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.
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!
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 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!
In response to my last post regarding God’s incompetence (see link below) I received a valuable message from Tim Archer. I really like Tim’s writing. If you are not currently following his “Kitchen of Half-Baked Thoughts” then you need to find it and follow him. Where I am often sharp and acerbic, Tim is level-headed and calm. I appreciate Tim’s insights, even when I do not agree with him. Tim recently posted some thoughts on the “Holy Kiss” that I thought was nothing short of brilliant. So, when Tim offers some criticism of my work I pay attention. Other people I can blow off. Tim is one of those people I have to listen to. (This post is not addressed specifically to Tim – it is a general reply to some issues that Tim did raise.)
So, to those who saw the devil but not the remedy in my last post, I would like to make the following response:
1. The post earlier today was sarcastic, crass, over-the-top, acerbic, emotive, hyperbolic. It was intended to be. I am tired of one side of a particular argument receiving responses such as “brilliant, well written, deep, exactly what I was looking for” and when those posts are challenged as being thin, weak, warmed over pabulum, all Gehenna breaks out and the one who dares to challenge the new orthodoxy is labeled a Pharisee, a hypocrite, a heretic – or worse. It is funny that one side is allowed to be hateful, mean-spirited, and condescending but you let the other side offer a word of challenge and you would think that mother, apple pie and baseball were all being trashed.
2. If you were to meet me in person you would not recognize my manner of interaction. Nine times out of ten I will back down from a fight, walk away from a confrontation or slip away from a heated discussion. I loathe having to confront someone else. I would much rather take the fall and walk away knowing that will defuse a situation rather than stand up and defend myself and cause a scene. However, this blog is different. In it my alter-ego is released. I can approach subjects here that otherwise I would simply dismiss. That particular post is one of those issues. I said some things that I would never say in public.
3. I have tried to engage this subject on other levels. I have pointed out significant textual and theological discrepancies in the writings of some who promote the egalitarian position of male/female spiritual leadership. I am routinely dismissed as being a Pharisaical, fundamentalist wacko, or even worse (see point #1). So, I thought I would have a little fun today. If nothing else I say gets any serious consideration, why would my sarcastic tirade of this morning?
I have noticed something about those who are working tirelessly both within the Churches of Christ and in other religious groups to promote the egalitarian position. They are mostly 10, 20, 30 or more years younger than I am. They (especially the youngest ones) have been raised on the milk of Gloria Steinem’s radical feminism from the time they were in the cradle. They see their mothers, sisters, aunts, and maybe even grandmothers hold positions of power and authority in the secular world and it simply galls them that the church is so backward and misogynistic.
In the words of one of my college professors, God really does not care about who is president of the local bank, but even a cursory reading of the Bible reveals that God is vitally concerned with His people on earth, of whom the church is the latest example.
Another thing I have noticed about many of these young preachers/bloggers: they do not mind speaking and writing in an echo chamber, but they clearly do not like having to defend their positions with clear logic and theology. For many, although obviously not all, “what I think should be” is the final arbiter of truth and anyone who disagrees be damned.
I harbor no illusions that the topic under discussion is simple or that the passages of Scripture under discussion are crystal clear. I do, however, reject the idea, so widely and ardently promoted, that God was incapable or unwilling to challenge male spiritual leadership (or any other issue, for that matter) because of the scruples of a culture that happened to exist when he sent His Son to earth. The point of my broadside was that God can and does challenge and “blow up” many of past and present cultural standards, but when He does so He makes His changes clear and unequivocal. I have yet to have anyone who promotes gender egalitarianism defend the argument that God has clearly and unequivocally erased the teachings of the Old Testament, nor especially the writings of the New Testament, which point to male spiritual leadership.
The changes I have seen within the Churches of Christ since the mid-1970’s are, in my mind, beyond description. They have been breathtaking – more deep and more sweeping changes that I would have every thought possible in my lifetime. I honestly feel like I have been walking along a stream and within minutes the stream is gone and all I am left with is a desert. The root of the changes is not women’s role in the church, or gender-bending, or homosexuality, or instrumental music in the worship assembly. The changes cut all the way to one’s view of the authority of Scripture, and the concept of inspiration of those Scriptures. I write out of a deep love for the church, but an even deeper respect and love for the Word of God. Prove me wrong with Scripture and I will be your friend for life. Argue with thin, weak, illogical, theologically incoherent manifestos and I respectfully suggest you better duck if you see me load up to return fire.
