Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Science and The Virgin Birth

It's amazing to me how people who pit science against faith (in favor of science, of course) and who claim to be well-informed can be so ignorant of how Christians approach the subject of miracles. I was reading a detective novel where a nun is murdered in a convent. It was found that she had recently given birth.

Obviously, this nun was doing something that she wasn't supposed to do. However, in this book, when the detective questions the nuns, they all think it must have been a virgin birth. The detective is naturally incredulous. The murdered nun must have had sex. That, according to the novelist, is the scientific view. The so-called "faith view" was that it was a miraculous conception.

This novelist does not understand Christianity very well. I do not think that you could find a nun anywhere that would believe that this birth was in any way miraculous. She had apparently broken her vows. It's amazing that any sensible person, like this novelist, would make people of faith so ignorant. The dialogue was even worse. When questioned a nun stated, "You have your science, and we have our faith" as if they were total opposites. Naturally, the detective marvels at the foolishness of these nuns.

What I marvel at is the foolishness of an educated person that would write such tripe. Christians do not use belief in miracles to cover sin. That is not why we believe in miracles. We do believe in miracles but we recognize that God has a purpose in doing them. Making a nun give birth to a stillborn child serves no purpose at all.

I suppose that the author might be taking a shot against the real virgin birth, the birth of Jesus Christ. But we Christians do not believe in the virgin birth because we have faith and are ignorant of science. In fact, without scientific knowledge we would never know what a miracle was. Mary asked the angel how she could have a child without having had sex first. It seems that Mary did have scientific knowledge. She knows how babies are made. Her faith took her beyond scientific realities to a place where she could conceive a child by the Holy Spirit. So faith in the miraculous presumes scientific knowledge and goes beyond it to the Creator whose Word has authority over the natural world.

Because God made the laws of nature, He can overrule them when He sees fit. He does not, however, go around making single women pregnant. He did that one time so that His Son could become incarnate. Jesus could not be born of natural generation or He would have inherited original sin. The virgin birth was a necessary prerequisite to the incarnation.

The virgin birth is one miracle that is frequently mocked by unbelievers. Even some who claim to be Christians have been skeptical of it. Yet it is one of the most necessary miracles in the Bible, right up there with the resurrection of Christ. Without it, Christ could not have come into this world. If He does not come into this world, He cannot pay the price for our sins. If He does not do that, we are all doomed.

The virgin birth is at the very heart of Christianity. That is why it in the Apostles' Creed and is one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith. That is why the Devil hates it so much. He seems to have convinced the skeptics that God would not, or could not, do such a thing. Yet our faith in it is essential. We dare not deny it. To deny it is to deny the incarnation of the Son of God. It is to deny Christ Himself.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Archbishop of York - First and Last

I only recently became aware that there is an archbishop of York as well as an archbishop of Canterbury in England. The latter has a higher standing as he is the number one minister in the Church of England, but both bishoprics have existed since Christianity was established in England. That means, of course, that these bishops were once Roman Catholics; they are now Protestants.

Anyway, I found out about the archbishop of York, the first one, while reading Bede's history of the English Church. Bede was a priest in England in the eighth century who chronicled the development of Christianity in England. Bede describes that first archbishop and how he had a ministry of divine healing. (When I use the term, 'divine healing', I mean God healing people directly without the use of medicines, etc.) Today, we would call him a healing evangelist similar to Oral Roberts or Benny Hinn.

In fact, Bede speaks of many prominent ministries back then as ones that had healing and miracles in abundance. Today we would call them charismatics, but we need to understand that at that time spiritual gifts were common. Priests and bishops often exercised spiritual gifts and every Christian believed in supernatural manifestations.

After reading about the first archbishop of York, I read an article about the present archbishop of York. (I assume he is still archbishop.) The funny thing is that the brother of the archbishop is a charismatic, healing evangelist. Apparently, the archbishop is embarrassed about his brother's healing ministry. He reportedly has mocked it. My question is, why? Does he not approve of the practice of divine healing? If that is the case, has he not undermined his own office? This man's brother is more like the original archbishop of York than he is.

It seems to me that for a church where tradition is so important that it has left behind the most important tradition of all - being Spirit-filled and walking in the spiritual gifts. When did that get lost? Do we no longer expect God to do signs and wonders or is that all in the past? No, it is not in the past. Others, like the brother, have picked up the 'traditions' that some churches have left behind.

Now the American version of the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, does lay hands on people for healing or anoint with oil. That is true. But do they expect people to get healed? Not from what I can tell. When I was in college, I went to a nursing home with a group from school. I used to go talk to this one man who seemed to like my company. On one visit, I just about interrupted a lady from the local Episcopal Church who was praying for this man. She had anointed him with oil and prayed for his healing. When I came up to them and realized that she was praying, I bowed my head and waited for her to finish. Afterward, she introduced herself to me and told me where she was from and what she was doing. She told me that part of their church's ministry was to anoint with oil and pray for the sick. When she said this, I brightened up hoping to hear some good reports that resulted from this ministry. She seemed a bit disconcerted at my reaction and immediately assured me that though they did this, they did not expect anything to happen. It was just a rite that they performed. That is sad.

Performing a rite without the expectation of anything happening is nothing but empty religion. Please understand that I am not saying that they should not perform their traditional rite. I am saying that they should do it with the expectation that God will fulfill the promise associated with this rite. It comes from the fifth chapter of James. It says that the elders of the church should "pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord." It then says that "the prayer of faith will save the sick." Notice that it is faith, and not anointing with oil, that brings healing. No expectation means no faith. No faith means no healing. I know this seems harsh to some but it is what the passage says. We can do all the rituals we want, but without the expectation that God will do what He said He would do, it is not pleasing to Him. He does not honor rituals devoid of faith.

I do not mean to belittle the Episcopal Church or the Church of England or the archbishop. We all have done this. We do things because we have always done them but without faith or expectation. I think the problem is that no one has taught us to expect anything, as if were presumptuous to expect God to fulfill His promises. It is just the opposite. It is dishonoring to God not to expect Him to fulfill His promise.

Think of this from a natural point of view. If you promised someone that you would do something and they figured that you probably would not do it, would you not be insulted by that? I would. Honorable people fulfill their promises. We fulfill our own promises and expect others to fulfill their promises. And we should expect God to fulfill His promises when we meet His conditions.

I have to say that I feel sorry for the present archbishop of York. He is upholding the traditions of the church while his brother is upholding an even greater tradition, the tradition of expecting God to do what He said He would do, the tradition of desiring spiritual gifts and seeing them in manifestation. Go and study what the founders of your tradition did. You might be surprised what you find. You will find spiritual gifts in operation. You will find healings and miracles and speaking in tongues among the early Baptists and Methodists. The early reformers, Luther and Calvin, believed and sometimes experienced miracles. Every move of the Spirit has been accompanied by "signs following". It is time to "stir up the gift of God" which is in us. That's a tradition that we should uphold.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My Christmas Complaints

As I write this post I am listening to some of my favorite Christmas music, trying to get in the Christmas mood. But as you might expect or may experience yourself, I seem to have more trouble every year getting into the spirit of Christmas. I love Christmastime as I hope my readers do, but I am not sure exactly why it seems to take me so long now to "get into" the mood. However, I will blame others instead of examining myself. It might not help me get into the spirit of Christmas, but I will feel better anyway. (I trust that my readers will realize that I am being only half-serious though I do have some complaints about this time of year.)

COMPLAINT #1 - This complaint is several years old, but it is still happening. Stores that make millions of dollars off of the birth of the Son of God every year do not seem to want to acknowledge the reason for the season. Instead, it is only "Happy Holidays" and "Season Greetings". We have always had that, of course, but you also saw signs saying "Merry Christmas" as well. Is it really too much to ask stores to give some faint genuflection to the One who came to earth to redeem us?

COMPLAINT #2 - What else is wrong is radio stations that are supposedly playing only Christmas music but seem to go way out of their way to play only the secular songs. Do they really think that people who listen to Christmas music would be "offended" or something if all kinds of Christmas music was played?

COMPLAINT #3 - This complaint is directed toward some in the church, a small minority perhaps, who want to make Christmas an almost completely religious holiday. I know that I might seem a bit blasphemous here, but let me explain. First, I want to emphasize the fact that we, as Christians, should focus on worshiping Jesus and His Father during this joyous season. Perhaps we have neglected Him too much with all the busyness, gift-giving, cookie-eating, and all that.

But I must disagree with at least one blogger who wants us to de-emphasize the family part of Christmas so that those without families, with broken families and those who may be alienated from family might feel better. He says to pretty much stick to worshiping the Lord during this season. Poppycock! We can, and should, do both. We should put God first (as always), but we should celebrate with our families as well, if we can. It is hard to believe that if we ignore family and just worship Jesus that these folks will feel better. They will not. It would be better to reach out to such people and include them in our celebration if possible. For us to give up our family celebration is not a solution to those who have little family connection. In fact, Christmas is a time when families who live far apart can reconnect in various ways.

Those without family will still have the same need. To me, doing away with the family part of Christmas to "help" those with no family connection is like the solution for the hungry that I have run across in churches from time to time. We are told to fast so that we will know how the hungry feel. Hogwash. The hungry are only helped if we actually feed them. They will not feel better if we are in sympathy with them. They will not feel better if we do not eat. They will feel better if they do.

