Posts tagged ‘Scripture’

The Supreme Court Takes the Cake

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Credit: Ted Eytan

Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court rendered a verdict on a case that pitted a cake shop owner against a same-sex couple.  Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colorado declined to bake a cake for Charlie Craig and David Mullins when, in 2012, they married in Massachusetts and asked Mr. Phillips to craft a cake to celebrate their union.  Mr. Phillips cited his Christian commitments concerning marriage as the reason he could not, in good conscience, provide a custom cake for this particular celebration.  The case went to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in favor of Mr. Craig and Mr. Mullins.  The verdict was subsequently appealed and finally found its way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court found in favor of Mr. Phillips, but also took great pains to offer an extremely narrow ruling.  Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy reasoned:

The case presents difficult questions as to the proper reconciliation of at least two principles.  The first is the authority of a State and its governmental entities to protect the rights and dignity of gay persons who are, or wish to be, married but who face discrimination when they seek goods or services.  The second is the right of all persons to exercise fundamental freedoms under the First Amendment …

Whatever the confluence of speech and free exercise principles might be in some cases, the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s consideration of this case was inconsistent with the State’s obligation of religious neutrality … When the Colorado Civil Rights Commission considered this case, it did not do so with the religious neutrality that the Constitution requires.

Justice Kennedy cited an example of the State’s lack of “religious neutrality” by quoting one of the persons on the Colorado Civil Rights Commission who first heard this case:

Freedom of religion and religion has been used to justify all kinds of discrimination throughout history, whether it be slavery, whether it be the holocaust, whether it be – I mean, we – we can list hundreds of situations where freedom of religion has been used to justify discrimination.  And to me it is one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use to – to use their religion to hurt others.

Justice Kennedy responded to this characterization of Mr. Phillips’ faith with a stinging decrial:

To describe a man’s faith as “one of the most despicable pieces of rhetoric that people can use” is to disparage his religion in at least two distinct ways: by describing it as despicable, and also by characterizing it as merely rhetorical –something insubstantial and even insincere.  The commissioner even went so far as to compare Phillips’ invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.  This sentiment is inappropriate for a Commission charged with the solemn responsibility of fair and neutral enforcement of Colorado’s antidiscrimination law – a law that protects discrimination on the basis of religion as well as sexual orientation.

This case is yet another example of the tension between Christians’ desires to live and operate, both at home and in the workplace, in ways that respect historic Christian norms concerning human sexuality and same-sex couples’ desires to freely practice their views concerning human sexuality, which includes the ability to ask a business to create a product that accords with their views and serves their needs.  This ruling does not resolve this tension.  Instead, it leaves the tension squarely intact while siding with Mr. Phillips in this instance seemingly simply because the Colorado Civil Rights Commission denigrated Mr. Phillips’ faith in an egregious and offensive way.

Christians will most certainly continue to be faced with these kinds of cases, questions, and tensions.  How we respond is critical – both for the sake of our faithfulness and for the sake of our witness.  Here, then, are two things to keep in mind when these cases, questions, and tensions arise.

First, we must remember to respect everyone simply because they are someone. Regardless of how a Christian may feel about same-sex intimate relationships theologically and personally, respecting others with whom a Christian may disagree is not only generally kind, but explicitly commanded in Scripture: “Show proper respect to everyone” (1 Peter 2:17).  A Christian’s basic respect for others and gregarious treatment of others should not be fundamentally contingent upon others’ belief systems or moral commitments.  Instead, it should be first based on their foundational statuses as creatures crafted in God’s image.  As the philosopher Charles Taylor puts it in his book, Sources of the Self:

The original Christian notion of agape is of a love that God has for humans which is connected with their goodness as creatures … There is a divine affirmation of the creature, which is captured in the repeated phrase in Genesis 1 about each stage of creation, “and God saw that it was good.”

The simple fact that God has made someone should be enough to command a certain amount of respect, for everyone is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

Second, we must remember to be empathetic to those with whom we disagree.  I have had many conversations with Christians who are scared that those in LGBTQ communities are out to trample their rights and destroy their faith.  This leads them to sometimes marginalize and demonize these communities.  I also know many in LGBTQ communities who worry that some Christians are out to destroy their communities and condemn them to hell.  They do not see Christianity’s objection to same-sex practices as part of a broad ethical stance on human sexuality generally, but as an attack on the very core of their identity specifically.