So, once again, I want to thank Tim. I consider him a dear and trusted colleague (although we were at ACU at the same time I do not ever remember meeting Tim. He was probably a socialite and I was a hermit). This post is part defense, part explanation. I value Tim’s critique, and it is in that light that I wanted to share more of my thought process in writing my previous post.
What is going on in the United States?
- A teenage girl is declared brain dead, the hospital begs the family to be able to remove “life” support and the family refuses.
- A pregnant woman is declared brain dead, the family begs the hospital to remove “life” support and the hospital refuses.
- It seems every week some sociopath shoots up a school, mall, or place of business.
- “Transgender” children have won the right to use the bathroom facility of their choice, regardless of their birth gender, and regardless of the objections of parents of children who must share the facility with such “transgendered” but biologically dissimilar classmates.
- A groups of homosexuals who “only want to be treated equally” stage a mass marriage ceremony to the song “Same Love” during the Grammy Award presentations.
- Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President and his administration are guilty of the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in military drone strikes.
Many “conservative” Christians are asking how these things could happen in their “Christian” nation.
I can’t say I know for sure, but as one who is rarely without an opinion, I’ll give you my two-bits worth:
It is because we either allowed it to happen, or actively promoted the environment that allowed it to happen.
“Oh, but we are different” you say, “We are Christians and we honor and worship God!”
- Yea, we worship God by supporting the same educational and governmental bodies that dictate that little girls cannot safely and privately use a “Girls” restroom because it is offensive to a “transgendered” little “boy.”
- And we worship God by supporting and promoting a medical establishment that has so blurred the lines between life and death that our medical professionals and judicial elites cannot even agree as to when a body is “dead” and should be removed from “life” support. And when you throw in the ethically challenged and morally suspect issue of organ and tissue “donation” the question becomes even more murky.
- And we worship God by holding 2nd Amendment rallies and “God Bless America” parties and we pray for this God to fight the battles for the Red, White and Blue regardless of the issues that caused our government to send those troops into battle in the first place.
- In other words, we worship God, not by refusing to participate in this broken down, sin-sick and decaying process we call “culture,” but by actively promoting it, working for it, voting for it, and by making sure it continues by virtue of our monetary contributions and our devotion.
With worshippers like that, why does God need any enemies?
As I study the Scriptures, (especially the New Testament writings but even in the Old Testament) I see a much different picture. I see a people dedicated to God, challenged by that God not to accept or to participate in their decadent culture, but to transform and renew it. I see Abraham being told that by his faith he would bless “all peoples.” I see Moses being given a law that was culturally transformative – beginning with the nature of the God who gave it and ending with a “promised land” that would be a blessing to all people. I see a small but dedicated group of social outcasts, called “Christians,” who loved and cared for the sick and dying people in their towns and cities, and for the sick and dying culture that seemed to be bent on destroying God’s most precious creation – human beings.
I’ve read the “we have to be a part of culture in order to change culture” arguments until I’m cross-eyed, but I still don’t get it. How do you change the sin of drunkenness by participating and promoting the consumption of alcohol? How do you change the sin of pornography by participating and promoting the degradation of human sexuality? How can you change the warping of human sexuality by accepting and promoting the brokenness of those who refuse to acknowledge the difference between male and female? And in the name of the Holy God, how can you change the culture of violence and killing by promoting the militaristic and violence oriented culture of guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles? How can we eliminate racism, greed, and hate by being hateful, greedy racists?
I’ve read the Bible through several times, and I still cannot find that verse that says, “Be a part of culture and do what your culture tells you to do until that culture finally comes around to seeing that it is wrong.” I have, however, found many passages that reveal the world will hate God’s people, that if God’s people are faithful to him they will often find themselves in lion’s dens, prisons, and under the executioner’s blade. I read over and over that God sets the standards for human behavior, not the government of one country or the constitution of that government. I read that God tells his people to “follow me” even if, and especially when, that path leads through the valley of the shadow of death.
If this is a Christian nation, if this place is just one election away from utopia, if we can fix our problems with one more war or one more law or one more talk radio host, then you can have it. It holds no joy or interest for me.