COMPLAINT #4 - I promise that this is the last one. But it is the reason that I wrote this whole thing. Someone wrote an article in Christianity Today that bothered me not a little. She lost a son over a year ago and last year many who sent her Christmas cards did not mention this tragedy or offer sympathy. She is quite angry about this. She says that she was hurt that so many did not mention her loss. Instead, many sent their usual card with ordinary Christmas wishes or letters telling her about their own families during the past year. She apparently wanted every card to express sympathy because the sender should know that Christmas would be very hard for her. She then proceeded to instruct us on how we should all respond to such a situation.

I do not intend to be critical or harsh to someone grieving such a great loss. We must treat these dear souls with gentleness, kindness and compassion. I must say, however, that no matter how hurt she feels that she is being quite unfair. People often do not know how to respond to those who have lost a child or suffered a similar tragedy. (Is there a similar one? There may be no greater grief.) Besides, not everyone wants the same response. I know one dear friend who lost a son many years ago and never wants to talk about it. She will cut you off if you ask her about him. I know another woman who lost a son, but does want to talk about him. How are the rest of us to know what we should do, or not do? This latter woman graciously got up in church a few months after she lost her son and told the congregation to please talk about her son to her. She said she was not hurt by that. That is gracious! She let others know what they should do. You know, when we lived in a more formal society, these kinds of things were laid out for us. Everyone knew what to do. Today we are "liberated" from these strict rules. In some ways it is a disadvantage. People no longer know how to respond to others. So maybe we ought to gently suggest to others how they should respond.

It certainly is a good idea sometimes when we put a little kind note in a Christmas card expressing sympathy. I did it just last year. My cousin lost her husband early in the year but I did not hear about it until right before Christmas so I had not sent a sympathy card, much less attend the funeral. But if I had sent a sympathy card months earlier, I would have not put a note in the Christmas card. (Maybe I'm a dolt.)

I know that there are many who are grieving this time of year because of loss. But I wish to remind you that nobody is trying to be mean to you or uncompassionate. Let's believe the best of each other and assume that others mean well. Christmas ought to be a time when we treat each other graciously. Those who know someone who has lost a loved one might look for a good way to express it. Those who have suffered loss ought to be understanding toward those who do not know how or when to express their sympathy. Let's just all assume that nobody (except certain stores and radio stations) want to spoil your Christmas.

Merry Christmas!

[By the way, I have been listening to the Riga Boys Choir singing some beautiful Christmas songs that you just do not hear much anymore.]

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Honor the Pilgrims?

There are some big anniversaries coming up in the next several years. In less than three years (October 31, 2017) is the 5ooth anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses by Martin Luther that began the Reformation. On November 9, 2020 is the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims' Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock.

We honor the Pilgrims for two reasons. One, they helped to found our nation, the United States. Of course, they share that honor with others, especially the Jamestown settlers in Virginia. The second thing that we honor the Pilgrims for is religious freedom. That's what I learned in school and have had confirmed in church as well. The Pilgrims came to New England seeking freedom to practice their religion. And I was told that this led to religious freedom in America.

But you might be surprised to learn that some are saying that we should not honor the Pilgrims for religious freedom. (Now, I am not referring to some left-wing nutcakes who hold America responsible for all the world's ills. I am talking about evangelical Christian scholars who think that the sins and errors of our forefathers disqualifies them from this honor.) The Pilgrims wanted freedom to practice their own brand of religion. That same right was not to be granted to those who practiced another religion or another form of Christianity which they would consider to be heretical. So, they did not conceive of religious liberty in the same way that we do today.

I appreciate the fact that evangelical historians are anxious to point out that we often do not realize that our forefathers were imperfect people who sometimes did bad things. The Pilgrims, who generally had peaceful relations with the local Indians did attack them at different times. (I am uncertain whether or not it was justified or if it was an overreaction to some offense.) And it is true that they would not have allowed another competing religion in their community. But the historical question is this: Did their quest for religious freedom eventually culminate in the kind of religious liberty we hold dear today.

I think that it does. Everyone wants freedom for themselves and their viewpoint or religion or race or ethnic group. That is a good thing. People should stand up for their rights and the rights of those like them. That is only natural. In America, different groups went to different places. There were the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Anglicans in Virginia and the Catholics in Maryland. When the states came together during and after the Revolutionary War, they had to have some principle to bind these groups together. Since no group was dominant, it only made sense to give everyone freedom of religion. So, the Pilgrims took the first step toward a freedom that went beyond what they intended, but later spread to all.

The question is how we judge historical figures or groups. Should we count up their sins and misconceptions by our own standards and dismiss them as racist or slaveowners or those who want liberty for themselves and not others? Or should we see what effect they had on history and whether it was good or bad. The latter, I believe.

Look at some of the great figures in history. King David is honored by the Jews, Christians and God Himself for his leadership of Israel. Yet he committed adultery and murder. Moses was also a murderer. God and His people honor these flawed men very highly because, despite their failings, they followed God.

The Pilgrims and Puritans were not always the saints that they hoped that they would be. They did not necessarily create the kind of society they wanted to create. Yet God used them to help found a great nation that has, I think, done great good in this world.

Evangelicals are great for telling us that God uses flawed human beings to do His work and build His kingdom. So we should understand that when dealing with those in the past who might not measure up to our standards. It will be interesting what those Christians, hundreds of years from now (assuming the Lord tarries) will think of us.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hospitality To Illegal Immigrants - A Contrarian View

This is one those posts that will not be popular with some, but I would hope to receive a fair hearing in any case. Immigration, that is, illegal immigration, is a hot button issue in our country and some church leaders have had something to say about what is to be done.

There are two separate though interrelated issues regarding illegal immigration. On one side of the political spectrum the focus is on securing the border; the other side focuses on those who have already crossed into the US and are living here now. The latter has gotten the attention of some in the church who are genuinely concerned about the plight of the "alien and the stranger".

And the Bible does speak about how we treat strangers in our own land. "You shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 22:21) That's clear enough. We should not oppress the stranger which would be easy to do. Is expecting them to obey our immigration laws a form of oppression? How about deportation - is that oppression?

Let's look at some more scripture regarding 'the stranger'. "One ordinance shall be for you of the assembly and for the stranger who dwells with you, an ordinance forever throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord. One law and one custom shall be for you and for the stranger who dwells with you.’” (Numbers 15:15-16) You will notice in reading through the scriptures that deal with the stranger that over and over again the stranger was to fall under the same laws as the Israelites.

Does that not include immigration laws? We are a nation of immigrants - legal immigrants. We used to have no restrictions as to who could immigrate here. Now, we do. Is it right that we have immigration laws and enforce them? I think it is. Some might object and say that we should not deport people because it might be a hardship to them, but there are negative consequences when one breaks a law.

Some imply that we should have open borders - no restrictions on immigration. After all, aren't we supposed to show hospitality to all? I will say 'no' to that and here is a Bible example: Ezra, in the book that bears his name, forced the Israelites to divorce the pagan wives that they had married and to send the children of those marriages out with their mothers. That does not seem so hospitable to me. (Ezra 10) It seems that 'hospitality' had it limits. Strangers were expected to integrate into Israel and obey Israel's God and His laws. Strangers, like Ruth, joined Israel and were welcomed. Others, like these pagan women, were not permitted to stay. They were sent back home.

Does our government not have the right, and responsibility, to do the same? Can we not judge who may enter and stay, and who may not? Our laws say that immigrants who marry a citizen automatically are permitted to stay. Under the Law of Moses, there was no such right.

How should the church treat the stranger? The same way that we are to treat others. We are to help the poor and feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. But we are not to shield them from the consequences of disobeying the law. We all have to obey the law.

Additionally, some have confused the role of the church and the role of government. I like what Martin Luther said along this line. The church is to preach the gospel (among other things) and the government is to enforce the law and keep order. We often mix up the two. The church is called to turn the other cheek when persecuted. The government cannot do that if the country is attacked. The government has a responsibility to defend its citizens. We cannot take the rules that Jesus gave his followers and apply them to the government. We can, though, insist that government officials use moderation when enforcing the law.

Unfortunately, some in the church have accused the government of injustice when dealing with illegal immigrants. I even heard one person imply that we were starving children who came to our borders. The evidence is just the opposite. We feed them and house them, then, hopefully, send them back.

This seems cruel to some. But think about this. Suppose that I am very rich and live far from poor people. I have taken many people in, but must limit how many I take in or I would be overwhelmed. Poor families send their kids to me so that I will take care of them. What should I do? I could take them in, but I might not wish to take so many. What I would do is put them up temporarily, feed them, tend their wounds if they have any, find out where they are from, and send them home. That seems like a compassionate way of handling things. They might be going back to a less than ideal situation, but they, as I, must make their way in life.

Others would make another argument - about fairness. Some are born in rich countries, like ours, and others are born in poor ones. Why should our children have such an advantage over others? Do the children in poor countries not have the same rights as the children of rich countries? Should we not take them in on that basis alone?

Think about what is implies. There are billions of children in the world and I would guess that most of them are disadvantaged. Is it even possible for us to take in every poor child? Some come here because they happen to live near our border. Those who live far away have almost no chance of getting here. Is that fair? It is the circumstance in which we are born. Except for one's siblings, no two people are born into the same circumstances. Are we supposed to even it our for everyone if that were even possible?

