Blog Archives

Death Penalty – Revisited

The death penalty has been on my mind quite a bit lately. One reason is that I am teaching a course on Christian Ethics, and the topic came up as a part of the curriculum. Another reason is that there is a case currently in the headlines about a woman on death row who has, by virtually all accounts, made a complete change in her life and has become a Christian, and has been doing remarkable work with other inmates as she has contact with them. Many, both in the secular and the religious worlds, are working for the commutation of her sentence so that she be spared her execution.

I try to keep abreast of arguments on both sides of this issue. One of my mentors (by distance, and now only through his writings as he has passed away) was an avowed anti-death penalty advocate. I read his arguments closely, and while I agree with some of his logic, there are some other aspects of his (and the entire anti-death penalty movement) that I have great difficulty in accepting. So, I write this post as both a statement of my current position, and as a refutation, or a challenge if you will, of some aspects of the anti-death penalty moment that I would like to see clarified or explained.

As I understand the main theological objection to the death penalty, Jesus established in the Sermon on the Mount, and through later teachings as well, that his disciples are to forgive, are not to employ any means of violence, are not to retaliate in any way, and are to bear with any injustice, all for the sake of the Kingdom of God. This is a strong argument, and cannot be dismissed with the flippant attitude that many pro-death penalty advocates demonstrate. In this line of thinking Jesus has abrogated the Old Testament permission to take “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” While this is a strong argument, I believe there is an inherent flaw – a contradiction that weakens the argument significantly, if not totally.

The primary Old Testament passages relating to capital punishment (especially in relation to murder) are Genesis 9:6, Exodus 21:12-17, and Numbers 35:9-34. There is another key passage that must be included in the discussion, and that is the law relating to false witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15-21. These passages reveal several critical components of capital punishment that I believe are NOT addressed by many anti-capital punishment advocates.

First, the basis of capital punishment is not revenge, retaliation, or retribution. The basis – the foundation – for the use of the death penalty in the case of murder is that murder violates the nature of God himself. Murder certainly is a violent crime – as is rape and kidnapping, other crimes for which the death penalty could be used. Murder violates the bond of humans in community, as does rape, kidnapping, and the sexual sins for which a person could be executed – adultery, bestiality, even homosexuality. But, while all of these crimes and violations of the Law violated God’s holiness, only the crime of murder violated his nature. Thus, the only crime for which there was no chance for a substitution was the crime of murder (Num. 35:31).

Second, to reverse the rationale or the exercise of capital punishment is to tacitly admit that the God of the Old Testament was a  vengeful, angry, violent God, but the God of the New Testament is a kind, loving, forgiving God. It is to tear apart the Trinity – Jehovah is the God of the Old Testament, a warring, violent God; but Jesus is the God of the New Testament, a kind, gentle, forgiving God. This is a separation of the nature of God that I simply cannot accept. God is clearly described in the Old Testament as a forgiving God who seeks the restoration of a broken relationship with man. God is just as clearly described in the New Testament as a God who will ultimately judge the disobedient and unrepentant sinner.

Third, and directly related to the last point, when we turn the God of the New Testament into an exclusively kind, gentle, loving, forgiving God we create a god in our own image. We are just so kind, so loving, so forgiving, so much more mature than those bloodthirsty Israelites that we need a god who looks and acts like us. We need a compassionate god – and a god that condones capital punishment simply will not do. So, we create a new god – an anti-capital punishment god, and we do everything that we can to separate him from the God of the Old Testament. But this is pure idolatry. When we say we worship the God of the Bible, we must let the Bible describe who God is, and then we either accept that God or we reject that God. We cannot create him in our own image.

That leads me to my last point. I have a suspicion that one reason so many are so afraid of allowing that God can still condone the use of capital punishment is that we fear our own punishment. If murder (and other sins, to be perfectly honest) demand the death penalty, then hell is a very real possibility. But, if God utterly and totally reversed himself on that blessed night in Bethlehem when a little baby was born to the virgin Mary, then maybe there really is not a hell after all – how can a God who has abolished the death penalty actually use the ultimate death penalty?

As I said above – I continue to consider this question deeply. I know that in the United States we have employed the death penalty very unevenly and very unjustly. We certainly do not apply the penalty as it is described in the Bible. To pause for a season to make sure our system does not perpetrate the sins of our past is a wise move. However, our very human and very broken use of the penalty does not in and of itself eliminate the just and proper use of the penalty.

I am certainly open to the possibility that Jesus did, in fact, abolish the use of capital punishment. However, in order for me to be fully convinced, the objections that I have raised above must be answered. If murder in particular so violated the nature of a life creating and sustaining God, and if God in his divine justice system created such an explicit and carefully nuanced method of determining guilt and the protection of the innocent, how can we, as mere mortals, claim that justice system is unfair? Is it not OUR system that is unfair?

