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.
Every year one of the more viewed posts on this site is a recommendation for a daily Bible reading schedule. I think most people are looking for a .pdf they can download or print out, and if that is what they are looking for, they will be disappointed when they arrive here. In past years I have discussed one of my favorite schedules of daily Bible reading, and this year I want to discuss another. However, this time it will cost you just a little bit of money.
The method, or schedule, that I want to discuss this year is one that is published by the Moravian Brethren and can be ordered through their website, www.moravian.org. There are several different editions to choose from, from a plain little book with the daily texts and prayer printed out, to my favorite edition, a spiral bound journal that has the texts, the prayer, and a short space at the bottom for reflections or journaling.
I was initially introduced to the Moravian reading schedule through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used these readings for his daily Bible study, and frequently published the Scripture readings for his students and seminarians to read and meditate upon. I was curious, and with a little bit of research was able to find the website and ordered my first copy about four years ago. Since that time I have used them, either in part or completely, for my devotional reading and I have found I truly enjoy the Moravian schedule.
A brief word of explanation – the daily Bible readings from Monday through Saturday are divided into three sections: a Psalm, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. (The Sunday readings will be discussed below). The readings are scheduled so that the entire Bible is read through once every two years. This is quite a change for me, as previously the least that I was reading through my Bible was twice in one year (see my reading schedules for 2012 and 2013). The slower pace means that the passages being read are much smaller, and that allows for more time to meditate and absorb the content of the reading. The selection of a Psalm, an O.T. reading and N.T. reading also allows the reader to have some diversity – some familiarity along with some unfamiliarity, as well as forcing the reader to work through the entire text of the Bible, albeit more slowly.
Any and every Bible reading schedule is created by man, and as such is going to have weaknesses and foibles. There is no “perfect” Bible reading schedule – the best one is the one that works the best for you, whether it is to read a verse, a chapter, or an entire book every day. As much as I like the Moravian reading schedule I am just a little disenchanted with some of the breaks in the readings. I feel like some readings need to go another few verses, or perhaps end a few verses earlier. Particularly in the Psalms I note that some are divided in strange places, or a Psalm that could be easily read in one sitting is divided into two parts. However, this can be seen as necessary in terms of dividing the 150 Psalms into two years worth of readings. So I simply read the Psalm more than once (all the way through on successive days) or if I note a problematic division in the reading I simply read ahead a few verses, or stop a few verses short of the printed schedule and make an appropriate note on the next day’s reading schedule. Honestly – if you cannot figure this out on your own maybe you should not be reading the Bible on your own anyway.
Each Sunday the readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, and for those of you who do not know what the lectionary is, it is a collection of readings that allow for most of the Bible to be read through (although not anywhere close to sequentially) in a three year period. Each Sunday there is a reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, a gospel, and a reading from a New Testament letter or the books of Acts or Revelation. For most of the year there is a common theme, either obvious or somewhat more disguised, found in each of the four readings. On some occasions there is no related them or connection between the readings at all.
The Moravian reading schedule also contains readings for “high” church days, such as feast and fast days, and for days that have special meaning to the Moravian church. You can read or omit these selections according to your personal preference.
I had originally intended to write this post about a month ago so readers who wanted to could order their copy and have it available by January 1, 2014. Perhaps that is still possible even at this late date, but even if your copy does not arrive until after the new year, you can still benefit greatly from this reading schedule. 2014 begins the reading cycle again, so we will begin reading with Genesis 1, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1.
Blessings on your daily Bible reading in 2014.
I have far more to add to this series, but it simply would become too cumbersome if I said everything I wanted to say. Also, I have had a wonderful conversation with a follower of this blog, and I promised I would address some of his questions, so many other topics await. And, this has been an extremely fertile period for me in terms of personal study, so my list of future topics grows relentlessly. But, we now rejoin our topic at hand.