At this point, someone will accuse me of being coldly rational, or just plain cold-hearted. I have only written the truth, however. To make the world "fair", if it's even possible to do so, would, no doubt, mean that we would have to take the rights of some to benefit others. In other words, "fairness" would be the result of oppression, which is the most unfair thing of all. There will be no "fairness" until Jesus returns. (This does not mean, however, that we should toss out any idea of fairness. We should always try to make this world a better place. We want to be a blessing to others. We may, however, set the terms by which we will show compassion.)

In conclusion I would say that we, as a country, have a choice. We can either open our borders to all who wish to come, or we can enforce the law as it is. Of course, we can change the law as well, but we need to enforce the law. Non-enforcement of the law encourages disrespect for the law and that is never a good thing.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Holy Spirit as Teacher of the Church

When I first began reading and studying the Bible, I noticed this Person called the Holy Spirit. Now it was not, to the best of my recollection, about Gifts of the Spirit or the Baptism in the Holy Spirit or even the fruit of the Spirit. It was about the Holy Spirit as the Teacher of the Church. This idea derives mainly from the last sermon that Jesus delivered to his disciples before the cross. In my mind, that makes it important. People who are about to die generally only say things that are very important while they still can.

Now you may not have heard this expression, "the Holy Spirit is the Teacher of the Church" before, but it's a concept that I have learned and relied upon. "When He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you." (John 16:13-14) Also, "The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you." (John 14:26) I expect the Holy Spirit to do just that and He has always done it.

These have been two very important scriptures in my life. I do not talk about them much and I do not even think about them all that often, but they are foundational to both my personal devotions and to my study and teaching of the Word. I rely on the Holy Spirit in everything, but especially when I am in the Word.

Of course, as I say this some may be thinking that I turn off my brain when I read the Bible. That is not exactly correct. I understand it the best I can while leaving myself open for the Spirit to show me something. Have you ever had the experience of reading along in the Bible and something just jumps out at you and speaks to you? I don't know of anyone who has not had that experience. It is the Holy Spirit interpreting and applying what He wrote through the human authors of scripture long ago. If you keep a teachable Spirit and stay in close fellowship with the Lord, there is no limit to what He can show you.

Also, He will guide us into all truth. So this is not just some sort of individualist thing or private interpretation. The Holy Spirit has showed a few things to others as well. So we need to be a little humble and allow our "revelation", if that what it is, to be compared to what others say as well. I do not like to teach something that I have never heard another teach because we can all be mistaken. Let me give this warning: if you are the only one who truly hears from the Spirit, the spirit you are listening to is not holy.

Reasons to listen to the Holy Spirit: The main reason to listen to the Holy Spirit is that your little brain cannot figure out the Bible all by itself. Sorry, but none of us is that smart. I have heard too many Christians say that we should listen to the best scholars and use reason alone to figure out the Bible. (The "best" scholars are always the ones who agree with them.) Scholars have their place, but I think that we have given them too high a place in the church sometimes. We need people with great learning and ability, but many times those of great intellect tend to rely too much on their intellect and can fail to listen to the Spirit.

Another reason to listen to the Holy Spirit is that we view the scripture in light of our own thinking and experience. We are, frankly, biased. I remember interacting on the internet with some postmodernists. Postmodernists are people who do not believe that we can know truth objectively since we are bound by our own culture. There is not objective truth but only subjective truth. What may be true for you may not be true for me. They concluded that the Bible then could not be absolute truth. In fact, even if it were absolute truth, we could not truly understand it. I told that that was why we need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit lifted those who wrote the scriptures above themselves, so to speak, to write the truth in the language and expression of their own culture. We also need the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible so that we do not end up simply with our cultural or religious understanding.

I know what some will say (because I have heard them say it). What about when people run around proclaiming some so-called Spirit-inspired revelation that is contrary to the written Word of God? This is a good question, but like many good questions it has a good answer. We need to "test all things; hold fast that which is good". That, of course, is the apostle Paul who was admonishing the Thessalonian church to not despise prophecy. (The revelation or illumination of the Word by the Spirit is not precisely prophecy, but it is similar enough that we can apply the same principle.) Why was prophecy despised? Simple. There were people who thought they had a prophecy and were delivering to the church or to individual members and they were mistaken. It was not the Holy Spirit. However, notice Paul's response. He does not rebuke those who prophesied mistakenly, but rather chides those who now were turning against a gift of the Spirit because some got carried away. Paul gives a simple solution: test everything and keep what is good. In other words, if some prophecy or revelation does not line up with what we know about the Word, then don't accept it. If you are not sure about it, then you can set it aside until you are able to judge it. Notice 1 Corinthians 14:29 - "Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge."

With all this said, I want to encourage you to rely on the Holy Spirit. You may be surprised of the understanding you receive. You can also pray for this as well. There is a prayer in the scripture for this very thing. "Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come." (Ephesians 1:15-21) A Bible teacher who I respect very highly said that he prayed this prayer over and over for months until the Holy Spirit began to teach him, and correct him, in a way that transformed both his life and his ministry. Perhaps you might give it a try.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Trade-Offs ... Or Why Things Are Not As Black and White As They Seem

The last few posts have been about the Bible and economics. This post is along those lines but it is really on how what is called "the economic way of thinking" can help us analyze issues in our society. Some are under the impression that the field of economics is just about business or the stock market or about the federal budget. It's more than that. It's about human behavior, especially in regard to choices that people make that has to do with money. That covers a lot, including those decisions that we make as a society.

What does this have to do with the Bible? Well, it might not have anything directly to do with the Bible, but it does have do with how Christians might want to influence things like public policy. Much is made today about various issues regarding things like the poor and the environment and the influence that Christian have, or ought to have, with regards to public policy.

Before we get to some examples, we need to know how economists examine issues. What they do is look at choices as trade-offs. That means that if you do one thing that you cannot do another. For instance, if I want to live in New York that means that I cannot live in California. I have to make a choice. I weigh the advantages and disadvantages of each possibility and decide what I would prefer to do. Now before you say 'no kidding, Brian, I know that if you do one thing that it excludes another and I know that there are advantages and disadvantages to making decisions'. Okay, there is no great insight here, but it is amazing how often in discussing public policy, Christian and non-Christian alike don't do this. They act as if their solution is obviously the just one and any other is evil or selfish or sinful. They somehow think that there can be no negative consequences to our choices simply because we want justice or something.

Let's take the recent issue of coal in Kentucky. The eastern part of Kentucky has coal-fired electrical plants. These coal-burning plants pollute the air and not a little. The EPA wants them to be shut down. They speak of both pollution in general and of climate change. (I am not discussing here whether or not I think that climate change is a big problem. That is not the role of the economist. The economist just clarifies the choices.) Those on one side of the political spectrum support the EPA in this. On the other side of the political spectrum, there are those who oppose this plan because it will raise prices and this will negatively affect the poor as well as anyone else who buys electricity. It will make the poor poorer.

So where does the Christian or anyone who cares about "social justice" issues say about a case like this? It seems to me that there is no one correct position on this. There is an issue regarding the poor as well as an environmental issue - and they are on opposite sides. We will hurt the poor by helping the environment and we will hurt the environment by helping the poor. We, naturally, don't like these kinds of dilemmas. We don't like choices that will hurt one way or another. That is why advocates for something always talk about solutions, not trade-offs. Their side has the solution to all our problems.

It is very rare that we ever have "solutions", trade-offs are almost always involved. And if you think that this particular kind of trade-off is rare, think again. Whenever environmental regulations are put in place, it almost always makes things more expensive for the poor (and everyone else). The thing is that we must be willing to look at all of the consequences of the options and make a decision.

Another example: outsourcing jobs. To some this is a justice issue. It is wrong, some say, when a business closes a factory here and open one in a poor country to save money. It's just raw greed is the claim. (Whether or not greed is involved is irrelevant according to our previous analysis. We will simply examine the case.)

Let's look at a company who manufactures children's shirts. Before the outsourcing happens, the shirts cost $10 a piece at Walmart. But now the company is getting pressure to lower its prices. It moves its plant overseas where the wages are one-tenth what they are in the US. Let's say that 200 US workers are put out of a job. Obviously, those people will suffer. Who benefits? Just the greedy business owners? No, they hire initially 200 workers overseas to make the shirts. The cost of the shirts drops so they can sell them for less. They are now $5 at Walmart. A single mother comes into Walmart to get shirts for her children. She finds that instead of $10 a piece that they are only $5. She can now either buy more shirts for her children or she can spend the other %5 on other things her children need. This happens millions of times all over the US. Poor people benefit from outsourcing and the company sells more shirts, so many that they increase production and hire another 400 workers overseas.

Summary: Who loses - obviously, it is the 200 US workers. Who wins - the company, poor shoppers in the US, 600 people overseas who are now making more than they ever have. Is there really an injustice here or should we only say that those who lost out are unfortunate? I think what people who don't like this is the fact that nobody can stop a business from doing this. It seems to me that the overall outcome is better. And please do not think that this scenario is fantasy. It is how it actually works. Sometimes we do not like how things actually work because we want all our decisions to turn out for the best for everyone all the time. Sorry to bust your bubble but we are living in a fallen world where decisions do not always make things better for everyone.

Additionally, we need to stop demonizing those who would make a different decision by claiming that the other side "doesn't care about the poor" or "doesn't care about the environment" or "doesn't care about the working man or woman". And please stop acting as if you are God's voice for justice when you do not know all sides of the issue and realize that there may be no "just" solution to a problem.

