Friday, October 19, 2012

Metaphorical nonsense

Well, it happened again. A self-confessed former "fundamentalist" Christian proclaimed on television that he now has a more enlightened view of the Bible. He fooled his family for over a year by telling them he was a homosexual when he was not. His fundamentalist family was shocked, of course, but his mother, at least, learned a supposedly valuable lesson.

After a lifetime of reading the Bible 'literally', he and his mother no longer do so. Seemingly because she loves her son who she thought was actually homosexual, she now does not read the Bible in such a way that makes her believe that homosexual actions are sinful. She now thinks it is okay, as does her son. (I wonder what she thinks about her son lying to her about a very serious matter. Maybe she takes the command not to bear false witness 'metaphorically' as well.)

Now what is the alternative to the supposedly archaic, unenlightened, literal reading of the Bible. The answer, of course, is to take the Bible metaphorically. This is what this young man asserts. But what exactly does it mean to take the Bible literally, or metaphorically.

Let's look at a couple of examples: First, we have the saying of Jesus, "I am the vine and you are the branches." When Jesus calls Himself a 'vine' and his disciples 'branches', should we take this literally or metaphorically? Well, it is obviously a metaphor. The most extreme fundamentalist in the world would not interpret this literally. No sane person does or ever would. Second, we have one of the ten commandments, "Thou shalt not steal." Is it possible to interpret this metaphorically? No, it must be literal. It's not a metaphor for anything.

What can we conclude from this? Very simply that we interpret literal passages literally and metaphorical passages metaphorically. Of course, that is exactly what fundamentalist and evangelical Christians have always done. There is no simple choice between literal and metaphorical interpretation. We have to make the choice for each passage.

How then should we interpret the passages that talk about homosexuality? Are they to be interpreted literally or metaphorically? To answer this we need to examine what kind of statements they are. We find, very simply, that they are among the statements in the Bible that tell us how we ought or ought not to behave. They are moral commands. As we have seen in the case of the commandment not to steal, it and all other commandments regarding morality must be interpreted literally. In other words, the moral law is always interpreted literally. This does not mean it lacks spiritual application, but we easily confuse the spiritual with the metaphorical. They are not the same thing.

Another person who insists that we must interpret the Bible 'metaphorically' says that if we interpret the Bible literally, then we must put homosexuals and adulterers to death because that is what the Old Testament says.

But, once again, this is not interpreting passages according to their kind. While passages that tell us what to do or not do must be interpreted literally, we also must distinguish between different kinds of commands. God told us not to commit adultery, for example, and the OT punishment was death. However, there is a difference between the moral law and the civil law given to the ancient Israelites. The civil law enforced the moral law. The moral law is for all people at all times. The civil law was for Israel when they were a nation. Jesus refused to apply the civil law when the moral law was violated. Remember the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus. Jesus effectively made the Jews put down their stones, refused to condemn her, but did tell her to 'go and sin no more'. Jesus affirmed the moral law without applying the civil law from the OT. (The Jews were no longer self-governing; they were under Roman rule.)

Jesus took the moral law literally. He affirmed its verdict on sin, but He also came to wash away our sins. That is much different, and much better, than saying that our sins are okay. They are not.

Those who mock "fundamentalists" who interpret moral commands literally by saying that they prefer a "metaphorical" interpretation of the Bible have no clue what they are talking about. It is not even an intelligent argument, much less enlightened or modern. No, they use this to put down those they disagree with on moral matters all the while pretending that they know more about the Bible than the people who actually study and believe it. They pretend to be morally and intellectually superior to those they look down on. Meanwhile they justify behavior that God clearly condemns.

Just as bad, they pretend to honor a Bible though they will not submit to as God's Word. I have much more respect for a person who comes right out and says that they do not believe the Bible is God's Word than one who pretends that they honor the Bible while they refuse to submit to its teaching. This is nothing but hypocrisy.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Spong is wrong

I trust that my readers know that when I speak of a "liberal" or "progressive" Christian that I am not referring to some political point of view. I mean those in the church who use that term about themselves and who may or may not hold progressive political views. "Progressive" Christians are those who deny one or more of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith or, at least, think that they have a better idea than the biblical authors of what constitutes truly Christian faith and practice(morality). They think that the Bible is basically a human book whose authors had some good ideas about God and maybe from God but were so culture-bound that they could not possibly know what we know now. Supposedly, we have progressed beyond what the ancients knew and, seemingly, beyond what our own grandparents knew.

Some years ago the well-known "progressive" Episcopalian bishop, John Spong, declared that Christianity must change or perish. He thinks that conservative or fundamentalist Christianity is holding back the church from reaching the larger culture. The church, in his view, is to reject the deity of Christ in favor of a merely human Jesus. We should no longer believe that the Bible is inspired or inerrant and that its moral precepts need be followed. Instead, it should be replaced with updated views on theology and morality. He uses as evidence the increasing secularism of our society. He says that unless the church 'catches up' with the modern world it will disappear into history.

However, many years ago one conservative scholar pointed out that it is the increasingly progressive mainline churches that are in serious decline while the conservative denominations are growing. (The most progressive mainline churches are the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church.) The Episcopal Church in 1970 had three million members. In 2000, that number had plummeted to 1 million.Since 2003, when they ordained the first openly homosexual bishop, the church has dropped to 600,000 members. That's an 80% drop in only 42 years. And that's while the US population increased by 50%. The Episcopal Church used have 1.5% of the population; it now has .2%.

Some have countered this argument by noting that the Southern Baptists Convention (the largest denomination in the US) has declined as well and they are mostly conservative churches. But a closer examination of the numbers tells the full story. Southern Baptist churches are in places in the US that are generally losing population and their losses reflect that fact. The losses correlate to the population decline, about 6-8%. Demographic changes cannot explain an 80% decline.

It is also noteworthy that the overseas growth of mainline denominations are conservative and evangelical. Progressive Christianity is no more popular in third world countries than it is here. That alone should wake them up since they claim to speak for the poor and disadvantaged. Those same poor recognize their spiritual needs and the progressives have nothing of real substance to offer them. Like Esau, they have traded their birthright for a pot of stew. They didn't know that they could have kept the true faith and helped the poor with their physical needs as the conservatives have been doing all along.