What would happen if we entered into each other’s fears?  Might it change our fears?  Might it move us beyond myopic court battles over whether it is legally necessary to bake cakes for each other?  I have no doubt that some Christians are out to get LGBTQ people and that some in LGBTQ communities are out to get Christians.  For the rest of us, however, a little empathy can go a long way.  Christians can advocate for a certain set of sexual ethics while still comforting those who feel threatened or marginalized.  Those in LGBTQ communities can continue to advocate for fair and respectful treatment for themselves without attacking the sincerity of Christians who have questions and concerns about the helpfulness and morality of the sexual revolution.

Christians must continue to tell the truth and live according to the truth in a world that is full of confusion.  The truth is that human sexuality is not indefinitely malleable.  It is a gift from God that is to be celebrated guardedly and gladly in the context of a commitment in marriage between a man and a woman.  But at the same time Christians must care about this truth, we also must care for people.  This means sharing God’s truth, modeling God’s truth in our actions and decisions, listening to others’ fears and, yes, even objections to this truth, and loving them – not because they always do the right thing, but because love is the right thing to do.

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June 18, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Resurrection of Jesus in History

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Yesterday, Christians around the world gathered to celebrate the defining claim of their faith:  the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  The apostle Paul is very frank in his estimation of the importance of Christ’s resurrection:

If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17)

Paul places the full weight of Christianity’s reality and practicality on the resurrection’s actuality.  If the resurrection is not a historical fact, Paul declares, then the whole of the Christian faith is foolish.

But how can we decipher whether or not the resurrection happened historically?  N.T. Wright, in his seminal work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, notes that the empty tomb of Jesus combined with appearances from Jesus offers a compelling testimony to the historicity of the resurrection.  If only there was only an empty tomb, Christians would not have been able to claim that Jesus rose from the dead.  Likewise, if there were only phantasms of someone who looked like Jesus, Christians could not have claimed a resurrection.

Wright explains the power of this combination thusly:

An empty tomb without any meetings with Jesus would have been a distressing puzzle, but not a long-term problem.  It would have proved nothing; it would have suggested nothing, except the fairly common practice of grave-robbery … Tombs were often robbed in the ancient world, adding to grief both insult and injury.[1]

Indeed, grave robbery was so common in the ancient world that emperor of Rome shortly after the time of Jesus, Claudius, issued an edict meant to intimidate anyone who would consider pillaging tombs:

Ordinance of Caesar.  It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed in perpetuity … If any man lay information that another has either demolished them, or has in any other way extracted the buried, or has maliciously transferred them to other places in order to wrong them, or has displaced the sealing or other stones, against such a one I order … the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.[2]

Apparently, the problem of grave robbery had become so pervasive that Claudius saw no other recourse to end it than to threaten capital punishment for it.  Wright consequently concludes:

Nobody in the pagan world would have interpreted an empty tomb as implying resurrection; everyone knew such a thing was out of the question.[3]

Wright continues by noting that mere appearances of Jesus alone could also not make a case for a resurrection:

‘Meetings’ with Jesus, likewise, could by themselves have been interpreted in a variety of ways.  Most people in the ancient world … knew that visions and appearances of recently dead people occurred … The ancient world as well as the modern knew the difference between visions and things that happen in the ‘real’ world.[4] 

It is only the combination of an empty tomb along with multiple appearances of Christ that could have given rise to the idea that Christ had, in actuality, risen from the dead.  This is part of Paul’s point when he writes that Christ “appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:6).  Paul knows that one person can suffer a delusion of a resurrection.  It is much more difficult for 500 people to have the same delusion.  And in case anyone has any questions about what these 500 saw, Paul notes that most of them are still living.  People can simply go ask them.

With all of this being said, a primary objection to the historical veracity of the resurrection remains, which is this:  dead people tend to stay that way.  I have never – and I would guess that you also have never – seen a dead person come back to life.  So how can we accept something as fact in the past when we cannot repeat it in the present?

Again, N.T. Wright offers two helpful thoughts.  The first is that history, by its very nature, is the study of that which is unrepeatable:

History is the study, not of repeatable events as in physics and chemistry, but of unrepeatable events.[5]

In other words, just because we cannot – and, in many cases should not – repeat historical events – such as the crash of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, or the horrors of the Holocaust – does not mean that they did not happen.  To apply a standard of “repeatability” to the resurrection in order to accept its truthfulness is to apply a standard by which no other happening in history could be deemed true.

