Category Archives: Theology
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
Okay, I hope I did not vacuum someone in here that did not want to be here, and if I did I apologize. In no way, shape or form do I agree with the message of the title of this post (notice the quotation marks??). However, an increasing number of people do believe this, but not in manner that you might suspect. On a surface “intellectual” level they will say that yes, indeed, Jesus was the living embodiment of the eternal God. However, on a functional “gut” level they simply do not accept that Jesus is in any way the one, true, living God.
Just this week I was reminded (in reading another blog) that there is a deep seated repulsion of the idea that the loving, kind, and all-forgiving Jesus of the New Testament could be associated with the mean, nasty, wrathful and genocidal God of the Old Testament. This is especially true in two specific areas: capital punishment and homosexuality. The God of the Old Testament, it is averred, was a deity best described as cold, austere, vengeful and angry. Offer the wrong kind of incense and poof, God just zapped you dead. Touch the Ark of the Covenant in an unworthy manner and pay for it with your life. Simply go outside and pick up a few sticks on the Sabbath and kiss your next birthday goodbye. And that whole sex thing? That was just one entire death sentence just waiting to happen. It is a wonder any babies were born.
However, turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and all of the sudden we have Jesus – meek, mild, gentle little Jesus who cradled sinners and hobnobbed with the wretched. Jesus, it is proclaimed, never had a bad word to say about anyone, forgave everyone, and basically told his followers, “You know, all those stories about God punishing the unrighteous – well, that was true up until I was born, but now its ollie-ollie-in-come-free.” Why, we have Jesus getting drunk (or at least tipsy, so it is insinuated), thumbing his nose at all those restrictive 10 commandments (or at least that pesky Sabbath one) and promenading around with the promiscuous. Amazingly enough, Jesus looks just like a rebellious teenage or a baby-boomer looking for a second childhood.
Of course, all of this is post-modern deconstruction and re-historizing. Individuals who have this myopic view of Jesus and God have never done one, or perhaps either, of two things. They have never deeply read the Old Testament, and they have never deeply read the New Testament. For in the Old Testament we see God repeatedly begging His wayward people to return to Him and demonstrating time and again how He has made it possible for them to do so. Likewise, we see in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus, how God’s patience is limited. There will come a day of judgment in which some will be blessed and some will be punished. Jesus himself pronounced specific and eternal curses (woes) upon those who rejected his words, as well as offered tears because they would not.
Yes, God demanded strict obedience in the Old Testament, and He punished those who defied His Holiness. If I read Acts 5 correctly, He did so in the New Testament as well. And, yes, God forgave blatant sinners in the Old Testament (insiders as well as outsiders to the faith); and, clearly, He did so in the New Testament. So, you tell me – exactly how is the Jesus of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? It seems to me that the entire point of the New Testament is that Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament – only briefly made human so that we could see and hear from Him directly (Jn. 1:1).
Please do not get caught up in this postmodern falderal. Of course it is not new – according to the writer of Ecclesiastes nothing is ever entirely “new.” But it is certainly becoming more prevalent. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament portrayal of God. The gospel of Jesus is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets just as clearly as it is in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. However, the Holiness of God is just as prevalent in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles as it is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets. We worship One God, not two. That God has one will, not two. There is one people of faith, not a pre-faith and post-faith. And we will all be saved by the one grace of God, and judged by the one revelation of that God.
Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)
I’ve been trying to articulate something for some time, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to get the words right. If you are reading this that must mean I hit the “publish” button, so maybe I’ll get it right this time.
Back when I was flying the most stressful (nay, terrifying) aspect of flight was the last few thousand feet of the flight when I was cutting through some dense fog on an instrument approach. According to the FAA rules under which I was operating, I could begin an approach as long as the visibility at the airport was one-half mile and there was a 200 foot space between terra firma and the base of any solid cloud layer. (This was the lowest minimum visibility required – at other airports the minimums went up due to less accurate navigational aids). Now, what that means is when I broke out of the cloud base there was 200 feet between me and mother earth, and I could see 3,000 feet in front of me. The only problem (well, not ONLY) is that on final approach I was flying at roughly 100 miles an hour. It does not take long to cover 3,000 feet horizontally or 200 feet vertically if you are traveling at 165 feet per second (give or take a few).