As briefly and as emphatically and as passionately as I can, I want to say that the Churches of Christ share a heritage that is as rich and vibrant as any faith group on earth. The community that has (over a long period of time and through many struggles) come to be known as the “Church of Christ” was born of a profound vision. A large and diverse group of individuals came to see that denominational Christianity was and is corrupted Christianity. They were separated by time and by distance, but all came to a remarkably similar conclusion: a return to the apostolic teaching of the New Testament would eliminate the barriers that divided the Christian world. The two most well-known, and therefore most influential, of these men were Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell. Of the two, Campbell was wealthier and had more influence, and so for the greater part of the history of the Churches of Christ the group has followed more of Campbell’s theology than Stone’s. However, the two men had widely divergent viewpoints on many issues, and through careful study of the history that I call my own, as well as reading deeply in the faith traditions of others, I have come to see where in many respects Barton Stone was more faithful to the Scriptures than was Campbell. I see this especially in regard to Stone’s apocalyptic worldview. Whereas he was a “restorer” in the sense of desiring to return to apostolic Christianity, he was nonetheless drawn forward by his understanding of the coming Kingdom of God. I believe it is this forward facing apocalypticism that we must return to if we, the Churches of Christ, are to remain faithful to Christ in the 21st century.
Nowhere is this need more apparent than in the manner in which many (if not an overwhelming majority) of the members of the Churches of Christ have accepted nationalism, and in particular, Republicanism, as the most prominent manifestation of God’s kingdom. In the first century to which so many “Restorers” point, the first Christians were deeply aware of the fact that they were “sojourners” and “aliens” in a foreign land. Members of the Churches of Christ, particularly in the United States, have utterly lost that sense of homelessness. In fact, we actively argue against it every time we wrap the Bible (and therefore all of its teachings) in the American flag. We are totally and completely at home in this world, and our guiding book is not the Word of God, it is the Constitution of the United States. If you doubt me just pay attention to the Sundays leading up to an important election. Sermon after sermon, class after class, announcement after announcement is made declaring that it is not simply the Christian’s right to vote, but it is his or her duty and obligation to vote. And, not just cast a ballot, but that ballot had better be for the candidate of the Republican party. I guess the passage of Scripture that teaches that particular concept is found in 1 Opinions or 2 Interpretations, because I have searched for it all through my Bible and I cannot find it anywhere. Christians are citizens of the city that is above, and our allegiance is to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
There is a HUGE difference between obeying and submitting to a government as long as it does not conflict with Kingdom ethics (which is a biblical teaching) and supporting and furthering that worldly government with our passionate support (which is clearly a concept that is condemned in Scripture).
The more divided and rancorous our political situation becomes, the more critical it becomes for members of the Churches of Christ to divest ourselves of the whole disgusting, ungodly, and corrupting system. In politics everyone loses at some point, and the poor and powerless lose the most frequently and with greater harm. And, just a question, what group is it that receives the greatest concern from God in every book of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation? Exactly – the poor and powerless who are abused and manipulated by the politically powerful.
Second, if we are to divest ourselves of our political affiliations, we are going to have to design a system by which we can care for the sick, the poor, and the abused in a manner that glorifies God and grows the Kingdom. We must be done with this attitude that, “that is the government’s job.” No, it is not. God gave that task to his people, the saved, the “holy ones.” If we claim the name, we had better start playing the game.
And, finally, lest this post turn into a dissertation sized monologue, the Churches of Christ need to return to a policy of passionate and honest engagement with our religious neighbors. As I mentioned in my last entry, we cannot do so if we harbor a pathological hatred of our past. I am sick of hearing preachers who claim an allegiance to the Church of Christ who stand in pulpits or write in journals and vent their spleen regaling how much they hate the Church of Christ. They hate that Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have not used instrumental music in the worship service. They hate how Churches of Christ have traditionally (and for very good theological and historical reasons) have limited leadership roles within the church to males. They hate that Churches of Christ limit the power of their ministers (and for very good theological reasons, I might add) by having independent, locally selected groups of elders in each autonomous congregation. It is not a perfect system, because it depends upon imperfect humans in each and every congregation. But it sure beats having some stuffed-shirt autocrat decide what every congregation, or even a group of congregations, must do in order to fulfill his (or her) vision of grandeur.