Additionally, Progressive Christians like to take credit for any progress that the church has ever made. They love to point to the civil rights movement as an example of progressivism. But the civil rights movement was successful because it was based on a conservative reading of the Bible. I used to hear Martin Luther King's speeches on the radio and he always quoted the Bible and called us to live up to it. True progress comes from taking seriously the Bible we proclaim as true, not from denying it.

Another area where we have truly progressed is in the area of women in ministry, especially ordained ministry. Sadly, many women scholars and ministers have been told that they must hold progressive views of the Bible to justify their ministry. However, we do not have to see the biblical writers as patriarchal or culture-bound. We do not have to throw out the principles they taught. Those principles are eternal - they are not subject to change. We cannot change the Word to suit our feelings.

It is unnecessary to alter one's view of the Bible as the eternal Word of God to make needed change. A case in point: Pentecostals, who are among the most conservative and literal interpreters of the Bible, have always had women ministers. How is this? Because they recognized that there were women that were called to ministry and they realized that the Bible did allow for them. In denying them, the church had previously misunderstood and misapplied the scriptures supposedly against women in ministry.
Once again, as in the case of the civil rights movement, God led the church to rightly divide the Word rather than to "progress" beyond it.

As far as Spong's statement is concerned, I would say with Jesus about the church, "the gates of Hell [and progressivism] will not prevail against it".

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Rush to Judgmentalism

One of the worst things about the current political atmosphere is the "rush to judgment" by one side when the opposition takes a position it does not like. (For my readers who want to read something spiritual and not political, hold on! My real point is spiritual.) By "rush to judgment" I mean how the motives of those who take a position are impugned by those on the other side.

If someone takes a position against affirmative action, for example, those in favor have often said that those who take such a position are racist. If this is not judgmentalism, I don't know what is. In fact, it is the worst form of judgmentalism, because it does not even involve an actual sin on the part of the person who is being judged.

Regular, old-fashioned judgmentalism is simply condemning someone who has sinned as if we were better than they are. We look at them as if they were not worthy of love or forgiveness. This is, at least, understandable. When someone does something evil, we are appalled by it. We hate it, but we have to make sure that we do not hate the sinner.

In our politics today, a person is often judged based on their views. Unfortunately, the same thing happens in the church. If someone espouses a particular view or theology, then they are often judged as evil or heretical. (I am not, of course, talking about actual heresy which is easily spotted.)

Two examples:

1. Replacement Theology. This is the view that the church has replaced Israel in the plan of God. The OT prophecies regarding Israel not yet fulfilled are being fulfilled in the church. Those who take this view do not believe that modern-day Israel is like biblical Israel. It is not the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel.

Dispensationalists take the opposite view. They see Israel and the church as separate entities in God's plan with modern-day Israel being a prophetic fulfillment. Hence, they are big supporters of the nation of Israel. (This is my position.)

However, it greatly distresses me when a dispensationalist calls replacement theologians "anti-Semitic". That is judging someone without knowing what is in their heart. Historically, there has been some anti-Semites among them, but that is not the basis of their theology. We should never assume that someone holds a particular view because their motives are evil.

2. Prosperity gospel. Years ago, I heard of a preacher who taught that God wished to prosper Christians financially. Immediately, I assumed that it was just a greed-driven theology. Then I actually listened to what was taught. I found that my assumptions were wrong. This preacher was not saying what I thought he was saying.
My judgment of him as 'greedy' had no basis in fact.

That does not mean that no prosperity preachers are greedy or have wrong motives. But it does not mean that I have no right to judge them without examining what they have to say. All deserve a fair hearing without pre-judgments.

I guess it is just (sinful) human nature to judge people who hold positions that we are strongly against. In recent years, I have heard harsh criticisms of many of this nation's founding fathers because some of the prominent ones were slaveholders. Some have said that we must conclude that the Constitution was only written to maintain the rights of rich, white men. Really? Does the actual document read that way? No. It is neither a racist or sexist document.

Let's quite making assumptions about those we disagree with. I know that wrong ideas can do a lot of harm. But we do not help the situation by judging those whose views we oppose. Harmful ideas are best done away with by dealing fairly with everyone and fairly with their ideas as well. Make a real argument without ad hominem attacks.

Don't just disagree without being disagreeable, but disagree without assuming that you know the motives of someone you do not know.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Inerrancy and science

At one time, the Bible held a place of supremacy in Western civilization. Various groups certainly disagreed about what the Bible meant. They did not disagree about the fact that the Bible was not only inerrant, but authoritative. Sadly, this is no longer the case. With Enlightenment skepticism and the "higher criticism" that followed, belief in the Bible eroded.

The question is: what has taken the Bible's place in the Western mind? I think the answer is simple. It is science. When scientists say something, it is taken as absolute truth. What happens if someone believes that the Bible is the Word of God and inerrant, but he lives in a society where science is king? Well, there is bound to be conflict. Furthermore, what happens when a person believes both the Bible and in science and the two seem to contradict? You get the current arguments we have between Bible scholars who accept all scientific theories, and creation scientists who accept the Genesis account of creation (interpreted in a very literal fashion) and reject some of the theories accepted by the Bible scholars.

So, in the evangelical world we have a starnge thing. We have Bible scholars who prefer what science says about our origins, and we have scientists who prefer the Bible's explanation (traditionally interpreted). Evangelical scholars who accept the theory of evolution (it is really the hypothesis of evolution) often call creation scientists 'non-scientists' because they "operate outside the [accepted] sphere of science". But this only really means that they reject the hypothesis of evolution and possibly the idea that the universe is quite old. (I say possibly because not all creationists are young earth creationists.)