Add to that there was the issue of keeping both eyes glued to my instruments, making sure I had flaps and landing gear down (the chirp of rubber meeting concrete is much more comforting than the shriek of aluminum grinding on concrete), maintaining proper airspeed, monitoring all my approach and navigational aids, and talking on the radio whilst at the same time keeping one eye pealed out the windscreen hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground before it reached up and smacked me. And, I was doing this all single pilot – nobody named Auto sitting next to me to make sure I was not about to kill myself and spread thousands of pounds of freight all over the countryside.
So, when I saw the bright strobes and approach light system announcing the approach end of the runway I always let out a huge sigh of relief. It was always nice to breathe again when you have been holding your breath for 5 minutes.
The thing that was so comforting about seeing the approach light system was that it meant I was almost home. The lights did not have to worry about the fog, the ceiling level of the cloud base, the rain, the snow, or if everything in the plane was functioning properly and had been properly tuned, pushed and set. The lights were solid guides in a very fluid and dangerous system.
Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention:
When flying in fog so dense I could not see my wingtips I had to turn off the strobe and landing lights on my airplane. This was true in daylight, but was especially critical at night or in snow or rain. If I did not the disorientation from the resulting strobe or the reflection from the landing lights could get me killed graveyard dead in a matter of seconds.
I had to make sure that the only lights my eyes would focus on were the lights of the approach light system on the end of the runway. Any other light was distracting, and potentially fatal. Once free of the clouds a quick flip of a couple of switches and I had my strobes and landing lights back on (if necessary).
I may be an alarmist, but I see way too many preachers and authors trying to fly in the theological fog with every light in and on their airplane turned as bright as it can, while ignoring the lights at the end of the runway. In other words, they are focusing entirely upon their constantly changing nature, their culture, their wants, their wishes, their desires, and the way they have decided God must think, act and judge; and they are totally ignoring the solid, immovable structure that tell us exactly how God in fact does think, act and judge.
Stated another way – we need to turn the lights off of ourselves and let the light of God’s Word guide us home.
I’m sick to death of preachers saying that some passage of Scripture can be ignored or rewritten because our culture is different from the culture in which the author lived. Yes, it is. And the culture of Paul was different from the culture of Abraham or David. But you never read of Paul disavowing Abraham or David just because they preceded him in terms of earthly chronology.
Our world is moving and changing at a speed far in excess of 100 miles an hour. The fog of contemporary culture is far more dense than any in which I ever flew. We cannot just sit back and “fly by the seat of our pants.” We have to end this infantile obsession with our narcissistic culture and realize that if we are going to safely lead others to a distant shore then we are going to have to trust the approach lights that God has given us – not our own fickle and changing opinions.
We have to turn the lights off of ourselves. God hasn’t moved since the days of Adam and Eve. He knows where firm ground is. He knows where our destination is. He has provided us with all the guidance we need. He has the approach lights turned up as bright as he possibly can.
Let us have a little faith in the light of God’s Word, shall we?
[Opinion disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this piece are mine and mine alone, and do not reflect the views of anyone that I am associated with - and that includes my wife, child, employers, my four cats, my rambunctious puppy or my very limited number of friends - or at least the friends who considered themselves my friends before they read this blog. My language is hyperbolic and some might consider it extreme. I intentionally did so for a purpose. I just want to make that point perfectly clear. In my next post I will return to a "quieter" and more analytical response. Today the right brain, tomorrow the left.]
There have been a flurry of “Christian” or biblical-themed movies hit the big screen in recent years, and especially in recent months. Just a few that come to mind are “The Passion of the Christ,” “Fireproof,” a somewhat lesser release called “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry,” the most recent additions “God’s Not Dead,” and “Noah” and the soon to be released “Son of God” and “Heaven Is For Real.” I know I am missing many, but these are the ones that jump to my mind.