But second, and even more importantly, Wright explains that the early Christians themselves would agree that dead people stay dead!  This is what makes their claim that there was a dead person who did not stay that way all the more astounding:

The fact that dead people not ordinarily rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it.  The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was, indeed, the start of a whole new mode of existence, a new creation.  The fact that Jesus’ resurrection was, and remains, without analogy is not an objection to the early Christian claim.  It is part of the claim itself.[6]

The early Christians fully understood that what they were claiming was radically unique.  But they claimed it anyway.  Whatever one may think of the historicity of the resurrection, one must at least admit that the biblical witnesses saw something and experienced something that they could explain in no other way than in a bodily resurrection from death.

These considerations, of course, do not constitute an airtight or empirically verifiable case that the resurrection did, in fact, happen.  But history rarely affords us such luxuries.  Nevertheless, these considerations do present us with a case that makes the resurrection, according to the normal canons of history, highly probable and worthy of our consideration and, perhaps, even our embrace.  There is enough evidence that we must at least ask ourselves:  has Christ risen?  And the answer of not only Scripture, but of history, can come back, with sobriety and credibility:  Christ is risen!

Which is why, 2,000 years later, Easter is still worth celebrating.

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[1] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2003), 688.
[2] Ibid., 708-709.
[3] Ibid., 689.
[4] Ibid., 689, 690.
[5] Ibid., 686.
[6] Ibid., 712.

April 2, 2018 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Common Question: What’s the Relationship Between Predestination and Evangelism?

Jesus LambI first encountered the question when I was in college. “If God is the One who chooses people for salvation,” a buddy asked me, “then why do we need to worry about spreading the gospel? Isn’t God going to save people regardless of whether or not we share our faith with them?”

At the heart of my college buddy’s question was the relationship between two important doctrines: the doctrine of predestination – that God does all the work for our salvation, even down to the level of our wills, by taking the initiative to choose those who are saved – and the doctrine of evangelism – that we, as God’s people, are charged with going forth and spreading the gospel to all the world so that people may believe and be saved.

At first glance, these two doctrines do indeed seem contradictory.  The apostle Paul writes of predestination:

[God] chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. (Ephesians 1:4-6)

If God has already chosen people for salvation “before the creation of the world,” as Paul says, then what is the point of sharing the gospel so people will come to faith in Jesus and be saved? Isn’t everything a done deal?

When seeking to explain how these two doctrines work together, two errors have regularly been made.

The first error is that of conditional predestination. This error posits that God only chooses people for salvation on the condition that they first choose to trust in Him. This belief was famously promoted by the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, which outlines the basic tenets of Arminian theology:

God has immutably decreed, from eternity, to save those men who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in Jesus Christ, and by the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end; and, on the other hand, to condemn the unbelievers and unconverted. Election and condemnation are thus conditioned by foreknowledge, and made dependent on the foreseen faith or unbelief of men.[1]

According to the Five Articles of the Remonstrance, God will not choose a person for salvation unless that person first chooses to have faith in Christ.  For the Arminian, then, the burden of sharing one’s faith with others is heavy. After all, how can a person choose to have faith in Christ if he is not given a choice? And how can a person be given a choice if someone does not share with him that there is, in fact, a choice? Presenting to people the message that there is a choice to be made to have faith in Christ is the foundation of evangelism in Arminianism.

But such a theological system is not without problems. First, Scripture does not present God’s choice of us as contingent on our choice of Christ. God’s choices are unilateral. Second, by making God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ, our salvation ultimately becomes dependent not on Christ Himself, but on our ability to choose Christ.  It should be noted that Arminians teach that our wills, before our conversions, are helped along by divine prevenient grace, which is supposed to enable and enliven our wills so they can choose Christ, but such a teaching does not comport with Scripture. Scripture clearly teaches that our wills are anything but enabled and enlivened, especially before our conversions. Paul says of his own will: “What I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19). To make God’s choice of us contingent on our choice of Christ is a recipe for disaster. We will inevitably choose poorly because our wills are broken by and enslaved to sin.

