Posts Tagged With: New Testament

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

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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Categories: Emergence Christianity | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Must Adam Exist? Part 2

A responsible Bible interpreter is sensitive to the historical context of any given scripture passage. Those who hold to the doctrine of inspiration understand that God didn’t robotically push and pull the hands of the writers. Rather, through the mystery of His sovereign will, he moved them to write what he wanted, utilizing the distinctions of their personalities and cultural norms. Since those ancient writers were writing to an ancient audience, we understand when we see the following mentioned in scripture:

-The earth is upon pillars (“[God] shakes the earth out of its place; so that its pillars tremble.” Job 9:6 [cf. Ps 75:3])

-The heavens are also on pillars (“The pillars of the heavens tremble and are amazed at his rebuke.” Job 26:11 [cf. 2 Sam. 22:8])

-The earth rests upon a foundation (“Where were you; when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you possess understanding!” Job 38:4; [cf. Ps. 104:5])

-The netherworld exists, and it’s underground (“Even if they could dig down into the netherworld [Sheol]; my hand would pull them up from there. Even if they could climb up to heaven; I would drag them down from there.” Amos 9:2. [cf. Ps. 139:8])

The Ancient Hebrew Conception of the Universe--Michael Paukner

The book of Job speaks of the foundations of the earth, that it has pillars upon which it stands, as do the heavens. Amos mentioned heaven as the highest place and spoke of digging down into the deepest place–the “netherworld”–in the same breath. The psalmist marveled at how the Lord could take the four corners of the earth in hand and shake the very ground under our feet. These are just a few examples of how the scripture reflects and interacts with ancient cultures and ideas. As God inspired the writers, he could have led them to write on a level that we would have found more palatable in our modern scientific era. The book of Job could have said that God placed the earth in its orbit and established the heavens around it. Amos could have put a footnote on his comment about the netherworld, stating that there really isn’t a place underground where the dead live out eternity. The psalmist could have put in Hebraic parentheses “I’m just being poetic here!” (there are no parentheses in Classical Hebrew, but if there were…!).

But that’s not realistic. Instead, God interacted with ancient people using ideas common to the ancient world. Scientifically verifiable statements written to such an old world would have been wholly irrelevant to a pre-scientific culture. The writers of scripture were ancient people, and the Holy Spirit moved through them to reveal eternal truths by using pre-scientific conceptions of reality.

The Apostle Paul, too, was an ancient writer who had a pre-scientific awareness of reality. Therefore, we would expect that his theology assumed that Adam was literally the first human being God created.

In my previous post, I described some of Peter Enns’s new book The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, and I found it a challenging yet enlightening read. He shows how one might reconcile the ideas of evolution with the creation account of the Bible. He argues that Adam may have never existed at all. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to this position is Paul’s view of a literal Adam. Paul’s theology about Christ seems to rest on his understanding about how sin and death entered the world. Paul stated that Adam’s disobedience introduced sin and death to the world. In contrast, because of Christ’s obedience, death, and resurrection, we might all have victory over that sin and death.

So then, just as sin entered the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all people because all sinned (Romans 5:12)

For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also came through a man. (1 Cor. 15:21)

Enns makes a very good point here. In the Old Testament, we don’t find the doctrine of depravity or Original Sin as presented in the New Testament. The Hebrew Bible does not highlight the sin of Adam as the bringer of death to the whole world, but Paul (in the New Testament) does. Why? Because that theology was common among the Jewish community during Paul’s lifetime. The idea that Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden developed during the intertestamental period and was a part of the way people thought in Paul’s day. Paul was interacting with the theology of his day. In his own experiences, he had seen how Christ brought forgiveness of sin and victory over death. Based on an ancient yet normative understanding of Adam, Paul proved both of those points. Christ physically resurrected from the dead, and showed that those faithful to Christ would be forgiven of sins.

Saint Paul, Byzantine ivory relief, 6th – earl...

Image via Wikipedia

Paul was an ancient man, who thought that Adam was also a real man. That was a cultural reality in his lifetime, and so to be culturally relevant, God interacted with those concepts to reveal eternal truths. Just like he did through those who wrote about the pillars of the earth, the netherworld, and the corners of the world. These concepts are not scientifically accurate, but we excuse them because they were culturally relevant at the time. In these cases, the theology is correct–scientific truth is not the point! Similarly, Paul’s use of Adam is not scientifically accurate, but we excuse it because it was culturally relevant in his day. The theology is correct–scientific truth is not the point! So, an evolutionary view does no violence to good theology.

Peter Enns’s book has helped me a great deal (Thanks a lot Dr. Enns!). It’s challenged me to grow, giving me a new theological paradigm. I’ve got to say, it is not a comfortable or easy shift for me to make (…thanks a lot, Dr. Enns!). I’m very uncomfortable even posting this entry, but feel it is necessary to codify my new position. I’ve had to remodel my theology in an important way. I’m very happy with the results but I’m certain folks within my own theological circles will not approve. Still, I think that’s the way personal/theological growth goes.

Categories: Creation | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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