Likewise, we cannot enter into an honest engagement with our religious neighbors if we harbor a passionate hatred for anything that does not look or smell like a Church of Christ. I can, and I believe I do, hold my beliefs with passion and honesty. I must recognize that members of other faiths hold their conclusions just as passionately, and with reasons that they believe to be just as honest. Yes, there are charlatans in every group, including the Churches of Christ. I discount all of them. But if I expect others to give me an honest hearing, I must extend to them the same courtesy. It is amazing what happens when that exchange occurs. If you have never experienced that event I do pity you. You have missed out on an amazing gift.
I will close with a very personal anecdote, and I realize I share this with great risk. But I have been a part of two Doctor of Ministry programs, one
associated with the Churches of Christ, and my current program at Fuller Theological Seminary. My experience with the university associated with the Churches of Christ was dreadful. I was clearly the most conservative student in my class (theologically speaking) and the contempt and vitriol expressed relating to Churches of Christ was unbelievable. You could cut the hatred in the room with a knife. Every discussion, every topic was somehow skewed to point out how wrong the Church of Christ had been and continues to be.
On the other hand I have never been a part of a group that is more welcoming that the situation at Fuller. I just naturally assumed that as a theologically conservative “Church of Christer” I was going to be in the same basic situation. [By the way, I despise the term "Church of Christer" which I first heard from a member of the Church of Christ who used it approvingly, but I have since had it used against me as well. I place it in quotation marks to indicate I am using someone else's term, and not my own.] I had steeled myself for that eventuality and consoled myself that at least the wrath of my fellow classmates could be attributed to the fact that they were “outsiders” and did not understand my history. To my amazement just the opposite occurred. My classmates at Fuller have been far more willing to hear my positions than my “brothers” at the university associated with the Churches of Christ. Now, to be sure, my Fuller classmates did not and do not fully agree with me – but they listen and I have learned to respond in kind. In fact, as a funny aside, one day one of our professors wanted us to sing a song that no one had heard before. As there were no instruments readily available this was going to have to be an “acapella” chorus. No one had the foggiest idea how to lead the song so they turned to the only one in the group who they were absolutely sure knew how to read music and therefore lead the group in this acapella version of the song – ME, the lone “Church of Christer” in the group. The irony is that I do not know how to read music and therefore let the group down. We resorted to going upstairs and borrowing an administrator who was gifted in the art of sight-reading music and she taught us how to sing the song.
I tell that story to make this point: if the Churches of Christ are going to continue to have a valid and meaningful voice in the religious world of the United States, it is imperative that her spokesmen return, or continue, to hold two positions without fear or favor. One, we are going to have to defend what we believe with passion and intellectual honesty. You cannot defend something you hate or something you disagree with. If you hold positions that are theologically and historically counter to what members of the Churches of Christ have proclaimed for almost 200 years now then it is your responsibility to “man up” and declare your spiritual independence and leave the community. Do not expect the church to change because you like guitar music or are raising a daughter. Thousands of members of the Church of Christ have loved and continue to love guitar music (I am chief among them) and have or are raising daughters (once again, me too). Two, it is absolutely imperative that we open our ears to actually listen to those who share a faith in Jesus, but who have differing opinions regarding doctrines and practices. I am not advocating that we embrace denominationalism, but we must engage with those who participate in it. I honestly believe that when we do so from a position of passion and honesty we will be heard with a far greater degree of reciprocity than what we have come to fear.
I have rambled far too long. I appreciate your patience in reading, and for many of you, for following this blog. Your support is humbling.