Just another flight through the thick fog of our broken humanity, and trying to see the light of God’s word clearly and faithfully.

What If I’m Wrong?

It is not a popular concept anymore, if, in fact, it ever was. What if I’m wrong? In today’s world there is no right and wrong. But, there again, what if the people who think this way are, despite their assertion to the contrary, wrong?

What happens then?

It is frightening to pay attention to many speakers, preachers and Bible class teachers in particular. Imbued with the “sage on the stage” mentality they view their conclusions as unassailable truth, when, in fact, often times their conclusions are nothing more than guesses, educated or not. This is especially so when such conclusions are buttressed with the quotation from a passage of Scripture. The truth of Scripture is somehow magically transferred to the the presenter, baptizing the false statement and absolving the presenter of any sin. Of course, the error is more frequently than not compounded by the fact that the passage of Scripture is taken out of context, but hey, if we are proving the truth of our flimsy argument and absolving ourselves of sin, what does a little context have to do with anything?

But, I return to my question – what happens if I am wrong? (Let’s speak in first person singular terms here, just to avoid the temptation to be judgmental.) Or, perhaps to be more truthful, what happens WHEN I am wrong?

When was the last time you saw, or heard, someone actually, sincerely confess error? I don’t mean confess around the error. Politicians and other public figures have mastered the art of first-person-once-removed confession. “I’m sorry if anyone was offended by the allegations made against me.” Notice there is never any regret at being wrong, only that certain individuals might be offended. In some rare instances the figure might admit that the allegations are serious, but on the other hand, “there is no evidence to support the allegations.” Never, “the allegations are absolutely false.” It is just that there is never any evidence to support the allegations. My lawyer is too good to allow any evidence to show up.

Enough with the politicians. They are far too easy a target. What about your preacher, your Bible class teacher – what about you? When was the last time you heard your preacher stand in the pulpit and say, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I was wrong”? When was the last time you told your class, “I might be wrong here” and fully, truthfully meant it?

Here again I am not talking about the massive flood of “I used to think this about (you name the hot-button issue of the day), but now I think this…” That is mere pandering to the masses, and that in and of itself is conduct unbecoming a minister of the gospel. Any minister who changes his mind concerning homosexuality or bending gender roles or the role of the Holy Spirit just to climb aboard a bandwagon has sold his soul to the devil. I am talking about a genuine confession of error in life or in doctrine that affects a person to the core of his or her being.

I am talking about a Saul of Tarsus to the Apostle Paul kind of transformation. A confession that moves a person from persecutor to persecuted, from trying to take life to being willing to surrender one’s life for the sake of the same cause. I am talking about being absolutely convinced of the truth of a concept to the absolute conviction of the error of the same concept. I know it happens, but, how does it happen and what are the consequences?

To make the argument that I am always right, that I am flawless in my interpretation of Scripture, that I know the absolute truth to every question of translation, interpretation, and application is absolute heresy. No one can be that perfect. We may share in a measure of perfection, we may taste perfection from time to time, but even the most secure of our conclusions comes with the tinge of reality that I am human, my intellect is fallen, and there is always more information out there than I can access or grasp.

Does that mean we throw up our hands and give up? As Paul would say, “By no means!” Absolutely not! I may not know with divine certainty why baptism is essential for salvation, why men and women are created equal but with different roles, why certain practices are pleasing to God while others do not please him, but that does not mean I surrender my God given intellectual gifts to try to understand those questions – nor to search for greater certainty that those “truths” are indeed true. And it certainly does not absolve me of confessing when I am wrong about any conclusions I offer as being true, but are not.

If I had one saying that could describe my philosophy of learning it would be this, “If I am wrong, please point out the error of my way, as I do not want to believe any error, nor do I want to teach any error. But please use evidence beyond personal opinion so that I can test the validity of your conclusion, as you have obviously tested the validity of my conclusion and found it to be false.”

Two people who hold diametrically opposing viewpoints on any issue cannot both be right. Homosexuality cannot be both acceptable to God and a sin. A congregation that forbids the public leadership roles to women and a congregation that allows women full leadership roles cannot both be pleasing to God. Christians cannot both affirm the uniqueness of male/female genders and affirm the rights of individuals to “change” their gender. Baptism cannot be both essential to salvation and an optional act of choice. Man cannot have both free will, and be subject to eternal predestination.

These concepts I hold to be true. If I am wrong, please let me know why, and where I can learn a better truth. Don’t expect me to just give up if you disagree with me, but if I am wrong I want to change my beliefs and behaviors to conform with the truth.