The first time I ran into this was in college. I came into college as a young believer who knew little of the Bible and thought he knew a lot about science. For me, the first chapter of Genesis was quite challenging. I believed in the hypothesis of evolution, but Genesis seemed to contradict it. I was studying economics and not science, but I had confidence that scientists must be right about this. What puzzled me was the fact that it was the evangelical science students and not the evangelical humanities or social science students who were the quickest to set aside evolution in favor of the Bible. So I asked the science students about this and they explained to me how science actually works and what science can do and what it cannot do. I also read up on the matter.

Science studies the physical world and the natural laws that govern it. They can do experiments based on a hypothesis and get understanding of the natural world. But regarding the past or future it can only really guess. You cannot do an experiment to see if the universe was created in a certain way. Science cannot "know" when the universe was born. It can give educated guesses based on a little knowledge and lot of assumptions. To cut to the chase, I found that evolution was on very shaky ground despite the seemingly universal acceptance of it by scientists. (It's not as universal as we have been led to believe.) So I chose to reject evolution and accept what the Bible says while leaving room for believers to disagree about just how to interpret Genesis 1 and other creation passages.

But if evolution is on shaky ground, then why do scientists accept it so readily? Scientists, like everyone else, are human and, despite their professionalism, can be prejudiced. They have used evolution to explain everything. It replaces God as the source of everything. Without it, they think they will destroy the foundation of science. Of course, they would do no such thing.

Here is what is so odd about this: This is exactly what the Catholic Church did with Galileo's idea that the earth goes around the sun. It contradicted, not the Bible, but their own Aristotelian philosophy that said that the sun must go around the earth. Catholic theology was built on Aristotelian philosophy and any challenge to this philosophy was seen as a challenge to the whole of the Catholic faith. (I realize that this runs contrary to high school textbooks who insist that Catholicism was anti-scientific. The Vatican was a leader in promoting scientific endeavors.) Galileo was a faithful Catholic who was not an Aristotelian, but a Neo-Platonist. This was the Catholic Church's real objection to Galileo.

Now we have the scientific 'consensus', which now plays the role that the Vatican did in times past, who insist that if evolution can be successfully challenged, then the all of science, especially biology, is in danger. The whole thing will come apart because they want a naturalistic science that leaves God out.

Okay. I have to get back to inerrancy and Bible scholars who accept evolution and reject the Bible's version of what happened. These scholars generally reject inerrancy. (Please read the last post on inerrancy if I have lost you here. Inerrancy means that the Bible is true on whatever subject it speaks about - including scientific matters.) These scholars teach that those who wrote the Bible had little understanding of science and could not possibly be able to write anything other than what they believed in that day. Being pre-scientific, they must have written error or a general poetic version of creation rather than what actually occurred.

But they assume too much. Certainly, the ancients did not have the scientific language that we have and used terms that were common in their day. And they used poetic images that were not meant to be taken literally. We make a mistake, however, in attributing too much ignorance, or lack of divine revelation, to those whom God had revealed His Word. God is able to make us understand things that go way beyond our cultural limitations.

One example is Psalm 8. We are told that the ancients viewed the universe as a very small place with the sky and stars just a couple of miles over their heads. Supposedly, they had no clue as to the vastness of the universe. However, Psalm 8 says, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?" Well, the psalmist seems to understand the vastness of the universe especially in comparison to himself. So the ancients, at least God's people, were not as ignorant as we like to think. Plus, they had revelation from God. Revelation includes, not just ideas about God, but facts about all kinds of things.

The problem is not that some "fundamentalists" reject modern science. Indeed, many of them work in the sciences themselves. The problem is that Bible scholars do not really understand what science is and what it can or cannot do. A hypothesis is not a fact. They should be more skeptical of the "conclusions" that scientists come to and more believing regarding the Bible that they are supposed to be experts on. I know that experts like to believe what experts in other fields say. That is nice, but it really leads to an elitism that shuns all criticism and becomes self-satisfied and, ultimately, self-deceived.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Inerrancy and the Mustard Seed

Twice in two days I have heard or read about the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Now that is not Jesus' statement about 'mustard seed faith'. That's in Matthew 17:20. This parable is in Mark 4:30-32 as well as in Matthew 13. It reads thusly:

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

This was preached in church today along with another parable and all I can say about that is that you should have been in our church this morning. It was the best that I have ever heard it preached. But that is not what I am discussing here.

Rather, I want to discuss the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. Inerrancy can be defined as "being without error in the original manuscripts". That includes any statement the Bible makes about any subject. If it makes a theological statement about God or salvation, then it is completely and utterly true. If it makes a statement about history or even science, then that is true as well.

This last statement, and therefore inerrancy itself, has been challenged by some orthodox believers. In other words, some Christian scholars accept that whatever the Bible says about God or other 'spiritual' ideas, then it is accurate and authoritative; however, when the Bible makes statements about historical or scientific matters, then it is not necessarily true. They say that the spiritual truths are the ones that are really important, not the other stuff.

What does this have to do with the Parable of the Mustard Seed? Well, I was reading the blog post of a Christian teacher who does not believe in inerrancy and he used this parable as proof. He said that anyone who believed in inerrancy would also have to believe that the mustard seed was actually the smallest seed in existence, and since the mustard seed is not the smallest seed, then the Bible is not inerrant.

He insisted that inerrancy must mean that one must take the every passage in the Bible in the most grossly literal sense possible. But nobody actually does that. Nobody thinks that when Jesus said "I am the vine" that it means that He is literally a vine. The most literalistic, fundamentalist, most gullible believer would never even consider it a possibility. It is clearly a metaphor.

Jesus is not making a scientific statement nor even using what he might have believed was a scientific fact as the basis of the parable. Rather, he is painting a picture with words. He is saying that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that becomes the biggest of plants. He uses the mustard plant to paint the picture. People knew about the mustard plant. It is a big herb bush. His statement about the "smallest" seed and the "largest" plant do not have to be taken as literal, scientific truth. It's a poetic image. It's a manner of speaking. It's the same way that we speak. It's no different than when historians speak of the "shot that was heard around the world". Of course, no shot has ever been heard around the world. The truth that comes out of such a statement, however, is more powerful than any brief literal description can be. We talk like this to get across to people the meaning which we mean to convey. (And nobody says that the historian here is historically or scientifically in error.)

