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."