What happens if I am wrong? . . . Maybe my topic is not important, maybe it is eternally important. But the question itself should never cease to guide my search for truth.

Thanks for flying with me in the fog…

Book Review – The Church According to Paul (James W. Thompson)

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The Church According to Paul: Rediscovering the Community Conformed to Christ James W. Thompson, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 289 pages including bibliography and indices.

I’ve noticed that most of the book reviews I write are on books that are years, if not decades old. So, it it nice to finally read (and review) a recent publication. This book has a 2014 publication date, so you cannot get much more recent than that. And, the subject matter is relevant to so many discussions regarding the church today.

Dr. Thompson’s main thesis is that in all of the discussions (written and oral) about the church today, the one voice that is missing is the voice of the apostle Paul, and since he had the most to say about the New Testament church, it just makes sense to go back and read what he had to say about the church. Throughout nine chapters this is exactly what Dr. Thompson does – examining such topics as the key themes in Paul’s ecclesiology, the corporate nature of the church, the visible manifestations of the church, spiritual formation and the church, justification, evangelism, the universal church, the relationship between the universal church and house churches, and leadership in the church. Dr. Thompson concludes with a summary chapter discussing the church after christendom. Dr. Thompson moves well beyond the Roman Catholic position, as well as the standard Protestant definition of the church. He also challenges the standard understanding of the church in the American Restoration Movement (I’m not so sure I agree with his views on Paul’s teaching regarding the importance of baptism, but that is a minor point in the book). Dr. Thompson explores the rich nuances of Paul’s ecclesiology in-depth, and opens the path to a much deeper and more vibrant understanding of what it means to be the church of Christ.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book – there is hardly a page in my copy that does not have multiple sentences underlined and maybe a passage or two with a star in the margin. The book is written in an academic style, but Greek words and phrases are transliterated so that the reader who does not know Greek can follow along. Dr. Thompson employs voluminous Scripture references – no one can accuse Dr. Thompson of avoiding the text. The reader may not agree with Dr. Thompson in every point (I did not, nor do I ever fully agree with an author), but you know that Dr. Thompson has done the heavy lifting to research his topic and to present his material in an easy-to-follow format.

Regarding those who will disagree with this book – those in the “the church has to be missional to be a church” crowd will not enjoy this book. Maybe that is why I enjoyed the book so much – the whole “missional” movement has left me utterly flat – few can define what they mean by “missional,” and even those who try to define it cannot do so with reference to the Bible. Usually what they end up doing is quoting some Latin phrase (missio dei) or some such and then grinning really big like they have said something important. (How about this for a quote, “The word ‘missional’ seems to have traveled the remarkable path of going from obscurity to banality in one decade.” p. 12, quoting Allan J. Roxburgh in footnote #55).  Dr. Thompson challenges vapid thinking, and this book is a healthy and very much needed corrective to the pabulum being touted as the next thing to save the church from obscurity. But Dr. Thompson does not just attack the “missional” church movement and leave the scene of the fight. Dr. Thompson provides a healthy and scriptural response to those who follow the “missional or bust” movement.

Regarding the aspects of the book I did not appreciate – Dr. Thompson has an irritating habit throughout the book of making reference to “Deutero-Isaiah” and “the contested letters of Paul.” Now, I am fully aware of the controversy regarding the authorship of the book of Isaiah. But, we do not have an Isaiah, a “Deutero-Isaiah,” and a “Trito-Isaiah.” What we have in our text is the book of Isaiah. If you are quoting from the book of Isaiah, quote Isaiah, not from some unproven theory that there were multiple authors of Isaiah. If you are writing a commentary on Isaiah, or if you are writing a critical introduction to the book of Isaiah, then by all means cover the relevant arguments and state your conclusion. The same holds true with the “contested” letters of Paul. So what if the authorship is contested? Either they were written by Paul (if so, say so and move on) or they were not (if so, why even mention them in a book discussing Paul’s ecclesiology?) then state your reason for not including them in your book. Oh, well, that is why Dr. Thompson has his work published by Baker Academic, and mine won’t be. Still, it is irritating to constantly be confronted with these phrases, which, at least to me, are not just descriptive, but have crossed the line into being judgmental.

Dr. Thompson’s book is timely, and for those who are interested in the health of the church, is a much needed addition to the study of ecclesiology (the study of the church). Doubtless, Dr. Thompson’s conclusions will upset some people – he certainly challenged me in many healthy and beneficial ways. But, agree with him or disagree with him, you must appreciate the depth of the study and the imminently readable fashion in which Dr. Thompson writes. Sure, there are some things that I wish he would have changed, but this book should be on the “to read” list of any minister, elder, deacon, or Bible class teacher who is vitally interested in the health of today’s church.