[BTW, check out the website run by the Cornwall Alliance, an evangelical group that understands the economic impact of environmental regulations on the poor. They are people who truly care for both the environment and the poor. ]

Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Refutation of Olson's "Capitalism: An Economic System that Requires Us to Think and Act As If God Does Not Exist"

I was going to post on another subject, but I found a blog by a theologian who said that capitalism "requires us to act as if God did not exist". It is a little hard to reply to such a statement because it is so absurd, particularly the word, "requires". How on earth does the free exchange between individuals and other economic entities or the private ownership of capital "require" anyone to act as if God did not exist? An individual can certainly act as if God does not exist whether he acts as an economic agent (e.g., a consumer) or in politics or in science or in anything else. Does our political system "require" that a political actor do things without reference to God?

I will trust that my readers will quickly realize that the "capitalism "requires us to act as if God did not exist" statement as ridiculous, but I will respond to some of the claims that were made about capitalism.

First, Roger Olson, the author of the blog post, said that Hugo Grotius asked that we set aside our religious beliefs in the public arena. I am not an expert on Grotius but I am aware of what he said about free trade between nations. He said it was the will of God that trade be free. That does not seem like setting aside one's religious belief other than implying that Christian nations should freely trade with Muslim or Buddhist or pagan nations. I happen to agree that we should. Free trade opens doors and makes nations interdependent and, therefore, less likely to go to war. Also, in his day, missionaries relied on merchant trading ships to go to new places to preach the gospel.

And those facts refute Olson's claim that there is no "invisible hand" that causes even transactions motivated by *greed to benefit society. The Dutch East India Company certainly had a profit motive when it opened up much of the Far East and India to trade. But they also willingly took missionaries with them who introduced the gospel. Today, trade keeps the peace between many nations who rely on the goods and resources of the other to survive.

Another error made by Olson was calling free market capitalism a form of "economic anarchy" and "Social Darwinism". Of course, we have clearly shown why this is not the case in my previous two posts, Is Capitalism Biblical?, parts 1 & 2. Property rights, rule of law and the right of free (uncoerced) exchange make these kinds of claims null. No, what economic anarchy and social darwinism would mean from an economic system would be the strongest just take what they want from the weak by force. Any taking by force is contrary to free-market capitalism though it can coexist with crony capitalism, monopoly capitalism, or interventionist capitalism.

Here is a claim that some would agree with: "Capitalism is a system that naturally encourages the strong to oppress the weak." The first question about this is whether the strong ever oppress the weak? The answer is yes. In what society is it that makes this impossible, or even harder. I would argue from both a theoretical (economics) and a historical perspective, that free-market capitalism is the one that has the least amount of oppression and makes it harder to oppress. Free markets means that people can enter freely into transactions or not. When choice is limited, then oppression can occur. Think of our non-free public school system. Do not be fooled into thinking that because you do not pay directly to have your children attend public school that it is free in the sense we are speaking of here. You are not free as to where you get to send your kid. The state determines that. If your school is not what is best for your child and you cannot afford private school, then you are coerced into sending your child to a bad school. You have no choice. Lack of choice is oppression. School choice would be freedom from oppression. Also, public schools would have to compete for students, making them responsive to their 'customers', that is, parents.

I will hit on one more thing in this article. Olson decries what he calls "unfettered consumerism". Let's do a little word study. The word 'consumerism' has been bandied about, but what does it mean? According to Wikipedia, "consumerism refers to economic policies placing emphasis on consumption. In an abstract sense, it is the consideration that the free choice of consumers should strongly orient the choice of what is produced and how, and therefore orient the economic organization of a society." On other words, we have an economic system that responds to the desires of those who want to buy stuff. That does not seem so horrible to me. The market responds to those who participate in it.

I think what Olson is concerned (and rightly concerned) about is materialism, making things our god instead of the true and living God. Once again, though, is this unique to our society or is it just human nature. The latter, I believe. If you read sermons that go back many centuries, you will find that one major theme that is consistent is the problem of materialism. Apparently, every generation and in every economic and social system, there is a persistent problem of materialism, seeking security and comfort in material things. Sounds more like a 'fallen human nature' kind of thing rather than a problem with the free-market.

The other word here is "unfettered". Now I have noticed that the word "unfettered" as in "unfettered capitalism" is becoming quite common in the media. What does the word "unfettered" mean? Well, fetters are chains. They are used on slaves and dangerous people who cannot be trusted. I am thinking that, in general, fetters should be used sparingly. I much prefer freedom to fetters. I want to be "unfettered" as does everyone else. I think that I have shown that markets and consumers should remain unfettered except in those things that harm society - drugs, prostitution, extortion, bribery, etc. I want us all to be as unfettered as possible. "unfettered" is just another word for freedom.

*[Note: When I use the word 'greed', I am using it in the sense of economic self-interest which is generally a good thing. As far as covetousness is concerned, any economic transaction may be tainted with it, but that is in the individual's heart. The outcome of identical transactions, one which may be infected with greed and another which may be done by the pure of heart, is identical. We are concerned with outward effects in economics, not with what is in the heart. That is the province of God and conscience. What we want to limit are transactions that have negative social consequences like illicit drugs, prostitution or slavery of any kind. We need not make such transactions legal to have a free market.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Does the Bible Teach Free-Market Capitalism?, part 2

We have covered the "capitalism" part, that is, the principle of the means of production being in the hands of individuals instead of government. There is much to add to this since we have seen the downfall of Soviet socialism, but that would take us far afield. We will now turn to the "free-market" part of our discussion. (If you have not read part one, you might want to do so first.)

We should not take it for granted that all forms of capitalism include a free market. To see what I mean by this I will compare them to another form of capitalism, 'crony capitalism'. But, first, I need to explain what a free market is.

A free market is where there are free exchanges. (This is not a tautology, but simply breaking down the free market to its smallest component. The relationship between free exchange and a free market is like the relationship between weather and climate. Weather is not climate, but if you take all the weather over a long period of time, you get climate. Free exchanges, performed at all times and by all people in a society, constitutes a free market.) A free exchange is where two individuals or entities exchange goods and services for money or other goods and services. Nobody is telling one side or the other what they can buy or sell or for how much.

In this kind of exchange, both sides benefit. If someone is selling widgets for $2 each and I want a widget and I am willing to pay that price, then I will buy the widget for $2. I want the widget more than I want the $2 and the seller wants the $2 more than he wants the widget. Who benefits from this exchange? Both sides do. We are both better off having done the exchange. This is the essence of a free market. This kind of exchange happens over and over in a free market to the benefit of all.

The reason that these exchanges keep happening over and over is the profit motive. Some are confused about what profit is. They think it is only something that greedy, rich people have. No. Everyone has a profit motive. That's why we enter into these exchanges - so that we can benefit (profit). Profiting simply means that we benefit from the exchanges we enter into. When we do not benefit and have "buyer's remorse", then we learn not to enter into that kind of exchange again. So the free exchange mechanism is self-correcting. If one side or the other does not perceive that they will benefit from the exchange, they will not enter into it.

There are some underlying assumptions here. First of all, there is an assumption that the seller is being truthful. The seller must be truthful about his product or service or the buyer will be "ripped off". There must be "truth in advertising". Otherwise, a truly free exchange has not taken place. (This certainly accords with "thou shalt not bear false witness", does it not?)

So, both the private property part (thou shalt not steal) and the free exchange part (thou shalt bear false witness) seem to suggest that we are going in the right direction. Another thing it does is dispel the notion that the free market (called the 'unfettered market' by its opponents) is darwinian. Let me explain. A free market is not like the jungle. In the jungle the strongest and swiftest and keenest survive while the others perish. Exchanges as such generally do not occur though some form of symbiosis might. Someone stronger or faster eats you or eats what you want to eat. In a system of free exchange, the rule of law is necessary to keep the strong from oppressing the weak. First is the enforcement of property rights and the second is the truth about the product or service being offered. Being dishonest means that people will not want to deal with you in the future. Dishonesty undermines the free market.

Another thing that is antithetical to free markets are monopolies. When one person or elite, colluding group has complete control of part of the market, it results in higher prices, scarcity and lower quality. (I will not go into how this works as it would take some space to explain. So, I am just stating it. Please understand that what I am saying is not disputed by any economist no matter how liberal or conservative.) This means that to buy certain goods and services one must deal with only one entity. Nobody competes with them so they can charge more and will have no incentive to improve that good or service. This will cause lower productivity and therefore more poverty. (Increases in income in a society can only come by increases in productivity.)

One of the worst forms of monopolistic capitalism (and perhaps the only form) is "Crony Capitalism". This is where the government, often run by a dictator but not necessarily so, gives monopoly powers to certain individuals and companies. The monopolist supports the dictator, making him rich, and the dictator gives a monopoly to his friend, making him rich. This is a form of capitalism because individuals own the means of production, but it is not free-market because the two true beneficiaries are not the ones making the exchange, but the ones who made any other exchanges impossible. A free market requires competition. Competition requires a free market.

I could go on and on about countries like Argentina and the Philippines who were economically ruined by crony capitalism, but we must get back to our original question: Is free-market capitalism biblical? I think that we have shown that capitalism is biblical and that its opposite, socialism, is not. I am not sure that the Bible can truly be said to mandate a particular kind of capitalism, though we seem to find nothing but free exchange in the Bible.

