Posts tagged ‘Doctrine’

Believing and Acting

bible-and-praying

Last week in The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof penned a column calling on his readers to rethink Christianity.  His thoughts are based on a new book by famed former Evangelical, professional provocateur, and author Brian McLaren.  Mr. Kristof summarizes the thrust of Mr. McLaren’s book by quoting a few lines:

“What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion?” McLaren asks in “The Great Spiritual Migration.” “Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”[1]

What is being argued for here is a wresting away of Christianity from a prescribed set of beliefs and a reinventing or a recapturing (depending on your perspective) of Christianity as a call to action.

Except, that’s not what’s really being argued for at all.

The reader is clued into this fact by the way in which Mr. McLaren describes traditional Christian beliefs.  He asks, “What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs?”  It turns out that the trouble with traditional Christianity is not that it espouses beliefs, but that it espouses beliefs that are, in Mr. McLaren’s words, “problematic.”  Mr. Kristof notes a couple of these “problematic” beliefs in the opening of his column:

Jesus never mentioned gays or abortion but focused on the sick and the poor, yet some Christian leaders have prospered by demonizing gays.

This is only the second sentence of his article, but Christian beliefs concerning human sexuality and abortion have already made an appearance.  I should note that it is indisputably a problem – both theologically and humanitarianly – to, as Mr. Kristof puts it, “demonize gays.”  But I can’t help but wonder what he means by “demonizing gays.”  Does he mean treating a whole group of people as sub-human?  Or does he mean calling sexual activity outside of a marriage between a husband and a wife sin?  To do the first is to be vicious and wrong.  The do the second is to tell the truth.

Ultimately, any attempt to portray Christianity as a series of actions as opposed to a set of beliefs is bound to fail because such an attempt simply does not reflect the way of Jesus.  Jesus was committed both to doing and to doctrine. This is why Jesus taught on a whole host of doctrinal issues such as moneyworshipthe nature and character of Scripturethe end times, His divinity, and yes, even human sexuality.

There is an old phrase, coined by Prosper of Aquitaine in the fifth century, that has long been used to describe much of the worship life of the Church: Lex orandi, lex credendi.  “The law of praying is the law of believing.”  The idea behind this phrase is that a person learns how and what to believe in worship.  In other words, the worship life of the Church is meant to form and inform the faith life of Christians.

But there is a second part to this slogan: Lex credendi, lex vivendi.  “The law of believing is the law of living.”  That is, what a person believes necessarily forms and informs what a person does.  This is why the apostle Paul can exhort a young pastor named Timothy, “Watch your life and doctrine closely” (1 Timothy 4:16).  Paul knows that doctrine and doing go hand in hand.

Mr. Kristof and Mr. McLaren know that doctrine and doing are, in reality, inseparable. This is why, even as they issue a call to action while wryly downplaying the value of doctrinal standards, they cannot help but point to and act on their own theological commitments.  Their beef, even if it is presented otherwise, is not with the fact that Christians believe, but with what Christians believe.  I would simply remind them that, eventually, if we act on what we believe as Christians, people will want to know why we do what we do.  And we should have an answer to give to them even as Scripture has given an answer to us.  And for that, doctrine still matters.

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[1] Nicholas Kristof, “What Religion Would Jesus Belong To?The New York Times (9.3.2016).

September 12, 2016 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Rob Bell and Inerrancy

Rob Bell 2The other day, a friend sent me an article by pastor and provocateur Rob Bell on the subject of inerrancy.  Traditionally, the term “inerrancy” has been defined as the belief that the biblical authors, guided and inspired by God’s Spirit, “are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes.”[1]  In other words, the biblical authors, under divine inspiration, produced writings that are “without error.”  It is important to clarify that to say the Bible is “without error” does note preclude “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”[2]  In other words, part of claiming biblical inerrancy is recognizing what does and does not constitute an actual “error.”

Regardless of the specifics concerning what does and does not constitute error, it is clear that “inerrancy” asserts an extraordinarily high view of the nature and reliability of Holy Writ.  Some, however, including Rob Bell, are troubled by such an assertion.

Rob Bell teases out his beef with inerrancy thusly:

My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)

A few questions, then, about Mozart:Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?

Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.

Why?
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.

Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.[3]

So Rob Bell’s problem with inerrancy is that for him it’s not a helpful category.

Though Rob may question the usefulness of the inerrancy “category,” countless followers of Christ have, do, and will continue to find this designation extraordinarily helpful.  Yes, the word “inerrancy” is of fairly recent origin.  But what it denotes – the trustworthiness of Scripture because of divine origin of Scripture – is as old as Christianity itself.  Nichols and Brandt, in their book Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, helpfully sample some patristic evidence that indicates how the early Church saw the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture:

Clement of Rome, writing in 96, exhorted, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”  Another Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, declared similarly, “I could produce then thousand Scriptures of which not ‘one tittle will pass away,’ without being fulfilled.  For the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has spoken these things.”  As for a statement about the whole Bible, Origen once observed, “For the proof of our statements, we take testimonies from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New – which we believe to be divine writings.”[4]

Jumping ahead to the sixteenth century, Nichols and Brandt note that John Calvin referred to Scripture as “the sure and infallible record,” “the inerring standard,” “the pure Word of God,” “the infallible rule of His Holy Truth,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the inerring certainty,” “the certain and unerring rule,” “unerring light,” “infallible Word of God,” “has nothing belonging to man mixed with it,” “inviolable,” “infallible oracles.”[5]  Whoa.  Calvin leaves no question as to where he stands on inerrancy.