But this does not mean that we should just take the theological meanings and separate them from the historical and scientific truths presented to us in the Bible. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is, at the same time, a scientific, historical and theological fact. The theological truth that comes out of the resurrection is based on the historical fact of the resurrection.

It is heresy to affirm the theological truth of the resurrection and deny its historicity as do famous theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer. You cannot separate the two. If the Bible teaches that there was a historical Adam and Eve and you deny that Adam and Eve are historical figures, then you have a problem. It is not enough to simply affirm the spiritual truth associated with the story.

Now I will admit that someone who does not know much about seeds might think that Jesus was making a scientific statement, but that does not mean that they will still believe that mustard seeds are the smallest of seeds when they are shown otherwise. They also will not give up their belief in inerrancy. They will (rightfully) alter their view of what Jesus was actually saying.

It is no different from the way that we now view passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that the sun goes around the earth. Once it was proven that the earth goes around the sun, then we realized that these passages were not describing scientific realities, but were only giving us an anthropomorphic (human) perspective. In other words, it was only describing how it appears to us. The Bible has always been recognized as doing this. In Genesis, it describes three men approaching Abraham and meeting with him. We later found that these were, in fact, angels and not men. Was the first text in error? No. They appeared to be men, but they revealed themselves otherwise later. It's no different from us calling a meteorite a falling star.

I know that some do not view inerrancy as an important doctrine. They say that it is better to acknowledge the spiritual or theological truths of the Bible and not worry about the rest. This is not relevant, they say. I could not disagree more. If the Bible is the Word of God then it is all true - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

(Perhaps more on this in a subsequent post.)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Paternalistic inclusivity of so-called progressive mainliners

I wish that I could say that I am amazed at the blind paternalism of those who call for inclusivity in the whole church body, but fail time and again to actually be inclusive if that inclusivity includes the acceptance of non-progressive views. I am speaking, of course, of mainline churches like the United Methodist Church (UMC) that just had its General Conference. For those who do not know, this conference includes bishops and others in the church from all over the world. This body makes the rules for the entire UMC. It only meets every few years. One of this year's complaints about the Conference was the lack of progress made. Now I am not saying that there is not important work to be done by the Conference, but it was apparently deadlocked on some controversial issues. (Sounds a bit like Congress, doesn't it?) Many bemoaned this fact, but I do not. It is better to be deadlocked than to mess things up. No legislation is better than bad legislation. One of the big issues once again was the issue of homosexuality. The UMC book of discipline says that the homosexual practice is "incompatible with Christian teaching" and that those who practice it should not be ministers in the church. To me, this is weak language that ought to be strengthened to state that homosexuality is sin at least on the level of adultery (perhaps worse) and that any member of the church who falls into such sin and refuses to repent will be subject to church discipline. The discussion, however, is not going in that direction. Rather, the progressives are pushing the homosexual agenda in the church and trying to get the Conference to normalize homosexual relations of some kind and to allow practicing homosexuals to be ordained, etc., so deadlock here is a good thing. Our District Superintendent (DS) does not seem too happy with this deadlock, though. She expressed disappointment in the "lack of progress" of the Conference. She did, however, speak of how great it was that she got to room with two female ministers from Africa. And she also implied that the African branch of the UMC needs to appreciate it female ministers more. On this we agree. But she said nothing about how two things - presence of ministers from Africa and the deadlock over things like the lack of "progress" of the homosexual agenda - actually relate. Even as mainline churches in the US become more attuned to culture rather than the Bible and accept things like homosexuality, they are losing members by the droves. (Theologically conservative denominations and independent churches are growing.) But mainline churches are growing in third world countries faster than the US branches are declining. The Christians in third world countries have traditional cultures that largely reject the liberal progressive agenda, especially homosexuality. In the last General Conference, 20% of attendees came from Africa, in this year's conference it was 30%. This is the cause of the deadlock. Africans almost universally reject as sinful the homosexual lifestyle. They are preventing the UMC from overturning its wise decision made 40 years ago to include in the Book of Discipline (the UMC "constitution") the words I quoted above stating that homosexual practice is incompatible with Christian teaching. Some so-called progressives, knowing this, wanted to have a conference of only US ministers to assure their victory in overturning this statement. And they have the gall to call themselves "inclusive". Their idea of inclusivity is to accept anyone, but to marginalize the views of those who disagree with them. If the "conservatives" had made such a suggestion, they almost certainly would have been called racist. Our DS spoke of how the African branch of the UMC needs to learn from the American church about how to accept female ministers. I agree. I also think that we ought to listen to our African brethren when it comes to some matters like homosexuality. To refuse to listen to them while expecting them to listen to us is nothing but paternalism and arrogance. It looks like the Africans and other third world Christians may save the mainline churches from themselves. Who knew? We thought that conservative scholarship might save us, but I think that that has only kept the American branches of the mainline churches from even more apostasy. Rather it is the missionaries who are saving us. This reminds me of the early church. In the first ten years of the church, all Christians were Jewish. Then the gospel began to be taken to the Gentiles. It took a lot of arguing by Paul (a missionary) to get the church to accept the Gentiles as true equals. Some Jewish believers had the attitude that progressives have with third world Christians. That attitude is basically: "Nice to have you on board, but you cannot be truly equal because you do not have the privileged background that we do. Just listen to us and everything will be fine." After the first century, the church became dominated by Gentiles. Today, the church is becoming less of a thing of Western culture and more of a church of the global south. This is turning out to be a good thing. That does not mean that we have nothing to teach them. The Gentile church had much to learn from the Jews (and we are still learning from them). But the Jewish Christians needed to learn some things from the Gentiles as well. Likewise, those who have a Christian background of many centuries can keep newly minted believers and churches from making certain errors. (Errors that we have had to correct through long experience.) But God will teach us through them as well. "Out of the mouth of babes, You have ordained wisdom."