Bible Reading Schedule – 2015

It is time for my annual (or almost annual) post suggesting a daily Bible reading schedule. This coming year (2015) I am going to return to an older schedule I have used, and after explaining that schedule I will explain why I believe it to be a valuable exercise.

First, a bit of an explanation – it sounds confusing, but it really is not. I just explain in confusing terms.

The basic schedule calls for a reader to read 5 chapters of the Old Testament every day, Monday through Saturday. Also, one Psalm is read daily, Monday through Saturday. On Mondays and Saturdays the reader reads one chapter of the New Testament, and on Tuesdays through Fridays the reader reads 2 chapters of the New Testament. Thus, on Mondays and Saturdays the schedule calls for 7 chapters a day, and on Tuesday through Friday it calls for 8 chapters a day. This schedule allows a person to read through the entire Bible twice in a year. I choose one translation for January – June, and another for July – December. This allows me to “hear” the text in two different translations within one year.

Now, a couple of changes need to be made throughout the year. For one, February only has 28 days, so there has to be some changes in the Old Testament readings. I combine some of the smaller prophetic writings, or I will add a chapter here or there depending on context. Also, Ps. 119 is 176 verses long, so I break the Psalm into 24 verse sections for a daily reading.

To work the whole schedule out, I take a calendar and, starting with Jan. 1, will write down the OT, Psalm, and NT reading for each day on that calendar. Planning ahead is part of the discipline of reading. Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of pre-printed schedules out there – but what fun is that? Part of the joy of this plan is you actually have to spend time working it out. The return you get for your time is quite gratifying.

You may ask, “What about Sunday?” Well, that is when I turn to the Moravian reading schedule, which follows the common lectionary reading for Sunday. So, every Sunday there is an Old Testament reading, a reading from a Psalm, a reading from a gospel, and a reading from another New Testament book. The lectionary follows the common Christian calendar.

This past year I followed the Moravian reading schedule completely, but I learned a couple of things. The Moravian schedule is much more expanded – you read through the Bible once every two years, meaning the readings are much smaller. But I learned that the manner in which the Moravian schedule breaks the Old Testament readings is not necessarily along contextual lines. Many stories are interrupted, and others are broken in seemingly incongruous ways. Also, many of the Psalms are divided, when they should have been read in their entirety. Now, a reader can always read the entire Psalm every day, and I often did, but it just did not make sense to me to break so many of the Psalms into smaller sections. The New Testament readings make much more sense, at least this past year, as the readings all came from the gospels which are easier to break into contextual sections.

An objection to my longer reading schedule is often “I don’t have time to read that Bible that long every day.” Let me say first that there are some people for whom that is true. I think especially of mothers of young children. Babies and toddlers just do not allow for lengthy periods of quiet time. However, for the overwhelming majority of us, that excuse is just a dodge. How much time do you spend with your eyes glued to a screen – either your computer, phone, or tablet? Uh huh, thought so. Now, how much time do you spend reading your Bible? Yeah, right. See – our priorities are revealed by the amount of time we devote to certain tasks. I seriously doubt that many of us cannot devote 30 – 45 minutes a day to reading the Bible, even if it has to be broken into sections (Old Testament in the morning, Psalms and New Testament at night). It is not so much a matter of opportunity, but will power and dedication.

Another objection I hear is “I just want to read a verse or two and meditate on those.” Wonderful! I think that is a great idea. But with that idea comes the related problem of atomizing the Scriptures. The Old Testament in particular was written as a narrative, a story. By just pulling one verse out of thin air a reader misses the “story” that makes the verse important. So, by reading larger sections (and 5 chapters a day is NOT that long of a reading), a reader can follow along with the narrative of the text. Then, if a particular verse, or section of verses, strikes you as especially meaningful, then by all means take the time to meditate on those verses.

The point of any daily Bible reading schedule is that it is pointless if we do not spend time in the text. I fully admit that this “long” reading schedule is not for everyone. But, for some, it may be the schedule that opens entire new doors into the Scripture.

Whatever your plan, choose one that works for you and stick with it. Let us all become readers of God’s word in 2015!

Informed Does Not Mean Educated

Yesterday I was directed to a blog post regaling the virtues of the millennial generation. For those of you who do not know, the millennial generation is that group of people born in the late 1970s (or early 1980s) through the mid 1990s. So, the oldest of this group are entering their 30’s, the youngest are still in college, or are perhaps entering college. You can find many different opinions as to when a “new” generation arrives and supplants its predecessor. There are obviously large “buffer” groups in-between clearly defined generational groups.

Anyway, in this blog the author made the statement that the millennial generation is the most educated generation in modern history, if not all human history. I almost choked on my coffee. But, then I understood what the author was saying. In the next paragraph he pointed out that millennials have greater access to more information than any generation before. Now that I can agree with. But, seriously, information does not equal education.