After a brief (although, in my mind, necessary) detour, I would now like to return to the series of posts I have been writing about my perspective on the current situation the the Churches of Christ find themselves in, and what I believe would be a biblical response.
In this entry I would like to discuss the relationship the Churches of Christ have had, and currently do have, with other churches in the Christian tradition.
To begin with, this subject has been a complicated one from the earliest days of the American Restoration Movement. The two men most frequently named as “founders” or “leaders” of the Churches of Christ (Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone) both believed with no hesitation that there were Christians within every denomination that existed in the early 1800s. It would have been simply unfathomable to these men to try to defend the statement that the church had “disappeared” from the face of the earth. The very point of their “restoration” movement was to call Christians who were in the denominations to leave those institutions, not because there was no way they could be Christian, but because these institutions demanded that the person be something else in addition to being a Christian. In order to be a Presbyterian (as both Campbell and Stone were) you had to subscribe to the rules of the Presbyterian church. Likewise the Methodist church, the Lutheran church, the Anglican or Episcopal church, and the Roman Catholic Church. In the early 1800s these denominations exercised far more “boundary discipline” than is exercised today, so it is hard for some people to understand the religious landscape to which Campbell and Stone were writing. The point that I want to make here is that neither Campbell nor Stone thought they were creating or re-creating anything. They believed in “restoring” the church, but that simply meant removing all the barnacles that had attached themselves to the hull of the great sailing ship “church.” In both of these gentlemen’s minds, if a person was to return to the teachings of the New Testament and New Testament alone, the resulting community, or “church” would be the pure New Testament church.
In my own very personal and, at least in my mind, educated opinion, the weaknesses of such ”pure” restorationist thinking has been adequately revealed. There were some historical and philosophical realities the Campbell and Stone either were unaware of or chose to ignore. Thus, the movement that they helped spawn has had more than its fair share of divisions and brutal intramural fights. We have certainly not lived up the the concept of uniting on the essentials and having charity in the matters of opinion. But this basic beginning point of Campbell and Stone must be understood for the Church of Christ to move forward.
Explained in the most simple way I know how, the Churches of Christ have moved through three stages in dealing with the denominational churches.
The first stage has been noted above. It is the stage of engagement. Both Campbell and Stone sought to engage the denominations with a simple plea – return to a point of time in history when there were no denominations. Hence the term “non-denominationalism” was born. Campbell and Stone saw that, for all the unity with the various denominations, what divided them was not the New Testament (nor, for that matter, the Old Testament), but the later creeds and, more specifically, the Confessions of Faith that each denomination held as a barrier between them and the rest of the Christian world. The original message of the earliest restorers was to simply remove those Confessions of Faith as tools of division. In order to communicate this message the early restorers engaged the leaders of the denominational world. They went congregation to congregation and house to house explaining their plea. And, by any reasonable measure, they succeeded wildly. Entire congregations severed their denominational ties and joined the “Stone/Campbell” movement to unite all Christians.
However, disciples of prophets very rarely follow closely in their leader’s footsteps. And so another
group of leaders emerged that believed if a person should leave a denomination, that meant he or she could not be a Christian if he or she was a member of that denomination. So, even during the lifetime of Stone and Campbell the second phase of the relationship between the Churches of Christ and the denominational world developed, and that was the phase of debate. Now, to be sure, Campbell was a master at the skill of debate. But his debates were never to destroy the enemy, they were designed to convince the doubting. This was not enough for this emerging set of firebrands. They believed the gains made by Campbell and Stone were impressive, but that they were not enough, and those gains had to be defended at all costs. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the non-denominational plea espoused by Stone and Campbell was turned into call to enter into another denomination, the “Church of Christ.” A person could not be a Christian unless he or she adhered to each and every demand that a particular preacher, elder or editor saw was critical – whether it was baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” the use of titles for ministers, paying ministers, using an instrument of music in worship, not partaking of the Lord’s Supper each and every Lord’s Day, having separate Bible classes for children, using women to teach Bible classes, supporting non-congregational “institutions,” and the list could go on and on. Each and every one of these topics became the fodder for debates, and for several generations a preacher’s skill was measured not by his spirituality or ministerial ability, but by how well he did in “debating the denominations.” Being labeled “soft on the sects” was enough to destroy many a good preacher’s reputation.