Friday, May 11, 2012

Skeptics answered

There always have been many skeptics of the Bible and the morality which is based upon it. But today there are very vocal atheists who love to "expose" the supposed absurdities of the moral strictures of the Bible. This is especially true regarding the commandment disallowing homosexual activity. One skeptic mocked an Orthodox Jew who pointed out that the book of Leviticus clearly and absolutely condemns homosexual relations. This skeptic noted that Leviticus also says what one may do with his slaves. He went on and on about how the OT tells us that we may have slaves. To him, this showed that the Bible was not the arbiter of right and wrong, but an old book with a flawed morality. The problem with this skeptic's analysis, if it even can be called such, is that he is comparing apples and oranges. The laws governing slavery in ancient Israel are governmental laws, not moral laws. God was not approving slavery when He made laws governing it. We have laws governing public intoxication. Does that mean that the government approves of public intoxication? No. It means that since there are people who are going to get intoxicated despite what anyone thinks about it, we must have laws that cover it. The same thing was true regarding slavery in ancient Israel. God never said that He approved slavery, but rather than forbidding it, He severely restricted it. But that brings up an important question: why did God not simply forbid it? We do not have the complete answer to that. We might have a hint, however, in what Jesus said about marriage and divorce. In his arguments with the Pharisees regarding divorce, Jesus said that God did not like divorce but that He allowed it because "of the hardness of your hearts". Divorce was never God's intention. God allowed divorce because it was better, practically speaking, than not allowing it. Perhaps the situation with slavery was similar. Maybe it was better to have strict laws covering slavery than forbidding it entirely at that time. Now this may not sit well with our modern sensibilities, but God is not bound by how we feel about things. When we read the Old Testament and try to understand it, we must be aware that God made moral laws, He made governmental laws, and He also made religious (ceremonial) laws as well. Please do not be fooled by what the skeptics of the Bible say. The Bible's moral laws are still the standard that we all must follow.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Worship the same God?

Do Christians and Muslims and (fill-in-the-blank) all worship the same God? Sincere people ask this question, but it really is not the right question. First of all, we are not saved by worship, but by faith through grace. If two people worship the 'same God' and one has faith and the other does not, they are not on the same footing. One is saved and the other is not. This whole question of who we worship is less important than it seems. Now, I grant this, that it is important that you worship and serve the true and living God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I am not saying that worship is irrelevant. Far from it. Some argue, in particular, about whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Some Christians say yes and others say no. There is merit to both arguments. One side argues that since the Christians worship God who is Triune and Muslims don't, then they do not worship the same God. The other side says that they both worship the one Creator God. As far as the former argument goes, we would have to conclude that Jews, who are not Trinitarian, must worship a different God than the Christians. But there is great difficulty here since the Christian God comes to us right out of the Old Testament. Christians and Jews both say that they worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So it seems that Trinitarianism alone is not a sufficient reason to say that one has a different God. But I am not ready to jump on the "we-all-worship-the-same-God" bandwagon. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob's well, she argued about where God ought to be worshiped. Jesus told her that the Samaritans worshiped "what they did not know". The subject as to whether it was the same God never came up. It was not relevant. What was relevant was whether or not the true God accepted their worship. Jesus was clear on that point. He stated that salvation was from the Jews. (And Jesus, of course, was from the Jews.) The relevant question is not whether we have the same God, but whether we have the same Jesus. Jesus asked the disciples, "Who do men say that I am?". There were then, as there are now, multiple answers to that question. Then Jesus asked the disciples who they believed He was. Peter answered that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus told Peter that he was blessed. Peter got it right. We have to get it right as well. It's the most important question in the world. (Nonmessianic) Jews and Muslims get this wrong. Some who call themselves Christians get this wrong. This is where the rubber meets the road. For God to accept you into His eternal kingdom, you must believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Paul said that we must reject those who "preach another Jesus". John said that those who deny the deity of Jesus are Antichrist and are liars. So the real question is not whether we worship the same God, but whether we worship the same Jesus.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The New Fundamentalists?