But I am not ready to give up on it yet. The Bible does not just teach what is right and wrong, but also what is wise and what is foolish. We can study books like Proverbs and learn a lot about how we can live good and productive lives including our economic lives. So I think it is not a stretch to say that free-market capitalism is best in the sense that it is the wisest, in general, of all the alternatives. It is a little hard, in this little blog space, to fully explore why free market capitalism is the wisest choice, but I will toss out an idea.

Why not look at what is happening in the world where different systems compete with each other. In Europe, they have less of a free market than in the US and in Hong Kong they have more of a free market. What is the practical result? Hong Kong, both before and after China regained control of it, has maintained the freest market in the world. It has the most growth of any developed nation with the greatest freedom. Europe, which has many restrictions on the market, has a much slower growth rate than either Hong Kong or the US. The US is in the middle, both in freedom and in growth.The European Union has grown an average of 1% in GDP and has added only four million jobs over the past 35 years. The US has grown an average of 3% of GDP and has added, despite its current employment difficulties, 40 million jobs over the past 35 years. Hong Kong has grown an average of 10% per year though being small it could not produce millions of jobs. (I have had some discussions along this line that resulting in my opponents questioning whether or not growth is a good thing. I just shake my head at things like that. An economy will naturally grow if for no other reason than babies keep being born and these babies grow up and want jobs and spend money. Shrinking economies are called depression economies. They hurt the poor the very most while making all but a very few worse off.)

So which way should we go? Should we be more like Europe as some suggest? Some think our society would be more just if we were like them. They have more mandated time off and benefits and the government pays for most health care. (They do not have better or more accessible health care, by the way.) But do we want our growth to just about grind to a halt? (It seems to have done that with what has happened recently but it is not a permanent condition.) It seems to me that the wiser, and more just thing, would be to go toward more freedom.

The book of Proverbs itself is about making choices. We can make wise choices and we can make foolish ones. What I think is really unbiblical is to take choices (free markets) away. We know that the biggest choices that we make are not economic or financial. The biggest choice we make is whether or not we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. It determines our eternal destiny. Sadly, many will make the foolish choice.

God took quite a risk in creating us with free wills. We live in a risky world. God could have made the world safe by not giving us any choices. But He wanted us to make choices. He wanted us to freely choose or reject Him. It seems to me that if He gave us that kind of choice that He would want us to have free markets. No, it's not as important, but it is better than the "nanny state" that takes care of us and tells us what we can or cannot do. I do not think that God approves of that.

Addendum to "Capitalism, part 1"

I just want to add a couple of more examples of property rights and what they can mean. We can extend property rights to include things like intellectual property, treating them as a form of capital.

In past centuries, musical artists, even very successful ones, had trouble getting much out of their works. There was not such thing as intellectual property. The composer, like Mozart or Bach, would have to hold on to their works or others could use them freely. So they have to perform them in order to profit. They could have made a fortune if they had enforceable intellectual property rights to their works. Also, they might have produced a lot more of them since they would have to worry less about performing them and more about writing them. Generations have enjoyed, and even profited, from their works, but they did not.

Another area of property rights that could be extended in much of the world is in mineral rights. In the US, individuals who own property also own the mineral rights to them. So they have a great incentive in having things like oil, coal and natural gas coming out of their land. In most of the world, these rights belong to the government and so there is no incentive to use these God-given resources. They stay in the ground. We have had an oil/natural gas boom in this country in the past few years and we are almost outproducing the Saudis. Methinks this is a very good thing not to be dependent on the Middle East for our power.

God put these things in the ground so that we could use them. The Bible indicates that the land belongs to the people and not the government (though the government must, of necessity, own some land.) The solutions to some of our problems, including things like pollution, can come from the wise extensions and assignment of property rights. We need to strengthen not weaken them.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Does the Bible Teach Free-Market Capitalism?, part 1

I do not usually discuss issues like this in this blog, but I do want to share my thoughts on the Bible and Free-Market Capitalism because I have degrees in, and interest in, both economics and theology. In this I am like James D. G. Dunn and Andreas Kostenberger, though the similarity may end there.

Anyway, I often have thought that seminaries ought to teach some basic economics since I hear not a little nonsense coming out of some seminary-trained ministers. And I do not mean that it is simply that I disagree with their conclusions, but that they betray a poor understanding of how economies and markets work. In fact, I could do several posts just about some of the poor assumptions and analysis in this regard, but for now I will (try) to restrict myself to what the Bible may, or may not, say about our own economic system.

The above question could be simply be answered "no, the Bible does not explicitly say that free-market capitalism is the right or the best system" since there was no such thing as capitalism in that day and the Bible does not prophesy that it would come into being. With that being stated, we can still examine whether our economic system meets certain biblical standards.

The first question that we would ask an economist is "what is capitalism?". Capitalism is, simply, the private ownership of the means of production. In an agricultural society, the means of production was the land. The vast majority of society were farmers and they needed land to grow crops and tend animals. In an industrial society, far fewer farmers are needed as technology has made it possible to produce far more crops on less land and with fewer people.

Since the Bible was obviously written in the agricultural age with capital goods playing a relatively minor role, we would expect that the Law of Moses, which gave the Israelites laws about how to govern their society, should tell us how an agricultural society should act justly. But we also might find principles that would apply to our own situation. That is what I will attempt in the these next few posts.

The two basic systems in our day are capitalism and socialism. Capitalism is the private ownership and control of the means of production; Socialism is the public ownership and control of the means of production. Which one does the Bible support - if any?

First of all, does the Bible teach private property rights? The answer is emphatically, yes! One on the ten commandments says, "Thou shalt not steal". A person cannot steal if nobody owns it. One could complain that terms like "property rights" do not appear in the Bible, but neither does the expression, "free will", but both are biblical concepts. God holds us accountable for our choices, so that implies that we can choose freely despite what my Calvinist friends might say. Likewise, the fact that the Bible says that we should not steal implies that we have property rights.

The question, then, is does the Bible teach that the means of production should be privately owned. Well, in the Bible who owned the land (the means of production)? The people owned the land. Now this may not seem like a big deal since we are accustomed to owning land, but in that day it was not simply a place to live and have a house, but it was the families' way of making a living. In fact, the Law of Moses gave the people the right only to sell their family's land only for a period of time before it must be returned to the original family. So the family's right to the property was actually stronger for them than it is in America today.

In 1 Kings 21, we read of how King Ahab desired the vineyard of Naboth. He was sad because Naboth did not want to give up his family's land. Jezebel, who was Canaanite, could not believe that a king could be refused by one of his subjects. In her native country, the king could take any land he pleased. So Jezebel falsely accused Naboth and had him stoned. Then she seized his land and gave it to Ahab. We need to notice something here. Even Ahab, a wicked Israelite king, did not presume to take land belonging to another without their consent. Unlike Jezebel, he knew that Naboth had a right to keep his land and do with it as he pleased. And notice that the land was productive as well. The means of production was in private hands.

Let's look at some examples in our own time: Argentina and the Lakota Indian Reservation. Argentina has struggled economically for the past fifty years. The IMF (that's the International Monetary Fund not the one from Mission Impossible) helps countries get their act together economically. They have worked with Argentina over and over to give them a better economy. They do what is suggested to them, but they always falter.

This is well known by economists, but the IMF cannot fix the main factor in their continuing failure - secure property rights. Many people do not know that a hundred years ago Argentina was the tenth leading economy in the world. Then, in the 1950s, the Perons came to power and undermined property rights. They took what belonged to others and gave it to friends. Even today, their courts will easily take away property on the smallest of pretexts. That means that corporations will not invest in factories, etc., that would help them to become strong economically once more. Until that is fixed, Argentina will continue to flounder.

Another example of this is our Indian reservations. Just before a friend of mine moved to South Dakota to do mission work on the Lakota Indian Reservation, I read an article which studied their economic problems. It is just about the poorest place in our country. Why? Because the reservation does not ensure individual private property rights for land. The reservations are self-governing. They are not a democracy. Traditionally, the chiefs make decisions such as what can be done on any property on the reservation. This is their custom and culture.

Their culture, where property is controlled by the chiefs and not individuals, is keeping them in abject poverty. In the nineties, Gateway Computers wanted to build their computers on the reservation, providing jobs for thousands of Indians. They couldn't do it because they would not have secure rights to the land. They could purchase the land and then the chiefs could take it back whenever they pleased. Nobody is going to invest in that kind of situation. An individual who wants to run even a convenience store cannot do so because they might run afoul of the chiefs. Of course, the chiefs take the money that our government gives them and they build themselves real nice homes. They drive real nice vehicles and they eat sumptuously. The people scrape by and are often cold and starving.

Okay, I have gone beyond the biblical text and given some examples that I hope will help us see that not only does the Bible support the private ownership of the means of production, but show that the lack of property rights hinders economic growth and can even cause oppression. In the latter case, it should be clear to us that that is unbiblical.

So we can see that without property rights there is no prosperity. I could rail against the injustices of the chiefs, but that is not our purpose here. Our purpose is to see whether free-market capitalism is biblical. I think that we have shown, so far, that at least the capitalism part is biblical.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bible Reading - Is It The Source of Our Troubles??

I was reading a blog I often turn to, but often disagree with. It was written by someone with a PHD which a friend of mine says that it means 'Piled High and Deep'. In this case, he was right. Well, this Doctor of Something or Other tells us that he is does not like the divisions within the Protestant community - too many denominations. And he thinks that the cause of this "problem" is the fact that the laity can read the Bible for themselves and interpret it. They interpret according to their own individual tastes and make a mess of it. Then they create new churches and denominations. He thinks that all Bible teaching should be left to the educated 'experts'.