This then led to the third phase of relations between the Churches of Christ and their Christian neighbors, and that is our current situation. Many, although by no means most, of the members of the Church of Christ want to continue this position of ridicule/demean/hate the denominations. They have moved from being “non-denominational” to being “anti-denominational” in the worst possible sense of the word. They use words that are clearly not appropriate for a disciple of Christ to use in dialogue with someone of another belief. Quite frankly, they demonstrate a very unChristian attitude. However, on the other end of the spectrum there is a group that still wants to be identified as members of the Church of Christ but they have begun to embrace the main beliefs of the denominational world in an absolutely uncritical way. They hate all right, but they hate the Church of Christ. They ridicule the founders of the Restoration Movement every chance they get. They refuse to accept that anything positive has come from the heritage of the Restoration movement over the past 200+ years. They apologize for every perceived fault, and cannot wait to make fun of those who still believe in the premise of non-denominational Christianity. But, they stoically remain as ministers, elders and editors of “Churches of Christ” so that they can obtain some kind of martyr status by being criticized for their adolescent rejection of their spiritual father’s beliefs.
I have elsewhere stated that I am a staunch believer in the American Restoration Movement. I am a child of this movement, and, while I have been made aware of some of the presuppositional faults in the thinking of Stone and Campbell, I am never-the-less in awe of their spiritual foresight. They truly were prophets who could see 200 years into the future. Much of what the modern world is experiencing in the “Emerging Church” movement was pre-saged by Stone and Campbell. It is astounding for me to read of modern authors calling for a return to “apostolic Christianity” as if it were a novel idea, and Campbell and Stone were promoting that idea back in the early 1800′s. Just goes to prove the author of Ecclesiastes was correct – there is truly nothing new under the sun. But I digress.
While I am a child of the American Restoration Movement, I would like for the Churches of Christ to return to the ideal promoted by Stone and Campbell, and that was the process of engagement. I want to see us be able to engage the denominational world, but at the same time be secure enough in our own convictions that we do not embrace the denominational world. I hope it goes without saying that I reject the ridicule/hate position uncategorically.
As I close I want to make two final comments – to which I will return in depth in my final post in this series. One, we cannot honestly engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who we are. This is where I have such a deep seated distrust of and dislike of certain “leading ministers” in the Churches of Christ today who have virtually thrown the Restoration Plea under the bus. We cannot sit down at the table to have a dialogue with other faith traditions if we pathologically hate our own. To have a conversation in which we agree wholeheartedly with everyone around is is not a dialogue, it is a multi-person monologue.
But conversely, we cannot engage other faith traditions if we do not have a healthy understanding and appreciation of who they are. Truth, I have come to understand, does not reside only in one church building. I have been deeply touched and formed by a Lutheran (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, my favorite theologian), an Anglican (C.S. Lewis, although I’m quite sure he would not be an Anglican today), several Roman Catholics (Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, several others), a Baptist (Glen Stassen) and a number of others, some of which I know their traditions (Anabaptist, Mennonite, United Church of Christ) and some of which I do not. I can only come to the table to begin a dialogue with them if I first understand who they are and what they believe, and not to belittle or ridicule that faith, but to learn from it and grow from it. Just as I would hope they would come to hear me, and to learn from me and to grow from me.
So, my question is do we engage, debate, hate or embrace? In my most humble, but undeniably correct opinion (since, after all, this is MY blog), we have participated in the middle two for far too long and the last is just pure kissy face narcissism. Let us return to the process of engagement. And it is to that goal that I will direct my concluding thoughts.