Very few Christians today would actually describe themselves as Fundamentalist today. That's because the use of the term has been both narrowed to include only the most intolerant and narrow-minded sort of religious person, and broadened to include the most fanatical of any religion. This started in the late 70s during the Iranian revolution when the media called those Islamists who overthrew the Shah of Iran, took American hostages for 444 days and established an oppressive Islamic regime, fundamentalists. Before this time, the word Fundamentalist was only applied to those who had applied it to themselves: Christians who held to the historic Christian faith and separated themselves from those they even suspected of holding contrary views. And it is true that many Fundamentalists have been legalistic and have treated nonessential doctrines and attitudes as if they were essential to the true faith. The term became popular in the 1920s when liberal, unbelieving theology challenged the historic Christian faith in seminaries and in mainline denominations. The liberals, or modernists, took over many Christian seminaries and pulpits in America and Europe. They used the new tools of what is called the historical-critical method to interpret the Bible. Some early Fundamentalists directly engaged the modernists and sought to influence the culture and church in order to keep them from abandoning the historic faith. But as the modernists gained control of many religious institutions and became dominant in the larger culture, Fundamentalists withdrew from the seminaries and older churches, and established new churches and Bible colleges. (This might preserve a faithful remnant, but it made the historic Christian faith less influential in the rest of society.) In the 1940s we saw the rise of the evangelical movement. The evangelicals held to the historic Christian faith while leaving behind the culture-rejecting attitudes of the Fundamentalists. They engaged the modernists in the seminaries using good scholarship and respect for their theological opposites. They also did not insist that everybody agree with them on every issue. They were more flexible while maintaining 'fundamental' doctrines and morality. In particular, the older evangelicals held to the inerrancy of the scriptures. That is, the scriptures contain no error of any kind in the original manuscripts. The evangelicals have been fairly successful in challenging the modernists in Bible interpretation, and it now seems that evangelical scholars even have the upper hand. But now there is a bit of a split in evangelical circles regarding inerrancy. Many evangelicals now no longer hold to inerrancy and, hence, have a different attitude towards the Bible than inerrantists. They are more willing to accept modernist conclusions about the "nonessential" things in the Bible. An example: modernists have challenged the traditional view that the apostle Peter wrote the NT book, 2 Peter. Of course, the book itself indicates that Peter did write it. Conservative evangelicals have rejected the modernist view for the simple reason that since the Bible contains no errors we must reach the conclusion that Peter wrote 2 Peter. Modernists, of course, do not feel obligated to believe anything in the Bible, including its doctrine and morality. The evangelicals who no longer hold to the inerrancy of the scriptures still hold to the historic doctrines of the faith and to the theological truth of the Bible. But they often accept notions like the non-Petrine authorship of 2 Peter. They also are more willing to accept some modern ideas about morality and other important issues. They interpret more loosely many Bible passages than do the older kind of evangelical. So there are some big disagreements among evangelicals. But now some of these "new" evangelicals who use some modernist interpretations are calling for a new term to describe the inerrantist evangelicals who hold traditional views of the Bible and morality. They want them to be called "New Fundamentalists". And they want to continue to be called 'evangelicals'. In other words, what we used to call 'evangelical' will now be called 'fundamentalist' despite the fact that evangelicalism was a reaction against Fundamentalism. And the new evangelicals get to redefine what an evangelical is. What if we called these evangelical the "New Modernists" or "New Liberals"? Do you think they would like that? I doubt it. These new evangelicals have much to contribute to Bible study (the parts they believe, anyway), but they are trying to marginalize those who disagree with them. This is easier than actually refuting what they say. Why go to all the trouble of giving a well-reasoned response or argument when we can simply label them as bad or not worth listening to. And here is the real irony: it was the Fundamentalists who were always accused of putting negative labels on their opponents instead of engaging them intellectually. Maybe it is the new evangelicals who are now the "New Fundamentalists". I have to say, though, that I sort of like the label "New Fundamentalist". In some ways, all of us who hold to the historic Christian faith or the inerrancy of the scriptures can, by some definition, correctly be called 'fundamentalist'. We all are fundamentalist about something, even if it is the recent fundamentalism of so-called 'tolerance'. I am 'fundamentalist' about some things. I won't listen to the modernists who reject the historic Christian faith or the inspiration of the Bible. I already know that they are wrong about the most important thing. You might even tell me that some of these modernists do have some insights that we can profit from. But they do not have insights that I cannot get from the conservative camp (Fundamentalist & Evangelical). To me, it is like the servant girl in Philippi who proclaimed that Paul had the message of salvation. Paul cast the demon out of her and stopped the whole thing. God does not need the Devil testifying for him. Before I listen to someone, I want to know where they stand on essential doctrines and morality. I am glad to let evangelical scholars refute them. That is part of the task that God has assigned them, so I am not opposed to it. Finally, it is all too easy to smugly put a negative label on someone and dismiss any challenges to our point of view. Rather we should clarify and defend our perspective without prejudice or hypocrisy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Who do we belong to?

The subject I am exploring here is a bit experimental. It almost certainly will involve some oversimplification, but I am hoping it is fruitful. (Of course, the question "Who do we belong to?" would better be stated "To whom do we belong?".)

Now I know that we Christians will immediately respond to this question with "We belong to God" and that is right. But as we look at this question we will hopefully learn something about how our we actually think. What I mean is that it is very easy to say that we belong to God, but it is probable that we actually reach conclusions based on other premises. So let's look at a couple of ideas that are at odds with the Christian conception that we belong to God.

One conception that I heard recently comes from a university professor who is conservative, or really, libertarian in philosophy. He definitely is not alone in his idea.

His idea is that we belong to ourselves. Since we belong to ourselves, then nobody has a right to take something that belongs to us. Nobody has a right to do something to us that we do not want them to do. He added that the government, in particular, has no right to take something from me and give it to someone else without my agreement.

This idea is very attractive and I think that it has much to commend it. I don't think that any of us wants to give someone else the right to our stuff or be able to do anything to our body without our express permission. We are all in favor of that. (I hope.) And I think that if you ask most people if the government has the right to take our money and give it to someone who the government thinks is more deserving of it, they would agree that this is wrong. Of course, the government does this all the time. They do not call it taking from one to giving to another; they call it 'compassion' or 'investing' or 'fairness' or 'equality' or some other positive term. When they call it that, some believe that it is a good thing, especially when it is said to come from the rich who can well afford it. I would just remind you that if it is wrong to take something from a poorer person and give it to someone else, it is just as wrong to take it from a richer one.

Another idea that is prevalent in our society that would be more associated with political and social liberalism is the notion that we all belong to each other. Unlike our previous idea that is more individualistic, this idea is more socially oriented. (I do not use the term socialist here because in socialism people essentially belong to the state, not to one another.) The idea of belonging to one another is very attractive to many who hate to see the grinding poverty and oppressed condition of many in our society and around the world. Those who hold this idea generally like the government to be heavily involved in programs to help the poor and to bring greater 'fairness' to the way that goods are distributed among us.

These folks are also concerned about the individual and, like the professor who espoused individualism, want to protect human dignity. But they think about it a bit differently. The individualist/libertarian believes that human dignity is upheld only when a person is left to take care of himself and keep his own goods and person. To the liberal, human dignity is upheld when everyone has what he or she needs. (Needs are usually defined according to what would be expected in the life an average person in a Western society.) To the liberal it is insufficient that the well-off in society freely give to the poor. Only government can fairly distribute and guarantee everyone's "right" to what (Western) society provides.

It seems that our society is divided between these points of view. There is a sharp philosophical difference between the modern libertarian/conservative and the modern liberal. But I do not wish to talk about these two groups or the pros and cons of each. Rather, I want to look at the idea we started with: We belong to God. And if we belong to God, then we must follow the precepts that He has laid out in His Word. We also must replace our libertarian and liberal thinking with God's thoughts as He has revealed them to us.