Rob does offer some reasons as to why he believes inerrancy is not a helpful category, the first of which is, “This isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself.”  But this is like saying “Trinity” is not a helpful term to describe God because it is not a term God uses to describe Himself.  Terms can be helpful even when they’re not used in the Bible if these terms describe what the Bible itself teaches.  And the Bible does indeed claim inerrancy for itself.  One need to look no farther than the Word of God’s magnum opus on the Word of God, Psalm 19:  “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).  If the word “perfect” doesn’t include being “without error,” what does it include?

Rob finally plays his hand as to why he is uncomfortable with inerrancy:  “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people.”  Rob Bell takes issue with inerrancy because he takes issue with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  He takes issue with what Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Calvin, and, for that matter, the Bible itself claim about the Bible.  Rather than being a book a written by God using men (cf. 1 Peter 1:21), the Bible for Rob is a book written by men who recount their experiences with God, which, by the way, could be mistaken and wrongheaded.[6]  How do we know if their experiences with God are mistaken and wrongheaded?  Rob answers:  “Central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like.”  In other words, it’s up to us to figure out what in the Bible is wrong and what in the Bible is right.  But if our world’s genocides, sexual promiscuity, oppression, economic injustice, and refusal to stand for truth because we’re not even sure of what truth is serve as any indication of our powers of discernment, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, we “have some splainin’ to do.”

Perhaps we’re not as discerning as we think we are.  Perhaps, rather than tooting the horns of our own discernment faculties, we should ask the question of the Psalmist:  “But who can discern their own errors” (Psalm 19:12)?  Our blind spots are bigger and darker than most of us recognize.

I will grant that inerrancy has sometimes all too gleefully been used as a bully club against supposed – and, in some instances, presupposed – heretics.  But I will not give up the word or the doctrine.  For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise.  It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.  For this book is God’s book.  And I, for one, delight in that promise because I delight in the Lord.


[1] James Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 239.

[2]Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XIII (October 1978).

[3] Rob Bell, “What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea,” robbellcom.tumblr.com (12.10.2013)

[4] Stephen Nichols and Eric Brandt, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009), 78.

[5] Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, 78-79.

[6] Bell writes of the biblical authors in another post, “They had experiences. They told stories.  They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences” (“What is the Bible? Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings”).

December 16, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Decisions, Decisions

It’s almost become a Keystone Cops routine.  Every Sunday following worship, my wife Melody and I try to decide where to go out to eat.  “Where do you want to go?” I ask my wife affectionately.  “I don’t know,” she responds.  “Where do you want to go?”  “I don’t know,” I fire back.  “That’s why I was asking you.”  After fifteen to minutes of pondering all the different places at which we could eat, we usually decide that neither of us are really in the mood for any of it and so we head home to eat leftovers.  When it comes to eating out, we have a hard time making decisions.

Perhaps we’re not alone.  Perhaps you have a hard time making decisions too.  Maybe it’s when you make it to a restaurant and you have to decide what dish to order off a menu that is twelve pages long.  Maybe it’s when you’re out clothes shopping and you have to decide:  the blue outfit or the gray one?  Maybe it’s when you’re car shopping:  the sedan or the SUV?  Life’s choices are endless.  And even seemingly simple choices can sometimes feel overwhelming.

One of the glories of the gospel is that it relieves us of the responsibility of choosing that which is most important.  From the Bible’s beginnings, we read of a God who makes and clear and decisive choices when it matters most so that we don’t have to.  Consider the following:

  • “Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. For I have chosen him” (Genesis 20:18-19).
  • “You are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be His people, His treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6).
  • “Rejoice before the LORD your God at the place He will choose as a dwelling for His Name” (Deuteronomy 16:11).

Time and time again, God chooses.  In fact, the gospel assures us that God has chosen us to be saved through faith by His Son.  As Jesus Himself says, “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16).  And as the apostle Paul writes, “For God chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight” (Ephesians 1:4).  God chooses us.

Sometimes, people take umbrage with God’s choice of people for salvation.  They want to be able to choose God for themselves.  They want to be masters of their own eternities.  But were our eternities left up to our own choices, we would most certainly make the wrong choices.  We read example after example in the Scriptures of people who choose the wrong way of sin rather than the right road of salvation.  The ancient Israelites choose apostasy through idolatry.  The first century Pharisees choose arrogance through self-righteousness.  And we choose our own desires over God’s command.  When it comes to choosing God, left to our own devices, we will always and only say, “No.”

Blessedly, God does not allow our choices against Him and for damnation to stand.  Instead, He rescues many people from their bad choices through His righteous choice!  And if I can’t even decide where to go to lunch, I sure am glad that I don’t have to decide on my salvation.  Aren’t you glad too?

September 3, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment


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