As I read it, I am to pray thus:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)
I do not see anything about supporting a rabid nationalistic militarism. I do not read anything about excusing or protecting sociopathic miscreants who kill simply for the thrill of killing. I do not read anything about letting those who reject God’s plan for love and reproduction feel that they are welcome to enter into a church that wears the name of God or his Son and promote a lifestyle which has been specifically condemned by a Holy God.
But, here is the kicker – if you are a “conservative” Christian chances are you have no one to blame for the current state of affairs other than yourself.
And until we can come to grips with that truth, we will never be able to address the resulting chaos…
(Author’s and editor’s note: the young lady who was declared dead may have been a pre-teen; my apologies if I “misremembered.” Also, heartfelt condolences to both families. These are heart-wrenching stories and have no easy solutions. Such is the fog of modern ethics).
Last semester I was privileged to teach a course on the book of Revelation, so readers of this blog were treated to several entries either focused on or inspired by the book of Revelation. This semester the assignments take me to the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua – Esther) and the prison and pastoral letters of Paul. Thus, this semester will probably see quite a few entries related to the Old Testament prophets, Judges and Kings, and also the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Timothy and Titus.
Hence my thoughts today on the book of Ephesians. Few books, if any, in the New Testament can claim a poetic beauty equal to Ephesians (obviously Philippians 2 comes close, but that is another day). For three extended chapters Paul writes some of the most elevated and theologically profound material to be found anywhere.
Three things stand out to me about the opening chapters of Ephesians. First is the phrase “in Christ” or its cognates (in Him, etc.) Paul wants his readers to know that it is only through our relationship with Jesus that we have the blessings that he discusses in this book. That pretty much destroys the “all roads lead to heaven” argument that I hear so much of these days. No. There is only one “road” that leads to heaven, and that is the path that Jesus opened up for us through his blood, shed on the cross.
Two, the riches of the blessings of Jesus are to be found only in the church. The church is truly the main focus of the first three chapters of the book. All who are “in Christ” are also “in the church” and it is the church that is the final revelation of all the wisdom and goodness of God. I know that sounds so horribly exclusionary. But it is pure Pauline doctrine, and it is found all throughout the New Testament, not just in Ephesians (the other prison letters are replete with the same claim).
Three, nowhere in the New Testament is the love and plan of God more beautifully described than the book of Ephesians. This message must be preached without fear or favor or the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ, is robbed of its power. Without the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians it is possible to turn Christianity into another human religion on a par with Buddhism or Hinduism. It is possible (although, I might add, extremely difficult) to turn Jesus into just another prophet, just another martyr for his beliefs. But, by reading the gospel stories in light of, and in connection with, the letter to the Ephesians the entirety of God’s divine plan becomes clear. And, when we realize that the first readers of the letter to the Ephesians may not have had one of the four gospel accounts, this letter then may be described as Paul’s shorter gospel of Jesus Christ (the “long version” would be Romans, of course).
I encourage you to feast again upon this short little letter. What poetry. What theology. What a masterpiece!
In regard to my last post on the inspiration of Scripture a good friend posed the question of what I believe about “progressive revelation,” the idea (if I understand it correctly) that God speaks to successive cultures in ways that are meaningful to that culture that would have been meaningless to previous cultures.
I suppose I have to begin where I most frequently begin, and that is by asking what is meant exactly by that term, and how is the person using it? I would accept, for instance, that God “progressively” revealed His nature throughout history culminating in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. I believe this because I believe it is a sound biblical concept, taught most explicitly in the book of Hebrews. (“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…” Heb. 1:1, RSV) In this sense “progressive” can mean both chronology and content.
If, however, the idea is that God, acting through the Holy Spirit, continued to modify or “progress” his revelation even during the writing of the New Testament then I have to say “No, in no way do I accept the idea of ‘progressive’ revelation.” I have a number of reasons for making this stand.
1. In order to accept that God revealed some truths early in the writing of the New Testament, and a fuller, more complete, and more “Divine” expression at a later date we must have an air-tight, definitive, unimpeachable sequence of the composition of the New Testament writings. At least at this stage of our knowledge that is simply beyond us. But, having said that, I believe this is one of the major and “unsurvivable” errors of progressive revelationists. They want to suggest that one writing of Paul has more weight, or is more inspired, or is more authoritative, than other writings of Paul due to this concept of “progressive revelation.” But one of the primary writings that they identify as being “more progressive” is uniformly understood to be written earlier than the writings that these interpreters want to dismiss. Therefore, Paul was not a progressive thinker, but a regressive thinker, and if he was writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then that ultimately makes God to be a regressive source of inspiration.