In fact, my purpose here is to challenge us to examine our own thinking and discover whether our thinking is, in fact, libertarian or liberal and repent of that and renew our minds with the Word of God. The tricky part of this is the fact that these philosophies and the Word overlap and sometimes come to the same or similar conclusions. Libertarians are strong on private property rights. So is the Bible. Liberalism is strong on helping those in need. So is the Bible.

We need to examine the reasons behind our thoughts and find where they actually originate. Do they stem from libertarian or liberal ideas about who we belong to, or are they truly biblical? It is not enough that our conclusions correspond with what the Bible says or seems to say. We must make all thoughts captive to Christ.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Should we be led by our gifts and abilities?

We all thank God for the gifts and abilities that He has given to each of us. But are we led by these abilities, or do we simply use them in the course of our calling? Some today are denying that we are to be led of the Spirit (Romans 8:14) and insist that one determines the will of God for his life by rational evaluation of his gifts and abilities. In fact, they say that your abilities really tell you what your ministry is. Is this scriptural?

Definitely, not! Nowhere in the scripture does it indicate that we should determine our calling and vocation by our abilities. In the Old Testament, when God called a prophet, He revealed Himself to them. Inevitably the person called would plead that they have no ability to carry out such an assignment. And from a natural point of view, they were right. Nobody really has the natural ability to pastor or do any other sort of called ministry. Some can do some things well, but true pastoring requires a calling and equipping by the Spirit of God. The same is true for other ministries.

In fact, God often calls the least likely candidates for ministry. Recently, Chuck Swindoll, who has been in the ministry for over fifty years, wrote of his own struggles with stuttering. He was like George VI of England in that movie,the King's Speech, who had to overcome this same affliction in order to lead the nation into war. Now from a natural point of view, Swindoll should not have assumed that he was called to any ministry that would require public speech. But God called him anyway and helped him overcome his infirmity and gave him gifts to communicate the Word to many. If you have heard him speak, you can affirm that he is a wonderful teacher of God's Word.I thank God that he did not listen to those who would have us be led by abilities and not by divine calling.

In addition, I would say that many people of ability have called themselves into ministry who have no business being there. They may rise to positions of power within the church, but often they are not even truly born-again Christians, but rather religious liberals who use their abilities to distort the gospel. Other simply like that sort of work, but do little good.

When speaking of gifts and abilities, we must make the proper distinction between spiritual gifts and natural abilities. Natural abilities are abilities that we are born with. Everybody is good at something. God can also give spiritual gifts - these are only for those who are born of God. It is the anointing of the Holy Spirit who imparts these gifts to us. If you have a ministry gift, like evangelist, pastor or teacher, then your gift IS your calling. But it is not based on natural ability. Natural abilities may be anointed by God and used in ministry, but they do not determine ministry.

Furthermore, even if we are called to do something for God, and we know we are called, when and where we serve is still up to the Lord. We cannot decide how we will serve. He does. That is why we call him 'Lord'.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Is part of the Bible missing?

I know that some will be shocked by this, but we should realize that many conservative, orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing Christians do not think that we have the complete New Testament. Now before you go heretic-hunting, please read the whole post. (Then you can go hunt some heretics [just a joke].)

What I am referring to is the ending of Mark's gospel, chapter 16, verses 9 through 20. Some folks think that this ending does not belong at the end of Mark, but that it was added later. Those who believe this do have some justification for it.

It seems that the oldest ancient manuscripts of Mark do not contain these last twelve verses. There is no manuscript of Mark that contains these verses that we have found that is dated before the fifth century. In general, the older the manuscript, the closer it is to the original, but not always. Some manuscripts have a different ending to Mark and some have nothing past verse 8.

Textual critics, those who study such things, think that one of three things happened. One thing that might have happened is that Mark ended at verse 8 and as copies were made, some put endings on it and eventually one of them stuck. Another thing that might have happened is that the original ending was lost and some copyists put what they thought would be close to the right ending. A third thing that might have happened is that a very early manuscript had the end of Mark broken off and lost.

Do not be puzzled by this because this would have been very common in the ancient world. Books were written on a single scroll and scrolls vary in quality. The end could have torn or been broken off a dried-up scroll. Then, when copies were made, they were made without the proper ending. Eventually, however, when copies were found that did have the ending (verses 9-20), they were included in subsequent manuscripts. The ending could have been restored on future manuscripts.

This latter scenario is my view and it was the standard view for many centuries in the church, but it has recently fallen into disfavor. Many now think that either the original ending was lost and not recovered (hence my title for this post) or that the book ends at verse 8.

I see problems with both of these views. My problem with the view that the true ending is lost greatly troubles me. It would mean that part of the Bible is missing. Now that might not bother some people, but it does me. I simply cannot comprehend having an incomplete gospel, New Testament, Bible. "Know then that there shall fall to the earth nothing of the word of the LORD, which the LORD spoke..." (2 Kings 10:10) I realize that I have taken this scripture out of context, but I think it applies here. I do not think that God allowed the ending of Mark to "fall to the ground".

Then there is the view that Mark ends in verse 8. Now we have a complete Bible, but we have this additional ending added later. (I reiterate that I do not hold this view.) Here is my problem with this: We have a very awkward and inadequate ending to Mark. We have in the first 8 verses of Mark a tomb with the stone rolled away, a young man (certainly an angel) telling the women who came to the tomb that Jesus is risen and has gone ahead of them to Galilee. The women are frightened and say nothing. The end.

That's it. No resurrection appearances. No directions given to the disciples. Nothing else. Just the testimony of an angel. I don't know about you, but I find this highly unsatisfying.

In my view, our current ending being restored makes a lot more sense. Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and others. He appears to the Eleven and rebukes them for unbelief. Then He gives them a version of the Great Commission slightly different from Matthew's.

This ending lines up perfectly with the rest of Mark's gospel. Jesus emphasizes faith and rebukes unbelief. Mark highlights action rather than teaching throughout his gospel in contrast to Matthew. Likewise, Mark's Great Commission emphasizes action (speaking in tongues, laying hands on the sick, casting out demons) instead of emphasizing teaching and discipling as in Matthew's version.

But now I want to explore another question: why have the views of so many scholars changed about the ending of Mark? Well, I have a theory, and some will not like it.