I deal with millennials every day. And, granted, some of them are incredibly gifted, brilliant, and well educated young people. And, on the other hand, some of them are dumber than door-knobs, yet with the ability to google just about any topic and scroll through thousands of bits of information in just seconds. They know how to work their tablets and smart phones with amazing dexterity, and yet they cannot think their way out of a wet paper bag.

Having access to information does not equal education. You can live in a library for all of your life and still be illiterate – just having millions of books at your disposal does not mean you know what is in them, nor does it mean that you can process the information that they contain in an intelligent manner. The fact that the author of the blog appeared to be a millennial himself (just going by his picture) proves my point. He equated information with education. Education certainly requires information, but education means far, far more than access to or even appropriation of information.

What does this have to do with theology? It is funny, but one of my college groups was discussing the huge increase in the number of Bible translations over the past couple of decades. Whereas I grew up with maybe a dozen translations to choose from, now there are hundreds, with more being produced every year. You have more translations on your smart phone than I had to study in the library at ACU (okay, that dates me). But, the proliferation of translations has done nothing to increase the knowledge of the Bible, nor general biblical literacy. If anything, knowledge of the Bible has decreased with the increase in the availability of modern Bible translations. Access to greater information has actually had a negative affect in terms of people knowing the text, and how to apply the text of the Bible. The Bible has just become another app on your phone, standing in competition with FaceBook, Twitter and the latest, greatest computer game.

I do not mean to unduly criticize the millennial generation. Those in this category certainly did not ask to be born in the year they were born, and they were handed a world that was thoroughly trashed by the Boomers and Gen X. Maybe the millennial generation will be able to fix some things that need to be fixed, and, God willing, maybe they will see fit to return their sights onto God and the Church. They have a tough row to hoe – and mere access to information is not going to help them. They need to learn how to process that information, and they need to learn how to make that information work to the benefit of mankind, not its detriment. My generation did not do such a good job with that mandate. I can only hope the millennials, and my daughter’s generation (what ever it will be called) can do better.

But, please, do not confuse information with education. That just proves how uneducated you really are.

The Value of Bright Lights in Dense Fog

Mike's Approach

Mike’s Approach (Photo credit: Sarahnaut)

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?

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The Proof is in the Verbs

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name f...

The Biblical Tetragrammaton, the Hebrew Name for God the Father. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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!

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Where Bill Nye and Ken Ham Were Both Wrong, Right

Debate Logo

Debate Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Disclaimer here – I was not able to watch the debate last night between Bill Nye (the “Science Guy”) and Ken Ham. (I was busy feeding about 75+ hungry college students). But I have read some news reports and commentary today and I am generally familiar with their arguments, so I would like to offer some commentary of my own.

First, where Bill Nye is wrong.

Nye is wrong in that he seems to think that “science” is a pure subject. It is not. I know this sounds esoteric, but when Nye says, “science is just about studying facts” he is in fact (no pun intended) working under a larger philosophical concept of “scientism.” Nye, and many other evolutionists, confuse the examination of particular artifacts as “science” when in fact their examination of those artifacts is being driven by an earlier presupposition to accept certain results and reject others. When Nye and other evolutionists claim that a certain rock or fossil “proves” evolution, they are in fact rejecting other possibilities because those possibilities do not fit the theory that they are indeed trying to prove. To be specific, there is not just one “missing link” in the chain of “evolution,” there are many. But, you will never hear an evolutionist even mention those gaps, because their “scientism” will not allow them to ask the question that might allow for a Divine Creator – how can you explain these gaps? On the other hand, the scientist who believes in the Creator God can look at the exact same evidence and argue that the “gaps” in the evolutionary chain are the fatal flaws of evolution. Their examination of the facts, or “science” is disavowed by Bill Nye and others because it does not fit within their “scientism” – a philosophical belief that will not allow for a creator God in any way, shape or form.

Now, where Ken Ham is wrong.