Why, having come up with God’s ultimate adjudication that there is no difference whatsoever between male and female in Galatians, would Paul then revert to the rejected and unworthy teaching that women must submit themselves to men, and that men are to exercise spiritual leadership in both the home and the church? (Corinthians, Ephesians, Colossians, Timothy, Titus, and also Peter as well) It makes no logical, nor specifically does it make any theological, sense.
2. The writing of the New Testament occurred in a relatively compressed timeframe. From the death of Jesus to the death of Paul was a period of about 35 years, give or take a few. The time frame from the conversion of Paul until his death is even more tightly compressed. That means if Paul was to experience any “progressive” revelation it would have had to occur very quickly, and yet even though we can see Paul’s writing change (as any writer changes over a period of 25-30 years), his fundamental theology never does. So, exactly when does this “progression” take place? I just do not see the chronology that allows for this change to occur – and combined with point #1 above I simply cannot accept the concept that Paul “progressed” from one idea (male spiritual leadership) to another, radically different one (no gender separation at all, men and women are allowed to serve equally).
3. Taken to its ultimate extreme, those who argue the most vociferously for “progressive revelation” would have to accept the concept of an open canon. Why, if God worked in the first century to “progressively reveal” his complete will, would he stop with the death of the last apostle? If a person argues that God needed to progressively reveal himself throughout the writing of the New Testament, and at the same time argues for a closed canon, it seems to me that person is arguing out of both sides of his/her mouth. After all, cultures and society did not stop evolving in 100 A.D., so it seems to me that it would be incumbent upon God to keep on revealing his will “progressively” if he was to keep up with technology and other issues.
4. Clearly, the early church fathers rejected the idea of an “open canon.” I am not knowledgeable enough about the church fathers to know what their opinion was regarding “progressive revelation,” but they had the sense enough to figure out that God spoke through his apostles, and when they died the canon of authoritative Scripture was closed. We have what we need for spiritual guidance, through the knowledge of Jesus, and that is enough (2 Peter 1:3).
Now, I must say that not every person who is an egalitarian believes in the concept of “progressive revelation.” These folks interest me, in a confused sort of way. I’m not exactly sure how they work around the passages that clearly teach male spiritual leadership (both directly and indirectly). Well, that is not exactly true – I read about it all the time but I still cannot get my head around it. They have to (1) remove or dismiss clear passages that contradict their conclusion, (2) redefine words that mean what they do not want them to mean and (3) appeal to obscure references and emotional arguments that tend to obfuscate more than clarify. I also know that they HAVE to put 99 out of their 100 eggs in the Galatians 3:28 basket. As I have said ad nauseum, that is taking one passage out of context and is exegetically impossible to defend.
Thus hath the knuckle-dragging Troglodyte spoken.
Another (set, as they are kind of all related) of the penetrating questions that my benevolent antagonist posed to me was this:
How do you know the Protestant Bible is inspired? How do you know the canon is closed? … Why aren’t the earliest scripture copies under your sect’s protection?
Let me begin by saying I am the wrong guy to be hitting with these heavyweight questions. But, as Andy Griffith once said concerning football, I have studied on it, and I think I can point my readers in a healthy direction. My answer will take the structure of several bullet points for clarity.
1. The history of the development of the Canon of Scripture is at the same time rich, diverse, fascinating, and at times confusing. The best I can do is to direct the interested reader to the best in “recent” scholarship regarding this topic. The most erudite book on the subject is Bruce M. Metzter, The Canon of Scripture: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987). A very valuable, yet probably a little more for the common man is F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988). Yet even more directed to the common man, and specifically for church classes, is Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible 3rd Ed., Revised and Expanded, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2003). All of these books cover the same material, to greater or lesser degrees of academic precision, and I highly recommend obtaining all three books if you want a well rounded discussion.
2. I do not believe that one “church” created the canon. I believe that God created the canon of Scripture, and that many scholars and theologians, over several hundred years beginning with the original audiences and continuing up through the 4th century, recognized those books that were to be considered inspired and authoritative. There is a big difference between creating something and recognizing that which has been created.