“The Passion of the Christ” and the recent release of “Noah” have generated the most discussion, mostly because they were big budget, big name releases that were heavily advertised and were, in different ways, very controversial. “The Passion of the Christ” was controversial because of the persona of Mel Gibson, hardly a choir boy, who pushed the movie from conception to completion. It was also brutally graphic – some reviewers felt it was almost obscenely so. “Noah” is controversial because (a) the only relation it has to the biblical story is the namesake and a lot of water and (b) I believe the producers and marketers of the movie wanted it to be controversial so they could sell more tickets.
In my opinion, many, though not all, “Christian” themed movies are just bad – some wretchedly so. I believe this first because of the (un)theology involved. Others suffer from low budgets and poor acting, directing and other technical aspects. Some are just so blatantly transparent that they reek of condescension and hyper-morality. Once again, in my opinion these movies are not just bad – they are bad in epic proportions – dreadfully, wretchedly, horrifically, insultingly bad.
So why are these movies so popular? Why do otherwise sane and believable ministers and bloggers scream “You HAVE to go see this movie” in bold letters and with three exclamation marks at the end? The obvious answer is that perhaps they have seen the movie and they genuinely like it. Movies are like anything else – my tastes are not everyone else’s tastes. What is garbage to me is a diamond to someone else. So, while you may think a particular movie is the greatest thing since “Gone With the Wind” I will politely say that hitting my thumb with a hammer is a far more enjoyable experience than watching it.
But I would like to suggest that there is another reason why any movie that has a vague “Christian” message is hyped so relentlessly, regardless of whether there are any artistic or theological reasons for doing so (or for avoiding it, for that matter.) I believe that most “Christian” movies are hyped and are popular with “Christian” audiences because that demographic is so starving for anything that even resembles “secular” themed movies that the Christian audience will simply neutralize any intellectual or critical component of their thinking because they want to go watch a movie that is one of “ours.” We have bought into the concept of “group-think” to the point that we cannot criticize or reject any product that has a “Christian” message because we would be guilty of shooting ourselves in the foot. I have been more than mildly amused with the fact that the greatest amount of negativity regarding the release of “Noah” is NOT directed at the movie (contrary to what some may think), but the real vitriol has been reserved for those reviewers (Christian or secular) who happen to criticize the movie on any of its major faults. It is “biblical,” it is at least tangentially related to God and faith (how much is dependent upon the viewer) and so the movie and the ones who produced it are viewed as being simply beyond criticism. “Hey Christians, we made a movie for you so shell out your money and keep your mouth shut.”
I guess I am more disappointed in the ones who should really know better – the ministers and church leaders who should (one would hope) have a greater grasp of theology and apologetics. I have to say in all honesty that the entire premise of “God’s Not Dead” is so incredibly laughable that I honestly wonder what anyone related to the film was thinking when they put the storyline together. A professor wasting an already limited amount of class time to having a debate with a student? A student getting away with yelling at a professor in front of a class? And really, how many professors would waste their time forcing their students to sign an atheist manifesto like “God is dead”? Now – I am well aware that atheistic professors will openly belittle and ridicule Christianity. But, come on people! Sometimes our spiritual xenophobia is so extreme that it borders on psychotic illness. I have agnostic/atheistic students in my classes who (a) would never set foot in a movie theatre with such a blatantly condescending title as that movie and (b) even if they did they would laugh out loud at the ridiculous setting of the movie. And they would definitely not appreciate the characterization of the professor in the movie.
Brothers and sisters, if we want to attract an agnostic or atheistic audience and honestly engage them in a meaningful discussion, insulting their intelligence is NOT the way to go about it. If we want to show that the message of Christianity is superior to that of the atheist, we should portray the atheist as the atheists or agnostics that I know – honest, kind, logical thinking people who are open to the person of Jesus but who have been led astray or even brutalized by a false manifestation of Christianity. (Incidentally – the movie itself violates a major rule of logic. In a proper philosophy class you would never be allowed to create a “straw man” type of opponent, which is exactly what the professor in the movie becomes. We think that because the “straw man” was defeated all similar arguments are thereby defeated. Nothing could be further from the truth, and the depiction is inherently misleading and therefore unethical.)