The second error that is often made when trying to explain the relationship between predestination and evangelism is that of conditional proclamation. In this error, predestination is rightly held up as God’s unilateral decision to choose people apart from and in spite of their fallen, sinful wills. The Westminster Confession of Faith, which forms the basis for Calvinist theology, outlines this view:

Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to His eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of His will, has chosen, in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of His mere free grace and love, without any foresight of faith, or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature.[2]

This synopsis of predestination is certainly much more in line with how Paul talks about the doctrine in Ephesians 1, but even this understanding is not without its problems.

Calvinist theology runs quickly into trouble when it posits that God not only chooses people for salvation, but that He also chooses people for condemnation.  Again, from the Westminster Confession:

By the decree of God, for the manifestation of His glory, some men and angels are predestinated unto everlasting life; and others foreordained to everlasting death.[3]

This is most certainly not how Paul speaks of predestination in Ephesians 1 and must be rejected. Predestination is not about God’s condemnation.  It is only about His salvation.  In predestination, God rescues people out of their default destination of damnation by choosing them for salvation. Predestination does not work the other way around. God does not predestine people to hell.

Second, because their doctrine of predestination both to salvation and condemnation is so strongly held, some Calvinists can become hesitant to invite someone to believe in Christ because they do not know whether the person they are inviting has been predestined from eternity for salvation or condemnation.

Perhaps the most historically notable example of such reticence comes in one of the most famous sermons of all time:  Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Edwards’ rhetoric is robust and his portrait of hell is horrifying, but his hope of salvation falls flat:

And let everyone that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell, whether they be old men and women, or middle aged, or young people, or little children, now hearken to the loud calls of God’s Word and providence … God seems now to be hastily gathering in His elect in all parts of the land; and probably the bigger part of adult persons that ever shall be saved, will be brought in now in a little time, and that it will be as it was on that great outpouring of the Spirit upon the Jews in the apostles’ days, the election will obtain, and the rest will be blinded.[4]

Notice that Edwards is careful not to extend God’s promise of salvation to the whole congregation. This is because, in Edwards’ thinking, some are predestined for salvation while others are doomed for condemnation and Edwards cannot know for certain who is who. So he simply states the facts of predestination to salvation and condemnation as he sees them.

Such a way of presenting salvation and condemnation is problematic because it strips the Christian witness of its power. No longer can people be invited to believe through the hearing of the Word (cf. Romans 10:13-15). The proclamation of the gospel is simply a window dressing for what is a fait accompli in predestination.

Thus, in some manifestations of Arminian theology, predestination is stripped of its promise because it is made contingent on a person’s decision while in some manifestations of Calvinist theology, evangelism is stripped of its power because it has no real effect on what is already a foregone conclusion from eternity. So what is the way out of this conundrum?

Because predestination takes place outside of time and because we, as God’s people, live in time, God’s eternal decrees in predestination need a way by which they can delivered evangelically into our time and space. Theologically, the vehicle by which God’s eternal decrees are delivered into our finite world is His Word. When God’s people share God’s Word, which, by the way, is the soul and substance of the evangelical task, faith is awakened in hearts and God’s decrees from before time come to pass within time and, most importantly, within lives, as they do in Acts 13:48 when, after Paul and Barnabas preach the gospel to the Gentiles, “all who were appointed,” that is, predestined, “for eternal life believed.” Without God’s people evangelically sharing God’s Word, God’s choice of people from eternity cannot be known or believed. And where there is no belief, there is no salvation. Thus, it is not just that predestination and evangelism do not conflict with each other. It is that they need each other. Predestination must travel from the timeless to the temporal in order to deliver its promise. Speaking God’s Word evangelically is the vehicle by which this promise gets delivered.

Recently, I have heard some within my own confession of faith of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod criticize those who characterize Christ’s evangelical mission as “emptying out the future population of hell,” or as “building a bigger heaven tomorrow by reaching people today.”  They assert that such language undermines the doctrine of predestination by making our witness to the world, rather than God’s choice of His elect, responsible for people’s salvation.  They prefer to speak of Christ’s mission in terms of “reaching the elect.”  Though I understand their concern and share their aversion to making a person’s salvation in any way dependent on human effort, I am much more comfortable with the language of shifting populations of heaven and hell than they are.  After all, such language indicates that God’s eternal decrees in predestination have entered time and space through the evangelical proclamation of the Word and have actually accomplished something!  Real people are really being converted right here and now much to the real chagrin of the devil and his minions.