3. I do not accept that there is a “Protestant” Bible and a “Catholic” Bible. In terms of authority and “dogma,” the same 66 books are used by both the Roman Catholic church and most “Protestant” churches. The main difference (as I understand it, and I may be wrong here) is that the Roman Catholic church also includes books that are useful for edification that many Protestant churches do not use. These books are referred to as the “Apocrypha.” There is yet a third distinction, that of “Deuterocanonical books” that are even outside this middle distinction by the Roman Catholic church. [Note: please read the comments below, as a friend accurately challenged my nomenclature here. I apologize to those who clearly know better.]
4. I accept by faith that the Bible, or the the 66 books universally accepted by virtually every Christian group, is inspired because those books either indicate that they come from the mouth or pen of an inspired author, or another book within those 66 books makes reference to them in such a way as to indicate inspiration. The acceptance of this witness was done within a very short time of their original creation, and so, as someone who is separated by some 2,000 – 4,000 years from the original composition I must accept and trust the guidance of those who have recognized those writings as inspired and who have collected and treasured those inspired writings.
5. I hold that the canon of Scripture is closed because, once again, the witness of the earliest writers is that after a certain point (the death of the last apostles, to be sure), no other writings were ever elevated to the status of “Scripture.” Many were treasured (the “Shepherd” of Hermas, the Didache, the writings of various early church fathers), and some of those were even accorded the status of Scripture in certain parts of the Christian world. However, for reasons both simple and complex those locally accepted writings were ultimately viewed as valuable, but not inspired Scripture, by the overwhelming majority of the church leaders. Therefore, since the end of the first century, no writing has ever been accorded the value of “Scripture” by universal acclaim.
6. It does not bother me one bit that the earliest manuscripts of the 66 books of the Bible are not under the control of my “sect.” (I don’t own one, by the way, but I get my questioner’s drift.) The manuscripts that we have (over 5,000 of the various New Testament writings alone) are all safely housed where scholars of all different beliefs can study them. This is how it should be, and no other “religion” can even come close to this type of openness and transparency. If it was proven that my beliefs depended on one single manuscript (or even one family of manuscripts) I would seriously question that belief. Hence my largest and most insurmountable disagreement with groups such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The manuscripts which contain the documents that I consider to be Scripture are open to everyone to study – and I am secure in the belief that if any major changes must be made to that corpus of documents that such decisions will be justified by a large and diverse number of scholars from a wide variety of theological belief systems.
So, in a nut-shell, my beliefs in the collection of writings we call the “Bible” are based on a history of recognition and proclamation that dates back at least as far as Moses and Joshua, and orally even further back than that. Outside of the proclamations within those sacred writings themselves I have no immediate knowledge of the creation or transmission of those writings – but my faith does not depend upon my own ability to verify every single truth claim made in Scripture. I trust in the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit, and just as I can believe in many truths although not independently verifiable by my own intellect, I trust they are true because other individuals who DO have that knowledge can verify them, and such has been the case for the Bible for well over 3,000 years now.
This has just been the “Confession of Faith” of just one individual, and in no way to I intend my words to be universally held by every member of the Church of Christ. But, I hope they are helpful, and if so, then all glory to God. If anyone has any additional questions I would love to hear them and perhaps I can be more specific in a future post.
Once again, I thank my conversation partner, and I hope I have treated his question fairly. I trust he will respond in kind if I have not.
Another of the very good questions posed to me by my on-line conversationalist has to do with Scripture (in fact, several are related to this subject). Hopefully I can do these questions justice.
The specific question posed was, “Where does the Bible teach sola scriptura?” I find that question fascinating for a couple of reasons. One, my questioner looks to Scripture for the answer to his question, and two, if you asked a room full of members of the Church of Christ where the Bible teaches sola scriptura they would more than likely answer that it is not necessary to know Greek in order to be saved. (Inside joke). The fact is that “sola scriptura” is a phrase that comes from the Reformation movement, and was coined by Martin Luther, if I am not mistaken.
But, the question is a good one – do the Scriptures teach that what is written is all that is necessary for man to know God and to be in a saved relationship with Him?