But these movies are NOT made for atheists or agnostics, they are made for “Christians,” because “God” or some biblical character’s name is in the title and they are supposed to “prove” that God is not dead or that he did thus and such thousands of years ago. They are designed to reinforce our already solid convictions. So “Christians” are shelling out dollars by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, and no one is asking the 8 most basic, fundamental questions a Christian should ask about movies such as these – is this movie true? Is it honorable? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it gracious? Is it excellent? Is it worthy of praise? (Philippians 4:8). If it fails on a majority of these questions then we should not support it. (I would also argue that these questions should be asked of ANY movie we think about seeing!)
C.S. Lewis is reported to have said that the world does not need more Christian literature. What the world needs, he said, was more literature produced by Christians that was excellent literature – good, solid, captivating stories that were told in a brilliant manner. I agree wholeheartedly with Lewis. What we need are wonderful movies, well written, beautifully acted and produced, and marketed not as “Christian” apologetics, but simply as captivating, worthwhile movies the whole family can view and enjoy.
And, maybe, if we did that, we might actually be able to engage our agnostic or atheistic friends in some honest and open discussion.
It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.
And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)
It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.
There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?
The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.
I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??
Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)
See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.
What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.
So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.
And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.
Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.
One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:
So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.
If you are a child of the American Restoration Movement you are the product of debate. Not many of us realize that, but it is as certain as the brightness of the sun or the scent of a rose. We may describe it differently, but the reality exists. The overwhelming majority of our theological beliefs have been hammered out and refined through the process of written or oral debate.
While some criticize this, or bemoan it, in reality this is a healthy process. In fact, we can see the very first “ancestor” of the debate process in Acts 15. Two groups of people, each with differing opinions and with differing evidence to defend those opinions, meet together for an open airing of the differences and the resolution of the problem. In several of his letters the apostle Paul carries on “debates” of sorts with his readers. He offers what is, or what he believes might be, an argument against his position, and then demonstrates why that particular argument or statement is false.
Debate is NOT an evil thing.
However, I am growing more convinced by the day that civil debate in a modern setting is virtually impossible. There are many reasons why I think this is true, so let me list a few:
1. Theological positions become emotional positions, and the resulting language makes it impossible for the opposing side to articulate any kind of positive position. They are always on the defensive, and are in a no-win situation to begin with. Case in point: I just read a tweet (message on the social media Twitter) in which those who disagree with the full inclusion of women in every aspect of a Christian worship service are guilty of “gender injustice.” Now, because I disagree with the position that women can participate in every aspect of leadership within a congregation, including leadership within a worship service, automatically I am guilty of injustice. Let’s parse that for a minute – what does injustice mean to you? Cruelty? Viciousness? Overweening power and brutality? The denial of basic human dignity? How, might I gently respond, does a complementarian position in which women are viewed as equal in every sense of the word, but have differing roles to fulfill in the Christian economy, equate to injustice? Yet, the inclusion of that word precludes any rational debate.
2. Those who hold a particular opinion refuse to consider the weakness of their position, or any possible exceptions to their opinion. Case in point: growing up within the Churches of Christ I was taught from a very early age that the Greek preposition eis means “for the purpose of.” Thus it was crystal clear that when Peter said “Repent and be baptized eis the forgiveness of sins” he meant “for the purpose of receiving the forgiveness of sins.” Nothing could be clearer. I was told that those who translated the word eis as “because of” were completely wrong, both in Greek and in theology. Imagine my surprise, then, when in doing maybe the most exhaustive research that I have ever done for a series of sermons, that I discovered that there is, indeed, a use of the Greek preposition eis that has to mean “because of.” The passage is Matthew 12:41, where Jesus very clearly states that the men of Nineveh repented eis the preaching of Jonah. Now, eis cannot mean “for the purpose of” in this passage! It has to mean “because of” or “as a result of.” Now, do not get me wrong. I still believe eis in Acts 2:38 means “for the purpose of.” But I learned an important lesson. We cannot summarily dismiss every challenge to our conclusions without carefully considering the basis of that challenge. Yet, today, objections and challenges are routinely dismissed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is mentioned in point #1 above, if you disagree with me all you are is a mean, nasty, inhuman person, and probably ignorant as well.