Those who criticize the language of shifting eternal populations would do well to remember that characterizing Christ’s mission as “reaching the elect”– even as it carries with it a clear and helpful confession of divine monergism – comes with its own set of pitfalls.  For one thing, it should be noted that, exegetically, Christ promises to gather His elect not so much in time missionally, but at the end of time eschatologically (cf. Mark 13:26-27).  The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares in Matthew 13:24-30 makes this clear enough.  Such language can also mistakenly lead to the implication that no real conversion takes place in people in time because everything has been taken care of ahead of time in predestination. The Church is simply reminding those who are already Christ’s that they are already Christ’s. But if no real conversion takes place in people in time, then there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted. And if there is no real slavery to sin from which people need to be converted, then there is no real need for a Savior to step into time to die and rise for sinners. It’s already all been taken care of ahead of time. Thus, the cross gets stripped of its power.

As it turns out, Christ’s incarnation becomes the proof in the pudding, so to speak, that what is before time in predestination doesn’t stay there. For Christ is not only the Word spoken to us evangelically, He is the Word who steps into time to die and rise for us salvifically. In a very real sense, then, the future population of hell is being emptied and the glorious population of heaven is being filled by Christ’s work as it is proclaimed by Christ’s people today. Real conversions are taking place. And what began outside of time – predestination – is coming to fruition in time and in Christ for us and for our salvation. Praise be to God for this indescribable gift.

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[1] Five Articles of the Remonstrance (1610), First Article.

[2] Westminster of Confession of Faith (1647), III:5.

[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, III:3.

[4] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Enfield, CT (7.8.1741).

September 14, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Following Jesus Day By Day

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’ve watched the scenario play out again and again. A young Christian man is climbing the ladder of success. But then something snaps. The trappings of success begin to strangle his heart. And he decides to give it all up. His job. His house. His source of income. Traditional means of supporting his family. He gives it all up and announces, “I am going to stop trying to manage, control, and plan for everything my life and just follow Jesus one day at a time.”

Now, on the one hand, I respect and admire this deeply. This kind of decision brings into crystal clarity the trappings of an affluent life. The truth is, we don’t need the stuff we have. And when we treat it like we do need it, we break the First Commandment. We turn the stuff we have into an idol we trust.

In his book Radical, David Platt paints a picture of an Asian house church that haunts me:

Despite its size, sixty believers have crammed into it. They are all ages from precious little girls to seventy-year-old men. They are sitting either on the floor or on small stools, lined shoulder to should, huddled together their Bibles in their laps. The roof is low, and one light bulb dangles from the middle of the ceiling as the sole source of illumination.

No sound system.

No band.

No guitar.

No entertainment.

No cushioned chairs.

No heated or air-conditioned building.

Nothing but the people of God and the Word of God.

And strangely, that’s enough.

God’s Word is enough for millions of believers who gather in house churches just like this one. His Word is enough for millions of other believers who huddle in African jungles, South American rain forests, and Middle Easter cities.

But is His Word enough for us?[1]

I sure do hope His Word is enough for us. Because if it’s not, the Church has lost her foundation, her purpose, her uniqueness, and her hope. God’s Word must be enough.

I say all this so that you do not misunderstand what I am about to write.

I have no inherent problem with people who want to follow Jesus day by day with nothing but the shirts on their backs. I am concerned, however, that the impetus for following Jesus in this way is sometimes based on a misreading of what Jesus actually says. When it comes to trusting Jesus day by day, Jesus explains:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. (Matthew 6:25-32)

Jesus is clear. We need not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

There is a difference, however, between worrying about tomorrow and planning for tomorrow. One is discouraged. The other is encouraged. Jesus tells a story about ten virgins who bring oil lamps waiting for a groom to show up for a wedding party. But five of the ten did bring enough oil for their lamps. Do you know what Jesus calls those five? “Foolish” (Matthew 25:3). Why? Because they did not plan. The book of Proverbs includes admonitions to plan (Proverbs 21:5; 24:27; 27:23-27) and God Himself plans (Jeremiah 29:11-13). Jesus’ ministry is intricately planned as can be seen from His passion predictions (Matthew 16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19; Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34; Luke 9:18-22, 9:44, 18:31-33) and His training of the disciples for the mission of the Church (Matthew 4:19). Thus, not worrying about tomorrow does not preclude planning for tomorrow.