First of all, I would like to point out that the differing viewpoints that we have on any given Bible subject don't really come from the laity as such. There seems to be more disagreement in the scholarly community and the clergy than among faithful laymen. I do not mean to suggest that laymen are not prone to certain kinds of errors - they are. And I certainly do not suggest that formal Bible education is not valuable - it can be.

But I would suggest that the biggest problems in the churches are not caused by the laity that reads the Bible. (Laymen, it seems to me, will more likely split the church over practical issues rather than theological ones.) The biggest problems have come from the scholarly community. Frankly, it has failed the church.

First, our seminaries accepted unbelieving scholars into the seminaries. By 'unbelieving', I mean those scholars who are called "critical" scholars whose methods assume that the Bible is not the Word of God, but of men. They produced unbelief in our budding, young ministers who, in turn, brought that unbelief into our churches. Naturally, churches declined and the society with it.

Meanwhile, our fundamentalist and Pentecostal assemblies exploded. They grew tremendously, and still are. They have opened their own Bible schools and seminaries, but their scholars never had the broad influence of the older seminaries. Nevertheless, the laity in these churches know their Bibles much better than even the faithful who are left in the mainline churches.

I have noticed, as a seminary-trained layman, that it is the Bible-reading laity that is far more faithful to Christ (even when they being are a pain in the neck) than many mainline ministers who have had faith educated out of them. I know personally ministers who were on fire for God and perhaps had some supernatural experiences like tongues or healing who, after seminary, lost all zeal for God and never said anything about the Holy Spirit moving, ever again. Instead of God speaking to them through the Word, they read the Bible through the prism of critical hermeneutics. They try to figure it all out in their head rather than let God speak to them through it.

Although I say this, I want to express my appreciation for those ministers, scholars and seminaries who have remained faithful to Jesus and the Bible as the Word of God. I think our mainline churches would have vanished by now without them. However, I must note also that some conservative scholars are compromising the Bible. This same blog that I mentioned above is hosted by a seminary professor whose "conservative" seminary never even brings up the subject of biblical inerrancy, much less teach it. They compromise the Bible. They even claim that Jesus was wrong about some things. This is the worst kind of hubris. And they are supposedly the ones who are 'orthodox'. "Well," they say, "none of our creeds require that we believe the Bible is inerrant." So, they are technically orthodox.

If the best thing that you can say is that you are 'technically orthodox' then I wonder where the church is going. The reason that the ancients did not include stuff like "the Bible is without any kind of error" or "everything that Jesus said was true, even historically" is that it never occurred to them that it could be any other way. They took it for granted. The creeds were established over controversies that argued over what the Bible actually taught and not about the Bible itself. The fact that they argued about what the Bible teaches proves that they believed the Bible was true, and not just theologically or conceptually.

I have written about this before, but my point is this: a layman who truly listens to the Spirit when reading the Word has as much authority as the 'expert' who has all the education.
“I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and prudent and have revealed them to babes." Matthew 11:25 This is one of my favorite sayings of Jesus. Scholars don't like it because it can put an uneducated layman above them.

With all this being said, I certainly do not approve of how many laymen have acted. They sometimes act as if they are the only ones who can hear from God. I will agree with this from the article I have referenced above. It made a very good point about submitting one's "revelation" to the body to be judged. As Paul said, "prove all things, hold fast to what is good." He was talking about judging what someone in the church has taught or prophesied. That does not always mean that the body has judged correctly, but it does mean that we must be humble and be subject to authority. If you have something from God, that's fine. Don't make a big deal about it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Is Gender Only Physical?

I remember the phrase "the battle of the sexes" from when I was young. I am glad that that saying has pretty much been retired, though the idea is alive and well. I do not think that we should take the side of our own gender, only the side of the one who is right in any situation.

Anyway, the society and the church are arguing about gender. A blog post I recently read said, "To get manliness right is a fool’s game anyway. Our life in the family of God is not supposed to be focused on a long pursuit of biblical manhood or womanhood. Our lives are to be focused on Jesus, God the Son." The author was making the point that cultural expressions of masculinity or femininity may not be helping us in our walk with the Lord, but may actually take away from it. But his point also was that what is considered 'masculine' or 'feminine' is nothing but a social construct. (He said, or implied, this later.) He noted that Jesus, a man, wept contrary to some notions of masculinity.

Now I agree that many of our cultural expressions of masculinity and femininity can be silly, or even harmful. They create stereotypes that are simply not true of everyone of that gender. I remember a guest speaker in our old church who said that he never met a woman who did not like to shop. I wanted to introduce him to my wife so that he could never say that again.

It is easy to mock stereotypes and note that masculinity and femininity have different expressions in different cultures. There are even some things which may be considered 'male' in one culture and 'female' in another. I think it is rash, however, to jump to the conclusion that masculinity and femininity are simply cultural constructs and that the only God-made differences between male and female are biological/anatomical.

Are souls gender-neutral? This is a difficult question that could be answered in different ways depending, for one thing, how the soul should be defined. I have a hard time accepting the notion that the only differences between male and female are physical. For one thing, it would mean that a person would lose his gender when he/she died and went to heaven. They would not be in a physical body then, would they? How about after the resurrection? Would they become male or female again or are resurrected bodies without gender?

Once again, I think that maleness and femaleness is something that God gives to us, in our souls as a gift, though I am not dogmatic about it. Consider the scripture: "God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them." (Genesis 1:27) Now it seems to me that when the Bible says that we are made in the image of God that it is not referring to the physical body, it is referring to the soul and spirit.

I suppose it is possible to read the above scripture in such a way that we could draw that conclusion that the 'male and female' part of the verse refers to their bodies and the 'image of God' part refers to the soul and spirit. I do not think that is the best reading though.

I just am convinced (is it my cultural blindness?) that maleness and femaleness, both made in the image of God, are not just physical realities, but soulish realities as well. IMHO.

I invite your response especially on this one.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Power of Language

I have written before about translations and it is easy for those of us who do not have to actually do the translating to sit back and criticize. Yet, that is exactly what I intend to do. We are probably ignorant of most of the issues and dilemmas that translators have to face.

I am certain that one of their concerns is the push toward "softening" sometimes harsh language or language that might seem crude to us today. In this latter regard, I note the sort of amusing way that the OT refers to men as "any who pisseth against the wall." To us, this is crude, but it apparently was not to the ancient Hebrew mind. So translators now use milder language. They just translate it as "men". I have no problem with this since the meaning is exactly the same. The same point comes across to us.

Unfortunately, this tendency to soften language can actually take away from the meaning, or at least the intended impact, of the text. I like a more literal translation, which may require more notes, because it is less interpretive. We need to have understanding about how language affects us. A good writer or speaker will use certain words or phrases to get the readers attention and cause them to think.

Jesus, of course, was the master of this. His parables and teachings were designed to be memorable. Even those who have never picked up a Bible or even heard a sermon know about the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. To avoid sin, one might need to "pluck out one's eye" or "cut off one's hand". Nobody takes this too literally, but you won't forget it. Language is meant to have impact.

In a politically correct age, when our translators have to make every advocacy group happy, I think that this has been largely forgotten. I know one passage, Revelation 17:1, that has been a victim of this softening of our translations due to the delicate, modern sensibilities. The old KJV uses the term, "great whore" to describe "Babylon". The NASB uses "great harlot".

Both the terms 'harlot' and 'whore' are bit out of date, but they are not archaic. We know what they mean. And they are, especially the latter, very harsh terms. But the whore/harlot of Babylon is supposed to be harsh, even offensive. We should not soften the language because it might offend. The Harlot of Babylon is offensive! Our translations need to reflect that.

But I was surprised by what I discovered. I expected that the more politically correct translations like the NRSV would soften the language and the more literal, conservative translations like the ESV or HSBC would keep the older language. It turned out to be the opposite!

The ESV and HSBC both used the term 'prostitute' instead of 'harlot' or 'whore'. The NRSV used the term, "great whore". So, I am actually on the side of the NRSV on this one. The ESV and HSBC muffed it. Using "Prostitute of Babylon" instead of "Whore of Babylon" takes away the impact that the author intended to convey. We need to keep the stronger, more offensive, image to get across to the reader/hearer what this 'Babylon" truly is.

I think the only thing that is being 'prostituted' is our language. We err too much on the side of being "nice" and trying not to make someone feel bad or excluded. Frankly, we could all be a little less sensitive and, perhaps, grow up a bit.

Now I am not saying that we do not need to update the translations and make them more palatable, especially when meanings and culture changes. But, please, let us not forsake the power of the biblical languages and images that are meant to convey more than mere words can. They are images, either positive or negative, that are intended to stick in our minds and which may arouse either admiration or disgust.

Let's set aside our cultural agendas and get back to using language in such a way that we can grasp the full reality of what God has revealed to us in His Word.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Idolatry of Evangelical Intellectualism

A few decades ago when I became a Christian, I found that I had some disagreements with many evangelical scholars. Most of them believed that things like tongues and divine healing and other spiritual gifts had ceased while I believed they were for today. I had discussions with brothers in Christ about these things and we often agreed to disagree. But one thing that we had in common was that we believed that the whole Bible was the Word of God whether or not we understood everything in it. I took great comfort knowing that evangelical scholars could generally be relied on to stand up for the Word.