Ken Ham goes to the other extreme. Ken’s failsafe position is “because the Bible says so.” In effect, Ken turns the Bible into a scientific text book, complete with an inerrant chronological record and specific history of all things created. The Bible was never meant to be used in such a fashion. Perhaps the one thing that distresses me the most about Ham’s position is his relentless promotion of the “6,000 year old earth” argument. I wrote about Archbishop Ussher and his computation of the 6,000 year age of the earth a long time back, but the salient facts bear repeating. Archbishop Ussher was a profound Christian apologist and quite a remarkable mathematician. By combining various chronological lists in the Bible along with some intricate mathematical computations, Ussher arrived at the age of the earth as being around 6,000 years. His findings finally found their way into the introduction of one of the early editions of the King James Bibles, and it has been sacrosanct ever since. But I know of no current (or even relatively recent deceased) Old Testament scholars who hold that you can take the various genealogical lists given in the Old Testament and come up with anything even remotely bearing certainty. That was NOT the purpose of those genealogical lists! Just one example: in Ruth 4:18-22 we have the “genealogy” of King David, from Perez (the son of Judah) to David. The list includes 10 names, but the time period involved (from before the time Israel entered into Egypt leading all the way to David) involves at least 800 years! (Note: I am assuming that the reigns of the judges were sequential, and not that some of them were “co-regents” of a sort) The various genealogical lists are provided for various reasons (theology being one, and perhaps the most important!) but calculating the age of the earth is NOT one of those reasons!

James Ussher

James Ussher (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I believe Ham lost a very important opportunity here to point out that the debate is not between science and theology – it is between one philosophical view of science (the idea that science can solve all of our questions, or the above mentioned “scientism”) and another view of science (that science can lead us to ask better and more appropriate questions, but will never provide all, or even a majority, of the answers). Instead, Ham more or less let Nye hold the high ground (or so Nye supposed) and tried to argue from a philosophical foundation that Nye and other evolutionists reject entirely.

Where both Nye and Ham were absolutely correct.

Both men argued their positions in a calm fashion, both made salient points, and both were respectful (by virtually all accounts). I think they were both absolutely correct in saying that this issue is critical for our children to be able to discuss. Where I would disagree vehemently with Nye is that I believe this discussion SHOULD take place in our science classrooms, in addition to our philosophy classrooms and religion classrooms. To deprive our children of the right to hear and discuss these questions (as I believe Nye is promoting) is simply to abdicate our position as educators. Education is all about the examination of all possible facts and the various theories that those facts lead different scholars to believe. To eliminate 50% of those conclusions and resulting theories because they do not fit some very limited concept of “scientism” is just blatantly irresponsible. So, whether he wanted to or not, I think Nye made a very important point: this discussion DOES deserve to be in the science classroom.

This is true if for no other reason that our children deserve to discover that evolutionists cannot answer even the most basic questions about their theory: why is there “anything” to begin with? From whence came the “stuff” that started this whole process?

For the answer to that question we must turn to God. And that, my friends, is exactly what terrifies Nye and his comrades.

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Male Spiritual Leadership, Discussion Classes and the “Silence of Women”

P question

P question (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An excellent question has been posed to me, and I would like to give it the full consideration it deserves. I will not repost the question in its entirety, but I hope to cover all that the respondent indicated were important issues. The question is one that is asked all across the country in differing degrees and with differing outcomes. Are women allowed to speak up in modern Bible classes? Are they allowed to ask questions? Are they allowed to make comments? And, should a woman wear a hat or a scarf over her head to show her submission to men?

 

First – where I stand generally. In regard to my last post I believe that all Scripture is inspired, not just the parts we like or can button-hole into interpretations that we like. I believe it is important to listen to ALL that a particular writer has to say, and I believe that it is critical to take grammatical and rhetorical cues into mind as we seek to understand what the author intended and the Spirit directed.

 

In regard to the questions being asked, I believe that Paul wrote the Corinthian letters as a continuation of what he taught everywhere and in every place (1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 11:16, 14:33, see also 1:2). I do not believe that 1 Cor. 11:1-16 is written with the situation of public worship in mind (the passage that discusses a woman praying or prophesying). I believe this because in 11:18, 20, and 33, and later in 14:23 and 26 Paul clearly uses the phrase “when you come together” or “when the church comes together.” So, I separate 11:1-16 from Paul’s later injunction in 14:34. Finally, in 14:26-35 Paul exhorts first tongue speakers, then prophets, and finally women to “be silent.” The first two are clarifications or limitations – if there is no one to interpret a special tongue or if there are additional revelations. However, in regard to the “women” there are no clarifications or limitations of previous permissions. Paul does not appear to be saying, “a certain group of women need to be silent, but other women are free to speak.” Paul does use an absolute word for “silent” with all three groups, but it is clear (at least to me) from the context he is not meaning “absolutely soundless” as the command to be silent is a clarification, not an absolute prohibition. In 1 Timothy 1:11 a different word is used for the silence of women and I think it provides clarity to the 1 Corinthians teaching. The word is “hesychia” and means respectful silence – not absolute soundlessness.

 

So, what about our modern Bible classes and the participation of women? I will answer not as an absolute authority, but only as one who is offering his own opinion, based on a careful study of this issue.

 

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in ph...

