has good intentions and is always wrong.

I wonder how many great folks have been denied, how many effective leaders have been dismissed because they actually enjoyed God’s gift to us with restraint.  I long for a day when we can stop these silly witch hunts.

Categories: Alcohol, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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