So, to my friends who have jettisoned plans to follow Jesus day by day, I say, “Blessed are you.” But remember that a time may come when planning, once again, becomes salutary. And if you’re worried that your plans may somehow be out of step with God’s will, you do not need to be afraid. After all, “Many are the plans in a man’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails” (Proverbs 19:21).

If your plans go awry, the Lord will get you back on track. He has promised to. You can plan on it.

_____________________________________

[1] David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Colorado Spring: Multnomah Books, 2010), 26.

February 2, 2015 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Newsweek Takes On the Bible

Newsweek on the BibleIt’s frustrating, but sadly predictable. Just in time for a new year, Newsweek trots out an article full of old attacks on the Bible. Kurt Eichenwald, who became nationally known for chronicling a massive financial scandal at Prudential in 1995, has gotten into the business of faith, critiquing the Bible and its believers in a lengthy screed titled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”[1]

The article has everything a pedantic diatribe against the Bible could ever hope to have, including a picture of picketers from Westboro “Baptist Church” (and yes, the quotation marks are intentional because they are neither Baptist nor are they a Church, at least in the theological sense of the terms) along with a cartoonish characterization of the average Christian in America:

They wave their Bibles at passersby, screaming their condemnations of homosexuals. They fall on their knees, worshipping at the base of granite monuments to the Ten Commandments while demanding prayer in school. They appeal to God to save America from their political opponents, mostly Democrats. They gather in football stadiums by the thousands to pray for the country’s salvation.

Granted, I am only speaking for myself, but I have never waved my Bible at anyone while screaming condemnations of gay people. I have never worshiped at the base of a granite monument to the Ten Commandments. I do have a congregation I love with whom I worship, however. I have never appealed to God to save America from my political opponents. Indeed, if you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know I can be somewhat skeptical of the political process in general, fearing that some expect out of politics what only Christ can give. I have also never gathered in a football stadium to pray for my country’s salvation, though I have cheered from my stadium seat as I watched my Texas Longhorns put a hurtin’ on some Aggies. Again, I know I am speaking only from my own experience, but I have a feeling I’m not alone. It’s easy to make Christians sound really bad when you misrepresent what the majority of Christians do and believe.

Such a gross mischaracterization of Christians aside, the preponderance of Eichenwald’s jeremiad is reserved for the Bible itself. Eichenwald opines:

No television preacher has ever read the Bible. Neither has any evangelical politician. Neither has the pope. Neither have I. And neither have you. At best, we’ve all read a bad translation – a translation of translations of translations of hand – copied copies of copies of copies of copies, and on and on, hundreds of times.

About 400 years passed between the writing of the first Christian manuscripts and their compilation into the New Testament. (That’s the same amount of time between the arrival of the Pilgrims on the Mayflower and today.) The first books of the Old Testament were written 1,000 years before that. In other words, some 1,500 years passed between the day the first biblical author put stick to clay and when the books that would become the New Testament were chosen.

I honestly have no idea where Eichenwald is getting his history. Modern translations of the Bible are not based “a translation of translations of translations.” Rather, they are based on the best available hand-written copies of Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament initial biblical manuscripts. And Eichenwald’s 400 year time frame from the writing of the New Testament text to its compilation is laughable. The Codex Sinaiticus, for instance, is a copy of both the Old and New Testaments dating to around AD 340. Assuming the last New Testament book was written around AD 90, that gives us a 250 year – not a 400 year – period between writing and compilation. But the period is actually much shorter than this. The Muratorian Fragment is a list of New Testament books from around AD 170. So now the time period between writing and compilation is reduced to 80 years. But even this misrepresents the situation. Paul’s letters circulated as a collection among Christian churches from the second century onward and the church father Justin Martyr developed, also in the second century, an influential harmony of the four Gospels known as the Diatessaron, demonstrating that the early church read the Gospels and Paul’s letters as a collection from the very beginning. In other words, the Church has always held the books we have in the New Testament to be worthy of our consideration and study. It did not take 400 years to compile the Bible.

But Eichenwald isn’t done yet. He continues:

In the past 100 years or so, tens of thousands of manuscripts of the New Testament have been discovered, dating back centuries. And what biblical scholars now know is that later versions of the books differ significantly from earlier ones.