Cropped image of a Socrates bust for use in philosophy-related templates etc. Bust carved by by Victor Wager from a model by Paul Montford, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Western Australia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1.  Our modern Bible classes are nothing like the ancient worship setting. There was no “Bible class” separate and apart from “Worship.” That is a modern monstrosity. Be that as it may, we must deal with it or completely change our format, and I can guess how far that suggestion would go. So, in response to the above question I would ask the following clarification questions:

 

  • Is the class recognized as one which is “open” for discussion and comments? Or are questions (from either males or females) considered to be interruptions and challenges to the teacher’s authority?
  • Is the question asked or comment made by a female considered rude and interruptive, or is she genuinely asking for information?
  • Has the teacher (assuming it is a male) objected to the questions/comments of a female, or is the person objecting herself a female who resents another “uppity” female from asking questions?

I ask these questions because I have lead classes myself in which a woman tried to interject herself as the “teacher” and it was very uncomfortable for everyone involved. I have also seen women hijack classes that were being lead by men who were very young or inexperienced teachers and did not have either the courage or the wisdom to overcome the challenge. These situations are clearly wrong in my opinion, and would be wrong if the perpetrator was a male. To challenge a teacher in order to tear him down or to usurp his teaching authority in front of a class is just wrong – it is unchristian and beneath the dignity of a student.

 

On the other hand, in our culture today the asking of a question is not automatically assumed to be a challenge and a method of usurping authority. In the Socratic method of teaching, the “instructor” lead by asking questions – by “drawing out” the correct answer from his students. Thus, for a student to “ask a question” in a Socratic sense is to challenge authority, and believe me, I have had plenty of these type questions both from males and females. (There is a manner in which you can ask a question and convey the attitude that you believe the instructor is a total and complete idiot.) There is also a perfectly innocent method of asking questions – to seek information. I personally do not object to, and often very much appreciate, these types of questions from any student.

 

In a “worship” experience I have an opposite conclusion. From 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy and incidentally from passages in Ephesians and Colossians, I believe males are to be the leaders in a worship setting. Here is where I believe 1 Cor. 14 is distinct from 1 Cor. 11. A woman may pray or prophesy (although I have a MUCH different understanding of “prophecy” than modern egalitarians!!), but not in a setting in which males are present. If a male is present, HE is to be the leader and voice of teaching and preaching authority.

 

2.  What about the head covering? In looking at 1 Corinthians 11 it seems obvious to me that Paul is discussing how a person reveals submission to his or her “head.” In that culture women did so by wearing head coverings. Today most women do not. So, how do women today demonstrate respectful submission? I believe that answer to that is cultural – “when in Rome do as the Romans.” Are you in a location where head coverings are expected? Then by all means follow that practice. Should all men wear a tie and a coat when serving on the Lord’s Table or when publicly praying or leading singing? If that is the common understanding, then yes, by all means buy a tie and wear a sport coat. Do bib-overalls suffice? Then wash your overalls and wear a nice shirt.

 

A very important note needs to be interjected here. In my graduate study I read an article that discussed 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 and for the life of me I cannot remember the title of the article or the name of the author. However, the gist of the article was that Paul was NOT specifically addressing the head covering of women in this section, but he was rather condemning the practice of pagan male priests to have their heads completely covered with a heavy cowl as they “officiated” at their pagan sacrifices. Thus, what we have seen as being directed against women, was actually directed to men, and the reference to women was simply an aside – Paul commenting on his own argument with an oblique reference to women’s head coverings. That article had a profound influence on the way I interpret this passage – although obviously not enough for me to remember who wrote it.* (By the way – I have forgotten my own wedding anniversary, so that tells you how good my memory is).

 

I will say that I have had women in the congregations that I serve wear head coverings at every service. They did not demand it of other women, but quietly followed their own conscience.

 

So, to the one who asked the specific question I will advise this – speak to the teacher of the class and/or your leadership. In your setting is the class clearly demarcated from the worship assembly? Does your leadership object to a female asking questions? Is the class open for anyone to do so? Or is it understood that only males can ask questions? Are the questions considered “Socratic” in the sense that they are viewed as interruptive and authoritative? And, regarding the woman that confronted you, did she do so in a spirit of humility, seeking your best interest, or did she attempt to steamroll you and back you into a corner? I have discovered that very often it is the staunchest “defenders of the faith” that need the greatest reminder about humility, and the willingness of the leader to wash the feet of those whom he/she leads.

 

*To the best of my foggy memory the article was written by Richard Oster. However, it could have been Abraham Malherbe. It actually could turn out to be neither. The title had something to do with head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. I have not had the chance to locate that article, although I would dearly love to get my hands on it again.