When I first began to study the Bible, more than thirty years ago, there was a deep divide on spiritual gifts, especially the supernatural manifestations like speaking in tongues and divine healing. Pentecostals and charismatics believed in and practiced these gifts while evangelicals denied them.

Since evangelicals believed that tongues and healing had ceased, they had no problem with the ending of Mark's gospel which made tongues and laying on of hands for healing a part of the Great Commission. They could say that since these things have ceased that they cannot practice them and God could not expect them to do so.

But now evangelicals largely acknowledge supernatural manifestations even if they do not practice them. That creates a dilemma for them. If they support the continuation of supernatural gifts and they carry out the Great Commission, then they will have to start laying hands on the sick and begin speaking in tongues.

I think that most evangelicals don't want to do this. They want to think that they are carrying out the Great Commission without laying hands on the sick or speaking in tongues or casting out demons (assuming they acknowledge the existence of demons). So they have a way out. Use a legitimate textual issue to get around the dilemma by denying that they have to even deal with the text. Problem solved. I am in no way saying that they are deliberately lying, but their discomfort with the content may incline them towards the side that will help relieve that discomfort.

I do have to say one thing here. I acknowledge that I am guessing what is in people's hearts in this matter, and I know that this is neither safe nor wise. I know that some of my own charismatic brethren, who believe strongly in spiritual gifts, sometimes have doubts about Mark's ending. But we all need to deal honestly with all of the Word of God and accept that which makes us uncomfortable.

For those who agree with me and take the ending of Mark as the Word of God, I admonish you to take seriously the Great Commission in Mark and begin practicing it. We cannot get around it.

One more issue: snake-handling. I have a feeling that some who read this might be wondering if I am not giving ammunition that allows some fanatics to use the end of Mark to justify the handling of snakes on purpose to prove one's faith. Let me ease your mind. The passage which reads "They will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them" clearly does not refer to purposely picking up poisonous snakes any more than it refers to drinking poison on purpose. That is testing the Lord; it is not faith.

However, I do think that this passage does give us evidence that this passage along with the rest of Mark's ending does belong. In Acts 28, Paul shakes off a poisonous snake on Malta and suffers no ill effects. Paul did not do this on purpose, but since he was fulfilling his part in the Great Commission he knew that the snake could not hurt him. This is evidence that the most unusual thing said in this disputed ending of Mark's gospel is true. And if it is true, why not believe the rest of it?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Inerrancy and Biblical Authority

Some who read this blog will be surprised that inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is free from any kind of error, is even an issue among evangelical Christians. Inerrancy is taken for granted by conservative Christians, but is coming into disfavor among some evangelicals.

Now I am not talking about people of liberal theology who deny the deity of Christ or His atoning sacrifice or bodily resurrection. I am talking about Christians with an orthodox faith who believe in the authority and inspiration of scripture. They believe that the scriptures are inspired by God and that it has full authority in our lives. But they see the seeming contradictions, such as the differences in the genealogy of Christ in Matthew and Luke and conclude that one or more of these lists must be in error.

They do not deny the truth that Jesus was born of the house of David, but they do not think that perfect historical accuracy is necessary to bolster the Bible's claims that it is God's truth. After all, they say, is not what is important the theological message of the Bible? A few facts wrong, to them, do not matter one iota. They want us to concentrate on the message and not on historical minutia. Why get caught up in defending historical details and trying to harmonize these parts of the Bible?

Because, as the saying goes, God is in the details.

I will now offer a good reason to desire perfect accuracy when it comes to historical detail and how it affects getting the 'message' right.

Some of you may remember a book called "I, Rigoberta Menchu". This book, that won the Nobel Prize for literature, is the autobiographical account of Ms. Menchu who became world renowned because of the story she told.

She wrote about the civil war in Guatemala, particularly about her family's involvement in it. She reports how the government forces oppressed and murdered members of her family. She said that the government stole their land and murdered her father who was on the side of the guerrillas. The most incendiary story was the one she told of her own torture at the hands of the army. She reports being tied to a chair naked for weeks while being beaten.

Once her story became widely known she was invited to many US colleges to tell it. She became a sort of superstar in left-wing circles because she exposed the evils that the guerrillas were fighting against. Then someone decided to investigate her story and find out if it actually happened. It turns out that much of the story was simply made up, including the part about her being tortured.

As for the land that was seized by the government, it seems that it was "taken" by a judge in a land dispute and given to her uncle. Her uncle and father inherited property next to each other, but there was a piece of land between them that was in dispute. Each claimed it for himself. The uncle, who took the government's side in the dispute with the guerrillas, went to the courts for a judgment. The father took the side of the guerrillas, perhaps because of the result of the judgment. Anyway, it is questionable that the government targeted her father and murdered him, since he died with other guerrilla supporters while occupying the Spanish embassy in 1980.

Ms. Menchu was eventually forced to admit "changes" in her story, in other words, falsifications. So, what was the reaction of the people in the US who brought her to the States for a tour of colleges? Did they publicly denounce her? Ask for their speaking fees back?

No. They continued to bring her in to tell her story. They continued to celebrate her for her 'speaking truth to power'. This astonishes me. To me, her falsifications undermine her claims to "truth". The left-wingers who still support her say that it's her message that is important, not mere historical details.

But I still think that God is in the details. If a person cannot tell the truth about mere "facts", then their "message" cannot be trusted. God's message and the inspired historical details in the Bible can be trusted. The two go together.

When we try to separate them (something only moderns do), we end with strange theologies like those of Karl Barth and his student, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. They claimed faith in the resurrection of Christ, but did not believe that it actually happened in history.

This kind of thinking may seem "deep" to some, but to me it is self-defeating. (Theological) liberals use the so-called errors of the Bible to undermine its message. It is really not that difficult to harmonize all scriptures with historical fact and with other scriptures. Is God just a God of theology, or is He a God of history as well?

I hope that all orthodox Christians who have rejected the notion of inerrancy to reconsider the importance of the historical veracity of the scriptures.