3. The differing sides cannot even agree on the measure that would be used to decide the truthfulness or falsity of any position. In Acts 15 the disciples relied upon Scripture and the leading of the Spirit to come to a unified position. Today that appears to be all but impossible. Returning to the issue of women and leadership roles in the church, I have repeatedly asked how it could be that Paul would so clearly and unambiguously state in Galatians 3:27-28 that women are to be full and equal partners in every possible scenario in the Lords kingdom, and yet in writings which were either possibly or even certainly produced much later than the Galatian letter reverse himself and teach that only men are to lead in certain aspects of the church. We are not simply arguing two different interpretations of Galatians 3:27-28. We are approaching the question from two entirely different philosophical and epistemological foundations. If we cannot even decide on a mutually agreeable measuring stick, how can we even begin to engage in profitable debate?
In pointing these issues out I have to admit my own weakness and shortcomings in the process. I am emotionally invested in my conclusions. After all, if a position is not worth defending it is not worth holding. And, as I pointed out in point #2, I have been guilty on more than one occasion of assigning false motives and conclusions to my opponents. I hope I am better now, and I hope I get even better with time, but human flesh is human flesh and I still catch myself violating my own standards from time to time.
I hope I am wrong, I hope that as disciples we could gather and join in a decent “conference” or debate and constructively address some of these issues. I just do not see that happening any time soon – and that saddens me.
For a people immersed and raised in the cauldron of discussion and debate we owe it to our forebears to be able to acquit ourselves better.
I was reading in the book of Exodus this morning in my daily Bible reading. The passage I was reading (more on that later) reminded me of the amazing instructors I had in college. Drs. John Willis, Everett Ferguson, Ian Fair, Neil Lightfoot, Bill Humble, Eugene Clevenger, Lemoine Lewis – an amazing cast of instructors at one given point in history. It is really quite spooky how a few verses from the Bible can bring so many faces and tones of voice and little personal mannerisms and other memories flooding back to you.
Anyway – and on to the point of this blog, the passage I was reading included the last few verses of Exodus 2 all the way through chapter 3:
God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them…Then the LORD said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” (Exodus 2:24-25, 3:7-8a, NRSV)
It was Dr. John Willis who taught me the ancient language of Hebrew (and a ton of other information about the Old Testament). One of the things that he stressed in dealing with any passage of Scripture (Old or New Testament) is to focus on the verbs. The verbs carry all the freight of the sentence, and theologically speaking, all the spiritual freight as well.
Notice the verbs in those few verses. God heard, God remembered, God looked upon, God took notice, God had observed, God had heard, God knew, God has come down, and God will bring them up.
And that, my friends and neighbors, will keep you busy studying and meditating and praying upon for as long as you would like. Those are some of the most powerful, most pregnant, and most eloquent expressions to be found in Holy Scripture.
Agnostics and atheists like to think they can place Christians in a difficult spot by speaking of God’s absence, of God’s forsaking the earth. They might have a point if the Bible spoke of Deism. But the God of the Bible is no deist. The God of the Bible is a living, active participant in this world. Our God did not wind the universe up only to watch it run down to some cataclysmic end. Our God hears, remembers, looks upon, takes notice, observes, comes down in order to lift up.
I am afraid that too many Christians have been deluded by Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” as the picture of God. In this they have fallen right into the trap that agnostics and atheists have laid. Aristotle does not even come close to the picture of God painted in the Hebrew Scriptures, not to mention the New Testament. I am so glad! Aristotle’s god may be worthy of fear and loathing, but never love, adoration and worship.
When you are flying by yourself in fog so thick you cannot even see your wingtips it is nice to know there is someone out there who can see everything that is going on. In the case of a pilot that is the air traffic controller who guides and sequences all the planes flying around in the muck so they can land safely.
We, as children of God, have so much more than an air traffic controller. We have a God who sees all, knows all, and, most important, loves and cares for all. He created all and died for all. He it is who is worthy of our love and adoration.
It is not difficult to discover who this God is and what He does for His children – the proof is in the verbs!
One more post on an issue that is really a burr under my saddle. Hopefully I can get this out of my system with this entry.