I would begin by quoting Moses in the last half of Deuteronomy 8:3, “…man does not live by bread alone, but that man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the LORD.” I chose that particular verse because it is the phrase that Jesus used to overcome the first temptation by Satan in Matthew 4:1-4. Clearly, Jesus knew and quoted Scripture (the Old Testament to us) as authoritative and final. He emphatically said that he did not come to abolish the law and the prophets, and that nothing from the law would pass away until he had accomplished all things (Matthew 5:17-18).
In regard to that law, two Psalms in particular point to the everlasting nature of the word of God and how it was revered and honored in Jewish faith – Psalm 19 and 119. Because of a diluted form of Marcionism that remains alive in the church today we as Christians sometimes fail to appreciate how important the books of the Old Testament are to our faith. As I was trying to communicate in my last post, I think this is one of the areas that needs “restoring,” even in, or perhaps especially in, the American Restoration Movement.
Moving further in the New Testament, however, we find statements such as 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Once again, I believe that the apostle had what we refer to as the Old Testament in view here, as I am not sure what New Testament works would have been created and would have been accorded the value of “Scripture” at the time Paul wrote to Timothy. But notice – the words of God in Scripture are ALL that is necessary for a “man of God” to be complete! There is nothing else necessary – no special dispensation of the Holy Spirit, no latter day revelation, no continuing or “progressive” revelation. God’s word, labeled as “Scripture” (Greek, writing) is final, and fully efficacious.
Next I would turn to 2 Peter 3:15-16, in which Peter refers to the writings of “our beloved brother Paul,” in which he admits there are some things that are hard to understand, and then he continues to say, “…which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.” (RSV, emphasis mine). Now, at the outset I want to acknowledge that this is a problematic text for many people. They deny that Peter wrote the letter to begin with, and they certainly do not believe that Peter was equating Paul’s letters with Scripture. However, many, many scholars believe that the letter was indeed penned by Peter and that yes, he WAS equating Paul’s letters with Scripture, and we know that from a very early date both Paul’s and Peter’s letters were collected, copied, shared among congregations, and viewed as being authoritative and inspired words from God.
So, I believe (along with an innumerable host of others, both within and without the Churches of Christ) that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, teaches sola scriptura – Scripture alone.
I have other, non-biblical, reasons for holding to sola scriptura. When a group of people divests itself of the anchoring authority of Scripture the only result is an elevation of human hubris, which is another way of saying man turns his own fantasies into idols. Because the point of contention between my questioner and myself is (are) the differences between the Church of Christ and the Roman Catholic Church, I will select a neutral third party to illustrate my point: the Mormon Church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a perfect example of a group of people who have turned the wild, and dare I say, heretical visions of a human being into a gross caricature of the Lord’s church. The teachings of the LDS conflict with the Old and New Testaments on virtually every point, yet that does not disturb the Mormon faithful at all, because they are not bound by sola scriptura. This is what bothers me about attempting any kind of conversation with a Mormon – they will not, indeed cannot, conduct a conversation involving religion without referring to the Book of Mormon or the Pearl of Great Price or any one of the other “approved” writings of Joseph Smith or one of his followers. For a Mormon everything depends upon the “latter day” revelation (?) received by Joseph Smith, and which supposedly still continue through the president of the church, the prophets and the apostles.
[Interestingly enough, the LDS started as a “restoration movement” roughly about the same time period as Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone were doing their work. It seems that “restoration” was in the air and water of the early pioneers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.]
You see, when you divest yourself of the power of Scripture to both teach and admonish, you become a victim of any powerful person’s whim and fancy. I do not stand over Scripture, I stand under it. I do not dictate what it means, I seek to allow it to dictate to me what I should be.
I am a firm believer in the power of tradition. I happen to be one of those who feels that one of the weaknesses of the American Restoration Movement is that we are a “traditionless tradition.” We have severed ourselves from the great river of Christianity throughout the ages, and I believe we have an impoverished liturgy and spirituality because of that ill-fated decision. However, and this must be understood by all who want to understand me, I would never place tradition over Scripture or even on the same level as Scripture. The value of tradition is to help us understand Scripture and to guide our attempts to honor and worship God. I have believed, do now believe, and as far as I know will always believe that Scripture is the sole source of my understanding of God, Jesus, and the church. I cannot allow any human being, no matter how saintly or holy he or she may be, to usurp that position.
Next up: I will continue my discussion of Scripture, especially in relation to the question of an open or closed canon and the authority of councils and the resulting creeds and confessions of faith.