So Eichenwald would have us believe that we have radically different variations of the books now in our Bible hidden somewhere in a colossal cache of ancient manuscripts. What do these radically different variations entail? “Most of those discrepancies are little more than the handwritten equivalent of a typo.” I’m confused. Which is it? Do we have significantly different versions of biblical books or minor discrepancies that amount to nothing more than handwritten “typos”? Not only is Eichenwald wrong on his historical facts, he isn’t even internally consistent.

Eichenwald also has fun with how scholars have translated the Bible. He cites Philippians 2:6, which says, in the King James Version, that Christ was “in the form of God,” and notes:

The Greek word for form could simply mean Jesus was in the image of God. But the publishers of some Bibles decided to insert their beliefs into translations that had nothing to do with the Greek. The Living Bible, for example, says Jesus “was God” – even though modern translators pretty much just invented the words.

I find it hard to believe that a journalist for Newsweek knows more about Greek and how words should be translated than degreed biblical scholars who actually study this stuff for a living. And just for the record, the Greek word for what Eichenwald says should be translated as “image” is morphe, which comes into Latin as forma and into English as, what do you know, “form.” Contrary to Eichenwald, reputable Bible translators generally do not just decide “to insert their beliefs into translations.”

There’s plenty more in Eichenwald’s article that could be critiqued. If you want to read some trenchant responses, you can find them herehere, and here. Honestly, I find it hard to believe that a major publication like Newsweek would publish something that looks more like a two-bit sensationalistic hit piece on the Bible than an honest piece of investigative journalism. This whole article seems to me to be little more than clickbait.

That being said, let me conclude with a passage from this article with which I actually agree. Granted, it’s not a long passage. There’s plenty around it that’s not true. In fact, I can’t even cite Eichenwald’s whole sentence. But this much is true: “If [Christians] … believe all people are sinners, then salvation is found in belief in Christ and the Resurrection. For everyone. There are no exceptions in the Bible for sins that evangelicals really don’t like.” For all that is not true in this article, this much is: Christ came to save sinners – all sinners – through faith in Him. This means that no matter what your sin, Jesus came to save you.

And even in an article that’s really bad, that’s still good news.

_______________________

[1] Kurt Eichenwald, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin,” Newsweek (12.23.2014).

January 5, 2015 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Where’s Your Advantage?

Bible 1A few months ago, I reworked my retirement portfolio. Though I pray it will be a long time before I have to draw anything from it, there were some changes I wanted to make now because I know they will be to my advantage later. And I always like gaining an advantage.

As time goes by, I have been traveling on business more and more. One of the things I have been doing recently is joining a bunch of rewards programs because they offer so many advantages. I get airline miles for one trip from another trip. I get points for free nights whenever I stay enough nights at a hotel chain. I get occasional discounts and supreme customer service because I rent a lot of cars. These reward programs come with a lot of advantages. And I always like gaining an advantage.

The other night at the elders meeting at my church, I shared some words from the apostle Paul: “What advantage, then, is there in being a Jew, or what value is there in circumcision? Much in every way! First of all, they have been entrusted with the very words of God” (Romans 3:1-2).

If you were to ask a Jew in the first century what advantage he had, he would probably quickly respond by saying he was a son of Abraham (cf. John 8:33). He might also brag a bit about his devotion and virtue (cf. Romans 2:17-20). But when Paul speaks of a Jew’s advantage, he has something different in mind. “First of all,” Paul writes, “they have been entrusted with the very words of God.” What gives a Jew an advantage is not his pedigree as a son of Abraham or his piety as a squeaky-clean rule-follower, but God’s self-disclosure in His Word. What gives a Jew a spiritual advantage is, very simply, the Bible.

Of course, this advantage is not just for the Jew. It is for anyone and everyone who calls on the Lord. The Bible can give us an advantage in marriage as we look to God’s Word to enrich our relationships with our spouses. The Bible can give us an advantage in work as we understand our labor as God’s calling. Most importantly, the Bible can give us an advantage with God as it reveals to us God’s Son who died for our salvation. The Bible is our supreme advantage because it shows us Christ’s advantageous work on our behalf.

It is no secret that most people love to have an advantage, whether that advantage be on the field, or in the office, or in an investment portfolio. Some people will even go so far as to take advantage of someone else in order to gain an advantage for themselves. Paul’s question of us, however, is: Where’s your advantage? Paul says that our first advantage should always and only be God’s Word. Indeed, when Paul writes, “First of all, [you] have been entrusted with the very words of God,” we assume that, because Paul writes about the Bible as our first advantage, there will also be a second, and perhaps even a third, advantage. But Paul never names another advantage. After all, with an advantage like God’s Word, what other advantage could we possibly need – or want?