Was the apostle Paul a moral monster? Did he, in his teaching, leave a group of Christians to practice something that he knew was wrong, indeed was sinful? Did he, by writing a letter (or better, letters) exacerbate that error by the thousands, perhaps millions, of mislead disciples? These are serious questions, and in the discussions that are so prevalent in the church today these questions must at least be asked.
The argument that I object to so strenuously, and that was presented in all earnestness by a young man in Bible class yesterday, goes something like this: the apostle Paul knew certain behaviors were wrong, or at the very least were sub-Christian in nature, but because of the prevailing culture in the communities in which he was trying to preach, he faced a dilemma. He could either teach what he knew to be true (and later proved that he knew was true) and risk upsetting the mores of the people that he was trying to teach; or he could swallow his tongue, actually support the unjust and ungodly behavior in the hopes that he could teach them about Christ without raising their self-defense mechanisms. In other words, the apostle Paul actively condoned certain behaviors, even though he knew them to be against God’s will, so that he could teach the people about Jesus.
I have three huge, nay, monstrous, objections to this line of thinking.
1. To suggest this behavior means that Paul violated his own integrity. When you teach something that you believe to be true, and later find to be false, you are guilty of an error of fact, but your integrity is not affected (assuming you correct your mistake). But, when you teach something you know is false in order to achieve another goal you have violated the very basic aspect of integrity. It does not matter the ultimate goal here – you are guilty of the theory of “the end justifies the means.” That theory treats your students as mere pawns in helping you achieve your status. It is fundamentally demeaning to those you are trying to teach. It is philosophically corrupt as well as theologically corrupt. When your students find out that you have not only lied to them, but lied to achieve an ulterior goal, they will not only lose respect for you, but also for the subject about which you are attempting to teach them. For someone to suggest that Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or conversely, that it was blessed by God) and then for him to condone it (or conversely, that he condemned that which God had blessed) makes Paul out to be the worst of deceivers.
2. To suggest that Paul knew a behavior to be wrong, yet taught so as to condone it meant that not only did he teach his audience error, but he taught it is okay to promote that error if the situation demanded it. A student learns not only the content of lessons, but the method and the philosophy behind those lessons as well. For Paul to say, “Listen, I know full well that behavior ‘X’ is wrong, but I’m going to bless practicing it as a command of God so that I can get my point across” was to teach his audience that it is perfectly okay to lie if there is an “acceptable” ulterior motive. Conversely, if Paul knew a behavior was perfectly acceptable to God, yet taught that it was a sin, then the lesson is clear – our teaching is pure regardless of the content so long as we have a “pure” motive behind our erroneous content.
3. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong, and yet taught in such a manner as to condone it meant that he violated a much higher standard of honesty: he falsely involved the activity of the Holy Spirit. Paul did not just say, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because our culture says it is wrong and so we should avoid it” he said, “Behavior ‘X’ is wrong because it is condemned in the written word of God.” Likewise, when Paul blessed a certain behavior he used God’s word to verify that claim. Thus, and make no mistake about this, if Paul knew a certain behavior was wrong, and he condoned that behavior by appealing to God’s word, then he is guilty of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. It is one thing to teach a lie under your own authority. When you knowingly and intentionally invoke God’s name in your lie you have violated the very nature of the true God.
I really know of no other way to state this. If Paul knew a behavior was wrong (or, that a behavior was acceptable to God) and yet he taught and wrote in such a way as to promote that sinful behavior (or, on the flip side, he taught and wrote that an acceptable lifestyle was sinful before God) then he (1) violated his own integrity, (2) taught and promoted that others could violate their integrity if the situation demanded it, and (3) by invoking the word of God to defend his arguments (which he knew were false) he blasphemed the Holy Spirit.
What would we think of a preacher today who taught what he knew was a lie, taught others to practice the same lie, and invoked God’s name and God’s word to support his lies? I would call him a moral monster – a reprobate in the fullest sense of the term.
Why should we think the apostle Paul to be any less of a moral monster?
(BTW – if Paul was thoroughly ignorant of the error of his way the issue is not thereby resolved. It simply makes Paul to be, in the words of C.S. Lewis, a pathetic lunatic – someone who was greatly deluded and someone whose rantings are to be steadfastly avoided.)