 

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God’s Monumental, Incomprehensible, and Staggering Incompetence

As a conservative, Bible believing Christian I do not often speak about God’s incompetence. I rarely have opportunity to discuss his abject failure and blatant ignorance. But, thanks to so many wonderful bloggers out there I have been presented with this precious opportunity, and I shall endeavor to make the most of it.

Earth from Space

Earth from Space (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It would appear that, according to these theological wunderkinder, God is basically able to create the world ex nihilo and part the Red Sea and feed 5,000 people with a couple of fish and some matzo crackers, but there are some things that are simply beyond God’s otherwise unimpeachable metaphysical prowess. Chief among these, or perhaps the ONLY thing God cannot do, is offend people.

That is right, you did not hear it first here, folks, but God is simply incapable of offending people. Let me explain it the best way I know how:

God can take an young, unmarried and very much virgin girl from a peasant village in a backwater strip of land known as “Palestine” and choose her to bear his very own Son. God is further capable of declaring through this Son His very nature – who and what it means to be God. Throughout this Divine Son’s ministry on earth he made a lot of people very, very angry. He called the religious leaders a bunch of snakes. He challenged the religious hierarchy and told them their precious temple would be destroyed. He even had the audacity to march in and kick over their money-changing tables and throw the bums out.

But, he never, ever, ever offended anyone.

His earliest disciples picked right up where He left off. They told the leading religious figures that ALL people, not just a chosen few, could enter into God’s kingdom. They challenged sexual practices, religious practices, economic practices, domestic practices, speech patterns and changed the liturgy of their worship.

But, they were careful to never, ever, ever offend anyone, because that is simply something God cannot do.

So, when a question arose over whether men should be the leaders of the family and church these early disciples were hit with a problem. Jesus never offended the tender sensibilities of the people by selecting a woman as one of his apostles, and all the way back to the garden of Eden there appeared to be an solid chain of male spiritual leadership, so these early disciples did what God was forced to do and what Jesus surrendered as well.

They strove mightily not to offend anyone who would be upset if a woman was selected as a spiritual leader.

So, we might see little hints and pointers that women are to be elevated into spiritual leadership positions, but they have to be extremely well camouflaged lest the words upset these fragile early followers of Jesus, and more important, the surrounding culture. So well camouflaged, I might add, that it took almost 2,000 years of some of the finest theology ever written to decode the carefully hidden messages.

So, when the apostle Paul encouraged the women to be silent in Corinth (well, according to the letter that was his message everywhere, but we do not want to confuse the situation any more than it already is) he was only faking it, what he really meant to say was, “OK gals, you’re in charge now – go for it!”

The same with Peter. Bless his heart, after almost letting the cat out of the bag in that ill planned sermon in Acts 2, he had to come back and redeem his socially acceptable self in his first letter when he referred to those “weaker vessels” that had to be gently loved by their husbands. Whew! That was a close call!

There is only one thing that I do not understand about this multi-act play. I don’t get it.

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off...

Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off South Africa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why would this all powerful God, who from the very first page of Genesis to the last word of Revelation, demonstrates that he goes out of his way to delight in upsetting the status quo, suddenly be stricken with a case of total incompetence when it comes to the issue of spiritual leadership? Why would Jesus, who was a Great White shark when it came to touching all kinds of spiritually and physically unclean people and who allowed prostitutes to touch him, suddenly become a jellyfish when it came to choosing his immediate successors? Why would an apostle, in presenting arguments that would completely upend virtually every facet of common culture, suddenly balk and become impotent when the issue of female spiritual leadership came up?

And, much beyond those questions, if we can label certain teachings of these apostles as inferior and even spiritually false, how can we trust any of their writings? If Jesus and Peter and Paul could all be wrong about the gender thing, how can we trust they were anywhere close to being right about the grace thing? What about the ultimate question of God Himself? Is this all just an elaborate charade? Could it be that Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkins, et.al., are actually correct – that the Bible is nothing more than a bunch of fables used by certain power groups to maintain their hegemony?

You see, I just don’t buy the argument. If God is who He says He is, if Jesus is who He says He is and if he could do the things that the Bible records that He did, then by all means God could “upset the tender sensibilities” of a culture that placed men over women. God could have kicked over the tables of the misogynists and thrown the bums out. Jesus could have selected three or six female apostles, and the male apostles could have written emphatically that in the realm of spiritual leadership there is to be no gender difference.

But that is not the story that we have. That is not the Scripture that we have. So, we are faced with a question:

Is our God a bumbling, fumbling, incompetent buffoon who only occasionally gets a few things right, or is our God one who both knows the human psyche and who directs humanity’s footsteps, even in directions that we are not inclined to go?

I’m placing my faith in a God who is so much bigger and so much smarter and so much more powerful than I am.

And yes, I do happen to believe that God is capable of offending people.

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