Sadly, this no longer seems to be the case. Evangelical scholars and ministers today often deny the inerrancy of the scriptures. In other words, they think that the Bible contains errors and they even think that Jesus and Paul and other authors of the NT were in error, at least about facts, though not about doctrine. Additionally, we are assured by these scholars that they are still orthodox and believe in the inspiration of the scriptures. But this post is not exactly about inerrancy but about where some who do not believe in it are going.

I am concerned that without the inerrancy doctrine many Christians have slipped down that proverbial slippery slope. It started with saying that little facts of history may not be perfectly accurate and has led to some asserting that Jesus was wrong about certain facts of history and now has "progressed" (pun intended) to the point where some are saying that God did not command Joshua and Israel to commit "genocide" against the Canaanites. Where this all ends up I am afraid to speculate.

Recently, I got into an online discussion with someone regarding the historicity of Adam and Eve. They denied it and I challenged them with the words of Jesus and Paul. Paul clearly teaches that Adam was a real person in history. Jesus spoke of Abel, Adam's son, as a real person. They still denied it, insisting that Jesus and Paul were mistaken. First of all, it is arrogance to the highest degree to state that one knows more than Jesus about the Bible. Even when Jesus was in His kenotic, limited state here on earth, He knew more about the scriptures than these people will ever know.

As I dug deeper into this I found out that these scholars were using scientific hypotheses to re-interpret the Bible. They said that there could be not a historical Adam since science tells us that the human race could not have descended from one pair of humans. Therefore, the first chapters of Genesis (1-11) were not history but fiction. And they said that God does use fiction to teach us truth. Jesus taught with parables. Yes, I responded, but everyone knew that His parables were fiction; Genesis, all of it, was written as historical narrative. Jesus and Paul treated it as historical narrative. Nevertheless, they deny it.

Here is the real point I want to make: These scholars insisted that to treat the Bible as inerrant when they "knew" that it contains errors would be intellectually dishonest. Therefore, they could not assert something they did not really believe. I want to suggest that this is not admirable intellectual integrity. It is closer to idolatry, an idolatry of the mind. I must listen to my mind even when the Word of God says I am wrong. This is what bothers me the most in all this. Do we think so highly of our own thoughts that when we read the Word, we insist that it must be wrong?

If we think that the Word is wrong, we are wrong. We must adjust our thinking to line up with the Word. We might have to admit that there are some things that we do not understand, but we must lay aside our own thoughts and accept the Word on faith. Of course, we may not have complete understanding of the Word and our modern, scientific understanding is not as sure or complete as we may believe. If we find some "contradiction" with "established" science we may need to reexamine the scriptures to see if we have understood it correctly. And we also may have to reexamine the science and its assumptions before we simply throw out what is clearly taught in scripture (e.g., Adam was a real, historical person). This is what I did in rejecting the hypothesis of evolution. (I am not suggesting that one cannot believe in inerrancy and evolution at the same time. I am only telling my own story.)

Intellectual idolatry is exalting our own minds above the Word of God. It is the opposite of humility and honesty. We must be humble enough to realize that there are things that God says that we do not like and that we have trouble accepting. The problem is with us and not the Bible.

I have far more respect for the rigid fundamentalist who believes the Bible or, at least, believes what he thinks the Bible says despite the fact that he may be wrong than I do some scholar or other Christian whose "intellectual integrity" leads them to deny what the Word clearly says.

God help us.

By the way, I suggest that you all visit Billy Birch's blog. He is really on a hot streak with his posts right now. Don't miss any of them. The website is:

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Get thee behind me, Satan

I trust that we all recognize this as the response from Jesus to Peter when Peter told Jesus that He would not die on the cross. Now we know what happened here. Satan convinced Peter that the messiah would not die but live to rule the world. Peter was not knowingly following Satan. He was deceived.

Paul also speaks of those whom the Devil has deceived. "With gentleness correcting those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, having been held captive by him to do his will." (2 Timothy 2:25-26) It's funny how we always think it's the other guy who is influenced, not us. Why, we would never listen to the Devil. But people don't necessarily consciously yield to the Devil. They are usually unaware that the Devil had anything to do with it.

Paul said something else important about the Devil. He said, "We are not ignorant of his devices." (2 Corinthians 2:11) I think that Christians today are ignorant of Satan's devices, at least some of those devices. How many Christians understand that the Devil has something to do with things like sickness or mental illness?

"You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him." (Acts 10:38) Everyone whom Jesus healed was oppressed by Satan. Satan had something to do with their condition.

When Jesus healed people, He sometimes cast an evil spirit out of them. " When evening came, they brought to Him many who were demon-possessed; and He cast out the spirits with a word, and healed all who were ill." (Matthew 8:16) The expression "demon-possessed" is not a really good translation. The word 'possessed' is simply not present. The term 'demonized' is more accurate, yet this term means something else in English. To 'demonize' someone means, today, to slander someone as evil. So I think that the term 'oppressed', as in the ESV and in Acts 10:38, is better. A truly demon-possessed person would be like the man who had the legion of demons who were sent into the pigs.

So I think we might want to retire the term 'demon-possessed'. It conjures up all sorts of strange images. Jesus was healing people and while He was healing them He discerned that some had evil spirits oppressing their minds and bodies. I am assuming, of course, that some were mentally ill while most were physically ill. (The NT does not make the modern distinction between the two.) So, along with Acts we have some who are ill, physically or mentally, who have evil spirits oppressing them directly, but Acts clearly shows that all sickness is Satanic oppression. He is behind all of it.

Some people think that the only thing that Satan does is 'possess' people or deceive them or tempt them. But it goes beyond that. Evil spirits seek expression in humans, in their minds and their bodies. They have no physical bodies by which they can express themselves so they try to use us.

I really believe that the Devil not only deceives and tempts us to sin, but that when he succeeds that he can make inroads into our lives. He uses our natural weaknesses against us to gain a foothold. Eventually, demons can oppress us and take us further into bondage as we yield to them. I do not think that alcoholism is a physical illness. I think it's a demon that gets hold of some and puts them in bondage. The same is true of various kinds of addictions. It can be pornography or some other sort of sexual sin. The presence of a demon makes it very difficult to break free.

Now I hope that nobody has jumped to the unjustified conclusion that I think that alcoholics or people with depression are "demon-possessed", whatever that may mean. I have ministered to some with depression and have encouraged them to resist the Devil whenever they get symptoms of depression. I realize that many must take medicine to counter some chemical imbalance that may cause depression. But they must understand that the Devil will try to take advantage of that weakness to bring about an episode of depression. We have to keep our minds continually renewed to the Word so that our thinking does not contribute to depressive tendencies.

Another area of human weakness that the Devil exploits is in the area of sex. The sexual instinct in us is so strong that it is easy for Satan to lead us into bondage. The Bible talks about at least some evil spirits as "unclean spirits". Some of that uncleanness is clearly sexual uncleanness. "Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness..." (Galatians 5:19) Uncleanness is mentioned alongside adultery and fornication. This is sexual uncleanness like those sex sins mentioned in Leviticus. An unclean spirit can lead people into unclean sexual activities that hold them in bondage. We call these things 'addictions' but they are really spirits holding people in bondage.

Were all the people that Jesus cast the Devil out of "possessed" by some demon? Or were they oppressed by him, perhaps having unwittingly yielded to him. I think it's the latter. There was a young guy in a church I attended some time ago. He gave his heart to the Lord, but soon after got back into drugs. (He thought that he was hiding it from the rest of us in church.) A minister prayed for him at the altar and rebuked the demon that was holding him in bondage. He not only was set free, but he eventually became a pastor. Before that minister did that, I am sure that you would not have convinced him that a demon was oppressing him.

It's important that we don't go extremes in this area and see demons everywhere and in everyone. Yet, at the same time, we do not want to be ignorant of Satan's devices. He seeks whom he may devour. We have all yielded to the Devil at one time or another. We have to learn to resist him. "Resist him, and he will flee from you." We can resist the Devil with God's Word spoken in faith. The best thing, though, is just not yield to him. Just say, no!

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Israel - fulfillment of prophecy

Some of you already know that I support the nation of Israel. I do so for two reasons. First, I believe that it owes its existence to the will of God and the fulfillment of prophecy. Second, even if I did not, I would recognize Israel's right to both exist and to rule over territory captured in war. They are a friend of America and of our values. They support civil rights in an area of the world where they are constantly violated. In what country in the Middle East could a person be openly gay besides Israel?

Anyway, I want to focus on the current situation in Israel, specifically the Gaza Strip. Hamas has been firing rockets into Israel every day since 2000. Their rockets are now able to go farther and hit more accurately than before. In the current conflict between Hamas and Israel, Hamas has been firing rockets as far as Tel Aviv, their largest city. The IDF, Israel Defense Force, has developed the Iron Dome, a defensive weapons system that destroys rockets before they hit a target. They only deploy it when the rocket is going toward a populated area since it is very expensive to fire. One Iron Dome missle costs about $100,000 to fire.

This Iron Dome system is not perfect, however. One of the soldiers who controls the system around Tel Aviv reports that a rocket was heading straight for Tel Aviv. Two missles were fired to knock it down, but missed. They had no more opportunity to destroy the rocket so they figured it would hit somewhere in Tel Aviv. Suddenly, a strong east wind came and blew the rocket out into the Sea. This wind keeps coming up whenever it is needed.