So please, take advantage of the advantage of God’s Word. After all, airline miles expire. Hotel points have blackout dates. Rental car companies tack on hidden fees. But God’s Word endures forever. And there’s just no better advantage than that.

October 27, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

The Pursuit of Perfection

Credit: nsunews.nova.edu

Credit: nsunews.nova.edu

Somehow, I knew just by the title of the article that “Confessions of a Mormon housewife” was not going be particularly titillating reading. And sure enough, I was right. This Mormon housewife’s confession was that when she became sick, and when ladies from her ward came to visit her, she “started to become insecure with [her] appearance and the state of [her] home.”[1]  Jill Strassburg, the housewife in question, explains:

When they would come visit me, they were completely “put together,” and I began to think that they were perfect.

So I stopped answering my door. I didn’t want them to see me sick or see that the house wasn’t cleaned up. The thoughts I was having made me feel like I was, somehow, less of a woman.

I was beginning to realize that I was living in a culture of attaining perfection. And I started to wonder, why do so many Mormon women strive for perfection?

On the one hand, when I read Jill’s confession of worry over the cleanliness of her home, I think of Johann von Staupitz’s admonition to Martin Luther. Exasperated by Luther’s overwhelming guilty conscience and never-ending confessions, Staupitz eventually quips:

Look here, brother Martin. If you’re going to confess so much, why don’t you go do something worth confessing? Kill your mother or father! Commit adultery! Quit coming in here with such peccadillos![2]

Worry, although definitely a sin according to Jesus in Matthew 6:25, is also a societally safe sin. No one has ever been jailed or shunned for worry.

On the other hand, the nature of her sin aside, Jill’s question haunts me: “I started to wonder, why do so many Mormon women strive for perfection?”

This is a profound question. But Jill’s answer leaves me puzzled. She writes: “While I’m not a historian, scholar or official representative for the LDS church, I think this obsession with perfection is rooted in the church’s historical values and traditions.” She goes on to talk about how Mormon women “followed traditional roles of womanhood” and how the church still promotes “traditional values.” But traditional gender roles and values are not the same thing as perfection. A person can be traditional without aspiring to or feeling pressured to be perfect.

I can’t help but think that the true culprit of the Mormon quest for perfection is theological. Indeed, foundational to Mormonism’s doctrine of salvation is a striving for perfection. Consider this from the Book of Mormon:

Yea, come unto Christ, and be perfected in Him, and deny yourselves of all ungodliness; and if ye shall deny yourselves of all ungodliness, and love God with all your might, mind and strength, then is His grace sufficient for you, that by His grace ye may be perfect in Christ.[3]

According to the Book of Mormon, God has grace for a person unto salvation, but only after he has denied all ungodliness and loved God with everything in him. In other words, God has grace for you, but only if you’re perfect – or at least pretty close to it.

How do you know when you’ve denied enough ungodliness and loved God to such an extent that God’s grace will be sufficient for you? Herein lies Mormonism’s existential crisis that results in its relentless pursuit of perfection. Mormons cannot know whether or not they will be good enough to merit God’s grace. They can only wish and hope.

Jill finally admits:

We all know that perfection is unattainable, but we should still strive to be the best we can be every day. If we could actually be perfect, there would be nothing to work toward. There wouldn’t be anything left to gain from this life that we live.

Jill knows she can’t be perfect. But in her mind, that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t try.

Holy Scripture paints quite a different picture from the Book of Mormon of what it means to pursue perfection: “When perfection comes, the imperfect disappears” (1 Corinthians 13:10). Paul says perfection is not something to be pursued, but a promise that will pursue us and come to us on the Last Day. Indeed, more than that, perfection is a person who will pursue us and come to us on the Last Day when Jesus comes for us on the Last Day. This is why, finally, I’m not really interested in attaining some depersonalized virtue of perfection. I’m much more interested in Jesus. In my mind, being forgiven by a perfect Savior is much better – and a lot less stressful – than trying to be a perfect person.

I pray Jill comes to the same realization.

_________________________________

[1] Jill Strasburg, “Confessions of a Mormon housewife,” CNN (10.2.2014).

[2] Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 83.

[3] Moroni 10:32.

October 13, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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