Brothers and sisters, fellow exegetes and preachers, before we go around spouting off that Paul only taught that such-and-such behavior was right because the culture of his day demanded it; or that such-and-such behavior was sinful because the culture of his day demanded it even though he knew the opposite to be true let us stop and ask a critical question – What does that behavior turn the apostle Paul into?
I cannot accept the moral morass into which that argument places the apostle Paul. The apostle Paul may be many things: confusing, obtuse, opaque, bewildering, hyperbolic – just to name a few. But a moral monster?
Ray Stevens recorded a song that begins, “I’m not one to get all excited, I’m seldom tense and never uptight but there is one thing that really makes me mad…” Well, the song is about vending machines, and it is hysterical, but that is not the point of this entry…
This morning I found yet another thing that really makes me mad. The list is long and filled with items I am not necessarily proud of. The new addition? A combination of telling an elder IN A BIBLE CLASS that his interpretation of a passage of Scripture was wrong, while at the same time totally misinterpreting the disputed passage of Scripture yourself.
Here’s the set-up. The class was focused on the role of women in the church (part of a continuing series of lessons on various aspects of the teacher’s growth in the faith). Towards the very end of the class a question was raised, at which time an elder responded in a very direct, but non-confrontational way. It was at this point that a young man objected and said, in so many words, that he had studied the letter to the Corinthians “carefully” and that the elders interpretation was wrong. Emphatically wrong.
What was the young man’s basis for his all-fired surety? (cue the drum roll, please…..)
The young man was so sure the elder was wrong because (and I cannot quote exactly, but I can come pretty close…) “the culture in Corinth was such that if Paul had allowed the women to speak in a public assembly it would have upset those visiting the church services from the surrounding community and it would have hurt the message of Christ. So, rather than allow the women to speak and upset the culture, Paul told them to remain silent.”
To quote Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.” The old, “Paul was too timid to upset the local culture” argument. Without one single particle, noun or verb to defend his position he was utterly convinced that the elder in question was wrong, and with all of his, maybe, what, 10 or 15 years of “careful” (whatever that means) study he was able to dispense with thousands of years of consistent biblical exegesis.
I don’t care how “careful” you study a passage, if you study wrong you are not going to come up with a correct answer. So, one more time, with emphasis, let us look and see what the apostle Paul ACTUALLY WROTE about whether he was writing to not ruffle any cultural feathers or whether he was writing across all cultures with the same message:
1 Cor. 1:2 – Paul writes to the church of God in Corinth, and to all those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1 Cor. 4:17 – Paul’s life (an example to the Corinthians) is in agreement with what he teaches everywhere and in every church.
1 Cor. 7:17 – Paul lays down a rule in Corinth that he lays down in all the churches.
1 Cor. 11:16 – Paul discusses the covering of women and states that he has no other practice, nor do the churches of God.
1 Cor. 14:33 – Paul says that, as in all the congregations of the saints, the women are to maintain silence in the assembly.
So, exactly which of these passages tells us that Paul was making a concession based on culture in Corinth? On any subject??
Or Rome, or Jerusalem, or Ephesus, or Philippi, or Colossae, or Crete?? Where did Paul cave in to cultural sensitivities? And where exactly are cultural sensitivities EVER in line with Christian thought and behavior before Christ is preached?
I’ve heard the “Paul did not want to offend the local culture” argument until I’m getting sick of it – where is even the smallest bit of textual evidence that Paul backed down on ANY point of doctrine because of cultural pressure? Some would argue that he did so in relation to slavery but I would argue even there that (1) Paul did not back down in the face of cultural pressure but rather confronted it in an effort to change it in a significant manner, and (2) the reality of slavery in Paul’s day was so different from our American understanding of slavery that we cannot even begin to discuss the issue intelligently unless we do a thorough study of slavery in the Roman empire and how it differed from the American experience.
So – yeah, I found another item to add to my list of things that “really make me mad.” I do not like it when elders are confronted in public, by a young man who was both disrespectful and who was totally wrong in his interpretation of the passage of Scripture. And I really, really, really am getting sick of people using an argument that (1) they have not studied through and (2) is completely without any textual evidence to support it.