Not only did many Israelis recognize this as God's protection, but some in Hamas did, too. One Hamas terrorist was quoted as saying that Israel's God was protecting them from their rockets. Now this information does not come from some evangelicals who sometimes get carried away whenever they hear things like this. It came directly from a secular newspaper in Israel and was quoted here by American journalists. Of course, this never made it on the major media in the US. They don't believe that God does anything, much less defend Israel.

I have also heard of reports of God defending Israel in past conflicts, but they are not taken seriously either. They question is, if God is defending Israel, can we deny that the modern nation of Israel is the will of God? And this is apart from any biblical reference to the restoration of the nation of Israel prophesied by the OT prophets. I base on what is happening now. God is defending Israel.

I hear Christians, sometimes, "challenging" those of us who believe that Israel is the fulfillment of prophecy. They act as if any wrong action by Israel proves otherwise, but that is beside the point. No nation, especially one under constant existential threat, will always do what is right. Nonetheless, Israel needs and deserves the support of both Christians and America.

The very fact that Israel became a nation again despite unbelievable odds should challenge us to reread the OT prophets regarding the restoration of Israel. Many want to spiritualize those scriptures and apply them somehow to the church. This was understandable in earlier times when the Jews were still scattered and it seemed as if God was only interested in the church. Things are very different now.

Is the modern nation of Israel a historical accident? All admit they were God's people and that from them both Christ and the Hebrew scriptures came. They rejected their messiah and their nation was taken from them. But what about the promises to Israel yet unfulfilled? Are they to be applied in a very broad way to the church? Even if Christians thought this when there was no Israel, why would it be considered so now when the prophecies about Israel seem to have been literally fulfilled within the past several decades?

I do not wish to get into the hermeneutics of Bible prophecy here, but it seems to me that the very fact that Israel is a nation again ought to make us take a fresh look at the promises God made to them in our Old Testament.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Are we descending into ... silliness?

"Are we descending into silliness?" is not a general question, but is specifically aimed at a big problem today in the interpretation of the Bible. I will explain shortly but first I have to set the scene.

I responded to a blog post by a Christian scholar who asked the question, "Are we descending into barbarity?". The post was about the recent account of a man being given a lethal injection who stayed alive for almost two hours and made noises that suggested that he may be suffering. Apparently, there was some experimenting (for lack of a better term) with the drugs. The claim was made that they were trying to actually to make executions less painful. The author did not buy that claim and said that it was 'barbaric'.

To me, this is a specious assertion. The whole purpose of using drugs, instead of other methods, is to minimize suffering not increase it. We have tried different methods of execution and we keep trying to make them more humane. The gas chamber and the electric chair were both invented for this purpose though I would say that we failed with those two things. The simple truth is that there is no pleasant way to kill a healthy person.

One could make the claim, and many have, that a society that has the death penalty is a barbaric society. But if that were the case, then the very foundation of government is 'barbaric'. We see the foundation of government given to Noah after the flood. "Whoever shed the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image." (Gen. 9:6) Before Noah's flood there was anarchy, no government. After the flood, government was instituted to curb human evil. There was far more barbarism before the death penalty than there was after.

Anyway, there is a biblical case to be made for the death penalty especially since God gave it to us both before the Law of Moses was given, and in the Law as well. And, no, we are not under the Law; however, grace does not mean lawlessness. Also, there is a Christian case to be made against the death penalty. Christians are on both sides of the issue here.

The blogger in question, though, did not acknowledge that there was a good case to be made against the death penalty. What he said was that he did not think that the scriptures that support the death penalty were consistent with the teaching of Jesus and were to be rejected or questioned on that account. Here is his response to me: "Jesus is the best and highest revelation of God. I begin with him and place a question mark over anything, even in the Bible, that contradicts what I know of God through Jesus."

That speaks volumes to me. I, too, believe that Jesus is the best revelation of God, but to say that you place a question mark (doubt) over anything you deem 'inconsistent' with that makes you a judge of what God has said in His Word. It really tells me more about you than it does about either the Bible or about Jesus.

Jesus confirmed the inspiration and authority of scripture. "The scripture cannot be broken." When Jesus answered his opponents, he quoted scripture. When Jesus resisted Satan's temptations he quoted scripture. His answer to Satan in one instance was "man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God". He was quoting Moses, but there is more for us here. He was saying that we need the whole Bible and not just what the gospels tell us about Jesus. Of course, the blogger would say that only parts of the Bible are inspired, not the whole thing. The question is how does he know what is and what is not?

The issue of the authority of scripture is much more important than the genuine concern about the death penalty. In fact, I did not respond to how he responded to me. (Others did and that is fine.) I knew that we would simply be talking past each another. I accept the scriptures as the inerrant Word of God and he chooses which part of the Bible he wants to believe and disregards the rest. I am happy that he at least takes the words of Jesus seriously. We all should. But he is dead wrong about putting the words of Jesus above the rest of the Bible. Jesus fulfills God's revelation to man, but that does not mean we can disregard the previous revelation. It means that we can understand it better.

I would also argue that without the previous revelation we would not understand Jesus. Without understanding that murder is worthy of death we would not understand why Jesus had to die in our place. It does not bother me that Christians disagree about the death penalty. Both sides have strong arguments on their side. What bothers me is that we seem to be getting a lot of silliness (it is not scholarship) about Jesus vs. the rest of the Bible. In fact, it is beyond silly, it is heresy.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Is Individualism Christian?

I have wanted to do a post on individualism for a while, but only now do I have my thoughts about it in order. (At least, I think I do.) What brought my ideas into focus was an article on the website (which I highly recommend). This article is at

The article quotes Alexis De Tocqueville who wrote the book, Democracy In America, in the 1830s. He was a Frenchman whose parents were almost guillotined in the French Revolution, yet he himself grew to love American democracy. His insights and predictions are remarkable. He is clearly in favor of democracy but, surprisingly, against the individualism that generally accompanies it. Here is a quote from him:

"I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls. Each of them, withdrawn and apart, is like a stranger to the destiny of all the others: his children and his particular friends form the whole human species for him; as for dwelling with his fellow citizens, he is beside them, but he does not see them; he touches them and does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone." Powerful stuff.

Then the author of the article, Louis Beckett, states, "Tocqueville fears an individualism where people replace a focus on God, neighbors, community life, charity ... with the glamorization of work and petty material comforts. He warns those of us who would make self-interest the only good: individualism is a vacuum, and that vacuum will be filled with government."

This is as good as Tocqueville's quote and a great insight. When the individual only worries about himself and not his neighbor, when he ignores his responsibility to God, when he does not participate in the community in a meaningful way either in church or in a civic organization, he leaves essential needs in the community unmet. That void is increasingly being filled by government and government is usually lousy at it. Government is a blunt instrument; it does everything by force. When it gives money to those in need, it first must extract it from its citizens. All voluntarism, and therefore all virtue, is lost.

Early in the book of Acts the fledgling church shared everything in common. It met the great need of the moment and brought everyone together. The beauty of it was that it was completely voluntary. Ananias and Sapphira wanted to make themselves look generous, but lied about it and were condemned. Peter made it clear that they were under no obligation. But when we allow government to do it, choice and freedom are excluded.

So what Tocqueville and Beckett describe is a bad kind of individualism. Is there a good kind of individualism, a Christian kind? I think there is. And here is where I must depart from some of the so-called progressive Christians.

Progressives sometimes want to take out of Christianity the most valid forms of individualism. Marcus Borg, who is wrong on just about everything, wrote a blog post about individualism where he said that one of the problems with evangelicals was their individualistic view of salvation. "Christian understandings of salvation are often individualistic. When Christians identify salvation with a blessed afterlife, with going to heaven, salvation becomes about the salvation of individuals." Umm ... yeah, that's about right. Salvation is by grace through faith - an individual thing. God does not save groups of people. How would He do that? I choose this church here, but not that one? Would your salvation depend on the group you belong to?

A Catholic might think that. Their religion is much more communitarian that Protestantism. In Catholicism you get saved by becoming Catholic (getting baptized). In Protestantism you become part of the (mystical) body of Christ by being born again. You join the group by being saved rather than the other way around.

Then Borg says that our individualism has caused us to consider morality to be mainly a personal thing. "For many Christians, morality is understood primarily to be about personal behavior." Yep, that's what I think. Progressives often think that individual morality is less important than vague notions like "economic fairness" and such like. Does that mean that having progressive social and political views makes one virtuous but actual personal virtue does not?

To me, individual virtue is the real virtue. If we live in an 'unjust' society (is there another kind in a fallen world?), then our individual virtue makes life good even for those at 'the bottom'. If we live in a 'just' society and have no individual virtue, I think we would be living in hell. But, of course, without individual virtue and morality there could be no just society. There is a reason that God gave us ten commandments that told the individual what to do. "Thou shalt not" is singular! (If it were plural it would have said "Ye shalt not.") When they obeyed the commands of God, they had a good and just though imperfect society. The commands to not steal, murder or commit adultery were put there for the express purpose of holding the society together. Even laws requiring the Israelites not to glean the edges of the field but leave them for the poor to glean were directed to individuals to help those in need. The government did not enforce this. Individual morality is the glue that holds a society together.

So I certainly believe that Christianity supports, and even requires, a certain kind of individualism. Yet it is not the fleshly, selfish individualism of the world but a godly dignity that places the onus for doing what is just and right on each of us. Imagine what it would be like if we always did the right thing.